Uncertainty is a Social Justice Issue

Credit K__ for reminding us that behind the big push for institutional efficiency is an even deeper emphasis on intellectual and experiential certainty. The academic pathway is inherently linear, in theory at least, with prescribed points of entry, predefined opportunities for (minimal) lateral movement, and an anticipated exit point (outcome) that is, basically, the grand anticipated EFFECT driving all this programmatic cause.

In short, they are burying options (K’s word) while reducing choice to a limited set of offerings. A menu is always clear about what you can’t eat. Even on the website a train of visually hierarchized click points guides the user into predetermined academic tunnels. Pathway certainty is rewarded with a smooth ride and a clearly defined outcome (schedule, course plan, instructions for how to show up on day one). The most certain among us may even have a JOB waiting for us at the end of the tracks.

What we have here is a frontal assault on the right to uncertainty (indecision, wandering, taking one’s time, deferral, waiting, patience, error, misstep, reconsideration). The emphasis on knowing where you’re going, from the start, ignores the very real possibility that a great many of us (most?) haven’t a clue what we want to do. Entire populations of otherwise enthusiastic travelers get thrown of course, arguably, when the decision to venture out is met with a limited set of trails to follow. What fun is that when the goal, for many, is just finding out what’s out there.

So what do we do with the indecisive, the wanderers, the hopelessly uncertain? How do we manage them? Their answer is to remove uncertainty as an option, to coax certainty by funneling all into prescribed channels. Promoted as free choice, the selection process is nothing more than a self-limiting exercise in intellectual and experiential foreclosure. You are made into what you (should/must?) want to be through an unwitting forfeiture of the right to pursue possibility and uncertainty.

Our answer, of course, is to recognize uncertainty and possibility (real option, the right to explore) as a social justice issue. Here in the city, where individual certainty is often the byproduct of privileged access to the codes and conduits of economic stability and upward mobility, uncertainty is often the defining characteristic of those we’ve been hired (by mission) to serve. Removing the option of an open path discriminates against those who benefit most from open access.

So our struggle in part, beyond curricular battles, is to defend the uncertain and the very principle of uncertainty. We are, in effect, the new traditionalists unwilling to let an old idea (the right to not know) die a very new kind of death.


What’s the Plan?

I want to believe that somewhere within all this operational momentum is a latent explosive force that will, once activated, bring the whole thing down, collapsing into itself. There is a sickness and it’s spreading. We have entered the age of Plague, and yet the illness is not new. One of the difficulties I face in recording all this is finding new language to describe an old problem.

One danger we face, in our effort to stem the tide of operational momentum (a very real kind of oppression), is that we will reach a point of limited movement or forced inactivity. Those familiar with the Plague and its ravages will recognize that pervasive feeling of exile, of standing still, frozen before the void. The first casualty, we know, is the collapse of courage, willpower, endurance. We cease looking to the future, and memory (institutional memory in particular) no longer serves a purpose. There’s a sense of being abandoned. Some light fires hoping to purge the infection but are then left homeless, staring at the ruins. And of course these radical arsonists will face heavy penalties for their actions, which helps no one. One could say there are people (even within our team) acting on crazy impulse as they wander the lifeless streets with darkness in their hearts.

But something must be done. We are losing the profession (our occupations) to political necessity and economic expediency. A response is required. This Plague is everyone’s concern, and while the mood is gloomy and we may feel an overwhelming sense of deprivation (for which many of us were not prepared), we need a plan, an action plan.

This journal is itself a hatched plan for communicating with the outside world but it’s not enough. The larger plan requires some version of the following:

  1. mapping the whole environment; defining our position relative to the lethal center
  2. clarifying our coordinates viz. other avenues of approach
  3. defining the pieces, arranging pieces for better understanding
  4. recognizing key players; keeping track of their movements

We’re not talking here about a wave of revolutionary violence but a coordinated action plan designed to make it clear that we are the answer to all their problems.

We have to start somewhere. All our recent work with productive modeling is just the beginning. Battles won on the design front are very satisfying but mean nothing in the end. The structural problems run much deeper, so while we defend the home front we must remember, too, that the plague’s reach is much wider than our own local institution.

We start at the center, then, and work our way outward.

A Note on Efficiency

[Measuring Cost and Efficiency Effects]

Even the experts acknowledge that measuring ‘output’ in education is difficult, but this doesn’t stop them from trying — because once you have a handle on a learning output (what it means and who’s responsible), the path to institutional efficiency is a much smoother ride, or so the argument goes.

Time may be the enemy, but output is the best friend you’ll ever have. The better you understand outputs, the easier it is to improve baseline efficiencies.

Efficiency begins with a clearly defined, educationally coherent guided pathway. The clearer the pathway, the clearer the output.

Some questions you might ask your prospective outputs:

  1. How confident are you about your program choices?
  2. Why don’t you want to enroll in high-demand, high-potential fields?
  3. How can we help you make informed choices?
  4. What are the economic returns of your program choices — to you, your family and the taxpayer?

Performance target –> pathway spending (expenditures per outcome) –> economic return.

Efficiency (defined as ‘awards per dollar of expenditure’) is now the endgame of higher education.

Enter the Plague. There is a gray dust on everything.



Cynicism is the new Action?

We find it mysterious and telling that they have given us unfettered access to their online development sandbox. Suddenly we’re privy to inter-office memos and minutes from meetings we weren’t allowed to attend. Was this intentional or accidental? Bureaucratic snafu or just part of the master plan? Either way we now know things they either don’t care that we know or want us desperately to know but are afraid or unwilling to tell us. It’s a strange position and one that complicates our rhetorical standpoint as readers.

From a quick scan of the material we learn certain things about ourselves — we “have concerns,” we “seek clarification,” we “are coming up with our own plan,” and so on. This is the stuff of vague paternalism. Their minutes report on our actions like Pavlov recording his dogs’ daily drool. In scouring the universe for obstacles they have spotted the biggest one of all in us. We get in the way of their plan, although some among us are starting to wonder if “plan” is really too strong a word. They have momentum, clearly, but it’s obvious they really don’t know what they’re doing, which makes way (on brighter days) for opportunity.

Meanwhile and anyway, we now have a window into their world, and what we see when we dig through their sandbox (besides dismissive comments about us) is not too surprising — a rabid push for efficiencies, a drive to compress all time and content, a deep fixation on predictive data analytics as the new alchemical elixir by which all things base and bumbling (the people we are, the people we serve) turn magically, upon implementation and application, into gold.

We’ve decided to take all this with a grain of salt. S_ argues that we ignore it — this is all background noise, and we don’t have to listen. We can and should push forward, defining our own social and occupational realities, our own peda/androgogies, our own priorities rooted in guiding principles informed by research, experience, awareness, compassion and a baseline commitment to do our jobs well.

But some of us wonder if we’re just wasting our time. Yes, we should move forward, but with that insatiable monster fuming in the cave, is our own organizational momentum itself a risky move?

H_ says we need a design push. D_ wants to form some kind of coalition of no and storm the meetings to which we’re not invited armed with everything we know they don’t know we know about them. In short, we’re at a standstill, swallowing our own inertia.

Meanwhile the SPIDER CHARTS posted to their share-space look sick and scary.