Depressing notes from the edge of academia

June 5th, 2008

Today is the second day of the annual conference of the Canadian Communication Association, held this year, conveniently, at UBC. In a lunch time graduate session (I went, as usual, for the free lunch), we heard from some profs who talked about their windy paths to tenure-track positions. After hearing their widely divergent stories, the floor opened up and it became like a group therapy session. Grads asked pointed questions and discussed the varied and complex issues of grad life, finishing up, staying sane and eventually thinking about the job search.

One question concerned maintaining some sort of balance in the face of multiple demands on grads’ time and sanity, including:

1. The need to earn a living (for those of us who are unfunded);

2. The need to gain teaching experience;

3. The need to build a publishing record, which is linked to;

4. The need to attend conferences, network with colleagues and professors;

5. The need to complete your own work (courses, comps, research, dissertation); and

6. The need to maintain other relationships (personal, familial etc.).

Of course, doing all of these at the same time, and doing them well, without having  nervous breakdown, is effectively impossible. But what emerged from the panel was somewhat disheartening: publish as much as you can, finish as quickly as you can; don’t worry about teaching – you’ll figure it out along the way.

This is depressing, and disastrous for conceptualizing the university as a site for spawning and nurturing new ideas as well as a site for exciting new minds to the task of thinking critically and engaging passionately in the world. Despite faint protestation, this appears as a devaluation of teaching (a civic task?) and an inflation of (solitary, individualistic) research.

As an activist scholar, I see the opportunity for resistance and struggle outside the university, in my research interests, but also where I stand, within the academy. Engaging the university at the administrative level is of course important, particularly in light of its rapid coporatization, and its hearty embrace of the logic and language of capitalism.

But the classroom presents more immediate possibilities for challenging the status quo and effecting positive change. I think it’s critically important for anyone who believes in the transformative potential of education to consider carefully and deeply their role as teacher, as distinct from “transmitter of knowledge” or other such trite, elitist, egotistic assumptions. I took heart in the fact that several students responded passionately and irritably to this devaluation of teaching, noting that they felt teaching is extremely important, and remarking bitterly that perhaps this was why all their undergrad profs sucked.

Other topics discussed at this session included how to deal with the stress of school (forming support groups; doing yoga; blogging; drinking), should you do a post-doc (yes – better than working at Starbucks), and what a hiring committee considers a decent publication record (2 “significant” articles, some book reviews). It’s always reassuring to hear from your peers as you navigate what is essentially the same process with essentially the same problems and challenges. It’s good to know you’re not alone. And it’s good to share strategies and solutions, to help each other, to develop, however fledging, a sense of community among those who will, in all likelihood, be the next generation of communication scholars in Canada.

Mind the gap: Bridging the scholar/activist divide

May 24th, 2008

I’m here in Montreal attending the annual conference for the International Communication Association. This is a massive conference, with may “big names” in the field of communication. So far I’ve met up with a number of cool folks, including Greg Elmer, David Skinner, and Rohan Samarajiva, an old SFU alum. I’ve made some useful connections, one about a book chapter on radical pedagogy, another about a post-doc position. I managed to do some field work, which brought me to Koumbit for an afternoon. It was fun to reconnect with Antoine, and meet the folks who host this blog, and give me some much needed tech support (esp. Robin!). I also got to hang out with Anne and hear about her recent work and progress in her dissertation.

I also participated in a pre-conference workshop entitled “Bridging the Scholar/Activist Divide”, hosted by the Social Science Research Council. This is a very cool organization, activist in orientation, doing work that is quite in line with my broader research interests. It was great meeting some people from SSRC, and hanging out with people who see very clearly the need for change in society, within the academy and indeed, with our own practices as researchers and teachers. Bill Herman posted his report on the discussion here.

Recurring themes or action items included: teaching students how to learn; creating partnerships for community-based or community-oriented research; and generally getting outside the academy. To this I added my four-prong approach to bridging the scholar-academic divide, which coalesces in the public intellectual: 1. Public dissemination of research/ideas (or the case for Open Access); 2. Civic engagement in the community; 3. Subversive teaching in the classroom; 4. Committing to norms-based research. For my presentation on this, check here.

Teaching for learning (duh!)

May 16th, 2008

The last two days I attended a conference at SFU called Teaching for learning: New approaches for a new generation. The title alone is scary enough, no? I mean, isn’t that what one would assume teaching was for? Lawdamighty. I learned a lot – mostly concerning the nightmarish state of teaching in the academy.

The opening keynote was Max Valiquette, Youth Culture Expert, for pete’s sake. Here’s a guy who is “Canada’s foremost expert on youth culture and marketing”; I see him on MuchMusic all the time. WFT? At an education conference? Ferchrissakes. Although he did make some interesting points about “Gen Y” (another marketing ploy?), all Valiquette had to offer was a sales pitch, and a pretty weak one at that. He only ever discussed youth (students) as consumers, their entire existence enframed by consuming things, and communicating (exactly what was unclear) via an unparalleled selection of new communication technologies. He talked about Gen Y, as having choice and control like no other generation in history. But choice in cell phone ringtones, reality shows or social networking websites does not equate to freedom. What if I choose not to be slave wage earner; to not be in a warring society; to not be subject to surveillance and control by my state, my boss, my educational institution? I am afraid Valiquette had nothing to say on what an important or meaningful choice might be.

The next session I attended was called “The Millennial Student: Connecting to Generation Y – Not!”, by Maureen Wideman. Trophycase and I have been known to make mockery of Gen Y (and my kid, overhearing one conversation, asked about “Genertaion A”. Ezackly, I told him.) so I thought I’d check it out, you know, for kicks. It was unclear how much of an expert Wideman is on the topic, as she admitted she’d culled all her “research” on the topic from the Internet. I guess the key thing I got from her presentation, which was interesting, all sniping aside, was that profs today are out of touch. It’s not that the students have changed so much, but that profs haven’t changed at all (or nearly enough). How often I have felt this, even as a grad student! And not just because they eschew technology in the classroom. They frequently have little idea what’s going on outside the classroom, outside their specialized knowledge niche. Another interesting point that Wideman made was that it’s not the profs’ show anymore. This was probably her most important – and radical – statement, that profs must give up control in the classroom, and engage with students in a more horizontal, rather than hierarchical, fashion.

Next I attended a session by Sydney Eve Matrix. I only went because her name was so intriguing and I didn’t actually believe it was real. I thought she must be a sci-fi writer or even the offline embodiment of a virtual avatar. She isn’t. Her presentation, “Experiments in High-tech Edutainment: Engaging students in a media-rich Popular Culture Course”, was interesting enough – basically a description of the massive infusion of technology into a film course she teaches at Queens University. It was quite impressive and a tad insane – she spent 60 hours per class preparing. But her classes sounded absolutely kick ass – fun and interesting. Naturally I had difficulty with her characterization of this type of teaching as “edutainment” (seriously, no irony involved) and with her characterization of her teaching techniques as “gimmickery” (and again, finding nothing problematic with this). The presentation was entirely uncritical but I nonetheless appreciate the “by any means necessary” approach to the classroom. At least she cares, and is trying to engage the students in the course material, trying to get them to attend class – in a pro-active and positive rather than punitive (marks deducted etc.) way. But I really got the idea that she had the idea of tricking students into learning. And I don’t think this can or even should be done.

The idea that students are consumers – and should be treated as such by the profs – was a dominant undercurrent – from presenters and attendees alike. I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, the conference was put on – not merely sponsored – by McGraw-Hill Ryerson. Talk about convergence. But hey, the university is already run like a corporation, with the bottom line as the prime mover (not education, just so’s we’re clear). So why not vertically integrate – nay fuse? Sounds like a good business plan.

There was one presenter who spoke progressively, thoughtfully and (would you believe?) philosophically about teaching and learning. It was the same (and only) person who talked about citizenship in relation to education, and who only uttered the word “consumer” in the context of producers and consumers of knowledge.

Mark Battersby suggested that teaching objectives should be oriented toward developing “the competent layperson” rather than emergent experts in our own particular fields. The bottom line here: Teach students how to learn, not what you think they need to learn. Why? So they can go out in the world and be engaged citizens, critical thinkers and autonomous individuals who can call upon “generic intellectual abilities and a broad understanding of the world” to enable them to get what they need, and live a full, rich life

Genius. Of course, other progressive thinkers and philosophers have promoted this sort of approach. Neil Postman, in Teaching as a subversive activity, calls this learning for survival. It is grounded in the notion that teaching should be relevant (and therefore of interest, engaging) to the student. This is not dissimilar to Freire’s concept of a pedagogy of the oppressed, wherein society’s most downtrodden are educated through conscientização, a critical and political consciousness raising with freedom as its main objective.

So despite its uncritical, mostly descriptive overtones, and its corporately whorish undertones, the conference wasn’t a total bust. There was one person on the right track. It’s something, anyway…

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