notes on a teaching-anxiety [excellence] framework

slower and more calculated/no chance of escape/now self-employed/concerned (but powerless)/an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)/

calm/fitter, healthier and more productive/a pig/in a cage/on antibiotics

Radiohead. 1997. Fitter. Happier.


ONE. Endings

Endings are important.

Fucked-up endings remain. Corroding. With the loss and the grief.

Fucked-up endings and the bewilderment that coerces us to internalise the loss, and to incorporate the reasons for it. As if we caused it. As if we didn’t try hard enough.

Fucked-up endings that coerce us into complicity with the original act. That leads us to hope that we might be able to persuade. That this time it might be different. To hope that we might return to where we once were.

Fucked-up endings that leave us with no way out but lamentation.

Fucked-up endings that leave us bitter.

And what are we to do when the means to manage those endings are taken from us?

Corroding.


TWO. Walking to the end

And this matters because there are those of us who walked through London, and who spoke at teach-ins and occupations, and who wrote in defence of some idea of equality in education, and who were kettled for it. And there are those of us who protested the Browne Review and the increase in fees. There are those of us who knew what was coming.

And many of us did this because we had some formation of education as social justice or radical democracy or critical pedagogy at the heart of our work. And in these formations there are those of us who struggle to enrich the very relationships upon which our institutions are build. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted as excellence. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted in order to punish those who are “coasting”. Who struggle for relationships that others have co-opted as progression and retention and satisfaction.

Relationships co-opted as data and debt. Relationships abstracted as indentured study.

And what is worse, is that the co-option of our work for self-actualisation or care or relationships has been laid bare. It has been laid out in-front of us, not just in the teaching excellence framework but also in the Treasury view of higher education. What is worse is that we fought for relationships that were not rooted in the rule of money, and so we fought for ideas of students-as-producers or partners or co-creators, and for education as courage and faith and justice. And our struggle was rooted in a refusal of the logic of Browne and nine thousand pounds. A corrosive logic implanted in the very heart of our pedagogical souls.

On fees, Mr Osborne announced the lifting of the £9,000 fee cap when he said that “we’ll link the student fee cap to inflation for those institutions that can show they offer high-quality teaching”. That appears to be a reference to the government’s recently announced plans for a teaching excellence framework, aimed at driving up teaching quality, which has been widely seen as offering a possible mechanism for the government to allow fees to rise.

John Morgan. 2015. Budget 2015: fees can rise for universities with ‘high-quality teaching’. Times Higher Education.

The other major measure affecting higher education was the announcement that universities in England will be allowed to upgrade their tuition fees above £9,000 in line with inflation from 2017-18, so long as they can demonstrate high-quality teaching. Universities UK has recently pointed out the inflationary pressures affecting universities and their ability to provide the highest quality education, so the fact that the Chancellor has listened to this is welcome. The government’s focus on ensuring a high quality of teaching alongside any increases is understandable.

I think it’s safe to say that the government  is at least looking into whether the  Teaching Excellence Framework announced last week by Jo Johnson should be used as the metric as to whether institutions should be able to increase tuition fees, and Universities UK will certainly be taking part in the consultation process for this.

Alex Leonhardt. 2015. Big announcements for universities in the Budget. UniversitiesUK Blog.

Above all, to meet students’ high expectations of their university years and to deliver the skills our economy needs, we need a renewed focus on teaching.

This is vital unfinished business from the reforms of the last Parliament.

As David Willetts himself acknowledged in a recent interview with the Times Higher Education; “teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education”.

This must change.

There must be recognition of excellent teaching – and clear incentives to make ‘good’ teaching even better.

Some rebalancing of the pull between teaching and research is undoubtedly required.

Jo Johnson. 2015. Teaching at the heart of the system. Gov.UK

Performance measurement and management dominate our lives in-and-against higher education, and bring the relationships that emerge in the classroom and within families into stark, asymmetrical relation to the market. As a result, life inside-and-outside the classroom is collapsed around the need to generate value and exchange and enterprise. What happens inside the classroom becomes a primary, societal concern beyond the governance and regulation of individual universities or the higher education sector.

The Coalition government has quietly put in place a series of measures designed to support a new performance metric: repayment of loans by course and institution. It could become the one metric to dominate all others and will be theorised under the rubric of ‘human capital investment’.

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act received Royal Assent at the end of March 2015. Section Six of the bill is titled ‘Education Evaluation’… I quote [the Act]

[The measures] will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

Andrew McGettigan. 2015. The Treasury View of HE: Variable Human Capital Investment. PERC Paper 6.

And now this logic is really subsuming our academic labour. Because we know that our work in care and self-actualisation and relationships will now underpin new metrics. A new teaching excellence framework. A set of metrics to dominate our pedagogical souls. And what is worse, for those of us who protested the iniquity of this, our work will now be co-opted and repurposed so that our excellence enables our providers of higher education to raise fees. The very spaces that we sought to defend now alienated from us, and turned against us. The very spaces we sought to defend used to amplify and accelerate the very thing we were protesting against.

So that the very acts we sought to protect are reproduced for value.

And what does this do to our souls?


THREE. We are all anxious entrepreneurs now

And we remember that the financialisation and marketization of the sector has enabled the social relations of production, which are rooted in the production and accumulation of surplus labour and surplus value, to enter the academic labour process. This entry alone is not enough for the real subsumption of the sector inside the law of value. But this process has been accelerating. With outsourcing and technologizing and performance management and zero hours contracts and open data and debt and knowledge transfer and whatever. The sector and the academic labour that shapes it being compelled to reproduce capitalist social relations. Being compelled to open up for the reproduction and circulation and accumulation of value.

For others.

And the landscape of higher education is restructured perceptibly so that its labour processes are transformed. Subsumed. Really. We have seen the creation of an infrastructure and a technocracy that monitors and measures higher education’s current means of production, in readiness for its recalibration. An infrastructure that hints at markets and surpluses and enterprise and data. An infrastructure that is predicated upon opening-up the sector and its labour processes and its data. An infrastructure that internalises in each of us performativity.

And this is a site of anxiety, because we can remember what went before. And we can feel its loss. And we are powerless. Because we see that capital cannot tolerate a space inside which the social forces of production are developed in a limited way. And we feel the acceleration of performativity and the loss of autonomy and agency. And we feel the recalibration of higher education through a real capitalist labour process. And so it goes: this recalibration changes the social relations of production and the modes of academic labour, so that they produce and reproduce the nature of capital.

And this incorporation corrodes. And it generates anxiety. So that as we internalise the University’s entrepreneurial turn, we in-turn become our own seats of anxiety. Our own generators and circulators and accumulators of anxiety.

As a result academic labour is really subsumed. Subsumed for value, not for humane values. It is performance managed or measured and made efficient, or it is disciplined by outsourcing or technology or zero-hours contracts. It is governed by codes of conduct and workload management. The governance, regulation and funding of higher education, together with the organising principles for the public University and its curricula, are transformed through financialisation and marketisation. Academics work under the structural domination of finance capital, disciplined by the idea of student-as-consumer, partner or entrepreneur, their labour enclosed by institutions driven by competitive positioning in increasingly volatile markets for educational services.

So that effective teaching practice can be reproduced as teaching excellence. So that teaching excellence can be converted into data. So that data can drive excellence-as-a-service. So that excellence-as-a-service can be sold back to us. Our souls commodified and repackaged and sold back to us. Because if only we internalised excellence-as-a-service we would be better teachers, professors, whatever.

And this process is anxiety-inducing. And the refusal of this process is anxiety-inducing.

So that the real subsumption of academic labour under the law of value has forced an emotional recomposition of the practices of the University itself, and thus of the experience of labouring inside it. The accelerated transition towards real subsumption has both restructured institutions and reduced the points of potential solidarity for academic labour. Just as points of solidarity have weakened, the competitive dynamics of commodity capitalism have catalysed new systems of production, organisational development and technological innovation, which are in turn further constraining academic autonomy and agency. As the compulsion is always towards productivity measured by the law of value, academics are forced to perform in ways that can be considered to be culturally-acceptable self-harming activities and which amplify trauma, anxiety and alienation.

Alienating. Corroding. Toxic.


FOUR. The University, corroded by excellence

And so a generalised state of anxiety has emerged in the governance and experience of work in global higher education systems, showing up as both perverse incentive and outcome. To understand anxiety in higher education and the idea that the university is a machine that feeds off the production, circulation and accumulation of anxiety, we need to accept that it is no longer a sign that higher education is not functioning as it should, but that anxiety has become the proper functioning state of all sectors within the global, neoliberal economy.

And this anxiety is rooted in academic performativity, uncovered through the mechanics of managerialism, systemic signalisation, marketisation, and the commodification of academic life, so that the ways in which we strive for care or self-actualisation or relationships can be co-opted as excellence and turned against us. So that in order for the University to maintain itself as a node in a transnational network nominally interested in the production of value, it has to become grounded in the production, consumption and distribution of anxiety itself. In part this anxiety is incorporated from an external environment that is responding to the systemic crisis and the politics of austerity; in part it is a projection of anxiety from inside the University across both its internal structures and external associations.

Because anxiety about inputs and outputs, about metrics and learning gain, about excellence and entrepreneurship, are the normalised and reproduced pedagogical moments of the university now. The University that collapses the future into the present, so that current productivity is not enough. We must internalise the management of risk so that the risks that exist in our pedagogical futures can be shorted or hedged. We are made to internalise anxiety about the future risks of failure of our curriculum or our students’ success or our own performance, in our ability to recruit or to progress or to repay our debts. To internalise that anxiety and to reproduce it, as a permanent state of exception.

Anxiety as a permanent, pedagogical state of exception.


FIVE. Points of [most excellent] solidarity

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

Pace John Holloway. 2002. How to Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.

Is it possible for academics and students to refuse both the valorisation of competitive success and the therapeutic recuperations currently servicing the sustainability of profit? Given that we are witnessing the annihilation of pedagogical space by work time. Given that we are witnessing ways in which our teaching as care and relationships and self-actualisation led us to fight fees, only to find that those principles upon which we fought have now been really subsumed so that fees can be raised further on the basis of our excellence.

As Marx notes:

The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes, technology, etc., as well as by working on a large scale, which corresponds to all these advances, etc.

And we witness academic labour subsumed as a social force of production that is lost to us.

This development of the productive power of socialised labour, as opposed to the more or less isolated labour of the individual, etc., and, alongside it, the application of science, that general product of social development, to the direct production process, has the appearance of a productive power of capital, not of labour, or it only appears as a productive power of labour in so far as the latter is identical with capital, and in any case it does not appear as the productive power either of the individual worker or of the workers combined together in the production process.

And we witness the social productive powers of labour recalibrated for the production of relative surplus value, and as a precursor to competition rooted in finance capital, data and new markets.

The mystification which lies in the capital-relation in general is now much more developed than it was, or could be, in the case of the merely formal subsumption of labour under capital. On the other hand, the historical significance of capitalist production first emerges here in striking fashion (and specifically), precisely through the transformation of the direct production process itself, and the development of the social productive powers of labour.

And we have descriptions of the impact of this on our humanity. As our humanity is subsumed and our souls are corroded, in this annihilation of pedagogical space by work time.

Within all of this as an academic subject I am made uncomfortable again, out of place once more; my home in the ivory tower is being flattened by neoliberal bulldozers to make way for a fast-fact higher education franchise in which all knowledge has is price and which, as Ansgar Allen puts it, ‘is distinguished not by its greyness and economic subjugation, but by a gaudy proliferation of colour. It has become the rampant breeding ground of jobbing academics in search of the next “big” idea’. I began with both memories of and a critique of welfare education and end with a critique of neoliberal education, and have inhabited and struggled with the discomforts of both. I am left with a sense of process rather than destination, unease and refusal rather than affirmation, in a space in which I am (im)possible and in which sociology as a vocation, as something I do, is being re-inscribed as a resource for the management of the population, which is how it started.

Stephen J. Ball (2015): Accounting for a sociological life: influences and experiences on the road from welfarism to neoliberalism, British Journal of Sociology of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2015.1050087

The title of ‘professor’ contains within itself a statement that what they do is more than a job: they profess a set of beliefs or values which transcend their formal terms of employment… All this goes out of the window once the professor is left wondering whether the next phone call is to had her the price of a good holiday or summon her to an exit interview. Who will challenge (constructively or not) anything that happens when their are [sic.] such serious consequences? You’d have to be hard as nails to resist the tide in this way or – like me – resigned to finding fulfilment in my small but steady academic niche rather than in the warm glow of management’s regard. It’s not good enough… This morning I sat next to a dignified and professional man as he begged for his job, his livelihood and his personal and professional pride, watched across the table by a man in a suit who kept saying that he didn’t have time for this. For all the abstract points I’ve outlined above, this is what it comes down too: sleek bonus-seeking sharks forcing honest people to justify their existence in the most reductive terms.

Plashing Vole. 2015. You’re fired. Enjoy your summer.

In one university, as well as undergoing six-monthly performance reviews (as frequently as newly appointed probationers), professors must now meet exacting criteria for ‘quality’ of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain ‘drivers’, which include securing a research grant as PI every two years, producing REF 3* and 4* ‘outputs’, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations, and of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet these expectations will result in the public humiliation of the Improving Performance Procedure, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy. Ben Knights (2013) cites Sennett (1998), who recognizes that “a regime which instills insecurity, in which you are… ‘always starting over’ is inimical to the longer term processes of memory and imagination.

It is common in the performance management documents I have collected, for reference to be made to ‘stretching objectives’ which are purported to sit in between an individual’s ‘comfort zone’ and the  ‘panic zone’. ‘Stretching objectives’ are presented as desirable, but objectives which place individuals in their comfort or panic zones are not. There is a disturbing presupposition in this discourse of comfort zones. To be asked to go beyond it makes the patronizing assumption that one’s life is normally comfortable.

Liz morrish. 2015. The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’

Some of the most precious qualities of academic culture resist simple quantification, and individual indicators can struggle to do justice to the richness and plurality of our research. Too often, poorly designed evaluation criteria are “dominating minds, distorting behaviour and determining careers.” 1 At their worst, metrics can contribute to what Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, calls a “new barbarity” in our universities.2 The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems. 3 Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods.

James Wilsden et al. 2015. The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management.

Endings are important.


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