It’s just a jump to the left

So. Workplace change. Super fun happy time. I shouldn’t complain too much, because I’m in the fortunate position of having a continuing appointment so I will more than likely come out the other end still having a job. And yet. The new org chart removes all but one academic positions, so it’s essentially guaranteed that I will lose my academic position and be reassigned as professional staff.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been an academic for five and a half years now. I never planned to be an academic, just kind of fell into it. Despite this, I seemed to be rather suited to it. I made a fairly decent name for myself as an unconventional scholar. And without really meaning to it’s become fairly tied to me as an identity. When people ask what I do I say I’m an academic. It’s no secret that I’ve been ragingly cynical about many aspects of academia and have criticised the sector heavily along the way, but despite that it was still my niche. A far better fit for me than the classroom ever was. And I’m not sure how I feel about leaving that behind not by choice.

Ostensibly, it’s not a huge shift to step into learning design on a professional classification. I’ll get paid more, for one (I still think someone should do a ‘Things that pay more than Academic A” tumblr). The work will probably be similar, given how far my role has morphed away from academic development in the last year or so. I’ll have the same colleagues. I’ll lose the dead end career path associated with academics in central non-teaching roles. And yet. And yet.

I got an email from Academia Obscura the other day, noting that I was on some list or another as a ‘favourite academic tweeter’. This site still gets hits daily from being listed on The Thesis Whisperer as “more like us”. I have half a PhD done (albeit once again on suspension through not winning at work/life balance). The academia category on my blog is fairly extensive. It’s a lot of stuff to turn around and mark as no longer relevant. I think more than anything the thought of no longer having an institution to poke from the inside bothers me. Cowboy learning designer seems like a different genre. Not that I’ve done all that much poking of late but the principle is still there.

So, I don’t know. While no new positions have been allocated yet it’s certain I won’t have an academic one so I suppose this counts as my obligatory ‘leaving academia’ post, without the catharsis that would have come with doing it of my own accord and saying ‘sayonara suckers’. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of things I won’t miss. But, being the rogue academic isn’t one of them. I’ll miss that title. Onwards, though, I suppose, and I will see you all in another dimension, with voyeuristic intention (do I get bonus points for both beginning and ending with a painful musical reference?).

 

Re: elephants

In my post yesterday I referred to a myriad of elephants in the room regarding the teaching of academic integrity, which I thought I’d unpack here a bit. Many of them are symptoms of sector-wide problems and tie in with other significant issues like casualisation. I’m certainly not saying anything new but I still think it’s worth discussing.

1. Expectation vs reality

When teaching academic integrity people expect you to refer to the policy and the consequences of transgressions. If you do plagiarism, disciplinary action will happen. It sounds good in theory, but realities are very different. Let’s talk about the casual lecturer who isn’t paid for administrivia and red tape. Let’s talk about the lecturer who’s so time poor it’s more trouble than it’s worth to follow up investigations. Let’s talk about the lecturer who is pressured to pass full-fee paying students and turn a blind eye to plagiarism. Let’s talk about all the systematic issues that mean the likelihood of consequences eventuating for plagiarism and cheating is not nearly so high as everyone would like to believe.

2. Assessment

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Essays are the #1 easiest type of assessment to plagiarise and cheat on. Ghostwriters are everywhere and ridiculously easy to engage. Quizzes and exams are similarly easy to cheat (if you’re not convinced, search youtube for ‘how to cheat on an exam or quiz’). Until we have a system that supports the use of more authentic assessment types, this is still going to be an issue. And using more sophisticated and restrictive technologies to try and catch them or lock them down is not the solution, students who have access to a massive online hive mind will always be one step ahead.

3. Do as I say, not as I do

All academics adhere to the principles of academic integrity without question, right? Sure, we might know how to cite. But how many of us are attributing images we use in our online courses, or seeking permission for those bound by copyright? If it’s on Google it’s free to use, right? There are some significant holes in our understanding of things, particularly regarding the use of digital media.

4. Biting the hand that feeds you

It’s a hard reality that many universities are extremely reliant on full-fee-paying international students. And any significant disciplinary action runs the risk of jeopardising that. In some instances the customer really is always right.

5. Representation vs stereotyping

A particularly fraught issue when using actors is – do you cast characters that international students can identify with, or do you shy away from that lest you be seen as typecasting?

6. Siloing

Finally, the complex issue of life management. It’s easy to think academic integrity exists in a silo, just learn this and don’t do the naughty things and it will all be fine. But the reality is that many students are managing complex issues, some of which take priority over studies and over behaving with integrity. For some the shame of failing pulls far stronger than any potential risk of being caught.

 

So there you have it. None of these elephants can be addressed, all of them will impact the ability for any kind of strategy around academic integrity to have the level of impact we’d like. But until we see significant changes in the system, all we can do is fix the things we can. Godspeed, Brenda and Damo, godspeed.

I just wanted to ask some people some questions

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

Screen Shot 2014-01-22 at 1.55.39 pm

I’m currently in the process of upgrading my masters to a PhD, the thesis of which is likely to be via publication of a series of case studies on projects. And the fact that ‘projects’ is plural means multiple ethics applications in order to collect data. The problem is that, because what I do is coming up with new education-related stuff, generally the only type of data collection I want to do is surveying people, interviews and/or social media data, all of which falls under the umbrella of ‘asking people what they think of things’. And because I only ever want to report the data anonymously, it’s about the lowest-level thing you can do while still requiring ethical clearance. But every single time I am still forced to wade through a form (which is arguably one of the world’s most poorly-designed) asking if I will be exposing people to ionising radiation, drugging people or researching on foetuses. Or perhaps even more amusingly, ‘keeping data in a locked filing cabinet’ – evidently they haven’t heard of the internet.

Generally I would rather have dental surgery than fill out an ethics application. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And it’s a problem. I do a lot of stuff, at least some of which is pretty cool, but I don’t publish traditional papers very often. The fact that I would have to wade through an ethics application yet again just to be able to ask people what they think of what I’m doing in order to write a paper about it is a significant barrier. Red-taping research into the ground is not conducive to innovation or proliferation.

So I’m proposing a certification system for those who work in low-risk humanities-type disciplines and predominantly want to conduct anonymous surveys – do an application once and get a green card for the remainder of your academic career. Then you’re free to go forth and innovate and get participant experience data whenever you need it, without having to explain for the 900th time that you are not going to be irradiating people.

Academic etiquette. Super simple stuff.

So if you live in a) Brisbane or b) the internet, you’re probably aware of Queensland Rail’s Train Etiquette campaign and the fact that it subsequently turned into an excellent internet meme. It seemed to be to be far too good an opportunity to delve into academic etiquette to pass up. To wit:

Feel free to grab the posters from here and photoshop your own fun.

 

Tomatoes, timers and two-day papers

 

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about my frustrations with the academic writing process. Comments from Chris and M-H on that post have had my mind ticking over for the last while on it – that we don’t have to engage in academic writing the way we’re taught to, and that the Pomodoro and Shut Up and Write techniques are about giving you the focus to write freely.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my conceptual frustrations with academic writing still stand. But, because this is my line of work and I do sometimes have to play by the rules, I needed some way to engage in the process without getting in the way of myself. Enter Pomodoro. I downloaded an app and gave myself 25 minutes to give it a shot – 25 minutes to do nothing but write. No referencing, no stopping to check that a source validated what I was saying, no making sure I had a citation for everything I wanted to say. I didn’t look anything up at all. In short, I composed.

After 25 minutes I had 700 words. So I did it again. A few pomodoros later I’d written 2700 words in a day, which is somewhat unheard of for me. Not a single word of it was a citation or quote. Call me obtuse but the idea that I could just write whatever the hell I wanted was somewhat of a relevation. Obviously one needs to go back and make edits and add citations, but ignoring them completely in the first instance made such a difference to my ability to write. After another session this morning I effectively had the bulk of a paper written, in two days (after editing & referencing it won’t be a two-day paper but the alliteration worked nicely in the title and you get the idea).

Ultimately it’s not about the pomodoro itself – I don’t think it particularly matters that I do things in 25-minute increments with 5-minute breaks. What it has been is a catalyst for my thinking. I have the terrible (or excellent, depending on your viewpoint; I tend to the latter) habit normally of being very good at the ‘ideas and action’ part of research, but when it comes to writing I get so frustrated by the idea that I can’t write what I want in whatever form I want and actual people won’t read the end result anyway that I end up giving up in disgust and not writing anything at all. The stupid red tomato timer has at least highlighted a way out of that for me. It’s not a solution to the endemic problem of academic writing at large, but it’s at least a way to let my Trojan horse keep on rolling.

And yes, I’m writing this on a pomodoro now. 3 minutes to go.

NB: It appears that I have gotten myself into trouble now. After tweeting about starting to do pomodoros, @catspyjamasnz ‘helpfully’ decided August would be pomodoro-a-day month and now I can’t wriggle out of it. Sigh…

Says who?

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog
via

 

I’m going to start with this article, which the ever-prolific @marksmithers tweeted this morning. I’m not even going to touch on the ‘new model of learning’ nonsense; it was this line that struck me:

“While this crowd-based model of expertise cannot substitute for the highly educated scholar’s years of research and careful consideration of a single topic…”

I have two problems with this. One is that if you’re going to advocate for crowdsourced education then just do it and don’t placate the masses with ‘oh but don’t worry universities you still know best’. Perpetuating the ‘proper education’ myth isn’t helping anyone. The other is an interesting and highly pervasive assumption that has bugged me for a long time now. My vaguely-tweeted stream of consciousness as I was reading was probably not clear enough and so et voilá, this post (although thanks to everyone who has already twit-sparred with me on this point).

We have in place in society at large, education particularly and academia specifically, an assumption that knowledge cannot exist of its own accord, it must be verified by others. Which, generally, is fair enough because the world is full of idiots who will happily believe anything sans any sort of critical thinking. However – when this assumption is so pervasive that it manifests itself in systems like peer review and beliefs like ‘Wikipedia is not a reliable source’, we have a problem. It strikes me that several of the component assumptions that contribute to this are completely spurious.

‘knowledge must be reviewed by experts’

Great. We certainly want people who know what they’re talking about to review and critique things. The problem I have with this is that we seem to assume that only ‘subject experts’ from within a particular discipline fit this description. It strikes me as a rather narrow way to think about things and an excellent way to promote insularity. I’m not saying we should abandon it entirely but broadening our definition of ‘expert’ would be entirely beneficial. I also have an issue with the means by which someone becomes to be considered an expert, which you can read about here.

‘experts must come from institutions’

So – where does one source these experts? From universities (or, if we’re talking about the Wikipedia issue, encyclopaedia and dictionary companies). The problem with this is that anyone who has worked anywhere, ever, knows that being intelligent, rational and in possession of deep and critical thinking on a subject are not necessarily criteria for employment, even in the upper echelons of prestigious universities.What I’m saying here is that sometimes qualified tradesmen do dodgy, awful work and sometimes your brother-in-law who’s an accountant but a bit handy does an excellent job repairing your fence and saves you a lot of money.

‘experts must be verified by an authority’

Related to the above is the fact that we assume that gaining qualifications indicates you know what you are talking about. In many cases this is true. However, we all know that Ps get degrees, and that all institutions are not created equal, and that some of the smartest people we know don’t have degrees at all. Additionally, I ask – why do we assume that the people at the institution are able to judge someone as competent or knowledgable? And why do we assume that the metrics that we use to do this are reliable (for instance, it seems misguided to me to assume that because somebody can write an essay and complete an online quiz it follows that they can think critically on a topic and/or have achieved ‘learning’)?

‘crowdsourced knowledge cannot be accurate’

It’s a follow-on from the above – because ‘crowds’ do not contain ‘experts’. What I find stunningly ironic is that the academe routinely shuns Wikipedia for this exact reason but happily endorses peer review, even though crowdsourcing is the exact process by which peer review is conducted. Just because you limit your ‘crowd’ to employed academics does not mean this is not what you are doing. What makes the knowledge of two blind reviewers more accurate or legitimate than two academics editing a Wikipedia article? Substitute the words ‘review panel’ for ‘internet’ in the cartoon above and it is no less relevant. At least on Wikipedia I can pull a named history of edits and contributors. I can’t say the same for the review comments on a paper I’ve submitted.

The next question is, of course, what do I suggest we do about it?

A. Crowd-based non-anonymous reputation mechanisms.

To clarify. Think about the way that you engage in a professional community (or an interest community or any sort of community at all really), and the metrics by which you personally use to determine whether a person is credible (or ‘an expert’ or whatever). It’s generally a subtle and multi-layer process, which may or may not include degrees held or institutions worked at, but that more than likely also includes things like how the person engages online, what aspects of themselves they make public, how they behave, what they publish (including blogs and tweets) and so on. Now imagine that 50 or 1000 or 10,000 people (from all sorts of sectors and disciplines) are all engaging in the same process around the same person. Sure some of those people will probably be idiots or sycophants (just like in the current world of blind peer review, so we’re not losing out on much here). A lot of them won’t be and the result will be kind of a critical-mass picture of that person’s credibility. This process, to me, holds more water than a handful of letters or a tenure contract. A public process of reputation allows a really transparent and broad definition of expertise via which knowledge and research can be verified.

It’s not an easy solution. But the more we insist on ignoring the subtle layers that make up ‘expertise’ and the process of knowledge verification, the more in danger we are of making the academe insular and narrow (and yes, I did just hear many of you say ‘more so? Is that even possible?’).

Notes on words

 

It’s occurred to me that I have a problem with research and writing. My problem is that my undergraduate training was as a musician – specifically, a composition major. Let me explain.

When you are working as a composer (or as a performer, or as anything other than a musicologist really), the way you conduct and communicate research is vastly different to standard research practice. Your first task, before doing anything else, is to be a sponge. To listen and listen and listen to everything you can, analysing it and pulling it apart to understand its context, construction, execution and so on. This is a continuous thing that never really stops. But then – you create. You start writing (or practicing). Everything you’ve absorbed informs and shapes what you create, but you are using it as a foundation for a pure act of creation. You can create whatever you like, regardless of whether anyone else has created something similar before or not, and you are accountable only to your own informed and educated sense of aesthetic. You’re not required to stop every five bars and reference somebody else’s work. You’re not required to append a list of everything you listened to before creating the work to the end of each composition or recital. It is assumed that you have listened and read widely and that this is digested through your own creative processes to produce music. It is up to the listener to recognise influences and hear the stylistic shaping of the work of others.

This is my problem. I still behave like a musician, despite the fact that I now work in education research. Every day I am reading and analysing and digesting everything I can get my hands on. Articles and papers and posts and environments and spaces, nothing is safe. But when it comes time to create I come unstuck. I find it incredibly stifling that I cannot just write, cannot just create. I cannot say something without providing very specific references to somebody who has already said something similar. I am required to stop and reference somebody else’s work and append a list of everything I’ve read to the end of each creation. It is not enough to assume I have read and experienced widely, and I cannot leave it up to the reader to recognise influences and hear the shaping of the work of others. It is infuriating.

This became clear to me only recently. I had always just assumed I was a hard slogger when it came to writing and it wouldn’t come easily. But then, I started running Coffeecourses and keeping everything in a running ‘syllabus’ document. 11,000 words and counting, no problem. I was free to write as I wanted to and it came easily. Then it occurred to me this blog passed 50,000 words a while back. Same thing. It’s only when I am forced to write in conventional academic style that I come unstuck. When I cannot just create.

So perhaps this muso bent of mine has me at a disadvantage. I can’t be alone in recognising this as madness, though. Why can’t academic writing be like composing? Why does a fundamentally creative act have to be so stifled by convention? What would happen if we just stopped referencing Someone (2011: 16) every five lines and just relied on our informed and educated sense of academic aesthetic to identify a well-informed, well-constructed work?