What is an institution?


These last few days I’ve been following the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute going on at Mary Washington University in Virginia. I tuned in first for  Tressie McMillan Cottom’s keynote on Monday and enjoyed a “hallway conversation” via Virtual Connecting with Tressie, Sean Michael Morris and Cathy Davidson and about 7 other virtual guests via Google Hangout. Since I’m following from my laptop in the living room surrounded by my very personal, yet significant clutter, I’ve been feeling pretty comfy, laid back, fully at ease.

In between sessions my mind has been very active, particularly at night. After Tressie’s talk I woke up thinking about institutions and money. There was one sentence near the end which kinda grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. It came up while she was describing the actual mission of her department’s launch of a new degree program in Digital Sociology. She asked:

“How do I develop a space for critical learning while also giving my students the benefit of an institution?

That’s what I’m trying to do.

Institutions actually do still matter. They are one of the ways that we accrue resources.” (emphasis mine)

She explained that for marginalized folks who do not have equal access to resources, institutions are a pretty good place to be. This made sense to me and mirrored much of my experience both as a student and teacher. I have benefited from the prestige, stability and opportunities of the schools I attended as well as at the schools where I have worked. This thinking also lines up with my parents’ strong belief in and commitment to a variety of institutions including our church, all the schools my siblings and I attended, and other civic and religious organization in which my mother in particular was very active.

Institutions and resources, sure. Pooled resources, shared commitment attached to tangible things: buildings, events, property, furniture…

But something was still itching. I began thinking about now. About the culture we have now. Our very digital culture which is stored increasingly in a so-called “cloud,” the companies we create are no longer “built to last” in the sense that Jim Collins writes about it. Rather, companies are called, “start-ups” as if that’s all they will ever need to do – to get started (and wait to be bought). While we are told that everything is open for “disruption” increasingly we need to ask ourselves if this is indeed what we want. So when we talk about institutions – of learning, of social value, of prominence, of tradition, it’s easy to create the mental picture of the special building, the rooms inside it, the purposeful people who inhabit such spaces. We can even imagine the habits, rules, norms by which the institution may operate based on our experiences of various forms. We do not lack notions of what an institution is or can be.

Yet linking institutions to accruing resources reminds me of how institutions are often created with very specific hierarchies in mind. An order is specified and forms the basis for how the institution will be run. Of course, then, an institution’s original resource is power. Power to make the rules, set the tone, define the group, determine a focus. That seems important to understand. Especially as we speak of disrupting institutions of various forms, let us keep in mind for whom “disruption” is likely to produce wins and for whom it may well manifest the opposite. I find no reason to believe that the power supposedly unleashed in the act of “disrupting” the institution will be evenly or equitably distributed.  On the contrary, it seems far more probable that the power may grow or shrink and likely remain consolidated in the hands of the few.

Over a year ago I published a post entitled, “How Much Higher, Education?” in which I wondered aloud about the sustainability of higher education (particularly in the US)  in its current set up of exploding financial costs to students minus the guarantee of improved standard of living in the short, medium or long range. In that essay, I expressed this wish:


Then that warning wisdom arrives: “Watch what you wish for because you might receive.”

Do I wish for my children and grandchildren to create institutions? Do I aim to create institutions? Let’s say this. As I participate – as a parent, alumna, employee, donor, board member – I am part of the process of sustaining and shaping the institutions to which I belong and in which I have been a member. The degree to which I exercise my influence in different contexts involves choice and self-awareness. Only when I recognize my role and acknowledge my power, can I actively decide to become a force for change or to preserve the status quo.

So when I clumsily asked Jesse Stommel, founder of Hybrid Pedagogy, during a differnt “hallway conversation” at the lab about Hybrid Pedagogy and its status as, or part of an institution, I think what I really wanted to ask and understand and explore was:

What is an institution?

How do we understand it? What do we mean by that term? Are you and I talking about the same thing? What happens when we add “digital” as a descriptor? What is different about digital institutions if they, in fact, exist?

My wish for my children and their children is perhaps not so much that they go on to create a lasting thing or things – rather I wish them ample resources in the form of opportunity, fortitude, empathy, and purpose to grow their dreams into realities they can enjoy and take pride in. And the question of what an institution is, isn’t, should or shouldn’t be can stay on the table for all of us to contemplate and respond to.


image via Pixabay.com CC0

Writing, Academia and Freedom

Silence Won’t Protect You by Kelly J. Baker

On Poverty by Alison Stine

Confronting the Conditions of Contract Faculty by Melonie Fullick

I read quite a bit about higher education these days and the news I frequently come across is sobering to say the least. There are multiple areas of concern: rising tuition fees and students with obscene levels of debt, increasing reliance on adjunct faculty who are above all underpaid for work loads which lack both security and status, and institutions that are run more like businesses rather than centers of learning (if that is what they should in fact be). These are the topics I am most likely to encounter in my circles of contact.

Two recent reads speak to these concerns from different angles and the third points to the issue of solidarity and privilege and how these play out both within and outside the academy.

Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui on Twitter) provides a handy recap of panel discussion on the casualisation of higher education teaching in Canada and a few other countries. This is helpful because it teases out a number of different aspects of the whole package of dilemmas posed by the widespread use of faculty whose jobs lack stability and often adequate compensation.

Describing specific CAF working conditions and their effects: While contract faculty jobs are precarious and underpaid, so is an increasing amount of work in the current economy; the “big picture” is the decline of stable work that provides livable wages, and how that gap affects people’s lives. At the same time, when people hear the words “university professor” they tend to think of privilege. So it’s important to communicate in detail how, for contract faculty, precarious conditions combine with low institutional status and lack of professional support, leading to financial and health problems, low morale and burnout. None of these things is in the best interests of students or those teaching them, thus they’re not in the best interests of universities, either.

A second aspect that stood out for me was the conversation around solidarity and who can and will support whom under which circumstances and the conundrums that many casually employed faculty face in daring to speak out against lousy work conditions. There are very real risks involved.

Depending on context, it can be difficult for contract faculty to participate in organizing because often naming the problem means becoming the problem, which brings the very real possibility of losing access to jobs in the future.

And this is precisely where Kelly J. Baker picks up the baton and takes the conversation a step further and names the future of academic freedom as concurrent risk in the current higher ed climate. What she documents in her article lends heft to Fullick’s suggestion that naming the problem is often tied to becoming the problem, particularly for adjunct faculty.

Academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity, and simplified messages. Your speech is protected if your words fit neatly with the university’s brand, if your institution chooses to stand with you, or if your university cares about your tenure.

In conclusion, Baker leaves no doubt as to the necessary course of action:

If you care about academic freedom, then you should care about all of those who lack academic freedom. You should stand with them and support them. Use your academic freedom, while you still have it, to make academia a safer space for everyone or lose it in your silence. Use it to include more voices and protect more people. Don’t try to save your own academic freedom, but try to save it for all of us. That’s the only way it will continue. Silence nor complacency will save us from the increasing adjunctification of higher education, the corporatized university, the growth of the administrative class, or the continual devaluation of teaching. The neoliberal university will grind us down until there’s nothing left. Choose solidarity. Choose academic freedom for all scholars. Stand together.

Your silence won’t protect you, but solidarity might.

Alison Stine’s piece ‘On Poverty’ comes at us from a very different place – outside the academy, from coal mining country where lack is tangible reality. In describing her personal decision stop teaching in an adjunct position because she could no longer afford to continue, she writes:

Then I was offered a section, and when I asked how much it paid—because I have to pay a babysitter for my young son—I was only told by the (male, white) department head: “We have adjuncts who will do it at any price.”

As disgusting as this statement is, it’s true. And it means that only writers with working spouses or families who support them, or who have independent wealth, can teach. And that most college English Departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.

But this is only a part of the picture. What Stine further laments and draws our attention to is the poverty we are likely creating in writing as an art as it becomes the domain of the well-off and academic.

I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.

It reinforces the damaging message that the only lives worth writing (or reading) about are the ones professors lead…

…There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.

This is why we need to look carefully at where we are and who we are when we are speaking up and out and on whose behalf. It may well be the case that our best work is not speaking at all but creating space for someone else’s voice.

The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.

We are not poor out of lack of hard work. We are not poor because we “want it less.” We stay poor because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism.

We stay poor because doors stay closed.

Stine reminds us all that freedom is not a given and that some, many in fact, lack the freedom to simply change. The nudge that I received from ‘On Poverty’ was that I have a choice. I can choose solidarity or not. And solidarity requires more than admiring so many beautiful problems. It requires self awareness, perhaps in the form of recognizing my own forms of privilege for starters. Solidarity requires listening first and creating space. Solidarity means I need to open doors for and with others wherever possible.

I am fascinated by higher education. I love being able to ‘hang’ with my PhD friends on social media and feel welcomed in their conversations. Yet these reads encourage me to go deeper, to look at who’s speaking and what are we really talking about and ultimately what my choices convey about my priorities in these spaces. Keeping our conversations open and routinely asking ourselves who is not present moves us in the direction of solidarity. I wish I had a better, tidier conclusion. In the end there is more work ahead. Work that demands consciousness and fortitude and engagement. Not tidy, necessary.



Less ‘Out There,’ More ‘In Here’

As a culture, we’ve forgotten that middle classes are not naturally occurring. They have to be created, consciously.
For young people coming into adulthood now, higher education has never been more necessary or more expensive. That’s a cruel dilemma, and it speaks to polarization. If you don’t win, you very much lose. It wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be.
The great gift of education is in showing that the present doesn’t have to be.

Matt Reed, (@deandad) Friday Fragments

These few sentences convey so clearly and succinctly what I have been saying in conversation with friends, family and anyone else who will listen, what I find so troubling about the future for our young people.

And yet, Matt Reed holds out hope and insists that we can change things.

Listen to bell hooks describe poverty in our current society (in an interview with George Yancy):

G.Y.: How is the poverty of today different?

b.h.: Let’s face it, one of the things white people gave us when they gave us integration was full access to the tormenting reality of desire, and the expectation of constant consumption. So part of the difference of poverty today is this sort of world of fantasy — fantasizing that you’ll win the lottery, fantasizing that money will come. I always cling to Lorraine Hansberry’s mama saying in “A in Raisin in the Sun,” “Since when did money become life?” I think that with the poverty of my growing up that I lived with and among, we were always made to feel like money is not what life is all about. That’s the total difference for everyone living right now, because most people in our culture believe money is everything. That is the big tie, the connecting tie to black, white, Hispanic, native people, Asian people — the greed and the materialism that we all invest in and share.

This assessment resonates with me profoundly. We all have cause for concern. Yet bell hooks is also hopeful and a believer in the power of love:

b.h.: Well, I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love, and that includes teaching. I don’t do a lot of teaching these days. I am semi-retired. Because, like any act of love, it takes a lot of your energy.

Teaching as an act of love. Education as a vehicle for change. These ideas are not ‘out there’, they can and should become more ‘in here’: in our systems, organizations, in our schools, in our approaches. But the truth is, those changes won’t happen until we, one by one; each one, teaching one decide to do it differently on as many levels as possible.

I was struck reading both of these pieces. And I felt too tired to write. Yet the need to make the connection (just one of so, so many) would not let me rest. The bell hooks interview is everything and I will be rereading it quite a few more times I suspect. Matt Reed’s hopefulness is a position I want to support and rally behind. There is so much at stake and every day we have choices.

Please read the full post and interview of these writers. Both offer wise and ultimately affirming messages of how we can and ought to move forward.