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Speculative Diction

The times, they are (always) a-changin’


Reading through the higher ed news over the weekend, I came across an item that began with the line, “The newspaper and book businesses have been transformed in recent years. But not education.” That illustrious beginning (as well as the rest of the article) points to a problem with coverage of higher education: the way the issue of change is addressed.

Partly because of its concern with the future, we also frame education as a means of change; it’s seen as a way to change the future by changing or shaping people into different people (or better yet, by getting them to change themselves), and a way to change society such that it reflects specific ideals or goals. In this way education is a form of governance of the future, which is probably why (tech) futurologists target it so often.

Educational institutions, too, are expected to change themselves so they can somehow be one step ahead of (or just catch up with) where people already are. Resistance to change is presented as resistance to what is natural and inevitable, like fighting a rising tide or an avalanche (yes, these are the same metaphors used in MOOC-hype articles – no coincidence). Universities are depicted as recalcitrant in the face of changing external circumstances, the latest of which is the ascent of the digital, as we see in this article by Paul Rigg. A Darwinian narrative – universities must adapt or face extinction! – is a common one in education futurology. Predictions of imminent doom are too often the stock in trade of those who want to peddle their own visions for how education should “evolve”.

The framing of education and change in these terms frustrates me because the issue of changing higher ed institutions (or making them change) is the focus of my research. My logic was this: if we’re going to have all these expectations, if the university is going to be required to change, and if critics are saying that education isn’t responding quickly enough to societal needs, then surely we should try to understand why? What does it mean for universities to change, and what does that process look like (in some of its myriad forms, at least)? Are there dynamics and patterns that we can identify, and if so, how do they play out?

I think it’s important to ask these tricky questions. Who gets to “make things happen”, does it relate only to their role in the organization? If one person is ineffective and another person is not, what’s the difference in how they’re thinking or acting? What does “effective” look like? How can we see “what happened” anyway? Where is the institutional memory, in documents or in people or both? What happens when there is no documentation – how much responsibility is there for the organization to document itself? Then there’s the issue of credibility: everyone has a story about events. Which perspective is “valid” and which is not?

I chose to create a case study because I wanted to get at these questions within the scope of a single institution. I’ve assembled thousands of bits of text for this purpose, ranging from mainstream media and student press articles to meeting minutes, internal and external public relations materials, newsletters, reports and financial documents, proposals, anything and everything I could find, alongside a series of interviews.

I’m always looking for traces of decisions, the small trail that marks their progress, not just the most obvious (and usually sanctioned) representations of them. Experience has taught me that most of this journey is off the record, the building blocks hidden by the smooth render of institutional words. Gossip, for example, is not just unverified or salacious personal information that’s passed around informally; it’s a form of talk that helps people to construct a version of the truth, which in turn affects how they respond to situations, and becomes part of the ongoing communicative context. It’s part of the unofficial record, made up of stories and anecdotes and what “everyone knows” (tacit knowledge).

It’s those kinds of organizational knowledge and communication that are the hardest to uncover – the stories and rumours and jokes and relationships that generate new dynamics or reinforce old ones, the politicking and alliance-building that can escalate into toxicity. In other words, informal aspects of organizational culture that are part of the context that both reflects and shapes the official records.

This is what I mean when I argue that communication is an inherent aspect of governance, not merely a representation of governance practices that have already been put to work (though it can be this too). Language is not only a way of describing, but also a means of framing, imagining, and limiting the ways we might think about an issue.

None of this complexity is reflected in the ongoing, shallow narrative of universities as institutions that simply have not changed, either over the course of the last century or even since Medieval times. Even if you want to focus in on “the lecture” as a relic of primitive past pedagogy that survives to this day, you’re still ignoring all the other, creative work that’s happening in postsecondary teaching and learning. And to support a change to innovative pedagogical forms, you’re going to need to know what makes those work (or prevents them from working) at the micro-level; even the greatest plan could be derailed by factors that aren’t immediately evident, or are not contained within the scope of the plan. So how do we make plans and policies that work in context?

As for the articles I cited above by Levine and Rigg, the very problems they decry reflect the ongoing process of change that has occurred in universities, and both articles use many of the standard tropes employed in deontic rhetoric about preferred change. These include applying the popular machine metaphor (“broken” and “repair”); using false comparisons to the music industry, bookstores, news media or other “disrupted” sectors; use of the word “consumers” interchangeably with “students”; the references to “digital natives” and “millennials” and a generation gap; and the framing of the current situation as a “crisis” (if there’s a crisis, it’s been ongoing in different forms for a long time).

Universities already have changed, over the decades and centuries. It’s just that they’ve never changed enough for the present moment. Thus we keep charging them with the task of changing more, to adapt to circumstance in particular ways, to adopt one form or another, for a broadening range of purposes. Ironically, we’re also asking universities, as educational institutions, to produce the future for which they are accused of being so ill prepared (or the future that will destroy them). But based on the research I’ve done so far, I’d say the question is not whether universities will change – since this is ongoing – but what those changes will look like, how they will happen, and whose needs they will serve best.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Sean Lawrence / November 10, 2014 at 13:18

    What strikes me as truly odd about these accusations is the implicit — Darwinian, as you correctly note — assumption that change is always good. Often, this seems at least implicitly accompanied by an assumption that the past is to be despised.

    This strikes me as opposed to the very idea of a university, as an institution that maintains historical learning (especially in the humanities) and as an institution that maintains a certain critical distance from the contemporary.

    Calls for “change” therefore aren’t just a misunderstanding, but an existential threat.

  2. Rachel Forsyth / November 12, 2014 at 09:59

    I really enjoyed reading this – if only partly because my role is to be a change agent and i see change all the time in my own institution. That idea of finding the trail is really pertinent. Sometimes there just isn’t one – someone had a back-of-the-envelope idea and the power to implement it.

    Not the right country for your research, but this is an honest account of a major curriculum change which tried to map rationale and impact.

    In practice, it is so much easier to make change happen if that trail is transparent and evidence-based. But as you touch on, you also need to know exactly how people will respond to what’s being presented, and that’s buried in institutional knowledge.

    It amazes me how often people try to get institutional change without thinking through the ‘buy-in’ part – if you employ faculty/academics because they are clever, why would you not expect them to find clever ways to avoid doing what they’re told if they don’t like it?

  3. Russell / November 12, 2014 at 12:14

    Consider companies like Google where they have huge investments into many new projects in which only a few turn out successful. Efforts like that aren’t necessarily part of any formal education institution, but I would find it interesting to think about how similar models will influence changes in education. The Minerva Project seems particularly different and I wonder how much it is motivated by this type of thinking.