I have stopped reading the higher education press. From what people share on social media, usually in outrage, I’m pretty sure I’m not missing much. It is increasingly clear to me that there are a few issues that keep circulating. The higher education media are focused on generating outrage and “debate” (if it deserves that term) that will sell whatever it is they need to sell to generate the advertising revenue on which they rely.
Higher education is undergoing massive changes. The values that underpin the institutions to which both of them (and you) are committed are contested at all levels, from department meetings to institutional strategies to government policies to public debates. People’s livelihoods are at stake. Even those with tenure, and thus a relatively secure livelihood, have good reason to fear the closure of their departments or programs or the radical restructuring of the job they accepted and to which they are deeply committed.
But the higher education media is not covering the issues that contribute to your legitimate fears in a way that broadens or deepens our understanding such that we might be able to address the underlying problems. It is just stoking fear and outrage for clicks and cash.
It creates 2 sides. It exaggerates the issues. It uses stereotypes. It stokes conflict over gender, disability, sexuality, and race in ways that have real consequences for you, your students, and your colleagues.
And I very seriously wonder what would happen if more of us ignored that particular circus and got on with doing the work to which you are so deeply committed, in the knowledge that you are not alone.
Underneath the debate is agreement
Articles on both of these artificially exaggerated sides are often based in the same fundamental beliefs (and fears). They usually agree that higher education (or some specific part of it, like the humanities) is very very important. Deep down they know that it is important and relevant and that the skills it requires would (and do) serve society well. They fear that those who do not agree that this knowledge and these skills are important are in danger of prevailing. The fear that the things they value about higher education will be lost is common to almost every article.
Even if there is disagreement about what constitutes good work, most agree that the current conditions of academic labour make it very difficult to do good work. Underfunding, casualization, stagnant or reduced faculty numbers in the face of increasing student numbers, lack of resources to properly address the needs of a more diverse student body, the impact of rapidly changing technology, and so on are all recognized as genuine issues that everyone is grappling with.
There is disagreement: about fundamental values, or about the details, or about how to address these underlying issues. Many of these issues are complex. But complexity doesn’t generate clicks and outrage. So they get reduced to binaries.
Elite vs mass education.
Technology as saviour vs technology as distraction.
Diversity undermining standards vs diversity as the foundation of better knowledge and better practices.
A fundamental acceptance of the idea that there is a hierarchy of knowledge and that only an elite few are truly able to grasp the intricacies of the knowledge and master the skills required to create and disseminate this knowledge vs a vision of the great potential of advanced knowledge and skills to a broad range of people and a belief that this knowledge and these skills can be taught.
A clear separation between the kind of knowledge that is the proper domain of universities and the world of commerce and industry vs a belief that advanced knowledge may Is relevant to the world of commerce and industry or politics or the everyday life of people whose lives are lived in that world even if it does not appear so on the surface.
A nostalgia for the way universities used to be organized vs a commitment to institutional change that would truly serve the needs of a broader, more diverse, community.
Engaging on these terms is a distraction
You don’t set the terms of the debate. The editorial decisions are driven by advertising revenue and the need for clicks and social media attention. There is a real danger that by engaging in the debate on these terms you are using valuable resources of time and energy to do no more than confirm that outrage sells.
Furthermore, by engaging with the debate on these terms, you allow your own legitimate fears to be amplified. This affects how you use your resources in areas where you do have influence. It affects your teaching, your research and writing, your engagement with colleagues and your institution. It feeds anxiety and depression.
In many cases the individuals writing the articles that have upset you are not influential in any real sense. They have a platform as long as a particular outlet is willing to publish them, but only a minority of the authors of these articles are those with real influence. The influence of the media depends on readers.
You don’t need to read the media to demonstrate you care
Is it really more valuable to spend time fuming (privately and publicly) about the media’s fascination with these polarizing than to spend time doing the important work of creating knowledge and disseminating it? (AKA write that book; teach that class) Yes, you need to know what kinds of policies and practices are being instituted and how they affect things. Find better sources of information. Be selective about what you read. Avoid the opinion pieces and reward real reporting with your clicks and shares.
Consider your best response. Where can you have the most impact? Consider what is within your power and where you can influence debate in your own institution. Consider your own policy context, which may be less frightening than what’s happening elsewhere. Consider how you can best support those in other institutions facing situations that you would like to change.
Collective responses are often more effective. Which collectives can you bring to bear? Are you in a union? Can your scholarly association have an influence? Could you organize other individuals to collectively engage in action?
How can you contribute to a discourse that is not about generating outrage and fear but about generating hope and solutions. If those engaged in actions you disagree with are doing so out of fear, what can you do to enable them to be less fearful? You do not need to reference whatever exaggerated media outrage reminded you that there is a better way. You can just share what you do in specific situations with a view to making more options available.
Hope works better than fear for generating real, lasting, change. You can acknowledge the legitimacy of your fear but turn to hope. Clarify your own vision and put your energy into making reality move towards that vision, one step at a time.