Saturday, 10 December 2016

A great #srhe16 ... BUT... A Failure to grasp the Brexit nettle??

This was my third conference for the Society for Research in Higher Education. It was the first one I didn't have to pay for myself.  I'd always felt it was worth it - which is probably the best thing you can say about any conference.

However, this year I came away slightly uneasy. Brexit and Trump was in the background, of course. Two of the keynotes addressed this directly. I have to say that the best keynote was the one that didn't by Åse Gornitzka. Jonathan Grant's keynote took on the issue of 'Post-Truth'. We must fight the lies, he said, in a staunch defence of the truths and processes of the academy in the face of the democratic misbehaviour of the manipulated masses. As he pleaded for the academy to stand up for its principles, I was left wondering why scholars had largely ceded control of the academy to managers and business people with barely a whimper - until those people, now some of them Vice Chancellors revealed themselves in Trumpist colours. Many of those academics sacked by these characters, so many adjunct lecturers on pauper wages, many students conned out of a fortune and left with a certificate and little else... many of them voted for Brexit, rightly identifying a failure of government. Ibn Khaldun's principle of good government: "to prevent injustice other than that which it commits itself" (see has clearly been broken. Indeed, globalisation has delivered almost universally bad government, and injustices in corporations, social services and Universities which government ought to have prevented, went unchecked throughout the world.

Many delegates at the SRHE have been victims of this. The SRHE feels like a kind of support group for thoughtful and clever academics who care deeply about universities. They gather each year in Wales and chew the cud over "What the fuck is happening to education?" I've always found it invigorating. If I was to imagine a "Fantasy University", taking all the people in the conference dinner (before the disco!) would do very nicely.

My highlight was actually the first session I went to. To my own surprise, the moment of  brilliance came with a paper on learning analytics by a young researcher from Pakistan who is working with the OU, Saman Rizvi. I am very worried by the state of the discourse in learning analytics - it simply lacks critical or mathematical rigour. Saman provided some mathematical rigour (if not yet critical - but it will come, I'm sure) by combining Markov chain modelling with machine learning on engagement data for online courses and MOOCs. I did push her on the whole issue of the difficulties with probabilities, and the problem of 'variable-ism', but I was hugely impressed by the detail of her analysis. There is potential for some deeper insights from crunching the numbers - and maybe even a more penetrating critical discourse.

On the whole, I found myself tiring of endless sociological rhetoric. I quite liked sociomateriality when I first encountered it in Karen Barad's writing (despite it upsetting a few of my Critical Realist friends). But now it's everywhere, and I still don't know what it means. (It's constraint, isn't it?) The same goes for the nods (and they are only nods) towards Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, Bhaskar, Latour, etc. The problem is that there is no real attempt to develop any of these theories; theory is instead used as a coat-hanger to make the mundaneness of education more interesting (for which, if you were unkind, you might read "pretentious"). In the end, it has the effect of saying "I've thought about education and I've read a lot of difficult books"

Education really is interesting in its own right. But it is really, really difficult and confusing. It deserves (and demands) its own theory - not the sociological cast-offs of others who (is this unfair?) didn't care much for teaching themselves, but rather more for their posturing, egos and status. Education deserves its own theory because it really matters. As Trump and Brexit have shown.

I presented on intersubjectivity and constraint. There was quite a lot to get through but people seemed to like it, and I got a lot of questions afterwards. I even produced a leaflet to accompany my talk! I delved into information theory, and used Spencer Brown's weird mathematical notation for thinking about the 'inside' (what is constrained) and the 'outside' (what does the constraining). Information theory and uncertainty have become very important to me.

Which brings me back to universities and Brexit. Rosemary Deem gave the final keynote which was entertaining, but rather shallow - much in the manner of the remain campaign itself: "don't be a fucking idiot and vote leave!" Of course it turned out that 51% of us were fucking idiots (and had it not been for my 16 year old daughter's petition to me to vote remain, I would also have been a fucking idiot). I asked Rosemary afterwards "Where are we in history?". She didn't think it was a very sensible question, but I disagree. The fear in Universities about Brexit is a palpable fear arising from the realisation that the world they thought they existed in is not the world as it actually (now) is. These shocks - where society (or its leaders) realise their model of the world is wrong - occur throughout history: we've been here before, and if we find out when in history we were here before, we can prepare ourselves for readjusting our model of the world.

The people who spoke about Universities and Brexit do not appear to yet accept that their model of the world is wrong. So Jonathan Grant wants to "challenge the lies", convinced of the truth of the academy, whilst today's science - which has been transformed by computers - only speaks of uncertainties and contingencies (this is the nature of information). Expressing uncertainty is not something academics are good at (Grant seemed very certain about his arguments, as did Rosemary Deem): they would prefer to appear to be experts. To express uncertainty is to make oneself vulnerable. And most importantly, it is to tune-in to the uncertainties of others.

Rosemary Deem's presentation mentioned widening participation as a way of reaching out to disenfranchised groups - as if sitting the disenfranchised in classrooms and inducting them into the noble ways of education will ensure that they play the establishment game! But maybe the disenfranchised Brexit voters saw the deeper truth of it: that education, more often than not, is a bit rubbish; that experts often offer "no shit, Sherlock" posturing, or make claims with the confidence of Old Etonians, which are quite patently misguided (and sometimes cruel).

Post-truth may be a deeper truth, in the way that in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Witch knew the "deep magic", but Aslan knew the "deeper magic". The deep magic is in the financialised, managerialist university. The deeper magic is in the hearts of those who used their democratic right to fight the system. Scientists and artists will always be concerned to understand the deeper magic better. The financialised, managerialist university has become an unfriendly place for those kinds of scientists - it's sacked many of them - there are no grants for what they do. There are big and scary changes to come - this is all very much like the 1600s - we have Puritanism (Trump?), regicide (King Charles III?) and civil war (the US?) to come! The SRHE would make an interesting kind of "invisible college"!


David K said...

"The SRHE feels like a kind of support group for thoughtful and clever academics who care deeply about universities."

I wish they'd talk to us wonks a bit more. We care, too.

Mark Johnson said...

Which "they" do you want to talk to? I can suggest a few good people. Some of our crowd were there this year too. More next year... But... These have to be difficult conversations!