on learning gain, academic subsumption and performance anxiety

Businessmen drink my blood
Like the kids in art school said they would

Arcade Fire. 2011. Ready to Start.

ONE. We are losing that University life, which bell hooks wrote about as a space and a time for self-actualisation: a capacity to live more fully and deeply. We are losing the potential to liberate the curriculum for solidarity and humanity. Our curriculum design and delivery are now kettled by new public management and an ethos of deliverology, which pivots around exchange.

Deliverology is based on the notion that traditional public-sector organizations are not geared towards delivering results—such as student learning outcomes or quality clinical care—for several reasons. The organization’s goals are too many and too diffuse. Frequently, the goals cannot be quantified. For those that can be, there is very little real-time data to monitor progress towards the goals. As a result, staff and management within the organization do not work towards these goals. Rather, they may try to maximize the size of their unit or the budget under their control.

To overcome these constraints, Deliverology proposes that a small, high-quality delivery unit be established, reporting directly to the head of the organization, that is charged with championing the delivery of a few, well-specified results. The unit will gather and report real-time data on progress towards the results; work with the line managers in the system to make mid-course corrections; and set up routines where the leader and the stakeholders can review performance and make decisions.

Suba Devarajan. 2013. Deliverology and all that.

This is our curriculum co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes. This is our curriculum subsumed under the demands of producing and circulating measurable outcomes, in the form of data, and in the form of analysis, and in the form of learning gain. Here, notions of subjectivity and of living more humanely are driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of teacher/student performance inside-and-against that curriculum. Any hope that subjectivity might emerge from the messy realities of the curriculum are lost. They are lost in the processes of abstraction that subvert the concrete work that teachers and students do inside and outside the classroom. This abstraction reduces our relationships to measurable processes. And these processes must be measured because education must be subsumed under the compulsion to create and accumulate value. As the Gates Foundation argue, education is about

ensuring that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and have an opportunity to earn a postsecondary degree with labor-market value. Our approach is to play a catalytic role—to support the development of innovative solutions in education that are unlikely to be generated by institutions working alone and that can trigger change on a broader scale.

TWO. Where then is the space to educate as the practice of freedom, when the only freedom available is that of the labour-market? Where is the space to educate as the practice of freedom when the market dominates the spaces and the times available for autonomy?

To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who also believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.

bell hooks. 1994. Teaching to Transgress, p. 13.

And through this loss of subjectivity in the face of the abstraction of our educational relationships, we are readied for the market and for the financialisation of our concrete work. And this readying takes the form of our subsumption as academics, teachers and students, under the dictates of a system that is rooted in the practice of freedom for Capital. Rooted in the freedom to produce and accumulate value. And in the process our humanity is scrubbed clean.

THREE. This idea of the subsumption of University life under the dictates of the market is critical. It contains within it an unfolding of the relationship between academic labour, the market and the production of academic commodities. Through this unfolding, academic labour is monitored and reconfigured so that it is productive of value, rather than productive of the practice of freedom.

In tracing the development of production in capitalism, Marx distinguishes what he calls the formal and real subsumption of labor under capital. In formal subsumption, although production is geared toward the production of surplus value, that goal has not yet informed the process of production itself. As capital develops, however, the process of production becomes molded materially by capital, by the goal of producing surplus value. At that point, the real subsumption of labor, the process of production, has become intrinsically capitalist.

…Marx attempts to explain several basic characteristics of capitalism. The first is that, unlike other forms of life, capitalism is marked by pressures for ongoing increases in productivity, which constantly revolutionizes production and distribution and, more generally, social life. Marx seeks to elucidate this characteristic of capitalism with his theory of value as a function of time rather than the amount of goods produced. At the same time, this theory helps explain an apparent paradox—that the invention of generations of “labor-saving devices” has not lightened the burden of labor nearly as much as might have been expected.

Many people work longer and harder than before, while others are chronically under- or unemployed. This is a complex problem, but it does indicate that, as capitalism develops, there is less and less direct correlation between the level of productivity— the amount of goods being produced—and labor time. One could imagine an inverse relationship, at least potentially, between the level of productivity and the amount people have to work. But that is not the case here. Instead, we have an incredibly productive apparatus that retains the necessity of labor. This latter necessity, which is a function of labor, comes under increasing pressure as capital develops.

Moishe Postone. 2012. Exigency of Time: A Conversation with Harry Harootunian and Moishe Postone, pp.18-20.

Across the globalised terrain of higher education, University life is restructured through technological and financial innovations, which are themselves geared around creating a competitive market as the primary mechanism for the production of value and profit. Innovation is central to the generation of competitive edge, and the ability for life at the University of Oxford or Imperial College or wherever to compete with the University life at Stanford or MIT or wherever.

Competition, innovation, production, expansion and growth forcibly destroy those individual and institutional practices that are unproductive or less efficient or slower or unfit-for-exchange. This is the self-actualisation of capital. This is never the self-actualisation of the student, unless s/he is an entrepreneur; unless s/he is recombined as a force of production. And of course, we are forced to destroy any stable sense of ourselves as self-actualised because we must be remade constantly as productive and entrepreneurial and employable. This remaking entails the subordination of our University life and of the work that goes into producing it to the self-actualisation of Capital. And as a result that University life is transformed.

The distinction between formal and real subsumption identifies the implicit distinction between two moments that we have here: capital must subordinate the labour process to its valorisation process — it must formally subsume it — if it is to reshape that process in its own image, or really subsume it.

Endnotes. The History of Subsumption.

FOUR. What is being made concrete inside higher education is not merely the formal subsumption of teaching, learning and scholarship inside a market, but the transformation of those activities. This transformation is rooted in the productivity of academic labour, so that its teaching, learning and scholarship require more than the absolute extension of the social working day. This transformation demands that teaching, learning and scholarship are grounded in competition and innovation. This drives the annihilation of any possibility that the curriculum might enable individuals or communities to become self-actualised. Instead competition and innovation drive the annihilation of the humane content of teaching, learning and scholarship, so that all which is left is proletarianised. Or so that what we are left with is anxiety as we attempt to refuse this disciplinary process.

And this anxiety is amplified as our subsumption is encouraged as a form of creative destruction by Governments that agree the disaggregation of the functions of HE courses (like content production, learning analytics, assessment and accreditation) and encourage competition at the level of those components. We are forced to creatively destroy that which we have made: our selves, always to be upskilled; our curricula, always to be labour-market ready; our scholarship, always impactful; our teaching, always innovatory; our learning, always on; our souls, always bleeding.. Our curricula relationships are creatively destroyed and remade as tradable, exchangeable components.

As costs rise and competition intensifies, there will be additional pressure for achieving administrative efficiencies. The curriculum of a university, once a prized possession developed by the faculty members for the students, is increasingly becoming a commodity. MOOCs have opened up access to tried and tested curricula for anyone in the world to use.

Rizvi, S., Donnelly, K., and M. Barber. 2013. An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead, p. 41.

There appear to be specific opportunities to create significant value for UK schools, teachers and learners. These opportunities include provision for gifted & talented students, for supporting low take-up subjects, and for exam preparation. There may be benefit in further research into one or more of these areas, to develop and test the pedagogical grounding of the proposition, to establish commercial feasibility, and to assess the real benefits by piloting with schools. We strongly urge that some of this research be focused on the commercial requirements and opportunity, to help stimulate development and investment from the private sector.

Carnegie Associates. 2014. MOOCs: Opportunities for their use in compulsory-age education, pp. 75-6.

Another set of changes is technological: incredible advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and other technologies are changing job profiles and skills demanded by labor markets, while also offering possibilities for accelerated learning and improved management of education systems.

World Bank. 2011. Education Strategy 2020. Learning for All: Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development.

As academics and students labour under commodity capitalism, they have to vie for a place on the market, and this makes them vulnerable to crises related to futures-trading, or access to means of production, or to overproduction, or to market-saturation, or to an inability to access credit markets, or to more general, societal access to debt. Hence the very real impact of finance capital in creating a higher education market based on catalysing new systems of production or organisational development or technological innovation leaves universities at risk. It leaves academics at risk. It leaves students at risk. The University’s much-vaunted institutional autonomy abstracts it from a notion of public good and distances it from any socialised purpose or meaning. Autonomy prefigures marketisation and competitive restructuring. It is thus impossible to separate out Governmental policy based on funding, or Governmental support for open education, or venture capital investment in educational technology start-ups or MOOCs, or University restructuring and reorganisation, from this need to create a market. One outcome is the need to commodify and marketise y/our curriculum, and to commodify and marketise y/our relationships.

FIVE. And bell hooks’ words invite us to push-back against this, and to be engaged.

[To be engaged] invites us always to be in the present, to remember that the classroom is never the same. Traditional ways of thinking about the classroom stress the opposite paradigm—that the classroom is always the same even when students are different. To me, the engaged classroom is always changing. Yet this notion of engagement threatens the institutionalized practices of domination. When the classroom is truly engaged, it’s dynamic. It’s fluid. It’s always changing.

bell hooks. 1994. Teaching to Transgress, p. 158

Yet they want to marketise our interactions with students and staff. They want to create a market by quantifying y/our interactions with students and re-defining y/our work as data inputs and learning outcomes and impact and quality. They want to create a market because enclosing education (as a public good) for private gain depends upon the circulation of educational services as commodities. Without a market there can be no circulation. They need to create commodities and they need to create a market. Because without them money (M) cannot circulate, and without them money and its increment (M’) cannot be had. And as a by-product they will discipline the circuit of educational production, including y/our pedagogy.

And what is worse, they believe that this creative destruction/disruption, and the concomitant production of entrepreneurial, educational outcomes, are rooted in specific, systematic, measurable inputs. Because as the Conservative Party will tell us:

We know what works in education: great teachers; brilliant leadership; rigour in the curriculum; discipline in the classroom; proper exams.

The Conservative Party Manifesto, 2015.

And because they know what works they can enforce behaviour change on their terms.

Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching.

David Willetts. 2013. Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education.

And as McKinsey Consulting will tell you, we can only unlock innovation and performance with liquid information and open data: “we see a clear potential to unlock significant economic value by applying advanced analytics to both open and proprietary knowledge.” And where is the space/time for engaged teaching where y/our curriculum and its relationships have to be converted to liquid information?

A real cultural change.

The new normal.


SIX. And we have been warned about this, in our reading about the implementation of the Early Years Foundation Stage profile. For here we see the kinds of monitoring and data-driven continuous improvement that underpin educational innovation in settings that support the labour of 4 year olds. And we are forced to consider what this will mean in terms of learning gain in higher education. The monitoring of the lives of young children is a joint venture between policy makers, educators, software suppliers and academic evaluators, so that we can identify the inputs that enable an outcome specified as ‘a good level of development’.

This specification describes the early years foundation stage profile collection 2015. It will enable local authorities, and software suppliers working on their behalf, to prepare the necessary data and processes for compliance so that data on all children aged 4 in funded education at maintained schools and private, voluntary and independent early years settings can be returned.

Department for Education. 2015. Early years foundation stage profile 2015 Technical specification, version 1.1

The revised EYFSP eradicated the 69 early learning goals and replaced them with just 17 focusing on 3 prime areas of learning: communication and language, physical development and personal, social and emotional development. Within these scales a child can gain a score of 1-3 with 1 being ‘emerging’, 2 being ‘expected’ and 3 being ‘exceeding’. These scales are also classified into prime and specific areas of learning.

Department for Education. 2014. Early years foundation stage profile 2014 return, Guide for the 2014 assessments – version 1.0

The Good Level of Development (GLD) measure is the most widely used single measure of child development in the early years. We have made significant changes to the way children are assessed at the end of the EYFS through the EYFS Profile. As a result, we have had to redefine the GLD measure

In the new EYFSP, children will be defined as having reached a GLD at the end of the EYFS if they achieve at least the expected level in the early learning goals in the prime areas of learning (personal, social and emotional development; physical development; and communication and language) and in the specific areas of mathematics and literacy.

Cotzias, E, and Whitehorn, T. 2013. Topic Note: Results of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) Pilot Research report March 2013.

And this measuring of a good level of development enables a richer set of data to be collated, and new, tradable, enhancement and improvement services to be commodified and exchanged, and for judgements to be made based upon gender, or the socio-economics of access to free-school meals, or rooted in ethnicity, or based around local authority. And in our measuring of inputs and our obsession with learning outcomes our self-actualisation is lost once more. Our ability to deal with social justice or poverty is lost because someone with power and voice claims that “We know what works in education”.

SEVEN. And who is this “we” who measures learning gain or a good level of development? Who is this “we” who knows what works? And who is excluded from this knowing? Because what is lost in this process of measuring is the voice of those who are excluded. And the inability to voice is related to a lack of power. So we might reflect on the construction of our educational settings and who has power to voice in those spaces, and to co-author something else, and to be engaged. And we might reflect on the relationship between measuring and voice, as they are revealed in the definition of the curriculum, so that we wonder whether we can ever “co-author engaged spaces that are always changing” if we have no power to self-actualise. And in this I am forced to reflect on the struggle to overcome the alienating realities of “why is my curriculum white?”

A curriculum racialised as white was fundamental to the development of capitalism.

Capitalist expansion, as it emerged from Europe and engulfed much of the globe, was not simply an economic endeavour – it was an ideological project. By positioning the economic models which emerged from Europe at this time as the most morally and intellectually superior, capitalism defined progress, rationality and development in ways non-European economic systems could not.

It is the white curriculum which trains the bureaucrats of the Global South that the economic models they learn in Europe and its settler colonies are superior to the knowledges indigenous to their own societies. This facilitates the exploitation of labour and resources in their own countries, channelling the materials that western markets rely on for consumption. Both pre-colonial economic systems and anti-colonial critiques of capitalism (some, but not all, influenced by European criticisms of capitalism) are essential if a truly international movement against the power of global capital is to emerge.

The white curriculum thinks for us; so we don’t have to.

The curriculum is white because it reflects the underlying logic of colonialism, which believes the colonised do not own anything – not even their own experiences. The role of the colonised in knowledge production mirrored their role in economic production, where their resources were to provide raw materials that could then be consumed in the west.

Similarly, colonial societies were to serve as raw data that could be theorised, articulated, and properly understood only by Europeans, in western European languages – principally English. This is why, even if you are studying development studies or the prison industrial complex today, the curriculum will remain largely white, for only people racialised as white are able fully to explain Black suffering. Implicit in the white curriculum is irrefutable evidence of white superiority as a matter of truth and objectivity, while crafting a world-view that judges anything that it could define as ‘non-white’ or ‘other’ as inferior

‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ collective, UCL. 2015. 8 Reasons the Curriculum is White.

And I remember that this is not the commonly held view of those who have voice and power over the curriculum. Those who include educational publishers like Pearson for whom:

Africa’s educational challenges are not fundamentally different from those of the rest of the world, although they are more basic and urgent – and they can, at times, feel more overwhelming.

A recent study by the Brookings Institution revealed that more than half of the world’s out-of-school primary-aged children live in Sub-Saharan Africa and only a third of African children ever reach secondary school, let alone university. One in every two of those who make it to the classroom still reach adolescence unable to read, write, or perform basic numeracy tasks.

The universal power of education to transform lives for the better feels more urgent in Africa, too. Better education, of which literacy and numeracy are the bedrock, will be fundamental to sustaining growth and prosperity across the continent over the next decade, just as it surely will be throughout the rest of the world. For example, despite high unemployment rates on the continent, employers often struggle to fill vacancies. In a PWC survey of 1,330 global CEOs, over half report concerns about finding the right talent to reach business targets. Vast skills gaps are holding back job creation and growth in many African economies; there is a disconnect between what is being taught in schools and the knowledge and skills young people need to become engaged and productive citizens.

John Fallon. 2013. African outcomes.

Data, outcomes, efficacy, growth, learning gain, Pearson, PWC, global CEOs, the curriculum, talent, growth.

And I remember that the struggle over “why is my curriculum white?” is situated asymmetrically against those who have voice and power in the development of the global economy.

In today’s capital-abundant times, the ability to identify owners of good ideas and help them achieve their full potential will be the hallmarks of investing success. Companies and investors that will thrive in this environment will be those that are best able to identify opportunities that play to their core competencies. They also will take care to develop a repeatable model that enables them to apply their organization’s unique strengths to new contexts again and again. Those that can react with speed and adaptability will be best able to identify the winners, steer clear of the bubbles and generate superior returns.

Reflecting the strengthening of ties between the domestic and international economies, our analysis suggests that increasing gross exports will expand opportunities for the service sector to become more portable, which in turn will expand the economy’s export capacity. At a company level, the trend opens new avenues to profit from investments in services that are open to international trade.

The gains from converting nontradable services into tradable ones can be huge. The rate of return on services that are confined only to the local market is in the range of just 1% to 2%—in line with services’ productivity growth rate. Tradable services, by contrast, can yield returns that are many times higher. What makes these investments so compelling today is that they are channeled into activities the company knows best, thereby dodging the bubble risk that will plague investors that chase illusory returns in areas where they lack expertise.

The exportable services revolution will be a boon not just for companies in the developed markets, but for emerging market enterprises and economies as well. Portable services can help break through one of the biggest bottlenecks impeding development in the emerging markets—the shortage of management talent to enable them to sustain their rapid economic growth. By using distance-learning technologies to “export” higher education, leading universities in the advanced economies can accelerate the training of the home-grown specialists the emerging-market economies will need. And by “importing” the talent of engineers, managers, physicians and other highly skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation before their own education systems can produce the skilled workforce they require.

Karen Harris, Andrew Schwedel and Austin Kim. 2012. A world awash in money.

EIGHT. And this self-actualisation of Capital demands that y/our curriculum and y/our teaching, learning and scholarship are exchangeable, tradable, financialised and marketised, on a global scale. Because the subsumption of the University has to mirror the transformation of a labour process, which in turn mirrors “the underlying logic of colonialism, which believes the colonised do not own anything – not even their own experiences. The role of the colonised in knowledge production mirrored their role in economic production, where their resources were to provide raw materials that could then be consumed in the west.” And we might consider how our curriculum spaces reproduce that colonisation by Capital, so that the University reflects a power structure rooted in further colonisation for value production, circulation and accumulation.

And we witness an opening-up and connecting of datasets around academic performance, retention and progression, the repayment of student fees, and future earnings profiles. So that new financial mechanisms can be created, and so that markets can be created that enable exportable services that mitigate poor performance, and that enable that performance to become a tradable commodity. And think of the opportunities for value creation if we can compare performance and earnings across programmes of study and institutions and cohorts. And think of the opportunities for value creation if we can re-engineer curriculum inputs so that we can reduce the risk of futures trading in educational outcomes and earnings. And we understand why deliverology is so important.

In Higher Education we already have the Key Information Statistics, however, the passing of the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill, being discussed in the Houses of Parliament ahead of March 2015, will allow student records to be linked with HMRC tax records to provide a potentially richer pool of information. There will be added benefits for the Further Education sector such as improved access to self-employment data.

The linking up of datasets and preparation of relevant and reliable data will take many years, but the passing of the bill will be a positive leap forward. Only in time, as this information is worked through, will we understand the full extent of what can be achieved as a result of the bill and see the full potential of the FEER.

Enterprise for All. 2014. Recommendation one: The Future Earnings and Employment Record (FEER).

NINE. And this is the new normal of growth and competition and the market, and new financial instruments that are rooted in exchange. Here there can be no reinvestment in an engaged curriculum. No divestment from technologies and processes that subsume teaching, learning and scholarship and which transform those into educational commodities. And where the market normalises inputs and sponsors creative destruction, and where the outcome is academic anxiety.

And one outcome of this subsumption is a rebranding of our work as learning gain. And we might wonder if this is an example of the University’s functions being redesigned so that they reproduce a sense of anxiety as a permanent state of exception. I wonder whether the focus on productive labour, on the socially necessary labour time of abstract academic work, and the entrepreneurial turn across higher education, each create an atmosphere of anxiety. I wonder whether the reproduction of an ambiance of anxiety is a co-operative endeavour that emerges from inside the University as a means of production that is governed by metrics, data and debt, and out of which value is scraped through the alienation of time. This reminds me of persistent inferiority and internalised responsibility, and of the shock doctrine that recalibrates what is possible.

And we might consider this issue of divestment, and of how we are invested in the anxiety immanent to this obsession with learning gain, and this deliverology, and this knowing what works. And we might consider that in the struggle over fossil fuel divestment Harvard University have stated:

I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.

Drew Faust. 2013. Harvard University Fossil Fuel Divestment Statement

And that in the struggle for divestment one researcher writes:

I worry that the very funding I received from Harvard for this [ethnographic inquiry] to collect stories about water and climate change could be supported by Harvard’s investments in the oil and gas industry. I worry that Harvard is both invested in the future of its students, and in a reckless industry intent on destroying that same future.

The fossil fuel divestment movement has now been active at universities across the United States for more than four years. Stanford partially divestedSyracuse divested just last week. But Harvard still holds onto millions and millions in direct holdings of the fossil fuel industry, spread across the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Frankly, I find this alarming.

I care deeply where my university invests its money.

Devi K. Lockwood ’14. 2015. A Cognitive Dissonance: On Harvard & Divestment.

And we might refer to the feeling of anxiety and the dissonance of worry. And we might wonder whether the struggle over fossil fuel divestment and the activities of teaching, learning and scholarship might enable us to consider how we question our investment in the system of production that got us here in the first place. A system of educational production that is using learning gain and deliverology and data and performance anxiety to force us into new forms of cognitive dissonance rooted in narratives of labour-market readiness. Might we build something that is engaged and full of care, and where we no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage our own alienation?

Wall street jumps in the Hudson

With gold in their bathing suits

Then we send in the miracle ferries

That’s all we do

The National. 2010. Sin-Eaters.

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