Listening

Everything about a particular voter, you have to predict how that voter is going to act.

Reince Priebus, MSNBC

Be patient for the wolf is always with you.

Malcolm Lowry,  ‘Be Patient for the Wolf

Rayanne Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013, NY High Line, Nov 8 2016
Rayanne Tabet, Steel Rings, 2013, NY High Line, Nov 8 2016

1

It’s morning in Brooklyn. Below us the street is going about its business. Little ones are being walked to school, stores are rattling open, buses at ground level and planes in the sky.

Yesterday, voting day, I walked the High Line listening and marvelling at the energy that achieved this large urban project. There are art works all along the way, and I found this one, Steel Rings, a sculpture that brings the history of the Trans Arabian Pipeline to New York. History, distant places, time, nations, states, money, oil, rust. We stop to think.

Moments later, we’re stunned by a wall of words, Zoe Leonard’s I Want a President (1992). The sky is blue, it seems like we’re all on the verge of at least being able to imagine the United States with a woman president. But I’m snagged on the ending. It feels like a premonition that we’re trying not to think about.

I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown: always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.

2.

It’s morning in Brooklyn. I’m reading a City Lights imprint of Malcolm Lowry’s poems that I found in a second hand bookstore, and thinking about how his bitterness fits this day.

Be patient, because of the wolf, be patient:
The squeaks and woes of night all have their place.
You’ll find your blood-warm cave and rest at last;
The shadows wait for you to say the word.
Listen now to your own soft cunning step.
Be patient, because of the wolf be patient —
His step is your own now, you are free, being bereft.

Bereft.

Watching the television, hearing over and over again: white college educated, white non college educated. Somehow with all the polling and data and knowledge, this demographic crack in the ice was misread. It’s not just (white) people who are locked out of college who voted for this. Higher education has overpromised on aspirational futures it can’t deliver at mass scale in this economy. (White) college graduates who listened to the message about getting ahead don’t see it transpiring in their own lives, the lives of their children, their communities. What they see is debt, and a college system that can barely see them in the crowd, but nevertheless spits them out and banks the cheque.

The situation in Australia is the same. There are students in every classroom I teach who know that politics is run by people who have more comfortable lives than they do. As far as they can tell, this is also true of our education system. Our marketing focuses on the happy groups of students with laptops having coffee, the lone beautiful thinker in the upmarket casual wear, staring into the middle distance imagining the graduate premium on her future salary clinking into the coin tray. The student barely making it onto campus because of back to back shifts at work, the student struggling with the price of coffee let alone laptops, the student trying to get through their innovative hybrid students-as-producers digital making learning experience using only their phone, sees the gap widen.

When the institution you’re already paying money to can’t recognise you, the institution that promised you so much in terms of care and attention can’t quite focus its lens on you, seems to be less proud of you than of some others, what happens next?

3.

It’s morning in Brooklyn. A week or so ago I met a young man who struck me in a long conversation as ethical, hard working and smart. I learned two things from him. First, that at 18 the prospect of higher education didn’t meet his needs. He was already a father—as were many of his friends—and he needed a concrete plan for a training that would translate into skills, capacity and self-discipline, so that he could get on and support his family. He checked into the military, and briefly gave the University of Phoenix a go (“the worst time of my life”).

Now at 24 with a larger family, more than one job and more responsibility, he had a shrewd and disappointed grasp of what each presidential candidate was saying to him. He didn’t like one, and liked the other less. Both live lives that are so remote from his everyday efforts to make the ground solid, to support his children, to be a role model, that they had no claim on his attention or loyalty. He could see clearly what the dog whistling was about, what the populism was for. And as a millennial independently reading and thinking about civic responsibility, someone who has thought about what it would mean to be deployed and then killed or injured, he told me he wanted to have better options for his vote than the ones in front of him.

I liked him, and he’s stayed in my heart as we’ve been travelling around. Predictive data couldn’t know what he would do, couldn’t see why or what was on his mind. Listening is a human expertise. We have been learning to listen to one another since we were tiny babies, and courageous, conscientious listening is what we have to do now. America’s political system is critical to the health of our planet, especially in terms of global climate targets. It’s crucial to the future of others that we don’t in anger jump to conclusions about who voted, or who didn’t, why thousands wrote in Harambe or voted third party or stayed home, based crudely on the broad cleavages of race, age, gender and college education. Particular voters made sense of all of this in particular ways.

So those of us who work in college education anywhere in the world have woken up to work to do. We have the expertise to do it. We need to think very hard about who comes to us, how we treat them, how much attention we pay to what they’re saying and what they believe; and we need to think every day about who is not in the room with us, and why. Computational analysis can’t do this as well as we can; data isn’t dead, but our faith in data has been naive. Dazzled by the bigness of analytics, we benched ourselves and our insights, because data promised to take on this shadow work for us. We outsourced our own capacity to think.

So let’s summon the confidence to return to work slowly, to recalibrate what we understand education to mean, to show up, and to attend at the level of human insight. The behavioural patterns computation delivers to us in relation to what students want, and what they do when they show up, can suggest where to start. But it’s absolutely time to put aside the fantasy that higher education can engage with the fear and frustration, the complex refusals, that this election represents with some kind of snappy tech-led solutions: analytics, automation and low-waged casual hiring.

This result is in our terrain. If we now think we can fix any of this without human listening, we have no business in education.

Unleashed

As international mobility increases, competition for the best academic and professional staff will also intensify. This is why we’re unleashing our staff’s performance, reducing complexity and optimising professional achievements.

This week the university that employs me released its new Strategic Plan with accompanying changes to our brand identity, vocabulary and collateral. Tucked into this bundle is a video that I can’t stop watching. There are images and sounds I genuinely don’t understand, and a faintly audible sigh about halfway through. (What is that?)

And then suddenly there it is: the context and strategic approach to staffing in graphic form. There’s a crowded screen of huddled moving white dots among which a smaller number of apparently superior red dots start to vibrate, and then the scene implodes into a giant red superdot: human complexity agitated, reduced and finally upsized to a single ball of unleashed performativity.

I’m not making this up.

The video is here to tell us who we are and what we stand for, and it kicks off with a cliche we’d plead with all student writers to rethink:

In this time of unprecedented change …

The conceit of epochal change is a reliable headline. Here’s the Australian Prime Minister late last year on becoming the leader that unprecedented times demand:

There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

OK, but saying it’s so doesn’t make it so. And even the claim to unprecedentedness itself isn’t unprecedented. It’s a normal, regularly appearing way of romancing what we’re going through. It’s a strategic move, that demands that we abandon modest efforts and incremental, careful practices; it mobilises us to the barricades of whatever—innovation, disruption, competition—trampling each other as we go.

And it’s more or less a cliche in return to point out that history’s filled with times just as unprecedented as this one, dressed up as both novelty and emergency in order to muscle forward someone’s agenda. Things are new. Action is demanded. We are living in a way that no one has lived before, and we need extraordinary, heroic measures to respond. Resistance is not only futile, but in itself—like a protest against the existence of God that only proves believers have a point—sceptical thinking sustains the case that this is exactly why we need to act quickly and without question. Didn’t we tell you academics are resistant to change? Q.E.D.

Sometimes we don’t really understand what was happening until later. Here’s Wordsworth, famously, on the French revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
          In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
          Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
          The attraction of a country in romance!

The problem with a country—or a sector—in romance is that we lose sight of something important: change is a wide, muddy current, and some parts move slowly while others appear to race. Catastrophes at the level of epidemic, global war, and climate disaster somehow share time with artisanal breadmaking and notes written on the backs of beer mats and the sun rising steadfastly every day. We don’t live in any one time, but many times, all happening together, all amounting to something.

And in each life lived in these unprecedented times we have to figure out what is enough for us, and enough to give, so that we can get on and survive the encroachments of big claims on our attention, our action, our loyalties to each other’s care. Figuring out what is enough is how we each hold on to the clover of our own values, and protect the thing we’re trying to protect, the small and hopeful thing we came here to do.

So after a day of thinking about what I find exasperatingly cruel about the vision for higher education exposed in this video, I’m stuck with the problem of how to speak about it without collapsing into a sort of snark. It’s easy to get cranky with cliche, and to feel righteous about what’s absolutely wrong with this representation of a university. But the video isn’t intended to be watched closely or pulled apart, and from its opening words it’s making no pretence at all to be in the deep end of anyone’s pool. So it’s fair game at one level, and yet truly it should be left alone if we are all to stand for any kind of generosity in these times.

This is a focus for me at the moment. In a couple of weeks I’m off to attend an event that’s bringing together about a hundred people who have an interest in building a healthcare system in Australia based on valuing kindness to both patients and staff. I’m there because I’m following a research line of thought about how patients and staff in long term treatment relationships (in chemotherapy, for example) ease the stress and anxiety in the encounter by telling each other small stories about themselves. In taking the time to greet each other by name, to ask after family, or even how the day is going, people make hospitals and clinics better to be in for everyone. Humane gestures make humane workplaces.

I’m working on this project with a radiation technologist who treated me, and a narrative professional working at the same hospital, who interviewed me as part of a review of cancer services. Together we’re examining very closely an everyday treatment incident and its aftermath, and on this basis we’re learning how to use critical incident reflection techniques to help both staff and patients respond to one another in stressful situations.

So with this commitment in mind, I’m trying to shift my response to this video. The culture of higher education staffing is desperate for many at the moment, and is often directly implicated in serious illness (to read more about this see here and here and here and here and anything to do with casualisation). Richard Hall has just pulled together many notes on academic overwork here, and he writes this:

I see the recounting of how the ongoing pain of academic reproduction, the constant reinvention of the academic Self in Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, is obliterating a meaningful life. This is overwork that obliterates the possibility that the academic might reproduce herself socially, because there is no time for care of the Self. That time is academically unproductive; unproductive for a life that is for work. And yet it also demands a level of productivity that is never enough. That can never be good enough.

In the climate of harm that Richard and many of us are now calling out, I do think that it matters that videos like this get scripted, and funded, and produced, and launched, and slapped onto university webpages. Real human damage is done when we describe employment as if it’s a sporting contest that only the best can win. It’s not even terrific business sense given that we actually need to unleash quite a few more people than this stellar minority for the shop to open at all. And this talk that ranks humans doing beautiful, capable, ethically committed work as “best” or not? It’s shaming and demoralising, and it completely underestimates the irreducible complexity of universities as harbours of human thought.

But it’s no good just complaining, even to sympathetic audiences. To change this culture, we need to do as the healthcare system is doing, and advocate for an alternative. We need to hear from one another, including from the people who think videos like this are helpful. Simply saying competition is divisive won’t raise standards for collaboration, and won’t create the grounds for hope. To do this, we urgently need to start collecting new stories and evidence of a different culture forged in kindness, that we know we can build together.

Then maybe we need to start making our own videos.

Access to care

The Site is owned, operated and/or provided by RateMyProfessors.com LLC (“RMP”), a subsidiary of Viacom International Inc., which offers television channel or programming services (such as Internet websites, applications or other interactive services) and offers other products and services under various brands, such as those Viacom Media Networks brands listed here.

RateMyProfessors.Com LLC Terms and Conditions

He always has a piece of paper in front of his mouth when he talks which makes it hard to hear. He also hisses like a vampire a lot. I would not recommend this class.

Rate My Professors, actual comment

The consumerisation of student opinion: there’s gold in those hills, for sure. In 1999, a Californian software engineer created teacherratings.com to aggregate college student reviews of individual college professors, and the site became ratemyprofessors.com in 2001. In 2005 ratemyprofessors.com, was sold, and then sold again in January 2007 “for an undisclosed sum” to mtvU, a Viacom subsidiary. This wasn’t the only item in the shopping cart. Recognising the captive commercial value of the campus student market, Viacom were hunting channels, brands and products that would enable them to bracket the social and consumer dimensions of being a student to their other entertainment investments. mtvU promotes among its popular shows Professors Strike Back, redirecting users back to RMP (click!) to see video clips of academics reading their reviews aloud, where they can also take a moment to rate their favourite professors from the movies (click!).

It’s feedback, on $tilt$.

So at one level, RMP is a story of extraordinary personal success. Patrick Nagle (Internet Enthusiast, Dealmaker), who bought and sold RMP and also owns Rate My Teacher (“helps students, parents and teachers make informed decisions by promoting transparency within education”), is 33 years old. He has been buying and selling internet real estate since he was 16. He’s a role model for young entrepreneurs and innovators. He makes stuff, and makes stuff happen. It’s just that in Rate My Professors, what he has made happen is complex at the human level, and ethically fraught.

Let’s get the big distraction out of the way: Rate My Professors leans on Likert scales like they’re going out of fashion, and true to its current corporate home in the entertainment world, rate my professor screenshotit still rates professors on their hotness. Yup, this is what you think, with a chilli pepper. And even if you’re OK with this as a harmless bit of internet lint, RMP is now such big business that its annual rankings of the top college professors in the US pop up all over the place, including through cross-promotion via other Viacom products. So if you link back into the site (click!) from a seemingly serious national ranking of professional standing and start browsing, there it is: you’re staring at a professional colleague’s hotness rating, and that’s an actual thing now.

And suddenly you remember everything about the sophomorish social origins of Facebook as a hot-or-not student rating site, and the hopeless commentary on women as sexual distractions in science labs, and everything we know about role congruity perceptions in the evaluation of performance, and every comment you’ve ever read that’s focused on appearance not performance. It’s tiring, and sad, and dealing with it is exactly what Audrey Watters recognises as the affective labour of higher education that won’t be replaced by a machine any time soon.

(The three professional factors that are included in the rating itself that are more obviously about teaching are helpfulness, clarity and easiness. Some comments valiantly defend the idea that a thing that’s hard isn’t necessarily what you came to college to avoid, but there’s a powerfully visible aggregation of sentiment around fairness that mentions how easy it is to get a good grade from this person.)

And wait, there’s more. The rating of individual professors has now expanded to be the basis on which RMP rates whole colleges. Hello, college rankings! What we have here is an uncontrolled brand situation, that will draw in the social media teams who keep a very close eye on this kind of malarkey. And when they get there, what do they see but the very professors who are holding up the averages, and those who Rate My Professors screenshotappear to be holding them back. Suddenly those who are hissing like vampires, or grading too harshly, or are difficult to contact because they have 400 students in a gen ed class, or are working three teaching jobs across town while holding office hours in their car, or who have an invisible disability, or a kid in hospital, or a class that was dropped in their lap because someone else pulled out, are right there in a handy list.

And if it turns out that one or two have a red grumpy face by their name, how could you possibly not remember that when hiring comes around?

Because this is really what bites about both formal SETs, and informal but immensely powerful and profitable reviewing platforms like RMP: in a majority casualised workforce, the reform of service delivery that disappointed consumers seek is simplest to achieve by not hiring a person again. US higher education is only patchily unionised which makes not hiring of an adjunct pretty easy; even in Australia it would be very hard for a casual academic to prove that not being hired was the direct result of an unfavourable evaluation, when the labour market is at saturation point, and then some.

What can we do better? This week while worrying generally about the ethics of customer service reviews in higher education, I’ve been thinking about good examples from healthcare, and a heartbreaking but really important example from Veterans Affairs.

There are several organisations working to solicit and pass on patient feedback, on both good and bad experiences. The best of these, I think, is Patient Opinion, and the Australian site is here. A recent example of how effectively and thoughtfully they reflect on whether they serve organisations or patients is in their blog here. They argue that organisations solicit service user feedback in part to limit risk; while patients are cautious about being labelled difficult if they complain. As an intermediary in this often confronting environment, Patient Opinion is focused on doing better—on building a reflective relationship around critical care incidents, not just a complaints forum. It’s a really good model for higher education.

But there are no short cuts to this model. Real change doesn’t come from one-sided feedback, but from negotiated relationships built on trust and reciprocal respect, and this is a point made in a useful post from the Cancer Geek blog, “Does Healthcare Need Cooperation or Collaboration?

Collaboration requires all involved stakeholders to listen to one another, define the problem together, and understand the expectations and requirements for what a successful outcome will look like upon completion. Collaboration takes time, effort, and commitment.

Time, effort, commitment.

What would it take in time-impoverished institutions like public universities or hospitals for their service users to be fully and respectfully included in the story of what is being done to provide the service? How can our reputation-mad institutions take the risk of sharing with students the way that they’re cutting service costs? How can academic staff conscientiously and professionally deal with the affective cost of austerity budgeting while trying to do a good thing in the room, in the grading, in the vanishing time for consultation?

While you’re thinking about this, and perhaps while you’re thinking of reviewing a service incident—either as a patient, or a student—take one minute and listen to a VA employee and a veteran break down together on the phone over access to care. They’re both exhausted, and weeping, and neither of them is wrong, and everything is wrong, and at the end, this is what the veteran has to say about what happened:

“I want to give that fucking woman a hug. I just want to tell her that I know it’s not her fault. I wish she hadn’t hung up the phone.”

Think like this.

Down on main street

“We think it’s fair to ask the student to pay $3 extra a week to get the chance to earn a million dollars more over a lifetime than Australians without a university qualification. … Mr and Mrs Mainstreet are paying almost 60 per cent of the tuition fees of a uni student and they are also paying back the loan at the 10-year government bond rate of 3.8 per cent, whereas the student’s loan is indexed at CPI, currently 2.5 per cent,” Mr Pyne said.

Uni loan changes ‘cost $5 a week’, June 4

Since Christopher Pyne made fairness in higher education the surprise water cooler topic in this budget, there have been strongly negative reactions to the hiking up of student debt from all over the place. The government is now campaigning hard on the idea that fee reforms are both essential and inconsequential: the impact is tiny, the freedom is vast, and the overall costs are just as likely to go down as up (this is what the Minister calls the magic of the market, so do clap if you believe him.)

There are some practical problems with trying to pass off education debt as similar to other kinds of reputable middle-class debt, like mortgages or business loans, rather than, say, experience debts or gambling debts. Education might pay dividends in the end, but while it doesn’t, there’s no asset: no car to repossess, no house to put on the market, no shares to sell. Graduates who don’t go on to the full-time career for which they trained not only don’t see the promised premium earnings, but they can’t get a refund or put their degree on eBay. They’ve had the experience, and their numbers haven’t come up. Now they’re in a hole.

Behind this is the more important problem that there are no standards of responsible lending applied to education debt. If you’re offered a university place, you’re entitled to go into debt to complete your degree, just like that. It’s a no-doc loan of the worst kind, because it has to be — your future capacity to repay is itself the asset you’re going to debt to acquire. So no one’s responsible for even minimal risk evaluation of prospective undergraduates and their families. To put it brutally, universities can recruit underprepared students to make up numbers and protect their revenue stream, and at the moment have no real skin in the game when it comes to graduate employment.

Until now, the risk has more or less worked for Australian students even in non-vocational degrees because interest rates have been low, and it hasn’t worked for the lender because the incentive to repay is correspondingly weak. Students who have been able to pay fees up front have been better off, but not to a life-changing degree. But still, graduates have got stuck below the repayment threshold for a wide range of reasons, or have nicked off overseas, or have died with their debts unpaid. All of this amounts to a prediction that Australia could have $13bn in doubtful debt by 2017—a hill of beans compared to the trillion dollar toxic debt swamp in the US, but significant for a small education market like ours.

So it’s obvious why the government wants to adjust repayment terms: both to get more money back from those who repay tidily, and to use the threat of compounding interest to round up those who aren’t repaying much at all. It should be a low risk strategy: as owners of the national education debt pipeline, the government clearly expected to be able to tweak both interest rates and repayment thresholds while still offering a better deal than any commercial lender, and by these means to turn education debt into a more attractive asset.

But this is proving a hard sell. Having spent a lot of time at home this year, I’ve come to think that if Christopher Pyne had watched more daytime TV, he would understand why we’re not jumping at the idea. It’s because we know more than he realises about disreputable debt: last resort borrowing, predatory lending, and household debt that’s being juggled across multiple credit accounts. Australians at home are hassled all day long by TV commercials focused on compounding debts owed to intimidating lenders, and financial underpreparedness for illness, accident and death. This is what’s in the basement of our national consumer confidence: a realistic sense of how quickly debt picks off the most vulnerable in this prosperous economy.

Like someone spruiking a raw food juicer or a funeral plan to this frightened audience, the Minister has to work hard to convince us to turn a blind eye to what’s lurking in the shadows of deferred payment, and to focus instead on the transformative power of the product. It’s why he’s making his case at the highest perch of generalisation, glossing over earning disparity between male and female graduates, graduates in different disciplines, graduates living in different parts of the country (especially in the country parts of the country), graduates from different social backgrounds, and with variable levels of educational preparedness before they start their degrees. He’s also hoping we don’t understand the impact of part-time and precarious employment, regional employment, misadventure, illness, disability, parenting, or the fact that the economy itself is slowing down.

In fact, everything that makes a real difference to graduate lifetime earnings is invisible from the Minister’s penthouse, leaving us with the simplification repeated in speech after speech after speech: graduates will make 75% more than non-graduates, and in case we’re not sure what that is, why—it’s a million dollars.

Jackpot.

Or not. Just as with cancer mortality modelling—about which I know a thing or two—the aggregates, multipliers and generalisations across a demographic slice that make up this million dollars are all bundled inside speculation about external variables, and can’t possibly predict what will happen with the accuracy required to judge the personal risk of going into long-term debt. When someone says “X life expectancy” or “Y lifetime earnings”, they’re pretty much saying “83% percent reduction in wrinkles”—it’s really up to you what you make of this as you stand at the counter with the wrinkle cream in your hand.

And yet the Minister’s gone on repeating his million dollar pitch long after even the friendliest economist has quietly pointed out that the facts are more complicated. Because this is exactly what you have when you don’t have responsible lending guidelines: a cheap and shouty sales pitch involving lifetime guarantees, a sprinkle of FOMO, and a miracle product. And he’s energetically trying to nudge Australian taxpayers into resenting university graduates, despite the evidence that Australian graduates themselves go on to become Australian taxpayers to a very significant degree.

Yesterday Stephen Matchett, in his excellent daily newsletter on Australian higher education, suggested that student debt has become the equivalent of the $7 Medicare co-payment to health reform: it’s the pill that the electorate just won’t swallow, no matter how it’s sugar coated. I think he’s right. What’s taken us all by surprise in this budget is that across every portfolio, with remarkable tin-ear consistency, the stakes have been pushed too high, the reasoning has been too lazy and too divisive, and the reactions of Australians to the central topic of budget fairness have been really widely misjudged.

Oh, and also, the rustling up of patronising stereotypes to explain it all is really wearing thin.

Scare tactics

OK, so clearly there’s a move on in the world of elearning conferences and events to shake academics out of our usual torpor.  As everyone knows, we don’t have much to do, and what we do pull off shows not a skerrick of imagination or even rudimentary competence.

So let’s get the email about Blended Learning 2012 out of the way first.  The event seems like a reasonable affair, but it’s clear that the pricing structure doesn’t anticipate someone like me getting along.  Seriously, $2,499 for a two-day event?  Digging a little further it turns out that the target audience is a bit more elevated.  “This event,” purrs the website, “has been specifically researched and designed for … ”

Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Directors of Learning and Teaching, Heads of Schools, Directors of IT, Heads of M-Learning, Heads of E-Learning, LMS Implementation Managers, Heads of Flexible Learning and Heads of Blended Learning

$2,499 is obviously everyone’s idea of a reasonable two-day expense at that level. Interestingly, this sum would go most of the way towards buying an entire semester of teaching at adjunct rates for a tutorial’s worth of students.  In fact, set against this, two days of executive conference attendance would want to provide some pretty staggering insights into elearning to get a similar return on investment.

But the real problem is that despite the fact that I’m not any of the above, the email was personally addressed to me and the subject line was this:

Kate, are you designing your course to appeal to the modern student?

Well, gosh, no.  Was I supposed to?  But since you asked, I design all my courses by looking at nineteenth century photographs of pinched and miserable schoolchildren with chalk and slate tablets, and I go from there.

The thing is, if you’re inviting me to something that costs $2,499, you really don’t want to know about courses I design or the students I design them for. You want to know about budgets I control, and that’s why you’re selling the vendor tickets to this networking event at an even more impressive $3,399, so they can hang out with the VP-IT and the CIO.

But if you persist in directing this email to the trenches, then you do need to understand how many of our research projects started with internal seed funding not much more than this, and how many institutional teaching awards offer prizes less than this.

Which brings me to the other resistable offer in this week’s email. This one came in an email from Campus Review, the weekly higher education magazine* that describes itself as  Australia’s:

only dedicated higher education magazine written for the sector by an independent voice. Written with editorial integrity by respected journalists, and strongly focused on issues relevant to the sector including teaching and learning, technology, management, finance, recruitment, conferences and industry events, Campus Review is in touch with its readers.

It’s a bit of a performance to remember the password to CR, but I’ve always appreciated it as a source of credible, sensible coverage of Australia’s higher education news.

So I was genuinely surprised to discover that CR were emailing to check whether I’m “ready for the demands of the Facebook generation”, and on the presumption that I’m not, to invite me to a Blackboard webinar that will help me catch up to the realities of modern life.  (Just a note to marketing: I live with the Facebook generation.  They’re currently 10-12 years old, and they’re Directioners.  If you don’t know what I mean by this, do look it up.)

The painful irony of this communication is hard to overstate.  I don’t mean to single out any one LMS, but Blackboard really aren’t renowned among either educators or students for the engaging nature of their social tools.  It does seem as though they’re now having to tackle the increasing tolerance of their client institutions for platform solutions that include compensatory social tools alongside the campus LMS.  Or, as Blackboard would like us to see it:

As institutions grow they develop a complex ecosystem of diverse platforms, this becomes a roadblock to delivering a customised student experience and institutional agility. Student’s [sic] expectations are high, they assume you will deliver 24/7 service, Facebook-type eLearning interfaces, and course materials to their mobile devices. Benchmarking for this is now too long a process, seeking out proven practices and implementing them without delay is the only way to keep agile and ready for change.

This is a genuinely subtle proposition, presented as a planning emergency. I’m sure TEQSA would be interested to read that Blackboard have now decided that Australian higher education can no longer afford the time it takes to benchmark.

The short version of the invite is this: because the terrible design of social tools native to the typical LMS has encouraged faculty and  institutions towards a more open-minded ecosystemic approach, we now need to know more about all of Blackboard’s other tools that will deliver us from the messy solutions we devised to deliver us from the campus LMS in the first place.

This is complicated enough.  But what I’m really trying to figure out is why this opportunity was presented to me as such an antagonising email from Campus Review.  I understand that they have many commercial sponsors, as well as all their academic subscribers, but I also can’t help noticing that one of their current lead articles is a feature on academic conflict of interest in relation to commercial partnerships, to which I say: right backatcha.

A little while ago, I suggested that a company that had acquired a controlling stake in the critical infrastructure of the small Australian higher education sector would operate discreetly.  I’m now less sure that this is the case, and I’m genuinely uncomfortable at the revelation that the CR subscriber list has proved to be such an obvious commercial asset to the national Blackboard getting-to-know-you strategy.  Or have I missed something?

I’d really welcome a clarification from anyone at all on this, but in the meantime here’s my plea to anyone else who’s planning to send me a faux personalised email alerting me to the “Facebook-type” tendencies of “the modern student”: please stop telling me how to do my job, and please stop these disingenuous attempts at telling me that I don’t understand how the modern world works.  I do, really I do.  It is my absolute privilege to meet and work with “the modern student” every single day, and if you ever want to bring your vendors along to find out how we’re all getting along together (and how we’re already using Facebook-type free public tools to do it), they’re welcome to pay us handsomely for the opportunity, and we’ll put it towards something worth promoting.

* UPDATE: Yesterday I described CR as a weekly newsletter, and created the wrong impression for non-Australian readers that it normally comes out as an email, and the Blackboard advertisement was just included in that.  So I’ve clarified that CR is a weekly web-based higher ed magazine in Australia, and the email that I received from CR was on the single topic of the Blackboard webinar, headed “Are You Ready For The Demands of the Facebook Generation?”  I opened it because I was genuinely interested to know CR’s views in the context of this question. My objection to the tone of the webinar promotion is aimed at Blackboard; my confusion about CR’s reponsibility for the email and its header is that I think it’s at odds with their statement on independence.  Surely Blackboard can send their own emails?

People we like

Right at this moment I’m failing to feel sympathetic towards colleagues who’ve made university marketing communications their career.

Please understand, if you’re in marketing, that none of this is personal. As an academic, I know what it’s like to have my professional practice be the topic of everyone else’s reformist idealism. And I do appreciate that my own employment depends on the work you do year round to ensure that there are students for me to teach.  In fact, I’m one of the regulars who shows up for recruitment activities because I honestly believe it’s important that we get our heads out of the sand and take seriously the thoughtful work you do.

But I’m currently suffering from some post-Valentine snarkiness about your enthusiasm for brand personality. I’ve been reading through a wide selection of style guides that have been drawn up to tell university professionals who we are and how we should maintain our distinctive (insert list of upbeat adjectives here) tone of voice in all communications with everyone. I’ve seen too many exclamation marks. And too many broken bits of writing. That are not really sentences.  And the sentimental quotes!  That are not attributed.  Please.  Just put it through Turnitin.

Reading all this, and resisting the urge to get out a red pen, I’m a bit puzzled that it hasn’t occurred to someone to measure the percentage of overall communication with customers, particularly student customers, that is under our control.  I’m sorry, but this really is the elephant in your kitchen: academics are also student communications professionals.  This is what teaching is.  We write copy. We speak. We set up websites by the bucket load. We give feedback. We answer the phone.  We send a billion emails. We handle formal correspondence.

This is why we already understand the importance of tone of voice exceptionally well: our communications are evaluated by the punters far more closely and critically than yours, and this matters in much more direct and personal ways than you can imagine—our careers depend on their satisfaction. And if that isn’t enough, we’re also the topic of quite a bit of their feedback on Facebook.

So I do get that universities need some brand recognition. Logos and taglines make sense to me, although I think everyone should be cautioned by the US study that analysed 1000 college taglines and found significant overuse of the same small number of generic terms. That’s the problem, and thankfully it’s your problem: meaningful, authentic brand differentiation in a sector regulated nationally by standards and globally by ranking instruments is really hard to achieve, especially when the core business of any university is to improve its position in schemes designed to measure the same things everywhere.

This is where brand personality seems to bounce in. It’s crossed over to educational marketing from retail and services marketing and it works well in sectors where the basic product is also somewhat undifferentiated, so at one level it seems like a good tool for the job we’re trying to do.  It’s the superficial differences that matter between one lemonade and another, one bank account and another, one phone plan and another—precisely because people buying these things aren’t fully focused on the task.  They know that real product differentiation is fairly limited; what’s at stake are slender distinctions and price point.

Brand personality actively discourages overthinking; it just wants to seduce distracted buyers in a crowded marketplace. It does this by the straightforward process of classifying stuff according to behavioural traits, in a way that’s strangely reminiscent of astrology. I’ve discovered, for example, a study that proves that fizzy drinks are exciting and mineral waters are sincere. They do have the numbers and the graphs. I’m not here to disrespect the science of any of this, as it happens. I just want to ask what it will take for us to apply it to higher education in a way that is authentic, thoughtful and appropriate to what we actually do.

Until then, a memo to marketing on behalf of Australia’s female university workers, from the professoriate to the cleaners. If you think a higher education institution’s specific brand personality really can be helped along by listing the five famous “people we like”, and not only are they all male, but two of the five are in positions that either never have or could never be held by a woman, then we have an internal communication problem that’s in the realm of the most epic fail.

But maybe you could consider thinking outside the box on this one. Here’s a suggestion for someone we could really like: Magda Szubanski.  Brave, funny, famous, popular with young people and their parents, and really prepared to stand up for something.

Precarious

Truth is forever twinned as having an incidence and carrying an import.  Even sciences like medicine and chemistry so physically concrete carry significance for the soul. … Microscopes become tragic in what they may reveal.

(Kenneth Cragg, The Order of the Wounded Hands, 2006)

Well, here’s something concrete that has import for the soul.  Higher education systems around the world have become dependent on the availability of a large pool of cheap labour who are prepared to teach students for a fraction of the cost of salaried and tenured employees.

The recent report by the Grattan Institute on the state of things in Australian higher education, for example, suggests that “Half or more of the academics students encounter may not have permanent academic jobs”—although it does then conclude a bit tactlessly that “Australia does not have a crisis in higher education.”

But the details of this not-crisis are now demanding to be seen. The bitterness, defensiveness and scorn, for example, in the showdown between tenured and untenured academics in the comments to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on tenure-related depression are really startling.  A gulf is opening up between those who accept that there’s an unfixable structural dependency that’s closely tied to the other problems facing higher education in relation to tuition fees, infrastructure costs, toxic student debt, and the serious risk of declining demand for college level education—and those who don’t.

There are tenured and adjunct academics on both sides of this divide. There are those with tenure who are turning two blind eyes to the fact that we work in institutions that wouldn’t be open for business at all if our adjunct colleagues didn’t show up.  It’s hourly-paid labour that holds open the door to our salaried careers; we really didn’t get here all by ourselves, even if it was hard to get here.

One of this reasons why the fantasy of deserving status can be sustained is that managers are often secretive about their budgets; and in return, many of their top-tier employees can trundle along in a state of ignorance about how the whole thing is financed, at least until they take on an administrative and staff hiring role.  (The other reason is role vanity, and we should just give that up.)

But this innocence is the same reason why people can lobby seriously for tenure track opportunities for all adjuncts. It’s an important goal, just an impossible one.  The tough fact is that we can’t afford the staff that we need to teach the students we just recruited. How we got here is anyone’s guess, but here is where we are.

Then there are those who believe the problem is very serious, but know it can’t readily be fixed without taking the whole system offline and trying to come up with a better one. Many scholars in positions of responsibility are now campaigning to fix the most damaging elements of the situation. Michael Berube, for example, is the current president of the MLA, and attended the recent summit on adjunct issues held by the New Faculty Majority in Washington (if you missed this really inspiring event, it was covered by an excellent social media team, and #newfac12 will take you to links).*

Like other high profile bloggers, he has written up the event; he also has a position of significance in the academy, and his support is important. Here’s his summary of the American version of the problem, the scale of which is really sobering:

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits …

The problem that realists face is this: to try to ameliorate this bad situation can look like a half-measure at best, and collusion at worst. Can any version of the adjunct career can be reconstructed as a professionally rewarding path, and one that is not sealed off from the tenure track? Trying to improve the status of work that has no prospects, no rank, and no resources is a really tough call, and it’s made worse by the fact that the existence of this second-tier of employment is actively covered up in university marketing.

Compare this to edtech, another polarising feature of the higher education landscape. You can at least find people who will put a positive spin on edtech, and on the ways in which it offers transformative learning experiences that are Open, Free, Easy and Amazing (what happened to OpenClass, by the way?). So even if you suspect that your institution is interested in an LMS with all the user-friendliness of an aircraft carrier because somewhere down the line it will save them from the cost of a new building, at least edtech has its advocates, and there’s something to debate. And there’s sure to be a photo of a student with a laptop in your marketing literature.

By contrast, there is nothing whatsoever said in public about the merits of adjunctification. It doesn’t feature in university marketing at all.  And as universities are currently prepared to promote the way the grass grows on their campuses, you can be sure that this silence from marketing is pretty significant. There is no good news story here.

So it’s about time each of us with tenure stops avoiding what the microscope will reveal. We should know the details that marketing prefers not to promote: the tenure-to-adjunct ratio in our own Faculties, schools and departments, or the calculations used to pay our colleagues. How long is an adjunct hour? (Most will tell you that in Australia it’s currently three times as long as the normal ticking-clock hour, because of the other elements bundled in with the contact hours, including preparation and consultation, and some marking). What kind of resources are available, including professional development? Are our hourly paid colleagues fairly represented and respected in all the committee and decision-making processes that affect their working lives? And what support can we offer, in practical ways, to create better professional opportunities if this is what they’re seeking?

And if we’re told that it’s not our business, then we should ask again.  Because we’re not in this anywhere near equitably, but we are in it together–even in Australia, where there is no crisis, if they don’t show up, we can’t manage on our own.

*If you’re an hourly paid academic and want to contribute to a crowdsourced document on working conditions in Australia, a model is Josh Boldt’s blog post and associated Google doc where US adjuncts are collecting data on their pay and conditions. It’s truly astonishing how little is known about this.

Step right up

I’ve been asked why I’m so bothered by the invitation to sit in a dunk tank as part of our orientation activities for new students. Surely dunk tanks fall into the category of harmless fun? Don’t they?

OK, here are a few reasons, without even beginning to think about their resonance among students who’ve had enough of high school because of the bullying and are hoping for something better from higher education.

First, this is how they’re promoted:

Does Dunking Your Teacher or Boss in a Dunk Tank Make You Feel Like You Got Revenge?

Most events with a dunk tank rental involve either a boss or teacher stepping up to the tank. This is when you can normally judge their popularity by how long the line gets. So does this let you get revenge on them for the hard times they put you through?

You can’t fault the candour; I’m just not sure it’s the best way to start our relationship with new university students. What message are we sending them when we do this, especially our international students?  Dunk us now, because you’ll be mad at us later?

Secondly, I don’t buy the Bakhtinian bonhomie of the whole thing. The dunk tank says “Working in universities doesn’t make us dull or formal, and once you’ve dunked us you’ll have a pretty fair idea of what we look like without our clothes on, so that’s sure to have some kind of benefit in the long run.”  But I don’t think we have the first idea what we’re pitching for here, unless it’s the traditionally overplayed Australian value of egalitarianism—in which case it’s a pretty unconvincing attempt to pass off our power as the exception to the rule of our everyday cameraderie. If we really want to get serious about undermining rank and privilege in universities, this is a long road, not a carnivalesque sideshow.

And the sideshow element is the source of my third objection to this rubbish.  The problem with history is that if you know nothing about it, and care even less, it has a way of showing up at awkward moments. (Another example that has come up recently is a university branding strategy that mentions winning “hearts and minds” without a trace of irony.)

So where did dunk tanks come from? How long have they been around? And is there a reason why the mesmerising YouTube genre of dunk tank videos starts to seem a little samey after a while?  Sure, I was expecting that it would mostly be women being hurled into the tank, and I wasn’t at all surprised to read that (brace yourself) sometimes men even pay money for women to go into the tank wearing bikinis! Well, gosh.

But there’s something else.

Far from representing a longstanding tradition of allowing the uppity worker to take aim at the boss, dunk tanks have a really ugly racial history. Denis Mercier’s essay on 19th and 20th century fairground attractions that used African Americans as the source of sport for white folks gives a very different view of the relationship of power and humiliation to money-making:

The target games found in traveling carnival shows, seashore resorts and fairgrounds throughout the nation were among the most racially aggressive of all popular games. One popular carnival game which featured names like “Dump the Nigger,” “African Dip,” or “Coon Dip” did not require directly hitting a Black person, but hitting the target device attached to a delicately balanced plank upon which a Black person sat. The target, if hit squarely, caused the sitter to be dumped into the tank below.

In several accounts of amusement park history, the sitter’s role is spelled out more clearly. African American men and boys were hired to spend the day on the platform revving up the crowd of (white) patrons with insults, just enough that their eventual dunking seemed reasonable revenge for the taunting—in segregated venues that wouldn’t admit them or their families as paying customers. So the dunk tank recruited those who were most likely to experience racial violence from crowds into a bitter simulation of asking for it. If you know even one thing about lynching history you’ll see why this is a ruse of staggering cruelty.

African Dip
From 1936 advertisement for African Dip

And before we’re too quick to dispatch all this to the remote past, here’s a quietly horrifying photograph from 1965:

"Boy Working Dunk Tank", Dallas, 1965

Are we having fun yet?

So what I’ve learned from all this (apart from the fact that there’s a limit to the number of dunk tank videos you can watch without becoming slightly depressed) is that dunk tanks don’t bother me because I think we should be above this kind of thing, or because it’s undignified, or because it’s not what universities are supposed to be about.

And I don’t even think this excursion into historical poor taste reveals some secret truth about campus racism, or racism at corporate parties and the other fun events where dunk tanks might show up—any more than I think Prince Harry (or whichever one it was) is secretly a Nazi sympathiser because he thought that was a fun way to dress for a party with his mates. The fact that someone in marketing doesn’t know where dunk tanks came from isn’t a gotcha moment—a week ago, neither did I.

Nope. It bothers me because it feels as though we’re signing up for the sitter’s role out of a sense of helplessness as we lurch into the uncertain future of demand-driven funding.  We read every day that higher education is in crisis, that we’re out of touch, that big publishing can deliver educational content more impressively than us, and that even the final thankless vestige of our professionalism—academic judgment—can be exercised more efficiently by automated grading bots. To this we’ve now added a generalised fear of underprepared students as flighty customers, who will vote with their feet unless we can catch and keep their attention.

So instead of welcoming our students calmly and warmly, and letting them know that we have what it takes to support them in changing the world they will enter when they graduate, universities are turning to bad taste party stunts, and we’re making ourselves look desperate as we do — desperate for their approval, and in a strange way, desperate for their protection.

This isn’t what they want from us, and it really isn’t the best that we can do.

Knockout personality

What a lot of brands are learning is that it’s not always necessary for an app to do something useful all the time. In fact, utilitarian apps are kind of boring. That’s not what consumers want from a brand they engage with.

(“Adding brand personality to a mobile app is important“)

It’s the eerily quiet week of the year for Australian universities. Across our campuses the Christmas decorations are being boxed up. It’s easier to park, and harder to find coffee.

But even though it all looks like a bit of a blank canvas, the customer engagement units are limbering up.  This is the week that potential commencing students (and their families) adjust to the reality of the high school results that were released half-way through December.  It’s a really difficult time for many who thought they were headed in one direction and find themselves spun around and pointing in another. And for the same reason, it’s a tough time for universities who are trying to convert offers into accepted places and work out exactly who’s coming and who’s not.

Most academics stay low and use the offpeak season to catch up on research and writing, but a lucky few are drawn into internal planning for the keynote customer engagement events that will launch the academic year, still a month away.  More and more these show up the flaws in our fragile arrangements for shared governance of university culture, as marketing and recruitment departments, co-opted academics and hired student helpers each try to come to terms with what the others think the university experience ought to look like.

Orientation Week is shaping up to be a particularly awkward moment.  At one level, it’s when new students are walked through practicalities about how to read the timetable, select classes, buy books, and access support.  Boring and utilitarian?  Probably.  But also essential if everyone’s going to get to where they need to go. There’s always a bit too much PowerPoint, but student helpers do a great job in cheering everyone up: they provide exactly the kinds of advice, encouragement and survival tips that new recruits need, and that neither marketers nor academics can credibly provide.

Student orientation has also always had another element, however—a sort of sideshow alley of food, entertainment, clubs to join, with a dash of student politics tossed in. Although the specifics vary from system to system, the role of the midway is to reassure students that it’s not all about classes and cramming for exams; being a college student is also about making friends, joining in, and having fun.

We know these are key dimensions to the student experience, and in general we all think it’s good that students lead whatever balanced lives they can wrestle from the juggle of paid work, commuting, study and family responsibilities.  If they want to meet up with other students who abseil etc., we can help; and in 2012, Australian universities are back in the game of being able to charge a flat fee for campus services and amenities including those that can make a real difference to student welfare — child care, financial advice, food services.

You’d think that as we’ve done all this pretty well up till now, we’d leave it alone. But all of a sudden we’re taking an approach to student-focused events that includes the kinds of hired facilities and activities you might expect to find at children’s parties or, as someone pointed out to me this morning, on cruiseships. Jumping castles. Donut [sic] eating competitions. Dunking machines. (And if you doubt the potential of a dunking machine to represent what university life is all about, this video will set you straight.)

Even though research on student engagement clearly locates this in the classroom (or online) within the practice of actually learning, it’s getting harder in universities to tell the difference between student engagement and more conventional routines and instruments of customer engagement: marketing, loyalty programs, feedback loops.  So perhaps we need to get back to first principles on this engagement business, as this is slippage of real significance.

When we say we engage with students, what we mean at a commonsense level is that we listen to them, and think about them, and get to know them quite well. In terms of more formally understood definitions of learner engagement, we try as hard as university policies and our workloads permit to create opportunities that foster their imagination, develop their resilience and reward their independence. We know that the most engaging experiences are the ones that are genuinely challenging, not just entertaining in the short-term. We really value what Michael Feldstein calls “assisted stretching”, that he places at the heart of his convincing argument that the “zone of proximal curiosity” is where real learning occurs.

So we have a legitimate investment in the tone that universities set for student engagement, and it really would be worth consulting us before going any further down the It’s a Knockout path. We can tell you about the kinds of students who will come away from these managed-fun experiences feeling bored, alienated, nervous or irritable.  And it’s very important to us that the values that are displayed at orientation events are aligned with what and how we teach.

The alternative is that we keep quiet, and tacitly agree that it’s OK to subordinate the whole enterprise of higher learning to a style of customer engagement that underestimates the intelligence and diversity of our students, and makes it look like we found our brand personality* on Wipeout, or perhaps Funniest Home Videos. 

* And if you’re not sure what brand personality is or how far-reaching its aspirations within current marketing practices, here’s the definition from Tourism Australia, who have the breathtaking responsibility of managing the brand personality for the whole country—which is high spirited, down to earth, irreverent, welcoming, since you ask.  No, really.

Embrace the brand

Anyone searching for a word to wind up academics could give this one a try: brand.  “Brand” is the new “customer” for awfulness of metaphor when it comes to explaining the profile and values of a higher education institution. It’s the term—and the attitude to public communication—that has already white-anted our confidence in politics, so why universities are presently gulping the Kool Aid when it comes to brand profiling is beyond me.

OK, don’t write in: I know that universities operate in a competitive marketplace, that public communication with stakeholders is critical, etc. etc.  I just think that we’re not operating according to a shared, or even particularly clear, understanding of what marketing experts mean when they say “brand” with such breathtaking lack of irony. It’s a small but grown-up word that you can slip into a busy sentence without fuss, but it opens up into a vast corporate universe of discourse that promises coherent tonality of message across an entire higher education institution as a reasonable expectation in this lifetime.

I don’t think so.

The problem is the disruption of the brand in classrooms and lecture theatres, in the corridor, in our offices, and increasingly in the cloud.  We really do teach critical thinking, that’s not just what it says on the door.  And this means that we speak candidly about the challenges of institutional life in large organisations just like the ones in which we work. This is the job we were hired to do, as part of the way in which we prepare students for leadership roles in careers that haven’t been invented yet, such is the rate of churn in the global world of work.

As a result we’re often way off message, in terms of brand curation. In fact, to marketing professionals, universities can seem more like campsites or carnivals than corporations run smoothly from HQ.  Even as we try to achieve some measure of coherence around standards and quality control, we haven’t yet reduced ourselves to the kinds of all-together-now customer service promises that characterise the quick service restaurant industry: if you don’t get your degree in the time we say you should, we won’t give it to you for free or upsize it to a higher qualification.  We’re not selling content or even customer experience; we’re here to help you figure out the experience you can create for yourself, using your abilities, resources and values in partnership with ours.

This is why universities can’t easily borrow the marketing strategy that fits other large customer-centred operations. Firstly, there’s no single speaking position from which to make statements about what we all do, or what we hope to stand for when we speak; secondly, we’re not trying to engage an audience with our brand message in the usual way.  Engagement means something a little different to us, and the confusion about “audience” is the pivot point of this divergence. Engaged students aren’t audiences to the spectacle of their own educational experience, they’re the co-creators of it.

So I’m interested in today’s enthusiasm for Dan Klamm’s “6 Best Practices for Universities Embracing Social Media“.  This apparently straightforward set of guidelines is itself wrestling with intra-organisational diversity. Klamm sets out the basic problem like this:

Within a university, there are many departments and academic units, all with unique messages and distinct audiences. … From the residence life office to the parking department to the dining halls, each unit can have its own social media presence (in a way that is coordinated across campus, of course).

This diversity is actually very difficult to wrangle back into the bag. Klamm recommends social media guidelines that will “ensure consistency and appropriateness of all social media activity” but that remain miraculously open-ended enough to avoid constraining individual innovation including by the “staff member who wants to try something outside-the-box”, while at the same time nodding in the direction of the marketing department with this:

A university’s social media presence is an extension of the school’s brand. What is your brand all about? Is it playful and joking or conservative and buttoned-up? It’s important that a consistent voice is implemented across all of the school’s major social media platforms — a school with an ultra-serious Facebook page and an offbeat and sarcastic Twitter account will just look like it’s having an identity crisis.

Double back flip, with pike and twist.  And this is the heart of dilemma facing us. For university brand managers trying to harness organisational tonality across platforms originally developed for different purposes that have now slumped together as “social media”, the risk of letting academics out of the box is precisely that we’re the ones who find the identity issues in higher education interesting. We aren’t so worried about a marketing crisis, but we’re passionate about reserving our capacity to speak sensibly about how public communication works, and why our students need to understand that it matters. In fact, we’re the ones helping our students professionalise their own online presence, and in many cases we enjoy being their first audience.

Funnily enough, though, this is business as usual, rather than a whole new situation. Higher education at its best is a rich form of participatory culture, and has been all along, not just since Gen Y and their prosumer expectations. Our shared engagement with public cloud media has simply made more visible education’s transformative capacity: a conversation between individuals who were previously strangers, and who have agreed to put aside a little time to learn together, in the context of their respective lives, and in a way that helps us all more fully appreciate the experience of being human.

So, memo to the student communications team: as we’re figuring out the social media guidelines and the digital communications strategy, let’s keep this element of the brand in view, as it’s the one we really do embrace in our practice, every day.

UPDATE: A correspondent suggests that I’m dismissive of what’s good about branding in universities, and I thought I’d say that I’m not.  It’s not only important but simple courtesy that a university establishes its own distinctive sense of purpose and says clearly and simply what this is so that all concerned (prospective students, industry partners, politicians, employees) can make their informed choices about engaging with that institution on the basis of its values and goals. But the goal of harmonious brand tonality across the institution might be a limiting one in our case, and (my interest) it may be one of the hardest points on which to achieve consensus between academics and other professional staff.