Category Archives: pedagogy

New book chapter: “Institutions and Interpellations of the Dubject, the Doubled and Spaced Self”

I’ve got a chapter in Raphael Foshay’s just-published edited collection on Internet culture and politics, The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement.

“Institutions and interpellations of the dubject, the doubled and spaced self.” The Digital Nexus: Identity, Agency, and Political Engagement. Ed. Raphael Foshay. Edmonton: Athabasca UP, 2016.

At the links you’ll find free, full-text PDF versions of the book and its individual chapters, including mine. (Athabasca University Press is an Open Access scholarly publisher that sells print copies and offers free PDF copies simultaneously.)
Here’s a quick intro to what my article’s about (and what a “dubject” is):

This essay develops the idea of the dubject as a model of remediated subjectivity. It will discuss some theoretical and institutional contexts of the dubject, and then will consider digital manifestations of the dubject with reference to how popular digital applications interpellate the user (see Althusser 1971)—that is, how they impose specific ideological and institutional conditions and limitations on applications and on users’ possibilities for self-representation. This work is an attempt to think digital identity and agency in the context of postcoloniality, as a complement to the more prevalent approach to mediated identity in terms of postmodernity. This work thus builds my larger research project of applying postcolonialist critique to popular culture, particularly that of Canada’s majority white settler society. (128)

“Austerity U is fracked” (but here are two ideas for unfracking it)

FindlayTalk-AUE-4Mar15Yesterday at Athabasca U, the AU Faculty Association hosted a talk by Len Findlay, U of Saskatchewan Distinguished Professor of English and Chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom & Tenure committee. Professor Findlay’s talk was titled “Academics on Empty? Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and the Failure of Academic Leadership in Canada.” (Here’s the presentation from his talk.) This was galvanizing subject matter for a university and a province where academic freedom and collegial governance have been in question and imperilled for some time (as I’ve blogged previously).

Findlay critiqued the ongoing corporatization of Canadian universities, in the contexts of an increasingly authoritarian federal government that prioritizes resource extraction above everything, and an increasingly neoliberal (i.e. market-fundamentalist) governance of universities that’s restructuring them according to a reductive theory of value, entailing “intellectual species loss and desertification,” endangering academic freedom, and hollowing out collegial governance.

Findlay talked at length about his home institution’s “TransformUS” program prioritization plan, and how it was so effectively opposed by the joint efforts of faculty and students that it was ultimately abandoned.
Findlay is one of Canadian academia’s most gifted orators, and his talk was as witty in its form as it was worrisome in its content.

He recalled responding to a senior administrator’s claim that raising tuition would attract “the best and the brightest” by countering that it would instead attract only “the best-off and the whitest.” He described the colonization of education by business as a shift from the liberal arts to the “neoliberal arts,” and said (a few times) that “Austerity U is fracked.”
While that phrase resonated in the room, the ceiling – I kid you not – started to drip, likely from melting snow on the roof above. A few audience membes scrambled to get buckets and contact the building superintendent, while the rest of us marveled at the perfect metaphor trickling down into the middle of the room.
Findlay, undeterred, forged ahead with his talk. Maybe the most helpful take-away was that he identified two specific things that faculty and staff can watch for at any university that indicate collegial governance and academic freedom at the institution in question are under attack:

  1. Does the university president chair the General Faculties Council?
  2. Does the General Faculties Council (and/or other governing bodies, from the Board to departments and programs) use a “consent agenda” for conducting meeting business?

About the ironically named “consent agenda” (a trivial procedure in Robert’s Rules that has been rapidly adopted and widely abused “to bury sins”), Findlay suggested replacing it with a “dissent agenda.” The consent agenda concept seemed new to him, and may be news to many readers, so it’s something to watch for – as are ways to object to it.

About the managerial disempowering of Faculties Councils, he advised that a university president who chairs a General Faculties Council should be challenged about occupying that chair; “the Faculties Council should facilitate the faculty’s work, not impose the president’s will.” He talked about how U Sask students and faculty (including the faculty union) had organized to successfully relieve their president of the GFC chair. Findlay argued that these two governance trends suggest that “autocratic dictation” (in the guise of “institutional autonomy”) is supplanting “collegial discourse” in university governance.

Which should sound an alarm to faculty and faculty associations across Canada to mobilize towards protecting collegial governance, academic freedom, and the very university itself, as a public institution advancing the public interest – or, in Findlay’s words, as “the last redoubt of critique in Harperland.” In closing, Findlay exhorted us to work against the grain of possessive individualism (and the caricature it creates of the academic as self-interested careerist), and instead embrace advocacy and coalition-building as a vital part of the academic job description. (To which end, this post, along with all the live-tweeting, is one modest contribution.)

And, just for good measure, he also wondered aloud why tuition in Canada isn’t free. “Canada is a rich country, but not a generous one. We’re not generous to our young people, our Indigenous people.” Since Athabasca U’s particular mission is to remove barriers to university education – and tuition costs are the single most cited barrier – then free tuition is a public-interest ideal to strive for (especially in the wake of the abolition of tuition fees in places like Germany). But if that dream isn’t likely to become an imminent reality, neither can we justify raising tuition – as the government would now like to allow Alberta’s universities to do – without grievously jeopardizing Athabasca U’s mission and reputation. “For this university to become elitist by stealth,” warned Findlay, “would be a national disgrace.” I couldn’t agree more.

Lastly, in response to a Twitter query, I’ve put together, with Findlay’s help, a list of the research sources for his talk (along with some further recommended readings).

Works Cited in Len Findlay’s “Academics on Empty? Academic Freedom, Collegial Governance, and the Failure of Academic Leadership in Canada”

Collini, Stefan. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin, 2012. [Review in THE.]

Findlay, Len, ed. Rethinking the Humanities. Spec. issue of English Studies in Canada 38.1 (2012).

— and Paul M. Bidwell, eds. Pursuing Academic Freedom: “Free and Fearless”? Saskatoon: Purich P, 2001. [review in Canadian Literature]

Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. [Review in THS]

Kamboureli, Smaro and Daniel Coleman, eds. Retooling the
Humanities: The Culture of Research in Canadian Universities
.

Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2011.

MacKinnon, Peter. University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014.

Open For Business: On What Terms? CAUT. Ottawa. 2013.

Saskatchewan Federation of Labour v. Saskatchewan, 2015 SCC 4

Tuchman, Gaye. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.

Further Reading

Barkawi, Tarak. “The neoliberal assault on academia.” Al Jazeera 25 Apr. 2013.

Canavan, Gerry. “Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis.” 25 Feb. 2015.

Coetzee, J.M. “Universities head for extinction” [foreword to John Higgins’ Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa]. Mail & Guardian 1 Nov. 2013.

Findlay, Len. Rev. of Cary Nelson’s No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom. CAUT Bulletin, ca. 2010.

—. Rev. of Robert C. Post’s Democracy, Expertise & Academic Freedom: A First Amendment jurisprudence for the modern state. CAUT Bulletin, ca. 2012.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: 0 Books. [Preview a dubious proof copy of unknown provenance here.]

Giroux, Henry A. “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Truthout 29 Oct. 2013.

Hanke, Bob and Alison Hearn, eds. Out of the Ruins, the University to Come. Spec. issue of TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 28 (2012).

MacDonald, Dougal and Natalie Sharpe. “Chapter 3: Online Teaching and the Deskilling of Academic Labour in Canada.” Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System. Ed. Keith Hoeller. Vanderbilt UP, 2014. 65-74.

Marcus, Jon. “New analysis shows problematic boom in higher ed administrators.” Huffington Post 2 Jun. 2014.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

“Report of the CAUT Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Governance.” CAUT. 12 Nov. 2009.

Rooke, Constance. “The Engagement of Self and Other: Liberal education and its contributions to the public good.” The Idea of Engagement: Universities in Society. Ed. S. Bjarnason and P. Coldstream. London, The Policy Research Unit, The Association of Commonwealth Universities, 2003. 228-250.

Rumble, Greville. “Social justice, economics and distance education.” Open Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76.

Turk, James, ed. Academic Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle Over Free Speech Rights in the University. Toronto: Lorimer, 2014.

Warner, Marina. “Learning My Lesson: Marina Warner on the Disfiguring of Higher Education.” London Review of Books 37.6 (19 March 2015).

The Main Thing Students in Literary Studies Need to Understand: “Talk About the Writing”

In this post I want to try to explain, as clearly as I can, two things: 1) the proper focus of academic essays on literature (or other cultural texts, like plays or songs); and 2) how to achieve that focus in essays of comparison and contrast among two or more texts.

1. In your essays, talk about the writing.

The proper subject of an essay in literary criticism (here meaning criticism of any textual form) is the writing: the text as a composition of significant elements of form and style. (The analysis of how these elements work together to achieve artistic effects and cultural functions is what we call close reading, and it’s the core methodology, the critical practice of literary studies.) It’s a common mistake for students new to English studies to treat a text like a “window” rather than a “painting,” as U Penn’s Prof Jack Lynch puts it, in his excellent, short guide to Getting an A on an English Paper – a guide that I would advise as an absolute must-read for every student in English literary studies.

in an English paper, don’t talk about the “real world.” Talk about the writing … don’t assume literature is a transparent window that shows us the real world — it’s not something we can reliably look through. Often it’s more like a painting than a window, and instead of looking through it we should learn to look at it. … this doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the real world behind the text. … Just remember that you don’t have any direct access to that real world, only representations of it. Never lose sight of that fact.

If an English paper is about these representations, then its thesis is the reader’s interpretation – that is, your interpretation – of how a given play constructs these representations, using dramatic techniques, literary devices, and other elements of form. Lynch describes some of these elements at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/EngPaper/close.html – for instance, diction, word order, metaphors. The seven-point list of categories of dramatic form posted for Athabasca University’s Engl 303 world drama course assignment in scene analysis assignment is another useful catalogue of dramatic techniques; I’ve also posted a similar list of Categories for Textual Analysis of works in various media, including drama.

2. Compare texts, then, on grounds of common elements of form.

The key to writing effective English essays of comparison and contrast lies in identifying which such dramatic techniques or elements of literary form furnish the most interesting or distinctive grounds on which to compare two plays, and thereby to argue your own distinctive interpretation of these plays.

As well as “writing about the ‘real world’,” another error common among students new to comparative criticism in particular is not comparing plays directly with each other, but rather discussing how each addresses the student’s chosen theme or thesis. So an essay making that kind of error might argue something to the effect that two plays both represent an identified theme, and discuss how each one does so separately from the other, without considering what elements of form they might have in common. (Essays like this also tend to stay focused on “real world” type content – characters’ actions and events, as though they’re things that happen, not scripted constructions composed to convey specific artistic and cultural effects.) Instead, a stronger essay of comparison and contrast might argue that two given plays compare or contrast in their representation of a given theme – through the uses of two or three different dramatic techniques and/or elements of literary form that each uses in a way that’s significantly similar to or different from how the other does.

Further reference

More about integrating the grounds of comparison for an essay of comparison and contrast is at this page I’ve created in the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network.

And if you’re still unsure about the whole “talk about the writing” thing, I’ve blogged more extensively about it.

And, lastly, in another blog post, I detail four specific steps to practice the close reading of texts, in order to focus on how they’re written and the implications of that writing.

Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —‘s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.

So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:

    Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.

    Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.

    Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.

    Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.

The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.

If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

Academic essay writing: pointers and resources

I recently learned a highschool friend is now pursuing a BA with #AthaU, and in response to their stated frustration with academic essay writing, I offered some pointers and resources. These might be useful for undergrad students generally – I know frustration with academic writing drives whole black markets (and I boo those black markets!1) – so voilà. (I’ve made some comments less #AthaU-specific, like the discussion of the campus student writing service.)

Here are some various tips and resources for effective, successful academic essay writing.

First, here’s the article by Cory Doctorow on writing for 20 minutes a day; it’s worth a read for his reasoning on this process, and for the related tips that can make the 20 minutes as productive as possible. http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html

Next, something I teach students is writing as a four-stage process: Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Proofreading. Sometimes the stages overlap, but understanding the importance of each stage means two things:
1) leaving enough time to follow this process (not leaving the whole writing job to the last minute); and
2) giving yourself enough time between stages to walk away from the work, for at least a day or two, so that you return to it with refreshed perspective (and so that you don’t burn out trying to push a project through to completion)

For any given essay assignment, you should try asking your tutor or instructor if you can send them your working thesis for the essay, or a point-form outline of the essay, or both. Some instructors welcome this consultation on process; others see it as conflict of interest (i.e. they can’t mark something they’ve helped put together in the first place). Do not ask an instructor to look at a complete first draft (unless this is required in the assignment instructions) – that would be a direct conflict of interest. But it is always worth asking if you can consult with the instructor on your initial thesis and approach to arguing it. (It could help the instructor to look more favourably on the final submission too.)

As a student, you can and should take advantage of your university’s student writing services office. This kind of service provides one-on-one feedback and coaching; the service works best once you have a draft essay for them to look at. Most universities’ writing service offices (like #AthaU’s Write Site) also have websites of their own that are full of tips and references for effective academic writing.

AU’s Write Site, for its part, has lots of publicly accessible essay writing tips and resources. Some examples you might find helpful:
Writing Resources: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-resources.php
Writing Genres and Samples: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/writing-genres.php
Research Writing: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/research.php

Getting the most out of your university’s writing coaching and consulting means contacting that office earlier instead of later. They’re sometimes quite busy, especially around common deadlines (e.g. midterm time, and ends of semesters).

You can also use a free online service called Paper Rater to check your own work for grammar, style, etc.: http://paperrater.com/

I can’t recommend highly enough a blog by a dedicated academic writing teacher; it’s called Explorations of Style and it covers just about anything and everything you want to know about academic writing, from macro-level uses and purposes to micro-level details of style and composition: http://explorationsofstyle.com/

Lastly, here are some sample rubrics of standard expectations for undergrad essay composition. One is at the Write Site: http://write-site.athabascau.ca/marking-scheme.php
The other is one I’ve adapted from my own undergrad learning and early TA work; it’s more specific to writing essays on literature, but some principles work across the curriculum: https://landing.athabascau.ca/pages/view/10019/grading-comments-for-essays-on-literature

I hope you find some of these tips and resources useful. If so, please share a comment, if you can spare a moment for it, to let me know which – if any – proved particularly helpful. (Or to alert me to others you’ve found useful.)

Note
1. As I expected, this post is drawing traffic from would-be “essay writing service” vendors – that is, vendors of academic fraud and plagiarism. As a teacher of writing, I categorically condemn and actively prosecute plagiarism: the fraudulent presentation of another’s unacknowledged work as one’s own. Plagiarism is academic misconduct and the student who attempts it incurs serious penalization, from a failing mark to expulsion from studies. Writing is a transferable, in-demand skill: learn it, don’t outsource it.

The research and teaching link: worth strengthening, not severing

Amidst a spectrum of positions on the relationship (or lack thereof) between research and teaching, I hold that research and teaching are integrally connected forms of academic labour: they drive, inform, and improve each other. The exact character and extent of the relationship between research and teaching has become a point for heated debate, of late: the emergence of the “teaching-stream” university model – in which courses and programs are taught by instructors who do no research – is a recent result of this debate, and I would suggest it is also a deeply troubling symptom of the neoliberal hegemony under which the modern university is increasingly a transnational corporation, and decreasingly an institution of public service and public interest.

Along with private research endowments and the continuing transfer of teaching labour to contingent academics, the “teaching stream” university model represents a further step in the corporatization of the university (of which Bill Readings warned in his 1996 book The University in Ruins), in no small part because of the instrumental rationalizations given to justify this model: the appeals to efficiency, performance indicators, and other narrowly economistic measurements that expose the neoliberal ideology driving the model – an ideology that is essentially hostile to and fearful of informed and reasoned critique.

To respond to the diminished public funding of higher education by proposing “teaching stream” restructuring, or related restructuring models1 (many of which – like the administrative push for MOOCs that outsource course production to private firms like Coursera – further the university’s corporatization), is not to innovate authoritative, critical, and accessible education, but instead serves only to legitimize the neoliberal pinch.

The answer to accelerated privatization is not more privatization.

The teaching-stream university model emerges not only amidst the political economy of austerity (which is, in any case, a social engineering program that uses the bottom line as both carrot and stick) but also amidst the perceived uncertainty, within the modern university, over how exactly research and teaching relate, or don’t, in the first place.

Research is a defining feature of the modern university, one that goes hand in hand with teaching.2 I insist on the integral interdependence of research and teaching, which – while it may stand in need of empirical quantification – has been written about by experts on academic freedom (see Horn), historians of the university institution (see Keefer), social scientists of university culture (see Appadurai), and critical theorists of postmodernity and globalization. A notable articulation of the close relationship between research and teaching appears in Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal study of postmodernity, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Anticipating more recent work by Appadurai on the “research imagination,” Lyotard affects a kind of etic perspective to investigate and theorize the institutional structures, discourses, and “language games” of the modern university that “legitimize” its social authority and capital. In the process, he discusses the didactic and dialectical intimacy of research and teaching:

It should be evident that research appeals to teaching as its necessary complement: the scientist needs an addressee who can in turn become the sender; he needs a partner. Otherwise, the verification of his statements would be impossible, since the non renewal of the requisite skills would eventually bring an end to the necessary, contradictory debate. Not only the truth of a scientist’s statement, but also his competence, is at stake in that debate. One’s competence is never an accomplished fact. It depends on whether or not the statement proposed is considered by one’s peers to be worth discussion in a sequence of argumentation and refutation. The truth of the statement and the competence of its sender are thus subject to the collective approval of a group of persons who are competent on an equal basis. Equals are needed and must be created. […]
you teach what you know: such is the expert. But as the student (the addressee of the didactic process) improves his skills, the expert can confide to him what he does not know but is trying to learn (at least if the expert is also involved in research). In this way, the student is introduced to the dialectics of research, or the game of producing scientific knowledge. (24-25, my emphases)

Perhaps the most obvious concrete example of what Lyotard describes here is the faculty supervision of graduate studies. The faculty member and graduate student negotiate a program of study and project of research in which the student works more or less independently, but in close consultation with the supervising faculty member. The outcome of the student’s labour in this dynamic, which is fundamentally a teaching and learning dynamic, is often publishable research. But the relationship between research and teaching occurs in the undergraduate context as well: I am presently reviewing the proofs of a soon-to-be-published study of globalized media, which the author introduces as a study based on previous lectures given to undergraduate students. Many academic books take shape in this way, and serve variously as textbooks for undergraduate study, or as more specialized monographs for graduate or expert research, or even sometimes as both.

I can think of numerous examples of Lyotard’s didactic and dialectical interdependence between research and teaching in my own academic work. I teach university courses that are grounded in my research interests, courses that, in turn, further develop and deepen these interests. For one recent example, a research article I published in 2009 has been reprinted in a new Oxford UP anthology on television studies. The book’s title, The Television Reader, signals its teaching orientation as a collection of studies selected to represent the state of research in a given field, and designed to introduce students to the field.

My first three peer-reviewed publications were papers produced in the course of graduate studies. That is, they began as essays undertaken in the context of teaching and learning – as assignments I completed for graduate courses – but thereafter (and with the supportive mentorship of the various course professors) I revised them and submitted them to refereed research journals, which subsequently accepted them for publication. As a university teacher, I have since had the pleasure to receive research essays by graduate and undergraduate students that I have thought worthy of refereed publication, and have offered mentorship, in turn, to these students to help their work find such publication. The courses I teach are correspondingly grounded in the learning and research I have undertaken on subjects of interest. For instance, having studied Afro-Futurist music in the course of doctoral research, and subsequently published some of this research, I have made a unit on Afro-Futurist music a cornerstone of courses I have taught on DJ Culture and on Black Atlantic literature and culture.

However, one of the most concrete materializations of the link between my research and teaching reversed that traditional flow from expertise to curriculum – it started with teaching work that led to research work, culminating in a 2009 article for University of Toronto Quarterly, a special issue on discourses of security in Canada. That article, “Come on back to the war,” analyzes the recurring and prevalent stereotyping and vilification of “the German” in Canadian popular culture, in order to argue that this largely unquestioned pop cultural trope constructs Canadian nationalism as a nationalism grounded in war – and, ironically, reproduces in Canada the kinds of nationalist structures of feeling that had previously legitimized in Germany the Nazi-fuelled xenophobia and genocide against which the Allies ostensibly fought in the first place.

As the essay itself recounts, its argument took shape as I was in the process of designing curriculum about Canadian popular culture for German graduate students, when I taught at the University of Bonn in 2006-07. Trying to identify Canadian cultural texts that are popular outside Canada and that would interest German students, I became quickly sensitized to texts that included stereotypical or vilified images of German citizens. And almost as quickly I became aware that there are lots of such images, from Anne of Green Gables to 22 Minutes. Such a distinct pattern emerged that I included it as a subject in my Bonn course on Canadian pop culture. During my time in Germany I was invited to give talks at numerous conferences, and at the universities of Bremen and Marburg I presented preliminary versions of a talk on this subject that formed the basis of the paper eventually published.

The talk at Bremen produced a memorable teaching moment for presenter and audience alike. The audience, mostly twenty- and thirty-something students, were surprised by this pattern of representations and led to critically reflect on their assumptions and understandings of Canada. For my part, I was surprised by how easily this subject led the audience members to comment on their own personal relationships to and understandings of Germany’s wartime history, with which many expressed discomfort and which some disavowed, born into a tragic and atrocious legacy not of their choosing.

When I gave the talk at Marburg, I was unaware the audience included representatives of Canada’s embassy in Germany. They expressed genuine concern over the subject – and particularly over the possibility I might publish on it. Rather ironically, that audience for my talk – itself a research product and, delivered as lecture, a practice of teaching – included my own doctoral supervisor (whom I had invited to give a talk at Bonn). He had excellent insights on the subject to share – with an equal he had helped to create.

Research and teaching, then, work together as complementary practices in what we might describe as the larger scenes of producing knowledge and of mobilizing it. They drive and inform each other, and in their potential segregation, their division into relatively private domains of their own, we must recognize only a localized symptom of the larger privatizing forces at work to reshape institutions of public service and public interest increasingly on a corporate model – which is to say a fundamentally undemocratic and exclusively profit-motivated model. Surely the collapse of democracy and the exclusive priority of profit are the ends of neither productive research nor effective teaching.

Notes

1. In the context of models of the corporatization of the university, Terry Anderson and Rory McGreal’s (2012) argument for a “no-frills” university warrants a detailed critique that it is beyond the scope of this essay to hazard. The “no-frills university model” calls for some restructuring that academics might welcome – e.g. the thinning of swollen senior administrative ranks – but also for some that we might not – e.g. dispensing with research for its purported irrelevance to teaching. Problematically, the “no-frills university” seems more easily (if unintentionally) aligned with the neoliberal corporatization of the university than with the socially progressive ethos of open higher learning that is Athabasca U’s mission, and that is eloquently expressed in Greville Rumble’s 2007 article “Social justice, economics, and distance education.”

2. Does research go hand in hand with teaching – or hand over fist? The modern university everywhere promotes research over and sometimes even against teaching. Research is what most academics go into the profession to do, while teaching is widely seen as a duty; academics speak of “teaching load,” never of “research load.” Leave from teaching duties to pursue research is called “release time.” I am oversimplifying matters, but I would be surprised to field any disagreement on this basic observation about university culture, which itself arguably has done much to facilitate the traction now enjoyed by “teaching-stream” university models.)

Works Cited

Anderson, Terry and Rory McGreal. “Disruptive Pedagogies and Technologies in Universities.” Educational Technology and Society 15.4 (2012): 380-89.

Appadurai, Arjun. “Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination.” Public Culture 12.1 (2000): 1-19.

Chapnick, Adam. “The teaching-only stream: Are we headed up a creek without a paddle?” University Affairs 10 Oct. 2012

Horn, Michael. “Students and Academic Freedom in Canada.” Historical Studies in Education 11.1 (1999): 1-32.

Keefer, Michael. Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars. Toronto: Anansi, 1996.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

McCutcheon, Mark A. “‘Come on back to the war’: Germany as the Other National Other in Canadian Popular Literature.” Discourses of Security, Peacekeeping Narratives and the Cultural Imagination in Canada. Spec. issue of University of Toronto Quarterly 78.2 (2009): 764-81.

—. “Downloading Doppelgängers: New Media Anxieties and Transnational Ironies in Battlestar Galactica.” Science Fiction Film and Television 2.1 (2009): 1-24. Rpt. in The Television Reader: Critical Perspectives in Canadian and US Television Studies. Ed. Tanner Mirrlees and Joseph Kispal-Kovacs. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2013.

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.

Rumble, Greville. “Social Justice, Economics and Distance Education.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning 22.2 (2007): 167-76.

A must-read blog post: “Just shut up.”

A brilliant, blunt defense of the need to read critically, even if doing so “ruins” a favourite movie or book:

http://gyzym.tumblr.com/post/39004853136/just-shut-up

This post tackles a common problem in teaching literary and cultural studies: the problem of students resisting critical reading because it “ruins” a cherished favourite text by “over-analyzing” it or “taking it too seriously.”

I get that it feels like things are being ruined, like people are looking for things to hate, like people are taking things too seriously. I even get that, as much as we’d like to pretend otherwise, it can feel like a personal attack to see a piece of media we’re attached to get put through the wringer…But consuming media critically is a skill, and in an age where media is more prevalent than ever before, it’s a skill worth having.

Link

The U of A Faculty of Arts blog supports and quotes from the AU Faculty Association’s stand on the Alberta Enterprise & Advanced Education Ministry’s  controversial “Letters of Expectation”:

“We should take their letter to heart.

“Its single most powerful sentence about the Government’s letter:

“‘The Letter, ultimately, is best understood as an attempt to justify the unjustifiable cut to the province’s postsecondary budget, a cut so deep – and made in one of the world’s richest jurisdictions – that it must be understood primarily as political, not financial.’

“The little university that could! Can we follow their lead?”

http://artssquared.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/faculty-association-at-athabasca-urges-board-not-to-sign-mandate-letter/

Conflicted about the #pdftribute

The research-sharing tribute to Aaron Swartz makes an eloquent statement, but harbours real risks.

On Friday, January 11, Internet activist and innovator Aaron Swartz committed suicide, at age 26. Swartz was behind RSS, DemandProgress, Reddit, and other initiatives and campaigns for the open Internet and Open Access. The US DOJ was pursuing a criminal case against him which the original plaintiffs, JSTOR and MIT, had earlier decided not to prosecute: in 2009, Swartz had exploited MIT systems to collect almost all of JSTOR’s digital archive, nearly 5 million articles. Swartz’s “guerrilla open access manifesto” explained his action as a radical opening of access to knowledge to the public. He was charged with fraud and theft and was facing millions of dollars in fines and up to a half-century in prison. Amidst the eulogies, obituaries, commentaries that followed this tragic turn, a grassroots academic tribute emerged: #pdftribute – a call for academics to share PDFs of their research openly online, using the twitter hashtag to aggregate them. I’ve watched and taken part in the #pdftribute; it’s part homage, part thanks, part protest. In this latter respect, it reminds me of the #TellVicEverything protest against Canadian Safety minister Vic Toews’ online surveillance bill: a protest that takes shape as oversharing.

But while, as I say, I’ve taken part in the #pdftribute, I must admit I’m also conflicted about it – as a scholar of copyright, sure, but mostly as a scholar per se. What is being protested? Who is being honoured? And what are the risks – both of protesting this way, and of not protesting this way?

What is being protested?

The #pdftribute is, in its conception, an eloquent, even poetically just recognition and extension of Swartz’s legacy. To honour the man “pursued” to his untimely death by “prosecutorial overreach” and “an exceptionally harsh array of charges” for seeking to open public access to knowledge, #pdftribute delegates the continuation of that opening-up work to academics: those whose writings had built the particular archive Swartz was prosecuted for opening. The idea is for academics to publicly share pdf articles of research that normally reside behind university libraries’ or publishers’ own paywalls.

The #pdftribute has, in a matter of mere days, put Open Access (#OA) in the public spotlight and given the movement new momentum. But because Swartz’s work, like the criminal case against him, involved so many different interests and institutions, the tribute risks losing the #OA mission, as participants and commentators in the #pdftribute Twitter feed weigh in on other matters, like DOJ procedure, bullying, copyright, abstractions like “freedom” and “truth,” not to mention meta-commentary like this on the tribute itself (as well as the regular quota of spam, of course). That said, the tribute’s complex, diversified character refracts the complex character in honour of whose diversified, progressive work it unfolds. some of these other matters are relevant and worth keeping sight of in the mix here: matters like copyright, dissent, and depression in particular, all in the context of emergent practices of criminalization: the “criminalization of people with disabilities and [the] criminalization of dissent,” as my RA shrewdly notes.

Even very early on, the #pdftribute demonstrated a disjunction between conception and execution. That is, the initial idea was for “academics” to “put their PDFs online in tribute.” Some responses have interpreted this invitation radically: one participant, acknowledging his work’s already OA, daringly suggested that “for real/risky tribute – post all PDFs you have,” meaning not just those academics have written themselves, but everything they’ve got a PDF copy of – for research, teaching, etc. But the Twitter feed shows that the majority of participants are posting links to or otherwise announcing that their work is already OA. That majority includes Yours Truly, for the moment anyway, for reasons I’ll take up below.

Who is being honoured?

I must admit that one of my first reactions to the #pdftribute – despite my own later participation in it – included a momentary rolling of the eye. An invitation to academics to publicize their research in the context of honouring such a major and widely followed Internet activist as Swartz is, inevitably, asking for an avalanche of smug self-aggrandizement, which in its milder forms we see in declarations of existing OA practice, and in its wilder forms makes grandiose or uncritically entitled-sounding claims for truth, freedom, etc.

So there is a risk, despite the recurring evocation of Swartz’s name in the Twitter feed, that Swartz himself could get lost in all the hustle and bustle? Or that related issues like depression get lost or neglected, in what at times amounts to a torrent of self-satisfied armchair slacktivism? (From which I’m not excluding myself.) Among the more extensive and reflective statements that keep Swartz and his work front and centre is Cory Doctorow’s moving and frank eulogy, which balances discussion of his radical, risky work and his personal difficulties, and which foregrounds copyright as the context for making sense of the former. Which brings me to ask:

What are the risks of participating?

As a critical scholar of copyright – but by no means a legal expert – I see a huge risk for academics here, individually and as a class. Publicly sharing publications that aren’t just copyright-protected but also – and more to the point – paywall- or password-protected incurs the real and all-too-present risk of litigation for infringement, or of counseling or being accomplice to infringement. One recent and troubling tweet I read this morning mentioned a professor suggesting that an undergrad class could “liberate” some JSTOR documents. To be frank, I don’t think that’s okay: I have since learned that this comment was made in jest. (Twitter is great for killing context and nuance, no?) Still, few enough professional academics – like the general public – have enough of a grasp on copyright to basics to make an informed decision for themselves whether to post or not – never mind suggesting (maybe even in jest) that students infringe university conduct codes and copyright law. For instance, while recent Canadian Supreme Court decisions and legislation have arguably brought Canadian copyright law’s provisions for “fair deling” much closer to US law’s provisions for “fair use,” there are significant differences in legislative language and in jurisprudence that may provide American participants here with safeguards and protections that cannot be extended to Canadian participants.

The #pdftribute enables the sharing of protected documents on the tacit premise that doing so is not just technically easy and but ethically straightforward. The ease of posting protected work here derives from the illusion of community that the tribute makes such acts appear to belong to. But herein lies the risk: a Twitter feed does not a community make. There is little solidarity and less security in leveraging such an ambivalent social medium for mass copyright infringement. The #pdftribute is not a community – what it is is a massive and growing papertrail. The current political-economic climate of copyright is leading publishers’ intermediaries and some publishers themselves, to act and react in highly unpredictable ways, as Canadian academia has seen over the last two years in the example of Access Copyright. So, when it comes to a bustling and openly aggregated action like #pdftribute, I can only assume that some copyright troll out there – or a horde of such trolls – is already taking names and starting to churn out reams of cease and desist notices, or maybe even gearing up for a class action on publishers’ behalf. As copyright scholar Paul K. Saint-Amour cautions:

you can seldom criticize the law by breaking it and yet expect the law to forgive your infraction as criticism. (19-20)

In addition, my RA suggests shrewdly that this infringement risk “doesn’t seem warranted by the entire lack of benefit it’d likely produce, especially when are options like organizing colleagues or teaching students to publish OA.” That is, the #pdftribute makes an eloquent statement, but to what extent does this mass sharing actually mobilize knowledge for the public, or communicate knowledge to the public, relative to that effected in the more concerted organizing and teaching of Open Access?

A related risk might be that of harm to the relationship between academic authors and academic publishers, a relationship that is already tense at best and openly hostile at worst, a spectrum seen in the Elsevier boycott, in Canada’s “quintet” of cases between public sectors and royalty-collecting societies, in the Hathi Trust case, and so on. In the context of this fraught, changing, and contested territory of academic capital, the #pdftribute is adding fuel to the fire. By polarizing scholars against publishers, the #pdftribute risks tarring all publishers with one broad brush, when even a cursory browse of the Sherpa-RoMEO database and the Directory of Open-Access Journals soon reveals that there is a vast spectrum of positions for publishers to occupy on the issue of Open Access, and that for all the “knowledge cartels” and monopolies out there, there are many other publishers who are deeply committed to Open Access.
Let me be clear that I offer these reflections not at all as a defence or justificaiton of the status quo in academic publishing. I support and pursue Open Access publishing. But I am concerned about the cultural-economic consequences of the shape and direction taken by the #pdftribute, and moreso about its potentially serious legal implications for academics from tenured professors to undergrad students.

What about the risks of not participating?

In closing, I’ll briefly consider the flipside: the risks of not taking part in the #pdftribute. As a critical scholar of copyright I do feel morally obliged to participate, a feeling based on extensive reading in the history and transformation of copyright law and an understanding of its constraints on innovation and growth in culture and knowledge. I imagine other critical scholars of copyright, Open Access, OER, social justice, censorship, and/or academic freedom may feel similarly obliged, and perhaps rightly so. Would declining to take part in the #pdftribute amount to remaining complicit with extant and emerging threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally? Could declining to take part mean the individual scholar or the whole profession misses an opportunity to affirm or even expand the principle of academic freedom? Or to transform the culture of knowledge communication and mobilization?

I don’t have answers to these speculative questions. What I do have is a profound uncertainty that the specific concrete character of the #pdftribute will in the long run represent an unequivocally positive gain for academic research and those who produce it. I offer these reflections and questions as an invitation to dialogue that can address and advance the interests of the Open Access movement, of scholars (both professional and student), and of academic publishers alike.

Works Cited

Doctorow, Cory. “RIP, Aaron Swartz.” BoingBoing 12 Jan. 2013.
Jauregui, Andres. “Academics tweet tribute to Aaron Swartz.” Huffington Post 13 Jan. 2013.
Kopstein, Joshua. “Aaron Swartz’s family releases statement, blames overreaching prosecutors for his untimely death.” The Verge 12 Jan. 2013.
McCutcheon, Mark A. #pdftribute tweets. 13-14 Jan. 2013.
Musli, Steven. “Researchers honor Swartz’s memory with PDF protest.” C|Net 13 Jan. 2013.
Payton, Laura. “‘Tell Vic Everything’ tweets protest online surveillance.” CBC 16 Feb. 2012
#pdftribute. N.d.
Richman, Jessica. “Tweet at all of the academics you know to put their PDFs online in tribute to @aaronsw. Use the hashtag #pdftribute.” Tweet 7:55 pm MT 12 Jan. 2013.
Saint-Amour, Paul K. The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.
Sample, Mark. “You want to challenge the knowledge cartels, don’t just make your research open, make your research about power. #pdftribute.” Tweet 9:25 am MT 13 Jan. 2013.
“World Peace.” “Had Aaron Swartz not been born, our Internet would be censored, truth would be an unknown word. RIP Aaron. The bullies will lose #pdftribute.” Tweet 9:56 am MT 14 Jan. 2013.

Two new posts at my university blog

Now the fall semester is underway, I’m making more extensive use of my other blog, housed at the Landing, Athabasca U’s social network. I’ve just written two posts there on different subjects.

“On Black British science fiction” is a post that’s developed in response to a question that arose on the SFRA listserv, about the perceived dearth of Afro-British writers working in SF. My answer to this (following critics like Kodwo Eshun, Paul Gilroy, and others) is that the preponderance of the black diasporic SF imaginary gets invested in music production.

The other post is fitting enough for the start of the semester: it’s about the course syllabus as a kind of contract – and about whether enough students understand this, and how educators might help them to do so. This post has drawn a few comments from students and educators alike – and a few tweets as well, including this reply:

Is it just me, or is this an unusually public statement on the subject from a university administrator? I’m not sure what to make of it.