Content, it’s us

I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it.

Dave Cormier,  ‘Content is a print concept‘, June 2016

So the narrative course ended, and while students are writing about it, I’m writing to thank two people who have shaped the way that I approach things.

First of all, my edtech mentor Jonathan Rees. No, really.

Last year, Jonathan wrote a short staypiece about his digital lightbulb moment at the Digital Pedagogy Lab summer institute, that led to this:

I’ve been using Slack in my hybrid Introduction to Digital History class for three weeks now. The class is centered on group projects and the Slacking has already begun.  … There is just something so darned friendly about this set-up that I think it promotes communication. Learning is occurring (including learning how to use Slack) and I’m not at the center of it at all.

I’d been exposed to Slack only in conference organising. It did seem a friendly environment for banter and backchannel, but I couldn’t think what else to do with it. Jonathan urged me to reconsider, emailed me to explain his reasoning, and invited me into his course Slack. He’s outspoken about the hot mess that edtech has become, he’s scrupulous about good history teaching, and you can see how he’s pulling it all together here. So I filed it away under #thinking.

Then this semester, the remarkable students who signed on to think about critical narrative professionalism with me said: oh hey, what about Slack? I said: mumble, mumble, banter, GIFs, backchannel, can’t we just tweet and blog like old times, or words like that. So they set it up anyway, invited me in, and turned me into the person whose skates suddenly point in the right direction..

Here are the reasons Slack has worked for me, with these students, in this context.

First, they’ve owned it, and Slack makes this easy. Anyone can set it up, anyone can create channels or private conversations. This means the group can easily decide how to handle chit-chat, where to keep critical information, how to bundle things so they don’t get lost. There are spaces to vent, and spaces to think, and spaces to deal with admin.

Second, Slack handles sharing and finding content particularly well. URLs unfurl like tiny flags to show you what you’ll see if you follow the link; files behave as they should; everything does what you want it to. I finally started using IFTTT properly and now when I save something relevant from Twitter into Bottomless Bucket Pocket it skips on to Slack where it sits in the right spot, sending a notification to let everyone know it’s there.

Which leads to the third thing. The app works. Notifications work. Everything works across devices. So provided everyone takes the time to get themselves sorted out at the start (this bit is important, as not all students will know to do this), Slack resolves the increasingly messy issues involved in using Twitter as a course communication channel. It saves us from the great leap backwards of using the LMS, the internal student messaging system or email—all of which are awful—to communicate. And it does all this without being Facebook.

But the real gain has been in pedagogy, particularly in relation to content. I’ve argued against the curriculum-as-bookclub model of weekly readings before:

The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond.

I invited students to work together to thicken up the ideas around which this course has coalesced: whether Michael White’s work in narrative therapy can extend to professional self development. Thanks to training from Maggie Carey at Narrative Practices Adelaide, I’m using White’s models for narrative conversations to explore ways of thinking about decision-making and personal agency in the junk labour market. This means that the relevant literature is all over the shop: social work, family therapy, psychology, nursing, theatre, organisational communication.

After some workshop exercises to introduce Michael White’s work, I asked students to find three credible sources on narrative to use in a short piece of writing. Fairly organically, and easily supported by Slack, they pooled what they found, creating a small and diverse collection they could all use. They found things I wouldn’t have chosen, and things I didn’t know about. They repurposed things that were familiar to me, and brought people who matter to me —like Elan Morgan—right into the room.

Road sign saying Synergy
Synergy, San Francisco, 2015. photo credit: Kate Bowles

And then they shared their writing, creating a new collaborative practice that directly addressed the way we treat student writing as the waste product of assessment. 

I think Jonathan’s right: there’s something about this environment that encourages agency, and that’s the basis for its promotion of communication. Not only did Slack encourage participants to lend each other found content from the start, but as writers and thinkers they became resources to each other, and to me. I cannot look back from this moment and say that anything I’ve been involved in previously has been more effective than this.

Which brings me to the second overdue thank you, to Dave Cormier. In 2008, Dave put forward ideas about community as curriculum that remain at the heart of how I work:

Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of “I can” and “I recognize.” If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

I’m neither persuaded nor antagonised by the rhizome metaphor that became the more well-known consequence of this, but I believe in community. Like Dave, I think that a course is something continuously remade by the people who come along. This year’s narrative professionalism course wasn’t the same as last year’s, and next year’s will be different again. Each time, I have been profoundly changed in my own thinking by what students have done, and I’ve been really honoured to share this journey with a teaching colleague who feels as I do.

At the institution level, the course isn’t successful. It’s still new and small. Nothing much meets the test of our internal audit processes, and nothing we did is visible to our analytics systems. No content has been accessed, no online lecture watched, no quiz attempted, no forum participated in. But stories have been exchanged, interviews have been shared, guests have come in and talked to us about their values and their lives, and they’ve asked to come back because they were so surprised by what came up for them too. (If you’re following the work of Michael White, you’ll recognise the idea of the pivotal moment here.) I believe it’s helped the group develop a more confident sense of how to move forward to the kinds of work that will work for them, but I’m not here to make them more employable, or claim credit for what they go on to do. That’s on them.

So this is a thank you story. But it’s also a story about the everyday nature of artisanal change in universities—slow, handmade, sometimes bumpy looking, always worth trying again—that I want to advocate for whenever the options put to us belong in car commercials. Innovation isn’t always about technology, efficiency, speed, scale; remediation isn’t always about targeted interventions. Far more often, change emerges in small experiments that we try with our own hands, encouraged by colleagues near and far. And at its most radically disruptive—of every business and audit model—change becomes visible in the content we make together uniquely, transiently and compassionately, in that passing moment in our lives.

Thank you to Courtney, Paul, Angus, Olivia, Oliver, Liz (and Will), Trent, KK, Primrose, Paris, Amy, Charlotte and Michaela, Jonathan, Dave, Elan, Sue, and above all to Maggie Carey.

Heresy and kindness

There’s too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what’s possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don’t just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.

The Plashing Vole, Good enough

Here’s a tale. When I first started thinking about how to write in public about the experience of working in a university, I looked around for models that seemed to me to do it well. I found Dean Dad and Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and from both of them learned a lot about writing about college leadership. But I wanted to find people who were figuring out how to write higher education from below. And because I’m generally a lucky type, I stumbled in short order on Bon Stewart, Jonathan Rees and the Plashing Vole.

I was really struck by how prolific, gifted and funny these writers were, and how they used their online writing as a way of reaching beyond the everyday of where they were to struggle with issues that were recognisable to me, all the way down here in Australia. But I also learned new things: refrigerators! fencing! NUFC! credit transfer! And all five of them made space in their comments for others to learn how to write publicly. For me, this was essential as I was still writing anonymously and worrying whether critique of my own employer’s business culture crossed some kind of line in terms of professional conduct.

So the first important lesson I learned from these five is that online writing is a practice of scholarly hospitality. In these hands, writing handled itself differently from the slugfest of competitive self-advancement that I had seen writing become in universities, a chronic depletion of purpose for most people sucked into it.

In these hands, writing showed itself as a gesture of welcoming curiosity. Online writing in particular offered a new way of handling lightly the big tickets: citation, evidence, reputation, impact. Online public writing allowed itself to be tentative, to let unfinished thoughts hang, to engage with difficult issues without fixing prematurely on solutions. Scholarly writers shepherding their ideas in public without benefit of editors and peer reviewers, and without the protection of a ten metre paywall, turned out to be intelligent, capable and accountable managers of their own intelligence: who knew?

And so writing for me was gently rescued from its service role in generating outputs for measuring, and returned to a closer relationship to enquiry. I learned how to write in order to think. Here were scholars producing a couple of thousand words a week without distress, contributing timely, relevant expertise to the history of human thought and if you had a question or objection, you could just bowl up and ask them, and they replied.

Isn’t this what we all think the academy is supposed to do in the world?

From this small group, who didn’t necessarily all cross paths with each other, I grew an online network that has been a rich and sustaining professional culture for me. Their links and citations have led me forwards and outwards into other conversations where new evidence is continually turning up, new ideas are continually in the act of forming, and critical reflection is the (mostly) welcomed response. This week one of the radiating circuits of this network in action brought me a question about how to frame academic event management with a rigorous commitment to postcolonial theories of self and subjectivity; another asked how kindness and diversity co-habit in academic teams and organisations. All of these questions develop me as a thinker and a teacher.

So I want to take a moment and thank the Plashing Vole for his beautiful and widely circulated post on kindness, struggle and modesty. His championing of ethical mediocrity is a heretical proposition in higher education at the moment, but like all his writing, it’s a disarming bit of very smart thinking disguised as a chat. PV tells a story about an everyday logistical failure (a room not booked, a class underprepared) and he does it with such generosity and detail that I can still easily picture his students trudging from campus to campus with him, trying not to think about the Duchess of Malfi. We’ve all been there.

But his larger point is that all organisations need to cultivate a culture of kindness if these errors are to be bearable, and to do this we need to accept that rhetorical focus on 4* publications and the stellar careers of the few won’t sustain the culture that actually supports both. To keep universities operating, not only those universities with convictions about educational equity, we need to accept, and model, failure as a fundamental part of the innovation curve. We need to learn, and model, the kindest way of giving feedback if something seems awry.

And to do this, we need to create and then militantly protect practices of interpersonal safety and care across the higher education system. This means that we do need to ask our institutions to mind their language as they describe our thrilling futures, and we need to be especially vigilant during times of “change management”, whose very language is now doing harm to many. But PV is very specific—and I agree—that this isn’t just a problem that managers can fix.

We all need a little more humanity.

So I don’t think it’s just because I’m off to Mary Freer’s gathering of kindness for healthcare reform, but because I’m watching an extraordinary response to PV’s post, and to the ones that others wrote just before it, especially Liz Morrish. There is a will to value kindness in higher education at the moment, as a better culture for generating ideas, proposals and critical thought for the world we’re in.

I’m watching events and collaborations developing all over the place (looking at you #digpedlab and #indieedtech), and while I’m not sure any longer that we can or should try to fix higher education, I’m really optimistic that by working together, educators and learners at every level, we can develop a sense of purpose about how to care for this planet.

In a hundred years, we won’t be here, but we are all here now.

Plashing Vole, this one’s for you. 

The stitches of the day

I sewed once a day, keeping a record of when I worked and marking the breaks between each session. While it is evident where one session ends and another begins, I took care to tie the thread or hair from the stitches of one day to the stitches of the next, so that the line is continuous. The result is an image of my commitment and the time that has passed.

Maria T D Inocencio, ‘In and out of time’

A surprisingly long thread of decisions, time, commitment and work has brought me to a hotel in Palo Alto, California, ahead of this week’s #dLRN conference on making sense of higher education. Among other things, this will mean meeting people who’ve become really significant to my thinking over the last few years, including the first writer who made a space (in the comments to his blog) for me to haggle and worry over the entanglements of innovation and labour in higher education, Jonathan Rees. Proximity to all this is pretty astonishing, to be honest.

I’m also travelling with my daughter. Clem is engaged in her own practical gritted-teeth activism in relation to being a high school student. Every day her struggle gives me a sense of what it feels like to be a naturally self-managed learner who doesn’t fit at all within the structures of the educational practices we promote. She reminds me that there are students at every level of the education system who can come across as obstructive, difficult or impractical in their expectations, when the reality is that we’re too busy to listen to what they have to tell us about how our cherished processes work on the ground for them, how our language and feedback works to implement a sense of failure that over time adds up to a wish to avoid learning altogether. Listening to Clem as we travel around, I’m thinking of many university students I know for whom higher education is also abrasive, demoralising, and marginalising, in ways that don’t trigger any kind of protection or support for them, because what they really need is for us to change the way we do the things we do.

At the same time I’m following the collision of big ideas about how higher education makes sense beyond the usual networks and localities, at the annual world conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education in South Africa. Across these two conferences, there’s a whispering exchange on Twitter, and as I watch this it feels to me as though there’s a new kind of optimism, “some kind of groundswell“, coming to us. Questions about equity and social justice aren’t just in the backchannels and the corridors, but right there in the keynotes. In her blog ahead of #dLRN15, Catherine Cronin adds a really important question for me: what does it take to see something beautiful in the future of human learning, that makes it still worth working towards that future together?

As the terrain beneath and surrounding higher education shifts, what possible futures do you see? Are any of them beautiful?

This morning walking around Palo Alto in search of groceries, I came across two signs that seem to me to speak to these questions. I’m offering them here with the caveat and apology that I’m a tourist, and to people who live here they may reference local politics in a way that makes everyone roll their eyes. But I stopped to think about them, and to think about what it might mean if either of these were part of the way that we think about working in higher education.

First of all, what if we imagined higher education as a person? Palo Alto road signWould it be someone who shares our views, or someone different? Would we enjoy being around this person? Standing at the foot of this sign I realised that I often find myself thinking of higher education as someone I wouldn’t want to get stuck next to on a plane. This is even though I have inspiring and encouraging professional and academic colleagues, at every level including those who manage my work. But what I find personally painful about interacting with higher-education-as-a-person is the values and beliefs that drive the things that are said and done. It’s like listening to someone talk only about how to profit from real estate. From higher-education-as-a-person I hear a great deal now about the values of competition without a single thought for those who have to come somewhere else in the race, for the race to work at all. To me, this is the opposite of the principles of collaboration, courage or care that make it possible to learn openly, without the driving fear of failure.

So I was really heartened to hear that at #ICDEUNISA, there are speakers with institutional heft calling out this philosophy for what it is: the intellectual rationalisation of social and economic injustice at the highest level of awful. To see this critique gaining traction feels like higher education’s Bernie Sanders moment: if you say it often enough, suddenly it really does become possible to imagine that rankings are neither improving productivity nor sustaining work. So how about we don’t? Really, just don’t.

truckAnd then secondly, this sign on the side of a delivery truck. It’s a marketing message, for sure, but what it suggests is that there is a groundswell in marketing itself about the kinds of values that humans are generating in response to things that make us all feel slightly sick about the world we’ve created—especially in the world of work. So I’m putting off writing about the latest new direction from the post-unionised corporate world about holidays being repurposed as discretionary recreation time, and instead I’m thinking about this sign of something that we want: to appreciate the generosity, warmth and caring that human labour has the capacity to create, and to share.

But this means that the care of labour itself is the critical question. In systems driven by scarcity to focus on survival through competitive growth, how do we nurture hard work that doesn’t immediately become exploitative? How do we make possible the kind of sustainability that enables educators to have homes, families and to contribute where they live, while delivering flexibility so that students aren’t locked into what we hired everyone to do five years ago?

How do we make the world of work itself more generous, more caring, and less corrosive of hope? And not just in higher education, but in all the workplaces where our students will shortly find themselves?

This is going to involve considerable imagination. The starting point is with where we are now, and imagining that higher-education-as-a-person could be someone we’d want to spend more time with.

So I’m really looking forward to #dLRN15 and I’ll tweet as much as I can, because there are so many of us having these thoughts, whether here or somewhere else, and we’ve been making this thread together for some time.

Sightings

Updates below

In a bizarre coincidence, when I opened the book to scan the contents I found myself looking at the section about sharks.  In particular, “surviving if you are in a raft and you sight sharks—”… I wonder if anyone would be interested in using this as a model for an edtech field manual for surviving the Higher Ed apocalypse.

Jim Groom,”Survival: the manual” July 7 2014

Thanks to Jim Groom, I’ve been thinking about Jaws in this plainly bizarre week in the short history of commercial MOOCs. For all its singular qualities, and for all the symbolic load placed on it by film theorists, Jaws is at heart an ordinary mystery: something unexpected and unexplained happens, someone goes missing, and everyone else spends the movie piecing together clues, disputing priorities, and dealing with what comes next.

But there’s a small scene in the middle that often gets forgotten, where two kids prank the holiday crowds at the beach with a cardboard fin—and in doing this set up the perfect opportunity for the real shark to glide in to calm water, unnoticed by everyone until it’s too late.

This week’s edtech weirdness had both mystery and something like a distracting prank, involving a MOOC in which the professor was yanked from view, then bobbed up again briefly, before vanishing again. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a maths lecturer from the University of Zurich, put up a three-week course: “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveteaching) through Coursera. The landing pages raise questions about the Coursera approval pathway and standards: two weeks of short RSA Animate style videos, and a final week where students will do more or less whatever they like in an “Experiment Area”. Dehaye is likeable, clear and thoughtful about his topic, but the videos aren’t elite brand rocket science—certainly, nothing that an informed and curious teacher in the office next door to you couldn’t have thought up.

And that should have been the first clue, I think. The course goal is “personal growth”, for which—thankfully—no certificate is offered, and the content is quite vague: “‘Readings’ will come naturally during the course as basis for discussion. … In the first week, we will provide a short summary of proposed content of the course. The content of the later weeks will be decided on by the students, and should cover the proposed content and more.”

But after the first week some or all of the content was deleted, and then Dehaye was himself removed, leaving enigmatic clues on Twitter, some participation in Metafilter discussions, some blog comments here and there (including on George Siemens’ blog), and a deleted Etherpad document that he wrote to explain his actions.

MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it. I am in a real bind. I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about. If you ask me something, I can tell you where to look for the information. My plan becomes to flip the tables. I want to “break out” and forge an identity outside of the course, on Twitter, because I realize this is the only way for me to fight for this identity, engage with my students, and those big shots all simultaneously (journalists, educational analytics people, etc).  … Meanwhile I want everyone to organize their own learning, which I know is happening by looking a bit around. Some people don’t like my course, which is fine. It’s your choice, that’s part of the point. Still, I get lots of emails from coursera asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience.

After blogger Apostolos K pointed out that these strange goings-on hadn’t attracted much coverage, and George Siemens wrote “Something Weird is Happening at Coursera“, the story was quickly picked up. Carl Straumsheim treated it as “The Mystery of the Missing MOOC” for Inside Higher Ed; Steve Kolowich covered it for The Chronicle first as a mystery (“In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes“) and then as an experiment (“University of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement“). Jonathan Rees had two goes at it, both worth reading: “The worst of the best of the best” on his own blog, and “Even super professors deserve academic freedom” for The Academe Blog. Rolin Moe, whose MOOC blog is touchingly subtitled “Debating, debriefing and defining the learning trend of 2012-“, wrote it up as “Dr Famous is Missing“.

By the end of the week, opinions diverged. Yesterday Michael Gallagher argued in a beautiful post that to exploit students in a research project raises questions of trust that can’t be overlooked even if the intent is to criticise (“Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas“); today George Siemens congratulated Dehaye on starting a conversation about our vulnerability to commercial data mining by companies like Coursera.

I’m still absorbed by the freakishly odd coincidence of Dehaye’s co-authored take on a probability problem that’s apparently well known to mathematicians, involving 100 Prisoners And A Lightbulb, with George Siemens’ July 5 post (published just before all this turned into a thing) on the latent knowledge in any class, involving 100 learners in a room. This is Siemens, but could be Dehaye:

The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

At the moment, I’m not sure that we know enough to be sure what the plan was with #massiveteaching. So I’m keeping an open mind to the possibility that what looked like a prank was an attempt to start a different conversation—including, and perhaps especially, with students—about the risks of corporate data mining and the lessons from Google advertisements or Facebook’s experiments with emotional manipulation. The fact that it didn’t work smoothly, and might make Coursera much more twitchy about allowing experimental course design in the future, shouldn’t necessarily be the measure by which it’s finally judged.

Meanwhile let’s keep one eye on the ocean where the real sharks are. As ever, the timely counsel in confusing times is from Jim Groom, who seems to me to be looking in the right direction:

I don’t know what it is, but Sharks remind me we are deeply vulnerable always.

Me too.

Update

People are still writing about this. Two very good posts today:

According to Apostolos K, Coursera/U Zurich have resumed the course without Paul-Olivier Dehaye, which seems to me a reasonably complicated thing to do if the whole designed purpose of the enterprise originates with him. It’s a bit like the Mayor of Amity Island putting on the cardboard fin to prove that there’s no shark.

Pieces of the sky

None of this is inevitable — not MOOCs, not funding cuts, not the death of the giant brick-and-mortar research university or the death of the small liberal arts college, no matter how gleefully the libertarians in Silicon Valley rub their hands as they craft their hyperbolic narratives about the end of the university and the promise of education technology — all their stories about innovation and doom and profit.

Audrey Watters,  minding the future, 15 Oct 2013

Normality’s threatened by the monster” movies sell us a proposition about the human response to threat. Whether we’re facing sharks, aliens or legumes, they tell us that the drama will be extended by people who don’t get it. Some fail to act because they find the risks too preposterous to accept; more venally they engage in a cover up in order to protect their own short-term business interests. Then there are crowds who get so excited and optimistic about change that they welcome the end of the world by partying on rooftops with placards.

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself skirmishing with Jonathan Rees in a way that makes me wonder which of these groups he thinks I belong to. Round and round we’ve gone, more or less like this:

It’s the most we’ve disagreed since we first clashed over whether doing stuff online is the end of the world as we know it.  And if you’re called revisionist by a historian, you need to pay attention.  But I think what we disagree on is what we’re defending.  Jonathan and I both occupy tenured positions.  That we have jobs at all is thanks to the willingness of our adjunct colleagues to keep our institutions running. There’s so much wrong here I can no longer see the difference between Coursera and my local university. Both claim transformative effects, both seek to maximise market share using minimum labor costs. Jonathan, who is a labor historian and activist, takes a different view, that he expresses much better than I can. But the business bottom line is that he and I depend in our day jobs on labor that is exploited, and people that are harmed by this, in complex, awful, obvious ways.

So there’s that.

Then I went back to the post that Jonathan threw up as evidence that I’ve been some kind of MOOC apologist, and found there isn’t anything I’d say differently now. This is what I think:

  1. Sebastian Thrun’s argument that there will be 10 universities left in 50 years time reduces education to content in a way that fails to understand how limited and provisional content is proving to be. As Patrick Masson points out over and over, the Internet is the only MOOC we’ll ever need, if content is the thing.  Audrey Watters’ inspiring response to Thrun’s miserable vision also clearly explains why we should resist this banal reduction.
  2. Content is culturally distinctive and locally relevant, but neither of these make it economically sensible to produce locally. Sometimes I think you have to live in import-dependent cultural markets to get why this is so important.  Australian filmmakers certainly know a thing or two about Sebastian Thrun’s prediction. So we need to take seriously the public good arguments for the preservation of locally relevant educational content, but we can’t do this simply by forcing a diet of local produce on the consumer. Just as we have had to with movies, we need to plan for market failure, because anything else really does involve heads and sand.
  3. To preserve the opportunity to learn locally against the logic of market and massification, we need to co-produce regionally and internationally. Leading Australian universities who’ve taken the FOMO route and partnered with VC-funded providers suggest that Coursera has pitched its exclusive club strategy well; and FutureLearn is following the same path. But this isn’t the only model. It now makes sense to get together those who have most to gain if we change the way status itself is calculated and horse-traded: the world’s small-economy regional education providers.
  4. To understand what locally relevant learning could mean in transnational partnerships we might look at the ways in which UNESCO have framed cultural diversity as critical to the health of the world’s overall cultural system.  Of course, the US hasn’t lobbied enthusiastically for the protection of cultural diversity, but France and Canada have both played a leading role in encouraging us to think beyond the nation as the most important player here.  Let’s work together with people who think as we do.
  5. The world’s knowledge isn’t a resource, it’s the ocean that connects us. This means that it’s much more than just a source of fish for powerful nations to trawl and trade. We all share cooperatively in its health, and we are all responsible for its depletion.

To achieve most of the things that are good under these difficult conditions, some of the time we need to be online, because we need get out there to think together, and to find our fellow travellers. We do need to stop calling anything a MOOC, let alone everything.  This hopeless label now actively prevents us from thinking about differences between a whole range of things because they have “online” in common, even as we try to reclassify them with enigmatic qualifiers like “x” and “c”.  In this field, “x” really can be anything, so let’s just say that the problem is MOOC itself. It can’t be recuperated because in the past 12 months it’s been associated with too many toxic enthusiasms: educational colonialism, brand fetishism, and AI as a substitute for the subtle gift of time that humans share with each other.

Yesterday I sat outside watching smoke haze from catastrophic bushfires drift over the place where I live.  The fires are a very long away from here, but the burned gum leaves are falling in my yard.  They’re visitations from a terrible struggle that someone else just went through, somewhere else, not me.  But in falling here they make clear, like pollution or rising sea levels or global finances, that we’re in this time together.

I was waiting to connect to a small live online conversation with educators from Canada, New Zealand and the US, who are all working together in an online course for open educators that’s the first put out by a Canadian start-up, Wide World Ed.  It’s six weeks of talking and thinking, and it’s not all that M, nor entirely O. It’s also not necessarily C.  But it’s online, and that’s how come I’m in it.

Maybe in the rush to market we’ve all forgotten how to acknowledge that live online presence of other people still feels magical and strange, like falling leaves from somewhere else.  As I listened to the sounds of someone typing at a keyboard after midnight on the other side of the world, I realised that I’m still a believer in what this can mean for locally relevant education.

I just no longer think universities are the best or only way to let this happen.

This is written in gratitude for all the other writers like Jonathan who help me make sense of MOOCs, but especially Melonie Fullick, who was on it very early.

Business as usual

In an evolving market, the development of sustainable business models is always a challenge but I believe that if we build something great, a whole range of business opportunities could come our way.

Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn, Feb 2013

Over the past year, MOOCs have opened the doors of access to quality education, and have captured the attention of educational leaders and students worldwide. Today, we’re excited to announce the next step in our mission to foster student learning without limits and expand the possibilities that MOOCs and online education can enable.

Coursera blog, May 29 2013

One of these statements is more candid than the other. Even if FutureLearn can’t yet tell us much about their platform, at least they’re clear that business opportunities are their horizon view. They’re also open about their parochialism: FutureLearn is a multi-institutional initiative to promote UK educational businesses in an “evolving market” already dominated by providers from “another continent”, as they put it coyly. It’s a joined-up national effort that’s at slight risk of overpromoting Britishness, but at least FutureLearn is prepared to say that educational globalisation isn’t just corporate social philanthropy on a global scale: it’s a matter of national interest.

Coursera, on the other hand, is still carrying on about the worldwide mission, using the aspirational language of venture philanthropy—all that fostering and expanding and enabling—to alibi their next move, which is equally parochial. After a loss-leading year of facilitating free and not-for-credit access to some signature higher education brands, Coursera is pushing into the market that will be most straightforward for them to monetize at scale: the massive, underresourced and evidently troubled US public education system. The prize is what comes next: being able to cover production costs at home is what enables US producers of anything to offer irresistible pricing to markets abroad. And as Ernst & Young so tactfully remind us, these emerging markets include the rapidly growing Asian middle class who are the gleam in the eye of higher education providers all over the place.

Education is a goldfield for opportunists, and MOOC providers are on it, head-to-head with LMS platforms who are also diversifying into hosted open learning. Both are able to exploit the fact that traditional higher education institutions acting competitively—which seems to be the only way we know how to behave—can only provide services at a scale calibrated to traditional staff-student ratios. And this is why the growth potential in these new markets is still tethered to the resourcing costs of academic labour.

The disruptive intervention by which commercial platforms have secured their startling competitive advantage is simple: they have done away with service labour costs.

That’s it.

Once content is created to be infinitely reusable, once the work of learning is managed by learners, and once assessment can be automated or outsourced to other learners, then normal service labour costs can be stripped back aggressively. Without these shackles, the opportunities for profit-taking in higher education are suddenly formidable again, which is why traditional textbook publishers and content retailers have perked up.

Why have higher education institutions allowed themselves to be so boxed in, that we end up auditioning to be let back in to our own field?  In part, it’s the science of distraction that explains the most basic card tricks. As those institutions, professors and graduate TAs who could best afford to engage in philanthropic volunteering made themselves available for free, so the risks of scarcity, exclusivity and closing opportunity were used to hustle others into joining up. Without having to produce so much as a single standard for quality, MOOC providers harvested the signalling value of their elite partners, and then used this to spin story after story about enhanced global educational equity, making any criticism seem like the wounded howls of the professoriate protecting their turf. Jonathan Rees has been right all along that this is about academic labour—just not that it’s primarily a threat to the tenured. What should really concern us is the astonishing prospect that things can get worse for our local adjunct colleagues, who now face being priced out of work by superprofessors with quizzes.

And now we have the low-frills version of the whole thing—the move that actually makes sense of the past 18 months. As the contractual details for the new product line make clear, after endless talk about quality education, what Coursera actually mean by quality involves video and audio standards and assessments that add up; timeliness of content delivery; and something else called “quality issues observed by Coursera”.

The nearest any of this comes to a definition of quality pedagogy is this:

“Course Criteria” means a rigorously designed Course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, highproduction-value presentation (i.e.,not just simple lecture capture) to provide the End User opportunities for a rich set of interactions and assessment(s) (whether provided by automatic grading technology or by peer-to-peer interaction activities), resulting in a meaningful learning experience that significantly transcends static Content or plain videos.

This isn’t a quality standard, it’s PR. In fact, it’s transcendingly meaningless.

Trying to recover a sense of which way is forwards from here, I’ve been re-reading Richard Hall’s recent pieces on the enclosure of academic labour under austerity. His latest post has really helped me to see what any of this has to do with our students. Reviewing Andy Westwood’s analysis from earlier this month of the UK government’s proposed austerity budgeting, he questions whether we’re right to continue to frame educational participation only in the metaphors created by capitalism. This is really important for Australia, where we keep getting caught up in defending higher education against efficiency by talking about what our graduates do for national productivity. Hall argues—and I think he’s right—that this is a limiting vision for educational participation.

Perhaps the key is in refusing to see those social forces as human capital or means of production. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people.

It’s a vision, and it’s tough to operationalise. So here’s the question for those of us still labouring in higher education: in the smallest detail of our everyday working lives, what does it mean to practice this refusal effectively?

Related articles

This important development has been widely covered in the past few days.  Here are those I’ve found particularly helpful.

and see also this open letter to Coursera, if you missed it:

Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

It’s not you, it’s me

So, I signed up for a Coursera MOOC, and almost immediately the experience turned into Lucy and the Chocolate Factory.

Lucy enrols in a MOOC

It’s a scene that suckers itself onto almost any stressful situation.  Lucy and Ethel take a job putting chocolates into wrappers.  It’s a conveyor belt scenario, and the task itself is simple; the challenge is to keep pace. Lucy’s enjoying herself, messing about.  But one stumble leads to a recovery problem, and before they know it Lucy is eating chocolates or stuffing them into her cleavage in an effort to keep up. Eventually she crashes in shame, covered in chocolate.

Minus the chocolate and cleavage elements, that’s my experience of a Coursera MOOC.

I chose the course because it was on a topic I wanted to know a bit more about, and I was curious about the professor, who has significant influence in the world of education technology. To those of us outside the US, there are few opportunities to see US edtech innovators in action. As their cultural assumptions about the nature of higher education and the student experience are rapidly becoming critical to us, I think it makes sense to try to figure them out.

But really, I signed up because I wanted to know how it might feel to be part of a course whose enrolment was larger than the population of the town where I grew up.

So I watched the first few videos, and despite being mildly irritated by the pop-up quizzes designed to check that I was really paying attention, I sat up a bit straighter, and I stopped checking my emails while listening. Game-based learning 1, multitasking 0.  I also spent time reading the forums when I signed up, and I could see the process of small learning communities pooling effectively.

But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for work-related reasons.  I couldn’t justify taking the time to watch a longer video because I had other more urgent stuff to do. And things went quickly to pieces: the content kept coming down the chute, and within a week it was unimaginable that I could find double, then treble the time to catch up.

So as it turns out, I’m not only a college drop-out from way back, I’m now also a freshly minted Coursera drop-out. And so I’d like Dr. Chuck to know that it’s not him, it’s me, because I really do think that there’s an unacknowledged professional risk being taken here by the professors Coursera have recruited to help get this thing off the ground. A significant number of their first cohort students are their colleagues, dropping in like me to have a look around—this is a jury of their peers in a grand way. And it takes a certain amount of courage to load-test a new platform and pilot a new way of teaching, all in public.

So thanks to you, Dr. Chuck.

But the real value for me is that in watching myself fall behind so early and so catastrophically, I learned two things about how to design better online courses. First of all, I’ve figured out it’s time to let go of the pastiche of seat time that we affect by structuring online courses around weekly participation, just because face to face classes have weekly meetings. We make each individual week of an online class far too complicated—too much to prepare, too many tasks, too many new ideas and insufficient time simply to think about the material and perhaps chat about it with a few other people in the course—and this removes all prospect of rescue from people who miss a step along the way.

This isn’t learning, it’s Tetris.

Secondly, if students are depending on a grade, rather than just hanging out for a personally signed certificate from a celebrity academic, then we need to understand much more about the psychology of panic and its impact on how people communicate. Even the most badly prepared student who maintains an attendance record in a face to face class will be hearing something, thinking about something, each week, that might help make sense of the eventual assessment challenges.  The student who fails to connect online is missing out much more substantially, and is struggling alone with the burden of guilt. They’re avoiding communication, and after a while avoiding any environment that even reminds them of the course they’re failing to keep up with. Even the fanciest analytics or progress tracking plug-in that sprays out automated emails reminding students to call home isn’t going to work for someone who’s singing la-la-la, can’t hear you.

So communication in large classes needs to be authentic, multi-channel, persistent and friendly, and course design needs to back up the forgiving tone with practical options for recovery. In plain terms, we need to keep open opportunities for students who fall away to rejoin wherever they can, and to backfill later. This is the best way to tackle the tyranny of compounding time debt, but it’s confronting for us because we’re trained to think of learning as sequenced and cumulative—a virtuous progression of dependent ideas building to an assessable position of competence.

The good news is that our students are absolutely ready for a more intricate and flexible approach to course design. They’ve been learning since high school how to follow unpredictable and often circuitous routes through the realm of information and ideas, exactly as we do. So as the world’s most conservative institutions stampede towards MOOC partnerships, the rest of us have an opportunity to make a few practical and significant adjustments, right here at home.

This isn’t just about flipping the classroom: it’s about flipping the calendar, the curriculum and the whole conveyor belt approach to learning that has shackled content delivery to credentialising to this point. And this is where things will come unstuck, because no one currently running a higher education institution can responsibly hope that this shackle will snap. So even if institutions who fear missing out are currently prepared to loan some of their surplus resources to pro bono work in the MOOC economy, and even if many innovative and exciting teachers are involved, at the moment this is still just missionary outreach.

It’s not yet the real change we need.

Broken?

I’m not really one for live blogging, but I’m up late following the UK Guardian’s weekly online live chat, just concluded, on the subject of academic casualisation—not least for the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Rees in action. We’re all still falling short of figuring out exactly how edtech, university marketing and casualisation add up to the state that we’re in, but he’s on the case.

I wanted to find the conversation more encouraging, but it’s hard to ask a group of individual academics to solve systemic and intentional business strategies like this one, when their own choices are limited in practice to getting in, getting out or cheering up. The people with the capacity to make a real difference are mostly absent from these discussions: the Vice Chancellors and their management teams. Universities are run by design on a mix of casualisation and volunteerism—this is not an accident or an aberration, and it’s not temporary.  We all depend on it, in the worst possible way.

And as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out on Twitter, it’s not just academics who are being asked to settle for this. Our professional and administrative colleagues are also being buffeted around by short-term hiring and firing as higher education institutions cope with a rapidly changing market for full-term degrees.

Staffing flexibility makes business sense in difficult times; that’s exactly what the fast-food industry tells us. But we’re not doing a great job of limiting the social and personal harm that it causes, nor are we doing anywhere near enough to counsel those with aspirations to work in universities about the business model that determines their chances. It’s heartbreaking to read of casual academics who are working well below the UK minimum wage, once their real hours are calculated; or the highly qualified early career researchers who have done all the right things and can see nothing up ahead but bits and pieces of short-term work, at a time when many were hoping to start families. As one wrote:

I hate the uncertainty of short term contracts and most of all, I’m just so TIRED. I’ve realised that HE’s heart is in the wrong place. After 10 years of training I really don’t know if I want to stay in academia. Four of my closest friends – all in their early 30s with PhDs from Russell Group universities (if you think that matters) – are, like me, seriously considering leaving. Where is this going to go when we are all so broken?

And that’s the thing: when any system is broken, it breaks the people who are trying to make their way within it. There’s a ton of research on the consequences of long-term job precarity in terms of mental health and social wellbeing. Across all kinds of jobs and professions, casual employment is recognised as having negative impact on individuals, their families, and their communities. This is particularly significant to regional colleges and universities, where these institutions may be the only local employers for graduate professionals. The result isn’t good for anyone—it really can’t help to have universities staffed by so many people who wish they could find something more sustainable and less demoralising to do.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s republished commencement speech from last month, on risk, failure and rescue:

We talk a lot about “risk management”—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.

Gawande’s point is that if while risk is essential to change, we also need to be ready to act decisively when we can see that something is wrong: “The sooner you’re able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better. You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue.”

In terms of casualisation, this suggests that the first step towards rescue would be to achieve agreement that the situation is wrong in a serious way. This one should be fairly easy, as there’s really no shortage of people wanting to list the deficiences of higher education at the moment.  But when you plough through all the opinion on what we’re doing wrong, it seems as though very few of our critics mind all that much about our HR issues.  Nope, what we urgently need to reform is that we’re still giving delivering lectures in actual lecture theatres, failing to keep up with the Facebook generation, or insisting on offering our own first year Chemistry courses when we could get one off the shelf from an elite US institution in the new global higher education online Kwik-E-Mart.

Well, strike me down but I think the emphasis on achieving reform through more exciting use of technology is misplaced. What we’re actually doing wrong is at the other end of the spreadsheet where it’s really starting to look as though we’re recruiting PhD students to service our chronic dependency on casual teachers.  I really hate thinking that this is deliberate, but given that we know exactly how few real academic jobs become available every year, we have to ask: why else are we so keen to produce such a surplus of people who are qualified to fill them?

Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.