Friday, 23 August 2013

a rant about whinging

There is a great deal wrong with universities, but we academics really need to watch our whinging. I’ve sometimes wondered how those authors of books that relay academic views on universities have managed to find so many variations of the phrase ‘academics complain a lot…(about)’.

The problem with our whining habits struck me one day when I was travelling with colleagues (they will know who they are and that I hold them in esteem and affection). Five historians in a car, travelling through the desert, all of us complaining about the academic life, how it invaded family, how impossible work-life balance was, how difficult it was to manage financially through a PhD and early career, how the university was screwed and we should all go on strike – except no one would likely notice that a bit less history got written the week we waved signs pretending that we, with our 20-25 years of education each, had lots in common with early 20th C miners who, with between 3 and 9 years of education each, fought for the 8 hour day.

What struck me was not how screwed the universities are – I’ve been looking at this, indeed it has been my passion, for more than six years, to try to research a real way to understand and thus tackle our problems – but how little we acknowledged our privilege. Here we were, all five of us, with the surplus to be in the Australian outback doing community engagement work that would not result in any of the metrics our whining insists is the only thing our university cares about. Despite this belief, our university had in fact paid our airfares, food, car hire and accommodation – given how far we were away from our home base, this was a pretty big sum. Yes, the path is tough. But we are also profoundly privileged, in every sense.

The next day we each taught a year 9 double period in history at the local high school. This was a school that on any normal day will be missing around 30 per cent of its students – and I can confess that the students I had did not seem to be the types that wanted to learn history, so I couldn’t quite picture the ones who didn’t turn up.

And yet, I consider it to be our job to figure out how to educate everyone – for I take Whitlam’s ‘Everybody in Australia is entitled’ to an education seriously, not just the bit about how education should be free. I don’t believe it is our job in universities to only educate the handful of people who could pretty much educate themselves if we just gave them access to a decent library. I go mad reading about how ‘standards’ will fall when we educate 40% of young people. Did standards fall when we went from 0.2% to 3.2% - the same multiplier? When should we have stopped offering higher education to maintain ‘standards’? When it got to 5%? 10%? Or perhaps just a little after I got in, standards fell after that, not before, surely…? I also feel astonished by the scholars who decry the expansion of universities and imagine they would have been amongst the elite. Who is to say?

Those elite types, by the way, are usually raised in relatively-wealthy families with the surplus and family history in higher education to do things like discuss Foucault around the dinner table…and to be frank, I am not persuaded the parents of the kids I saw in the outback should be paying for those wealthy kids’ opportunity for a higher education (HECS, I reckon, was actually an amazingly equitable system – full-fees I oppose entirely. As for commodification and consumer-students….well, this whole blog is an ode in opposition to that).

After the year 9 double-period classes, when we were all a bit more aware of how easy our teaching work is in universities, we were talking to the teachers in the staff room. I’d been doing research, interviewing many teachers like them across a variety of disadvantaged schools, to see what we could learn about teaching more than the elite students who made it to our elite institution. That was when it hit me: unlike academics, they didn’t whinge. They worked long hours, weekends, evenings, school holidays, preparing teaching resources, brushing up on topics, reviewing curricula, doing the endless admin that plagues them, too. Even applying for grants, though these were actually for the school, not to travel overseas to do research (and have a family holiday while there). They had to be across a bewildering array of historical periods and topics (not just their favourites) and teach them to people not inclined to sit still and talk history – and who almost certainly had never heard of Foucault. And they did not complain. I asked them about this, once I noticed. Why not? ‘Oh, you get used to it’, they all said, cheerfully. Sheesh.

But this, I think, is not the worst thing about academic whinging. It is that it doesn’t do anything. We have a really big job to do now. We have to figure out how to offer good higher education to around 40% of school leavers. We obviously can’t do it at the price per head we could run an elite system, so as well as finding better ways to teach, it also has to be efficient. We believe it also needs to be linked to research, so we need to do that too. We need to persuade our administrators, government and the public that we are trustworthy enough for them not to need to collect data on our every move, because it is driving us crazy, inhibiting the creativity we need to do the work and taking up way too much of our time. But somehow they got the idea we couldn’t be trusted…and they probably didn’t get it from thin air. So we have to fix that.

We have SO much to do that we don’t have time for whinging. And if we hang around whinging instead of trying to tackle the problems at hand, those above us are just going to tell us how to do it and they’ll be wrong – giving us something more to whinge about. If instead, like those teachers, we got on and did it, and showed how it could be done and done well, demonstrating too how trustworthy we really are, all the things currently driving us crazy would, bit by bit, drop away.

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