Thursday, March 27, 2008

How The University Works

I recently read the introduction (pdf) to Marc Bousquet's new book, How The University Works, and this bit is really sticking with me:

"Degree in hand, loans coming due, the working partner expecting a more fair financial contribution, perhaps the question of children growing relevant, the degree holder asks a question to which the system has no answer: If I have been a splendid teacher and scholar while nondegreed for the past ten years, why am I suddenly unsuitable? Nearly all of the administrative responses to the degree holder can already be understood as responses to waste: flush it, ship it to the provinces, recycle it through another industry, keep it away from the fresh meat. Unorganized graduate employees and contingent faculty have a tendency to grasp their circumstance incompletely—that is, they feel 'treated like shit'—without grasping the systemic reality that they are waste. Insofar as graduate employees feel treated like waste, they can maintain the fantasy that they really exist elsewhere, in some place other than the overwhelmingly excremental testimony of their experience.

This fantasy becomes an alibi for inaction, because in this construction agency lies elsewhere, with the administrative touch on the flush-chain. The effect of people who feel treated like waste is an appeal to some other agent: please stop treating us this way—which is to say to that outside agent, 'please recognize that we are not waste,' even when that benevolent recognition is contrary to the testimony of our understanding ... The difference in consciousness between feeling treated like waste and knowing one’s excremental condition is the difference between experiencing casualization as 'local disorder' (that authority will soon rectify) and having the grasp of one’s potential for transforming the systemic realities of an actually existing new order. Where the degree-holding waste product understands its capacity for blockage and refuses to be expelled, the system organizing the inside must rapidly succumb."

I feel my excremental condition. Bring. It. On.

See also: Bousquet's How The University Works Blog and Tiziana Terranova and Marc Bousquet, Recomposing the University, Mute Magazine, 2004

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Boycott? I think not.

I fully support open-access scholarship, but find danah boyd's recent post on boycotting "locked-down" journals naive at best, and offensive at worst.

First of all, I think she overstates the "lock-down." I've published articles with Sage and Taylor&Francis, and was able to publish almost identical draft versions here. All I did was hand-write that provision onto my contract before I signed it, and no one ever objected. And while I agree that there is some sort of "black market" economy for exchanging articles, I'm willing to accept this as a viable tactic against an over-arching publication for profit strategy. In my experience, one of the quickest ways to alienate people from your cause is to invalidate existing acts of resistance because they don't fit your model. That's just scientific positivism applied to personal politics, and I don't like playing the "my politics are better than your politics" game.

This brings me to my main objection: danah's overall tone is so patronising to academics that I can't help but feel insulted. I mean, really, how do unsupported claims like this one - "If scholars are publishing for audiences of zero, no wonder no one respects them" - help our shared cause of reforming academic publishing?

Danah's position disrespects years of scholarship and community, and it dismisses outright the possibility that an academic might find genuine pride, or satisfaction, or joy in such work. Surely good ethnographers would want to ask a scholar what she gets out of a given practice before they tell her, or speak for her? And as an early career academic, I was most unimpressed by being given the option of becoming a "punk" or "conservative" scholar:

"Young punk scholars: Publish only in open-access journals in protest, especially if you're in a new field. This may cost you advancement or tenure, but you know it's the right thing to do...

More conservative young scholars: publish what you need to get tenure and then stop publishing in closed venues immediately upon acquiring tenure. I understand why you feel the need to follow the rules. This is fine, but make a point by stopping this practice the moment you don't need it."

What is this, high school? I honestly fail to see how this "open" model gives me any more space to manoeuvre as a scholar, or as a human being.

In any case, Mel Gregg also takes issue with danah's "capacity to diagnose the pitfalls of an entire industry and the motivations of all of us who choose to work in it" and I appreciated Jason Wilson's comments on how journal publishing actually works. But since I also really like constructive criticism, and I haven't provided any alternatives here, I'll second Alex Halavais' suggestion:

"If you want to find the Achilles heal, the catalyst that would get things moving much faster, it's easy enough: follow the money. Pressure NSF, MacArthur, etc., to require open publication for all funded research. Get state legislatures to do the same for state schools: if you get a summer grant or fellowship, your work needs to be published in public, so that the public who paid for it can access it."

I encourage Canadian citizens and researchers to contact the following organisations to voice your opinions on these matters:

SSHRC | NSERC | Killam Trusts

Researchers can also apply for funding from the Government of Canada's Intellectual Property Mobilization Program (IPM).

Canadian Intellectual Property Office | HRSDC Learning and Post-Secondary Education | Provincial Ministries of Education

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
| Canadian Federation of Students

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Contrapower harassment in academia

This afternoon I was talking with a colleague about a problem in academic work that rarely gets discussed: the personal harassment of professors and teaching assistants by students. Now, I think it's a difficult topic to broach for two related reasons: "personal harassment" is difficult to define, and what definitions we do have of harassment are often predicated on the assumption that 'superiors' cannot be harassed by subordinates or 'inferiors.' In other words, despite disagreement on what actions or events actually constitute harassment, in academia it is almost always considered an abuse of power. This means that if an instructor claims he has been personally harassed by a student people respond with vague suspicion and questions like "Doesn't a student have to have power to do that?" - or with vague mockery and questions like "How can a professor lack the power to stop it?"

But isn't power more complex than that?

When I got home I looked up Carleton's Discrimination and Harassment Policies and found that, like most workplaces in Canada, they only address human rights violations.

"The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits harassment related to race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, marital status, family status, disability, pardoned conviction, or sexual orientation. Disrespectful behaviour, commonly known as 'personal' harassment is not covered by human rights legislation. While it also involves unwelcome behaviour that demeans or embarrasses an employee, the behaviour is not based on one of the prohibited grounds named above."

Most research describes personal harassment as workplace bullying, and "disrespectful behaviour" may just be a polite Canadian way to describe the assholes we all work with. But did you know that workplace bullying is three times more prevalent than sexual harassment, and that less than 15% of workplace bullies are punished? More insidious still may be the psychological or emotional effect over time. As Robert Sutton explains, one of the main problems with workplace (and I'd say all) bullies is that "their uncivilized interactions have a far bigger impact on our moods than positive interactions — five times the punch, according to recent research ... It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the energy and happiness sapped by a single episode with one asshole." In other words, it's hard to do good work in a hostile environment.

Returning to the university context, workplace harassment is possible between colleagues, and between faculty or staff and students. Student harassment of professors, or any harassment by subordinates, has been referred to by researchers as contrapower harassment. Apparently it happens most often to women, even more often to women of colour, and it is not only males who do the harassing. Matters of age and class only compound these issues, not least because they increase the number of socially and professionally subordinate positions that can be used to encourage or justify harassment. While sexual harassment garners the most attention, most contrapower harassment occurs in more subtle ways--it can include everything from being consistently dismissed or ignored to verbal abuse and overt threats. At the institutional level, anonymous teaching evaluations regularly provide students the opportunity to make accusations that have real (i.e. professional) impact but that never need to be supported, and cannot be verified. Private meetings also offer students the opportunity to say and do things that can easily be denied.

My own experiences of contrapower harassment at Carleton have ranged from (rare) sexual advances by male students to (quite common) encounters with hostile students, both female and male. In fact, I have never returned marked assignments without at least one student becoming so agitated that I have had to end the conversation. I've had students here crumple up their paper and throw it at me, yell at me, call me a bitch, accuse me of setting them up to fail, and threaten to report me to the chair or dean. But most simply demanded, not requested, better marks--as if good grades are a right and not something that is earned--and then became aggressive when I did not accommodate them.

Are these students assholes, mean or just lacking maturity? Are these behaviours part of Carleton students' habitus--and if so, what is it about the structure of education here that encourages these attitudes? If it isn't just a problem here, but also at other universities, then is it a problem with higher education or is it better connected to broader societal shifts?

Update 30.01.08: Since posting this, I've received over a dozen email about this problem from faculty across North America - including stories that make my experiences pale. Ed Bilodeau's thoughtful blog response takes a closer look at why the problem persists, including an unwillingness or inability to discuss the issues publicly. I can certainly appreciate this, but I also try to remember that silence begets approval.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Humanities versus social sciences.


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