Empathy Daleks

23 November 2020

The annual CRIG Seminar is a highlight of the calendar in Victorian academic libraries, and like everything else in 2020, this year's program was a bit different to normal. Entirely online, free, and open to all, the organising committee came up with three fantastic sessions spread over a week and a half. The first session on ‌OER resources and open pedagogy with Sarah Lambert and Rajiv Jhangiani was outstanding. Dr Jhangiani showed himself to be an extremely effective communicator about the importance and pedagogical benefits of open educational practices, and I learned a lot about how to do that better. But unfortunately for him, it was Dr Lambert's talk that struck me more forcefully. Lambert's research focusses on social justice actions and discourse within open educational practice. She spoke among other things about the effect of using and revising openly licensed educational resources to make them, well, less uniformly male and white. Her research shows some interesting effects of diversifying text books that were completely obvious in retrospect but that I had never properly considered.

Validation as a pedagogical tool

Her studies indicate that diversifying the authors, perspectives, representations and examples in standard textbooks is not simply "more inclusive" or "just" in an abstract way (though that would be good anyway). Students who feel they belong — who feel validated as members or potential members of a profession or academic discipline — are more likely to succeed and complete their degrees. That is, Lambert suggests that diversifying the authors and even the examples or hypothetical actors in university textbooks by itself has a positive effect on completion rates, engagement, and student satisfaction with courses. Amy Nusbaum shows in a recent article that OER is an effective way to accelerate this, because with licenses allowing "remixing" of content the examples used within open textbooks can be updated to suit local needs without having to rewrite the entire text.

It's possible I have never felt more White and male than I did listening to this. The thought "that's amazing" was immediately followed by "that's obvious". Because of course there is more cognitive load required by someone trying to learn about a field of study that is new to them, if they also have to deal with the (perhaps correct) impression that people like them are not really welcome in that field. Of course if one sees oneself as potentially part of "the field" because one sees oneself in the literature, engaging with that literature will be easier. Women and racialised people have been saying this for decades or longer in all sorts of contexts.

But it was Lambert uttering the magic words about diverse texts improving "student success" that suddenly felt quite subversive. To understand why, we need to interrogate what universities usually mean when they talk about "student success", and particularly the infrastructures universities have been building around it.

Universities as a site of discipline

Education systems are sites of discipline. There are "canons", "standards", "traditions" and examinations. In an interview for The New Inquiry about his book, Beyond education: radical studying for another world, Eli Meyerhoff describes the standard education system:

Its key elements include a vertical imaginary of individualized ascent up levels of education, a pedagogical mode of accounting with a system of honor and shame that eventually took the form of graded exams, hierarchical relationships of teacher over student, separations of students from the means of studying, the commodification of access to the means of studying through tuition, and opposed figures of educational waste (e.g., the dropout) and value (e.g., the graduate). This mode of study shapes subjects for their participation in governance and work within the dominant mode of world-making.

Universities are obsessed above all with correct forms. Heaven help the unwitting new recruit who accidentally refers to Professor Smith as Ms Smith, or mixes up the Pro-Vice Chancellor with the Deputy Provost. Enormous amounts of time and money are dedicated to ensuring that students italicise the correct words and use particular punctuation for any of half a dozen referencing systems that manage to somehow be incredibly prescriptive in the specifics whilst relatively vague, undefined and incomplete, never quite covering all possibilities. Avoiding plagiarism is now defined as whether your paper passes the test set by commercial black box software. The march of progress has inevitably led to a what John Warner has described as a "plagiarism singularity":

Paper mills are now using Turnitin/WriteCheck to certify to their customers that the essays they’ve purchased from the paper mill will successfully pass the Turnitin/WriteCheck report at their institution. ...Turnitin now sits at the center of a perfect little marketplace, a plagiarism singularity if you will, where they get paid coming and going to certify work as “original,” even though the very circular nature of the arrangement means the software itself is worthless when it comes to detecting originality.

The point of all this isn't really to "certify originality" at all, but in fact the opposite. Ironically, the fake obsession with originality hinders actual research, to the point that researchers are reduced to begging scientific publishers not to reject articles on the basis that they use standardised methods.

Above all else, a university degree certifies the holder's ability to follow particular rules, only some of which are explicitly stated. Those who have difficulty following — or even recognising — these rules are a problem for which the university seeks a solution. They are referred to by an ever-growing list of euphemisms: "first in family", "at risk", "non-traditional background", "diverse", "low SES", "disengaged". Students are told in more and less subtle ways that they don't belong, that they're here under sufferance, and when, inevitably, they fail, it will be their fault. The educational experience of the average undergraduate today is a multi-year hazing by what Jeffrey Moro calls, simply, "cop shit".

Empathy Daleks

"Cop shit" is evolving from the merely Kafkaesque (the Turnitin black box) to the Orwellian (The Intelligent Campus). Rather than waiting for students to fail classes, universities are now eagerly signing up for prediction machines to identify precrime students at risk of failing in order to "intervene". Jisc has spruiked their "Intelligent Campus" product as part of a more widespread push to use "learning analytics" to measure student "engagement". One of the more troubling aspects of this project is the narrative that it is a potential solution to the growing number of students experiencing acute mental distress. Instead of recognising that universities are particular site of trauma within a broader crisis of community and collective care in hyper-capitalist societies, and responding with increased human interaction and human connection, Jisc's "Intelligent Campus" doubles down to present the very disembodied, machinic cause of the problem as its own "solution".

Rather than rebuilding universities as the sites of genuine human care, connection, and community claimed in their glossy brochures and award winning websites, the business model of today's university produces empathy Daleks. Instead of the emotional intelligence of humans, universities embrace the artificial intelligence of machines to identify and neutralise non-compliance. Using analytics and automation to "nudge" "at-risk" students works on a kind of infection model: "test and trace" for the inability to match up to the university's model of a "good" student.

What do we mean by "success"?

What does it mean to say a student has "failed"? Rola Ajjawi tells us that 40% of students will fail at least one unit in the course of their degree. This is an extraordinary number. If four in ten students "fail", then surely it would be more accurate to say that the higher education system is broken. But then again, perhaps universities don't see this as a failure at all. Economists like to talk about "stated preferences" versus "revealed preferences". In perhaps the most under-stated sentence in her book, Generous thinking: a radical approach to saving the university, Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes:

The inability of institutions of higher education to transform their internal structures and processes in order to fully align with their stated mission and values may mean that the institutions have not in fact fully embraced that mission or those values.

Fitzpatrick's hope is for nothing less than a complete reconstruction of not only the role, but the culture and structures of the university:

It is not just a matter of making it possible for more kinds of people to achieve conventionally coded success within the institution, but instead of examining what constitutes success, how it is measured, and why.

So this is why I see Sarah Lambert's framing of the impact of diversifying university textbooks as so subversive. Lambert completely flips the assumption about what and who needs to change for students to have more success and engagement with education and learning. It is not merely that universities should diversify their teaching material because it's nice, or politically correct, or just. It's not simply that they should do so because it would go some way to resolve the misalignment that Fitzpatrick has identified between the university's stated and practiced values. Far more dangerously, universities should do this because it is shown to improve their own stated measures of their own success. Improving "student success" in this way requires a change in the university, not in the students.

And whist it's certainly not enough on its own, diversifying teaching material addresses "student success" much more cheaply, effectively, and ethically than any empathy Dalek ever will.