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.

6 Responses

  • Geoff

    Stitches, signs & keeping critical consciousness sustained… despite (Neo-liberal) environmental constraints. Thanks Kate for keeping on putting out these eloquent and dismayed-but-still-hopeful pieces.
    I grapple with the poles of optimism about the place (if you can still call it that) of Higher Education, and the notion of withdrawal from the system. Withdrawal because it has been so captured by the managerial minions of ‘meanness’. Begrudging optimism because if not in academe, where then would the critical arguments be presented?

    So thanks for providing something of the third space, both in and outside, here and ‘there’ for fringe dwellers like me to still connect, & hope with.

  • Thanks for this, and thanks to Audrey Watters for way-pointing me here. I’m the parent of a new high-schooler, and his experience is breaking my heart, in a totally different way than I thought it was going to. He’s made the social transition that caused me so much angst look easy, but academically, his experience looks pretty darned identical to mine 30 years ago, and I don’t see how that can be a good thing, and there doesn’t seem to be a way for him to stand up on a cafeteria table and shout “this isn’t how it’a supposed to be”, so your comment about not listening hit home.

    I love the signs. Want to ask those questions of the community I teach in. Parts of my elementary school structure I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with.

  • Hi Lisa, welcome. I think Clem also wants to stand on that table (and I wrote this account of her thoughts with her permission and pre-checking, to be clear on that) and sometimes I wonder if they did, who would stand against them? Maybe there are really a significant number who feel similar but are less sure that the fight is worth taking right up to the riot shields.

    On the second part of your comment, I’m now quite seriously thinking of developing a campus-based project, with QR codes, to feed into a story collecting platform. It just might be possible. If you read the next post, you’ll see a comment led me to a fuller understanding of the whole project — it’s a public art installation.

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