Monday, August 22, 2011

Moving "House": Follow the Link to Bloggy Goodness!

Hello there, readers! It's time for a short update about the status of Speculative Diction, the blog. The bad news is that shortly, there will be no more new entries posted to this site. The good news, however, is that Speculative Diction will now be hosted by University Affairs, the Canadian national postsecondary news publication. Please follow this link for regular updates containing my usual commentary and crankiness on the subject of higher education policy, pedagogy, the academic profession and more!


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shameful self-promotion vs. Meritocracy

On August 4th, an article called "How not to get left on the shelf" by Dale Sawak was posted on the Times Higher Education web site. In it, the author argued that if academic authors want their books to be read by a wider audience (or at all), they'll need to engage in some self-promotion.

The article produced an incensed response from some readers. In order to understand why, we need to translate its thesis into Stereotypical Academic Logic. Once translated, the argument looks something like this: Sawak tells researchers who already see themselves as successful (i.e., they have written and published books), that their success is actually limited (by audience, no less; practically an accusation of elitism). He also suggests that in order to achieve "real" success, authors should engage in an activity that's disdained in academe--advertising oneself.

A disclaimer here: part of my research is about the spread of entrepreneurialism and promotionalism in university governance and practice; I wrote my MA thesis in sociolinguistics, and it was a critique of internal public relations at a university. I'm not particularly keen on the idea of having to be a competitive, "marketable" academic, or that we should be forced to participate in phoney promotional activities (I don't think they work anyway) or in the kinds of performance assessments that measure "impact" with a variety of suspect statistics. But as with so many issues, there are elements of self-promotion that relate positively to doing a good job as an academic, rather than buying in to neo-liberal market-oriented self-reformation.

In all fairness there's an underlying critical point in Sawak's article, which is that self-promotion is something that all very successful academics engage in--whether or not they acknowledge it. No-one can argue that Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky don't "put themselves out there" (though usually the term public intellectual is applied). The suspicion of self-promotion is also part of the reason that blogging and other social media activities are often dismissed by academic colleagues and peers.

Not only are self-promoters more successful, but so are graduate students whose supervisors "push" their students' work actively. Ever wonder how so-and-so managed to get that article published in a good journal, or a helpful research assistant job, or an item that showcases their work on the faculty web page? Committee members and supervisors can help with this too, behind the scenes, and it's in their interests because your success reflects back upon them.

While the necessity of at least some degree of self-promotion may seem obvious, given the academic fear and loathing of public relations (where PR is often conflated with advertising and/or marketing or even lying and propaganda) it's actually a tough admission for professors to make.

The admission needs to be made, though, because it further disrupts the assumption made by many that meritocracy is the (only) engine powering the university. Passing on advice about appropriate networking and promotional skills should be a part of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students: one needs to know how to put one's best foot forward, simply because it opens up opportunities. As frustrating as this may seem, it's true that ideas don't tend to be recognised due to "merit" and nothing else, just as great scholarly partnerships and collaborations don't develop out of thin air. You need to meet people and they need to see your work.

Female academics, in particular, are vulnerable to the trap in which they remain silent about their own work and its value--as Lee Skallerup Bessette writes in her blog post, "Shameless self promotion". Women in general are less likely to claim expertise, which can be a detriment when it comes to succeeding in an academic career and a public profile. Female graduate students are more likely to suffer from "Imposter Syndrome" and to lack the sense of self-value that helps them develop crucial professional networks.

Granted, there's definitely some promotion-related career advice I would consider to be cynical and unproductive. For example in this article the authors assert that early-career academics must cite important scholars in the field even when their work is only "tangentially" related. I doubt this is necessary for every paper, and I'd agree with some commenters that most authors can see through a meaningless reference and many will dismiss it. Then again it's also true that we don't live in an academic utopia; some scholars do want their egos stroked. If you're willing to engage in that, then take the advice.

If you still find distasteful the idea of engaging in some form of self-promotion, think of it this way: no-one can assess the "merit" of your work unless they have some exposure to it and to you.

Another reason is that you're already producing PR about yourself. You re-write your own CV and cover letters, send copies of your papers for review and revision, organise and/or participate in conferences; you're concerned about your reputation and the impression you make on peers because it affects your work prospects. There's nothing wrong with all this--it's not "beneath you" to consider and engage in these things and and there's no professional penalty for it (quite the opposite). Expand your idea of "public relations" to focus on the broader idea of "relations", relationships, and it's clear that much of our communication is a part of that process; stop assuming that PR is "evil", and you'll realise it's necessary (as well as omnipresent).

As a final note, I'll talk a little bit about this blog. Did I set out to "self-promote" by writing it? Frankly, no, that wasn't the goal; I didn't start blogging because I thought it would be "good for my career". I wanted the other benefits of blogging such as dialogue with peers, sharing of thoughts and commentary, and a space to "mess around" with ideas that haven't yet made it into my formal academic writing.

The blog has led to many great conversations and connections, but it's also had a much wider readership than I ever imagined (though still fairly narrow-!). Blogging here led to guests post at University of Venus on the Inside Higher Ed site (I'm now a regular contributing writer there); it led to one of my posts appearing in the Guardian UK online, and to another post receiving attention in the Times Higher Education. While those aren't the peer-reviewed academic publications that are required for a career as a professor, they're valuable for me especially in that they relate directly to my field of research, and will reach much broader audiences than my own blog.

Let's try to avoid allowing self-promotion to be one of the "dirty secrets" of the academy, something to be sneered at or reserved for the egotistical and vainglorious, something that "real" academics don't do; after all, what's a book launch for?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tutorial Time: Fun with Gender & Media

Last year I was a teaching assistant for a course called "Sexuality, gender and society". Since I scored the same assignment again this year, I've already started planning for the kinds of activities and discussions we might be able to have in tutorial.

I wanted to make sure I had a solid list of interesting resources for the class, the kind of stuff that students might "get into" more as it provides examples and context for them and connects more to familiar experiences--shorter commentaries, videos and other media, blog posts, web discussions and so on. I'm thinking about emailing the class once a week with these additional links.

Here's a list of some of the resources I may end up using, depending on the syllabus. Most of these could be fitted into more than on category, so they could be used in various contexts for the course.

Gender essentialism and norms...
..."Women, know your limits" from British comedy show Harry Enfield & Friends skewers ideals of feminine decorum and passivity (and the assumption of superior male intelligence!).
..From the blog Sociological Images, a nice piece on performing masculinity, and one on "McCoy Crisps: Men are stupid, shallow, sexist sport-o-holics." Advertising at its least flattering!
...An episode of This American Life about testosterone. What's it like when your body stops producing testosterone, or when your T levels increase suddenly?
...The "nurture" side of the debate, research showing that gender differences are due to socialisation.
...A relatively recent article about Toronto parents who decided to keep their child's gender secret.
...My Body Gallery blog highlights "what real women look like" by displaying users' photos of themselves.
..Malika's Indian Trangender Blog, and a documentary called Middlesexes about trans experiences and issues; a news piece about how Australia is the first country to recognise a "non-specified" gender.

Pop culture...
...The real reasons why guys should hate on Twilight.
...The Celluloid Closet, a fantastic documentary about the history of queer representation in film.
...Buffy vs. Edward Cullen: guess who clobbers whom in this little encounter? A classic face-off between stereotype-busting Buffy and Mr. Sullen Cullen!
...A threaded discussion about female characters in the Harry Potter series; and a blog post on "The women of the Harry Potter universe". For good measure, here's a video of Hermione Granger, another atypical female character, telling Draco Malfoy what's what.
...Music videos: last year in one tutorial we had an interesting discussion about this, so I'd like to bring it back and ask students to bring in their own examples. The one I used before was Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" in which she draws on the aesthetics of 60's Motown and 50's rocker Little Richard.
...A discussion by a group of Black intellectuals and artists, about misogyny in Hip-Hop.

Gender & work...
...A chart (made from a report from Georgetown University) showing that women need a PhD to make as much as men who have a BA.
...At the same time, here's a contrasting article about Canadian women making more money than their husbands.
...From The Atlantic magazine, "The end of men" looks at a "reversal" in women's fortunes that could lead to female dominance in powerful positions in the workforce.
...In Sweden, more men are taking paternity leave; and in Japan, male "Herbivores" eschew high-stress lifestyle choices of their parents.
...Mary Churchill explains why her colleague feels like she "needs a wife", a great discussion of privilege and gender in the academic workplace, where gender disparities persist.

Women in science & technology...
...Women in science don't have as many children as they'd like.
..."Why Female Science Professor?" in which the author describes her experiences as a female scientist. I brought this to class last year and it was well-received.
...Womens' continuing under-representation in science and exclusion from pay parity in STEM and technology-related fields.
...Articles about the gender gap in Wikipedia contributions.
...The Guardian UK reports on the "lost women scientists" of The Royal Society, including Caroline Herschel.

Gender & violence...
...Fulbright Scholar Rumana Manzur of Bangladesh was attacked and blinded by her husband in June, 2011.
...Article from the BBC: the United Nations has classified rape as a war tactic; and a post from Scarleteen on how men can help prevent rape.
...Homophobic violence: Tyler Clementi committed suicide "after his sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room was video streamed over the Internet without Clementi's knowledge" by his room-mate. This was one of the suicides by queer youth that prompted the "It Gets Better" project.

Experiences of sexism...
...The blog Microaggressions documents readers' everyday experiences of sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination.
...From Hook and Eye blog, "This month in sexism" provides some examples of sexism in academe.

Gender & history...
..."Songs of the Suffragettes": I was given digital copies of these fabulous old songs, which were "rescued" from vinyl by a friend in Toronto. I think in tutorial we could have a discussion about the songs' lyrics, style, and political context.
...Episode "The Damsel" from documentary series Terry Jones' Medieval Lives. This is an excellent little piece on women in Medieval Europe.
...An article about Clemence Royer, the female economist who translated Darwin's Origin of Species into French.
...An account of 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, in "Victoria and her Sisters", an episode of Simon Schama's History of Britain.
...A short piece on Nancy Wake, who was a spy in World War II; at great personal risk, "Wake committed herself to fighting Nazis after she interviewed Adolf Hitler in Vienna in 1933."

Gender & education...
...A blog post from Macleans has a discussion of the animosity towards Women's Studies in Canada.
...In the US, the UK and Canada, women have outpaced men in university enrollments and achievement. This had fed into a more general concern about boys' literacy and the "success" of males in the education system (and in life in general).
...A male author dismisses critiques of Canada's funding for international researchers, an interesting example of the discourse of meritocracy.

I hope you enjoyed the list (which is really just a brainstorm); if you have anything to add, please leave suggestions in the comments! In particular I'm looking for more resources on gender and race--especially indigenous issues--and masculinities/examples involving men (students requested this last year).

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Month in Higher Ed: July 2011

It's that time again--time for a short PSE round-up for the past month!

In Canada, a great deal of attention was paid to the most recent State of the Nation report released at the end of June by the Science, Technology and Innovation Council. A number of articles addressed the "innovation deficit" that Canada faces, which is seen as an impediment to Canada's progress in the knowledge economy. And of course, explicit connections were made to Canadian universities (and university graduates) and their role in this form of economic development.

One interesting point I want to mention here is that Canada really does have a (relatively) long history of producing "reports" and "commissions" on the subject of R&D and what would now be called "technology transfer" or in some cases, "knowledge translation". For decades the critique has been put forward that Canadian business simply isn't innovative enough, or that Canadian businesses don't take enough risks. The Lamontagne commission in the late 1960s/early 1970s brought attention to the same problem. Government programs and policies have apparently failed to make a difference, as this article discusses.

Canadian Aboriginal education also received attention this past month in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Moncton, New Brunswick; the Vancouver Sun ran a series of editorials on the issue, and these as well as a number of articles took up Shawn Atleo's criticisms on the subject. Since Canada's indigenous groups--First Nations, Métis, and Inuit--have the lowest proportional enrolment and graduation in PSE nationally, the criticisms are well-founded.

In the UK, the Sutton Trust released a report, "Degrees of Success", that examined undergraduate admissions at Oxford and Cambridge universities. The report showed that "[f]our schools and one college sent more students to Oxbridge over three years than 2,000 schools and colleges across the UK". These results were taken by a number of commentators as a sign that accessibility in the UK is still heavily skewed by socioeconomic class at the primary and secondary levels. In other words, it matters where you go to secondary school, more so than whether you receive high A-level grades. These critiques are all the more potent at a time when PSE policy in the UK is being radically re-vamped along marketised lines, with most universities raising tuition close to the full £9,000 now allowed by the government.

And lastly, as most readers will be aware the United States has been undergoing a political and economic crisis that's reached fever pitch as the month of July draws to a close. The US debt limit must be lifted by Tuesday, August 2nd, and the Republicans seem to be taking this time to blackmail the President; indeed, it looks like they've created a situation where Obama must take responsibility for debts racked up by his predecessor/s, whilst ceding to Republican demands in the moment and ultimately accepting that his chances of re-election have been reduced to, practically, nil.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the Pell Grant program (among other initiatives) has been on the chopping block in various versions of the debt deal that have been proposed thus far. Though the Pell program is so far preserved, federal student aid programs have already been targeted for "savings" in the past and this is likely to continue as cost-cutting measures are introduced.

UPDATE from the Chronicle of Higher Ed: "Debt-Ceiling Deal Provides $17-Billion for Pell Grants".


As a side note, my short contribution to University of Venus piece on UBC Fulbright Scholar Rumana Manzur was re-published in the Guardian UK online, on July 13th. This month we also heard part of the sad conclusion to Rumana's story, which is that she has been permanently blinded by the wounds inflicted on her by her husband. You can make a donation to help Rumana, using this web page.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Know Your Value

Summer is “conference season” in higher education, a time when many professors, graduate students and administrators find themselves hastily packing the smallest possible suitcase in order to spend three or four days in some remote and/or obscure location.

Conferences can be a great academic opportunity and are presented to graduate students as such. You can meet others and share ideas, as well as giving and receiving feedback and discovering new possibilities for collaboration. But to be realistic, conferences are also an expensive (and therefore a somewhat exclusive) opportunity. Attendees must pay for travel, accommodation, and of course the ubiquitous registration fees. In the past I was able to do presentations in the U.K. and in Washington D.C., and at other conferences within Canada, only because I had a federal grant supporting my studies. These were incredibly rewarding experiences that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.

The high cost of conferences is an example of the strangely skewed economy of the academy. For many graduate students, it’s an expense that is beyond their limited budgets. Yet there is little hope of finding an academic job without attending and presenting at conferences during the course of the Ph.D. Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour). It’s considered both a privilege and a necessity to have something published, since reviewed publications are another “must” in the process of building an academic career. While we are paid to teach, that’s the work that tends to lack prestige and is not considered as helpful for long-term career development.

What this means is that in graduate school we get used to working for nothing, even as we’re expected to invest heavily in expensive professional development activities. By attending conferences, we pay for the opportunity to present our work to our (future) peers, who are the primary “gatekeepers” to academe. This system helps to perpetuate privilege because only “those who have afforded to work for free will get jobs. The vicious circle is maddening” (Ernesto Priego, July 2, 2011, Twitter).

Thus in spite of increasing accessibility in terms of enrolments, graduate education still tends to be stratified by socioeconomic class (and plagued by high attrition rates). Who can afford to spend time on publication papers and conference proposals and travel, when they must earn money for tuition and rent?* For grad students, especially those from under-privileged circumstances, this can be a trap; and the assumed, eventual “payoff” is now less available than ever as tenure track hires decrease and low-paying contract teaching becomes the norm for an ever-greater proportion of new Ph.Ds.

While all this may seem “normal” to those working within academe, just try explaining the conference system, for example, to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with the way academic careers work. My mother has often asked “when are they going to start paying you to go to these things?”. Viewed from this angle, it’s no surprise that the “investment” in graduate education, specifically the Ph.D, can seem like an illogical one (in spite of all the non-material benefits)—or even a “raw deal”, as many other commentators have framed it already.

The “academic economy” I described may have made more sense in the now-distant past when tenure-track jobs were more readily available, and when publishing was something you could leave until after graduation. But permanent-track professors actually don’t really do these things (publishing, conferences, and so on) for “free”. They earn a stable salary and they receive institutional support for research-related activities, which are considered part of the job. On the other hand, graduate students and early-career academics—particularly those who find themselves doing a lot of contract teaching or other part-time work—are less likely to have the time and resources to fully develop their CVs; and as the academic job market has tightened, the bar has been raised in terms of the level of professionalisation required.

It matters how students “get ahead” in graduate school because the most successful Ph.D students go on to become faculty who help carry forward the university as an institution. If the academic profession becomes a “labour of love” for all but the most elite students and professors, what are we saying about the worth of our education system and our concern for diversity and accessibility within it? What example are we setting for future students (and potential professors)—who will they be?

The contemporary university appears to undervalue the skills, talents, and education of many grad students, rewarding only those committed to an extremely narrow track of professional development and willing and able to make the (material) investments necessary to pursue it. Meanwhile, in other contexts our Ph.D-related experience is much sought after. My recent experience in a career course** has been somewhat eye-opening in this respect. While all members of the group are Ph.D candidates or graduates, we each had a hard time coming up with lists of our “skills” because we’re so used to taking our own capacities for granted. Yet once “translated”, our collective experience and expertise was impressive, and applicable to many of the most interesting positions turning up in job searches.

My point is not that we should do nothing for free, or that we should all leave the academic profession for higher-paying jobs in other areas. What I want to emphasise is that many graduate students have little sense of the worth of their contributions beyond the logic of the academic system (and this has psychological effects, too). While it may no longer lead to a full-time, permanent faculty job, the PhD is not a devalued degree; it’s only under-valued in the academic marketplace, because desirable jobs are scarce.

Because academe presents itself as a meritocracy, often those who “fail” tend to blame themselves for it. But “pure” meritocracy is a myth. This is why knowing your own value means understanding not just what you have to offer in multiple contexts, but also that you have real choices, that there are fruitful possibilities, and that given the kinds of sacrifices involved, “traditional” academic work may not be the best among them.


*In Canada, there’s some assistance to be had: students may win non-repayable merit grants and fellowships through provincial and/or federal governments. The university where I’m studying also has some options for reimbursement, through our Graduate Students’ Association, the academic union, the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and sometimes through individual programs and departments. There’s increasing demand for all these different forms of funding, but at least some support is available.

**The course is called “Conscious Careers” and is run by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Month in Higher Ed News (June, 2011)

It's been a very busy month, so I thought I'd try something new--a "round-up" of some of the biggest news stories in post-secondary education, and also little bit about what I've been up to (on this site, around the web, and even in the "offline world"!).

In Canada, Statistics Canada recently released Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada, including the results from the last (not latest--last) cycle of the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS). This was the best available data source for looking longitudinally at Canadian students' post-secondary choices and their post-degree career paths, so the survey's cancellation is a big loss for Canadian PSE policy making.

It was a big month for the provincial government in Ontario with many education announcements rolled out across the province, including a five-year plan for PSE called Putting Students First. Accessibility will certainly be the emphasis; the government (if re-elected) plans to add another 60,000 student spaces, 6,000 of them in Masters and Ph.D programs. There were capital funding announcements as well, including a new Engineering building for York, science lab upgrades for UT Mississauga, and a new Liberal Arts building for McMaster (which has had a private donor secured since 2007). The government also announced its continued support for the expansion of accessibility initiative Pathways to Education.

Graduation season in Canada brought with it a number of articles (and a book) critiquing Canadian universities and questioning of the value of post-secondary education, particularly in the face of rising student debt loads. The current (disheartening) career situation for post-secondary graduates is influenced by generational/historical economic trends, and reflected in the negative news coverage and the ongoing debate about the role of the university in preparing young people for (economic) life.

And lastly, Canadian mathematicians have continued with their critiques of NSERC's key Discovery Grants competition, its review system and award allocation results. They argue that while Canada has gone out of its way to establish prestigious faculty positions (such as the Canada Research Chairs and Canada Excellence Research Chairs), the funding arrangements at NSERC leave many world-class researchers without adequate resources. NSERC has responded, arguing that the reaction to the funding changes has been mostly positive and that the mathematics community is largely to blame for its own misfortune.

June also brought two major, and highly anticipated, policy developments overseas--one in the U.S. and one in the U.K.

In the United States, the final revised version of the Gainful Employment legislation was released on Thursday, June 2. This policy is designed to regulate the private, for-profit colleges that often exploit low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students. The for-profit colleges have put a lot of cash and effort into lobbying against this legislation. However in spite of its potential benefits, some of the less positive implications of the policy could extend into the rest of the PSE "sector" in the U.S.

In the UK, the long-awaited, much-decried government White Paper on PSE was released this week to an immediate volley of critiques. Though I have yet to read all 83 pages of it myself, there's already plenty of commentary to check out as well as existing analyses of the marketisation and privatisation tactics being employed by the U.K. government (including the short one I wrote in May).

Also in the UK, AC Grayling's new private liberal arts university received huge amounts of flak from various quarters, including accusations that they'd copied syllabuses (syllabi?) from other institutions.

...And a little bit closer to home...

At the beginning of the month I was at Congress in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I presented at two different associations' conferences. The first presentation was on graduate education (for the Canadian Sociological Association), and the second was about media coverage of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), for the Canadian Communication Association. I posted a link to the CERC presentation (on Prezi) here. Congress was a great opportunity to "bump into" people I already knew, and also to meet some of those Tweeps I hadn't yet seen in person.

After more or less successfully using Prezi for the first time at Congress, I wrote two blog posts for Jo Vanevery's blog, here and here.

From June 16 to 18 I attended WorldViews Conference on Media and Higher Education, in Toronto. This month's posts here at Speculative Diction included three live blogs from WorldViews (day 1, day 2 and day 3) as well as two follow-up posts on universities and the media (you can read them here and here if you haven't yet seen them).

Later in the month I was very pleased to be recruited to University of Venus blog as a regular contributor; soon afterward I collaborated with Lee Skallerup, Afshan Jafar and Mary Churchill, on a series of written responses to the attack on UBC scholar Rumana Manzur by her husband in Bangladesh.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Universities & the Media, Part 2: Why the Media Matter

Yesterday I wrote about some of the main themes we find in current media coverage of post-secondary education, and of universities in particular. Much of this coverage is highly critical of various aspects of university education and in many cases these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly from the perspective of students and parents, who represent a large audience for education coverage.

In spite of highlighting relevant issues, the critical arguments made in the media and in the "crisis literature" (and even in the comment sections of news websites) often seem ill informed. So while there are serious problems with some of the changes happening in universities, the debates that happen in the media don't necessarily contribute to public debate in a productive way.

This is why one of the themes throughout the WorldViews conference was the presence or absence of "trust" in the university-media relationship and the ways in which the university can be "mis-represented" when it does not actively seek to inform publics about the nature of its role, its functioning, and its usefulness to society.

The assumptions underlying many critiques of post-secondary education tend to be the same assumptions that then frame suggestions for the reform, or renewal, of universities. It's often argued that we must either return to (the best aspects of ) the university of the past, or destroy the institution utterly and begin again with a lighter, cheaper, more innovative and adaptable model, one that can somehow resolve the weighty tension between democratic and meritocratic that has become so much more evident in recent years; all the while becoming financially self-sustaining.

By some commentators, the techno-futuristic (and somewhat libertarian) argument is made that the introduction of new disruptive technologies, particularly the Internet and digital media, will force universities to change themselves and offer "value beyond content" as it were--since all "knowledge" will be available to students on the Web.

I think these arguments often ignore or discount the relational nature of education and conflate information with knowledge, assuming that education is the "delivery" of a product. They also reflect commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technologies drive social and cultural change; and they seem to assume that a high degree of individualism is necessary/desirable.

One issue I did not hear discussed at the WorldViews conference was whether post-secondary education earns more media attention now than in the past, and whether the nature of the coverage has changed over time. Because this question informs a part of my dissertation, I had it in my mind throughout the conference. I became interested in the question through having done media discourse analysis in the past, and through analysing universities' public relations materials for my MA project.

The small amount of preliminary research I've done shows an increase to the amount of coverage universities receive, over a 30-year period. I'll need a much more exhaustive corpus of news coverage from the 1970s and 1980s before I can say for sure, but I think the coverage has probably changed quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and that that's the case then there are plenty of reasonable explanations for the change. (I was focussing only on one university, as well; I'd love to expand that and study the issue in more depth for a larger project.)

For one thing, universities now receive far more "exposure" to different publics; more people come into contact with universities than in the past. This is a process that began decades ago and has waxed and waned over time, but at the moment PSE enrolments are higher than ever before and so the student exposure alone has increased significantly. This process of massification (which I've also discussed here) was mentioned by Philip Altbach at a panel on the second day of the conference, but that was the only time I saw the issue raised explicitly.

Not only are there more students in the universities, but these students are paying more for their education. Tuition tends to be on the rise in the U.S. (e.g. in the collapsing California system), in Canada, and most notably of late, in the U.K. where the government has raised the tuition cap from about £3,000 to £9,000. The cost of education is being transferred onto the individual even as the value of education to the individual is seen to be in decline.

This form of privatisation tends to encourage a consumerist attitude towards education, and changes the dynamic between universities, students, parents and also the media. Rankings tables create comparisons between institutions that allow for informed consumer "choice" (among other things); Macleans magazine designs its yearly university rankings issue as a guide for student/family stakeholders. Because students are assumed to rely on their parents or families for this money, parents too become increasingly invested in the "quality" of university education.

Universities have responded to marketisation, and to the privatisation/diversification of their funding sources, by investing more in strategic communication including advertising and branding, various forms of public relations, and reputation building efforts aimed at different key stakeholder audiences (public/taxpayers, students, parents, the government, granting agencies, donors, alumni and so on). These efforts tend to affect media coverage as well.

Why does media coverage matter? With all the trends taken into account, it's clear that government policy, not only in post-secondary education but also in science and technology, intellectual property, and other knowledge policy areas, affects more people than ever. It's therefore more likely to be the subject of heated public debate.

Universities need to pay closer attention the ways in which universities and PSE in general are discussed in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet, because these media have a strong hand in setting the terms of that important discussion. This is also where the terms of policy may be set out openly, where members of the voting public begin to make choices about what they support politically.

Attitudes and beliefs are circulated, reinforced, and re-formed both in the news and in the discussions that happen that are based on or triggered by media coverage. And what people believe, they tend to act (or vote) on. Universities have ramped up their efforts to present themselves positively, yet coverage of university education has been dominated by overwhelmingly negative discourses.

What is the disconnect happening here, and what can universities do to better inform the debate about them that ultimately happens beyond their walls, and beyond their control? How do universities adapt to this fast-paced communicative context wherein critiques and problems are amplified so rapidly? I think this is one of the major challenges not just for universities but for all organisations, at a time when negative messages can easily "go viral" through social media.* Universities, with their deep institutional roots and their immediate connection to young people, may feel this pressure even more. They'll also need to find an answer to it, since the (real and mediated) experiences of today's students will eventually shape the decisions they make about the educational systems of tomorrow.

[*I'm interested to see whether universities begin to engage differently with students who already attend, and to enlist them in ongoing efforts to build reputation and shape expectations of future students and their parents.]

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Universities and the Media, Part 1: What They Say About Us

Last week I attended The WorldViews Conference on Media and Higher Education, which ran from the 16th to the 18th of June, 2011 in Toronto. I was able to spend the full three days at the conference, and was lucky to meet face-to-face many of the people with whom I’d already chatted on Twitter (notably, Mary Churchill and Lee Skallerup), and whose articles I had read in the press or academic journals.

I made a Twitter list of conference Tweeps, based on tweets using the #WV2011 tag. I also wrote a live blog during the sessions I attended at the conference; here are the links to my rough notes from day one, day two and day three of the conference, if you're interested in seeing the content in more detail. There's an archive of tweets from the conference (created by Caitlin Kealey) available here.

The conference addressed an array of issues including the effects of international rankings on university governance; the role of science journalism; the relationship between academic experts and journalists; the continued under-representation of expertise from women, people of colour, and members of developing/Global South countries; and, of course, the nature of media coverage of higher education.

What exactly does current (mainstream) media coverage of post-secondary education look like, and why does this matter?

One of the primary organising themes in media coverage of PSE is that of the value of education, usually its economic value (as measured by the additional income generated for individuals from a PSE credential). The question of value is usually posed as one of whether a degree is “worth it”—“it” being the cost of tuition and living expenses, or in some cases the debt that a student may incur if s/he cannot pay up-front. I've even addressed this theme a number of times here in my blog.

Advocates of the continuing value of PSE tend to argue that average post-graduation lifetime earnings justify the rising short-term cost of a university education, and/or that the non-monetary benefits of PSE should be recognised. But the chorus of critics has begun to drown out these optimistic (and often over-simplistic) arguments. Now that so many people are receiving university degrees, in an increasingly unstable global economy, there's no "guarantee" that going to university will land you a job, let alone help you become "upwardly-mobile". Since living costs and tuition are increasing rapidly, the calculation of "risk" and "reward" in higher education becomes more of a focus. More students are taking on loans, which increase the risk involved (one needs to be able to repay one's debts from the additional income generated later).

Some coverage also focusses on how undergraduate students are "cheated" by a university system brimful of over-privileged professors who do very little work for high pay, and who would prefer not to have to deal with students at all. The university is already perceived as an arena for the elite, always somehow disconnected from "real" life and work, and such myths are reinforced by articles like this one from The Weekly Standard.

The assessment of value has also been applied to graduate education, and there's a raft of commentary on the futility of the PhD, particularly in the Humanities. The “ponzi scheme” image is invoked as a means of highlighting the relationship between the "production" of new PhDs and the (proportionally) shrinking number of tenure track academic positions available.

The latest critiques link higher education directly to economic tropes, invoking concepts such as "sub-prime education" (a comparison between sub-prime mortgages in the United States, and student loans) and the idea of higher education as an economic "bubble", popularised by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

News media articles, blog posts and think-tank reports are joined by books that represent not merely criticism but a "crisis literature," like the infamous Academically Adrift in which the authors claim that universities are not performing well enough in their educative role (i.e. students are not "learning" anything), and even the more recent Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education from James Côté and Anton Allahar in Canada (both of whom also co-authored Ivory Tower Blues). While these books contain many valid critiques, and they do "stimulate [public] debate" as their authors usually intend (Côté & Allahar, 2011, p.3), the critiques are often presented in a sensationalistic or reductionist way.

Along with the many public arguments made about the failings of universities to educate students, there is a parallel if more specialised thread of critique. Often found in the business section of newspapers, this argument invokes "innovation" and commercialisation as under-developed in Canada--that universities should play a more effective (economic) role in their research and development capacity, too. It's worth noting that this criticism has been levelled at universities, and at Canadian industry and funding councils, for decades (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, p.12).

In a second post tomorrow, I'll take a look at the implications of some of these criticisms and the assumptions underlying them, as well as some of the reasons why media coverage of universities is important for students, faculty, and parents, and for politicians and policy makers.

Reference: Dufour, P. & de la Mothe, J. (1993). The historical conditioning of S&T. In De la Mothe, J. & Dufour, P. (Eds.), Science and technology in Canada (pp. 6--22). Harlow, UK: Longman.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

"Live" Blog from Worldviews Conference 2011: Day 3

0924: First panel of the day: Do rankings in the media drive university priorities? Moderator: Scott Jaschik; Bob Morse, US News; John O'Leary, Times Good University Guide; Simon Beck, Globe & Mail; Mary Dwyer, Macleans; Indira Samarasekera, University of Alberta; David Naylor, University of Toronto.

Bob Morse: Citation analysis; are we creating bad behaviour? There's a large impact on academia from our best college rankings, no doubt. Many academic studies showing that the US News Best College Rankings influenced decision within the university, influenced priorities and strategies. These actions the schools take could be argued as both positive and negative. An example from a recent study (May 2010), NACA (admissions counsellors in high school, Canada & US); study on US News rankings on admissions counsellors perspectives. Rankings have grown in influence over the past 5 years. The majority hold a negative opinion of the rankings. 90% believed the rankings put pressure on the schools to maintain ranking; 46% believed that their schools make programmatic changes (other schools do it; we don't).

From a ranker's perspective, the academic reality is that you can be heavily criticised by Provost, President, but the campus can still be using the rankings for marketing and alumni. Is this hypocrisy?
Should be viewed as part of US higher ed accountability movement. Education policies and fund expended, how much they learn, whether the students earn enough to pay off their loans.

Rankings created a competitive environment in higher ed that didn't happen before; some see this as an improvement. Rankings are no an annual public benchmark against which academics measure themselves. Moving up in the rankings has become often a very public goal for universities.

College presidents are able to say that rankings have become a management tool. They're able to say if they move up in rankings, that means that our educational policies have worked; they've made "progress". Make administrators do the wrong thing? Is the sole purpose to improve in the rankings? Are the decisions good for students, do they foster learning? Are those policy choices good or not? When a school makes an effort to improve graduation rates... [he assumes this means that schools fund more classes; but I would disagree.] Students "benefit" from the rankings. They can attract better faculty and students.

Some call ranking a case of extreme unintended consequences; there have been a lot of these consequences. But rankings have become a reality and they've become the forefront of higher ed. I think the rankings are here to stay.

09:32: John O'Leary: It would be naive to believe that there's been no effect. Very different effect in the UK but still a major influence. Started in 1993. Influence that "no ranker wants": most don't want any influence because this distorts the ranking process as well as distorting education, But they do have an effect. What isn't affected are the universities in a position of strength at the top. Oxford and Cambridge have been first and second every year.

Southampton university was deciding whether to take in a college of education and were concerned about the effect of this on their ranking. They realised and still took in the college. Ranking dropped but then rose again after a few years.
Main drivers are the governors of universities and to some extent the alumni.

Effect on applications; but not for all universities. But the rankings do effect prestige and the international market. Concern that it'll distort the mission of universities further down the tables, particularly those that want to open access (this would lower the average entry grade of students coming in). Research is only one measure of 8, in the domestic case (UK).

Some beneficial effects; the UK rankings most ehavily weighting factor was teahcing quality, which made universities pay a lot more attention than they had before the rankings existed. Eventually the universities had the system abolished; there are now student satisfaction measures, having the effect also of paying more attention to students. Happy to admit that there is an effect on behaviour but not all negative.

Simon Beck: Canadian University Report Globe & Mail for past 10 years; not a ranking, student satisfaction survey. Annual survey of students is based on grades, we do compare and contrast universities but it's based purely on a survey of undergraduates.
Larger schools tend not to do as well on the survey.

One past UT President's reaction to not getting a good result on the survey: "Why the hell should we care what students think about the burgers in our cafeteria?"

An increase in response to the student survey from Canadian universities. Student satisfaction has gone to the top of universities' agendas. "You're providing a service to a consumer, students are paying customers and their quality of life is important. [Note: annoying when things like class size are linked to consumerist attitudes. Class size is important but why should this be something driven by a consumerist perspective?]

Universities have been influenced by rankings but this is not always a positive thing [all panelists seem to agree on this so far. Ironic?]

Focusing attention on the quality of life of undergraduate students. Criticism of international rankings is that there's too much emphasis on research. As long as universities are paying attention to rankings for the right reasons this is a positive thing [what exactly are the right reasons?]

[Note: it's very evident from what these panelists are saying that rankings contribute significantly to marketisation of university education, including the references to students as consumers.]

09:45: Mary Dwyer, Macleans: 2 decades of ranking. I gather that the rankings DO have an influence on university priorities, to what extent and effect, it's harder to say. I've heard of both positive and negative effects.
No perfect mechanism for comparing universities across the country; the universities vary quite a bit. When we set up the rankings we had many consultations with universities and education experts to decide what should be included.

Is there too much focus on research? In Macleans, 5 years ago we changed how we did the ranking; switched to collecting third-party data from sending a long survey to universities. Having to work now with available data.
Macleans, there IS more of a focus on research funding.

What would be some of our "dream" indicators? What about quality of teaching? We can look at faculty teaching awards; but this is a very difficult thing to measure, there's no data there that just show what this quality level is. Same with student outcomes; and student satisfaction; interested in results of the NSSE survey [too bad there have been many methodological flaws in that one as well].

Rankings are just one tool that can get the ball rolling for students. The rankings issue still sells very well after 20 years; there's a strong interest in this information. Students can look at data for every indicator and see the numbers. They can compare the schools [again: this is a marketisation tactic--comparing schools means "consumer choice" is invoked.]

09:56: Common university data for Ontario. One of the organisers behind CUDO saying "we don't really expect students and their parents to be looking up this data." A lot of this kind of information does get presented in the media but interested readers can dig deeper.

Indira Samarasekera, President, University of Alberta: Speak to the Canadian context; students tend to stay close to home, to go to school in their home market. Because of this the comparison of universities across Canada has little effect on the majority of students.
University priorities: David Naylor and I decided that we didn't want to use public money to support rankings that we at the time didn't believe were serving the university mission of teaching and research. We boycotted the rankings; the data avilable publicly was used. I think we stood for a principle that rankings shouldn't consume university resources.

Second difficulty; individual indicators are potentially useful b/c they show what colleagues and peers are doing; but put "in a blender" they become a meaningless number. Our students never pay attention to this; we pay no attention either. No-one noticed this on campus when we went up in the rankings. It depends on how institutions have viewed the rankings.
Drive uni priorities to the extent we value the data Macleans outs out because it provides comparison to peers, not because we want to change our position. Our priorities are reall driven by our teaching and research mission; most concerned about undergrad student experience. Funding in Canadian universities has been on the decline.

If they did use measures that were meaningful, maybe we would use them to make changes.

People use proxies for education quality rather than actual measures of educational quality. You can't measure educational quality directly. Student-faculty ratio? One metric for a whole university? Same with class sizes. An outstanding professor with 1,000 students is better than a crap professor with a class of 2 students. Students have no way of comparing their experiences to those of someone in another class; they tend to respond according to their easiness of the class, whether they got a good grade, and so on.

10:05: David Naylor: compares university rankings to a colonoscopy ;-)
Aggregation of a mixed bag of measures--even if they were perfect--that causes concern. You're looking at a certain reductionism.
There is a certain cynicism about this.

Issue of measurement is inevitable; part of the ethos of our time. Public accountability is inevitable and reasonable. If you don't have god measures you can end up with a quite misleading portrait of an institution. Ranking agencies that have disaggregated data: a good idea, very helpful for students and families.
Yes, I worry about the burgers. The reality is that food service is a part of the student experience.
Broad academic priorities: the rankings don't drive what we do. We also respond to labour markets, to research priorities, and so on.

Disaggregate rankings by types of institutions. Yes the categories are arbitrary but at least we can try to avoid the comparison of highly different institutions.

Yes, universities shamelessly flog the rankings when it's to their advantage. You want to call this hypocrisy? I call it creative adaptation.

10:15: New open sourced modes of collaboration for academics online. Speakers: John Willinsky, UBC & Stanford; Mia Quint Rapaport.

Emphasis on a lot of "openness": and focussing in on specific projects.
Publishing as a form of scholarly communication.
The journal is a carry over from the 17th century; how is open source changing that? What are the instruments used in open collaboration?

Public Knowledge Project: an urge to do something about sharing knowledge.
Faculty of education: we try to get teacher candidates interested in research before they get sent out into the classroom.

Something wrong with this picture: we want to share knowledge, but you're not allowed to share academic knowledge because it's restricted. Contradiction in terms and in practice.
What would it take to make research available to the public?

1999: How can we get our journals online? We've always been a print journal!
Undergrads explained: a new open source movement. This gave a focus, to build something that could be shared.

Open Journal Systems: as a platform for people to publish. A way to do a traditional practice. You pretend to change only one thing. Say to journal editors: there's only one thing that'll be different. You can still do all your traditional practices; but you'll have a copy online. The platform was free and distributed for free; shared software.

Scholarly communication needs a series of platforms, places where we can come together and work, to reduce costs.

What's your excuse for not sharing your knowledge? What are the technical barriers?
Everyone will download and no-one will buy journal anymore. But this isn't what happened. There's been a continued subscription in print.

9,300 journals have used the software. What are the implications for this? Starting figure in journal publishing was... we don't know how many journals there are. About 25,000; some say 50,000.

New kinds of platforms create new communities, more forms of communication and collaboration. We couldn't even send people an email unless they asked for it. They could download the software without us knowing. It could be modified; it was theirs to develop and build upon. Open source economy is very different.

10:45: Scholar-publishers: an ancient phenomenon that virtually disappeared in the face of commercialisation of journals. Losing access because of the high price of journals; corporate consolidation. Increasingly buying up smaller publishers. Creating an alternative channel; a non-proprietary, non-market economy. 9,000 journals that aren't part of the 25,00 journals; a good proportion were new but a good amount were also already "alternative", outside the notion of commercialism.

Scholars come together--low barrier to publishing; ability to circumvent both commercial publishers and societies. Built in all the processes used in journal publishing; emulated this in a workflow. Including double blind peer review and so on.

Half of the journals that are using OJS are in developing countries. 4,500 visible journals, visible and searchable on Google Scholar (for example). Biggest continental "user" is Latin America. 30% have more than five editors; collaborative basis; once it's on the web, people can edit from anywhere. Rejection rate: distribution among the journals. 70% to 30%; it's a range. A profile that matches traditional journals.

In the "old days" you'd find scholars in the print shops [note: this is a great point; printers, writers, and others would all mingle in the print shop as a space of meeting and collaboration, discussion, debate.]

How do people contribute in terms of the software? Now: OJS, editors taking things back into their own hands. Core team of developers run through SFU library. 3,500 people participate on online forum, providing code and plug-ins and constructive criticism.

11:02: No official university policy around developing open source software. This is very important for biological and scientific research. Online global communities of academics have been developing.

Google Scholar approached us: they wanted to improve the indexing of the OJS journals. Open source projects are often under the radar. Google worked closely with us.

11:11: Emphasis on non-commercial vs. anti-commercial. Most important issue of academic freedom; open source software is at least one part of the future of academic freedom. To have your work reviewed and respected for what it's worth.

11:20: New panel: What are the emerging issues in higher education that the media could cover? Moderator: Stella Hughes, UNESCO. Panelists: Jane Knight, OISE; Vanessa Bridge, U of Leeds; Paul Fain, Widmeyer Communications; Philip Fine, University World News; Glen Jones, OISE; Mike Schoenfeld, Duke University.

Biggest story that I see right now is the lack of trust in higher ed. There are a ton of stories about the higher ed bubble. [Disruptive innovation!]

Major topics and themes in higher education right now: sports, salacious behaviour, salaries, tuition and cost, and for elite national media, the constant competition for admission to most selective universities in U.S. Policy environment, also media coverage, shows a huge amount of skepticism, but there's still a very high degree of trust in higher education institutions.

Economic impact of higher education: institutions of higher ed especially with medical centres have become some of the largest employers in the US. But you wouldn't know that from the higher education news coverage. Linkage between K-12 and higher education; they tend to look at the two as discreet, different entities. No connection between them.

Changes in the nature of teaching and learning. Media coverage tends to be focused on what are they not learning; or how is technology going to change the way we teach and learn. There's a lot of interesting things happening out there, that are NOT part of the media lexicon. [Very, very good points here!]

Stella Hughes: What do you think is one of the most significant issues that could suddenly come into the spotlight in the media? "Stir of interest".

Glen Jones: Quality of national data about higher education. The state of national data infrastructure has been in severe decline. E.g. Statistics Canada long form; [also YITS and others have lost funding; Canada Council for Learning]. The way we make policy decisions is based on data, but we know almost nothing about students and faculty and this is a huge detriment. There are some provincial data systems but most provinces are reliant on national data. Government is increasing release times on data as well; this is a very important story about how we make policy decisions; but it's a "dull" story, so it doesn't tend to make the media.

11:45: Higher ed should be more aggressive in trying to tell the stories about what it actually does.

Media are "transfixed by a very traditional notion of higher education". It's a romantic, quaint notion, describing a rapidly shrinking minority of the students engaged in higher education. No story arc for the less traditional forms of higher education. Students are going to come back to college/university multiple times; so the 4-year degree with 18-year-olds is becoming a very outdated notion.

Glen Jones: Internationally: the notion of increasing markets for faculty and for students is where things are going. Student recruitment student mobility; international student market. But less coverage about parallel story of faculty, "arms race" for top faculty [see yesterday's blog for more on that!]. Increasing differentiation of faculty careers in different countries and within countries. Opportunities vary a lot for different groups/people. It's not just a matter of getting more students in, we have to provide a good learning environment as well.

"Incredible renewal" of faculty upcoming. [Prob is that we've been hearing this for years and years.] More diversity.

Lack of understanding of who faculty members are. In the US we haven't had the conversation about this. Universities are hiring adjuncts in huge numbers without discussing whether that really makes sense.

Glen Jones: Lots of focus in the media on research universities, but relatively little conversation about changes to publication, of ratings and rankings and research productivity. Most major publications are associated with only a few large international companies. Destabilisation of traditional mechanisms of higher education. What does this mean for tenure and promotion, broader hierarchies of institutions, etc.

Paul Fain: "DIY U" [book that's out right now.] But a lot of free lectures are created by higher education research institutions.
Straighter Line; breaks courses into individual, cheap, online courses that you can buy from the company.

Mike Schoenfeld: Crowdsourcing, Wikipedia, etc. have already created an environment that's de-linking knowledge from credentials. Now you can get the knowledge without the credential. Where will the value end up? This is a new issue that the media will grapple with over time.

Paul Fain: Send a powerful message; Peter Thiel offered the scholarships of 100K to young people if they don't go to university. One of the most public examples at the moment.

Stella Hughes: What political battles are on the horizon, for faculty and students, national and international?

3:27PM: Wrap up panel: The role of media and higher education in promoting democratic culture. George Fallis, York University; John Burness, Duke University; moderated by Noreen Golfman.

George Fallis: Democratic culture: what is a democracy? How do we define it? Is Canada a democracy? The idea is rooted in political equality, an idea that all human beings are equal. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) That's the root of a democracy. The idea is that people can govern themselves because they're free and endowed with reason [Liberal political discourse].

3:35: Academic literature: basic intuition is fine, but the actual definition of democracy is always ongoing. Not synonymous with freedom; negative and positive liberty [freedom from; freedom to]. "Thick" and "thin" definitions of democracy. Who are the opponents of democracy? It's about people governing themselves, so one of the opponents of democracy is "experts". It's never achieved; it's an ideal, and it's always under pressure.

There's even a ranking of democracy, and it looks somewhat like the university rankings. E.g. minority rights; peaceful transfer of power, and so on. Another category in the index: freedom of speech, thought, freedom of association, equality before the law, freedom of speech and so on. What about the political culture of a country? You can have institutions, but you might not have a vibrant democracy without characteristics of civil society.

3:37: The press/the media are clearly "there" in a democracy; everybody understands the role of the media in a democracy [really? I'd contest that one!]. The media monitor the state of democracy in a country [again--highly contested idea]. New technologies are opening up possibilities for a more vibrant discussion. The notions of author and distributor are being broadened.

Universities are virtually never mentioned in the literature about democracy. And in the definitions and index of democracy they say very little about education. What's the role that professors can play in democratic life? They contribute in ways that can be very like what the media do.

A government FOR the people? Basic characteristics of democracy--provide the positive liberty so that people can flourish to their full potential. The university has a significant role in this. But we haven't begin to reflect much about how good citizens are "created". The historic literature on education has much to contribute. The Greek notion of education was rooted in the idea of how good citizens are created.

3:41: Liberal education; the most important role that universities can play in a democracy is how they educate their students; we're now doing a poor job b/c we've pushed this away, we focus on employability, on research culture, and so on. While universities must conceive and evaluate themselves as institutions of democracy, we must be honest that our record on supporting democracy is not that great--universities weren't places where transformation to democratic life took place; and tough education breaks down some inequality, it also creates another level of inequality around "merit". So while we have equality of opportunity we're creating inequalities through a meritocratic system.

We have to acknowledge that much of what we do creates an inequality that's problematic in a democracy. We also create experts who try to shape/frame the public debate, which democracy is about the wisdom of citizens to govern themselves.

Academic freedom: in a democratic society, when that government provides the money to allow us to do what we do, there's a deep tension between parliament's responsibility to be accountable, and our desire for academic freedom. Some of the tensions we're facing are laudable in the sense that it's a democratic society asking to understand what we do and whether we do it well and whether the outcomes we claim are following from our work are what people want, and are being achieved. Tension between government support and academic freedom.

John Burness: Importance of linguistics. What do the terms mean that we're using? E.g. very different ideas of who the media are and what they do.

In the U.S. higher education is such a diverse enterprise that the label "higher education" is seen as an aggregated enterprise, when it's anything but. It's not a monolith, but it tends to be seen that way in a lot of the reporting that happens.

University mission statements: is the promotion of democracy part of the mission statements of universities? Academic freedom: encourages academics and others within the university to have the kinds of debates that are supposed to happen in the broader societies. Universities are places where people are encouraged to disagree. Younger people should be able to take these viewpoints and come to their own conclusions [critical thinking].

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Live" Blog from Worldviews Conference 2011: Day 2

09:12: Panel now beginning: Science research, science journalism, and science policy. Hosted by Bob MacDonald of CBC's Quirks & Quarks. Participants: Penny Park, Science Media Centre; Pallava Bagia, Science; Valera Roman, Clarin.

09:19: Bob MacDonald: I know how hard it is to get journalists out of bed in the morning!
We don't ask for opinions, only for the basic stuff. Sometimes this gets frustrating because I'll have a scientist who's an expert raise a "red flag" about something; then I see how the politicians do not act. Or people who aren't scientists have an agenda and put out info to mislead the public. This is what science journalism is for--to set the record straight. Sometimes we're up against some powerful forces that don't want those messages to get out there.
Movies and sciences--scientists are always "mad", even if they start out good they turn into the bad guys or women; I love how science is misrepresented. Superman--defying the laws of physics, and not just in the superhero way. Lois Lane shouldn't have survived even being caught by Superman; he couldn't have caught her with "arms of steel" without her getting pulped. Nice!

Pallava Bagla, chief correspondent for Science for South Asia; New Delhi TV; author of multiple books.
India has a large population that is illiterate; the way to get the message of science out was through TV and I opted for that.
Report came out--glaciers of Himalayas would melt by 2035. These are 3rd largest accumulation of water in the world. Over 1.5 billion people depend on this water. I realised there was a problem with the reports. A lone journalists against a couple of thousand scientists, not an easy task. Glaciers don't behave the same way in the Himalayas as they do in other parts of the world. Just before the Copenhagen conference we put out a story on TV. I was attacked by several members of the IPCC. How can you take a pot shot at such a learned party.

I didn't attack--I just out a fact out that highlighted your error. Finally they offered their regrets.
A case where the best and the worst of science came together in the space of a few weeks.

Several other stories that went against the tide.
1998 India exploded a nuclear bomb, for the second time. I questioned the size of the bombs, whether they were large or small.

09:30: Times of India: largest English-language paper in the world.
Policy: 80% of research, funding comes from the government. Increased public funding, India has decided that it wants to increase private sector funding for research.
India sent its first probe to the moon. International partners on Indian mission. I broke this story in 1999, for the next 6-8 years I reported on this extensively. In 2009, when the probe dies prematurely, having reported on this some people felt I was as much a part of the space association as any of the scientists. Space and nuclear are two very secretive areas of work and I reported on both of them.
Same moon probe came up with first evidence of water on the moon.

09:36: Valera Roman, Clarin; Vice President of the World Federation of Science Journalism.
Reveals barriers to teaching evolution in Argentina.

Science journalism is a way to learn new things every day; I live in Argentina which is a developing country so we need to improve the situation there. It's a difference with journalists in developing countries because we feel the journalism is a way to change the environment.
While I work for a national paper, after MIT I thought I should work as an activist for science journalism. I started to organise some workshops and meetings to bring together science journalists. We had a big problems because science journalists work for multiple institutions at once (conflict of interest). But this is a norm, we have these "two hats". it's a problem to face.
In Argentina we have a lot of stories to tell about science because the situation has been brewing, so we have more scientists in the country a lot of people who were overseas came back, so we have a new science initiative.

Last week Argentina launched a satellite. We work to reach the general public with scientific evidence. In developing countries most political decisions are taken without considering science. So we're trying to fill this gap. A good example is the tobacco control issue in Argentina, for 30 years the tobacco industry has been lobbying against any regulation.

The industry paid doctors to say that second-hand smoke is not harmful. They paid off journalists and politicians, it was a big problem. But the past 5 years, the media have paid more attention to the scientific evidence for controlling tobacco. This past year--2 weeks ago--there is a new law and the country has become a smoke-free country. So we have to face a lot of problems, but I think science journalists can make a big difference.

09:44: Penny Park, Science Media Centre executive director.
Science Media Centre is a new organisation that's been set up to help journalists cover science.
Our goal is to raise the level of discourse in this country. There are few specialists in reporting science in Canada, but science issues are part of the stories we need to discuss in a democracy. The idea is based on one that started in the UK about 10 years ago, partly in response to the terrible tabloid journalism that had been going on relating to GMOs, for example. An organization that would help journalists get access in a timely way to good, evidence-based, accurate information. That's the sort of thing we do.

Who reads the media? We all use it; policy-makers, legislators, entrepreneurs, scientists, are the audience. Making sure the info they have access to is accurate. We're trying to improve the discussion rather than presenting any one particular point of view. Science needs to be part of the discussion at the table. Policy: science should be "sitting there". Other aspects of policy--economics, values--should be part of the discussion. We need evidence-based research. In Canada we've has some interesting discussions.

E.g. safe injection site in Vancouver; should money be going to this? The science says "yes".
yesterday we had a discussion with a Canadian Stem Cell researcher who was running a clinic at U Michigan, and the state had legislation that didn't allow for that kind of research; so he was part of the move to change the legislation in the state (Proposition 2) and was up against a lobby group that spent 10 million to try to shut down stem cell research in the state.
Climate change, nuclear energy..all these issues we need to be discussing as a society; ensuring that science is part of the discourse; that's what we're trying to do.

09:57: [Great discussion with questions on this panel; science journalism has a special role as science has such an influential role in our society, and many issues are fraught with tension because lobbyists, corporate sectors, scientists and so on, all have an interest in these outcomes, and the outcomes (especially policy on major science-related issues) have an effect on the general public.]

10:22: Keynote: Are you listening? Has the "cross-dressing" of media and academia created better understanding between these worlds, or do they remain two solitudes? by Michelle Stack. Moderated by John Fraser, Massey College. Includes Adam Habib; Cat Warren; Nicole Blanchett; Ann Rauhala; Jerrfrey Dvorkin; Sandy McKean.

10:40: Our understanding of education in contemporary society; universities under pressure to brand themselves in current context. Issues around branding and neoliberalism are important. But we have needed a conference/discussion that goes beyond critique; need to dialogue and work better together (journalists and academics). Public policy debate and policy about what is a good and worthwhile education in a democracy society. Who gets invoked as an expert?

The media has a direct effect on policy making. Of course! Policy making is mediated. The public come to know about policies through media. So how do journalists decide what is a good education story?

Are academics and journalists two solitudes? There are impediments to this relationship, they are central to which voices policy makers hear and listen to.
The door's left wide open for policy makers to provide "false choices".

10:45: Issue of impediments to engaging the public: decline in newspaper audiences and large cuts to budgets; journalists have less time for fact checking and investigative reporting. Journalists experience the pressures of intensification of work conditions just as academics do.

Journalists and academics often reinforce each other in circulating discourses about education. E.g. rankings: circle of mutually-reinforcing reiteration? Journalists use rankings to talk about the "best universities".

Journalists as watchdogs? What about the lapdog? Friendly, small, obedient to government and business, who provide regular "meals" (information, issues to write about). Academics--the ivory tower--a symbol of virginal purity. This metaphor is used to show the academy's "distance and disdain from "reality". But these metaphors don't reflect the complexity of academics and journalists.

Sometimes journalism can be stronger than academic research. E.g. immunisation debate over vaccines and autism: the Lancet published this piece, which gave the author/researcher a "launching pad of credibility". A reported did journalistic research to uncover shabby academic research.

Cross dressers? Noam Chomsky: got involved in politics in the 1960s; he wanted to critique the academy and had to engages with the public in order to get this message across. He used his research to create opportunities for understanding. Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed. Did investigative research on low-income workers in the U.S. She realised that PhDs were not immune from sexism; she quit her job and became a full-time journalist. Both these people are public intellectuals. Ehrenreich became a journalist, Chomsky because a media figure. They both found ways to transcend the definition of their fields.

10:58: Perhaps we're asking the wrong question when we ask "is this work academic or journalism?" What are the methods, the beliefs about responsibility and the public that underpin this work?

Solitudes and configurations of power: Is that person a "real" researcher or a "real" journalist? E.g. the Daily Show--provides more news than anything on FOX or CNN.
Debates/relationships are different in different places (e.g. different countries).
Different models of academic public engagement. But a new model means nothing if issues of inequity are not highlighted and challenged.

Structural biases in both professions: most had not considered why most experts are white and male. Academics in the Global North: making careers talking about their research on globalisation, whilst excluding those most affected by globalisation.

Knowledge dissemination: WHO is invoked as an expert, who is the beneficiary of expertise? Certain groups are more quoted in mainstream media than others. I.e. white men. In media women's foundation: women 1/3 of full-time journalism workforce in one survey of 500+ companies. Studies point to power configurations that invoke some as experts, others as beneficiaries.

Internal power configurations of respective fields (e.g. political economic issues). Journalists and academics: what are the implications of these systemic issues for the quality of public debates? We need to have serious conversations about who has access to the mechanics of power within and across these two fields.

Disciplinary/professional "solitudes": re-frame the question in terms of what are the ethos that frame journalistic and academic knowledge about education? To expand conversations about public education, we need more comparative research, and more conversations like the ones facilitated by this conference.

Graham Hingangaroa Smith: Encouraging public rather than privatised academics.
Work going on in New Zealand :-) More examples: University of Venus; Informed Opinions (works with female academics to get them to engage with media).

Educational activism is important: but activism without attention to media is not sufficient. Academics must become media literate. Solitude can be a lonely place though it can also be an important space. But eventually we have to come out of these "solitudes" and engage in new ways, especially as a means of informing a democratic/pluralistic society. It's imperative that we consider the engagement of media & academia as vital networks for invigoration of public spaces, and development of research/information literacy of the public.

3:12PM: Panel on "The research arms war and the battle for researchers". Includes Wisdom Tettey, Noreen Golfman, and Philip Altbach. Moderated by Glen Jones of OISE.

Wisdom Tettey: the African context and African researchers in the global research architecture.
Significant competition globally for research and researchers; reputation, researcher support; excellence begets further research and support. Situation yourself as attractive partner for research collaborations; ranking (implications).

Global architecture: everyone wants the "best minds" no matter where they're located. Implications for academics around the world who want to be part of this network but aren't being provided the resources for this.
Institutions in the North are trying to attract academics from around the world.
How that struggle to attract people will affect research relevance.
EU has a "blue card" system to attract researchers, for example.

GDP in African countries lags behind the rest of the world [so there are fewer resources for research]. No granting councils in many of these African countries.
Implications for publishing capacity of the institutions. How do they find the resources and the outlet.
Reality of "knowledge architecture". Recognition that's given to knowledge networks around the world tends to marginalise certain kinds of researchers.
Implication beyond individuals is that institutions are mimicking what the "leading" institutions are doing; implications for diversity of research.
Who defines the research agenda and how that shapes the location of African research.

How uncritical institutions are when engaging in these partnerships-?
Will engagement open up doors to the global stage?

3:20PM: Recruitment drives going on as institutions engage in what's euphemistically called "internationalisation"--commodification of knowledge.
Media; tendency to focus on African primary and secondary education.
Universities, what goes on it often disconnected from the public in general.
Institutional support for engagement? Many universities have public engagement but they haven't made significant efforts to open up spaces for engagement.

Philip Altbach: Global knowledge economy does affect the way knowledge moves around. "true academic revolution" propelled by two main things.

Massification: dramatic increase in enrolments. Move to "universal access".
In many countries, this has led to a differentiated and increasingly segmented system of HE. What that means for this topic is that we're talking about a tiny top of this huge massified system. No global arms race for community college teachers. Only for the people at the topic of the system. Active researchers.
[Note: this is the interesting conflict between "meritocracy" and "democracy".]
Decline in the quality of the higher education systems around the world; though in Canada it seems that the overall quality has been "protected".
Top universities may be less great than systems where there is a more formal tiered system (like in California). [Note: not sure if California is really the best example for us to look at right now...the whole system is practically falling apart right now.]

Beginnings of global language and scholarship, i.e. English; it's the Latin of the 21st Century. English isn't the medium of instruction globally.

The peripheries are "bleeding" to the centres that's a characteristic of the academic "arms races". The academic world is also becoming more "multi-polar"; different parts of the world are now building research centres and infrastructure (e.g. China).

3:38: South Africa is "bleeding" to the US and Canada, but it's stealing from its neighbours; South African scholars, mainly (but not all) white, are going to the U.S.; Saudi Arabia is hiring from other Arab countries, e.g. Egypt and Syria. And the Americans steal from everybody. The U.S. pays the best salaries still [question: is that overall, or just for tenure-track faculty?].
Unequal, centre-periphery, but highly mobile work context/dynamic.

[3:42: Canada Excellence Research Chairs issue comes up in a question. No, there were no women candidates; and all CERC hires were international. This is a program that highlights the equity issues involved in these high-stakes competitions.]

4:30PM: I'm late for this panel after walking back down from the Munk Centre, but happy I didn't miss all of it. Panel: "Muted Voices and Higher Education Media Coverage". Shari Graydon, John Miller and Vinita Srivastava, moderated by Minelle Mahtani.

4:48PM: Globe & Mail [I don't have this speaker's name--she wasn't on the program]: Huge role for communications departments at universities. [Note: I take it this means public relations comms rather than Communication Studies ;-)]

The media tend to pick the same person again and again due to time constraints and so on. But there are ways of building up these relationships without being "sought out". Academic blogs can be one way of doing this; creating contacts with trusted individual reporters/journalists. Men may be more comfortable being self-promotional. Downside: time consuming and journalists may want a reductionist or simplistic version of research points. Even emailing the paper to find out what happened to your op ed can be a good idea.

Leaders impact who gets air time, who has access to influencers. Not caught up with demographic shift; nonwhites are completely under-represented in the media AND in universities and colleges. 70% of leaders in GTA in business, nonprofits, media, education, and so on, are non-white. Companies that track and count diversity actually get better results; a lot of subconscious bias can be overcome in this way; diversity doesn't "just happen" on its own. The media, something like 4% of leaders are from diverse backgrounds; and these are the people shaping public attitudes, no surprise that there's not very good representation in the op-ed section.

4:50PM: Vinita Srivastava on using social media.
Importance of media representation: mainstream media has historically marginalised racialised groups. Media sparks public dialogue.

How social media might make space and influence the dialogue: The public prefer the "authentic voice" over expert opinion/coverage (?).

Is bypassing the media a good thing? You need to get your voice into mainstream media, but this relates to building social capital (first).

One in ten African Americans using Twitter every day, far higher than whites and Latino/a users. [How do we interpret that data? What does it "mean"?]
Many people/groups have been "left out", are social media helping people to feel "empowered"?

Benefits of using social media: access to a community of scholars who aren't necessarily around you (geographically/physically). Less isolation; direct communication with students; changes to self-perception/ego.

5:27PM: Last panel for me today: Should universities and colleges, drawing on the experience of academia in science, politics, economic development, arts and culture, and community affairs, bypass the mainstream media?
Includes: Moderater Paul Fain, plus Wilf Dinnick of Open File, Jenny Leonard of Futurity, Andrew Jaspin of The Conversation, Hanson Hosein of University of Washington.

Jenny Leonard, Futurity publication--launched in 2009. Promotes research.
The kind of stories that can engage the imagination.

Andrew Jaspin: We're just 10 weeks old. Similar to Futurity except that we focus on analysis, commentary and news, and issues such as academic freedom. E.g. death threats to climate scientists in Australia (recent issue covered). Major series on debunking the climat change denials, actually using peer review on the climate denials.
We also engage in real time; a team of 14 editors engaging with the news cycle; all writers are academics, and there are 1,000 of them; a larger virtual newsroom than any mainstream media in Australia.
Mainstream media are bypassing themselves; they've had "bypass operations", they are their own worst enemies. E.g. the Globe and Mail five years ago was a much larger and very different paper.
Offer an alternative service that is based on reliable and trustworthy content.
We were able to produce much more quickly a very deep analysis of Osama Bin Laden's death/assassination.