Whackademia: Anectopia, More Like. (A Rather Opinionated Review)Posted: August 4, 2012
I recently posted about some of the issues that we face in Academia and, being honest, they aren’t small problems and they aren’t limited to one locale or country. You may also recall that I wrote a summary of a radio interview with Richard Hil, the author of Whackademia and I said that I’d write more on Richard’s thoughts when I finished the book.
Hmm. Be careful what you commit to. This book is long on moan but short on solution. But, to explain this, I must be long on moan – please forgive me. I realise that some of you may feel that I am a heavily corporatised shill, who the book is targeted against, and therefore unworthy to comment on this so caustically. Believe me when I say that I believe that my role is to hold my integrity in my job while trying to achieve a better environment in which all of us can perform our jobs – and I believe that anyone who knows me and what I do would agree with that. If I am a shill, then I am the shill that you want on your side because it would be harder to find anyone more committed to the purity of learning and teaching and the world enriching nature of research. Yes, I am an idealist who walks with the devil sometimes, but my soul is still my own.
There were a couple of points in the original radio interview when I would have preferred that Hil go into more detail, or provide some more supporting evidence. I can honestly say that my desire for some more substance has still not been met.
There is no doubt that there are problems, that rampant managerialism is not helping, that a review of the sector in the light of a reduced commitment to funding from the government is important. But what is presented in Hil’s book is a stream of unattributed complaint, whinging and, above all, a constant litany of admissions of unethical behaviour from Hil’s interview participants – with the defence that they were told to comply so, of course, they did. Rather than interpreting this as a group of noble warriors being forced to bend their heads before a cruel and unjust overlord, I read this as the words of people who, having one of the most important jobs in the world, took the easier path.
Do I think that I’ve ever assigned a mark to a student that they didn’t earn?
No. No, I don’t. This is at odds with any number of Hil’s interviewees who freely admitted to fixing marks when asked to, bending over in the face of the administrative wind and, then, having the hide to complain about slipping standards and lack of freedom. I don’t interpret the monitoring levels of academic progress and student progressions rates as a requirement to pass people, I regard it as a way of ensuring that we fairly advertise what is required to pass our courses, that we provide opportunities for students to display their ability and that we focus on education – taking difficult things and conveying them to students.
Show me someone who is proud that their course is so tough that 90% of students fail it and, frankly, I think that they can call themselves anything they like, as long as the word teacher or educator isn’t used. I could fail 100% of students who take my course – gaze upon my works, for there are none as smart as I! This isn’t academic integrity, this is hubris.
Why am I so disappointed in this work? Because I agree with a number of Hil’s points but he presents the weakest, anecdotal means for supporting it. “Whackademia” is eminently dismissible and this is a terrible thing, as it makes the genuine problems that are raised easier to dismiss.
I am still desperately searching for a solution, a proposal from Hil that is more tangible than a fragmented wish list and anything other than his journey through a poisonous and frustrated Anectopia – light on fact but dripping with salacious, unsubstantiated detail. I really shouldn’t be surprised. If you read the contents page, you’ll see that Chapter 7 is entitled “Enough Complaint: now what?” on page 193. Given that the book is over by page 230, that’s a lot of complaint to solution! (Note to self, check the ratio in this post…)
Let me give you some quotes:
“Additionally, older interviewees argued that younger academics were far more likely to have adopted today’s regulatory rationalities, in contrast to more seasoned academics who are perhaps more resistant to the new order. Whether or not this is true is less important than the fact that, to survive and thrive in the current tertiary culture, certain compromises may have to be made – even if this feels at times like putting one’s soul out to tender.” p91
Whether or not this is true? Hang on, truth is optional in this sentence?
Let me put that quote back together with the qualifiers and questionable modifiers highlighted.
“Additionally, older interviewees argued that younger academics were far more likely to have adopted today’s regulatory rationalities, in contrast to more seasoned academics who are perhaps more resistant to the new order. Whether or not this is true is less important than the fact that, to survive and thrive in the current tertiary culture, certain compromises may have to be made – even if this feels at times like putting one’s soul out to tender.”
“faculties – sometimes referred to as ‘corporate silos'” p87
“These sorts of observations might be dismissed out of hand by today’s university managers as elitist, sentimental drivel, born of resentment of the new corporate reality. Well, if indeed these reflections are drivel then they are shared by all but one of the ten or so older professors I interviewed for this book.”
Hil’s book is identified on the cover as a searing exposé from an insider but, as someone who is also on the inside, it appears that the insides that we inhabit are distinctly different. No doubt, there are people inside my own institution who would read Hil’s words and shiver with the rightness of his words: “Yes, I am being pushed around!”, “Yes, I have to take shortcuts because big bad Admin makes me!”, “Yes, students are just sometimes too stupid for my wonderful course and I should be allowed to fail 80% of them!” But I’d disagree with them as much as I disagree with Hil.
The greatest disappointment I ever feel is when someone squanders their opportunities and their gifts, especially when they destroy opportunities for other people. In this case, not only has Hil wasted his spot in the sun, he has made it harder for a more thoughtful and constructive book to be written as his work, writ large in the media and read widely, will control and shape the debate for some time to come.
Again, for shame, sir.