How solving a Rubik’s cube is like dropping out of University

I had every intention of completing my honours thesis when we all flipped the pages of our calendars to display January 1, 2015. I was going to put to paper all of the thoughts and emotion that had accumulated in my brain throughout my undergraduate degree. Having spent years invested in Higher Education, in dreams of academia and in the negotiation of the the emotional, financial, and social stresses of it all, I felt that I was well placed to write a thesis critiquing higher education institutions and reflecting on the experiences of those who interact with it. Or even if as a student I wasn’t able to offer any spectacular insight on the matter, I felt that it would be a worthwhile endeavour to at least document what it was actually like to be processed by the Edu-Factory. To tell our (student) side of the story and to counter the discourse produced by universities themselves about ‘the student experience’.

It felt important to get those thoughts out – “I will craft the most glorious and insightful honours thesis and it will create waves and make changes!”, I thought. I was driven. I felt purpose! What I had to say had weight and would make higher education reconsider its trajectory! I’d thought that by committing all of my frustrations to paper and thinking critically about them, I would be transforming my experiences as a student into something more valuable than the experience itself.

Yes. This was it. This was that thing they kept telling me would give me a ‘competitive edge in a global economy’, and would ensure that I remained employable when the jobs of those around me were rendered obsolete. This, my friends, was Higher Education’s Mecca – and I had arrived: CRITICAL THINKING.

It was at about 8pm on a Wednesday night in October 2015 that I decided to venture out and acquire a Rubik’s cube (thank you, 24/7 consumer culture). I returned home, excited by the prospect of learning and engaging with something for which the motivation was not a passing grade, or a pay slip. Eagerly, I sat in front of my laptop and turned to YouTube to once again step into the role of a student. Three evenings later I was finally able to R’D’RD that last corner piece into place and, oh. What a feeling! I took this photo and posted it to Facebook to evidence my accomplishment and express my delight:

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After the satisfaction of completing the cube had sunk and settled, I scrambled it, and again began the process of solving the puzzle. Reciting the algorithms, piece by piece, layer by layer…

Hmm. Again.

Piece by piece. Layer by layer.

It later dawned on me that never again will I get to experience that same wonder and thrill of solving the Rubik’s cube for the first time. What was once intriguing and perplexing dissipated in my hands. I was left holding only a series of algorithms in my head, accompanied by the acute twinges of RSI in my wrists.

By this point in the year I had already cycled through all of the stages of grief that come with dropping-out of uni, and was very very well acquainted with words like failure, frustration and defeat.

The five stages:

  1. Denial  – I will be fine. Because: ‘Graduate Qualities’.
  2. Anger Its The System that’s broken!
  3. BargainingIf only I was smarter, wasn’t from a low SES background, the economy wasn’t doomed… At least I have my BA? 
  4. DepressionI have a BA.
  5. AcceptanceI have a BA.

Reflecting on my admittedly very defeatist attitude towards solving the Rubik’s cube, I could not help but recognise the likeness between algorithms and acronyms. On my once very emboldened quest to understand how universities ended up hurtling towards a neoliberal agenda, I came to know a multitude of acronyms that stand for words that mean very little to those who care about learning for the sake of learning (KPIs, EFTSLs), and that essentially represent parts of this competitive profit game we call Higher Education.

By learning about the bureaucratic processes, the acronyms and the figures that have come to represent –  or rather, obscure – the actual human agents that constitute the university, I solved the puzzle of my student experience, layer by layer and piece by piece.

And so my frustrations became clearer. Yes. Feeling faceless in a competitive environment was NOT the experience they told me I would have at university. Being churned out on the factory line only to be released into an overly-saturated degree market was NOT the selling point I agreed to when I enrolled.

It was gradual, but over time the thesis I was going to write based on those observations and experiences had transformed from a would-be, bound and bundled bunch of paper, into the very ugly and confronting embodiment of the very thing I was critiquing. Why, feeling this way about my education, would I continue to spend hours ruminating and feeling very real sadness about my place in the system – only then to have to sit with the overwhelming resentment, to weave it into eloquent paragraphs, in the hope that this stepping stone towards a PhD and towards a career in this broken institution would lay in wait for me at the end of very long and bitter journey?

I have since made peace with my decision to abandon the thesis. Although that decision is still wedged-up somewhere between acceptance and a burning sense of indignation. Never again can I return to studying and experience the same excitement that Universities drum up and out of you during Open days and Orientation events. My relationship with the university and whatever future path was carved out by my time there will never look as bright…

I will continue to enjoy learning, for the sake of learning. There is still a great deal of satisfaction to be had in learning the algorithms and the acronyms. Perhaps the thing to figure out, then, is what to do with that knowledge once I’ve learnt it?

It certainly won’t end up written down as an honours thesis.

On to the next puzzle.

What Open Badges Say About Universities: A Student Perspective

I spend my week at uni switching between ‘work brain’ and ‘student brain’. I am not sure if these ways of thinking are necessarily opposed, however I do find that they are frequently at odds with each other. The latest manifestation of this particular pickle has fermented itself in my search for answers about the institutional wide push to make use of Mozilla’s Open Badges and what this says about the state of higher education. Why are we pursuing this?

There exists, of course, a business case for the university use of Open Badges that some would not shy away from making. The core of this argument involves the desire to remain competitive. Universities must not only meet ‘the standards’, they must break ‘the standards’. It is a race to create new ones, that no one will ever win. And a constant effort to achieve the always-elusive ‘better’ that looks back at past ‘standards’ repugnantly in the wake of competition’s path.

An upshot of this, and what I want to draw attention to, is the framing of students as consumers and the awarding of degrees not as recognition of competencies, but as symbolic of successful market transactions. As a student, I am disinclined to accept the rationale that comes with being positioned in such a way. If I have learnt anything from my peers who have graduated with bachelors degrees in the past 12 months, it is that the institution’s definition of a successful transaction does not equal ‘I went to university, therefore I will get a job’. No. It means that some institution some place has done enough to ensure that their customers are more or less likely capable of handling one, should the rare opportunity arise. In this story, badges are the metaphorical thickening agent in higher education’s diluted-degree-gravy.

What I am now seeing in the conversations about Open Badges in higher education is an accidental, or reluctant recognition of the holes in our current model of high quantity, big-batch student processing. As such, I offer the following (student) translations of some purported reasons for their use, in order to at least begin thinking critically about the big picture:

‘Open Badges Motivate Learners’
It is not the Open Badge that motivates learners. Its the competition that they have come to represent. In a system that pits its students/customers against one another, badges function to reward those who, for whatever reason (privilege, *cough*), are better at doing university than their peers*. Who gets overlooked here?

‘Having Open Badges Increases Employability’
Open Badges tell future employers that graduates are more likely to actually have the skills they would associate with a degree qualification. What this says to/about students is that they are a risk to employers even after having graduated from university. The metadata contained within a badge exists to prove that we are indeed less risky than our peers/competition. Why doesn’t my degree cut it?

‘Open Badges are Portable’
Chances are we are all going to be knocked out of contention for our jobs at some stage (if we were lucky enough to get one in the first place). This is not just a fact of life – this is economic rationalism. Luckily, Open Badges will allow students to accumulate neat representations of their skills in a backpack to take from job to job, to job, to job… Why question the systems that guarantee uncertainty when you can display that anxiety and disposability in one collection online?!

Ladies and Gentlemen, the rice in your higher education rissole – Open Badges.

If my affectations are not yet clear, I am aggravated by the uncritical reception of badges. I am not angry at Open Badge technology itself, but at what it has already started to patch over or stand for in higher education. I am not convinced that technological innovations will ever do much good if we continue to jump on the bandwagon for the sake of competition. This culture trickles down and has some very real implications for students. Competition as a motivator in a space that is supposed to build our capacities to live, pay bills and feed ourselves is already insulting without the added blow of rewarding privilege or credentialing our disposability with badges. 

At least think it through.


* Note that the sentence reads ‘better at doing’, not ‘doing better at’. I am referring here specifically to those students who have greater opportunities to engage in things like co-/extra-curricular activities, and who have greater access to learning technologies and resources, etc.

On boots and being owned

I visited my parents earlier this week before heading to work. I wore ‘work appropriate’ clothing (read: I deliberately wore clothes I wouldn’t usually wear to feel less like the dreaded student intruder in the workplace). And then, a sinister thing happened.

“You look better when you wear those little shoes (flats). The boots you usually wear aren’t appropriate for you”, said my elderly, conservative, Turkish-ex-military father.

It is not out of character for him to comment on my appearance or my performance of femininity. It is also not uncommon for him to remark on ‘appropriate’ ways to interact with men – i.e. not at all.

At the time it didn’t bother me. Dare I say I even took it as a compliment that I had somehow finally gotten my choice of clothing right and was glad he approved. But then later that day I removed my shoes, put them aside, and noticed the painful cramped position I had kept my toes in all day because of my ‘little’ shoes.

The concern fathers express for their daughter’s appearance is something I used to accept without much thought. “He’s just old fashioned”, I would say when it would happen to me. Or, “That’s just how he was brought up”, perhaps. But these explanations of his thoughts are not explanations in themselves. They are excuses for patriarchy and a way to circumvent my feelings that something he is saying is wrong.

I have imagined a couple of ways to bring this up with him (all scenarios end in my livid frustration, but try I will). And I expect that his defenses against what will be a very well constructed feminist ‘discussion’ on my behalf, will all be oriented around the fact the HE is my father, and therefore I am HIS property.

His assertion of property rights over MY body takes many forms. Some assertions might seem harmless as was(n’t) the comment about my footwear, or about how “long dresses suit [me] best”. But they are all stemmed from the same desire to control how women dress, to assert that we are someone else’s property, and to remember that we must represent THEM in a way that is “appropriate” through the choices we make.

I am considering gifting my little shoes to him as a present. They are, by extension, his property after all. Why mess around? Or perhaps I could wrap them and gift them to the office where I work so that the collared-shirts can gaze at them and approve of my attempt to be ‘office appropriate’.

Alternatively, we could all just stop being patriarchal pains in the… shoe.

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Photo: No little shoes. Little victories.

Not my struggle. Not my voice

I’ve been sitting on my thoughts about this for a long time now.

I have been trying to come up with a way to express my reservations about the casualisation movement in higher education without criticising the work that I know is so valuable and needed right now, without criticising the people involved. This has been difficult. People are good, people mean well, and they have good intentions…

I find myself, even now as I write, struggling to separate my relationships with the people involved in the movement with my relationship to the work that they are doing. Too often we feel limited by our duties to those relationships (former) and labour to maintain them even when things don’t exactly feel right.

In saying this, I hope that it will become clear that I do not wish to question the integrity of the people involved, but rather to critically reflect on the work that ‘good intentions’ inspire.

I initially became invested in the plight of the sessional work force as a way to understand or rationalize the level of disengagement I felt from the other students in the classroom. I needed answers, and I needed something to drive my frustrations into as a way of moving forward, instead of feeling hopeless and full of dread in the day to day of life as an undergraduate uni student.

It is clear to me now that in my quest for answers I found an explanation, a struggle to pitch my tent on, a voice to be heard… But they were not mine.

Not an explanation for me. Not my struggle. Not my voice.

It is this that fuels my reservations. It is the fact that although the struggle of the sessional workforce is relevant to me as a student, it is an answer to a problem that was perhaps louder than it was significant.

This was an invaluable perspective to have gained on my part in the movement. One that has helped me come to an understanding about how I can make valuable and welcome contributions. Though sadly I think this is something the good-intentioned often miss.

What is our role in this movement? Could it be the case that we have gotten caught up in the noise-making that we have failed to critically reflect on the soap-box we are standing on? Or to think that perhaps that platform is better reserved for those who have been pacified in the(ir) conversation from the beginning?

Put simply, my concern is that those who are championing this movement are not the people who need a voice in this space.

There are privileges built-in to our positions and it is a failing of our activism not to be aware of them. As an undergraduate I have the ability to (and do) criticise the way the institution treats its workers, but only because I am not vulnerable in doing so. I can speak about these issues, but I do so knowing full well that my role can only be supportive and never from some claim to experiential empathy. Anything more in my current position would be disingenuous.

It causes me great unease to think that another’s struggle could be used to bolster whatever platform may be gained from doing so.

It is my hope that we will become more aware of our positions so that we can use them for good, without causing others to become voiceless in the process.