A meandering reply of sorts to Mike Caulfield, after walking with eight year olds

In becoming a patient—being colonised as medical territory and becoming a spectator to your own drama—you lose yourself. First you may find that the lab results rather than your body’s responses are determining how you feel. Then, in the rush to treatment, you may lose your capacity to make choices, to decide how you want your body to be used. Finally, in the blandness of the medical setting, in its routines and their discipline, you may forget your tastes and preferences. Life turns to beige.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

So I’m still thinking about why the experience of university work has made the transition to diagnostic evaluation quite a natural one for me.  Being an academic and being ill have a tremendous amount in common, it turns out.

The first time I was shown the software that calculates my life expectancy on the basis of the cancer markers I have—that’s driven by big data from the US because Australian data is touchingly too small a sample—among the whirl of WTF thoughts, I caught myself with this one: that looks exactly like the Moodle progress tracker bar chart.  The graphic representation of something like getting better matches the graphic representation of tasks completed in an online course for good reason: because we’re all trained to respond to incentivisation of our personal productivity, and we’re especially triggered into this by representation of deficit.  Look how badly you’re doing!  Do you need to talk to someone?

And of course, this then meshes in a particularly painful way with the culture of incentivisation in universities, so that someone looking at a fairly negative impression of her chances of living to retirement might find herself thinking: well, that’s not the first time I’ve appeared on the underperforming side of the chart.

My companion through all this is the very level headed Arthur Frank, Canadian sociologist and scholar of illness narrative. (His work was recommended to me by Richard Hall, to whom the hugest thanks for his continued activism on illness, productivity, technology and labour in universities.) Arthur Frank writes from the experience of heart attack followed by cancer and treatment, and he has helped me see how people who enter the discursive labyrinth of medical and diagnostic processing have a great deal in common with people whose labour is continuously subjected to output measurement.

Put simply, as a medical patient, you take a lot of tests.  Some of those tests show you to be failing.  Some earn you a little clap. Performance management of disease-as-failure is abrupt, brutal and often leaves very little room for you to make choices about how you would like to live and learn from the experience of being catapulted from the hamster wheel of work, social participation: just plain being a person.

And this isn’t only a metaphor. Universities themselves have so internalised the virtues of productivity that they can’t seem to help themselves with the cruelty of its application. Frank writes of his return to work after surgery and chemotherapy:

While I was in active treatment, the university where I work was most solicitous. … But as soon as treatment ended, the other institutional face appeared. Some of the same people now asked for the work I was supposed to have been doing. It didn’t count that I had been ill; in the annual assessment written about each faculty member, the time of my illness was described as showing a “lack of scholarly productivity.”

OK, if you’re an experienced university worker, did you really find this a surprising story?  I was talking about it yesterday to a colleague who came back from cancer surgery to find a “Dear Jane” email letting her know that due to her lack of scholarly productivity she had been deleted from a research group, presumably because she represented some kind of embarrassment to its illustriousness, or she might illegitimately consider herself the kind of person who could apply for a tiny crumb of funding.

This is how too many universities are working now, without a moment of self-reflection, because the rules of productivity are pervasive, and driven by the most powerful higher education decision-makers in our economy: government and business. And it’s not because people who are ill are treated this way that we have a problem, but because this is how everyone is treated: as a resource whose measure is its contribution to the institution’s competitive standing.

So, on this stony ground, what hope is there? This morning I read an extraordinary post by Mike Caulfield on the nature and scope of learning, and right in the middle of it he says: learning is not a thing, it’s a process of transition from one state to another, “like healing”.

But ultimately the only thing that truly holds  together ”learning to change a tire”, “learning how to think like a geographer”, “learning how to do long division”, “learning the importance of imaginary numbers”, and “learning to love again” is that all concern a change in capacity and behavior.

I haven’t come to quite the same conclusion that this means that teaching is like medicine, for obvious reasons, but I was thinking about this as I walked kids to school this morning. If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Friere.)

What MOOCs represent is a brand-driven effort to corral this massive, extraordinary, networked practice of wild, collaborative learning back from the open internet, and to return it to a stable, disciplined marketable state. That’s why MOOCs are disrupting precisely nothing about universities, nothing at all.  It’s why the rhetoric about MOOCs introducing unparalleled learning opportunities to out of the way places is such rubbish: learning isn’t something you deliver like a pizza. And it’s why the corporate brands (including your own university) have been so keen to silence the earlier history of rhizomatic learning that tossed up the MOOC acronym in the first place, so that now MOOC can mean anything you like so long as it advances your institutional brand in the international race for status.

But Mike Caulfield is absolutely right: learning isn’t a thing, and this is a very considerable source of hope for us all. Universities neither own it, nor have the capacity to manage its value in the market any more, except through the crudest and most destructive instruments. Their future is being changed, and the measure of a really good university in the future won’t be its standing in rankings, but its capacity to support and react to learning as an energising, self-directed practice, driven by curiosity and sustained by real, human time.

Just like healing.

Tangents: a learning conversation

Bon Stewart said it back in 2012: MOOCs are not disruptive in learning terms. Back then also Melonie Fullick was writing about education as something that couldn’t be bought and sold. In 2014 Jonathan Rees is walking the line on what’s coming in efficiency terms.  And if a manager near you is waving the Kool Aid flagon labelled “Drink Me for Flipped Classroom”, just have them read Jared Stein’s “Flipping Isn’t a Thing Apart“.  See, the internet: it’s a conversation among learners, with a memory. Crazy, isn’t it?

19 Responses

  • What a powerful piece of writing Kate – thank you!

  • As a type 1 diabetic since 7 I’ve been testing for decades. Blood sugar, food measuring, insulin adjustments, then the doctor visits where Hemoglobin A1Cs are the report card, I bring printouts of my charted numbers, and more labs to monitor even more.

    That tells me some, but my own body tells me more. Early signals when blood sugar is too low (loopy, hungry), too high (tired, thirsty)– they were reliable til 5 years ago, and now I get a few false signals.

    But for the most part my senses tell me much more than the diagnostics, to me they are just a bit of back up. I’d say living is the healing, or maybe the healing is living, or ….

    I’ve never thought of that as a metaphor the way you’ve drawn one– interesting. I’ve been three years from being part of an organization, and having trouble trying to imagine going back.

    The description of how you noted the kids walk reminded me of what I was just reading today in a book on “Cinematic Storytelling” where I am learning a lot more of the devices and methods of great filmmakers. In a discussion of the use of shapes, the author describes the way circles and lines represent different modes in “The Conversation” – Gene Hackman’s character, a surveillance expert is represented by linear scenes, he walks in straight lines, representing his rationale nature, seriousness. He has to be aloof from the spinning circular wheel;s of tape he listens to. The couple he is spying on walk playfully around in circles. As the spy loses his detachment and gets emotionally involved, his word of linear motion devolved into more scenes where he is in circular spaces (stairwells).

    I’m so intrigued by the methods of cinema masters, it is stuff we barely notice, but it’s all packed with meaning.

    Now I am ot so sure what connection there is, but the way you described the kids paths, versus the parents trying to move them in straight lines to school o time, reminded me of this.

    I find myself most attuned in the “out of establishment” learning, when these disparate ideas merge together.

    • Hello, yes, I’ve also had diabetic experience which I’d forgotten — that whole diurnal rhythm of self-managed testing, and then showing up with your little report card.

      Your example of thinking about cinematography where I was probably thinking about geography is exactly what wild learning does for me too: that “out of establishment” learning where things that the establishment generally goes to some lengths to keep apart can meet, test each other, share. Increasingly I think we have underestimated the capacity of the future to be more substantially arranged around that kind of learning than the kind we have now.

      Lovely comment, so much to think through. Also, you know, hello.

  • So…very…many..things..I…am …bursting..to…say……*takes breath*
    But I cant…. I just cant do it publically here, … and I find myself yet again lamenting that you are not down the road from me, or up the hallway (which would be weird anyway cause I work online from home!)..so that I can lean on your door frame and say “Kate..just read your post…OMG…totes agree…especially that part……”…
    Instead…as always I say…thank you for such an inspirational read… and as ever I am grateful that the internet brings this inspiration and LEARNING to my doorstep

    • I love your comments, Phemie, you come here with such vibrancy. And yes, I think these online spaces really are places where we lean on each other’s doors with a thought, and the great thing is how we do mostly get heard, and answered, and go away with a new thought to ponder.

  • I love your recent post. what I love the most is the liberation of the marginal status.
    You know, you must know this already, but I do not relate to the work environment that you write about. I know that our year to year appointments are disappointed that they don’t have tenure track lines, but they are treated like the rest of the faculty, with full voting rights and respect.
    And my colleagues are proud of their athletic, outdoorsy selves and are much more likely to brag about a hike than a book they just wrote.
    I think it is like that because 1. Flagstaff attracts healthy outdoorsy types because of its unique geography. 2. NAU is secure in its mission of educating undergraduate cool kids who come to NAU because of reason 1.
    The University of Arizona and Arizona State fight the big fight for the extreme research status and $. And NAU gets to chug along, happily as #3. Sort of out of view.
    Mark and I chose NAU because we understood the liberation of not being in a spotlight– created by stupid greedy people. We were at a Research 1 university and chose to leave because we felt that by avoiding the competition for flagship status, we would have a better chance connecting with students and researching and writing about what we wanted, rather than what was popular and fundable and fashionable. I haven’t regretted my choice for one moment.
    The marginal can be a happy productive place.

    • What do you teach Janna? I’m just an hour down the road in a little place called Strawberry, but have to agree that Flagstaff is a gem of a place to be.

      • Oh, pick me, I can answer this question. Janna Jones is my excellent colleague and collaborator in putting our two classes together online in cinema studies. When she swings by again she can tell you herself what else she does, but I am just so delighted that she chooses to do some of it with me.

      • I pick you, Kate. Oh, I just saw from Janna’s FB profile she’s in the Communications Department. They have had some open lecturer positions, that sound interesting, but I felt I am a long shot. Hope you can connect me!

      • Alan, as you have surmised, I am in the School of Communication at NAU. I teach the history/critical studies of narrative, documentary, and amateur film and some TV too. I teach the most amazingly earnest, smart and hardworking students. Kate can attest to this, as she has worked with them as well.

  • So delighted to have you here, JJ. What I love about this thought is that your experience shows that marginalised individual status can expand to the possibility of productive marginalization for whole institutions. This to me is the future that is emerging: the potential to lead educational renewal from small regional universities in out of the way places.

    Global ranking instruments can’t recognise this leadership at the moment. They haven’t got a measure or a probe that can find its worth. Even the “Best Under 50” list for new universities really just restages the enquiry for younger universities in exactly the same terms, like a kind of junior team in a football comp. The stupidity of this is hair-raising.

    Australia suffers particularly from being a relatively small sector, which I think probably intensifies some of the impacts of internal competition driven by the search for external approval. But your story, and your choices, really light something up about how people can choose — and then whole institutions can choose — to operate differently.

    • To both your points Janna and Kate,
      University of Mary Washington is strongly rooted ina public liberal arts experience that is really a regional college in its scope. But through our experimentation with networked communities, experimental curses, and variety of means of having the pedagogy that happens on the ground cross-over into the open web has put us in a unique situation of collaborating and sharing rather than wrestling for funds. I have one view of things in my role here, but I find that UMW is in the process of re-discovering its identity in regards to the idea of digital, networked learning as a collaborative process, and that might be an awesome consortium of people and such schools, and even the “out of establishment” folks to start exploring. What if a number of schools whated to be recognized for how conencted they were, how much they shared, and how much good they did on a human level 🙂

      We’ve resisted frats and we’ve resisted big sports, conversations that are dominant in the US. I would lvoe to feel we were part of a community, however marginalized, that understood the open web is making possible all the things you point out so beuaitfully in this post. I may be pollyanna here, but I still beleive there is a space at public universities do build this. I still believe a culture can be cultivated to avoid the backbiting inclination of the data-driven corporate model of productivity, and it seems NAU does too 🙂

  • Welcome Jim, it’s an honour to have you here. UMW is a huge role model for small institutions in providing innovation leadership — and as you say, part of that practice involves resisting local temptation of various brand-buffing kinds. But what you do at UMW seems to me the way that we can work in the future, reaching across networks and I also think public universities can do this.

    The step that needs to happen is for people to walk away from places that don’t. This is hard: our lives, livelihoods, families are embedded in communities and we can’t all just uproot.

    But I suspect, I think, I hope that we are about to see regional and open-minded institutions who aren’t entirely distracted by the blither of rankings strongly support their staff who are building networked education as a viable complement to whatever the other thing is. Certainly, NAU has supported Janna to work with me, and the institution where I work has more or less turned a blind eye.

    As for experimental curses, well that’s something we can all identify with. I hear ya.

  • It is difficult to walk away from those places that don’t value much more than rankings, but at least at NAU, it appears that quite a few folks have done it.
    Besides all of the practical problems of uprooting, it is difficult for some to walk away with the identity enhancing prestige of an institutional name/brand. But I always figured that my work/teaching stood for itself.
    I am excited about the possible power (and I mean power in all of the human, thoughtfully connected ways) that regional universities can muster by working with one another.

  • Excellent.

  • Wow, loved this post on so many levels, Kate, and not sure why I never came across it earlier. I love the way you’ve interweaved all these different themes together, with Mike’s learning like healing, Franks quotes, the problem of how universities treat people (not just ill ones), the issue of MOOCs, and learning while walking. So beautiful. I just wanted to say that.

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