Is it really about what you know?

About eight weeks ago I wrote an open letter to my colleagues at Western University as part of the alternative “100 Days of Listening” tour curated at noahconfidenze.tumblr.com in response to the controversy surrounding the compensation packet of our president, Amit Chakma. Noah liked my post, and asked me back; this time around – why? Maybe it’s the humid summer air! – I’m feeling optimistic, and the tone of my letter (addressed to Dr Chakma this time) is forward looking. Call me a naive optimist if you like, but I still believe we have the chance to shift the neoliberal juggernaut driving through the heart of liberal arts education in Canada. This letter, reproduced below with Noah’s kind permission, suggests an important reason why we need to keep pressing the point.

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Dear Amit,

I’m writing today as a colleague who also loves stories. During your brief meeting with my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities back in April, you talked a bit about your personal library, and about how much you valued having not only engineering books on your shelves there. I found your description of your library inspiring; it was a heartfelt reminder that we all need stories in our lives, in part because stories are the raw material we use to live our lives: to look backward, forward, and all around us as we plot our routes through the world.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately, even more than usual. As I’m a professor in English and Writing Studies, stories are my stock-in-trade; further, as I’m one of the founding faculty members in Theatre Studies at Western, stories for me are more than words on paper or even oral narratives; they are embodied tales of the worlds we inhabit, built in intimate collaboration with the other bodies and narratives that surround us. So stories are a huge part of my life.

My mother, however, is struggling these days to retain her stories. She is living with dementia, and more and more the stories she remembers cling to her like spring water, feeding her from the rivers of her past as she copes with each new disappointment in each new day. My mom never got a lot of education, though she was bright and full of potential; WWII got in her way, and then followed the quotidian vagaries of making a living and helping to support a family in the new world to which she fled. But I know that, had she gone to university, she would have been filled up with stories. And she would have carried those stories with her like treasures through her life.

My mom was a math whiz; she would not have gone into English or even into Theatre Studies. But I have no doubt that she would have taken loads of liberal arts courses, given her lifelong love of storytelling. And that’s something I’ve learned from her as she navigates this difficult new chapter in her life: that stories are not just for the English-oriented liberal arts kids, far from it. In a new article called “Changing How We Think About the Goals of Higher Education,” Chad Hanson, a sociologist at Casper College, argues that the most important take-aways students receive at university have little to do with the specific content they absorb, and much more to do with how they absorb it, and with what the nature of their learning experience helps them to discover about themselves. Hanson is arguing for a much broader approach to assessing student learning than cognitive science and similar mechanisms can gather; he is insisting on the social, rather than the statistical, value of storytelling to the way we measure what students carry with them as they walk across our stages at convocation.

I can attest to the common sense of Hanson’s argument. When I think back to my own undergraduate career, in the English Department at the University of Alberta in the middle 1990s, it’s not the names and dates of novels and characters I remember; it’s the teaching styles of the instructors I had, and it’s especially the debates about our world, our nation, politics and culture the stories we read provoked. Thanks to those experiences I, long bent on a career as an architect, turned to graduate school in the humanities instead, and then to a PhD in theatre studies. And thanks to those experiences I found I had a built-in model for how to teach effectively: when time came for me to step in front of a class of my own, I brought the nuts and bolts of my favourite instructors’ group workshops to bear on my own teaching practice.

Hanson writes:

When we think of students as a human form of capital, the view potentially restricts our intellectual terrain. We run the risk of limiting ourselves to questions about what students know or how they perform prescribed tasks. We lose sight of the notion that schools allow people to forge new selves.

Amit, regardless of the specific departments or faculties our students choose as a base for their university educations, all seek stories to propel themselves future-ward. And they seek the means to tell those stories, to navigate the tales of others, and to fashion from the mix of emotions and events that make up their university educations the ability to shape themselves into citizens. Those of us who teach in the Arts and Humanities are the ones who help with these challenges, who shape our learners into not just employees but also citizens. Hanson again:

Knowledge and skills are not necessarily the most important factors when it comes to the question of whom a business will hire. Picture a typical job interview. Employers rarely conduct knowledge or skills tests as part of the hiring process. An interview is an exercise in storytelling. Candidates are asked to tell the story of themselves: who they are, what they are like, where they have been, and what their futures hold in store.

There are a lot of reasons for Western to value preciously its faculty in the Arts and Humanities. And stories are a big one.

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Yours with respect,

Kim Solga

On the power of academic protest (take academia back!)

If you work in the Canadian university system you have probably heard about what’s recently been happening at my school, Western University. Our president, chemical engineer Amit Chakma, is at the centre of a scandal about administrative pay: his contract permitted him to take home double his pay packet at the end of his first term in office, in lieu of the administrative leave he was due. (What is administrative leave? It is a sabbatical given to scholars after several years in major administrative jobs in order that they may catch up on their research work. Since university administrators are traditionally drawn from the faculty, the assumption is they will return to active teaching and research once their admin gig is done.) Admin leave is not a holiday with pay: it’s a chance to get back up to speed in the job for which you are normally paid, and from which you had been seconded in order to do administrative labour for the university. Dr Chakma’s poor choice, to take a huge bonus instead of leave, sent the opposite message: that research leaves are a kind of “free money” opportunity, paid for by the suckers who hold the public purse.

As a result of Chakma-gate, as this event and its aftermath have become known, my colleagues and I find ourselves exhausted and frustrated, as we constantly defend the nature of our work to friends, family, and beyond. The other week, to offer just one example, I found myself explaining to the farmer who produces my weekly veg box what sabbaticals are (essential, concentrated research time, during which the books and papers needed for tenure and promotion get written) and how difficult they can be to afford for many ordinary faculty members (at Western, you take a pay cut when you’re on sabbatical). I just wanted to buy my veg on my one free day that week! But when you’re confronted by (a totally kind, generally ethical) somebody who is pretty sure, based on his reading of recent events in the papers, that you are an overprivileged fat cat, well… it’s hard just to plunk down your $20 and walk away.

Professors – elitist ivory-tower dwellers blah blah blah – are easy targets at the best of times; now, Chakma-gate has got us mixed up in many minds with the bankers and politicians who cravenly screw the public over for money and power. The really sad bit, though, is that President Chakma’s contract provisions are only one very visible symptom of a much larger, systemic problem: university governance models, including at Western, rely increasingly on excessively paid career bureaucrats who dictate neoliberal policy from above to diffuse and vulnerable students and faculty below. As Terry Eagleton recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the impact of the problem is wide-reaching and most devastating for the liberal arts disciplines whose daily work is hardest to link directly to the profit motive. In other words: under Dr Chakma’s presidency, many of us in the ordinary faculty have felt left out and screwed over, too. And many, many of us have not reaped anything like the benefits he has – quite the opposite.

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That’s the depressing bit. The GOOD news is that Chakma-gate has also proven to be a truly galvanising force for faculty and students at Western who are fed up with a budget model that plays favourites among faculties and presses the arts and humanities to accept increasing austerity measures while lavishing money, support, and bling on STEM and the school of business. Protests, votes of non-confidence, and lots of discussion in the media have prompted Dr Chakma first to pledge to give back his “bonus” pay, and then to engage in what he calls “100 Days of Listening” as he speaks with different constituencies about our ongoing concerns. Looking out across our university’s rapidly decaying forest from the top of this particular tree, a number of my colleagues have chosen to take Chakma-gate as a real opportunity to try to arrest what sometimes feels like our intractable slide into a “new normal” – in which higher education is reframed as “job training”, with no room for the arts, social sciences, or any discipline in which the debating of ideas takes precedence over skill and content delivery in the service of increasing corporate profits.

This fight is a long time coming, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of an academic community that is so geared up for it. For the two years I was in the UK, I lived and worked in the shadow of the dystopian endgame toward which schools like Western are marching. (I’ve written about this on the blog before; see here and here for two representative posts.) While I was part of the truly incredible Department of Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, one filled with brilliant community activists and scholar-artists, too regularly we felt like protest against the neoliberal hierarchy in which we were trapped was pointless and the system more or less immovable. The best we could do was keep calm, keep writing and talking about the problem, and then find a way to manage the workload amidst the gloom.

At Western, right now, I feel like we still have the chance to fight this fight and win – but the window is closing. As part of the ongoing protests in the wake of Chakma-gate, a handful of my colleagues have created an “alternative” 100-days-of-listening tour, in which faculty and students share their perspectives on the larger issues at stake via blog posts on social media, primarily through a dedicated tumblr account and the superb Facebook group, Take Academia Back. I recently contributed a blog post to the “alt” tour; it will be up shortly, and I’ll reblog it here at that time. For now, I want to urge all of you to click on the metadata links I’ve built into this post, read a bit about Chakma-gate and the protests in its wake, and follow similar stories on your home campuses and in your communities.

I also want to urge you, if you have not already, to join Take Academia Back on Facebook, to follow “Noah Confidenze”, our online protest alias, on tumblr – and to share in the comments below (or anywhere you think most productive) your own stories of fighting back against higher ed’s reductive and damaging new normal(s). Keep talking, and if you can, start mobilising! I know it’s extra work, and we’re all tired – but that’s the point, I suspect. The new normal wants us to be too tired to mobilise against it. That’s what makes it so dangerous.

'I love to come here because it reminds me of how I became a capitalist.'

This fight is too important to give up on. Our futures hang in the balance – and I know from my time abroad that it is not a future any of us would choose to live or work in.

In solidarity!

Kim