I realise this blog has been a bit whingy of late. This is my last whingy post, after this, sunshine and unicorns, I promise.
I was chatting with (okay, whinging to) a colleague the other day, bemoaning the fact that we all seem to be working much harder, for less impact in higher education. I now regularly work during evenings, weekends and holidays. I don’t recall doing that so often since the days when I was creating T171, our big elearning course, in 1999. Then I was doing that whole “get up at 3am to fix problems” thing, but it was a big deal, it led to the OU becoming an elearning university, 1000s of students and 1,000,000s of pounds. If ever that stuff is worth it, then it felt like this was a case. But now I’m doing near that just to get bids in for smaller amounts, to work on existing research projects, deliver to strategic initiatives, supervise PhD students, write papers, etc. All good stuff, but not life changing. Everything just requires more effort now, for less reward. Research is a good example – it is much more competitive to get a grant, the requirements of submitting a bid (both internally and by the funder) are much more time consuming now, the amounts you get are smaller, and the reporting requirements when you have it much more onerous.
And it occurred to me, mid-whinge, that this is true of every profession – teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, journalists. All working much harder for less return – often that lower return is financial, but also just in terms of impact. Doing more for less, and doing it more often is the new mantra. In many ways academia has been protected from this trend to a greater extent than many others, so this is not a special plea for sympathy. Rather the question I keep asking, is “how did we get here?” Computers were meant to liberate us all from drudgery. I guess the big suspects are globalisation, neo-liberalism and technology. But even then I don’t think this state of affairs was inevitable. My candidate is post-2008 austerity. Not just in terms of finances, but psychologically and socially. Austerity made crisis the new normal. This created a culture of envy and mistrust. If you or your institution wasn’t operating at the very limits of breaking point then there was slack in the system. And slack was to be eradicated. This created continual downward pressure – in my privileged example, the Government creates pressure on funding bodies to show greater return and demonstrate maximum efficiency; the funding bodies pass this onto grantees in terms of bidding requirements; universities pass it down to PIs and they pass it down to research associates. There was insufficient pressure back up the chain, and each extra cut or requirement is not enough to trigger this.
That’s my simplistic view of how we got here. What I’m not sure then is how we get out of here, because for all of those professions and more, it doesn’t seem like a sustainable approach.
Now, onto unicorns. Just as soon as I’ve finished writing this bid…
The Guardian runs a series called Academics Anonymous, in which an anonymous contributor writes about some aspect of academic life. It is occasionally enlightening, but has recently descended into clickbait style deliberate controversy. However, what I think some of the recent articles illustrate are commonly held misconceptions about academic life. They are so far off the mark in the current climate, that I suspect they were not written by academics at all, and are rather “bloke in the pub who went to the ‘University of Life’ anonymous”. But it’s worth looking at some of them just as a means of combatting some of the outdated perceptions of academia, as these represent images we need to overcome in the anti-knowledge environment.
Unsackable staff block promotion of younger staff – the article wasn’t as bad as the headline here, but the core idea that there is such a thing as ‘unsackable’ staff in universities anymore is at least 20 years out of date. The idea that once you gained tenure you could spend the rest of your career smoking pipes and looking sagely out of windows across the quadrant is probably only true if Jeremy Irons is depicting you in a movie. Tenure doesn’t exist, everyone is one slightly underperforming year away from getting the boot, and the pressures to bring in external money, deliver strategic aims, and get REF standing is more intense for those with tenure than others. So, myth 1 is that there is some tenure Camelot which once attained is an easy, secure life.
The second article was the one on academics using tax payer money to gain consultancy. While contacts with industry are encouraged, and most universities have an allowance for some consultancy work, the scenario proposed in this article was far removed from any reality most academics would recognise. It may be true in some Russell Group universities, but for the rest of us, workloads are tightly monitored and accounted for. That we would have the time to engage in the full time consultancy services while still delivering on all the other objectives, or be allowed to, is a fantasy. I also laughed out loud (if only there were an acronym for that) at the suggestion the university had paid £20K for room hire to allow for a self promotion exercise. In my university it is a major triumph if you manage to get biscuits and coffee for a meeting, so the idea of a senior manager glibly signing off 20K for room hire seems, well, fanciful. Myth 2 then is that academics workload is not tightly controlled.
The third article was one from last year, referring to the boozy life of the academic. In this they reported that every seminar started with free wine. What university is this (and do you need a Prof in Ed Tech)? I refer m’learned friend to the aforementioned battle for biscuits. Wine? After a PhD viva we usually open up a bottle of champagne. Which we buy. Now, academia can be a bit boozy, but in these days of longer working hours, more part time staff, longer commutes and general change in social mores, it is actually quite an abstemious profession (with the exception of conferences). When I was at uni in the 80s, a lecturer might go to the pub at lunchtime, and then we’d all sit in their tutorial room smoking roll-ups. This behaviour would have you on disciplinary action within a week now. Myth 3 then is that of the carefree, boozy academic life.
There are undoubtedly more, but when you piece these three together, what you get is a picture of an academic in the 1970s (Michael Caine in Educating Rita maybe) – shambolic, aloof, and unfettered by the concerns of normal working life. It’s a romantic image in a way, but also one that lends itself to the ‘ivory tower’ accusation. It is also about as representative now as the fearful matron in charge of a typing pool is to office life.
A couple of news stories recently made me reflect on the role of institutional memory. The first was the piece in the Guardian bemoaning that ‘unsackable’ staff may be making the roles of others more precarious (Aside: which universities still have unsackable staff?). The second was a news item that people are shifting jobs more frequently now, and that three years is optimal to stay in a post.
I should state up front that I’ve been at the Open University for 22 years now, so this post is in effect is an exercise in self-validation. Particularly at the senior levels, I’ve seen a mixed approach in my time (“I remember when this was all fields”) at the OU. Sometimes it has been largely internal appointees and other times exclusively external appointments. At one point several years ago, no-one in the senior management team had been at the University for more than three years. This creates a disconnect from the history and the culture of an organisation I feel. But equally too internal a focus means an institution can become locked into considering its own structure and history and resistant to changes that are required.
So, no surprise then I favour a mixture at senior level, but also within the organisation the value of institutional memory is underplayed. This is particularly so in times when disruption and radical change are the dominant ideologies. It is worth stressing that people who have been in an organisation for a long time are not necessarily resistant to change, indeed they are often experienced at managing change within the particular constraints of that institution (and they also know what doesn’t work). But much like a sports team or city, an organisation persists beyond its immediate personnel and instantiation. It is a collection of its history, culture and mission, and these persist through the stories it tells about itself and to itself. Continuity through staff and a longitudinal view from some members is thus essential if any organisation is to build a legacy.
That’s my pitch for hanging around anyway.
The travel ban on many people travelling to the US is, of course, against all normal codes of decency. In addition it is antithetical to the basic tenets of research (the free sharing of knowledge) and open education (removal of barriers).
Like many others therefore I’ve decided not to travel to the US for any reason, including conferences, or even getting connecting flights. There are researchers I know who are banned from going. I’m not going to pretend academia under ‘normal’ circumstances is an entirely egalitarian system. There are many cultural and economic reasons why people end up excluded. But for a deliberate dual system to be instigated at the national level is a level of injustice that has to be resisted, by whatever small means.
But none of this is easy – I have many friends in the US who are suffering through this. How do we scholars demonstrate our support for those who have to operate within this regime? And yes, I think people will be soon saying the same about attending events in the UK. I’m up for all suggestions.
These are twisted, ravenous days. As I saw Audrey Watters say recently “fuck living in interesting times” – exactly, give me uninteresting, beige days again, please.
I’m late to all this, but I have recently started getting back into vinyl records. I got a cheapo turntable for my birthday (from me, I always know what I want). I’ve ben picking up the odd album since then. Mainly I’m restocking the albums I used to own – I gave these away in the mid-2000s because I hadn’t played them for about 17 years, and they were in the garage, getting warped and mouldy. “I’ll never play vinyl again” I thought, “my music consumption has shifted to digital. I’m not one of those muso nerds who goes on about the quality of the listening experience with vinyl.” And while that is true for the majority of my listening, I listen to Spotify most of the time, I have come to enjoy the practice of putting on an album.
Similarly, I like proper beer. Microbreweries and real ales are commonplace now, but when I was a young chap, it was all lager, lager, lager. Again, the CAMRA people banging on about real ale seemed alien to me. Now, I wouldn’t go near a pint of Fosters.
This highlighted to me the importance of those people who maintain core principles while the rest of us rush off to the new thing. You will undoubtedly have your own examples (that are may be a bit less, erm, blokey). Which brings me onto the recurrent themes of this blog: open education, digital scholarship, and our current times. Keeping the flame can also be read as doggedly refusing to change, and that’s not always a good thing. But if you remove these example from their artefacts then what they’re really about is a persistence of core beliefs (diversity in beer types, appreciation of music as ritual). This to me is the way to approach digital scholarship – how does it help us maintain the academic values we cherish? Similarly, as I argued with OER as educational heritage, we’re going through an anti-knowledge period (alternate facts FFS). But it will come round again, and our role is to cling to the core values of education and not metaphorically throw away our vinyl and drink lager.
I like the posts Sheila and Audrey do which are a round up of their weeks. I’m not sure I’ll do it every week but I thought I’d give it a go, and try to weave together some of the personal and professional things I’ve done this week.
I’m actually on leave this week, but have spent most of it working. This raises the whole work-life balance issue of course, but I don’t mind it. I have a generous leave allowance, and being what I suppose is called a knowledge worker, it’s often difficult to exactly allocate work. Also, if I’m honest, there are days when I am officially working, where I’m not very productive – my writing mojo is lacking, I’m distracted, or whatever. So I feel less guilty about these knowing that I worked during some of my holiday. But it is important to ensure you have some breaks where you really do switch off, and I was much stricter about that over the Christmas period than I am usually.
The two things that came up this week which meant that I had to work partly during leave were a meeting on a research project and putting together my HEA fellowship application. The first arose because the other partner was in the UK visiting parents, so we got together for a productive day. We are looking at models of online education, and in doing so the problem with models came to the fore. A model is necessarily a generalisation, and for any generalisation you can immediately think of specific examples that don’t sit well within the model. I prefer to think of it as stereotypes (in a cognitive, not social, sense). For instance, we have a stereotype of a ‘dog’ in our mind, and any particular instance of ‘dog’ is measured by its similarity to the mental stereotype we develop.
The second involved working with an OU colleague, because we have both postponed it for ages and decided to crack on with it in the New Year. It’s an interesting process as you reflect on your career and construct a narrative around it. I’m very aware that a narrative imposes order and logic to a sequence that was often haphazard and driven by chance. But we are story telling animals and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are how we construct our identity. The pitch I’ve started to make is the philosophy (which is definitely imposing more on my approach than actually exists) I’ve adopted is iterate practice and research, and to do this in the open. So, I have used teaching opportunities as chances to experiment with technology or pedagogy, and this as the basis for research, or researched application of technology and then drawn that into practice. Since the mid-2000s I’ve done this in the open as well, often through this blog. Sounds convincing enough?
I’ve watched a ton of films this week, including Argentinian rainforest Western Ardor. In this tobacco farmers are besieged by bandits burning their crops. “We’ve had this before, but not like this” one character says. “They want it all” the hero observes. That struck me as the philosophy of Trump, Putin and the rampant capitalism now – we had it before, but now they want it all. I read Carrie Fisher’s autobiography Wishful Drinking and her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge also this week. In both of these you can see Fisher using the books as a means to construct a narrative about herself that she can live with. Here she talks about being bipolar: “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like the weather – independently of whatever’s going on in your life”
Lastly, it was my birthday this week, and that is a time when you definitely reflect and consider the story of your life. So stories and models has been the theme of my week. McCloskey suggests that these are the two methods by which people come to understand a topic – by metaphor or narrative (or models and histories) and that different fields tend to be dominated by one mode, for instance metaphors dominate physics whilst narrative dominates biology. So I guess that’s a decent thing for someone in education to spend their week doing.
After books and films, here is my look back at my year of blogging. As with last year, I set out to average one blog post a week. This post makes 51, so only one short. This year also saw 10 years of blogging for Edtechie, and so still blogging at a reasonable rate is testament to how much blogging forms part of my work and social environment. And one thing that has been shown this year is that it is as vibrant a community as ever, despite all the recurring pronouncements of the death of blogging. On a couple of occasions my blog became host to what Maha Bali called a comments party. These illustrate for me the best of the academic blogging community – my initial posts weren’t particularly well crafted or thought through pieces, but they allowed for more intelligent and insightful comments.
Politics came front and centre a lot this year, sometimes in how it relates to open ed, but other times just because it dominated everything else. As I’ve already written, this is going to be a theme that will continue next year, and working out how this blog responds to the new context we find ourselves in is likely to be something I’ll be reflecting on in this post next year. One thing I came to understand this year was that I hadn’t appreciated just how right Audrey Watters had been. I mean, I didn’t disagree with her, but I don’t think I fully understood the broader social implications of Silicon Valley politics until I saw the alt-right and Trump in action. If Audrey’s Hack Education motto is be less pigeon, then next year I need to make mine Be More Audrey.
As MOOCs faded this year we saw a scrabble to find the next big ed tech thing. Pokemon Go for Education. Uber For education. Etc, etc. It became increasingly clear to me that Next Big Thingism is the attitude we need to push against in ed tech, and instead focus on improvement and experimentation (fun even).
But I’ll end on a non-EdTech note. My best day of the year? My daughter and I went to Chicago in February for holiday. One day we walked to the Cloud, went around the Art Institute, visited the Blackhawks shop, and then saw the Hawks beat the Leafs. Now that is a good day. Cherish them.
Continuing my not-edtech related end of year roundup, as well as trying to read a book a week, I tried to see a new film weekly. This was largely successful, but they weren’t all cinema trips so the film may have been delayed somewhat from release, and I didn’t get around to seeing lots of films I should have (eg Nocturnal Animals).
In general terms, like most years but even more so, this was a crap sandwich, with good stuff at the start and end, but a real mess in the middle. Even the blockbusters were exceptionally awful. Batman vs Superman, Independence Day 2, Suicide Squad – these were like Donald Trump’s toilet, flashy, expensive and full of shit. But if comic book movies continued to be devoid of any value, there were some other genres that fared quite well: horror saw some atmospheric, taut, films with secondary interpretations (The VVitch, Blackcoat’s Daughter, Don’t Breathe, Green Room). Animation began to emerge from Pixar domination, and quirky, whimsical indie movies provided blessed relief (Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Sing Street).
Because I’m not adverse to an end of year list, here’s my top ten:
You’ll probably have seen most of these, but the Blackcoat’s Daughter (aka February) may have passed you by. I loved it – moody, brooding horror with an amazing score, it deserves to be better known. A special mention for turkey of the year, the truly, truly, awful Zoolander 2.
Increasingly I found it difficult to watch films in isolation of the context of the rest of 2016. I couldn’t get behind the “the best of New York came together” message of Sully in a year of Trump and Black Lives Matter. I couldn’t pretend Eddie the Eagle represented a version of Britain I could identify with after Brexit. And I couldn’t watch Son of Saul and flatter myself that it could never happen now. Even Rogue One had some people rooting for the Empire. I get the feeling this will be a recurrent theme in 2017.
I challenged myself to read a book a week again this year. I haven’t quite managed it, up to 48 with a couple of weeks to go. As with last year, I thought I’d generate some pointless charts (pinching Jane Bryony Rawson’s idea).
If you twisted my arm to make a list, I’d say my favourites that I’ve read this year are:
Mendeleyev’s dream – Paul Strathern
We have always lived in a castle – Shirley Jackson
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
Ruby – Cynthia Bond
Hotel du Lac – Anita Brookner
North Water – Ian McGuire
His Bloody Project – Graeme Burnet
The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Anna Karenina – Tolstoy
Another Day in the Death of America – Gary Younge
I read a bit of non-fiction this year, but my range has been mostly literary fiction with a smattering of crime.:
I tend to use the Kindle for convenience, but also this year I hurt my eye at one point, so reading was difficult so listened to a couple of audio books:
An even split between male and female authors this year:
Were these books newly published (say in the last 2-3 years) or older? Mainly older, but the Booker and Bailey’s prize provided a useful way into some new fiction:
The full list is as follows:
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
David Bowie’s Low – Hugh Wicken
Agatha Christie – Murder in Mesopotamia
Mendeleyev’s dream – Paul Strathern
Napoleon’s Buttons – Penny Le Couteur & Jay Burreson
Madame Curie Complex – Julie des Jardins
Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith
The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett
The Museum Guard – Howard Norman
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
We Have Always Lived in a Castle – Shirley Jackson
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers
The Code – Ross Bernstein
The Summer Book – Tove Jansson
Paradoxical Undressing – Kristin Hersh
Butterfield 8 – John O’Hara
Gwen John – Sue Roe
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
The Cornish Coast Mystery – John Bude
It’s All in Your Head – Suzanne O’Sullivan
Zukeina Dobson – Max Beerbohm
Night Watch – Patrick Modiano
Ruby – Cynthia Bond
Sussex Downs Murder – John Bude
Vinyl Detective – Andrew Cartmel
101 albums you should die before you hear – Everett True
The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney
Hotel du Lac – Anita Brookner
The Betrayal – Helen dunmore
Freakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
North Water – Ian McGuire
Trout Fishing in America – Richard Brautigan
Gut Symmetries – Jeanette Winterson
The Many – Wyl Menmuir
A Mind to Murder – PD James
Strangers – Anita Brookner
Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love
Another Day in the Death of America – Gary Younge
His Bloody Project – Graeme Burnet
The Dinner – Herman Koch
The Blue Room – Georges Simenon
The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild
Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing
100 Prized Poems – William Sieghart (ed)
Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh
Reading the Silver Screen – Thomas Foster
(Photo by Andrew Branch – CC0)
I was asked to do a webinar presentation on open scholarship for the ExplOERer project. I started pulling together some slides from previous presentations but when I looked at them they just seemed from a different era. Over the years I have talked about blogging, digital scholarship, open practice, etc. My take on it has become gradually more nuanced – back in the mid-2000s it was all “OMG this stuff is awesome!” But I’ve balanced that with negatives and caveats as its gone on. But it has largely remained a pro-piece.
However, in a post-truth context, in which aspects of openness have played a part, and also in which education itself is seen as part of the conspiracy, this no longer seemed appropriate. And yet, I still see all those positive aspects of open practice around me. So, instead of being pro or anti I think the way to view it is as a set of contradictions, or paradoxes. We have to get used to holding conflicting views simultaneously in our head. We have to be both a dog person AND a cat person. The presentation is below, but I think the final paradox is the key one: It has never been more risky to operate in the open and yet it has never been more vital to operate in the open.
Since the BAD day in the US I have set up three direct debits. I didn’t plan to, they just arose (and to be frank, they’re for small amounts). They are to Hack Education (sorry Audrey, should have done it ages ago), The New York Times and Stand Up to Racism. As I said, it wasn’t part of a plan, they were individual responses to prompts, but now I look at them they all have something in common, which is that they offer a counter narrative: to the Silicon Valley technodeterminism; to Trump’s post-truth approach; to the dominant anti-migrant story in the UK.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about education’s response to all this. Bonnie Stewart argues we need to start being proactive, in a way, creating a digital literacy narrative. This is true of education itself I think. When we have populist MPs like Jacob Rees Mogg declaring that experts are similar to astrologers, there is an urgent case for education to have a strong narrative about its purpose.
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) November 23, 2016
This falls on all of us in education, but particularly those in positions of authority. For many years now we have seen Vice-Chancellors appointed on their ability to make universities behave like businesses, to develop radical new models of higher education. What we need now from Vice Chancellors (and Chancellors, Pro Vice Chancellors, eminent Profs, public intellectuals, etc) is an ability to articulate clearly, and with passion, the importance of higher education to society and to individuals. And not just in a return on investment, monetised manner but in terms of preserving democracy, cultural values and social cohesion. Because narrative, more than facts, is important – it used to be said that the victor writes history, but now more than ever it seems the one who writes the version of history they want, becomes the victor.
A bunch of us have been looking at Mastodon Social over the past week as an alternative social media platform. Kate Bowles and Maha Bali amongst others have been having some good discussion about how we want social media to work for us now. Kate, rightly I think, argues that we’re not looking for a replacement to Twitter, but an alternative. Mastodon as an open source platform that seems to have its heart in the right place might be that. But even if it’s not, I think the activity there is an indication of our changing attitude to social media.
Being on Twitter since reasonably early days (2007) has been like watching a city develop rapidly from a small town. And like a city Twitter now has many amazing things and people. It also has a very dark side and its share of crime. The hardened city dweller begins to yearn for a more simple, friendly life. An alternative social media platform then is more like a holiday home in a nice rural community, everyone knows your name, it’s got a couple of nice coffee bars but not much else. You mainly go for the walks and the quiet pace of life.
Reflecting on the activity on Mastodon made me realise two things. Firstly, we’ve become acutely aware of the role of social media in recent politic events – it’s not an innocent anymore. Secondly, we’re all social media experts now, in that we’ve been using it intensely for year. When we joined Twitter it was with an exploratory attitude, “what will this space turn out to be?”. Now it is more instructive, directed – we know what we want from a social media space and how can we fashion this one to be like that?
Even if Mastodon fades, I think this new attitude to social media will be revisited with increased vigour over the next few years. If we accept it isn’t going away (although I admire those who consciously decide to opt out) then establishing the sort of online community you want to spend time in is worthwhile.
I’ve written before about my love of blogging. But post-Trump victory, I’m questioning everything. On the plus side it has seen a flurry of great blogging. With news forced to normalise it, and fake news a testimony to our ability to drown in comfort rather than face truths, blogs are the place to turn to for informative comment often.
But on the downside, as David Kernohan points out, much of the grinding engine of paranoia and hatred is driven by these same tools and approaches. The ones I’ve happily championed for years. And more fundamentally I think we have to question the role of education, educational technology and educators now. As a blogger I don’t want to write about the new world, because there are others who have a better understanding of the socio-political threads coming together in this new fabric, and I don’t think I have anything new to say (apart from a long primal scream). But I can’t write about anything else. This post then really is just flagging up some blogistential angst. Damn Trump and his ilk, they’ve even contaminated this space.
While I figure this out for me, here’s a selection of some great posts:
And while we’re here, let’s have some National:
So I had the Trump chat with my daughter last night. It’s a useful way to frame your own reaction, as you have to balance the anger, depression and anxiety with some practicality and hope. She wanted to know what she could do, and I explained that one thing to remember is that time and demographics are against the Alt-right world order. In 10 years time Brexit or Trump would not have been successful (probably). And also their own incompetence and failure to deliver on their vague promises will be their undoing. So just getting through the next 5-10 years is a strategy in itself. In our discussion (it was actually more her analysis than mine) we thought of it in terms of resistance:
- Staying healthy is an act of resistance – whatever you need to do to get through it is fine. There is no one way to do this, but being there when the chance for the backlash comes is important. We are those demographics.
- Being kind is an act of resistance – these politics are based largely in hate, fear and paranoia. Kindness sounds weak but it requires strength.
- Encouraging diversity is an act of resistance – the people who voted for Trump are the ones who think a remake of Ghostbusters with all women leads destroys their childhood. Fuck them, let’s see more of this everywhere.
- Supporting others is an act of resistance – there are others who will be affected more adversely, and whatever we can do to support those helps, be it marches, donations, speaking up.
- Education is an act of resistance – the Trump campaign declares open hostility to knowledge and expertise. Combatting this attitude itself negates their appeal.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Take care.