Friday 7 August 2020

Taking Stock of Epigenetics and Universities

I've had some nice things happen recently, including publication of a paper with Loet Leydesdorff on musical communication and anticipatory systems in the journal Systems Research and Behavioural Science. The techniques I developed in this music paper have also been used in another paper which is getting published in the journal Interactive Learning Environments extending work on anticipatory systems into studying learning conversations and concept formation (work which I did in Russia - it would have been impossible to do in the UK). After having not published very much since my book last year (which I keep meaning to revisit but never get the time), it's quite nice to have two papers in good journals published at once. 

My day job is not academic. Like many working in educational technology, we tend to spend our time chasing problems in systems that are designed by corporations, herding staff into new (sometimes uncomfortable) practices, dealing with the political can of worms that has become institutional IT, and now with the added intensity of COVID, there is no time to think. Which is a bad thing in a university. 

It seems that in modern universities (particularly in the market-obsessed UK) thinking is regarded as inessential - something of a luxury. It's more important to "deliver" than to think. Good staff, under pressure to deliver, will know that delivery without thought is madness, and will spend much of their own time (unpaid) doing the thinking work, often in isolation. It will exhaust them as they then try to deliver something meaningful on top. It will exhaust them more that nobody around them actually sees the importance of thinking, or acknowledges that this is so critical and requires time and space. 

I suppose my deep question here (which I ask when I do have time to think) is "Why have we become so stupid?" My answer to this is that Universities have convinced themselves that the environment they operate in is entirely cultural - it's a world of the "knowledge economy" and "markets", learning outcomes, institutional brands and certificates (ironically, this is what Loet Leydesdorff's work has concerned itself with!). COVID has shocked us all because it has reminded us of the fundamental importance of the natural environment - not just the world around us, but our own biology. As evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris wrote "First there were bacteria, now there is New York"

Stupidity comes from failing to understand one's environment.

We are biological organisms. We are not technical systems. Our biological constitution right down to the microbiome really matters. Many think the microbiome is deeply connected to our thinking and educational processes, but at the very least thought and consciousness sits on a biological substrate. We are at the beginning of discovering the extent of the connection between the microbiome, thought and consciousness as COVID transforms the natural environment of education. 

The simple fact is that the epigenetic landscape of the campus - the biological markers which affect the ongoing development of each of us - is different from the epigenetic landscape of online learning. Ironically, this can help explain why and how universities have become somewhat thoughtless places. In many ways educational practices have become increasingly transactional over the last 20 years, whilst universities have spent their increasing income on new buildings - coffee bars, sports halls, students accommodation, learning spaces. It's as if the somewhat cold transactional processes of education for which the institution charged increasingly large fees needed to be compensated for with new spaces which were more biologically connected (and epigenetically rich) to make the transactional stuff bearable. Disneyland operates on a similar principle: generate enough oxytocin in the place, and nobody will complain about queuing for hours to buy a burger for $20. 

Take the campus away - what happens? We're left with the cold transactional stuff administered by learning platforms, but no compensation. That's not going to work. The experience will be similar this account of a person who was living in a plush new flat in Battersea during lockdown:

The complex included restaurants, spas and bars. But when all those closed down because of the pandemic, the reality of her environment dawned on her.

"I spent seven weeks isolated there and realised that I absolutely hated it," she told the BBC. When you take away all the amenities that these developments advertise, then you realise you're just living in a glass box. It was a ghost town. It was just very soul-destroying living in this enormous development with no life going on."

That's the difference a change to the epigenetic environment makes. Education is meant to nourish the soul - but if the only soul nourishment took place in the campus bars and clubs (and the actual education was cold and transactional), then we're heading for trouble.

As if to underline the point and the folly of the educational establishment in believing they can ignore the biological environment, this rather shocking student-blaming video appeared from UniversitiesUK, promoting universities and exhorting students to cough-up, study online, and "stay strong":

The professoriate have, however, been reorganising themselves online. My "Important things group" (I ought to think of a better name) continues to meet (this is now week 13), discussing epigenetics (thanks to John Torday from UCLA) and physics (thanks to Peter Rowlands and his important nilpotent quantum mechanics). There are important contributions from Marc Pierson with his insights into systems theory, Richard Heiberger from Temple University with his brilliant insights into statistics, Andrew Crompton's  (Liverpool) polymathery, Steve Watson's insights into education (Cambridge), Elizabeth Maitland's (Liverpool) work in management, Vinca Bigo's work on meditation (Kedge Management School, Marseille), Kerry Turner's knowledge of General Systems Theory and Sebastian Fiedler from Nurtingen and Geislingen University who brings insights into educational technology and psychology. 

As biological organisms, we need to think. Universities were formed as places for thinking. The deep thinking is now happening online. 

Does deep thought produce epigenetic markers which promote a confluence of ideas which is enjoyable and rewarding to participate in? My experience of comparing mindless managerial zoom meetings with this zoom meeting suggests to me that it does. Exploring the physiology, communication, environment, epigenetics, and technological activity seems to me to be an important research opportunity. 

1 comment:

Paul Hollins said...

Lovely post Mark the 'when did we become stupid ? is a really important question and one we need to ask ourselves .