Republican Citizens, Precarious Subjects

Why do we work? The obvious answer, for most of us, is that we do it for the money. Yet in acknowledgement of the fact that structural unemployment is (apparently) taken for granted, and that not everyone can work, at least not all the time, Western democracies provide economic assistance to the unemployed. But the level at which such benefits are set is designed to ensure that they are not to be seen as more than a fallback option. Still, these days recipients often have to show that they are actively seeking employment, and that they are not too fussy about the kinds of employment they may be offered, all of which perhaps betrays an anxiety that money is not motivation enough. Indeed, the jobless are regularly stigmatized, and there is a whole public discourse surrounding “benefits cheats” or “welfare queens” and the like, a more or less mythical (under)class of people who supposedly prefer not to work, or who (allegedly) put almost as much effort into not working as others put into negotiating the rat-race of paid employment. Though proposals for a “universal basic income” are increasingly popular, for diverse reasons, both on the Left and on the Right, one of the major obstacles that they face is the fear that a living wage paid to all would reward, and perhaps even encourage, laziness. Why would anyone work if they did not have to?

People work, or persuade themselves that they work, for many other reasons beyond the purely economic. Compensation comes in many forms. Some feel a sense of vocation or a desire to be of service, others pursue status, and many find–or at least seek–pride in whatever they happen to be doing. There can no doubt be satisfaction in a job well done, whether it be a wall well built, a meal well cooked, or a class well taught. There is surely something unbearable about seeing the world in unblinkingly Marxist terms, about agreeing that wage labour is simply exploitation and alienation, which is why most of us are hesitant to believe that, as workers of the world, we have “nothing to lose” but our chains. It is less a question of ideology than (more viscerally) a matter of affect, habit, and even our sense of self. Many of us spend so much time at work, or more fundamentally and unconsciously have invested so much in molding ourselves and our sensibilities to fit in with and progress within the workplace, that it is not clear who or what we would be without our job titles and all the routines that accompany them. Hence, however much we may complain about our conditions of labour, our bosses or colleagues or lack of perks, unemployment (and even retirement) can be felt as an almost existential crisis.

Yet this link between employment and identity is breaking down, and the crisis is upon us, imminently at hand. The assumption of a job for life is, for all but a tiny minority, no more than a distant memory. In place of long-term specialization and the accumulation of entrenched habits and embedded knowledges in durable institutions, we are now enjoined to be flexible and prepared to endlessly retrain for ever-new opportunities in increasingly transient and precarious conditions. The ideal type in the “new economy” is the “start-up” firm or the “pop-up” shop, and we are sold as a form of freedom the uncertain hours and unpredictable pay the go with becoming self-employed contractors dependent on Internet platforms such as Uber and the daily battle for “likes” and positive endorsements. As such, a new relationship between employment and identity arises, but one that has constantly to be renewed as we become, in Michel Foucault’s words, “entrepreneurs of the self,” free-wheeling mini-enterprises or incarnations of human capital whose stock prize is always in flux. YouTube influencers and the like may be the purest instances of the ways in which work has become permanent social performance, but we are all increasingly affected by the new forms of assessment and valuation are now all-pervasive: a wall should not simply be well built, but it must be built with a smile; a meal is only well cooked if the ratings on Yelp agree; and student evaluations are the test of whether a class is well taught.

The crisis that ensues is not simply individual, but also social. In his new book, Republican Citizens, Precarious Subjects: Representations of Work in Post-Fordist France, Jeremy Lane traces what he describes as the breakdown of the Republican contract in contemporary France as a result of transformations in the world of work and the meanings attached to it. Lane argues that this crisis is especially acute in France, given the specific contours of that country’s welfare state and the centrality of work to the conception of French national identity. “The French Fordist post-war compromise,” he tells us, “institutionalized a particularly close interrelationship between salaried employment, rights to social protection, and, through that, access to full republican citizenship” (8). Hence, he argues, the transformations brought by post-Fordism, increasing precarity, Uberization, and so on have led not only to sporadic but intense social protest, as for instance with the “gilets jaunes,” but also to widespread anxiety manifest in much recent cinema and literature. So although the changing status and meaning of work may well not be unique to France–on the contrary, they are part and parcel of a globalized neoliberal order–the symptoms of these changes are perhaps particularly legible in French cultural production, played out in many different political valences.

Indeed, what is at stake, according to Lane’s persuasive analysis, is a new set of relations between the particular and the general, the individual and the state, the national and the global, and so on. His book is interested in the uneven distribution of the effects of post-Fordism, or rather how they entail a redistribution of hierarchies between (for instance) masculine and feminine, white and immigrant, the metropolitan centre and the regions, and so on. Lane repeatedly enjoins us to refuse easy binaries, such that for instance he warns against nostalgia for the republican tradition, not only because it had its own exclusions and injustices, but also because (and contra a vein of Gallic complaint that imported Anglo American ideas are all to blame) within it were already implanted the seeds of the current crisis.

After a lengthy theoretical section, in which Lane tackles sociological and political theoretical debates about post-Fordism and draws not only on Foucault but also on Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” to consider the links between work and different forms of subjectification, we get a series of readings of texts ranging from Michel Houellebecq’s novel La Carte et le territoire to Kim Chapiron’s movie La Crème de la crème or Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, and many others. He covers themes such as the perceived feminization of the new forms of labour, as well as the rise of portrayals of so-called “femme fortes” (strong women), whether as executives with a mandate to introduce corporate changes or as working-class activists pledged to combat them. His chapter on “doomed youth” and the changing role of education is perhaps particularly interesting, as it shows how the sense of crisis not only affects those who might easily be identified as “losers” within the new (anti)social compact, such as second-generation immigrant young men in the (para)urban banlieues, but also it is represented as troubling the apparent winners, such as the business-school graduates who have lost any sense of public vocation. Paired with an account of the changing national frameworks of economic policy, employment law, and welfare brought in by governments of the Left and the Right alike, the book suggests that these cultural representations perhaps stand in for a public debate that has never quite got off the ground, or for which conventional political distinctions are no longer of much use. Indeed, despite (or because of) the fact that Lane draws on a wealth of French social and political theory, what emerges is a sense of disarray within the country’s fabled left-leaning intellectual field. As Lane notes, there has been “a proliferation of proposals emanating from left-wing thinkers and activists,” but little clear consensus or agreement among them (251).

Not that we are that much better off elsewhere. Lane’s perceptive analyses prompt reconsiderations of similar cultural symptoms in the UK and the USA: films such as The Full Monty or Made in Dagenham, say, also seem to address similar concerns about gender roles amid deindustrialization in Britain, for instance, though the latter movie projects them back into a somewhat nostalgic re-envisaging of what had been a high point of union organization. And the United States may at first sight seem to lack the republican tradition whose crisis is the focus of Republican Citizens, but we can perhaps see there must once have been some sense of social solidarity, sufficient to give Trump and Trumpism something to destroy. Moreover, both sides of the Atlantic, intellectuals are not simply in disarray, they are stigmatized as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no doubt in part because they (we) have allowed the university to be so thoroughly infected by, and indeed encouraging of, the kinds of “entrepreneurship of the self” that have provoked such anxiety and discontent.  

So why do we work, even those of us fortunate enough to be employed in relatively durable institutions (though we will see about that) and especially those of us who have that rarity that is a “job for life” (though who know how long tenure will truly last), when we find that those institutions have betrayed the compact that we assumed they held to when we first entered them, and when job security can feel like golden manacles, binding us to the wheel of a ship that has long since been set adrift? Perhaps because we still hope that there are parts of the job, the unsung and slightly subversive aspects that never enter the false calculus of merit and are if anything penalized by the powers that be, that still make things worthwhile. Or perhaps we are fooling ourselves, and it is only ever about the money.

The Tyranny of Merit

Like Michael Young, Michael Sandel frames his critique of meritocracy in terms of a populist backlash against elite condescension but also (hot off the press and presumably added at the last minute) in terms of the botched response to the current global COVID pandemic. Focusing on the United States, he argues that the country was stymied not only by logistical issues or lack of political will to implement the required measures to combat infection. It was, furthermore and more importantly, “not morally prepared for the pandemic” (4). Whereas a coherent response to Coronavirus required solidarity, the USA was laid low by the discovery that this was a sentiment in short supply. Over decades, any sense of social solidarity has been eroded on the one hand by rising inequality fueled by neoliberal globalization and on the other hand by a “toxic mix of hubris and resentment” (5) that Sandel sees as the result of the entrenchment of meritocratic values throughout the body politic.

As such, seeking a culprit for the current woes of the United States, Sandel indicts less Trump than his liberal predecessors, such as Bill Clinton and, perhaps surprisingly, Barack Obama above all. Trump and Trumpism, he argues, are merely the unwelcome harvest of seeds sown long ago by a generation of center-left as well as center-right politicians who pushed equality of opportunity as the compensation for economic transformation, without considering those who, for whatever reason, were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they were given.

For, however level the playing field, meritocracy still envisages losers as well as winners. The difference is that the winners in a meritocratic system are told that they deserve their success, which is a result of their talents and hard work (rather than the accident of fortune). Conversely, the losers are told–and the more perfect the meritocracy, the more they are also likely to believe–that they, in turn, deserve their failures, which come from their lack of talent or their laziness. Rather than protesting the injustice of their lot, those at the bottom of the meritocratic pile tend to feel humiliated, left only to nurse their lack of self-esteem. Moreover, their misfortunes elicit little sympathy or solidarity from those who have done better in life. If everyone started with the same chances in life, the poor have nobody to blame but themselves.

This stigmatization of failure, and its psychological internalization by those who fail to rise to the opportunities they are offered, is the converse of the meritocratic faith that those who rise to the top should be those who deserve to do so. The losers in life’s race are doubly afflicted: not only are they left behind; they are also told they brought it on themselves. They are both victims and culprits of their own demise. Hence a politics of (sometimes violent) resentment, and the attraction of somebody like Trump, who tells them that he knows what it feels like to be called a loser, and how much it hurts. And hence, incidentally, how counter-productive it is for Trump’s foes to brand him a loser, or laugh at his mistakes: it is precisely thanks to that branding and that elite condescension that meritocracy’s underclass recognize Trump as one of their own.

Not that meritocracy’s victims are only those at the bottom of the pack. Sandel argues, especially in his discussion of higher education, that those on top are also afflicted, forever running to stand still as the stakes of every competition become higher and higher. Hence the way in which high school becomes an exercise in CV-building, with tutors and extra-curricular activities indulged in only to increase the ever-slimmer chances of making it to the elite universities that seem to hold the keys to future success. All this under the watchful eye of helicopter parents ready to fly in to ensure that their precious offspring really do fulfil their potential as surely as the meritocrats promise they can. Then at college itself, students have no time to rest on their laurels, as they dedicate their all to improving their GPAs, making the Dean’s List, and moving on to the most prestigious Law School or Medical Program. Especially at the most elite institutions (such as Harvard, where Sandel teaches), university has been transformed into “basic training for a competitive meritocracy. [. . .] The sorting and striving crowd out teaching and learning” (182). If anything, these are the last places to go if you want anything like an education, or the chance to reflect on what Sandel calls “the common good,” a concept long since abandoned in these bastions of excellence.

To remedy these ills, and to restore a lost sense of social solidarity, Sandel offers two proposals, one rather more concrete than the other. First, to give higher education back its meaning, and to rescue it from its fate as the key institution in the conveyer belt that is meritocratic sorting and measurement, he suggests that admission to college–especially its most elite echelons–should be determined by lottery rather than competition. He does admit that there should be some basic threshold, and allows some possible tweaks to the lottery system to enable (say) affirmative action or even the continuation of legacy privileges, but he argues that everyone stands to gain–those who are admitted, those who are not admitted, and the institutions themselves–if access to higher education were to be seen as a happy accident rather than the end-all and be-all of success to which the young dedicate all their time and their talents.

Second and somewhat more vaguely, Sandel insists on the need to accord due dignity to work. His point is that the contribution of the working class to fulfilling social needs is increasingly unrecognized. To add to the fact that ordinary, non-college-educated men and women are disparaged for their failures to measure up to meritocratic ideals, the value of what they do do is frequently ignored or taken for granted. Liberal programs (welfare, for instance) that attempt to enact a distributive justice frame the poor as simply recipients of state aid, passing over their myriad contributions to society. Sandel argues therefore for a what he terms a contributive justice that allows people to feel that they are part of a broader project on more or less equal terms.

The specific policy proposals that Sandel suggests might help shift our perspective on our fellow citizens from seeing them as simply consumers (whether of market goods or state hand-outs) to producers include changes in tax law–a Tobin tax on financial transactions that do not materially contribute to the economy, for instance, or a move from taxing payroll to higher taxes on consumption and capital gains–or perhaps a wage subsidy for low-paid workers. One might add to this list, for instance by suggesting that macroeconomic policy should be less blasé about structural unemployment, or that we might revive the type of public works projects and work programs that Roosevelt’s New Deal rolled out during the Great Depression. (Strangely, FDR doesn’t get much of a mention in this book, despite its attention to the rhetoric of US Presidents; if Obama is the surprise villain of the piece, if anything it’s the Kennedys who come closest to coming out as heroes.) Yet the mere mention of unemployment points to the fact that Sandel’s claim for the dignity of work is undoubtedly the weak point in his argument.

Do not, after all, the unemployed also contribute to society? What about the disabled? Or children, or pensioners? Moreover, putting work at the center of our notion of engaged citizenship is a strange move for an argument that claims to oppose meritocracy. For merit, after all, is not just a matter of talent or credentials, even under the current meritocratic dispensation; it is also a matter of effort. As the narrator of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy puts it, “Intelligence and effort together make up merit (I+E=M). The lazy genius is not one” (84). Yet Sandel seems to want to cut away one pillar of the meritocracy–so-called intelligence–while leaving the other pillar intact. In the terms of the religious debates that he (quite interestingly) surveys, despite his attachment to the notion of grace as undeserved redemption, he ends up preaching a doctrine that sounds very much like salvation through work(s). If, as he notes, merit always has a tendency to creep back in through the side door to edge out grace, it is in his drive to accord dignity to labor that this process is repeated in his own argument.

In any case, the erosion of the “dignity of work” is not merely a matter of elite condescension. It might equally be seen as a nascent consciousness of the reality of alienation. Work is indeed often bullshit (as anthropologist David Graeber points out). And even when it is not, we seldom work on terms that we ourselves choose. The enthusiasm with which the contributions of so-called essential workers (from nurses and hospital porters to teachers and lorry drivers and supermarket shelf-stackers) have been belatedly recognized during the current pandemic, with the nightly cheers to their efforts marking the first lockdown last Spring, is poor compensation for the fact that they continue, on the whole, to be not only underpaid but also exploited, their labour power commodified and measured out in terms of socially-necessary labour time (to use the Marxist jargon). Merely noting, and even celebrating, the fact that their labour is indeed socially necessary does nothing to alter the ongoing reality of their exploitation.

Indirectly, however, Sandel’s book point to another argument: a claim made perhaps most famously by Marx’s son-in-law, the Cuban-born Frenchman Paul Lafargue, who in 1883 published the manifesto The Right to be Lazy. Lafargue urges the proletariat to “return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.” Do what you have to do, but do it fast and sloppily if needs be; reserve the rest of your time for enjoyment and relaxation. An entire tradition of the refusal of work has elaborated on this standpoint.

Sandel’s book (perhaps inadvertently) points to something similar in that it strikes this reader, at least, as rather hastily put together, and not simply in the rushed mentions of the current pandemic that top and tail it. Throughout, The Tyranny of Merit is full of repetitions with only minor (and sometimes absolutely minimal) variation; the same points are made over and again, the same figures and statistics reappear as though the author were trying to pad out what would otherwise be an incisive article so as to turn it into something acceptable to Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Moreover, the research on which the book is based seems to rely heavily on Google and other Internet search engines: not simply in that almost all its references are to online material, or the ways in which it uses rather simplistically Google Books Ngram statistics on word frequency, but also in the way it mines the public database of US presidential speeches compiled by UC Santa Barbara’s “American Presidency Project” rather than undertaking a more systematic or nuanced analysis of the ways in which historical discourses emerge and evolve.

At times all this is frustrating, and it is tempting to say that the book was more effective in its earlier incarnation as an eight-and-a-half-minute TED talk, itself a format perhaps more suited to a meritocratic age. But I like to think that Sandel is in fact winking at us, telling us that really the illusion of merit is all that matters, and that we should relax a little and not take our work all that seriously.

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies: Opening the Dialogue

Presented at an Open Forum for the Interim Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. March 11, 2019. Also available as a PDF and as slides. See the recording and Q&A (starts around 14:50).

wall-instituteI start by acknowledging that we are on land taken from its original indigenous Musqueam inhabitants. Also that this is a public university supported by the peoples of British Columbia. We therefore have responsibilities as an institution of higher education and research, and we should better justify what we do on this land with that money.

Though today’s dialogue is part of the search for an interim director for the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, what I hope we can embark on, and continue tomorrow and Friday, is an open reflection on the role of the Institute, on its relationship to the university, and also on the responsibilities of the university to the world beyond.

These relationships are homologous. The dynamic between Institute and University can provide a model for the dynamic between the university and society as a whole. Neither relationship is easy. Indeed, they should be marked by a productive tension, with the Institute reminding the university of its better nature, just as the university offers society ways of thinking that are not reducible to calculation or profit.

I therefore thank Santa Ono and the Institute Board for today’s event. As an outsider candidate, I may not become Interim Director, though I have much to offer. But I will be happy if I help to generate debate about the Institute and the university.

The Institute means a lot to me. My own research and understanding of scholarship have been shaped by interdisciplinary projects and centers across three continents. This impact has been direct, with for instance Milwaukee’s Center for Twentieth-Century Studies or Duke’s John Hope Franklin Center where I did my graduate work, or Manchester’s Centre for Latin American Cultural Studies that I helped to found. It has also been indirect, as my work engages with for example Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This background explains why at UBC I have been drawn to projects such as Arts One and above all the Peter Wall Institute, an intellectual oasis that has felt like my home on campus.

So I was shocked to hear, in November, of Philippe Tortell’s resignation as Director, and alarmed to read his warning of “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” But we should not have been surprised. The Institute’s most recent external review tells us that this is a crisis long foretold. Even back in 2011, the review concluded that there was an opportunity to be grasped but also dangers to be avoided:

PWIAS may well be unique in the world among institutes for advanced study in having appreciably more resources than it needs for its present programs. Such a situation naturally attracts predators eager to deploy the resources for their own schemes, producing mission creep of the sort that is perhaps already discernible. [. . .] If the moment is not seized, the resources may be dissipated rather than focused, and a glorious opportunity will have been lost.

If we have indeed seen predators eyeing up the Institute’s resources, the blame must be placed not only on central administration, but also on an Institute that has not made good on its “glorious opportunity.” In a competitive environment where money, space, and time are scarce, the onus is on the Institute to show leadership, principle, and vision.

Yet the moment has not yet passed. The Institute can still become all it can be, pressing the university to live up to its better self.

Right now, the Wall Institute is seen as a problem. The directorship particularly is a poisoned chalice. No wonder, in that so many have come and gone in so little time: the tenure of an Institute Director is about as long and untroubled as that of an Attorney General under Justin Trudeau. And now we will have an Interim Director, with a new external review amid an atmosphere of uncertainty and foreboding.

But the controversy around the Institute is a symptom of larger issues affecting the university as a whole, and the Institute offers a vantage point from which to address them. The Institute is less problem than solution. Or rather, part of its mission must be to keep causing problems, to trouble a university sometimes tempted to short-cuts or complacency, just as the university itself should be an unsettling force in society at large.

If there is a problem with the Institute, it is that it is not causing enough problems, not raising enough fuss. It is that, again in the words of its external reviewers, it has too often been “exceptionally inward looking and its programs [. . .] lack sufficient coherence, synergy and external impact.”

The Interim Director will have to prepare for and manage the Institute’s upcoming external review. We cannot second-guess that review’s conclusions. But we can build on the previous review’s conclusions, to articulate basic principles, which apply as much to the university as to the Institute, and we can start a discussion to feed into the process.
The last review stressed impact, synergy, coherence, and internationalism; I will add openness.

1. Impact. The Institute should make an impact by proposing directions for academic research. It should take a lead and give substance to its programming. At present, in providing grants on any topic, across the university, it tends to follow rather than to lead, hoping for serendipity rather than planning with a purpose. Much good work is funded by the Institute, but no wonder administrators think its funds could be aligned with clusters and the university’s strategic plan. With the help of a reconstituted Advisory Board, the Institute should take the initiative, stepping up to make a difference by advancing concepts and suggesting priorities for interdisciplinary study, freed of the constraints faced by clusters and other units.

2. Synergy. The Institute should achieve synergy by ensuring that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Its programs should be more clearly articulated with each other. At present, the connections between (say) the Wall Scholars and the Research Roundtables or the Associates’ dinner talks tend to be accidental rather than considered. But in a given year, or as part of a multi-year track, they could contribute to a common program. There would still be room for contingency, but in the context of a focussed agenda designed for impact and coherence. The Institute should also have postdoctoral positions and a role for graduate students, to enhance its networks and to offer training in advanced study.

3. Coherence. The Institute should ensure coherence by promoting projects that directly address disciplinary boundaries. It should acknowledge the difficulty of interdisciplinary collaboration. At present, with the laudable intention of inclusivity, it tends to assume that interdisciplinarity is merely a matter of getting the right people in a room together. But this leads to superficial exchanges at worst, and discussions of administrative or institutional issues at best, rather than real conceptual production. Reflection on and critique of academic and institutional life is important, but it is only one part of the Institute’s remit. The Institute should be a place where advanced study actually happens.

4. Internationalism. The Institute is rooted in its local context, and should make the most of its location, but it also needs to be international in scope. Like the university, at present it is often global in aspiration but parochial in practice. Its international visiting research scholars and roundtables, as well as colloquia abroad, enable the mobilization of scholarship, but for brief periods and without much integration with other programs. Wall scholarships need to be opened up to international competition. A program of postdoctoral fellowships, plus the incorporation of graduate students, will ensure the Institute’s impact by helping to form generations of scholars who will draw on their experience at the Institute as they take up positions around the world.

5. Openness. The Institute needs to be open and outward-looking in every way. It has been described as a “taste of first class” within the university, just as the university itself is often seen as a privileged “ivory tower,” but it must shed that aura of exclusivity. Its relationship with the communities in which it is embedded should be marked by collaboration, rather than either defensiveness or one-way, top-down knowledge transmission, even as it defends its autonomy and insists that the logic of enquiry is distinct from the logics of policy or capital accumulation. It should draw on and contribute to the many external resources for conceptualizing common problems, rather than purporting to offer finished solutions. It should have critique as well as self-critique at its heart.

One might add other principles. I could say more about critique, or add that the Institute and the university should also, for instance, be democratic, autonomous, diverse, and conservative. But these five are surely a good start.

In conclusion, the challenges facing the Peter Wall Institute, like those facing UBC, are steep. The two cannot be at loggerheads. The Institute is the product of a pioneering if sometimes delicate partnership between the university and the private sector, in the name of principles of advanced study that go beyond either. Stressing impact, synergy, and coherence, internationalism and openness, we need to rethink the interconnections of Institute, University, and society as a whole. We need to work on concepts with which to raise problems that unsettle our understandings of the world in which we live.

Now I look forward to hearing from you, and from the other two nominees.

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UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

An edited version of this piece was published at The Tyee as “Latest Uproar at UBC May Present an Opportunity: Why the Tussle over Peter Wall Institute is a Teaching Moment for Every University”.

wall-institute

Backs to the Wall: UBC and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies

A few years ago, the then Director of the University of British Columbia’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies asked me to write a Wikipedia article about the Institute. I did, but almost immediately another Wikipedia editor tagged my contribution for deletion on the grounds that its subject was insufficiently notable, because I had not cited independent secondary sources about it: newspaper articles, magazine stories, and so on.

The snag was that almost nothing had been written about the place. I searched (and asked the Director) for sources, but none were to be found. As far as the press or the general public were concerned, it was as though the Peter Wall Institute did not exist.

That is not so much the Institute’s problem any more. Its recent public events, particularly its “Wall Exchange” downtown lecture series, have enjoyed a high local profile. And now it has attracted the attention of the national and international media.

Unfortunately, this follows the spectacular resignation of its Director, and the headlines are not what UBC would have wanted: ”Academic Independence of UBC Research Institute Under Threat”; ”Head of UBC Research Institute Resigns over Academic Freedom Concern”; ”Canadian Institute Loses Boss in Showdown over High-Risk Science”. Light is being shed on the Peter Wall Institute just as it is at the eye of a darkening storm that threatens the university’s highest echelons.

UBC has been plagued by discord for a while: from the departure of its previous president, Arvind Gupta, after only thirteen months in office, followed swiftly by the resignation of the Chair of its Board of Governors, who many felt (and leaked documents seemed to confirm) had pushed Gupta out, and a Faculty Association vote of no confidence in the Board, to the controversial dismissal of novelist and professor Steven Galloway, this has been a difficult time for an institution that claims to be among the world’s top twenty public universities.

Now, once again, UBC is making the news for all the wrong reasons, as very different philosophies of the role and functioning of the university clash.

These disputes are not all simply accidental misfortunes; nor are they mainly petty matters of personality or style. They concern governance and collegiality, transparency and accountability. Above all, what is at issue is the question of what universities are for and who gets to decide. These are large concerns that are under dispute at institutions across the globe. The fact that things have repeatedly come to a head here, perhaps more than elsewhere, may in fact reflect well on UBC. It shows that there are still people who care enough to protest.

Philippe Tortell, Director of the Wall Institute, for instance. In a letter outlining the reasons for his resignation, he argues that the Institute, by bringing together scholars from across the university to meet and discuss their research outside of department and faculty structures, offers “a model for truly creative and unconventional thinking in the increasingly bureaucratic culture that is spreading across universities around the world.”

So when the UBC president, Santa Ono, issued what Tortell describes as “a series of directives” that would “eliminate the majority of PWIAS programs” and appropriate “a large fraction of PWIAS funds” for programs run by central administration, this came across as “an existential threat to the Institute’s core mission, academic independence and capacity to catalyze truly innovative and creative research.” The bureaucracy was taking over, in the name of a “strategic plan” that elsewhere Tortell calls “a total travesty and a total sham . . . an empty, hollow document of which the administration should be wholeheartedly embarrassed.”

On the one hand, then, you have top-down directives from the university hierarchy. Ono’s Vice-President for “Research and Innovation,” Gail Murphy, helps to oversee the “Research Excellence Clusters” to which Peter Wall funds are now to be tied. The UBC Plan’s primary definition of “research impact” for such clusters cites “spinoffs that take advantage of technological developments.” This model may work in some areas of the Sciences. A Computer Scientist, Murphy’s work is on “improving the productivity of knowledge workers, including software developers,” and in line with the Plan she directs a spin-off company that trumpets its links to firms such as Deloitte, Lockheed Martin, and Northrup Grumman.

On the other hand, you have an Institute that offers scholars some autonomy from administrative or market demands, with a mission to promote “deep and unconstrained research into some of the most profound questions and challenges facing humanity.” Its most visible activity within the university is the Wall Scholars program, whose main requirement is no more and no less than that scholars be in residence at the Institute and meet regularly. In addition to Director Tortell, an oceanographer who studies the concentration of gases such as carbon dioxide in the Antarctic Ocean, it has Distinguished Professors such as Derek Gregory, a geographer dedicated to “a critical study of the techno-cultural and political dimensions of air war.”

It is not hard to see that there are very different visions at work here. There is a widening gulf between what the British critic Stephan Collini calls the “outer bluster and inner defensiveness” of “current HiEdspeak” and the more modest aims of an Institute whose method is to bring people together and see what happens when they work without the constraints of directives from above or the injunction to seek yet more revenue from outside.

Not that the Institute is perfect; far from it. There is some irony to the fact that it is only thanks to a wealthy donor–the eponymous Peter Wall, a Vancouver property developer, who in 1991 gave the then extravagant sum of $15 million in his own corporation’s shares to the university–that the Institute has been able to maintain some distance from a central administration increasingly focused on figures and funding. Members of the Wall family, moreover, make up two of the five seats on the institution’s Board of Trustees, a fact that complicates and compromises its independence. There could have been more in the way of intellectual leadership, and not simply via fiery statements of resignation. At times the atmosphere is too cosy, too much like a somewhat sedate Faculty Club.

Above all, the Institute could undoubtedly have been making a better case for itself, and for its alternative vision of the university. This is its responsibility, and it may have led to more press coverage and attention, and not just in the face of the imminent dispossession of its autonomy. It would also have made it easier to write about it for Wikipedia.

Right now, the Institute’s Wikipedia article is basically a puff piece, crafted largely by its own staff, and prefaced with an official Wikipedia warning that it “is written like an advertisement.” The temptations to vacuous self-promotion are many and strong, and few in the contemporary university are immune to them. “Please help improve it,” the warning continues, “by removing promotional content and inappropriate external links.” The university, like a Wikipedia article, is a work in progress that can always be improved, and that task should not be left to the administrators.

The fight is not over. In the face of overwhelming disapproval of his decision, President Ono has taken a qualified step back and promises “a fulsome conversation.” Better late than never, though the sword of Damocles is still poised over what has been an intellectual oasis for many of us.

And perhaps this crisis can become an opportunity. With the spotlight on the Wall Institute, now is the time to acknowledge the importance of interdisciplinary research dedicated to critique and innovation rather than utility or financial profit. If the university can come together for an open and thoughtful discussion of the very nature of “advanced study,” it would be a move in the right direction. What is at stake is the nature of the institution itself, and the university’s distance from the the logics of state or market. This means that the university needs to be accountable to the Wall Institute, as much as the Institute needs to be accountable to the university.

It would be a positive outcome of the current controversy if UBC emerged with increased powers of resistance, more democratic and more certain of why we need universities in the first place.

See also: excellence, From Discipline and Discovery to Place & Promise, Warwick University Ltd, From Here, Universities at War

Marranismo e inscripción

Marranismo e inscripción

Cross-posted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction

“The Secret of Secretiveness”

In the introduction to his book, Marranismo e inscripción, Alberto Moreiras tells us that “the sequence of writings that [he] offer[s us] is more than the history of a professional trajectory, and contains secrets that only appear in its trace and for the astute reader, if there are any.” This, of course, is a challenge: who would not want to be the reader astute enough to pry open the text and reveal its secrets? Who would not want to prove wrong the author’s suspicion that such readers are nowhere to be found? And perhaps Alberto would also want to be proved wrong. After all, he locates the book’s origins in what he calls “a period of profound personal disillusion that had as one of its effects the destruction for [him] of any notion of a public audience [público] for whom [he] might write.” Could now, ten years or more later, this new book appeal to a (new?) public of astute readers? Or perhaps the point is that the unknown, perhaps absent and unknowable, astute reader stands in for and replaces the terminally destroyed notion of public audience. Perhaps this is the book’s own marranismo: a publication or making public whose secret truth in fact only resides in its traces, to be read allusively and privately by a reader who we forever suspect may not even exist. Yet it seems, perhaps precisely for this reason, to invite inquisition.

For on the other hand, in many ways this is a very open book; it is a book in which its author “opens up” about his personal relationship to the academic and intellectual field in a way that is quite unusual. Indeed, also in the introduction, Alberto worries that he has said too much, too personally, too directly. He reports anxiously asking José Luis and the others who had interviewed him: “Didn’t I go too far [no me pasé], are you sure that I didn’t say anything indiscreet, is there something we should re-do?” For here, and for instance in the chapter entitled “My Life in Z,” any codes or attempts to obscure the true object of discussion are, at least on the face of it, all too readable. You do not have to be a particularly astute reader, after all, to know (or feel you know) where “Z” is or was. This is a “theoretical fiction” that may be all too transparent, all too close to the bone for some readers. For this book is also quite explicitly a settling of accounts: the disillusion of which it speaks has a history, and it is time for that history to be written–inscribed for all to see–for it to give up its secrets so we can all move on. Or better, it is time that we confront common knowledge that can only pass as secret because few dare to express it explicitly: “Yes, everybody knows, there are no secrets, we all hear over and over things that were never expected to come to our ears.”

Is there then a tension of some kind between the twin themes announced in the book’s title: between the subterfuge and unknowability of the marrano and the making public and putting on the record of the inscription? Perhaps, but another way of looking at it is that this is a book that declares an end not so much to secrets as to secretiveness. It wants to do away with the practices and rituals of academic life that promote only obscurantism and disguise only the bad faith of its participants. Rituals that everybody knows, but which are repeated and reproduced as the price of admission into the elect–even if one is admitted only subsequently to be churned up and abused, marginalized and disempowered. This is all too often, Alberto tells us, simply a formula for masochism: we accept the academy’s secretive code of (dis)honour so as to be close to institutional power, but that power holds us close only to ensure that we can never really threaten it. This, after all, is the (not so secret) reality of tenure, as well as so much else: a protracted euthanization as life itself is drained out of the institution’s over-eager young recruits. And Alberto’s project, in the end, is to reclaim life, and the possibility of a life well lived, from the twin threats of endless politicization (biopolitics) and bureaucratic obscurantism (unhappy consciousness).

Towards the end of the book, in response to a question from Alejandra Castillo about “autobiographical writing,” Alberto says that “the writing that interests me doesn’t seek constitution in the truth, rather it seeks truth and produces destitution. It seeks truth in the sense that in every case it seeks to traverse the fantasy, and it produces destitution in the sense that traversing the fantasy brings us close to the abyss of the real.” He points out, however, that this psychoanalytic language (borrowed from Lacan) can equally be expressed in terms of the secret. “For me, in reality,” he continues, “there is no other writing than the writing of the secret. Or rather there is, but it is not fit for purpose. The question that opens up then is that of the use of the writing of the secret, but that is a question that I don’t believe I am prepared to answer.” “Prepared,” here, has of course a double sense: it can mean that he is not ready to answer, that he cannot answer the question; or that he is not disposed to answer it, that he will not answer. The question of the use of the secret either cannot or should not be answered. At least, not yet.

In short, for Marranismo e inscripción, what is holding us back is secretiveness, the bluster of those who (believe they) hold the keys to institutional power. But the real secret there is that there is no power to their power; that their chamber of secrets is long empty, and has been replaced by the meaningless transparency of neoliberal quantification in the sway of general equivalence. As the university increasingly becomes a business, ruled only by calculations of profit and loss, we have less and less reason to abide by its masochistic code of omertá. This book aims to break that code. On the other hand, there are indeed some true secrets, and searching for them can unleash destructive forces. The question remains: what do to with them? And perhaps even the most astute of readers is not yet in a position to decide about that.

Universities at War

Universities at War

Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. In January 2014, the University suspended him from this post, pending an investigation into charges that (allegedly) he had “undermin[ed] the authority” of his Head of Department by “sighing, projecting negative body language and making ‘ironic’ comments.” During the period of his suspension, he was essentially exiled from the university in toto: forbidden access to the campus, barred from attending events, prevented from using its library, from contacting colleagues or students, and even (apparently) from writing the preface for a book in a series that he himself edits. Ultimately, he was cleared of all charges and able to return to work, but only thanks to a costly tribunal, and while incurring significant legal bills himself.

In the meantime, however, Docherty wrote Universities at War. This book is obviously inspired and even shaped by his own experience: as he points out, unable to use the library he was forced to rely more on sources taken from the Internet (x); for other material, he comments in a footnote, he is indebted to the diligence of his lawyers (60). More generally, his argument about the authoritarianism of the managerial turn in higher education, and the bureaucratic injunction to “govern your tongue” (107), clearly speaks to his own predicament. But overall the case he is trying to make here is less to plead for individual faculty than to recover a sense of the university’s mission in the world.

For everyone, he claims, is shortchanged when the guiding principle and “key driver” of the institution is no longer thought, but money (ix). Faculty are silenced, yes, by the drive to conformity and homogeneity. But students are also cheated when they are treated simply as “human capital”: “When the university is reduced to the function of preparation for jobs and not for life, life itself gets lost under the jobs” (85). Most broadly and seriously of all, society as a whole suffers as the university abandons its traditional role as “that institution that has a responsibility to counter the incipient violence of natural force” (40). The fate of the university is bound up with the fate of democracy and citizenship at large. If society is to change, and injustice and inequality challenged, we need now more than ever an institution whose role is to be “’critical’ of the existing world state of affairs, dissident with respect to it” (6).

One might reasonably think that Docherty’s account of the university’s historic mission is somewhat idealistic. When exactly did the institution uphold this democratizing mission? Moreover, he himself outlines the ways in which higher education has been molded by forces external to it (for good, in the aftermath of the first and second world wars; for bad, under contemporary neoliberalism) more than it has itself managed to change them. On the whole, moreover, it has generally been a rather conservative institution. Still, it is worth setting the university’s ideals against its practice, and calling it to task for not living up to them. Docherty is perhaps on surer ground in arguing for the principle of the collegium, a “scholarly community [. . .] shaped by the interplay of forces among a collective” that has in recent times been “atomized and neutralized by the elimination of communal space and its dissolution into separate individualized cells” (23). For college life has indeed historically been seen and experienced as inhabiting a space apart, with its own logic, distinct from if not unaffected by social life as a whole. It is a significant change that universities are now treated as (and more or less proudly assert themselves to be) businesses or corporations like any other. Even here, however, he surely waxes over-lyrical when he claims that “the university [. . .] is the site where friendship, love and neighbourliness are all made possible” (74).

But ultimately the book argues that the real idealism lies with those administrators and self-proclaimed university “leaders” who champion the “official” view of the institution, for which everything is measurable from course credits to world rankings in the name of what (following Bill Readings) Docherty notes is “an essentially vacuous ‘excellence’” (120). This “Official University is effectively a fantasy” (125). By contrast, more concretely and less idealistically, the real work of teaching and learning continues, but “in a clandestine and unofficial manner.” The good news is that “the clandestine university [. . .] is where most of us do our daily work, and it’s usually [. . .] pretty good” (121).

There is still space, in other words, for research and learning, if despite rather than because of the efforts of vice chancellors, line managers, and the like. But even the clandestine university is increasingly being squeezed and asphyxiated, thanks to the drive for conformity and discipline, enforced by cops on campus that are both literal and figural. Docherty is sharply critical of inanities such as the imposition of “aims, objectives and outcomes” on everyday teaching: “Anyone who predicts ‘outcomes’ cannot, ethically, be a teacher at all” (121). And “if we teach to an agenda in which we show that predicted outcomes are achieved, we are poor teachers, for we are thereby limiting the imaginative possibilities of collaborative acts of imagining” (124). Indeed in general this is a book has much more to say about teaching than about research, except for instance for the observation that today “it matters little, we know, what research is done; all that matters is that the research grant has been captured” (140). And as much as Docherty (rightly) condemns the myth of widening participation, and of the university as an instrument of social mobility–noting for instance that, in the UK, in 2009-2010 Oxford and Cambridge admitted exactly 40 (0.05%) of the 80,000 school-leavers who were poor enough to qualify for free school dinners–his own personal biography, as a working-class Scot both of whose parents left school at 15, indicates clearly that he is what Pierre Bourdieu called an “oblate,” someone whose social identity is indebted to the institution he criticizes. The collegium is where Docherty has chosen to live out his life. No wonder that his temporary suspension from it should have hit him so hard.

For a short book (140 pages), Universities at War is surprisingly sprawling and digressive. It takes in everything from a brief history of popular music to a fairly lengthy reading of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part One. It is motivated by anger and frustration, for instance at the ways in which “authoritarian governance” has taken on the task “to empty the universities of knowledge, and refill it with information and data. Then sell it” (125). But it is also written with what one can only describe as love. “There is a war on indeed for the future of the university,” Docherty tells us (115). And there is no doubt that he considers it to be a war worth fighting. All those who currently work in the clandestine university should join him.

Escape and the University

Position paper for panel on “Universidades”
Latin American Studies Association
New York, May 2016

“Escape and the University”

edupunk

“Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young,” declares the subtitle to Anya Kamenetz’s book, Generation Debt. A second, rather longer but more explanatory subtitle, explains why this is so: “Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers.” Who is to blame, then? Well, the “rich geezers,” of course, but more to Kamenetz’s point is the palpable sense of betrayal that she feels towards the university system. For it is the rising cost of tuition–“two or three times faster than inflation for three decades” and “four times more than median family income in the 1990s” (19)–that means that students have to take out loans. Upon graduation, burdened with an average of $24,000 in loan debt, not to mention thousands of dollars of less secure debt such as unpaid credit card balances (5), they discover that all the investment and sacrifice has apparently been in vain. The few jobs on offer are “bad jobs,” often in retail or services, with no long-term security and little in the way of benefits of any kind. Then, as Kamenetz puts it in staccato style: “Layoffs. Underemployment. Flat incomes. No health insurance, no retirement plan, no paid vacation. Unaffordable housing. Moving back in with Mom. Turning thirty with negative savings and no assets.” (xi). Young people, if Kamenetz is to be believed, feel locked into a track leading to inevitable failure and disillusion. Yet these are not slackers, but well-intentioned, hard-working young men and women who aspire simply to the modern benchmark that they should do at least as well as, if not better than, their parents. Moreover, they bear no particular animus towards those who do succeed or have succeeded in the past: they merely want their own chance at prosperity. Hence it is higher education that emerges as the villain of the piece: it is increasingly seen as mandatory (“over 90% of high school graduates of all backgrounds say [. . .] that they hope to go on to college” [5]), but provides ever-fewer rewards. With rising tuition and declining financial aid, students drop out or finally emerge saddled with an impossible debt burden and deep resentment for the university’s broken promises.

Now, Kamenetz’s is far from the first generation of young people who feel let down by their elders and cheated by their institutions. Where it differs is in its response to this perennial problem of contemporary youth. Rather than (say) turning on, tuning in, and dropping out, or rather than starting a punk band (the Sex Pistols, after all, were keen to tell us there was “No Future” back in 1977), the advice offered in Kamenetz’s subsequent book, DIY U, is to continue to pursue an education, but at the institution’s margins. As much self-help as critique, DIY U follows its analysis of the lamentable state of the university sector with a final chapter that is a “Resource Guide for a Do-It-Yourself Education.” The key, it turns out, is to come up with a “personal learning plan” (137) and then to scour the Internet to make that plan a reality. So Kamenetz directs her readers to a multitude of sites from the Internet Archive to YouTubeEDU, TED Talks to Peer2Peer University. If you want more structure to your DIY education, she even suggests an online degree from somewhere like Western Governor’s University or Excelsior College. Moreover, true to her philosophy that an education can and should be provided online, Kamenetz has created her own website, “The Edupunks’ Guide” (http://www.edupunksguide.org; right now apparently offline, but also available as a free download, “copyright Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”), which provides links to everything from “personality tests and quizzes” to a list of “college credit services” that allow you to complete an otherwise abandoned formal degree program. Both in the book and on the website, Kamenetz’s tone is enthusiastic and upbeat: her aim is to transform disillusion into enthusiasm for alternative means to fulfill for yourself precisely the promises that she feels the university system has broken. Hence, her website tells us, “It’s never been a more exciting time to be a learner” as the Internet offers “new methods of content delivery, new platforms for socialization, and new forms of accreditation.” Or as she puts it in her book: “Do-It-Yourself University means the expansion of education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, vocational, experiential, and self-directed learning” (x). At times it sounds as though she has swallowed all the management jargon of university administrators–but taken it against the grain, as a prompt to exit the institution.

Kamenetz’s concerns echo, without fully overlapping with, those expressed by a series of tenured faculty who have their own reasons for disillusion with the university system. Thomas Docherty, for instance, argues in Universities at War that “money has systematically replaced thought as the key driver and raison d’être of the institution’s official existence” (ix). Ellen Schrecker, meanwhile, in The Lost Soul of Higher Education (subtitle: “Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University”), traces the history by which (she argues) universities have been “evolving into ever more bureaucratized organizations with an increasingly market-oriented set of priorities that reinforced the university’s long-standing hierarchical structures while weakening its traditional intellectual and educational commitments” (154). And it is for similar reasons that, in a recent essay, Alberto Moreiras argues for an exodus from the institution. “The space of the university,” he tells us, “is today politically unproductive and is blocked or kidnapped in favour of an Empire of money alone.” Speaking from what he calls “the autumn of life,” and a sense of tiredness or indeed “terminal boredom,” Moreiras declares that he “want[s] now to think about other things. Ex universitate.”

All this is another way of saying that the university is posthegemonic: it no longer has the same grip on the imagination of student or teacher alike. Its economic role comes to trump any ideological function that it may once have had. And yet precisely for this reason it looms larger than ever: more and more institutions are designated universities; increasing numbers of students enroll in them; far from being the remote “ivory towers” or cloistered communities of yore, they take up more and more space in our social, economic, and political landscape. The university becomes, perhaps to Kamenetz and Moreiras’s dismay, ever more inescapable. The mistake, however, would be to imagine that it was ever other than posthegemonic. As Ivan Illich put it in his critique at what was surely the height of the university’s prestige (after several waves of post-war expansion, yet while the institution’s relative autonomy was apparently unimpeachable), the school system as a whole has always been less about any hegemonic project and more about the inculcation of particular habits, the fostering of a limited range of affects, and the construction of a determinate mass subjectivity governed by its relationship to transcendental hierarchy. “Once young people have allowed their imaginations to be formed by curricular instruction,” he claims, “they are conditioned to institutional planning of every sort. ‘Instruction’ smothers the horizon of their imaginations. They cannot be betrayed, but only short-changed, because they have been taught to substitute expectations for hope” (Deschooling Society 39). The only difference, perhaps, between then and now concerns the ubiquity of the university, the near-compulsory extension of schooling a further three or four years, and the full acceptance even by critics such as Kamenetz of the injunction to training and instruction (self-improvement, self-advancement) even in our so-called leisure time and at our own expense.

The question, it seems to me, is this: not whether we can escape the university, but what escapes its current configuration, and the extent to which we can further facilitate and encourage such escapes either within or without the classroom. In the first instance, that means working with, rather than against, students’ own sensation of frustration and dissatisfaction, their own feeling that they have been short-changed that parallels (even if it does not repeat) our own. Perhaps here we’ll find the inkling of a desire to constitute something new, something beyond the usual complaints, something that would go further than the rather limited aims outlined by Kamenetz. Perhaps here there’s the hint of some kind of constituent power. For ultimately, students have been cheated of their chance to be students, rather than merely consumers, cogs in the machine, or fodder for the employment markets. As Docherty observes, the commercialization of knowledge “attacks the student as student, replacing her with the student-as-consumer who is indebted financially but not ethically” (59). For all the money they put into the system, students have been denied the right to think, to be treated as people who can think for themselves, inside or outside the institution. But as they register their discomfort and unease, they also start to exercise their power. They are bored, too, even by all the university’s attempts to appease and (merely) entertain them. It’s time for them (and us) to create something new.

works cited

  • Docherty, Thomas. Universities at War. London: Sage, 2015.
  • Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. London: Marion Boyars, 1996.
  • Kamenetz, Anya. Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers–And How to Fight Back. New York: Riverhead, 2006.
  • —–. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2010.
  • Moreiras, Alberto. “Maquinación ex universitate.” https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2016/04/21/ponencia-para-coloquio-la-universidad-posible-santiago-de-chile-18-21-abril-2016-por-alberto-moreiras/
  • Schrecker, Ellen. The Lost Soul of Higher Education: Corporatization, the Assault on Academic Freedom, and the End of the American University. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Meltdown at Wikipedia?

Knifed-Wikipedia-Logo

Things do not look good at the online encyclopedia. I addressed some of the relevant issues, at a very broad level, in a paper I gave at Wikimania in July. But things have gone very badly wrong very fast in the past ten days or so.

Rather than go into details myself, I’ll just link to a blog post by long-term Wikimedian Liam Wyatt: “Strategy and Controversy”. As he puts it, “there is a battle going on at the top for its soul.”

For more, see for instance Pete Forsyth’s blog and his posts “Wikimedia Foundation Ousts Community-Elected Trustee” and “Grants and Transparency: Wikimedia Foundation Should Follow Standards it Sets”. Or look at two stories from the Wikipedia Signpost (the site’s own internal newspaper): “WMF Board Dismisses Community-Elected Trustee” and (especially) “The WMF’s Age of Discontent”.

Then if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia politics, check out the wikimedia-l mailing list for December (start here or here and follow the threads) and for January (start here, here, and perhaps above all here). Then look at Jimmy Wales’s talk page on Wikipedia (this is how it looks right now), this article on one of the new WMF Board members, or this talk page on Wikimedia’s “meta” wiki, about the “WMF Transparency Gap.”

I said back in July that the WMF (an educational charity, after all) “now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots.” The conflict between these two tendencies is today well and truly out in the open. The only question is whether the battle has already been lost.

Update: The best and most accessible summary of things to date comes from William Beutler’s post, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street”.

Wikipedia and Higher Education

wikimania

Jon Beasley-Murray
University of British Columbia
jon.beasley-murray@ubc.ca

Presented at Wikimania, July 2015, Mexico City

“Two Solitudes: Wikipedia and Higher Education”

It is an institution on the verge of crisis, though not everyone is prepared to admit it. With a bloated bureaucracy that’s increasingly brought in from outside and ever-more out of touch with the rank and file that do most of the work, it seems to have lost its sense of purpose. Founded with noble goals, dedicated to the public good and enlightenment ideals of knowledge and global understanding, it now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots. The situation is hardly helped by periodic scandals that erupt and are seized on by adversaries in the media, who accuse it of corruption and bias. Its heavy-handed response to these scandals hardly aids its cause, and issues around civility, freedom of expression, or gender and other disparities are a flashpoint for conflict and discontent. Low morale and petty but energy-sapping disputes are just one outcome of a crisis in governance. It has tried to deal with these problems through technical fixes and better metrics, more accountability and accessibility. It is increasingly concerned about its public face and does what it can to allow its users to bypass its often arcane practices and have a smoother, more enjoyable experience. But ultimately these are short-term solutions that if anything only hide the real problems. Pushed this way and that, much misunderstood and maligned, but still performing a vital role upon which almost everyone depends, this is an organization that desperately needs to take stock and put its house in order.

Read more… (pdf file)

From Here

A revised (mostly shortened) version of a paper that I gave at UBC in October. This version was presented at the Modern Languages Association, here in Vancouver a couple of days ago, for a panel on “Rhetoric of Crisis and the Politics of Cuts”.

“From Here: ‘Flexible Learning,’ the Specter of MOOCs,
and the University’s ‘New Business Model,’”

A few years ago my university rebranded itself, adopting the slogans “From Here” and “A Place of Mind.” The marketing whizzkids came out with a series of posters that consisted of full-colour photos of scenes from Vancouver and around the British Columbian mainland with the tag-line “From Here.” Few of these images illustrate the university campus or indeed any other recognizable academic premises. So, for instance, one poster depicts a solitary young woman in the middle of what is apparently verdant wilderness, looking out towards mountain peaks in the mid-distance. Printed prominently above her is the declaration “Human Rights Defended From Here.”

From Here

I used to pass this poster every Monday evening as I taught a class on “Human and Civil Rights in Latin America” at the university’s downtown campus, not in some solitary idyll but with a full complement of garrulous students. Each week, the purpose of the poster would bewilder me more. My students equally had no idea. If anything, it seemed (and seems) a bizarrely ethereal conception of the university as a place that (despite the slogan) has no actual physical location, and thus no need of material resources. Who needs buildings? Or even teachers? Or fellow students? A “place of mind” is not, apparently, a place in the real world of human interaction and sociability, even if is a vantage point from which (supposedly) pressing social issues such as human rights might be somehow addressed. A “place of mind” is an idea of the university emptied out. It is the endpoint of the process presciently described by Bill Readings in The University in Ruins when he argues that the university is now organized around a conception of “excellence” that “no longer has a specific content” (17). As Readings puts it, “what is crucial about terms like ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ (and even ‘University’ at times)”–I would add, today especially “University”–“is that they no longer have specific referents; they no longer refer to a specific set of things or ideas” (17). Hence we are now have a “posthistorical University, the university without an idea” (118). And while it is worth criticizing this in itself–for what, in the end, is a university without ideas?–Readings also argues that this is part and parcel of the institution’s corporatization and its succumbing to the logic of the market. It is further worth pointing out that (for all its aspirations and claims) the university makes for a notably poor and inefficient corporation. Google or Facebook, let alone Ford or General Motors, have a much better sense of what they are about. The university as means without ends, means without meanings, is in no fit shape to compete with them.

from_here9

Enter the MOOC, or the “Massive Online Open Course,” which strangely mimics the ethereal nature of the “From Here” brand. The MOOC, a set of distributed classes independent of institutions, takes literally the suggestion that learning can take place anywhere. It says: who needs universities, anyway? In response, UBC’s provost, in his gushing introduction to a presentation by Daphne Koller, co-founder of MOOC provider Coursera, declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Which is revealing not simply because it is above all business that occupies the provost’s mind. But because it is a recognition that in converting itself into a business, the university has done it wrong. No wonder that, despite the gush, the provost could be described as “spooked” by the coming of the MOOCs. And then perhaps on the principle (if indeed principles are at issue) of better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t, the university quickly and enthusiastically, and with little in the way of consultation, signed up for a partnership with Coursera, this venture-capital upstart, and started throwing resources at what it calls “flexible learning” while withdrawing them from, for instance, the Faculty of Arts. Since then, however, like the most fickle of lovers, we learn (but not why) that we are ditching Coursera for EdX. But whoever the partner may be, MOOCs or something like them, we are breathlessly told, are the future. And the university, which for all its talk of innovation and “from here” is desperate to copy whatever Stanford or Harvard, McGraw-Hill or Pearson, are perceived as doing, and so to welcome what emphatically comes “from there,” has therefore jumped on this bandwagon with a vengeance.

The problem is this: MOOCs and the like can only be framed as the future by means of a shocking ignorance or amnesia about the past. For almost everything that this so-called revolution in learning claims to offer was promised, and indeed anxiously anticipated, by an earlier generation of theorists and critics of higher education, such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire. We should, after all, hardly fear a challenge to the education system. The university has historically been challenged, and rightly so, on a whole series of counts. Massive Open education has been a radical dream for at least half a century. What is new with the MOOC is only its cooptation by capital, and the supine and superficial reaction it has provoked in university leaders who have forgotten the true purpose of education. Educational technologists Brian Lamb and Jim Groom argue that we have to “reclaim innovation,” for there is nothing innovative about “bringing things to market.” There is nothing innovative about selling things. Innovation has to be reclaimed from this banal reduction to the norms of the market. Similarly, we have to reclaim the MOOC. Rather than the lack of ambition inherent in the notion of responding to McGraw-Hill, our aim should be to continue the best traditions of the university, even and especially when they involve long-standing critiques of the university. And we can, and should, do it (really) “from here.”

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