Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Draft of conclusions to "God professors and student ratbags"

Student movements in the 1960s and 1970s succeeded in engineering a revolution of sorts, certainly in relation to university-based knowledge. However, revolution, as John Burnheim suggested, is messy, and this one had some serious unintended consequences.

The revolution centred, largely, on an enacted power struggle over the control and possession of university-based knowledge, with professors on one side, students and sub-professorial staff on the other. This power struggle was based on opposing characterisations of university knowledge. One side – the professors (generally speaking) – saw university-based knowledge as a growing set of disciplinary traditions. It was the role of experts, according to this professorial characterisation of knowledge, to protect and impart these traditions – a grave responsibility for those who have taken the arduous journey of gaining mastery of knowledge. David Armstrong of the Sydney Philosophy department was an especially dramatic case, but his belief in the significant responsibility to protect knowledge is undeniable, despite other leadership and administrative flaws.

Collectively, professors constituted bodies (often called the Professorial Board or something similar) that guarded this knowledge from potential incursion by governments, religions, and others – and, specifically in this period, students. The professorial position was neither stable nor necessarily any better planned than the student revolution was. We saw in chapter one, the character of university knowledge was not certain and the shift to substantial public funding in the 1950s raised questions about the extent to which the professoriate could continue to control knowledge in a system that required democratic consent to its production and maintenance. Formerly strict barriers between university-based knowledge and all other kinds had been collapsing for more than a decade by the time students were seriously threatening it in the late 1960s, and the traditions of academic mastery were losing their meaning without the students’ help. It is perhaps because of these existing threats that some in the professoriate tended to hold onto knowledge a little tighter, in the face of student desire to possess it, than was perhaps necessary or wise.

On the other side, students (of course, not all of them but on the other hand including many academic staff, too) saw knowledge as contingent, uncertain, chaotic and potentially revolutionary. Knowledge was not truth, not certain, according to the emerging epistemology, it was political and it was power. The traditions of knowledge so jealously guarded by professors, was political in that it supported and validated a social structure that students perceived to be deeply flawed. Since knowledge was already political, students saw no harm in proposing new knowledge be included in the universities that conformed to revolutionary, rather than capitalist, politics. Utopian organizations like the Free U embodied a hope for legitimation of new knowledge and claimed ownership of knowledge for the students and sub-professorial staff that the official university was then excluding from its control.

Such knowledge was not intended to peacefully co-exist within the existing system – it ought to disrupt traditional, discipline-based knowledge and destroy the notion of a canon. For some students this disruptive power was the opposing equivalent to the types of power they perceived universities wielded as organizations and as purveyors of knowledge. Slippage from power to violence occurred on campuses like Monash and La Trobe, with students claiming the (violent) power attached to knowledge, as well as knowledge itself.

According to students’ perspective on university knowledge, there is no canon, only that which is constructed for the purposes of power. So in a students’ ideal university, with no canon to protect, the professoriate has no role. The continuation of the professoriate, in this new characterisation of knowledge, was seen to function as the ongoing protection and validation of an obsolete and morally questionable approach to knowledge. The production of new knowledge that is “relevant” to society (without justifying it) was moreover highly unlikely to emerge from professorial members of the university community. Trained as professors were in mastery of the canon, and positioned, in an almost ecclesiastical sense, to protect it, revolutionary knowledge from professors was improbable. This was one of the frustrations felt during the University of Melbourne’s 3.3.18 controversy – that the university failed to engage with politics and simply excluded it. The new knowledge students sought was the plaything of the young, who (unlike professors, who were by definition older) were capable of innovative ideas that could challenge the stability of knowledge and artificial separation of the disciplines. Jacka and Curthoy’s feminism course was a case in point: of course the Professorial Board were unqualified to evaluate this knowledge, it was entirely new – and new was not what the Professorial Board was all about. New and political knowledge had an uncomfortable place in traditional professorial cosmology and its mere existence in the university threatened the status of the professoriate. The success of the Philosophy Strike can be seen as a nail in the coffin of professorial authority.

The next step of the Sydney Philosophy department was the replacement of the core curriculum with electives. Such abolition of canonical knowledge was the final factor that broke down any further valid distinction between university knowledge and other kinds – and thus any structural need to defend it. The consequence of this was very serious. In this new schema there was no longer a need for university government that was separate, or protected from society. Interference from outside bodies would seem to have no real consequences if knowledge is political anyway. Students sought to transform university governance to no longer reflect a need to protect and maintain knowledge, but to rather reflect the same democratic systems that they also sought beyond the universities’ cloisters – systems designed for openness rather than protection. This structure would leave the universities vulnerable to incursions on academic freedom and other types of external interference.
Democratic knowledge was knowledge chosen by students. This had been the case at the Free U, where the only determinant of curriculum was student choice. Abolishing the core curriculum in undergraduate philosophy announced the death of the canon and of professorial authority in determining what knowledge is. Selection of courses by students would, in the same way as market forces in a laissez faire system, determine what knowledge is, and which knowledge is valuable. Inadvertently, market forces were to be the new authority in the determination of university knowledge. Universities could no longer proceed, in their arrogance, with telling students what to do and disciplining them if they failed to comply. Universities, students claimed, should now persuade (they did not yet say “sell”) potential students of the value of the knowledge on offer and provide the services that were a natural consequence of competition. The outrage that the service provider assessed the customer is one way of interpreting the anti-exam banner, “examine the examiners”.

Student utopias, naturally, did not intend this outcome – an outcome where knowledge functioning as capital emerged at precisely the moment the canon was finally undermined. Student goals were expressed more faithfully to their intention in the student-centred pedagogies, assessment regimes and student evaluation systems that are also the legacy of student protest. The exam resisters – the students who pulled their chairs together to complete their Marxist exam collaboratively – saw knowledge’s power and capital as something that ought to be shared. Examination was a claim to an unfair portion of the ownership of knowledge, according to the new student view, a clear assertion of the power of the knower over the student. A reconfiguration of assessment from barrier to learning support found permanent expression in universities’ assessment policies remarkably quickly. Examination of the examiners, commencing as student-led evaluation of teaching and of courses, also gradually found a permanent place in university quality assurance practices.

This was a revolution in the ownership of knowledge. It was not painless or even, sadly, bloodless but it was remarkably quick – especially given the size and requirement for consensus from university bureaucracies. This speed was enabled by the generation gap between junior academic staff and senior professors, which facilitated rapid change. Students clearly won this struggle, which transferred the ownership of knowledge from a privileged few to students in an open, participatory model. In this, contingent knowledge would be continually produced and negotiated, owned by all. But while they stripped the professoriate of their monopoly on knowledge, professors did not necessarily see it as a transfer in ownership – for in the traditional professorial view, knowledge did not really have an owner. It was an elite system, certainly, but belonging to it was a privilege professors not only felt they had earned, but also to be a responsibility to the preservation of knowledge and of truths that went beyond them as individuals. The new epistemology stripped universality from university-based knowledge and thus any remaining separation of knowledge from the knower – ensuring that from here on, knowledge must have an owner.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Assumptions about assessment: annoyed

I do not have time to post a rant so this is just a mini rant. An ant or a rnt, maybe.

This article also quoted here is talking about the invention of grade scales and says:

Getting to know his students, one may suppose, was too much trouble for Farish [who invented grades]. It meant work, interacting and participating daily with each child.

I am getting quite sick of this (alert: ranting). A while ago I posted about the esteemed Reigeluth on assessment only to find out that the reasons he gave for the forms of assessment he opposed were plain incorrect.

In most disciplines we need to investigate and reference the claims we make and it is not normally considered good academic practice to make up reasons for the beliefs and activities of those we disagree with just to prove ourselves right.

Exams, grading, academic transcripts may be poor means of assessing and reflect an educational philosophy we disagree with. But we should not be allowed to make up what their inventors thought just to prove how right we are.

The probability that this fellow who invented grading (and considering how widespread grading is, he can't be entirely to blame for our systems) did so to avoid getting to know his students is preposterous.

[The probably-real reasons are far less important, but are also complex and relate to wider developments, like how everything needed to be documented, a file on everything, "objective" means of comparing developed - especially means of comparing that would eliminate comparison on the basis of class. Grading can be seen in so many different ways. Imagine a society that for whatever reason, say, recruitment for public service positions, sees the need to rank people. In their "bad old days" it had been the person from the family with the best connections, the most money, the marriageable daughter or whatever. Lets say we want to rank people according to how good they are ... etc etc 
Oh dear, maybe these things won't support the criterion referenced assessment workshop I'm giving tomorrow.....]

On the Free University, Terry Irving in 1971

“What the Martin Report means by saying that everybody recognised the human values associated with education was that it did not know how to protect them successfully in the inevitable marriage of the university and the acquisitive society.” (p. 21)

Just as the university serves the nation, so the “good” teacher serves th university by instructing his students efficiently in those skills whose acquisition the nation has already made a condition of his entry to the university. Some departments and some teachers resist this atmosphere; others accept it, or encourage it by continually complicating the lives of staff and students with regulations and forms. (p.21)

On the mechanisation and bureaucratisation of the university: “The trouble is that, as the university grows, those who administer its physical existence become more identified with the “capital equipment” that with its users. The Librarian comes to regard the books as more important than the students an staff…the administration becomes the “real” university because it is responsible for the buildings and equipment.” (pp. 22-23)

“the Free University is an experiment in freely-developing education, a “counter-community” providing a conscience for the mass university rather than a way to reform it. (p23)

The desire to combine learning with co-operative living. The demand for student control of the learning situation, and the intellectual needs of the new student radicalism, have contributed to more than forty free universities….p.24

…most courses eventuated only when a group of students had shown interest and when a “convenor” (often an undergraduate) could demonstrate [HF: to who?] that the skills at the group’s command (including those of visiting ‘experts’) made study of their subject feasible. (p.25)

despite attempting to produce useable social research in groups: “…for most members of the Free U, discovery is primarily a personal matter, and only secondarily of social importance” (p.26)

The Free University…is not an academy for instruction in doctrinal truth…and it is not the answer to the mass university. (p.27)

Though it did have “reformist origins”, the Free U in 1971 had settled to accept itself for what it was:
“The Free University is a unique academic community in Australia, and we now think of ourselves more as a conscience than a catalyst for the mass university” (p.27)

Notes from Irving, Terry. "The Mass University and the Free University as Utopia." In Counterpoints: Critical Writings on Australian Education, edited by S D'Urso. (Sydney: John Wiley & Sons Australasia, 1971).

Monday, 22 September 2008

A pox on George and a double pox on Armstrong

This is a small screengrab from a letter from Graham Nerlich to Keith Campbell, who was acting as Head of the Philosophy department at Sydney University in 1973 while Nerlich was away - and while half the Department went on strike over the Feminism course. This particular letter is Nerlich's vote on whether the core curriculum should be abolished in favour of students choosing from a range of options. This had been suggested by George Molnar and naturally opposed by Armstrong, leading Nerlich to say "A pox on George and a double pox on Armstrong!!" 
This is interesting for me as it enacts the two important perspectives on knowledge that determined the conflict over who should own it. One is that a core of knowledge is foundational to all new knowledge and discovery is bent on enriching it - requiring academic Masters to protect and impart it. The other that all knowledge is contingent, ideological and political and new knowledge will be produced by those who can depart from it on the basis of individual inquiry and personal discovery. 

Nerlich, Graham. "Letter from Nerlich to Keith Campbell 12/3/1973." In John Burnheim Papers. Sydney: In the possession of Alison Bashford, 1973 (I also have digitised copies)

Sunday, 21 September 2008

They seem to want to substitute the God-Department for the out-worn God-Professor. I am against there being any Gods in a university. DMA in the 1970s

In Canberra last month I spent a day and a half (of my 6 days of research) going through several boxes of DM Armstrong’s files. They were incredibly well organised and he had quite clearly gone through them before delivering them to the National Library, occasionally writing a note clarifying something - such as “not sent” on controversial letters, or “delivered approximately as written”, that sort of thing, which is very convenient for the researchers he must have envisaged would work through his extensive files.

I’m going to just comment and quote on the files here, which are quite astonishing. This is to help me with one part of my current chapter draft entitled “God Professors and Student Ratbags”. In this section I am looking at the responsibility felt by professors like Armstrong. Numbers in brackets are just the reference number in my research notes and only make sense to me.

DMA Files Series 6 Folder 2 (Box 22) contains stacks of letters in what can only be called a conspiracy to try to ensure Knopfelmacher  was appointed to the University of Sydney, including not appointing people for some time, so that he could “honestly” say that the University had no competent logicians and they needed K. (413)

Series 6 Folder 4 - mostly about the Marxist-Leninist course dispute in the Philosophy Dept in1971, including press clippings. (415)

The Australian 17/6/1971 “We have made concession after concession but Professor Armstrong has not moved one millimetre, Dr Suchting said” (415)

SMH 12/6/71 “A meeting of 300 students at the University of Sydney on Thursday passed a resolution censuring Professor David Armstrong … for vetoing a proposed course on Marxism” (415)

The Australian 11/6/71 “The other professor in the philosophy department, Professor C Martin, described Professor Armstrong’s behaviour as authoritarian” (415)

Philosophy Staff Meeting Summary of Proceedings 24/5/71 “DMA made a statement of intention that … he himself would vote against the Departmnt’s recpommendation if there was evidence that a candidate was not prepared to work within the institutional framework of the University eg if he was associated with sit-ins…he saw this not as punitive action but as a matter of protecting the institution against known dangers. (415)

When staff and students were angry about him vetoing the Marxism course, he wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Bruce Williams, who confirmed that he was indeed “overall responsible” for what was taught in the department. (416)

Series 6 Folder 10 (Box 23) Letter to the Editor, National Review, from DMA 31/8/1971 “They seem to want to substitute the God-Department for the out-worn God-Professor. I am against there being any Gods in a university” (418)

“…it has been my opinion, and that of most of the members of the Philosophy Department, that Professor Armstrong’s actions on several academic matters in recent months have been egocentric, unjust and politically motivated” Statement by Michael Devitt, 1972 (419)

DMA Series 6, folder 16

Armstrong’s Statement to the Professorial Board, 18/6/1971, giving reasons (and apologies) he forgot to mention before why a course in Philosophical Aspects of Feminist Thought (all of his former objections had been addressed) went on to read a transcript of an interview on ABC radio conducted by Jacka and Curthoys. The interviewer had asked Jacka dn Curthoys whether their course was “propaganda” – they had replied that it was certainly not unbiased. They had also said that Armstrong had been opposed to the course all along. In his statement prepared for the Professorial Board, DMA said:
“ I will omit from my reading the portion of the interview devoted to attacking me. That might unduly distress members of the Board”. (437)

To the ABC interviewer he wrote: “Please be assured that I have no intention whatsoever to take any legal proceedings. In fact I am a critic of libel and slander legislation…” (437)

Monday, 8 September 2008

John Burnheim: The Death of Student Politics?

I read the 1968 special edition of Vestes (The Australian Universities Review, Vol XI, No. 2) today, while I ate lunch, which focused - perhaps a little prematurely, in Australia, on student activism.

Other items worthy of comment were included in the edition but I wanted to quote from J.Burnheim (listed as Rector of St John's College, but I assume it is the same John Burnheim in the philosophy department at Sydney).

"All revolutions are confused, and most carry within them the seeds of their own undoing. It is futile to appraise them as if they were calmly thought-out plans for reform. Their significance lies in the vital impulses behind them rather than their explicit proposals or demands."

God Professors and Student Ratbags - structure

I often think the most funnest part of writing is structuring the thing at the start (though I often undo it again as I go). This one is especially fun: a draft (which will undoubtedly be entirely rewritten) of Chapter 2: God Professors and Student Ratbags: power and the ownership of knowledge in the 1960s and 1970s. The following are the headings throughout, at the moment. Intro and conclusions at both ends of course.

1. Treating students like morons: library fines (of all things - 'of all things' is not in it though...)
2. Violence/Knowledge: rethinking education
3. Freeing knowledge: the Free U
4. Student participation in knowledge: the Victoria Lee Case
5. Regulation 3.3.18: accessing knowledge
6. Communists, conspiracies and Professorial authority
7. New knowledge, new authority: the Philosophy Strike
8. Power/Assessment: Exam Resisters’ Manifesto

I think maybe #6 is not right: not all professors were paranoid about communist conspiracies.

Look like fun? This is my life for the next 3 weeks. Call me nerdy, but I think it looks like fun.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Masters and Scholars - Eric Ashby on funding and freedom

It has been at least a couple of weeks since I have quoted Eric Ashby. I am currently writing a paper on him for the ANZHES conference in December.

"The English language is, as you know, a treasury of equivocations. We call our private schools public, and we contrast our public sector of higher education (which really is public) with what we call our autonomous system of universities. But it is a fragile autonomy, because something like 85 per cent of he cost of running our autonomous universities comes from public funds. Alarmists in the British academic world fear government control and cry: 'Hands off the universities!' I do not share this alarm, for universities have always depended upon patrons to finance them, and over a stretch of seven centuries they have learnt how to dissuade their patrons - princes, bishops, tycoons, alumni - from meddling in their affairs."

"The German university of the nineteenth century gave two precious legacies to the academic world: Lehrfreiheit, which is the liberty of the professor to teach according to his convictions and his conscience, and Lernfreiheit, which is then liberty of the student to learn, according to his preferences, from the professors in whose classes he chooses to enrol. It was the combination of these two liberties which constituted academic freedom. But when these ideas crossed the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean they were changed. On the one hand Lehrfreiheit has been enlarged into a concept of academic freedom which gives a professor immunities not enjoyed by other professionals and not directly relevant to his academic work. A civil servant cannot directly preach anarchy. A doctor cannot advertise hi virtues on television. University professors can do both - and some of them do - and would regard it as a monstrous infringement of academic freedom if anyone questioned their right to do so."

Masters and Scholars: Reflections on the Rights and Responsibilities of Students, 1970, pp.10-11

Monday, 1 September 2008

Distance education in the wild

I am very glad to have just submitted this paper (draft here http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dfqggshp_27g4rbxscb) on the experiences of distance education staff in environments where distance is not considered to be a strategic priority.

This can be a little tough to see from where I am sitting now (that is, my PT job as an online ed designer at the centre of a university) makes it look like it wouldn't be that hard, especially beacause the technology is in place and we use it for on-campus students as well. But my experience - and from talking and surveying others - it is really challenging. This is because it takes a whole lot of different types of (not always visible) work to make sure students you never see have what they need and know what they need to do. People who teach or support students that they can see on campus are often surprised when they see what this actually takes. What it means in an institution where distance is marginal is that the invisibility of your work - since no one sees your students they also don't see the struggles of staff (who are also trying to hide their struggles from students, who they want to give a good experience too) can treat distance staff as quite wasteful. Nearly all distance education staff we spoke to reported their biggest challenge to be a sense of cultural and strategic isolation from the rest of their Faculties and the university.

And yet, as the fabulous Ruth Laxton keeps reminding me, nearly all universities now offer distance education, so it is something all universities now need to address.

Very important, I think, is giving a voice to the staff who feel they are working very, very hard to only face regular criticism or misunderstanding. This is why I called the paper "Distance Running" as the experience is a bit of an endurance exercise. I must admit to some relief at not be doing it at the moment. But I'd like to acknowledge the many who are. And also co-authors Jenny Pizzica, Ruth Laxton and Mary Jane Mahony, as well as the friendship of Sue Atkinson in the process.