Living death in higher education
Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker & Christopher Moore, eds. Bristol, UK & Chicago, IL: Intellect Ltd, 2013; 312 pp; ISBN: 978-1-84150-714-9, paper $28.50 USD.
Review by David Bright
Diagnoses of a malaise within higher education are nothing new. Over the past three decades, titles such as The Great Brain Robbery (1984), The University in Ruins (1996), Petrified Campus (1997), Ivory Tower Blues (2007) and Lowering Higher Education (2011) have charted the fragile health of a system under stress, a system perhaps experiencing an existential crisis. Or put it this way: no-one recently has published a book called Everything’s Just Fine in the Academy. “It is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is,” concluded Bill Readings in The University in Ruins, “and the changing institutional form of the University is something that intellectuals cannot afford to ignore.”
Quite. But almost two decades on, it seems that matters are even worse than Readings and others had warned. Higher education is not simply gravely sick or even facing an imminent demise. Rather, it has joined the ranks of the walking undead. Colleges and universities are now filled with zombies.
That, at least, is the underlying premise of the 23 essays that constitute Zombies in the Academy. Edited by three Australian academics, this volume utilizes the metaphor of the zombie to explore what it means to learn and teach within a system bereft of genuine animation, vitality and free will. “The figure of the zombie,” write Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker and Christopher Moore in their introduction, “here provides an opportunity to express unease and dissent about the state of higher education. … (P)erhaps the zombie apocalypse has already happened in the academy and that recognizing this might provide us with the best means of understanding and dealing with the conditions under which those who live, work and study in the university operate.”
Why the zombie? The three key features of “zombification” are (1) an inability to think, (2) the loss of individual control, and (3) contagion. “These features as applied to academic labour,” note Holly Randell-Moon, Sue Saltmarsh and Wendy Sutherland-Smith, “encapsulate the loss of control and autonomy over research,” and presumably teaching as well to some extent.
Underlying this concept is a shift in higher education that Readings identified in the mid-1990s, but whose effects have become more pronounced ever since: namely, the neo-liberal, corporate free market has replaced the state as the key determinant of educational goals, processes and outcomes. It is this corporatization of higher education — turning learners into customers, teachers into a highly-qualified lumpenproletariat, management systems into a plague-like blight — that these essays explore, explain and, perhaps, transcend.
Rather than discuss the strengths and weaknesses of individual essays, it might be more useful to consider three themes or concerns that recur through this volume. The first is the ‘massification’ of higher education in recent decades. In place of the ivory tower, colleges and universities have become vast shopping malls to which ever greater numbers of students have access, as long as they are prepared to pay an ever higher price of admission. The latter has been a necessary response to a decline in state transfers to post-secondary education. In the process, students become ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ rather than learners, and as the customer is always right there has necessarily been a new emphasis on ‘student satisfaction,’ as if they were ordering a burger and fries rather than
experiencing an education.
Second is the impact of digital technologies on educational relationships. Characterized by Christopher Moore as “zombie processes and undead technologies,” these are devices, systems and programs that originally vitalized the classroom experience but have long since become moribund, pro forma reflections of a dearth of creative thinking. They include the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation, email, Virtual Learning Environments, Learning Management Systems, Turnitin, automatic assessment marking, and any other practice that nullifies the human input of the individual teacher. “Undead technologies,” writes Moore, “disconnect the user from the benefits of their labour, but not the devices’ effects on the environment, the body or the self.” Or as Nick Pearce and Elaine Tan argue, “The live interaction and essential humanity of the seminar system (if it ever existed) has, in many cases, been supplanted by the stunted interactions of online discussion boards.”
Finally, there is the rise of the ‘audit culture.’ Working from the principle that ‘what can’t be measured can’t be managed,’ administrators and managers throughout higher education have imported and internalized the basic practices, assumptions and goals of the corporate world in the pursuit of efficiency. Consequently there has been a proliferation of surveys and studies, an obsession with Key Performance Indicators, and a centralization of teaching strategies, outcomes and learning plans, regardless of how these actually bear any relationship to what goes on inside the classroom. “Managing a university faculty, a psychiatric hospital ward, or a mincemeat production line become identical,” argues Andrew Whelan. “Utility maximizing, financially-accountable administrative techniques override the substantive content of any work conducted.” The result? “Academics lurch through a valley of shadows where what they thought were their roles, and how those roles are justified or rather performed or fabricated as justified, become grotesquely discrepant.”
Likening any aspect of higher education to the unlife of a zombie is depressing. But it can also offer hope. Several essays here make the point that the zombie — driven by a base desire for food — is inherently disinterested in the allure of corporate, capitalist, consumer culture, and “far from symbolizing the downfall of higher education as a public good, the zombie can offer a model of collective resistance to this state of affairs.”
Well, it can, but here’s the problem with this volume. As a metaphor, the zombie is simply too flexible, too ambiguous to be of prescriptive value. “Any number of tropes and metaphors might be applicable to an analysis of higher education,” admits Moore. Zombies “act as the sign, the source and also the symptom of apocalypse,” warns Rowena Harper, and as such the “deployment of the zombie must therefore involve identifying particular features of higher education of which zombie might be symptomatic.” Who are the real zombies: students staggering from class to class, devoid of any real intellectual curiosity; faculty who find themselves reduced to rote teaching by the imposition of digital technology and management-imposed criteria; or managers obsessively driven to spread the contagion of metric-based efficiencies?
That’s the problem with metaphors (and zombies): you just can’t trust them.
David Bright teaches history at Niagara College in Southern Ontario and is currently preparing a new course on the cultural history of zombies.