Tara Brabazon: Just-in-case learning, just in time

Education is never wasted, no matter what business leaders say, argues Tara Brabazon

June 1, 2011

Tabloid news is as sexy as day-old lettuce but without the nutritional content. I wish footballers and their super-injunctions a long and happy life. But I was concerned when monitoring the coverage of a speech by Jill McDonald, the aptly named president of McDonald’s UK, delivered to the 2011 Institute of Directors’ annual conference. She addressed the relationship between fast-food restaurants and universities.

This tabloid tale has three parts. McDonald extolled the training offered by her company, and I am sure the programme is to be commended. Then, she cited the (frankly) unquantifiable statistic that four out of 10 UK graduates are overqualified for their job. By her reckoning, my multiple degrees would seem profoundly profligate, yet each day I apply something learned from my qualifications. Education is never wasted, but there are professors in the UK without a PhD, so it is – supposedly – not required for the role. Similarly, many academics who teach do not hold any teaching accreditation.

And now the third stage. Because there are so many supposedly “overqualified” graduates, McDonald argued that future workers should move straight into the workforce from school, rather than accumulating debt for “unnecessary” degrees. She affirmed that “the road many young people take today may not be the one we took in the past”.

This statement is obvious, but not in the way McDonald suggested. Twenty years ago, a range of unskilled jobs were available for men and women who did not succeed in formal education. As manufacturing has contracted and moved offshore, these options have narrowed. To participate in the available temporary and contract employment, workers must be “flexible”, maintaining a portfolio of skills, knowledge and expertise so that they can move (nearly) as swiftly as transformations in the new economy.

This tabloid tale erupted because a business leader logged the value of work experience and the “waste” of unused qualifications. That is no surprise – Lord Sugar built a television career on such statements. What agitated me was – as always – the hypocrisy.

McDonald had the opportunity to complete a degree in business at the University of Brighton. She received the advantage of a taxpayer-funded academic qualification. Now that she has mobilised that knowledge to lead a fast-food chain, she questions the benefits of higher education for those who follow her. Hypocrisy, even when dressed in the garb of cost-cutting and alternative models of skills development, is never attractive.

Because business leaders, let alone vice-chancellors and university marketing departments, have read too much Adam Smith and not enough John Henry Newman, they pretend that the imperative of university is vocationalism and skills development, rather than education and knowledge development. Certainly, a university education must increase the employability of graduates. Our teaching must be resolutely current, historically aware and prescient of future trends and trajectories. But increasing the employability of students is not the same as training them for their first job.

There is a confusion of clichés: “just-in-time training” versus “just-in-case learning”. Put another way, should I teach Mixcraft 5 or Stanley Aronowitz’s theories of post-work? The problem with just-in-time training is that it is pitched at an intellectually low level. To paraphrase the book series, it is University for Dummies. In higher education, the bulk of our teaching and learning should be challenging. Students should be confused, frustrated, venting on Facebook, reading deeply and attacking ideas in a way that is both agitated and imaginative. These big ideas, and the scholarship that binds students to them, won’t be needed in a first job at a fast-food chain.

Almost inevitably, graduates will be overqualified for their first job. That is the point. It is their first job. They are moderating and developing expertise and experience, knowledge and application. Throughout their careers, they will move through many roles and appointments. While I hope that some will return for postgraduate qualifications, the statistics in England show that the majority do not pursue that option. Therefore, we must teach knowledge that will resonate for 40 years of working life – just-in-case learning rather than just-in-time training. And it is remarkable how often just-in-case moments return to the workplace just in time.

I experienced a recent example of this looped learning. I completed a bachelor’s of literature and communication in the early 1990s after finishing a history qualification, and wanted a structured guide through communication systems. McDonald would be unimpressed. In my final semester, I had one course left to complete. As I had taken the other available options, I was left with Contemporary Approaches to Literature. It seemed an abstract and cold journey through European literary theory. I was dreading it. It seemed completely useless to my career and intellectual goals.

But a remarkable scholar, Wojciech Kalaga, took us through Russian Formalism and French Structuralism. We pondered Roman Jakobson’s investigation of aphasia, Derrida’s différance and Foucault’s theories of authorship. The course was complex, intricate and magnificent. Viktor Shklovsky’s theories of ostranenie, the process of defamiliarisation, most affected me. Shklovsky applied it to Tolstoy. But this theory I learned “just in case” while finishing a degree was – one day – required just in time.

Twenty years later, I was supervising an MA dissertation from Mick Winter that explored how sonic media create the capacity for social change. The problem was how to develop a theory, method or strategy to unsettle a listener’s comfortable worldview via a sonic jolt. Suddenly, Contemporary Approaches to Literature returned to me. I found my notes, written in 1992 on an Olivetti laptop in Word 5, and pulled them through to my Hewlett Packard and Word 2010. Mick and I shared solid supervisory sessions exploring how this concept could (literally) resonate within the sonic-media literature. He then extended the theory to develop the finest MA-level dissertation I have seen. It took 20 years, but that just-in-case knowledge returned just in time.

I understand the desire to reduce universities to centres of vocational training: it is easier and cheaper. But this imperative means that the other reasons to undertake higher education are marginalised and displaced. Even under the widening-participation agenda, there is little public discussion of the daily experiences of living, learning and working in universities. Too many stories about Bullingdon and Footlights, drinking and all-night cramming circulate in popular culture.

It is time to be honest. The most successful scholars worked incredibly hard throughout their university degrees. They were in the library when it opened and gathered their bags when they heard the automated message that “the library will be closing in 10 minutes”. Study was constant throughout the year. Preparation for class was rigorous. Assignments were planned and written well in advance of the due date.

This is not nostalgia. This is reality. Success in higher education is built on commitment, sacrifice and immersive scholarship. Put more bluntly, achievement in university was and is fuelled by a fear that if the time is not used well, then the opportunity to become our best selves is lost and will not return.

University is a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Our parents or grandparents would have sacrificed anything to have the opportunity to spend three or four years becoming the best person they could be. A degree is the only time in our lives when we commit to thinking, reading, writing and achieving. After graduation, the mediocrity, compliance and banality of paid employment, mortgages and family life rarely offer the opportunity – to cite Newton – to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Instead of these honest discussions, popular culture is punctuated by polarised point-scoring about whether working in a fast-food restaurant offers comparable training to a university degree. This is an artificial, Sky News-inspired division between life and learning.

Fortunately, a fine monograph can guide scholars to greater analytical complexity. Susan Edgerton, Gunilla Holm, Toby Daspit and Paul Farber’s edited collection Imagining the Academy: Higher Education and Popular Culture (2002) explores how the idea of the university is constructed and contested. Edgerton and Farber ask “how popular culture conditions the way participants in higher education, and in particular professors and students, think about and enter into the patterns of interaction that the institution supports”. They recognise that popular cultural representations of higher education are dire. Jill McDonald’s speech fed this problem. Good Will Hunting and 3rd Rock from the Sun are other examples. Either a professor is damaged or he is an alien masquerading in human (well, academic) form.

Instead of the motivational commitment of Glee’s high school teachers, academics are left with a depressing comedy. Campus is set in the fictional Kirke University and is trying (pretty desperately) to be The Office. Vice-chancellor Jonty de Wolfe does a solid impersonation of David Brent. De Wolfe is obsessed with extracting money from international students, his big office and using a megaphone to abuse staff from his expansive balcony. The postgraduates do not read. Academics do not publish and require a “boredom break” from their undergraduates. While funny, it disconnects the lived experience of higher education from the pop cultural university.

Campus is not at fault. It is one programme. We require popular culture that captures a diversity of scholars and students. It is time to move scholarly representations beyond the neurotic, the sexually repressed, the sexually promiscuous and those unable to manage a trip to Tesco without a carer.

Teaching undergraduates, supervising postgraduates and writing about education is a privilege. It is a gift to commit to learning, wherever we find it.

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