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.

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”.

The Coming Collapse

Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger

A famous story goes that when in 1972 Richard Nixon asked Mao Zedong’s deputy, Zhou Enlai, for his thoughts on the impact of the French Revolution, Zhou’s response was that it was still “too soon to say.” Whether or not Zhou actually said such a thing, and whether even if he did he was really referring to the events of 1789, is a matter of some doubt. But in any case, as Nixon’s interpreter apparently put it, it was “a misunderstanding that was too delicious to invite correction.” For it seemed very much to substantiate the notion that the Chinese play a very long game, patiently waiting for history to unfold. But it also resonated with the notion that, far from being merely punctual political events, Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term. Their real effects, if any, may take centuries to discern.

David Graeber

In “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”, David Graeber offers something like a spatial correlative to this temporal caution. Drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein, he suggests that instead of our habit of seeing revolutions in strictly national terms–as American, French, Haitian, Iranian, Nicaraguan, or whatever–we should understand any true revolution in global terms: “revolutions have consisted above all of planetwide transformations of political common sense.” So the impact of the French Revolution might be felt in “Denmark, or even Egypt” as much as in France; perhaps “even more so.” And that impact might be judged in terms of the ways revolutionary spirit jumps national boundaries or crosses oceans: think of the interplay between the American, French, and Haitian revolutions, for instance. Or it might equally figure in the ways in which elsewhere the social order is reconfigured in response to and against that spirit: as the Russian revolution was “ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states” as the rest of the world tried to inoculate itself against the threat perceived on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg.

Hence, against the pessimistic view that the revolutionary ethos of the 1960s (which was perhaps encapsulated in the single date of 1968) is long vanished, Graeber goes on to argue that contemporary neoliberalism continues to be a reaction against the perceived threat posed by the protests almost fifty years ago in Paris, Rome, Berkeley, and elsewhere. If so, “the legacy of the sixties revolution was deeper [and let us add, broader] than we now imagine,” and leads directly to a set of contradictions at the heart of the contemporary order: that “preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority” that ensuring that the system itself works. Or in short, if the Left long seems to have abandoned the notion that there are alternatives to actually-existing capitalism, Graeber suggests that social and economic elites remain obsessed with the notion that those alternatives exist and may reappear at any time. So the paradox is that while those who purport to work for change see revolution as a musty concept buried in the past, those who want to forestall change at any cost are the ones who truly act as though Revolution were around the corner.

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.”

Read this as a PDF document.