Whackademia: Anectopia, More Like. (A Rather Opinionated Review)

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.”

Hil goes out of his way to sensationalise his account, a great shame as the problems themselves are very important. He has a deep distaste for the word “excellent” – a shame as it’s not exactly a neologism and has a well-defined meaning. This is, however, a bad word in Hil’s lexicon, although he suggests that it be used as a subversive tool later on. He also drops in quotes such as:
“faculties – sometimes referred to as ‘corporate silos'” p87
I have heard the word ‘silo’ used at Universities, but almost exclusively in the phrase “breaking down/open the silos” to reduce compartmentalisation between schools, disciplines, and universities. This is yet another example of the greatest offence that Hil’s work is committing. It is, on my first reading, fundamentally unacademic. Wikidemia would be a better title for this week – a set of anonymous comments stitched together by an editor with a strong bias and an agenda of such strength and purpose that you could sail it across Bass Strait in a storm.
This is not a book that solves problems, this is a book for the disaffected, the resentful, the pettily defiant and, above all, for the academic who bends, who cuts and runs, who bemoans their fate and, when the going gets tough, scurries off to a safe position where none can touch him and then tells everyone how terrible his old place was, now that he is safely out of reach.
Yes, Hil has some valid points but any of their power is lost in his dedication to digging out the most unhappy of the academics in Australia and listening to them intently as he waits for yet another barren bon mot to birth. After pages 75-81, where two older Professors bemoan the interference of management, Hil provides us with supporting evidence for why these claims are true:
“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.”
When your sample size is “ten or so” then excuse me if a 90% agreement in a sample size that is smaller than the set of retired professors that I personally know in the local community of a small University in a small state fails to convince me. With anecdata like this, of course this work will be dismissed by those who should be listening about the genuine problems.
Worse, with an incitement to petty rebellion as one of his ‘solutions’, starting on page 202, Hil shows his true, selfish and ultimately anti-collegial stance. Rather than undertake actions of true leadership and academic integrity, Hil suggests a range of options including claiming depression or stress disorders to fake your way out of workload, focusing on high achievers rather than ‘at-risk’ students or pretending frankness and honesty as a means of subversion.
Let me out myself, in public, as someone who has wrestled with depression all of his life and who has never, ever, for any reason used that as an excuse except where the black dog was so heavy that I couldn’t move – in other words, when I had a legitimate medical excuse. To think that Hil is advocating fakery, elitism and disingenuity as a valid means of resistance is repugnant. Hil’s proposals suggest a person who feels that they are entitled to their privilege and damn anybody who gets in their way.
This critical failure of empathy, the ‘at all costs’ approach to bring back the halcyon days before just anyone could get into Uni and no-one questioned what you were up to, where genuine problems are faked and students are just pawns, is a disgraceful sentiment to hold, let alone air in public.
For shame, sir. I was lectured in the 80’s by the people that you so admire and let me tell you that most of them were rubbish – not shining lights of academic freedom but barely worthy of the title ‘teacher’. To pretend that the old days had some mystical component that made everyone competent or (sorry, Richard) excellent is the worst example of nostalgic naval-gazing. Yes, some were very good, but I would happily take my colleagues now (who span the age range) and put them against my lecturers then, and I know who would hold the class, communicate more knowledge, engender a greater sense of community and, ultimately, build better people. We have learned a great deal in the scholarship of learning and teaching and now we have some wondrous tools – but we are learning to use them better every year. The mindless use of any technique or tool will have poor results and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. But to pretend that a pre-technological period was some glorious golden age is at best Tolkienism, if not tending towards a Luddite heading. Sensible use – yes! Sensible management – yes! Focus on learning and teaching – yes! Being able to hide in my office and pretend that the 20th century didn’t happen? No!
I already knew of all of the problems that are listed in this book and reading a steady stream of complaint that offered no solution did not grant me any magical insight into the problems – it just made me angry that Hil’s privileged position, that could have been used so well, was squandered for a splashy and sensationalist account that is selling for about $35.00 a copy. One can only hope that he’s doing something with the money other than foment discord. Given the tone of some of the book, I wouldn’t be overly surprised if he was training a squadron of pigeons to crap on the Head of School that he disliked – it has the correct feel of the red-eyed madness that infuses the more foaming paragraphs.

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.

Long post ahead!

A brief note that the next post, due for scheduled release at 4am Central Australian Daylight Time (GMT+9.5), is about 2,000 words long because I got rather heated while reviewing Richard Hil’s “Whackademia.” You might want to save the next post for a short flight, such as that from Sydney to Los Angeles. If you are Richard Hil, you might want to skip it.

Have a great weekend or Friday, depending on your time zone!

Richard Hil on “Whackademia”: Conversations with Richard Fidler

The Australian national broadcaster’s Radio National station has a segment called Conversations with Richard Fidler, where the host has a roughly 30 minute chat with someone interesting. A friend (thanks, Cathy!) recently sent me a link to a conversation that Fidler had with Richard Hil, author of “Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university.” She sent me the link of the 25th of June and it’s slightly telling that it took me until the 10th of July, when I was home sick and was looking for things to listen to, that I finally had the chance to devote 30 minutes to just sitting and listening. You can find the link to the podcast itself here, but I’m not sure if it will work outside of Australia. However, I have some thoughts on the podcast that will work just as well if you haven’t listened to it. The vast majority of the words here are my interpretation of Hil and Fidler. I will insert my own comments parenthetically.

Hil is fundamentally concerned with the change in Universities that he perceives as the change in the focus of education and making life less enjoyable and far less free for the academics. He feels that students have become, in the words of Laurie Taylor (from Schwartz’s “Paradox of Choice“), shoppers, in the sense that they are controlled consumers, shaped by marketing, branding and the illusion of choice. Students are becoming far less likely to spend time on campus, with up to a third surveyed reporting that they haven’t made even a single friend. Given the pressures of modern life, and fitting education in and around work and family, this is hardly surprising, especially when combined with the increasing on-line availability of courses.

One of the other elements in play is the strong vocational focus that drives subject and degree choice, students now being far less likely to take courses that are potentially enriching in the future, which often lifted universities up from the requisite lectures and tutorials and allowed students to be involved in the energy of education. It’s also very easy to scoff at “enrichment” courses, especially if it they are marketed in an empty or cynical fashion.

Some universities, such as Macquarie, have experimented with third year courses with titles like “Practical Wisdom” to cover general world, thinking and important issues – but at third year, we have to ask what we have been teaching up until then along similar lines? What are we doing to form the global citizen?

Hil identifies what he refers to as the rise of managers in University, increasing regulation, driving business-speak, business models and performance management drawn from, and more suited to, traditional private enterprise. (He makes a loose argument against the perceived subjectivity of performance reviews, but I didn’t feel it was very strong.) However, how did we get here? Was it the Dawkins Revolution? Hil thinks not.

Hil identifies an early essay by Milton Friedman about the role of University in society and the economy, which advocated a student loan system and a deregulation of the University sector to move it into a competitive business model. (My reading of the essay agrees with Hil but there are some wonderful phrases in the essay on the value of education – I do disagree with Friedman’s slippery slope argument and his argument that denationalisation automatically and magically equates to more choice, among many of his conclusions.) So, post-Friedman and Dawkins, we have a business model between educator and student, more fitting facilitator and consumer.

So, if competition increases choice, as Friedman asserts, has it? Hil refers (not too seriously) to specialist courses in courses that specialise in the study of Surfing, Casinos, David Beckham, Judge Judy, Cyberporn and the Phallus. (One can only hope that there are interlocking partial credit arrangements for the last two, if not four, given Rule #34.) Rather than an indicator of choice, this is an indicator of the “sexing up” of University as part of branding and consumerist issues. (Certainly, in Australia, we are seeing more schools and areas close than we are seeing open and there is no real sense of a locus of excellence for some areas outside of naming rights for institutions.)

In using business language, the University is implicitly stating that they understand the need to speak this language because it allows the consumer to attach value to our offerings but, because we aren’t really businesses, we come across as an amateur theatrical society – possibly looking good out the front but utter chaos behind. Part of this is the myth of our commitment to certain activities such as teaching, which is being increasingly carried out by casual staff, who may not have the background for the course or given the time to develop it. There is an expectation of expertise and deep familiarity, that we as teachers have thought about the work, imbibed it and considered it from all angles in order to move beyond understanding into wisdom – but this is too much to develop in one week! Hil does quickly note that he believes that vast majority of academics are doing the right thing but the increasing student numbers and class sizes, combined with an increasing ‘casualising’ of the work force, are taking us down a certain path.

Hil then talks about the implicit conflict of being a partially publicly, partially externally funded entity and that he believes that public funds were deliberately not given to Universities to make us more private and entrepreneurial. (I may have missed it but I don’t believe that he gives much evidence for this and the host did question him.) Private Universities are up front about being profit seeking, whereas we in the public sector walk a blurred line. Hil also feels pressure from directed retention policies to step attrition that, he feels, can compromise academics standards.

Academics are speaking out but mostly in private, Hil believes, because they are concerned for their futures and retribution. Academic tenure, the principle that academics can speak truth to power, is mostly eroded, with some institutions demanding clearance on all public statements concerning higher education and University matters. He’s also surprised that our Union membership, the National Tertiary Education Union, is very, very low, which appeared to surprise him given the level of discontent. On that note, the interview ended.

(From my perspective, an interesting interview but not a great many supporting facts but, given the topic, that’s probably understandable. I have already ordered Richard Hil’s book to have a look through and if I find something else useful, I’ll blog about it. I note that, at my University, we have very strict guidelines for assigning work to casual lecturing staff, including selecting an area of expertise, providing mentorship and training and most of what Hil talks about here does not appear to have taken as strong a hold in my University as other places, although I can definitely see tendrils!)