Category Archives: Comment-fishing

Learning Frowns and Teaching Moments

It’s something of a pattern in your life as a teacher, though not one with high frequency. Once a  semester, maybe? Hard to tell. Though it’s a striking occurrence, the overall emotional impact is stronger than the situation’s specifics. You remember some of the most recent cases and you think a lot about them when they happen. But it’s not something constantly on your mind. It’s parallel to your core experience as a teacher, not the main thing you do.

Though it happens on occasion, it’s not something you can accurately predict. It’s neither surprising nor predictable.

You’d get some frowns during class. That part is common enough and you’ve learnt to interpret these frowns as moments of puzzlement, which lead to learning. They’re directed at you, the teacher. “How dare you challenge what we know?” So far, a pretty common case. Happens every week, probably. In William Perry’s classic description, you might guess this marks the transition from one position to another. The usual stuff of teaching.

But then, there’s this one student whose frowns become more insistent. Often a young woman (but you mostly teach young women anyway). Chances are that she comes from outside your field and took your class for quite specific a reason. Not the all-too-typical “trying to get an A in this class”. It’s not about raising a GPA. But she could be saying “I’m an A student” (to which you reply “well, you’re A student”). Or maybe it’s a completely different situation, having little to do with grades or signs of academic success. This dimension isn’t a necessary part of the pattern. Especially since the sample size is so small.

As her frowns get more frequent, other reactions might come up. Including vocal ones, possibly in a confrontational tone, demanding straight answers to what appears to her to be straight questions. Frowns have escalated into frustration. Your empathy might make you feel this student’s pain, but these comments aren’t a problem. They express something important.

What may be worrisome, to you, based on experience, is when this student tries to get others on “her side”. If she succeeds, it can be toxic for the classroom dynamic. But it can also be part of the peer-learning process.

Then, one day, you receive an email. A strongly worded email. Maybe the student is making demands. Maybe she’s more conciliatory. Those things vary quite a bit. But, still from experience, you recognise this email as a step in an important process. Your temptation might be to reply on the spot but you realise that a realtime interaction is more appropriate and you try to make an appointment with this student. Best possible use of your office hours.

If there’s a bit of time elapsing between receiving this email and getting the student’s visit, you might feel a bit of tension during classroom interactions, though you’re quite confident that something good will come out of all this. Of course, the tension was already there, what with all those frowns. But now things could be getting trickier. Or not. With experience, you’ve learnt to take these situations for what they are. Learning experiences.

By the time this learner comes to see you in your office, you have a fairly good grasp of how her semester has been going. But you still need more insight into the situation, so you start by asking a broad question.

And something clicks.

At this point, it’s clear to both people involved that you’re trying to help and the learner’s ready to learn. Even if you might be a tad bit defensive about some of the comments made, it’s quickly shifting into a teaching moment.

In some cases, it could also be an informal advising session. At other times, it might be closer to a discussion of pedagogical principles. But it’s clearly not anything like a griping session, though the frowns might continue throughout the whole interaction.

There’s a phase in which you learn the specifics of this particular learner’s case. Sometimes it might be quite personal, including family background, cultural identity (you teach in quite diverse a context), or “hopes and dreams”. Sometimes it’s restricted to the learner’s academic projects. But you come to understand this one pattern, this one thing which can help this one learner find the key to unlock her learning experience. Even if it plucks at your empathetic strings, you get to focus on the learning experience.

Obviously, you take the time it takes. This is one reason it’d be strange to think of your teaching work as being paid by the hour. This might be the most valuable part of your work and the most rewarding. But you don’t get paid extra if you do it well and you don’t get paid less if you don’t do it. It’s the teaching equivalent of bedside manners and it probably requires experience more than pointed advice. You may write about this type of thing to help other teachers. You might use some examples from these experiences if you act as a pedagogical advisor. But there’s no guarantee that others can learn directly from your experiences.

It’s on a case-by-case basis.


Digging into the Stuff: Coursepack for Material Culture

Been doing all sorts of crazy things with the main texts I’ll be using in my SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture course.

(Not sure how well these things will appear.)

One of those things is text-/wordmining. Not only looking at cited references (who cites whom, what texts could be complementary), but also looking concordance and such (how frequently certain words appear in those texts).

Here’s an example:

Clusters of collocate terms in Material Culture coursepack.
Clusters of collocate terms in Material Culture coursepack. – Made with

(This collocate cluster tool in action here.)

Also, using all sorts of terms related to material culture, specifically:

Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture.
Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture. – Made with
List of terms related to material culture, by frequency.
List of terms related to material culture, by frequency. – Made with

Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture.
Collapsed version of the word trends related to material culture, in coursepack texts for SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture. – Made with
Separate trends for words related to material culture, as found in texts for the SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture coursepack.
Separate trends for words related to material culture, as found in texts for the SOCI/ANTH 441 Material Culture coursepack. – Made with


Even just the “distinctive terms” of each text are interesting:

Terms differentiating coursepack texts.
Terms differentiating coursepack texts. Made with

(That corpus is found here.)

And, obviously, the obligatory word cloud…

Wordcloud of coursepack terms
Wordcloud for the Coursepack content in SOCI/ANTH 441 – Made with

See this wordcloud in action here.

Learning Objection

Context is key

Been thinking about learning. Nothing new there. What’s somewhat new is context. Context is complex, which is part of the reason I love contextuality so much.

In this case, the immediate context is “the holidays”, and more specifically, a time when I feel free to explore some things about which I deeply care. Hence, learning.

The broader context is that I applied for a position, back in late September. I’m still confident that I should eventually get this position (as, in all honesty and humbleness/humility, I know I’m the ideal person for the job), but the process is quite long and, according to people involved, effortful. Which means I’m in a sort of liminal state.

The position is for an education specialist in charge of an online learning portal affiliated with museums and other heritage institutions. Part of the work has to do with managing online resources meant for use in (formal) learning contexts. This material comes from museums and heritage societies and consists of (heritage) objects, lessons, and collections. Those who know EdTech can understand these items as “learning objects”, with all associated benefits and disadvantages.

Rethinking Learning Material

So I went back to the Learning Object (LO) literature (PDF). A bit messy and dusty, but I find quite a bit of value, in there. While I understand objections education and EdTech specialists have had as to the LO concept itself, I’m interested in work which has been done under the LO banner. The concept has lost much of its currency in some specialist contexts, but a specialist may still find inspiration in work which surrounded it.

I first learnt about LOs during the Spirit of Inquiry conference, back in 2007. That conference opened a “whole new world”, for me. I participated because it was hosted by my (still-current) learning institution and I tend to participate in all sorts of learning- and teaching-related activities, whenever I can. My own presentation (slidecast) was directly connected to what I later came to know as LOs. My basic idea was that learning material which could be shared online had some important benefits. Namely, this material can be free (as in speech), open, and flexible.

What I had in mind was quite simple. And I perceive this simplicity as a strength. I was talking about the kind of material that we, teachers, create anyway, regardless of other uses. You know, things like syllabi, handouts, bibliographies, quiz questions, study guides, lecture notes… Stuff which is sometimes taken to be “the content” of our work, but tends to merely be support for our teaching efforts. Some of us already share these with students and colleagues, whether or not we wish to protect them as our “intellectual property” (quiz questions don’t qualify, apparently). Other people guard them fiercely, often claiming that these things are the bulk of their “work”. Though I understand and respect the sentiment, I strongly feel that this stance devalues the rest of what we do namely, y’know, teaching.

But I digress.

Getting into Learning Objects

I was presenting “learning objects” without calling them as such. I was talking about “learning material” as anything which can be used in (or created through) learning contexts. I was unaware of conversations on LOs which had been happening for years (PDF), in the specialized field of “those who talk about education”. And when I first heard about LOs, I had a sort of driftoff moment, which I often have with learning content.

It happened during that same conference. Pierre-Julien Guay and Vitrine technologie éducation did a presentation on LOs and Learning Objects Repositories (LORs) called: The Tools of Online Learning: Learning Objects and Repositories. I was taken by the Mouse Party one, finding it both fun and effective (though I’m not often taken by these whiz-bang proof-of-concept multimedia features). More importantly, I was dreaming about possibilities afforded LO creation tools. Guay claimed that some of these could be created quite effortlessly, or so I remember. Certainly, Mouse Party took a lot of time, planning, and effort to successfully come out as a finished product with high production value. But VTÉ was able to help teachers create diverse LOs which would have plenty of benefits.

As it turns out, I have recently reconnected with Guay and should collaborate with LaboVTÉ in the near future. My memory of that Spirit of Inquiry talk is likely embellishing the truth. But that’s what happens with inspiration moments. I was imagining new possibilities for material to be used by learners. It made me quite enthusiastic. And it’s been among my dreams ever since.

Managing Learning Material

Since that time, I shifted my roles around quite significantly. Though I still give courses at Concordia, I’ve also become a freelance researcher and took a turn toward more extensive roles as an education specialist/consultant. Part of it was thanks to Spirit of Inquiry which paired me with John Bentley, an EdTech specialist and former producer who works at Concordia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS). John, who became a good friend in the intervening years, was the one who made the introduction to my SoI session. Before we got started, he demonstrated some interest in my work and, after the session, enjoined me to do things with CTLS. Since that time, John and I have been doing workshops and other activities with CTLS, mostly focused on education uses of social media and other so-called “Web 2.0” services and tools. John also did a screencast (currently offline, it seems) with me on the same topic, and we’ve done a type of community management work, trying to help members of the Concordia community appropriate social media.

I haven’t really been creating or managing LOs at Concordia, but I did extensive work on online learning portals. Last summer, for instance, I created mockups of my ideal “learning management system” for the fun of it. These mockups were put to use in my application to an education specialist position.

More importantly, other parts of my work have been devoted to things related to LOs, at least in the simplified version I favour. For instance, I created ancillary material to accompany a textbook I had been using. With that material, I tried to push the publisher to release that material under a new model, in line with my Free, Open, Flexible idea. As community manager (“Web Guru” was the official title) for an academic organization, I created web spaces to share learning, research, and teaching material. I was particularly enthusiastic about a syllabus repository I created, partly because that work enabled me to learn a lot. But that database has yet to be used by the association’s members, an all-too-frequent occurrence when such things are designed based on intention. On the other hand, teachers have quickly appropriated a blog I had quickly created for them and populated it with useful resources. As is also frequent, innovative usage made a simple tool surprinsingly powerful. These experiences taught me valuable lessons which I have been transferring to other contexts.

One such context is my work with a community organization specialized in technological appropriation. I started that work before creating my syllabus database. But there have been multiple turning points in my roles there, and cross-fertilization with my work for the academic association has started happening during the last few years. For instance, the community organization’s own “learning resources”, designed by a specialized instructor, have partly given way to collaboration between people in the field.

I belong to the field. Not exclusively, of course. I actually enjoy armchair work, on occasion. Especially if it’s exploratory. And I’m Lévi-Straussian enough to enjoy tinkering with theoretical work. At heart, I’m both a fieldworker and a theory bricoleur. I thrive on both field and theory, on the ground and in the minds.

Which brings me back to LOs. I understand their issues, at theoretical and practical levels. But I still find them “useful to think with” (remaining in the Lévi-Strauss vein). What inspires me with LOs isn’t that neat demos can be made, though I understand the artistic value of creating neat things for their own sake. What I find most useful with LOs is that material could be remixed, tweaked, repurposed, reappropriated, made meaningful in new ways. The process of taking somebody else’s material and “running with it” is a complex one. It isn’t mere reuse like code libraries or LEGO blocks. It’s something closer to Jakobsonian translation: messy, hairy, difficult to explain.


The syllabus example is a useful one, I think. It’s common courtesy to share syllabi and it can even be part of an institutional practice. At my department, a (hard) copy of each syllabus is kept in a three-ring binder for colleagues to consult. In a way, it gives insiders a leg up when applying for new courses as, for part-timers, such applications require submission of a draft syllabus. The main idea, though, is that someone else’s syllabus can serve as inspiration. A syllabus, even one of our own, can’t simply be reused. At the very least, dates need to be changed. In some cases, adapting a syllabus can be quite effortful, almost as much as creating one from scratch. Yet the benefit of having other sources is that the effort revolves around improving from a base, not creating something completely new and untested. Going a step further, I’ve done collaborative syllabi in the past, deciding course topics with learners. Quite freeing and it contributes to increased engagement in the course material. If the syllabus is to be a contract between learners and teachers, why not negotiate that contract? There are ways to make the process quite seamless.

During my SoI session, I said I hadn’t meant anyone who was unwilling to share their syllabi. During workshops since then, I’ve met colleagues who wanted to closely guard their syllabi. Again, I understand the sentiment and I respect this attitude. If they build everything from scratch and perceive their courses as individual creations, they’re not benefitting from other people’s work and have no reason to share their work.

Many of us are in a different situation. We get a lot of inputs in building courses. To an extent, constructing a learning experience can be a collaborative experience between a large number of people, including past and current students, as well as administrators, colleagues at other institutions, scholarly authors, and even publishers.

Speaking of publishers, they could play a more active role in helping learners and teachers. As with any “content”-based industry, their relevance can shift quickly. There’s plenty of content to go around, much of it available at no cost or purpose-created by learners and teachers. Providing services to learners and teachers would be an entirely different matter than selling access to “content”. Though the principle applies to monographs and journal publishers as well, the situation is especially tricky with textbooks which have become a sore point in learning contexts. Not just in their rising costs, but in their continued rigidity in a fluid world. Sure, some of them allow people to mix and match chapters from different books or select specific chapters from a single book. They also provide ancillary material (including useful exercises), typically free of charge, as a way to sell their wares. There’s a whole lot more they could do to “service the educational market”. Something as simple as community management for people using the same material would go a long way to shield them from obsolescence. Creators have been finding new ways to keep their work relevant while working with a wider community. Publishers seem stuck in the same mode of operation which put journalism in jeopardy during the past several years.

There can be a strong connection between new roles for publishers and the promise of learning objects. In some cases, LOs are distributed by publishers. In other cases, publishers are “disintermediated” as LO creators provide their work for direct access by learners and teachers. Depending on how we define LOs, textbook chapters could qualify as a special type within a broader classification.

Textbook Chapters

The notion of a chapter is so ingrained that I haven’t heard much discussion of its arbitrariness. Some textbooks are organized in chapters following a weekly format. Others make more sense as course modules and some textbooks are divided in a more modular fashion, often as chapter sections. Textbooks’ range in granularity is as troublesome as with LO granularity. Though they’re typically the smallest units, modules remain relatively broad. This breadth, which makes sense in a linear model, makes textbook material difficult to adapt to other contexts. While textbook writing styles tend to be neutral, textbook chapters maintain their sources’ imprimatur. Since textbooks published by conventional entities are rarely, if ever, available in easily repurposed formats, chapters can hardly be remixed, tweaked, or adapted. Just like syllabi and most other LOs, textbook chapters and modules can’t really be “reused”. Unlike LEGO blocks (but like chia pet pottery and seed crystals), these chapters can’t really be used to make something different from the cathedrals on their covers.

Reuse is a chimera. (Hat tip: Tony Hursh)

Even LEGO blocks have strong limitations as they can’t be matched to other blocks, merged, or reshaped. Sure, LEGO blocks do offer limitless possibilities and, as Hodgins had it (Doc), they satisfy the needs of both people who wish to follow straightforward instructions and those who prefer exploring (I’m mostly in the latter camp and only spent a small amount of time with LEGO blocks in their original configuration). That type of flexibility is inspiring. It’s still quite limited.

The type of flexibility I have in mind is closer to the blank canvas or sheet of paper. The analogy with the human faculty for language might be apt, as natural languages are rule-based yet open the widest possible range of ideas to be processed or shared.

Language and Flexibility

Which leads me to another digression. (Feel free to skip, as it’s convoluted. Consider yourselves warned.)

Linguistic diversity brings richness to language use, both between languages and within a single language. At the same time, any linguistic variety can convey any thought, from any other linguistic variety. Contrary to prescriptivists’ claims, languages can also be used freely and gain tremendous beauty from their messiness. From speech sounds to discourse and from words to utterances, languages’ “building blocks” have diverse levels of granularity. In fact, languages can differ quite a bit in this sense. Yet all these “building blocks” can be retooled, retold, repurposed, recombined, recreated, remixed, reappropriated, reinterpreted. Unlike LEGO blocks and chia pet pottery, languages’ objects aren’t “designed”. Unlike seed crystals, languages’ objects don’t follow a straightforward causal structure.

Notice that I’m talking about natural languages, not artificial ones. Some artificial languages may have several of the same features, and could also serve much of the same needs. But I’m specifically not talking about programming languages, which are quite far from natural languages, especially when it comes to the type of flexibility I have in mind. Computer languages are fully designed and they have strict limits. In fact, Turing-completeness is probably the most appropriate description of the range of possibilities afforded programming in general. Features of specific computer languages can bring them richness but these languages’ affordances mostly have to do with efficiency, efficacy, and convenience. Almost famously, computer languages can only be mixed and mashed in very specific ways. Code in one language may make a call to some item in another language, under specific circumstances. But the freedom with which human languages can borrow from each other is unmatched by computer languages.

Notice also that I’m not merely talking about words. Speech isn’t merely about stringing lexemes together. The packaging and parsing of utterances is much more complex than that, which is part of the reason Chomsky has had such a lasting influence on linguistics. In addition, there’s a whole lot more to language than syntactic structures, something Chomsky is only starting to realize now, near the end of a long and illustrious career. Language has a complex relationship with culture, cognition, and context which cannot be deduced from the structure of sentences.

Notice, finally, that my emphasis is on spoken language but the same principles apply to sign languages and to the encoding of speech into text.

Natural human languages are among the most flexible things we have at our disposal.

A funny thing happens with languages, despite this flexibility. They don’t typically provoke anxiety the way a blank page might, with some people. Or a blank score. Or a blank canvas. Much of the reason may have to do with the role of language in early development of human beings. Maybe infants do feel anxiety when given their native languages (L1). But “not knowing what to say” isn’t much of an issue for people learning a second language (L2), as far as I can tell. A wide open field of possibilities can be overwhelming, but language causes other feelings, including being overwhelmed by the amount of learning necessary to achieve in L2 what comes “naturally” in L1.

Finding Inspiration in Learning Objects

I’m not really trying to find yet another analogy to discuss learning objects. Analogies quickly outlive their usefulness.

I’m merely trying to think about inspiration.

I find languages inspiring, partly because of my background in semiotics and linguistic anthropology. This flexibility I’m describing is part of that inspiration.

Inspiration is indeed a keyword in this context. Inspiration can be much more productive than reuse. It also requires more work or, poetically put, “perspiration”. Which might be the reason why instructional designers and administrators have put so much emphasis on reuse, in discussing learning objects. Reuse is a chimera. Inspiration, though much harder to formalize, is a constant reality.

A cool thing about inspiration is that, like learning, it’s a subjective experience. And, like learning, its objects can be anything. Someone may find the foul smell of a backalley inspiring while another may be inspired by the voice of a loved one. Still like learning, inspiration gets new ideas in the mind of a person, whether or not these thoughts exist in other people’s minds. Contrary to innovation, learning and inspiration aren’t necessarily about things which are novel or useful for society as a whole. One person’s epiphanies need not be measured by external standards.

Going back to syllabi and textbook chapters, inspiration makes a whole lot more sense than reuse. You can’t reuse a syllabus but you can use it as inspiration. A textbook chapter can be too restrictive, but its content may be inspiring. Same thing with all sorts of content, from lecturecasts to interactive demos.

Creating a new textbook chapter from scratch requires a lot of work. Building learning material using disparate “objects” can ease the process, and inspiration can serve as a guiding principle, additive synthesis instead of recording. In my experience, a lot of things are built up this way, even when the process ends up sounding like a completely independent, top-down approach.

Other processes are possible, closer to substractive synthesis. Some complicated objects may be taken apart and then rebuilt. Some complex objects may be tweaked, analysed, or repurposed. In fact, the computer world which served as inspiration for learning objects is full of these. Sure, coders use code libraries on a routine basis. Some objects and classes may also be reused, in object-oriented languages. All nice and well, though not that inspiring, IMHO. What made it possible for computing, networked communication, and object-oriented programming so powerful is something much simpler and taken for granted: copying.

Copy Rite (of Passage)


Most if not all programmers do a lot of their work from an existing codebase. Maybe Carmack doesn’t do it that way. He’s the exception, not the norm. Whether it’s a full app or a small code snippet, a code recipe or an embed code, the copy/paste gesture (or some variant thereof) is fundamental to a lot of programming.

I Am Not a Coder (…and I Don’t Play one on the Interwebs)

One reason I think about this copy/paste gesture in programming is because I’ve been delving into computer code, again (at units point, I’m focusing on App Inventor, Blockly, Python, Ruby on Rails, LiveCode, JavaScript, and Processing). I first did a bit of BASIC as a preteen on a ViC–20, then learnt very little LOGO in high school, played with some HyperCard/HyperScript and AppleScript as a late teen, learnt some shell and C as a young adult, to eventually dabble in HTML, Perl, LaTex, XML, and PHP over the last fifteen years. Through all of this, I’ve never become an actual coder but I did create a few productive things. I’m obviously no authority on coding techniques but I do get quite a few things out of hearing coders discuss their craft.

I’m inspired by/to code

The ability to reproduce something so seamlessly, on a computer, means that coders can create completely new things by combining and modifying existing things. Branching or forking a software project has become an important practice in the Github world, but starting from existing code happens at other levels. Changing one line of code can occasionally have a deep impact on a computer program. Mixing in bits and pieces of code from diverse sources can be enough to create completely new software. This extremely simple process is one of the most important preliminary conditions for Free/Libre Open Source Software development. Without the ability to copy code (say because everything is on punchcards), the history of computing and the (semi-official) history of the Internet would be quite different.

Not just for coders. Almost anything people do with computers, nowadays, rely on copying. Text editing is a useful example, as a major difference between a typewriter (even a sophisticated one) and a computer (however rudimentary) is the ability to work on preexisting material. Memory has been added to typewriters at some point in its late history. But, unless I’m mistaken, text editing pretty much started with the ability to process existing text. It may be difficult for us to imagine how it was when people had to rewrite or retype text to modify it. Something as commonplace today as fixing a typo or shifting paragraphs would have required very powerful a typewriter and would only be possible to do if the text remained in memory. It’s actually something I think about on a fairly regular basis, as changes in writing and changes in technology could be connected, in complex ways.

As those who debate filesharing know full well, sending a file is a form of copying. There might be legal and even ethical issues involved in a few key cases, but the act of sharing information is, after all, the very basis of the Internet. From RFCs (Requests for Comments) to “viral videos”, the Internet is really “just” a system to send chunks of information around. The size of these chunks and the content of what is transmitted may matter a lot from a technical standpoint. Yet the same (extremely basic) principle applies to anything done online.

Something like this can be said about learning objects. Sure, their granularity may matter a lot, from a technical standpoint. So does the context in which they are used. People may argue until they’re blue in the face as to what should really constitute a real, genuine, authentic, standards-approved LO. I even care about such discussions. But I also find it very useful and inspiring to go back to first principles.

Back to First Principles

I’m interested in any object which can be used or created in learning contexts.

I find the copying of these objects fascinating. From the convenience of building upon material we’ve created in the past to finding inspiration in something we find or collaborating on a shared project, what we do with learning material can be awe-inspiring.

This post is mostly about learning objects. The title refers in part to “objections” people have had with regards to the LO concept. David Wiley, who’s been associated with a rather enthusiastic approach to LOs, has also discussed their “difficulties” (PDF) which could also represent significant objections. I share these objections, when it comes to the most elaborate conceptions of LOs. Rethinking learning material needs not be restricted by the debates on LOs. So, in a way, I object to the focus on objections, though I agree with their content.

Learning Object…ives

(Warning: Another potentially convoluted digression. This one is quick, though.)

My title also comes from learning objectives, an entirely different issue but one which also gives me some inspiration. In this case, I tend to be on the “con” side. Not that I find no value in spelling out clear learning objectives in formal educational contexts. Simply, I find that learning objectives may have some unwanted consequences, when it comes to learning in a broader sense.

Again, learning is, in a deep sense, a subjective experience. Sure, a number of people try to measure learning objectively. But learning is still, broadly speaking, about a subject’s mind making new neural connections. The output of one person’s learning process may be identical to somebody else’s output, but that output isn’t the same thing as learning. Learning objectives emphasize this output.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this and decided to put it in this post is that Google sent me to a blogpost on learning objectives as I was exploring discussions of learning objects. I can readily relate to that blogpost and was pleased to find, in the comments, a thoughtful and insightful discussion which helped me think about learning objectives in a somewhat new way. A follow up post was also useful, in getting some of my ideas in a more specific form.

Alex on Learning

Part of my reactions have to do with the ways I tend to think about learning. Much of the emphasis is on formal, directed, goal-oriented, measurable learning. There’s a whole industry on this type of thing. My own personal branch of constructivism is concerned with all forms of learning, including potentially disruptive “learning experiences” and all sorts of learning processes which cannot be controlled by teachers, instructors, administrators, or education specialists. I care deeply about agency and I hope learning can serve to deepen and/or expand people’s “spheres of agency” (hat tip Kristian Gareau). I care more about this possibility than about fulfilling requirements. After all:

My role in life is help people accomplish their own goals, regardless of what I think of these goals.

All told, my thinking on learning (and on technology) is deepening. Whether or not I get the position I covet, this is very positive an outcome.

ATT8: Alternatives to Textbooks

[It’s potentially dangerous for me to blog about this since I have many ideas on the topic. But thinking about teaching is something I enjoy so these “tidbits” are almost a release…]

I use textbooks in two of my courses: introductory sociology and introductory cultural anthropology. More accurately, I still use textbooks. But I do want to switch away from textbooks in these courses.

In some contexts, such as a discussion of the usefulness of textbooks in anthropology, I’m almost defensive in my description of the role textbooks play in my teaching. It’s a sign of ambivalence, of course. But the fact that I still use textbooks shows that something weighs in their favour, Despite being problematic, textbooks still seem useful to me and I have yet to find an alternative.

But I think a solution is finally on the horizon. It’s a bit difficult to explain and may seem farfetched or even crazy, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. So it may be the right time to put it in writing.

A few words about how I use and choose textbooks…

I perceive textbooks as shared resources, rallying points, conversation starters. study guides, “lecture notes”, and sources for examples. Textbooks aren’t ideal for any of this, but they’re rather unique in fulfilling all of these functions.

Textbooks are also expected to be part of at least some courses. The two main introductory courses I teach are of that type. If I were not to use textbooks at all, I’d have to propose something else.

Which leads me to thinking about existing alternatives to textbooks…

A relatively uncommon practice, but one I’ve experienced as a student, is for instructors to teach from extensive coursenotes, without making use of shared texts. In such a case, the “content” is “delivered” in the classroom. Without being common practice, it wasn’t unknown at Université de Montréal, where I did my B.Sc. in anthro (back in the early 1990s). I suspect that this approach was somewhat common in French-speaking contexts a while before that. It avoids all problems associated with textbooks, but it has none of the advantages textbooks have. In fact, because it puts so much emphasis on the “sage on the stage” model, it’s incompatible with my teaching philosophy.

Apart from my main “intros”, all of my courses are built on “coursepacks”. A coursepack is a custom package of primary texts which weren’t originally connected to one another. I like this approach in any course and have been thinking about ways to shift my intros to something of a coursepack model.

The traditional coursepack model is to send a bunch of texts to a third-party service which will make all the necessary enquiries to ensure copyright compliance and then print coursepacks to be sold at the bookstore. At Concordia, the university bookstore currently handles the whole process. Eastman Systems used to do it. In both cases, the process requires a lot of lead time. It’s thus more flexible than the textbook model but remains quite constraining. As I do most of my reading online, it’s actually far from ideal. But it’s an interesting alternative to publishers’ textbooks.

I have yet to find a way to use coursepacks in my main “intros”. I know some colleagues do it and I could invest time in such a solution. But the convenience of traditional textbooks still seems to me to outweigh the costs of the textbook model. (Yes, this is where I get defensive.)

In some contexts, I was able to use a model which was an alternative to traditional coursepacks, using online reserve instead. In those situations, I could select texts during the semester and have them on online reserve quickly after that. It was close to an ideal model, especially paired with the collaborative syllabus. But it requires three things which I don’t currently have: reasonable copyright laws, access to a service dealing with copyright compliance, and efficient electronic reserve. I can get somewhat close to this approach at Concordia, but some pieces are still missing.

It’s also possible to use “readers”, which are midway between coursepacks and textbooks since they contain primary texts but those are edited together and published like textbooks. I haven’t used readers. To me, they have some of the advantages coursepacks have (multiple voices, intellectual depth) but also most of the disadvantages of textbooks, including a lack of flexibility and all the issues associated with commercial publishing.

Of course, there are people who simply post files online without worrying about legal implications. This is obviously a non-solution, as failure to comply with copyright laws, however arcane these laws may be, can have dire consequences on learning institutions.

Which leads me to the first key issue I identify with textbooks: “the content industry”. As I said two years ago:

If your only business is “content,” now might be a good time to think about diversifying.

(My approach to “content” has long been the basis for diverse discussions, including one which got me cited by tycho garen in such august company as John Gruber and Merlin Mann. Incidentally, I’ve been listening to a number of 5by5 podcasts, including those by Mann and Gruber. Textbooks have been a topic of discussion in those podcasts and part of my thinking may have shifted because of them.)

Got lots to say about content, which is part of the reason why I was worried this post may become overwhelming. But I’ll summarize the situation as much as I can.

For the past ten to fifteen years, an increasing number of people have been made aware of problems with “content-based models”, especially in terms of “publishing”. The context for this increased awareness is the expansion of the Internet. But the process started much earlier, with the transformation of information into “content”, consolidation in diverse industries, and what scholars have long been calling “postmodernism”. As you might notice, I’m specifically not saying that one of these things caused any of the others. But I see connections between all of them. They “go together well”.

The first well-known case of a “content industry” having some difficulty is the one involving music labels, the so-called “Music Industry”. At the very end of the 20th Century, the “Napster Revolution” associated with trading of audio files was a turning point for music labels and the business model on which they relied. Some might say that it was quickly over. And there are many points of continuity in the “political economy of music”. But the current state of music-related business is clearly in a “post-” phase: it’s significantly different from what it was twenty years ago. I wrote extensively about this on a blog which is currently offline. I happen to think that this turning point in the way musical “content” is distributed is the early model of turning points happening elsewhere.

Subsequent “content industries” going through major transformations include films, video games, journalism, and books (possibly in that order, with significant overlap). In each of these cases (including music), “intellectual property” has been used as a core concept in discussions surrounding the “content shift”. I’ve had (and still have) a lot of things to say about any of these. But I’m focusing on textbooks which, I’d argue, are just now going through a major shift.

Most of the problems associated with textbooks have to do with the content model. What textbook publishers do is quite elaborate and rather complex (from dealing with authors and editing texts to obtaining media usage rights and coaxing people into “adopting” textbooks). But their main business model is based on selling access to content. That model isn’t obsolete and some publishers can survive for a little while longer. But it’s clearly not forward looking.

Access to content can take many forms, many of which incur no cost to the person accessing such content. Typically, “content access” and the business model behind the creation of this content are disconnected.

Borrowing books from a public library is a key form of “content access”, and it’s typically paid by taxes. Watching television advertisement can be described as access to content, paid by advertisers. Even glancing at someone’s “freesheet” in the métro is “accessing content”, and it’s also paid by advertisers. Open Access journals, YouTube, WordPress/Moodle/Joomla/Sakai/Drupal, CraigslistKhan Academy, Wikipedia, and iTunes U all focus on “access to content” but their business models clearly separate production costs from access costs (with the result that access to content is often “free as in beer”). Even a café conversation can be conceived as “content access” and it’s associated with no direct cost in money. (Interestingly, the UnivCafé model does involve some financial costs, which are covered partly by Concordia University’s School of Extended Learning, and partly by donations. I’ve been on the record about my interest in this model.)

The “elephant in the room” is “online piracy”, which contains in its name the notion that it’s illicit or illegitimate access to content. Those who pirate content online typically don’t pay directly for that same content (though, according to some peer-sharing enthusiasts, these same users may be more likely than others to spend money online, including for “content”).

Of course, all of these things are much more than “content access” and reducing all of them to the same model should eventually show the absurdity of said models to those who aren’t in the “content industry”. “Access to content” isn’t really a business model. Were publishers able to get past the “content access” model, we may finally get an improvement over textbooks.

Call me naïve, but I think the shift is finally happening.

Part of it is through the slow transition from physical textbooks for electronic ones.

Which makes this blogpost into a followup to a post I wrote just before Apple’s iBooks Author announcement. In that previous post, I tried to talk about “learning content” in as general a way as possible, making as explicit as possible the notion that “content” is but a small part of learning. It encapsulated something about which I’ve been adamant: those of us who are interested in learning and teaching should not focus so much on content.

But I’ve been so “obsessed” with this issue that I haven’t been heeding my own advice. I keep talking about content despite the fact that I care a whole lot more about learning.

And my focus on content is part of what prevented me from thinking further than textbooks. As I kept going back to those problems with textbooks which are associated with content (cost, medium, distribution, usage rights, rigidity…), I was missing a core point  about textbooks: they intrude on, encroach upon, interfere with, and disrupt the relationships between learners and teachers. Their existence is a form of «ingérence».

See, my teaching philosophy is based on constructivism. Though I still lecture, I’m looking at alternative teaching models, which may put me at odds with some colleagues. I eventually found a way to use textbooks which makes sense to me. Point is, I care more about “building a context in which learning happens” than about “transmission of content”.

My class meetings now have the following structure…

Students come prepared, having worked with some textual material and, in the case of introductory sociology, taken a reading quiz about the class material (teamwork exercises serve part of the same role in my introductory anthropology). So, at the beginning of the class period, we go through a kind of collective Q&A session during which the class comes up with both questions and (partial) answers. Though I often end up providing extended answers to some questions, I try to engage the whole class in the process. In the two sections of introductory sociology with which I work, this semester, many questions are the outcome of reading quizzes. Taking those quizzes, students often find out that they may not have fully understood some core concept or aren’t yet able to apply a given perspective. That Q&A section of each class meeting often takes more than half of the classroom time. As it’s the one part which most directly depends on face-to-face interactions with the whole class, it makes a lot of sense that it’d be the core part of classroom interaction.

Another proportion of class time is devoted to “tangents” which connect the material with diverse issues. These discussions are especially useful for learners who reached the “upper” positions in “William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development”. At the same time, they might be less appropriate for students who (still) focus on “what’s the right answer that I need to remember for the exam”. In prior semesters, these tangents took a very significant portion of the class time. The shift from these discussions to Q&A is probably the most significant change in my teaching, this semester. Perhaps due to this shift, online forums in this course have become much more active than they ever were in the past. Parenthetical discussions work quite well online and I’m convinced that they do accomplish a lot in terms of the “higher domains” in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

During the last (and often shortest) portion of each class meeting, I go on “lecturing mode” to prepare students for the material which is coming up. In other words, I spend twenty minutes to half an hour at the end of each class period trying to get students started with a new topic. While my lectures are relatively “classic” in format (in fact, I feel the need to work on this structure, as I often end up running against the clock, at that point), they are mostly oriented toward giving learners their first exposure to some ideas, concepts, and issues. As a compulsive outliners, I base my “lecture mode” on slides with bullet points. But what I may say in relation to these bullet points varies quite a bit. At times, I will teach students concept definitions which are meant to help them understand the material (these are relatively rare and almost choreographed, with artificial pauses)  During “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moments, I even hint at potentially tricky quiz questions. Otherwise, much of the lecture section is a restructuring of the material in a way which makes sense to me. This is where my outlining is probably the most obvious.

As you might notice, my class meetings devote little time to summary of textbook content. Even those short sections when I restructure that content, emphasis is on the connections between ideas, not with the “content”.

Having used several different textbooks in my teaching, I have a lot of “content” in my mind. In fact, some of the “bullet points” I present in class are carried over from prior teaching experiences which may have relatively little to do with the material for this one course. While I’ll never go to the “text-less teacher-driven content delivery model” I described about my UdeM past, I often muse about teaching without textbooks.

As a partial step in that direction, I started using a Wikibook in introductory sociology, a few years ago. It’s somewhat fragmentary as a textbook so I also use a printed textbook (recently switched from OUP’s “critical” Knuttila to Pearon’s “contested” Hale). However, were I to expand the Wikibook, I may be able to teach without a traditional textbook. If I succeed in doing so and colleagues start following suit, textbook publishers may run into deeper problems than they currently imagine. And it has very little to do with “piracy”, as the “content” used in my courses would be completely legitimate and licit, licensed through Creative Commons or taken from the Public Domain.

What’s more, I could easily complement the “textual content” with all sorts of things, including “interactive material”, collaborative activities, and open discussions. Almost any website could allow for this and I have most of the infrastructure in place to make it doable.

The only thing I’m missing is a bit of “content”. Not much, as the Wikibook is fairly extensive. But enough to make this experience of learning in this environment a clear improvement over textbooks. With just a bit of grant- or fellowship-style funding to devote some person-hours on such a project, it’d be easy to produce most of that content, including a large part of the job which is usually done by publishers.

There are many projects like this, going on. In my mind, it’s only a question of time before publishers are required to pivot their business model.

What I’ve been thinking about is, obviously, a shift away from the “content access” model. I kept thinking that publishers should transform into a service bringing together people who use the same content. Instead of “selling access to textbooks as content” (and offering some services as a way to force people into “adopting” their textbooks), publishers could be paid for services which are truly added value over that content. If access to content were free of charge, a lot could be done around that content. During a recent crisis with journalism, a lot of things have been said about curation and advertising. While advertising models are antithetical to the learning models most of us have in mind, something close to curation makes a lot of sense in learning and teaching. What I have in mind has less to do with “recommendation engines” than with “localization”. The idea, here, is closer to “citizen journalism” than to HuffPo. The added twist is that some people would be paid to adapt the “content” (including “ancillary material”) to specific contexts.

And this is where the hard work and added value can be found. It’s not that difficult to “produce content”, especially if we think about what we do as lecturers or the “content” created by students. As some of my students just created an elaborate study guide to prepare for my midterm (and claimed that it was easy to do), I have a neat example of how effortlessly that may happen.

What takes more effort, though, is creating appropriate material, such as exam questions related out of a classroom discussion, moderating a forum, or editing a text to make it understandable by outsiders. It would make sense to pay people to do some of these things. In some cases, the amounts paid for all sorts of learning-related services could be as much, if not more, as what is currently paid by students for textbooks. Sure, it requires some creativity to make the business model work. But that’s the reason people like Clay Christensen and Horace Dediu are around. True disruption in the market doesn’t happen by merely extending the current business models.

Most of this has been on my mind for quite a while. And though I spent some time explaining it, I still went rather quickly about it.

What has just hit me is the part about learner-teacher relationships. With all the talk about “student engagement”, we may forget the “intermediation effect” textbooks (and standardized examinations!) have had on the relationship between students and teachers. By moving away from textbooks, we can “disintermediate education”.

I had a sort of epiphany while reviewing a textbook manuscript. A significant part of the problem I had with that manuscript is that it was a “voice from nowhere, talking to ‘my’ students”. Not that I’m protecting of my students. But I was imagining a situation in which we were using this text as “content” for a course. As I imagined this, I grew increasingly concerned about the effect such a text could have on the most interesting things happening in my classes. My guess is that a large number of teachers have had an experience of “battling with a text” (because it’s confusing, misleading, inaccurate, inappropriate, outdated, boring, or flat out offensive). Beyond the frustration of being unable to modify the text to be more appropriate is the broader issue that teaching shouldn’t be about transmitting somebody else’s dogma. Especially not university teaching.

Fortunately, I can now choose which textbook I adopt. And I might soon elect not to use any textbook.


Infiltrating Academia with BuddyPress?

[This is truly a placeholder. I did a session at WordCamp Montréal and have been using this post to share slides and other relevant information.]

BuddyPress, the social network based on WordPress, is becoming more and more common in academic environments where it is used for organization, communication and learning. In this discussion we will go beyond the practical and into the human side of things to consider what effects social software might be having in the world of academia. Can we use our tools to get people to think differently? Does the use of open tools help bring openness to the context where they are used? Are BuddyPress and WordPress the best tools for the job? This talk will take the form of a guided discussion including the entire audience.

Audio Recording

(Apologies for the poor sound quality. It was recorded directly from the mixing board used in the PA system, but I wasn’t able to set the recording in the way I should have.)

Audio Recording from my WordCamp Session

Infiltrating Academia with BuddyPress audio




Me, Myself, and I

Key People in the BuddyPress-Edu Sphere

From LMS to BuddyPress to ScholarPress

Scholarly Writing?

University’s Future?


Key BuddyPress Features for Education and Academia

  • Blogging
    • Low-stakes writing
    • Peer-feedback
  • Hosted Microblogging
    • P2
    • Link Sharing
    • À la StatusNet/Tumblr
    • Rich/Media-Enhanced
  • Forums
    • bbPress
    • Peer-Learning
    • Constructivist strategies
  • Groups
    • Teamwork
  • Podcasting
  • Social network
    • Latent function of formal education
    • Social networking for career and life
    • Profiles
    • Mentions
    • DMs
    • Contacts
  • Teaching tools
    • Syllabus
    • Schedule
    • Assignments
    • Bibliography
    • Anciliary material


  • Openness
  • Control
  • Walled garden
  • Ownership
  • Beyond institution
  • Lifelong Learning
  • Personal Learning Network

Owning Your Words

Seems like I’m coming late to this discussion, but author Michael Erard (FoaF of mine) is helping me catch up:

Plagiarism, the Meme Michael Erard – Home.

Part of that conversation was sparked by a piece Erard wrote in 2002 and published a few weeks ago:

Cheater Cheater by Michael Erard – The Morning News.

According to the author, that piece generated some strong reactions, including some apparently-visceral ones. (I try to avoid these, as much as possible.)

More recently, the New York Times published the following:

Lines on Plagiarism Blur for Students in the Digital Age –

[Sidenote: I have a problem with journalism (not with journalists, just with their work). As may surprise some people, the NYT appears to me to be part of that problem, not of its solution. And this piece by Trip Gabriel reminds me of diverse things I dislike about journalism. Not that Gabriel’s work is bad or that he’s a bad journalist. But I find in this piece a representation of something problematic with journalism that would take me too long to articulate here. Still, there’s some interesting insight in this piece.]

One thing I find useful in this NYT article is the admission that there might be different approaches to plagiarism and academic integrity. This is something which is discussed among teachers, but it’s the first time I see it in MSM. The very idea that we can expand the conversation about these issues is quite refreshing. Eventually, it might even help us hash out some of these issues in a less visceral and even dispassionate fashion. But I’m not holding my breath on this one.

Another thing I find useful in that “blurred lines” piece is a small set of quotes from fellow ethnographer Susan D. Blum. (Though I was apparently living in South Bend, IN when Dr. Blum became Kellogg fellow for international studies, I don’t recall meeting her.) What Blum says is not only anthropologically relevant but resonates strongly with things I’ve noticed, My summary from these short quotes: values surrounding plagiarism are best understood in a context in which individual ownership of ideas is emphasized; there might be a shift in these values through a much broader cultural change. If I hear Blum correctly, she isn’t taking the usual “techno-determinism” route (“it all happened because of this strange newfangled thing they call the Interwebs”), nor does she assign the causal relationship the other way around (“a shift to a more anonymous culture made it possible for the Internet to expand, in the last twenty years”). Instead, she’s describing a broad phenomenon, based on an understanding of some historical developments of so-called “Western” culture.

Seems to me that Jacques Attali would have fascinating things to say about this. Part of this impression is based on his work on the political economy of music which, in my mind, prefigured what has since been known as the “Napster Revolution.” But I also recall a (French) tv show about plagiarism in which he had some fascinating things to say about the developments of what RMS admonished us not to call “intellectual property.”

I have a lot more to say about all of this, including my own experience with a cheating student and diverse things about Erard’s work on this. But I got to leave. So it’s just a teaser, at this point.

Rethinking Tenure, Part IV: Labour Issues

Previous Parts in this Series:

Part of the reason I’ve decided to revisit this issue is that the first parts of this series seem to be getting just a bit of traction. As we say in French: «il faut battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud» (“Strike while the iron is hot.” meaning that we should take advantage of the momentum we get).

Specifically, Vanessa Vaile over at New Faculty Majority has posted a short but enthusiastic comment on the first parts of this series. As I thrive on feedback (at least, in social media and in teaching), it gave me the push to do a follow up.

Vanessa mentions the COCAL conference, a meeting about “contingent academic labour.” Now, to be honest, while I knew it was happening in Quebec City this summer (during a meeting of Concordia’s part-time faculty union, our president had discussed it), I hadn’t really looked into it. Not that I’m not interested in the issue, but I’m not into formal conferences, anymore.

And (he says sheepishly), I’m worried that my position might not be well-received among (opinion) leaders in this movement. It’s one thing to post my thoughts on these issues and potentially debate them, in writing or face-to-face. It’s quite another to be directly confronted for a significant period of time by what might be a number of vocal activists of what I’ve described as “career part-timers.”  I’m all for thoughtful debates and I can stand up and discuss these things publicly. But I do have an issue when things quickly become heated. I may be way off, here, but in my (admittedly limited) experience with groups of “career part-timers,” the heat source has usually not been too far away, when members of these groups meet.

Now, let me stress that I’m not dismissing anything that any kind of part-timer, “career” or otherwise, does. I certainly understand the concerns with precarity and working conditions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been well-represented by strong unions at a number of places where I’ve thought and I do want to involve myself in some activities related to the responsibilities and rights of “contingent academic workers.” I just happen to think that the core issue isn’t so much with part-time work by itself (though I really wish we’d think about alternate models, including long-term contracts). Put bluntly, I’d say that the whole academic system could afford some rethinking. Which could have a huge impact on those who are currently part of the “contingent academic labour force” and those who will be member of the “academic labour” (contingent or not) in the future.

While this long preface has to do with part-timers, I’m really thinking about tenure. Not that tenure should necessarily disappear. But we might as well put some things in perspective. This is what this series is about. Not the defence of one group of people against another (I’d side with learners, if I were allowed to do so). Not a proposal to save academia in its current form. Not even a recipe for building the replacement to the current academia. Just some thoughts about things we may be taking for granted.

So…. I have been thinking about labour issues as I was writing the previous parts in this series. I didn’t mention these labour issues that frequently, but they influence much of what I say about tenure.

“In today’s job world” (at least, what I know of it), academic tenure seems quite unusual a system. Almost anomalous. As mentioned elsewhere, it’s similar to some employment in the public sector, especially in terms of “job security.” But academic tenure is it’s own thing. It’s “kind of special.”

Part of it has to do with prestige. Not only that “university[ref]Partly because, in Quebec, colleges are a separate programme between high school and university, I use “university” for just about any institution of higher education, including some which are called “college.” So, a professor at Bridgewater State College or Tufts College is a “university professor,” in the way I describe things.[/ref] professor” is among the professions with the highest social status in a number of social contexts (between dentist and architect, according to Davis et al. 2007). But there’s a gap between any other kind of academic work (graduate student, senior researcher, etc.) and the prestige associated with a university professor.

More so than a number of other professional groups, the group represented by university professors is often perceived as a select club. At least in the sense that membership doesn’t follow a similar set of guidelines as that of, say, lawyers or engineers. In that sense, other professions have more of a guild system while “academic tenure” is more similar to a club.

(It should be noted that multiple efforts are being made to make this “club” more open to representatives of a number of socially marginalized groups. I don’t mean to say that “the faculty club is still an old boys’ club” since I don’t have data on this. But, even in this case, the process seems quite specific to academic tenure. Sure, complaints about discriminatory hiring may refer to similar rules whether they concern administrators or professors. But it still seems, to me, that the way complaints and claims are discussed shifts, when it’s about academic tenure. )

The contrast between academic tenure and other professional systems seems especially obvious, to me, when thinking about the fact that university professors aren’t specifically trained to be university professors. Oh, sure, they’re trained in their disciplines and may even have some background in pedagogy. Some contexts even have mentoring programes. But there isn’t that clear a path to academic tenure. Many people who want to become university professors end up knowing about the process as they go along, often by talking with other academics. But even some advanced graduate students (including some PhD graduates) seem to be in the dark as to many aspects of academia. They’re expected to learn on their own much of what the job is about (i.e., committee work, advising, grant proposals, etc.). Many high-profile professions have very formal vocational training which makes the kind of preparation new faculty get sound less than minimal.

As a way to protect professionals, tenure also seems quite unusual. Nurses, architects, and surgeons all have orders, professional associations, or other groups to protect members. Such groups are often tied to a national or other state entity of some kind (in Quebec, for instance, these “orders” tend to be provincial). Tenure is given by a specific institution and is tied to appointment in a given “unit” (an academic department, faculty, or programme). There might be rules in terms of synchronizing different institutions’ tenure systems, like there are “transfer credits” and “course equivalencies” for learners. But, if there are, these rules don’t seem to widely known. For, say, surveyors and physicians, it might be very difficult if not impossible to work across national boundaries, but their associations protect them regardless of their place of employment. For university professors, it might actually be very easy to teach in a completely different part of the World but, unless I’m mistaken, there isn’t any “universal” protection going from one institution to the next.

All this to say that “university professor” is quite unlike some other professions.

Part of this may have to do with the fact that academic work isn’t really considered a professional career in the same sense as is dentistry, accounting, or psychiatry. In a way, it’s more like a “calling” like priesthood or a function of a person’s perceived skills, like some conceptions of art. In some people’s minds, the goals of academia are so lofty that, surely, these professional matters are either secondary to “true academic work” or even irrelevant to university professors. Not that faculty members don’t discuss these things at faculty meetings. But there’s a clear separation between “what the work is about” and all matters of professional issues.

Which brings me to unions. In few discussions of tenure is there an explicit notion that what tenure provides is what a union is supposed to provide. Tenure is too unlike union representation to be considered in the same context. Yet much talk about the importance of tenure revolves around things which are, “come to think og it,” pretty much what people in other lines of work consider to be labour issues, managed through unions, management structures, executive boards, and the like.

In my experience. teachers’ unions are typically quite active and quite powerful. But my experience might be unusual and/or biased.

Part of the potential bias can be attributed to the fact that I grew up in Quebec which is rather union-friendly and had a number of strikes by teachers (as well as by students). The two unions for “contingent academic labour” by which I’ve been represented in Quebec have gone on strike during the past few years (and both have eventually won some key points). In addition, my father spent most of his career as a special education teacher in a high school and what I saw from unions protecting teachers in Quebec was quite impressive to the kid that I was when some key events happened. So I might overestimate the power of unions.

The key notion, though, is that there’s a union-based way to deal with a number of labour issues affecting teachers at many levels, including higher education.

Many (but not all) university professors are unionized. In some cases, these unions are able to offer professors a lot of protection. Probably not as much as the tenure system, but often more than for many other jobs and professions.

As far as I can tell, union protection to university professors is quite effective in dealing with cases of undue firing. There are plenty of edge cases but it actually doesn’t sound like non-tenured but unionized “academic labour” is less protected than most other lines of work. And we’ve probably all heard of cases where tenured professors have been overprotected to the extent that it caused serious problems.

I insist so much on this because the refrain to the song about tenure is “academic freedom.” The notion is that, without tenure, professors wouldn’t have this very special type of freedom that only tenured professors get. Now, I do understand part of the difference between “academic freedom” and more general forms of freedom, including that associated with the set of responsibilities and rights given to people protected by a strong union. But that difference is often left unexplained.

In fact, several people have told me that tenure protects them from being fired from something they might say in class. It’s an interesting issue in its own right but it’s also one which may call for other solutions. Because it’s basically a labour issue. Besides that, though, it raises the question of exactly how free university professors really are. In my experience, people on the tenure-track clearly don’t seem very free at all (it’s almost like an overextended probation period). And, from the outside as well as from direct discussions with “insiders,” even tenured faculty don’t seem that free to work the way they would like.

Which is why I started with “contingent academic labour” (part-time and contract-based university teaching). While, as a context, “contingent academic labour” relates to limited job security (still, much more than that of your typical freelancer), there’s also a very clear freedom involved when you can decide to take or refuse courses, when you’re allowed to work elsewhere at the same time, and where the official “burden” you get is that of building and teaching courses. While it’s not the “carefree” lifestyle of the so-called “Bohemian,” it’s still closer to my personal ideal of freedom than requirements placed on most tenure-track or even a lot of tenured faculty.

So, in summary, tenure seems to be an unusual and probably not that effective a way to deal with professional and labour issues. And it’s probably not that straight a path to genuine freedom.

Rethinking Tenure, Part II: What Does “Research” Mean?

In the previous post, I was putting all the emphasis on teaching and almost didn’t say anything about research. One reason is that, these days, teaching is the main thing I do in a university context. Research is what I do outside of the university, mostly <a href="informally but sometimes under more formal guises. I do love research and I do find it very important in the context of higher education. But my perception of how the balance between research and teaching should shift probably diverges from most people’s thoughts on the matter.

So, my second claim about the tenure system is that we should rethink what “research” means in this context.

The emphasis on research at some research-focused institutions (“Research I Universities”) have often seemed both displaced and too narrow. Much of the “research work” has to do with grant proposals, advising, and publishing. These are all tremendously important, of course. Increasingly, these tasks are an integral part of any university or college professor’s career (along with committee work, which is usually associated with “service” but may also have to do with research).

In my mind, these research-related tasks aren’t more accurately described as “research” as is some of the work a teacher might do to develop a new course or adapt an old course to new contexts. Sure, these talks may be involved in more “important” research projects than anything a teaching-focused person would do. But these tasks don’t constitute research in and of themselves.

In a way, they’re the research equivalent of “extracurricular activities” in the learning domain.

“But,” I heard many people say, “you can’t do research without these while you can take a full curriculum without any external activity!” In other contexts, I’d probably dispute the second claim (that a learning programme could be free of extracurricular activities). But I’ll focus on the first: it’s impossible to do research without doing “all this other stuff” university professors are doing, as part of their research projects.

Let’s take grants… True, many research projects need large sums of money to be invested. Without funding, researchers can’t, for instance, purchase pieces of equipment which are essential for their work or remunerate assistants who are such an integral part of their projects. (I’m leaving out travel for fieldwork or conferences as well as many other things which appear on budgets for research projects. I can address them later but they seem somewhat less central than the other two.)
So, sure, it makes sense that a university professor would need funding to purchase research-related equipment or to hire assistants. But three things come to mind…

The first one is that funding comes in different forms and external grants to individual projects are only one. Some other ways to fund research are exceedingly rare, nowadays (such as self-funded research by academics who happen to be independently wealthy). But there are models which could still make sense and in which the burden of finding funding wouldn’t be put on individual researchers.

Unless I’m mistaken, much “R&D” in the private sector is managed in a way which separates much of the quest for funding from the actual research work. Sure, some employees in those R&D programmes may still seek and obtain external funding. But I’m quite sure that a large number of projects are conducted by people who aren’t directly responsible for finding funding.
Also, what I’ve heard (recently) about the Media Lab at MIT is that external funding by commercial entities isn’t tied to specific projects. Maybe researchers still have to fight for it (it didn’t sound like they did, though), but the point is that the time-consuming work of grant proposals wasn’t assigned to researchers in quite the same way that it is with most professors at “Research I Universities.” Keep in mind that we’re talking about a context of extremely high research productivity and very large funds.
Another example, very controversial, is that some people argue that funding should be directly assigned to institutions which already attain a high degree of performance in research. I don’t personally subscribe to the potentially elitist dimension of this view, but it shows that people are at least thinking about other ways to fund research. I don’t claim to know which one is the best solution, that’s beside the point. The point is that there are other ways to get funding than getting primary investigators to spend much of their energy on grant proposals.

The second thing about grants is on equipment. Sure, many pieces of equipment which are “absolutely essential” in some contexts are incredibly expensive. But many research projects rely on less-expensive tools, on shared/borrowed equipment, or even on no dedicated equipment. For instance, I clearly understand the need for “supercomputers.” But some computing-intensive research programmes have been undertaken without supercomputers and many research projects require fairly limited computing resources, even in some fields of computing. Similarly, research procedures which used to require dedicated equipment may now be done through general-purpose equipment, including personal computers. Not to mention so-called “crowd-sourced” projects and “distributed computing.” It’s also interesting to see that some research projects which typically required no dedicated equipment and which now make use of equipment “because they can.”
Which isn’t to say that budgets for equipment are necessarily bloated. But that, as a justification for external funding, equipment costs only cover some research projects. If funding were mainly about equipment, the “I can’t do research without a large budget” line only covers a part of academic research and I’d say that it’s often applied a bit too broadly.

The third thing about grants is the work of assistants (including graduate students). Research assistants are often essential to research projects. So much so that some “primary investigators” are acting more like managers than like active researchers. In those contexts, the research assistants are the ones doing much of the work which ends up being credited as research.
Now, this model is probably not generalised. I’m willing to think that most people who mainly use funding to hire people also do a lot of hands-on work and use research as an opportunity to train students. It’s also very important a way to help graduate students, financially. So I’m not saying that this model should disappear. Just that it puts a lot of pressure on the primary investigator to not only work as a researcher and mentor but to also manage a team of employees.
On its own, that model makes for a tight system, especially if you see research as a straightforward process which churns out “knowledge” and/or innovative products by virtue of spending the time and money necessary to “do the work.” I don’t happen to share this view, but even if I did, I’d still say that there’s something skewed, in there. For one thing, it doesn’t sound like the model people think about when they think about academic research. And while it doesn’t exclude the other things a university professor is expected to do (including teaching and advising), it does tend to create strain in a professor’s life between diverse types of pressure.

Which brings me back to the connections between research and teaching. One reason they’re both done by the same person, I would guess, is that there’s an expectation that work in one domain will help with work in the other. So, a professor who teaches about her or his area of expertise is likely to bring in the output of “the most current research” in the classroom. In my experience, this is only the case in some rather rare situations where a researcher’s very specific domain of expertise matches a very specific need in the curriculum. More importantly, it can as easily happen through collaboration, guest lecturing, or even…. part-time teachers who are also doing research.

Just a few words about publishing (as I tend to be carried even further away than with the other points). For many people, the connection between research and publishing is unequivocal. Since reporting the results of a research project is part of research, publishing is obviously part of research. Yet publishing is very different from reporting, at least in the current model of academic research. There’s a multitude of ways to share your results, from classroom discussions to academic conferences, from blogposts to internal reports, and from textbooks and even “non-fiction books” to articles in peer-reviewed academic journals.
I won’t get into the details of the peer-review process (which I also think should be overhauled), but the equation of academic research with articles in peer-reviewed academic journals seems to me way too narrow. A lot of research doesn’t lead to articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals… and some significant portions of peer-reviewed academic articles aren’t really based on brand new research.
In fact, according to a number of people I’ve heard discuss this, there are some clear examples of people who end up “milking” a research project to publish a series of articles which are more or less equivalent, in terms of the advancement of knowledge. It sounds like a harsh criticism but, unlike several people I’ve heard on the subject, I’m far from blaming them. I won’t even “blame the system.” But, if this “milking” happens, I do think there’s something skewed in the process.

I could even go into “citation impact” which was not only the basis for Google’s PageRank algorithm but is also amenable to the same kind of “gaming” as the type of “Search Engine Optimisation” which targets the very-same PageRank algorithm.
But I won’t. This post is probably long enough.

Point is, here, that professors who are hired as part of the tenure-system to “do research and teach classes” end up spending much of their time on other tasks.
In other words, there’s a “disconnect” between the way academic institutions function and the way they are expected to work. As long as academic institutions fit in their respective social contexts, the problem is merely one of expectations. But if, as I tend to think, academia as a whole is fitting less tightly in “today’s world,” the way academic research is conceived could afford some open-minded discussion.

Much of what I wrote here may sound like it’s strongly-stated. Harsh, even. But, in all honesty, I’m neither that cynical (anymore) nor that dogmatic about any of this. And, really, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong, in a thoughtful and convincing way. (I half-expect strong disagreement containing strongly-voiced statements of my “wrongitude.” These aren’t the ones I enjoy so much. I much prefer being shown that someone has understood what I meant and can find a more appropriate way to describe or explain things than what I proposed.)