Monday, 3 June 2013

Towards Institutional Ecology

The consensus from academics in institutions ranging from research universities to widening participation institutions is that the REF is poison. Be that as it may, it should be said that this is a poison of our own making. We created the technologies which allowed the numbers to be crunched; we created the peer-review processes which ensure that anything different usually meets barriers to publication; We blew our own trumpets about the value of having degrees, and played the commodification game when it suited us. It's our fault. Most ecological catastrophes are.

There is something peculiar about the poison of the REF though. It sits on a technical innovation which in turn shifts the power relations in such a way that scholars can have judgements passed on them by non-scholars (otherwise known as 'managers'). As a result, the technology bolsters power relations which are almost certainly damaging the upholding of wisdom and knowledge, which one hopes Universities aspire towards. The aims of the REF become distorted into a means of settling managerial scores with inconvenient individuals. I've lost count of esteemed academics in their late 50s and 60s who look at the system now and say "well, if I'd had to deal with that, I wouldn't have survived!". In short, this is the removal of swathes of diversity which make up the ecology of thinkers and teachers in an institution. But the tidal wave of data is overwhelming - and a sense of defeatism has set in, along with the new breed of academic who see the new game and lamely accept that "this is how it has to be". There Is No Alternative.

Meanwhile, the managerial elite of non-scholar bureaucrats pour technologically-brewed effluent over everything else. People get sick. Nobody is happy - least of all the students. Even the bureaucrats are not immune (although they of course thought they were!) Who would want to study under such conditions? Who could? Who would want to teach in such an environment? This is not the haven for thinking it presents itself as. It is anything but.

Something is wrong in our metrics. (Is there something wrong in any metric?) What is deeply wrong is a model of human worth based on individual 'productivity'. As soon as the productive unit can be quantified, it can be compared to those better/worse than they are. Yet no productive process results from one brain. We need each other in ways which escape the bibliometricians completely. If we hack at those parts of the forest which we deem unproductive, unforseen consequences will arise. One dreadful consequence which is entirely forseeable (for anyone interested in history) is the emergence of the 'master hacker', that demented individual who believes their role is to "sort the institution out!" - meaning to attempt to realise some abstract model they have in their head by removing those things which don't fit it. Yet the more they hack, the further their vision recedes from them, causing them to hack more, this time with frustration, venom, etc. In such hands, the REF becomes a scythe.

Our understanding of cognition, knowledge and worth has been distorted into crude mechanised forms by technology we created. Within them, models of cognition, knowledge and worth have been embedded which are plainly untrue. Yet they are difficult to disentangle from the mess we are now in. But disentangle them we must.

This is scientific challenge. The clean-up needs new thinking and new technology. We must be able to monitor and manage the ecology of our institutions better. This is not to say that nobody should ever lose their jobs, or that budgets don't have to be respected. But it is to say that the relationship between technology, information and power needs to be situated with a deeper concept of mind and richer models of human organisation. The pathologies are forseeable. It's just that when pathology looms, those that predict catastrophe are frightened to say anything.

My view is that our fundamental problem is 'positivity': we only value what we can see. I believe a methodologically negative approach is an important antidote which appreciates the importance of data, evidence, etc, but which always seeks what's missing. We must examine the ground behind the figure.

In the Ecological Institution, what matters is not the 'positive results' of operations, but the collective, systemic research and development into what's missing. This process reflects the individual mind whose creativity and worth in an environment is dependent not on what they destroy, but on what they bring in the process of collectively determining things that are missing. This is, fundamentally, what artists do. The ecological institution is creative through-and-through. Who wouldn't want to work there? (maybe the lovers of the REF!!)

2 comments:

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