Saturday, November 20, 2010

University teaching Britain

Britain moves towards excluding
less advantaged people from quality higher education, thus blocking upward mobility. In about thirty years, they will realize that in the present global economic context in which the West has few trumps, but their well-educated workforce, their short term political decision was a mistake.


The accountability regime

Tuchman's "Wannabe U, inside the corporate university" is an attempt to describe how the American public university has been taken over by administrators and external pressure via the installment of an accountability regime. The sociological viewpoint that Tuchman takes allows for telling observations on who talks to whom after the board meetings, and other astute comments on detailed social interactions and hierarchy. Overall though, the book lacks structure, global vision, global data and a clear opinion on what is cause and what is effect. It also fails to make a clear argument on what is wrong with a pure accountability regime, and the takeover of education by administration.

She does mention the example of a first year's course invented by a central administrative facility (posing as an institute with a pedagogical purpose) in which entering students learn how to write a check. What's wrong with this, is that is an attempt to give students credit for wasting their time, or being lazy. Writing a check can be learned in five minutes, from any acquaintance. Inventing a course for this, paying people to lecture on it, renting a classroom, filling pieces of paper with grades for writing checks is a total waste of education and research money.

Let me just make one argument against the accountability regime which fits within its own logic, and nevertheless always escapes from its proponents vision. Let's literally look at accounting practices at universities. They have become extremely strict of late, and require lots of man hours to put into place, and simply to keep them up. One has to justify in detail for instance the buying of pen and paper, via competing offers, etcetera. It is generally argued that by making departments accountable for money spent on office supplies, the money spent on office supplies will diminish.

Unfortunately, this argument doesn't take into account that academic practice has always been to be careful about spending money on goods that don't matter. Beside the point, the accountant will argue. Fine. So, the secretary spends some more time getting competing offers from several companies (instead of just leafing through the brochures she has on her desk as she always did). The offers agree with what's in the catalogue, and she buys what she always bought, except now she's a little more tired, since she has the feeling she wasted time. Her boss is irritated since she has no time to do important work. Next, she fills in what she did in a centralized accounting program, programmed for that purpose by programmers, and analyzed and read by a central accounting office.

In the end the accounting office announces proudly, say, that (very optimistically) twenty percent has been saved on the department's spending on office supplies.

Meanwhile, they had to hire a programmer, extra secretaries, as well as accounting agents in order to come to this spectacular result. And, of course, in the final count, these extra wage costs, let alone extra irritations, demotivations, and general effects of the terror of an accountability regime are not factored in.

I am absolutely sure that many of the savings associated to a strong accountability regime are more than compensated by the cost of installing it, and keeping it alive. And this is an argument purely within the logic of accountability.

Needless to say, there are other and stronger scientific and psychological arguments against the logic of accountability as applied to for instance merit raises, and the closure of departments or universities. It is well-known that a market or efficiency logic simply does not apply to certain commodities. It is not sufficient to count when judging. It is not correct to imagine that individual actors always choose their own best interest. It is not correct that all group dynamics can be understood in terms of the motivations of individuals. It is wrong to think one can invent practical metrics for measuring merit. Etcetera, etcetera. I will not get into a systematic analysis of all that's wrong with accountability logic here.

Tuchman does a reasonable job in sketching a worrisome evolution in the corporate public university. It would be good to systematically enumerate counter arguments for the political evolution she describes, both at all national as at the international level. In any case, it seems that for now we academics are powerless, and that politicians fail to see their own failure. This does not exempt us from attempting to educate. It may well be though that academia always has to await devastating societal repercussions before its organization is readjusted to a workable model.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Anachronistic locality

The practice of hiring only local candidates for university positions is still widespread. Often the bias is justified by the argument that the candidate has to speak the local language. That argument has traditionally been considered most powerful within the humanities. It goes without saying that this practice is self-destructive, and that this will be proven in the near future. The argument is based on a nineteenth century romantic and nationalistic mentality that has become anachronistic in a world dominated by a global economy. It limits the field of candidates to such a degree that it opens the door to large statistical fluctuations in the quality of qualifying candidates, as well as to local politics. In fact, I would argue reversely, that academic positions for which no approximately qualified outsiders apply should simply not be filled in.

These anachronisms are still surprisingly widespread (and for sure not limited to the humanities). Academia itself, the universities concerned and in particular the departments concerned should be extremely proactive in avoiding these types of practices, based on local politics and nepotism, for they will be detremental within a fairly short term, given the present pressure on universities to be accountable. To withstand the perverse effects of the drive towards accountability, we should make sure that we have a clean house.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On Philosophy at the Universities

Schopenhauer's On Philosophy at the Universities is an enjoyable attack on the instutionalized university. Although his arguments are meant to apply almost exclusively to professors in philosophy, it is useful to consider his thesis that true philosophers are not paid professors while professors in philosophy cannot be true philosophers in a broader context. A contemporary and broader interpretation of his attack could translate into the dictum that too much time spent on thoughtful grant applications interferes with top research. Or that adminstrative piloting of research through the generation of numerical data renders academics slaves to these seemingly objective criteria, interfering with their creative freedom. The degree to which Schopenhauer's old critique applies to contemporary academia, and the way it is ignored in the rapid evolution towards hollow accountability, is worrisome.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Last Professors

The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue is a must-read for all humanities professors in the US. And, the story of their demise is so telling that it should be recommended literature for all academics. It is interesting to learn about all those books published and never read, about the debate on tenure (while it slowly disappears under the eyes of the debaters), about the companies that will soon own every bit of what universities produce, including their temporary staff, about the difficulty to defend certain intellectual values, and about how the better education will slowly but surely only become affordable to the rich. It is scary how the evolutions predicted in this book are rapidly coming true. (Example : Cameron in Britain, autonomous universities in France, rationalization in Flanders, ..)

Hygiene Freaks

Since hygiene is so high up on the list of worries of the westerners that surround me, it has become politically incorrect to say anything about the excesses that this leads to. Perhaps my fellows in culture will allow for the following comment though. Can the people that wash their hands in public bathrooms please close the fosset afterwards ? The running fosset in public bathrooms is becoming so frequent that I was forced to ponder what was at the origin of this widespread forgetfulness. Transforming myself into a hygiene freak for a second, I immediately came to the conclusion that the reason is that people wash their hands and then go to dry their hands, never to touch the dangerous bacterial environment of the fosset again. I recommend the movie [Safe] (by Todd Haynes) to those who insist on environmental evil.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Ruins of Analysis

Though the University of Ruins is an excellent book, with interesting ideas, reviews and analyses, it does share the annoying feature with many learned books of lacking accuracy on many levels. In the chapter that argues that literary culture (and the canon in particular) are not at the core anymore of the nation state (while literary culture was at the core of the definition of the anglosaxon University within the nation state), we find more examples than we can discuss. Let's give a few.

"I am merely noting that the possibility of Hirsch's fixed list of facts represents the replacement of a highly suspect organicist notion of culture by a set of information, exactly the mechanical or technological specter of mere lifeless facts against which the idea of culture was supposed to protect." It is difficult to enumerate even all the aspects of this one phrase that are bothersome. One is that it argues with an idea of culture that is not defended by the author. Another is that it ignores that one can make arbitrary choices for a literary curriculum, and live with it. Another is that a particular and temporary choice of a curriculum would be lifeless. Another is that technology is lifeless, in contrast to literature. And so on.

We find on the same page: "By contrast, the administration of knowledge means nothing more than that it is helpful to future employers for students to know a very few things, although the development of information technology makes the number of those things ever smaller." One can forcefully argue against a functional approach to university education, and I would. But one cannot do in the above way. It is wrong to claim that employers want students to know very few things. It is wrong to claim that information technology makes the number of things that students need to know smaller. The argument is ridiculous.

The examples abound. Though the book is correct on many very important issues, it lacks any standard of critical analysis. I am making this point since this problem is annoyingly widespread.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The University in Ruins

The University in Ruins by Bill Readings is an interesting analysis of how the university might still function after it has lost its role in the nation state as the instrument that defines and spreads national culture. He argues that the present day university is rather dominated by an idea of excellence that is empty enough to allow for a purely administrative interpretation.

Though Readings makes several big mistakes, especially in attempting to heed the credo of postmodernism, in which relativism dominates, and which renders most interesting arguments impossible because one or another minority, or one or another context is not properly taken into account, he does succeed in succinctly depicting a few important historical sources for the ideal of the university that still dominates many discourses.

Readings underestimates that academics could globally unite, and teach and research in a planetary framework, and that they should be the most important players in administrative decisions. Arguments that academia becomes self-referential then, and that many academics are not suited for administration, for instance, are entirely correct, but should not be seen as decisive in this debate, just as administration should not be judged as inherently evil.

Clearly, there is an open road that stretches far beyond academic nationalism, and the application of empty administrative criteria. Academics have to take their fate into their own hands, instead of sheepishly implementing national and international administrative criteria, while simultaneously attempting to satisfy them in order to gain research grants. Academics should concentrate on what they know to be higher quality research, and they should honour those that attempt to do so persistently.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Black spot

Ok, so I should have locked the screw in a clamp while attempting to remove the point with a hammer. Anyway, the result is a little black bruise on the end of my thumb. It wouldn't be so bad if we didn't live in the Parisian appartment that was known as the cockroach terror under its previous owner. Although we eradicated at least ninety nine percent of the little creatures, they still tend to pop up in my sensitized field of vision, right near the edge. Haunted, I now sometimes mistakenly smack my thumb in the believe that a roach dares attack me.