@Home in Higher Education: An Interview with Melonie Fullick, Part 2

A conversation with Melonie Fullick is sure to impress upon a listener how the Canadian system of higher education is both working and not working. Melonie, currently a graduate student at York University, displays a maturity and critical intellect beyond her years—a testament perhaps to how certain aspects of undergraduate and graduate university education in Canada are doing well. At the same time, if policymakers, administrators, and faculty fail to listen to the young people whose experiences and critical insights are pointing out what is  wrong with the institution, what hope can we have for the university’s sustainability into the future?

Melonie Fullick’s engagement with multiple educational and public spheres explores the political ideologies that polarize and oversimplify a meaningful dialogue about education—not least of all by reducing it to endless statistical citations bereft of context.  Her post on Lazy Higher Ed Journalism not only highlighted prevailing discursive patterns in debates on higher education, but also elicited an oppositional response that merely affirmed the case she had made regarding the weak use of stats in educational reporting. More recently, Melonie added to her analysis by pointing out another cost of an increasing reliance on statistical research in educational spheres: who is left out of the picture.  “Do you have a stat for that?” draws attention to some of the populations rendered invisible when choices are made regarding who and what are deemed worthy of quantitative assessment and research investment in studies on higher education.

Melonie’s critical interventions in educational debates both embrace and go beyond ideological and rhetorical engagement, as she also takes seriously her role as a public advocate for graduate students and part-time teaching faculty, calling for a shift the institutional culture of the university toward a model that properly supports their development, contributions, and skills. In Part 2 of this interview, Melonie elaborates upon some of her thoughts about the university, demonstrating intellectual versatility, keen discernment, and an unwavering commitment to accessible, quality education. [Read Part 1 here.]

8. Melonie, you have stated that you believe higher education needs to stop justifying itself in narrow ways, such as claiming it will help students get jobs. You suggest that universities and classroom instructors, in particular, need to provide students with narratives that make their experiences meaningful or, better yet, provide them with opportunities to co-create their own narratives. What kind of narrative have you come up with to motivate your pursuit and study of education?

I think higher education can and will help students to create lives for themselves, just not in the way that is being scrutinized so heavily. That’s the rhetorical tangle with that issue. Perhaps one of the things we can do is tell our stories, particularly those of us who didn’t take what would be considered the “usual” or recommended path into whatever it is that we’re doing. Because of limited life experience, a lot of students also have limited ideas about what “success” looks like and what paths people take to get there; they also have little sense of how those paths aren’t clearly mapped out, or tend to be very contingent, much more so than in the past. So this is where the idea of being “flexible” also takes on multiple meanings. I think it’s a term that’s been hijacked by a kind of discourse of neo-liberal idealism (workers should be “flexible”, i.e. not expect to keep their jobs), yet being able to adapt is still a positive thing in many ways and students need to learn that. It’s the classic conundrum, do you try to “prepare” people for the way things are, or for the way things should be? Is there a way to do both?

I think my own educational experience has been about finding my place and determining my own capacities; trying to find some sort of “fit” between what I can do, what I like doing, and what needs to be done.

We can’t really ignore the fact that so many students come to university expecting it to prepare them for finding a job; but I think it’s also our role to help them understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and what the “big picture” looks like, because that helps people realize the choices are perhaps different from what they’d initially thought. I think this is where all the tensions start showing between “instrumental/practical” and “general/liberal” education. It was much easier to determine the purpose of the university when very few (and privileged) people attended. Now we’re faced with questions about how to work with very “diverse” groups of students, whether there are things that all students “should learn”, and so on. These are the same questions already faced in primary and secondary education for a long time, without satisfactory answers.

9. With the increasing emphasis on market instability and job flexibility (which seem to go hand in hand, despite the fear of the former and the celebration of the latter), do you share a concern expressed by other grad students about future employment prospects? What career advice would you give to other students?

At the moment, almost everyone is worried about finding a job (unless they aren’t aware of the “market”, or they’re denying it!). Instead of feeling as if our credentials are a buffer against poor prospects, we’re now worried that we’ll be over-qualified (beyond academe), or that we’ve worked for 10 years to find ourselves outside both the academic and non-academic job markets. Like many others, if I were lucky enough to land a full-time academic position it would still be a long time before I had job security, if ever, even though I’ve already spent many years being “educated” to that end. I know my own history has an effect on my career-related decisions. Academic careers are still a lot easier for those from families that have higher income or more cultural/academic capital (or both); and the academic workforce is shaped by the decisions we make about whether to persevere or to do “something else” based on life circumstances and events, and the outcomes of previous decisions.

I think one of the dilemmas we face as PhD students, or those of us who have considered/desired academic careers, is leaving “the [academic] system” feels like something that precludes helping to change the system. I think it will have to be changed both from the inside and from without. The university is a resilient institution, and the existence of institutions is predicated on a balance between internal consistency and adaptation to external factors. So what factors will trigger change and in what configuration? Why did we get one university model from Scottish Enlightenment, and a different one from Germany a century later, and yet another from the United States 100 years after that? What will be the next recognizable “form” for the university (and thus, what will be our role as scholars, researchers, teachers)?

The advice I would give to others (and I’m still not even sure if it’s sound advice), would be to think long and hard about what an academic job actually entails and whether it matches what they enjoy most; to think about the kind of academic work they’d be likely to find, and its location (both geographically, and hierarchically); and to make sure they’ve made an effort to look at other kinds of work that involve what they like doing. For example unless you love teaching, why would you become a professor? It’s also true that there’s no one path to the professoriate, if that’s where you really want to go. Leaving the academic track isn’t necessarily about giving up on your “dream” or about “failing” to be academic enough; I think it’s about recognizing our own value and also that we contribute to intellectual life from multiple locations, not just from within the university.

10. What is or are the most pressing issue(s) facing universities today? Does it matter whose perspective is being taken (e.g., government policymakers, university administrators, professors, students)?

To some extent the issues would be different for each group. But the obsession with economics means that it’s likely all perspectives would involve some kind of financial issue. When we are insisting that education is “necessary” for individual, community, and national development, where then will the burden of cost be placed? There are no “economies of scale” in education; as much as we may see examples like the recent online course (from a Stanford prof) with many thousands of students enrolled, education is difficult enough to “predict” in relatively controlled circumstances and even more troublesome in those diffuse, individualized positions established by online education. Without correspondingly massive government investment, higher education costs more per person as enrolment increases. We are still just expanding an elite model, rather than implementing a mass model. Stratification is a feature of our education system, and in the past “higher” education was the tier beyond reach of most people. Now we have internal stratification within that tier—for example in the student population with the differentiation of institutions by prestige, and the faculty work model that now splits off teaching and assigns it to contract labour. No one feels good about addressing any of that, because it would mean addressing the failure of “higher” education to raise everyone to the same level.

11. Imagine the university in the year 2030. What will be its most notable characteristics?

I always feel hesitant to make predictions of this kind, probably in part because I read a lot of articles where broad predictions are made, and after learning more history I’ve noticed that predictions haven’t worked out much in the past.

Right now there are fault lines opening up in the landscape of postsecondary education, and these are the cracks that first started showing in the 1970s or even earlier. I’ve always thought that as PSE “massifies”, problems that have existed for a long time without being disruptive are magnified, exacerbated and made much more visible, through the pressure of expansion and limited resources and the exposure of universities to new “audiences”.

Graduate education is a perfect example of this, and I’ve written about that in my blog (the posts about depression and PhD attrition). The rate of attrition has been very high in PhD programs for a long time, so that phenomenon is not at all recent. But the number of people entering graduate programs, including PhD programs, has expanded significantly and so more people are now being affected by these silent/structural “filtering mechanisms” that were, in the past, simply the way one justified weeding out the weak from the strong. Now, we ask ourselves: “is this really weakness, or something systemic, something beyond the individual?” Of course it is the system; because that was how the system worked. What we are saying is that we don’t want it to work that way anymore. There’s a lot of struggle over what “way” things will go, because the university is now coming apart at the seams and more different “stakeholders” are laying claim to its territory. This is one reason why politics interests me so much.

The effects of technology and its uptake are another form of pressure, widening those cracks that were already appearing. For example, online education as the answer to the supposed need for economies of scale in education (while preserving the “individualist” element of learning), that’s one discussion happening involving a lot of different “voices”. The academic publishing industry is also taking a lot of flack now because publishing has become a much more accessible enterprise, and at the same time university (library purchasing) budgets are going down and journal prices are going up. The paradox about the accessibility of knowledge, now that its value is increasing even while much of it is still publicly funded, will require some kind of resolution. It will take a lot of work for the solution to be a progressive one, since a lot of well-funded organizations have stakes in the outcome of that aspect of “knowledge production”.

Part of what the whole debate about “disruptive technologies” is about is a fight over control of what will disrupt, since even naming the thing feels like it imparts some kind of power to the one who does the naming. Describing the future is also about trying to make the future, and all these things start to overlap in the educational field. Apple’s recent foray into the textbook market is another example of the same thing—an attempt to establish the field in which change will play out, to make that future, and to convince others to make it too by participating in the grand scheme.

I think that tenure may have changed by 2030. This issue is heating up as the Baby Boomer generation reaches retirement age (and they are not retiring, and they are changing the rules for all those who follow them). It involves a lot of people with massive (professional) investments in the current academic system who are not getting what they signed on for—a long-term, middle class job—partly because those jobs are disappearing everywhere. Tuition is another huge issue that may have to change, because it’s tied to student debt and massive debt leads to an unstable economic situation. Never in history have we seen such high levels of individual/consumer debt, as well as what institutions and governments have accumulated. It’s impossible to deny that the debt load unfairly lands on those who had less to begin with, so debt is a social justice issue; the “risk” of education needs to be balanced with fairness, which itself is made difficult by larger aspects of economic context. It’s also a matter of national economic sustainability and security—no one truly benefits in the present when we are all living on bets placed against the future.

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Melonie Fullick is a PhD student in the Faculty of Education at York University, having previously completed a BA in Communication Studies and an MA in Linguistics. She grew up in New Zealand, moving to Canada at age 14. She is a regular contributor to the cosmopolitan online community University of Venus, and her blog, Speculative Diction, appears regularly in the national online publication of University Affairs. Her tweets @qui_oui are followed by an audience of over one thousand and growing. Most recently, Melonie gave a TEDx talk on “Impact Matters” at York University.

 

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