Power, geometry and places of education
David Keddie, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s the bitter end of August for me. End of summer, end of a year-long sabbatical and, to some extent, the end of WFH. Like it or not (and I kinda do like it), I’m going to have to spring myself from my gilded cage and go out to do things in the world, like getting on airplanes, giving talks, and teaching live classes for the first time since March 2020. I had actually been tempted to skip a proper post this week and just show you pictures of things that I’ve eaten, but I’ve decided to also have a little nibble at the hand that feeds me. I want to talk about universities, education, learning, the future of the world.
If you’re a close follower, you might have seen this coming. After all, someone who reads Dark Age Ahead and The End of Education in quick succession (1) can hardly avoid having some dour thoughts about the role that higher learning is currently playing in the unraveling of the world.
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Where to begin? Perhaps with the personal. As I just mentioned, I’m ramping up to teach again. Beginning next week, I’m teaching an undergraduate course. As I’ve been doing for the thirty-something years that I’ve taught this course, I’m dreaming of engaging exercises, demonstrations, discussions, marvellous flipped-classroom experiences. But in the background, I can hear the steady thrum of reality that, though there will be some students in the class who would be joyous at that prospect, there are many others who won’t be. This newsletter is no place for cynicism, and I really don’t want to sound like the jaded old prof who has given up on everything university (and I haven’t). I know you also don’t want to hear gag-worthy stories about how great life was back in the good old days when I went to school. In the end, I want to be hopeful, but in the middle, some of my despair might show.
Last night, I asked myself the same question I ask myself every year at about this time: What is university for? I even googled that very question (2). The search results listed some academic work on education, most of it having to do with empirical work in different types of learning styles (3) and the mission statements of a few different universities. These were interesting to read as most, in one way or another, emphasized the importance of preparing students to confront the world’s wicked problems or even of providing solutions to some of those problems through massive research efforts. There’s no way for this not to sound jaded, but those mission statements just didn’t line up very well with much of my experience of the teaching part of my job, especially at the undergraduate level, where I think our students most need help. (4)
I just spent a sordid hour going through some of the fundamentals of how higher education is funded where I live and work (the province of Ontario in the nation of Canada). I know that there’s wide variability in such funding models, so this won’t apply universally perhaps, but what is abundantly clear is that the largest portion of university funding comes from a headcount of students (which we lovingly refer to as the BIU or “basic income unit.”). That money comes both from the students themselves in the form of tuition and also from subsidies from our provincial government. There are lots of other arcane little bells and whistles in the funding formula, but that’s basically the story. Universities here exist largely on the backs of students and especially those students trying to get a first degree. I doubt that this is really news to anyone and I doubt that it varies very much from place to place.
But what are our students getting for this pot of money? Again, I’d like to think that there’s some value in what I have to offer. I work pretty hard to set up environments that make it possible for students to grow in all kinds of ways. I want them to receive some content but I also want them to have the tools to thrive in a very challenging and uncertain world. I want them to be able to process information, see patterns, think, judge, be critical, courageous, inspired and passionate. (5)
But the big dirty not-so-secret is that, these days, universities seem to be largely about something else. Following the arguments of Jane Jacobs, Neil Postman, Chris Hedges and umpteen others, universities have been put into the business of “credentialing.” A first university degree has been largely re-defined as a kind of passport to “the better life.”(6) Even though this is no secret (7) I feel slightly two-faced here as someone who has made a living at this work for over 30 years, many of them spent watching what was happening and feeling powerless to do anything about it. I’ve sometimes felt the same way as the character in the old joke about the chicken. (8) I’m sure that I’m missing large swaths of the conversation, but as far as I see, much of the discussion about universities and what they are doing and what they are for has focused on the “hows” and not the “whys.” (9) My university has some brilliant support teams to help us figure out how best to incorporate new learning technologies, the best kinds of assessments, etc. but less discussion about what we should all really be doing and why we should be doing it.
I’ve been thinking about this more recently because I see a contrast with current discussions that are taking place about workplaces in light of our dramatic and largely forced transition to WFH. As the world slowly opens up again, we’re finding that lots of people don’t want to go back to their old offices, and are seeing their work roles and their lives in new ways. In response to this, I see lots of employers taking really thoughtful approaches to questions about how their workplaces should function. What are the advantages of in-person work and what of online work? What kinds of workplace designs might be tweaked to provide the best of both worlds? In some ways, for workplace design, the big “why” questions are a little simpler. We understand better perhaps than we ever have some of the important issues related to employee wellbeing, but there’s less confusion about the big “why” of the workplace. Work settings are about productivity in the economic sense. I think it’s really great that conversations about how we work are taking place. From the outset of the pandemic, my fondest hope was that this catastrophe would lead us forward into a better future, rather than prompt us to clamour defensively to find a way back to the “good” old days. I think that work is being tackled.
In the world of education, though, I don’t see the same kinds of conversations. There are discussions taking place about important issues like student wellness and mental health (and indeed at my university and at many others, these conversations certainly pre-dated the pandemic). And there are plenty of discussions about the “how’s” of education, but many fewer about the “why’s.” If we are really unhappy about the transition to the credentialing model, can we find ways out of it other than by simply blowing up the system? (10) There are some huge questions here that are begging for attention. I’d love that conversation to get louder.
My own specialty in all of this has to do with the way that the design of spaces influences what happens in them. And if you look at the design of educational spaces, other than the inclusion of cooler-than-cool electronic enhancements to classrooms, I’m afraid the picture is less than inspiring. The main feature of any educational space I’ve ever experienced is that it is polarized. Such spaces are mostly rectangular, with a clearly defined focus of power. That’s where the teacher sits or stands. I’ve even noticed in smaller seminar rooms that students have an intuitive sense for where the seat of power rests. In a room with a ring of chairs and/or tables, students will avoid the end of the room closest to the door. They know that’s where the boss sits even if the room is empty when they enter it.
Though this seems like a basic feature of a teaching space, it speaks volumes about what we expect to happen there. The model, as it has been for hundreds of years, is that students file into the room. An instructor, possessing all the power, occupies the fulcrum of the room and holds forth.
A couple of years ago, I taught a course in one of the newest buildings on my campus. It was a pitched room with a large console at the front. Polarized as all get-out. There was no question where I belonged and where the students belonged. For many classes, I broke the students into smaller self-assorted working groups. For me, one of the most interesting features of those exercises had to do with the way that the students inhabited the spaces. Many clustered in back corners, often seated on the floor so as to be invisible to the seat of power. Some inhabited the sides of the room nearest the doors, perhaps to beat a hasty retreat or to make it easy to take breaks. Significantly, nobody came near the seat of power, even though I wasn’t in it. I spent most of the class wandering around, dropping in on conversations and nowhere near the front of the room. The bias towards a certain way of thinking about educational spaces meant that even when encouraged to treat the space in a non-traditional way, students couldn’t seem to overcome the impulse to sort themselves around the imaginary throne.
I’m not exactly sure how to re-design teaching spaces to defuse the powerful symbology of those spaces, nor that it is always the desirable thing to do. After all, productive work often needs direction from somewhere and it doesn’t just emerge organically from the group. More, my point is that the important questions about what we think education is for can sometimes be answered by looking at the design of our spaces. A room set up to encourage a centralized “giver” to a group of “receivers” may not be the design most conducive to challenging the role of a university as a bestower of economic walking papers rather than as a springboard to tackle the many urgent problems that face us.
(1) And I haven’t even mentioned Empire of Illusion, which was one of my reads this past week. Stay tuned.
(2) I’m not kidding. Googling ridiculous random stuff like that sometimes shakes loose some ideas.
(4) I won’t deny that there are other aspects of my job in which I think that my contributions have helped to advance the grander program. I’ve trained some really great students who are off doing good work in the world. Some of my own research and writing has helped to launch a vibrant new field. But these contributions, though real, are only one part of what universities are for. Or so I think.
(5) Now I’m starting to sound like one of those university mission statements
(6) aka more money to buy stuff
(7) my wife, when I told her what I was writing about, showed me a clip of a popular British whodunit named Vera in which a character laid out the story as precisely as anyone I’ve ever heard describe it. And then he jumped off a building.
(8) Patient to psychiatrist: I need some help with my brother. He thinks he’s a chicken.
Psychiatrist: Why don’t you just tell him he’s not a chicken?
Patient: I can’t. We need the eggs.
(9) though I admit that the two may sometimes be interlinked in important ways
(10) At the risk of losing our supply of eggs…
What I’ve been reading
I mentioned Chris Hedges in the post above. I just finished his Empire of Illusion, a book that I’ve had on my shelf for quite a while. I met Hedges briefly at a writer’s festival some years ago. This book had just come out and he was touring it. I remember that his talk was held at the festival hotel and the hallways and meeting room were jam-packed with fans. I knew very little about his work but he did strike me as having a very serious, dour, and anxious demeanour. Now, having read the book, I can see why. It’s a serious polemic about the loss of literacy, love, meaning and, yes, valuable education. It poses no solutions other than to remember that love conquers all. There must be more to say than that.
In a break with my usual habit of reading a novel and a fact book at the same time, my other reading was the interesting little book by Eric Kandel with the lofty title Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. Kandel won the Nobel Prize for some amazing work on the molecular basis of learning and memory but in more recent times he’s also been writing about art. He’s got a nice, simple manner in writing about the most difficult of topics. I was a little troubled by the fact that the neuroscience side of the book was a pretty low-level gloss (inevitable perhaps in a short book) whereas the art side of the book seemed to capture some really fascinating essences. I was tickled when I read the amateur reviews of the book, mostly contributed by people with a background in art, who said exactly the opposite: that the neuroscience was deep and gripping but the art history was sophomoric and gender-biased. So Kandel’s aspiration to “bridge the two cultures,” was not a complete success.
What I’m eating
I can’t help feel that this post has been a bit glum. Perhaps inevitable as I face a lot of hard slogging, descending temperatures and, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, a good year to limber up in preparation for shoveling mountains of snow. So I’m glad to end on the usual happy culinary note.
First, regular readers will remember that my daughter, in celebration of a milestone achievement, was offered the chance to ask for any kind of comestibles she might desire. Without hesitation, she answered “Baked Alaska.” It turned out she had no idea why she asked for this and she never expected me to follow through. It reminds me of a time long ago when I was flying off to a conference in DC and I asked her what she wanted me to bring her. Again, without hesitation, she answered “a ship in a bottle.” A weird request. Thank goodness the Smithsonian gift shop came through for me. So here’s the Baked Alaska. Other than long fiddly waits while things froze, there wasn’t a lot to this. It tasted good. We all gained a pound or two.
Next up, it’s fair season and my lady and I took ourselves off to the Canadian National Exhibition, which has as one selling point the purveyance of outrageous food. I shunned the ketchup and mustard ice cream but went for what was called a “dirty bacon cone,” which was bacon and Nutella in a cone so rock hard that it may have been left over from before the pandemic. I visit the dentist next Tuesday. Note also the suitably disconjugate and depraved look on my face.
Just to finish the series, here I am in the process of devouring yet more bacon (peameal this time) at our local farmer’s market. Note the similarly odd expression. I guess that’s just how I look these days.
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