Sunday, July 8, 2012

Whackademia: yes, some of us are troubled by it

Should I stay or should I go...

Amongst a certain universiterati, Richard Hil’s tales of contemporary universities in Australia rings quite true and somewhat disconcertingly. In his recently published book Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University (New South, 2012) Hil has put on the record what many of us talk about in the corridors and carefully selected public spaces. His book should trigger a serious, national-level rethink about the state of our tertiary education but I doubt it will shift already entrenched positions on both sides of the chessboard.  

A few declarations first: Richard worked at my university briefly and while I didn’t meet him, I know of him via colleagues who did work with him. I’ve chuckled a little at his ‘Joseph Gora’ columns in the Higher Ed section of The Australian. I am a pre-Dawkins idealist when it comes to the transformative power of education (not just an idealist, actually; a beneficiary of the same). I walked through the gates of university with the intention of joining the teaching profession in the early 1980s, but was drawn to the idea of the ‘academy’ somewhere around my honours year. A couple of years studying in Japan had tripped the ‘curiosity’ wire in my mind and by the end of the 1980s I thought I was heading for a career in learning, teaching and the expansion of the body of knowledge. It was the wrong time to cultivate such lofty ideals.

I am also an active member of the staff union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), for a number of reasons not the least of which is the sense of the collective action required to give education a meaningful role in building a strong and enriched society.

My piece on accountability (last post) is in fact a bit of a precursor to this response to Hil’s book. There is a bit of accountability madness going on in the tertiary sector which by and large impedes the joy of learning. It kills of the serendipity and spontaneity that an exchange in the lecture theatre or the tutorial can engender. I try to stimulate the wonder of knowledge and learning anyway, in spite of the hurdles.

The post-Dawkins regime has cultivated a particular ideology within the sector which I think impedes the soul and purpose of a university. It has driven a utilitarian, skills-based education (for which we had previously adequate facilities) which, in turn, is helping to drive a certain degree of inward-looking individualism and that leads to the sort of weeks we had in politics here, the week before our political leaders broke for the winter recess.  We do need to broaden our scope, our compassion and our purpose.

I won’t reiterate the content of Hil's book here—those of us in the system, of a certain vintage—certainly know what he’s talking about. Those older than me are mostly retired. Those younger than me have adapted in ways that I probably won’t because I hold to a different view about the purpose of education and scholarship. Yep, it is probably an old-fashioned notion but it matters to me, and where I can, I try to parlay those views in the classroom.

I do have a problem with the overdose of administrative and ‘transparency’ requirements that are sucking up more and more of our time. Hil captures this quite well. There are levels of accountability which are ultimately petty and potentially punitive. Not a lot of this actually adds to the educational experience that might be made available to students…if we could. We are encumbered by ongoing reviews and restructures which leave people feeling insecure and fragile. At its most lamentable, there is an increase in workplace health and safety issues leading, regrettably, to instances of bullying and related behaviours. 

Academic staff at the teaching/research coalface feel the squeeze from above and increasingly from students who are pressured to ‘succeed’, sometimes unreasonably and often in a shallow sense of the word. It is the unhealthy manifestation of a particular competitive, individualistic approach which seems to be all pervasive. I see the levels of stress increasing among colleagues and many good people have left, and many are considering their options. 

Right now it is a non-teaching time. I arrived at work the other day at 9am. I had a series of meetings, consultations with colleagues and students, admin matters to attend to and so on. I actually got to start the work I needed to do around 4.30pm. I left the office, with work unfinished, at 10pm. It's a fairly common day in the #lifeofalecturer. Many of us average 60 hours a week, or more. 

Universities are by and large, run like some imagined ‘business’ or corporation. Actually, they’re not supposed to be run that way. I explained to a ‘post-Dawkins’ colleague recently that universities were supposed to be a little bit separate from society, a way to ‘look in’ from afar, to think, to contemplate, to reflect on the foibles of human nature, for better or worse, and what we might do to understand that. He was a little surprised. Yeah, call me old-fashioned but…

But that approach doesn’t make us irrelevant. Indeed, we could be more courageous and assert our relevance. Society ought to be diverse, we can each contribute in different ways, not prescribed conforming KPI-ed roles. Society can indeed progress through serendipity and curiosity. We’re not exactly encouraging that in our education systems at present. Indeed, in another conversation, I was talking to a parent whose child was taking a 'gap-year', a year off study between high school and university. I said that once upon a time, university was a person's 'gap-year' an important transition time. There was a little shock, a little nostalgia, a little shared guilt that university was no longer what it might have been. 

It will take a courageous education minister to say ‘stop the bureaucratisation and teach, research and educate’. I’d like to start by setting a three year trial—let’s just stop all this petty form-filling, matrix-building, citation-measuring for just three years, and see whether or not the quality of education is better or worse for the experience. If it is better, I will rest my case; if it is worse, I shall eat my PhD testamur.

 If we can encourage students to engage with the content not the assessment, not the grade at the end, then education just might happen in more beneficial ways. I am forever grateful that my narrow, utilitarian first-year undergraduate views were cracked wide open, challenged and expanded by any number of passionate, engaging academics back then. They knew their material because they got time to read and research and write and think. I’m not sure that I’d quite manage to be an undergraduate in the same way today. There was also a greater degree of ‘eccentricity’ among some of our teachers which wouldn’t pass today. The thought we might sue our lecturer because they didn’t perform to expectations and the educational contract was just…well…for heaven’s sake, it just didn’t enter our heads.

Hil’s book will be the corridor chat of the ‘ivory tower’ for a little while; we’ll all nod in agreement, titter* at some of the quotes and people he cites (because we all know them—or may even be them). His suggestions at the end for a kind of low-intensity passive resistance address some of the day-to-day frustrations, but they won’t fix a broken system. That takes enormous courage and a strong and confident constituency. We’re not really there any more.

I think I am a passionate, but tired, educator. I’ve spent many years in my field, seeking to understand the world, specifically our Asian neighbours, in ways that might make the world a better place. For many years, I accidentally-on-purpose ‘backed’ the right horse Japan; nowadays it’s all about China, so really, my expertise is not really useful anymore…I’d like to do more but time is running out.
I will walk away from my profession sooner rather than later. I have things I want to do, books I hope to write, matters I need to ponder, that the present system impedes. I don’t want to end up bitter and cynical but the bureaucracy is driving us in that direction.

Vale education, it could be better but it will just take…some courage.

*A pre-twitter mannerism of those who enjoyed a conspiratorial chuckle behind discreetly-placed hands.