Writing and writing and writing

Writing and writing and writing

Here I am, in the middle of Chapter 3 of my PhD thesis, excited to be writing and challenged by just how hard this is. I write a lot for my work, and I’ve written a lot during my career and study. I’ve always prided myself on my ability to synthesise, to make sense of disparate concepts and to write about them in ways that will make sense to others. The last thing I thought would challenge me in this PhD was the writing.

A Constraining Idea of the University


I started to write a social media post about this but realised I couldn't fit in what I needed to say in that format, even with Twitter's 280 characters.

The Times Higher Education allows partner emails and a few days ago I got one about The University of Sydney's new campaign on 'unlearning'. Nice word, I use that a lot in the context of we need to unlearn our assumptions about the past to be able to engage with the future with an open mind.

So, I click on the links to see what it's all about. I found some interesting stuff (technical term) but then I read  this "We’ve reimagined the Undergraduate Experience – the way we teach and the way you’ll learn...". Finally my brain's red flag system kicked in, but it took me a few minutes to work it out (it's Sunday morning here).

I go back to the email and find this quote:

At the University of Sydney, we are doing just that - changing the way we teach and how our students learn to provide them with the skills, capabilities and resilience to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. 

It's the stance - 'we teach' and 'you learn' - that raised the red flag. The way it's been for centuries. The University of Sydney has made an admirable effort to change the way it does teaching to maintain social relevance and competitiveness, but it hasn't changed its idea of teaching. Over time, we have separated the two, so that what a university does can change radically, but the underpinning assumptions about what a university is remain strong. Perhaps challenged, adapted or reframed, but some of those assumptions are so deeply embedded we don't even recognise we hold them.

One of those is in this new University of Sydney campaign. We teach. You learn.

1024px-Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001 Source: Laurentius de Voltolina - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH

I heard this same assumption articulated at the OECD Higher Education Futures Conference a few years ago. A brief conversation about letting students into the curriculum development process was underway, including the idea that we should let students chose their own curriculum. A voice from the audience said something like: ... 'but how will students know what they need to know if we don't tell them.'

We teach, you learn.

It's a constraining idea, closing our minds to the multiple possible futures that the university has as a social institution. It holds an image of the future where the academic continues as expert and student as novice. Expert and novice may not be words used but the positioning is there. Not partners in learning, not collaborators, not in this together. The sage may no longer be on stage and instead in an immersive environment, but the 'we teach, you learn' stance remains.

To be fair, I didn't read every word written about this shift, and the University of Sydney's language is more inclusive is other places, for example:  Imagine what could be possible if we all learn to unlearn. But their focus is on where to learn and there's still a teacher and a learner. They have changed how they do education, not education itself.

It may only be language, but language matters. It's why my hackles rise when I hear the words 'prediction' or 'futurism'. When we explore the future - something that does not yet exist - precise language matters if we are to be able to let go of the past to let the future emerge.

brick wall 1#

The future university does not yet exist but we have its beginnings here in the present. It is what we think and do today that is shaping it. Part of this is the language we use. If we continue to think that 'we teach and you learn' is right, acceptable and normal enough to keep framing learning initiatives in the present, then we close down possible futures for the university. We hit assumptions walls that make those possible futures impossible to imagine into existence.

Brick Wall

Breaking through assumptions walls is essential. New images are needed, new metaphors about what the the future university is, not only what it does, that allows us to stop reusing what worked in the past and let the future university emerge, whatever that might be. 'Unlearning' is indeed a newish image (the term has been around for a while), so maybe 'unlearning together' would work for example? That would start to shift the 'we teach and you learn' assumption as least in language, and it's a way of opening up some minds just a little to the more enabling ideas of the future university that will surface if we let them.

Thanks for dropping by ...


Thanks for dropping by Maree's Doctorate, a journal about my learning and research experience in my PhD at Swinburne University of Technology. This blog is my reflective journal, as well as a repository for presentations and other artifacts that I produce along the way.

It's sort of weirdly indulgent to share one's PhD journal, and I'm doing it because I think I'm going to need all the help I can get!  Plus, I happen to think the openness trend is a good thing for education, and I have to practice what I preach, don't I?

My topic is on the future of the university as a social institution.  My working title is Contested Ideas of the University: Enabling and Constraining Possible Futures with 2040 marking the boundary of my future.

Find out more about how I've arrived at this place in my time, or just dive in an explore the site. Let me know if you have any questions, or need to tell me something - comments/feedback are very welcome.

And, you can find out more about what I do in my day job as a strategic foresight practitioner on my page or at Thinking Futures.

University Management

Picture1My PhD is no longer on university managers, but I still keep reading about what can only be described as the amorphous blob that is university management. When I was a university manager, I always felt this was an unfair term to use when complaining about a new policy or a change in approach or (if you worked in a university with a particularly nasty culture) when the university management was blamed for the demise of the medieval university as it was understood and loved by some academics.

University management is a task undertaken by a group of people who collectively could be termed university managers. By launching a critique at university management, I always felt the academic (usually the 'launchor') was by association, blaming every manager in that university. I always wondered why the academic in question thought I was 'out to get them', that I didn't have the interests of the university at heart, and that I didn't share their values about the university and its social role. I did share those values and I still do.

It's why I'm doing my PhD when there is no good reason for me to do it. So whenever I read university management,  I still feel a moment of pain somewhere deep inside me - really. I always said in my head; 'criticise the person or committee you really think is making the decision you hate so much, but don't lump me into your criticism. In fact, how dare you assume I don't understand where you are coming from?' That's hard though and becomes personal. University management isn't personal, it's just an amorphous blob to be poked and shoved every so often.

I do understand though why this term is now used in such an unquestioned way. Reality is layered. University management is part of the Litany (as used in the Causal Layered Analysis sense) that now surrounds universities, what they do and how they do it. It's a way to vent, underpinned by deeply held assumptions and values. It's why I grimace every time I read it, and it's why academics and others continue to critique university management.

I had a conversation once with someone much younger than me who is a university manager. She worked for a Faculty Dean and told me about a conversation she and the Dean had with a Head of School about the budget. She said - very seriously - the Head of School argued with the Dean and she didn't understand why. The budget was a business decision and had nothing to do with the Head of School. I had only met her that day and actually couldn't find the words to reply. I realised then that my idea of a university was disappearing and I began - sort of - to understand the depth of passion and vitriol which often accompany critiques of university management.

Old Way, New Way

I understood but can't accept it. The world out there is changing. Universities aren't immune to that change. The critique of university management is an internal critique, it allows people to blame everyone and no one in particular. And it doesn't take into account change happening in the external world, except to blame university managers for paying attention to that change and doing their very best to implement in a way that meets the demands of the competing systems they deal with - academics and governments. The result is never good enough, never perfect enough for anyone. It is the best attempt to deal with reality as it is at any given time.

Everyone's view and everyone's idea of a university seems valid to them and is - I still hold on to the core of my idea of a university even while this PhD batters it around. Valid but maybe not helpful given what's happening in the external environment. Those deeply held but unquestioned assumptions about what the university is can enable and constrain responses to change.

If only ... we could stop using university management and recognise that people who are implementing government policy, who are trying to do the best they can to keep the university relevant as a social entity, are now seeing the world through different filters. Managers adopting a business stance and academics critiquing actions of an amorphous blob won't do anyone any good. It won't change anything.

Word cloud for World view

What might change the trajectory universities are on won't be academics writing more vitriolic critique. It won't be managers assuming that the university is a business - it isn't (that's my worldview writing that). It's an academic work environment that needs to be helped and supported into the 21st century - collaboratively.  What might help is if we spend some time recognising that we don't all share the same worldview. We start from different perspectives when we try and make sense what is going on with universities today. Governments, business, students, academics, managers - they all see the university in different ways.

It's time to stop using university management. It's time to start understanding that your worldview, my worldview, however deeply held and valued may not (sob) be the best thing for the university today if it is to have a meaningful future. What will help is if you realise the university is made up of people drawing on these different worldviews to do the best they can to respond to external change. What will help is if we can reframe this conversation that has been going on for about 40 years or so. That conversation hasn't helped much so far has it? How it can be reconstructed to acknowledge that it's not university management that is the problem. It's us, how we view the university in different ways, what we believe it to be, and what we believe it should do and how it should do it that needs to be surfaced and discussed.

Yes, the challenges facing universities today go beyond university management. There is bigger force at work. But until those who value the university as a social entity stop and reflect together, nothing much will change. And the university will lose.

I don't want the university to lose. I want it to survive for many years to come. But my view as an individual doesn't matter. Collectively though, people who care about the university as a social entity can make a difference. That's my hope. That's why I'm doing this PhD. And that is why I would like you to please stop using the term university management.

Yet another shift - but the last one!

Wechsel von Zustnden, BesetzungenIt is true that when you start a PhD, you start with a topic in mind. A topic that you think is important, critical, urgent and one that will not change. When I started my PhD in 1998 or thereabouts, I was convinced the relationship between university managers and academics was the topic for me. I withdrew from that PhD for reasons that are best not discussed in a public blog while promising myself I would finish a PhD. I kept that promise when I returned to Swinburne in 2012. The intervening 14 years saw me with the same topic but a very different person. I had foresight wired into my brain for a start. I no longer worked in universities but in my own business. I was a foresight practitioner not a university manager. Yet my belief in that original topic remained strong and unwavering. And here I am in 2015 having moved through three iterations of that topic to arrive at what has to be my final one: The Future University: what it is and what it does.

What happened along the way? At the end of my first year, I had an epiphany that it wasn't the relationship that mattered, it was university management as a whole - the future of university management. That kept me going for two more years. I went through confirmation, ethics approval and starting data collection - no more changes I said. Then, to my confusion and disappointment, not enough people wanted to participate in my research. Well, to be honest, I'd probably made my data collection process too complicated, but this lack of response sent me back to the topic.

After a meeting with my supervisors, I shifted again from the topic of management to the university itself and would the future university need to be managed? All good. I tried recruiting participants again with a revised data collection process. Two more people signed up. Ah, I began to think - there is something wrong here. Maybe use social media to recruit? Maybe not. What to do? A tinge of desperation set in.

Thanks again to my supervisors and their faith in me - or perhaps the topic - we spent two meetings working this through. Importantly because they know me and my skills and ways of operating, we arrived at The Future University: what it is and what is does. My first reaction at going this broad in scope was immense sorrow that I'd left my deeply held belief in my original topic behind - cutting the apron strings finally was hard. It was in the new topic somewhere but it wasn't immediately visible and certainly not at the core of what I'd be looking at now. My second reaction was fear - such a BIG topic. And disappointment - it seemed like I didn't know what I was doing really changing my topic all the time. My third reaction was acceptance and a degree of excitement. This would work, and because it is now taking a more theoretical focus, no ethics approval needed which is a relief.

beauty pink waveUltimately, I get it that these shifts and curves are part of the flow of the PhD process, part of my development in deepening my thinking and gaining clarity around what it was that I wanted to contribute to this conversation about the future university. Where I've arrived suits me too, it suits how I use foresight in my work. A global perspective first and the detail second.

First - the university and whether it has a future, the university and whether it will fit in the possible future societies which are out there, the form of which are still uncertain and infinitely complex from today's vantage point. A focus on why it's not a good idea to take today's idea of the university and the perspectives that underpin it into the future without first challenging that idea for relevance and usefulness.

Second - if the university as a social entity has a future, what might it look like? What is its future purpose? Developing scenarios will help here to get an idea about possible futures for the university and then to think about what would it be that a future university might be doing. Will the university need to be managed? I had to get that in there somewhere didn't it? What will it do? How will it be led? What will university work look like? What culture will underpin how it does what it does?

The assumptions in the literature that I've read so far are that (i) there will be a future university, and (ii) that teaching, learning and research will be at the heart of what that university does. These are comforting assumptions but largely untested and unquestioned in any great depth. A huge number of questions start to emerge if you don't accept those assumptions, opening up the conversation to think the unthinkable: does the university we have today have a future?

This is the murky space into which I am now heading. Wish me luck!