Led Zeppelins, Literacy and Logic

John Thistle, Electrical and Computer Engineering

In its infinite wisdom, Senate recently approved an alternative to the old author’s declaration for doctoral theses. Students now have the following choice (modulo departmental policy): either :
1). “I hereby declare that I am the sole author of this thesis …” 
2). “This thesis consists of material all of which I authored or co-authored: see Statement of Contributions included in the thesis. … “

The proposal reflects a simple misunderstanding of the meaning of authorship.

As any high-school student knows — if only from studies of Led Zeppelin — sometimes words have two meanings. The word “author” can  refer (a) to the originator of an idea, a doctrine, a practice, or the like; it can also refer (b) to the writer of a document. By convention, the writer of a document implicitly claims to be the originator of the content — except where otherwise indicated.
How then should a sensible reader interpret declaration (1)? Is the student declaring, according to (a), that s/he is the sole originator of  all of its novel content — that no one else made any contribution to the substance of the thesis? Did the work spring, fully formed, from  the student’s mind alone? Did the supervisor, the committee, and all of the student’s teachers and colleagues add absolutely no value to the research?  If universities expected all successful doctoral students to be able to make such a declaration, they would long ago  have done away with supervisors, thesis proposals and research committees.  
No, it’s the latter sense (b) of authorship that applies, and the declaration (1) simply means, “Scout’s Honour: I didn’t plagiarize any part of this thesis.” (That is, I didn’t download chunks of it from the internet, or otherwise copy them from other people’s writings, without saying so.)  
But even though some of the greatest universities in the English-speaking world employ similar language, some of our faculty councils have been told — astoundingly — that declaration (1) forces students to lie, and even to plagiarize. It’s hard to see how students could be forced to plagiarize by being made to declare that they haven’t plagiarized; and the declaration only forces them to lie if they have in fact plagiarized.  
When one arrives at an absurd conclusion, one ought to ask which of one’s premises are absurd, but some of us have instead simply pressed on regardless, and taken absurdity “to the next level.”  So alternative (2) has been proposed — for the chief reason that it’s not (1). What does (2) mean, in plain English? “Even though my name is the only one appearing on the title page, there may or may not be coauthors of this work, and if you wish to try to find out which is the case, go to something called a ‘Statement of Contributions,’ somewhere else in the thesis.” 
I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve always understood that the universally accepted convention is that the authors of a document are exactly those who are listed on the title page. Moreover, the idea of a coauthored doctoral thesis — discussed explicitly in the report that raised the motion  and apparently already in practice at this University — is ridiculous. Are we about to start conferring degrees to joint recipients?  
A specious argument has been floated to the effect that something has changed; research has become more collaborative, and that somehow means that the author’s declaration has to change too.

A specious argument has been floated to the effect that something has changed; research has become more collaborative, and that somehow means that the author’s declaration has to change too. Here again, the word “author” is being misinterpreted. There is simply no reason why a student cannot be the sole author of an account of his or her thesis research, whether or not that research was collaborative. Could James Watson never write anything about the discovery of DNA without adding Francis Crick’s name to the title page? More appositely, could Charles Best, who co-discovered insulin as a graduate student, never write anything about it, including a thesis, without making Frederick Banting a coauthor?  

Of course, there’s a current vogue for simply cutting and pasting articles into theses. This may well raise copyright issues — which the proposal does nothing to address — but it need not raise authorship issues. The student may reproduce coauthored works, provided he or she says so, and provides proper citations. Similarly, a student can include joint work that hasn’t appeared elsewhere, provided he or she says so and provides proper acknowledgement. In neither case does the student cease to be sole author (in the appropriate sense) of the thesis.  
The problem that the proposal attempts to address is nonexistent. But a better “solution” would have been simply to do away with the declaration that led to the confusion. After all, that declaration means nothing more than it does for the student’s name to appear alone on the title page.  Just like the requirement to tell students at the start of every single course that cheating is bad, it is redundant.  
This proposal should have gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. It’s embarrassing to have to explain matters of rudimentary literacy and logic to ostensible university professors. But it will be more embarrassing, for the entire university, if this fatuous new declaration actually comes into use.  

Spring General Meeting and AF&T Workshops

David Porreca, FAUW President and Pat Moore, FAUW Administrative Officer

The past several posts have reported on themes from the recent OCUFA “Future U” conference. While we await the completion of FAUW Past President George Freeman’s analysis on the state of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), this post will present a sneak preview of our Spring General Meeting and a reminder about the upcoming Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee workshops.

FAUW Spring General Meeting

Join us on Tuesday, 8 April 2014, 11:00 – 13:00 in DC 1302 for our SGM. Lunch will be provided. Among the agenda items:

  • OCUFA President Kate Lawson (UW – English Language and Literature) will be presenting us with the latest news on provincial-level dealings that affect the operation of universities. Still TBA is whether she will be joined by OCUFA’s Executive Director, Mark Rosenfeld.
  • The FAUW budget for 2014 will be presented for approval.
  • The makeup of our salary negotiating team will be unveiled at this meeting. Negotiations with the administration are set to begin in the fall of 2014, with the aim of being concluded by the end of April 2015.
  • Lori Curtis, FAUW’s liaison with the Pension and Benefits Committee, will be present to answer any questions about her written report, which will be included among the agenda materials for the meeting.
  • Changes to the FAUW Constitution, including the election cycle and timing of general meetings, will be open for discussion. In particular, I invite members to think about whether it would be beneficial to have FAUW elections in the Fall Term, rather than the Winter, for terms of office than begin July 1, and whether we should continue to have two general meetings a year or move to one (which would be held in the spring).
  • For the Members’ Feedback Session, please bring your questions and concerns about UW, your working conditions, academic freedom, collegial governance and equity, and we will do our best to answer. If we don’t have the answers, it’s FAUW’s job to find out!
FAUW general meetings bring together signed-up members of the Association. If you are not a member and wish to join, please fill in the online membership form. If you’re unsure of the status of your membership, please contact Jim Tigwell by email or at x35158.

Tenure and Promotion Workshops

Workshops for tenure-track faculty (three are offered: information for recent hires, applying for probationary-term reappointment, and applying for tenure and promotion) and for tenured faculty applying for promotion to full professor are being held on Monday, 7 April and Tuesday, 8 April.

Details about the sessions and registration information are posted on the FAUW website.

We hope to see you at these events!

Crisis and Radical Thought Experiments: Notes on OCUFA’s Future U Conference

Jasmin Habib, FAUW OCUFA Director

For two days in February, a group of academics, administrators, and students gathered in Toronto for OCUFA’s Future U: Creating the Universities We Want conference. It was among the better-attended conferences that the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) has organized in recent years. The scope of the discussion was fairly narrow but the panelists and participants shared a diverse set of experiences and presented a fairly wide range of perspectives.

Crisis, what crisis?

How one experiences the crisis in education depends on where one is located:  students, professors, the public, government and business all have very different investments in the future of the university.

For many students, the crisis is related to the loans they have to repay after they graduate and an economic downturn that has a direct effect on the kinds of opportunities they will have once they enter the labour market.

For faculty, there are very real concerns, particularly for those working in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Just two or three years ago in the UK, for example, funding was lost in just one fell swoop.  Those working in those fields believe that this will limit the impact their knowledge will have on society; some worry that their colleagues will lose their jobs and, of course, that their students may not find secure employment in academia or in the areas in which they have been so highly trained. These changes also mean that identities shift as working conditions change: scholars become more concerned with fundraising and grants than teaching and research.

For government, there are a number of issues.  Over the last several decades, but particularly so since the 1990s, governments have promised their constituents access to post-secondary education.  But that accessibility comes at a cost that neither the constituents (in the form of higher tuition) nor governments (in the form of taxes) want to continue to pay.  

Interestingly, one of the speakers presented us with facts and figures that showed that not only has funding for higher education been growing at a consistent rate in the last several decades but that through those same periods, the degree of bifurcation has also increased. That is, the more public funding is made available for higher education, the more differentiated are those institutions and the greater the likelihood that the rich (students and institutions) will get richer. I will come back to this point in my next post, as it seems so counterintuitive, until one considers the financial needs of research-intensive universities.

The business community wants a highly educated workforce that will innovate, but it does not want costs to offset their profits, or to pay higher premiums for maintaining or developing newer institutions of higher learning.

University presidents are also caught, sometimes between the interests of their board of governors and their senate; and sometimes between those bodies and the provincial or federal government.  But in all instances, they are forced to be politically strategic in order to best negotiate the interests of their institutions, staff, faculty and students.

I found it quite interesting to hear several presenters note that “the rise of the corporate university” and “the death of the university” are the names given for the same crisis and the same struggle, but that the economic crisis is not the same as the education crisis, even though oftentimes these are the links that are being made for us.  Note, for example, that a recent Statistics Canada report linked higher pay with higher education but made no mention of the economic crisis and its deleterious effects on graduate earnings.  And one would certainly be hard-pressed to find faculty or university administrators who would say that the university should be limited simply to training students for the labour market.

One faculty member noted that we may have swung from one extreme – the patriarchal and elitist system university in the pre-1970s era – to a more merit-based but far more managerial and hierarchical system, with its endless surveillance and top down style.  While we have a rise in the number of contingent faculty across the country (and throughout the US), we also heard criticisms linked to the emergence of a US-style “star system”, which crossed our border in the form of Canada Research Chairs (among other, similar strategies).  There is evidence that these positions are having a deleterious effect on departments and programs as these Chairs have tended to work in a kind of bubble, some entirely out of reach not only of fellow faculty members and students, but seemingly also out of touch with the kinds of pressures that their fellow faculty endure, especially when it comes to departmental and faculty service.

What are the effects of all of this?  One faculty member from BC reported that when they were organizing to unionize at the University of Victoria, a mathematician speaking in favour of certification noted with emphasis:  “When I was hired here, this was my institution, and now I feel it is their institution; and when I was hired here, I was hired for my intelligence; but now I feel that they insult my intelligence.”  The faculty overwhelmingly voted to unionize in January.

Thought experiments and the future U

That said, here is one meaningful exercise that a speaker suggested faculty could consider and which several people discussed over the course of the conference:

“Ask yourself if it still possible to do the work that I want to do here? Is it possible to sustain the kinds of research [and teaching, I would add] that I am interested in? How might I create new structures here (or elsewhere) so that I can do that work?”

These questions were not meant to lead us all to consider getting OUT of the university but rather to think about new possibilities, to be innovative, and as a thought experiment.  “The thought of going outside should allow us to consider what we can do on the inside.”

Several examples of new possibilities and responses to the current environment include the re-emergence of “free schools” and the development of the “enlivened learning” movement occurring around the world, and the rise of a new form, “the cooperative university”.  These institutions are intended to subvert the market and competition around such things as funding subsidies. They encourage us to put into practice interdisciplinary relationships not only between departments but also between universities. They suggest we should consider not only moving across departments and disciplines, but around the world, not simply to market ourselves or to compete with other universities for students but in order to find ways to work outside the nation-centred models of education and to link to other institutions, scholars and students in the global south.

All of these movements suggest to me that our formal institutions may not be meeting all of our educational or societal needs.

Such ideas may also be “quite liberating” as they could help us to clarify what it is that we like about our universities as well as what else may be possible. Several times faculty noted that administrators are ready to hear quite radical ideas but that we need to take the opportunity to share them.

Radical U?

Student representatives’ reports were among the most radical, offering visions of an entirely accessible univers
ity that offers all qualified students the entire range of course offerings, both in class as well as, when appropriate, online. Their panel noted that they placed a high value on teaching quality and they have consistently asked the government to invest in full-time rather than contingent faculty. As one student leader put it: “ Students want access to faculty who are long-term, who have offices on campus, who are supported for creating high quality lessons and exploring alternative pedagogical practices. Our future u has more teaching done by more full-time faculty who are on our campuses.”  The bottom line for these student representatives is that online education should not detract from in-class education. And, they want even MORE opportunity for discussions to take place in the classroom.  As one student representative put it, succinctly: “Faculty teaching conditions are our learning conditions.”

Next week, I will share what I learned about differentiation and why some of our panelists thought it was a very good thing.

Future U: The Future of Academic Labour

Kate Lawson (English Language & Literature), OCUFA President

On 27-28 February, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) sponsored a conference entitled “Future U: Creating the Universities We Want.” I was part of a panel addressing the topic “Faculty in Future U: Current challenges to ‘traditional’ faculty work and re-imagining this work in the future.” I was asked to share my notes from that event for this post.

Like the other speakers on this panel I was asked to consider the challenges facing traditional academic labour today and ways in which we can re-imagine that labour for the future.

Associate Professor Kate Lawson, University of Waterloo
Kate Lawson

As I planned this talk, I confess that the “challenges” part of the topic seemed overwhelming.  The pervasive and continuing underfunding of higher education in Ontario and shifts in academic policy over the last decade have worked together to create deleterious effects on academic labour. We may think of ourselves as scholars engaged in the pursuit and transmission of knowledge—in the classroom, the laboratory, and the library—but increasingly we are viewed as knowledge workers to be “managed,” our labour measured in “metrics,” our “efficiency” and “productivity” quantified.

Efficiency and productivity are not, of course, dirty words. All faculty members and librarians whom I know work not only hard, but work diligently. They work to balance excellence in the classroom and in helping students with research productivity, grant writing, service to the profession, and so on. But in the managerial institution, this kind of efficiency and productivity is not enough.

The challenges to academic labour arising out of context are numerous, but I will list only two.

First is the casualisation of academic labour, a devastating and unwarranted devaluing of the highly trained individuals who work, almost literally, for pennies; it is a devaluing of the students who are taught by professors who often have no offices, no permanent email addresses, and only the loosest affiliation to the institutions where they teach; and it is a devaluing of the eager and talented graduate students whom we teach, many of whom are being set up for these underpaid and undervalued jobs.

Second, I would name on-line education as a challenge to academic labour, not because such education is second rate, but because—done well—it costs as much or more than classroom education. But for government, for those who want to “manage” our labour, “on-line” is frequently taken to be the quick-fix, the cheap alternative, to face-to-face instruction.

I could go on.

However, rather than dwelling on “challenges” I would like to address possible futures for academic labour that rest more in our hands, in our choices, than in the hands of government and academic managers.

First, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with the community?

A brief story. My first tenure-track job was at the University of Northern BC in Prince George, a small city 800 km north of Vancouver.  Prince George had relentlessly lobbied the provincial government for a university for many years. When the university opened in 1994, the community felt that it was their university. They felt that the existence of a real university with teaching and research at its heart was their accomplishment. When I arrived, people would stop me and my family in restaurants and on the street and tell us how welcome we were in their community. And the university, as universities do, made Prince George its community as well. My colleagues worked with First Nations, with doctors, with social workers, with forestry companies—and of course, with students—and made it clear how a university could transform that small city.

Universities in Ontario are generally of an older vintage and I think are frequently taken for granted. But equally we may take our communities for granted. Do we undervalue community-based research in tenure and promotion? Do we participate in our communities as specialists in our fields, as informed observers, or simply as good citizens? Can we find ways to make the community feel more connected to us? Can we advocate for our fellow citizens and perhaps make them our advocates in return?

Second, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with our students?

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own describes walking on the grass at “Oxbridge,” only to be told by a beadle that she must get off the lawn since only Fellows and Scholars are allowed to walk there. Ditto when she tries to enter the library. The great democratisation of university education in Ontario and the wider world would leave Woolf, I think, breathless. My classroom at the University of Waterloo is as diverse as Canada itself—and that can only be a good thing.

Yet some of us bemoan the ways and degrees to which students “these days” are not like students in the “good old days.” I would argue that we should embrace our integral role in the democratization of higher education. We must teach the students who are in front of us and not yearn for a different cohort of students whom we might prefer.

One of the challenges of this more diverse participation is that none of us can take for granted anymore that we know what “a university education” means.

One of the challenges of this more diverse participation is that none of us can take for granted anymore that we know what “a university education” means. Are we here to confer professional credentials or skills training? Should we inculcate specialised kinds of knowledge or confer cultural capital? It’s useful to ask these questions and to debate the answers. It reminds us of our purpose, and how much that purpose matters to all of us.

Third, can we as faculty members re-imagine our relationship with each other?

I would like to suggest that faculty members should embrace collegiality on a small and on a large scale.
On a small scale, I can say that my notes today are in fact dotted with mental footnotes to my colleagues in the English department at UW whom I asked: how do you imagine the future of academic labour? In writing these notes, I borrowed liberally from them; on occasion, I’ve disagreed with them.

What is true on this very small scale is a self-evident truth for all academic work; we rely on the hypotheses, the arguments, the evidence put forward by those who work in our fields. We also participate with colleagues in interdisciplinary research, joint research projects, etc.

On a large scale, universities are built on a system of collegial self-governance, the belief that academic decisions are best made collectively by those with academic experience and knowledge. This means Senates, of course, but it also means the myriad committees that make universities work. “Committee work” may sometimes be tiresome, but it is vitally important that we play our role in governance. And if we refuse that role, we cannot object when managers take over the running of our institutions.

ut I also want to stress that collegiality can and must mean being good “colleagues.” Etymologically, a colleague is “one chosen along with another, a partner in office.” We don’t necessarily choose our colleagues, then, but they are chosen along with us and become partners. We may disagree with our colleagues—that is built in to the academic venture—but as colleagues we should do our best to keep these disagreements as respectful as possible. I am as guilty as any in saying something hasty that I later regretted, but the more time I spend in the university the more grateful I am to my colleagues who are both gracious and thoughtful.

Being colleagues must also mean that workers in the professoriate see adjunct and sessional workers as scholars engaged in the same pursuit of knowledge and its transmission. But there is a key difference: tenure gives the professoriate the freedom to speak out on difficult issues. Part of our academic work then must be to speak out for fairness for those who lack tenure, lack academic freedom, and lack fair salaries.

In closing, I would like to take inspiration from my students and colleagues who are interested in “sustainability” as a model for decision-making on both the global and the local level. How, I want to ask, can sustainability help us in making decisions, be they related to budgets, pedagogy, programs, or governance?

In ecology, sustainability is defined as that which allows biological systems to endure and to remain diverse and productive. Sustainability thus embraces the idea of diversity, now being promulgated in Ontario under the rubric of “differentiation”; and it embraces the idea of productivity. But underlying diversity and productivity is the requirement that a system endure.

Can a high-quality university system endure if it is built on exploitation, low-cost labour, or cheap on-line delivery? Can a high-quality university system endure if scholarship—as research, teaching, or learning—is undervalued or devalued? I’m not sure what a sustainable university system will look like, but I do think we need to think seriously about this if we are to imagine a bright future for academic labor.

Future U: Creating the Universities WE WANT: Crisis in UK Universities

David Porreca, FAUW President

This week’s post is the first in a series of reports resulting from this past weekend’s conference, “Future U: Creating the Universities WE WANT”, organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA).
At this conference, academics, journalists, union leaders, university administrators and researchers on higher education came together to discuss not just the problems with our current system of higher education, but also what ideals we ought to strive for in terms of creating the universities of the future.

Crisis in UK Universities

Sarah Amsler, a higher education researcher at the University of Lincoln was interviewed, and the following represent highlights from the ensuing discussion.

  • The broader public’s perception of higher education in the UK is driven by personal experience (inevitably anecdotal and idiosyncratic), higher education journalism and the blogosphere (each with its own agendas), with little structural analysis of the whole system. 
  • The UK does not have a distributed system of faculty associations in each university. Instead, they have a single nationwide union (à la CAUT) without its individual member groups.  This situation leads to there being fewer critical eyes examining the university system at the grassroots level, and enables a heavily managerial system where administrators have all the decision-making power.  Individual faculty members – all without our concept of tenure – get to endure the consequences of management’s vision with nary a say in the matter.

It is under such conditions that a crisis was created and solved, leading to a wholesale reform of the higher education system was imposed in 2009-10, during which

  • Universities were removed from the remit of the Department of Education and transferred to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.
  • Government transfer payments were systematically cut, leaving universities to cope with a market-based funding model that favours the already-prominent universities (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge) at the expense of other, less elite institutions
  • Students were forced to pay what we would call “full cost-recovery” tuition fees, enabled by a system of student loans. 
“The only redeeming quality of the fees-and-loans scheme in the UK is that it is run by government rather than commercial banks…”

The only redeeming quality of the fees-and-loans scheme in the UK is that it is run by government rather than commercial banks, such that the repayment schedule is automatically deducted from earnings, proportional to income, and subject to time limits.

In other words, students who graduate and happen to get low-income jobs pay back a small proportion of their loans over a defined period and are subsequently released from the debt. This would appear to be a much more humane system than the one prevalent in North America (including Ontario), where bankruptcy laws have been modified to prevent individuals from discharging their student debt by way of bankruptcy.

There are three broad-scale questions or problems that those thinking about higher education need to consider:

  1. The purpose of higher education and/or the university (i.e., in what proportions are we imparting skill sets? Conducting research? Providing credentials? Shaping a critically thinking citizenry? Imparting knowledge? Preserving cultural memory?)
  2. The relations between universities and other power groups in society (governments at all levels, corporations, unions, NGOs)
  3. The ownership of governance (i.e., who gets to decide how academia and academics are governed?)

Take-home point for FAUW and its Membership

Although it may seem that the higher education sector is in deep crisis in Canada, the system of collegial governance we enjoy is of great value in terms of enabling some measure of control over our working conditions. It may not be as efficient as a UK-style manager-driven system, but efficiency is only a virtue if the decisions made under its banner are the right ones. UW-style collegial governance – when it is working well – gives each of us a voice in the major decisions relating to our working lives.

This conference was a potent reminder that other systems exist – the UK model discussed above was also juxtaposed with the state-controlled model prevalent in most of Asia. Our system, for all its flaws and on-the-surface inefficiencies, actually serves curiosity-driven academia reasonably well and therefore is worth defending. The latter is one of the principal purposes for FAUW’s existence.