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New book examines higher education through the lens of the zombie apocalypse

'Zombies in the Academy'
August 12, 2013

It may sound like a joke to say that higher education has been the site of a zombie apocalypse, but Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker and Christopher Moore aren't just kidding around. The three are the editors of Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education  (Intellect Books, distributed by University of Chicago Press), a new volume in which the figure of the zombie serves as a way to examine the current state of academe.

The book's contributors find zombies lurking around every corner: students concerned solely with getting through and making the grade; faculty members deadened by the corporatization of the university and the erosion of traditional faculty jobs; systems and processes within the university that have long since outlived their original purpose but that endlessly perpetuate themselves. What does it mean, the editors wonder, if the zombie apocalypse has already taken place, and we are living -- or undead -- within it?

Whelan, lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong; Walker, lecturer in academic writing at the University of Wollongong; and Moore, lecturer in media and communication at Deakin University, answered e-mailed questions about the volume and the essays that each contributed. Though the authors are all at Australian universities, the trend toward zombification, they say, is global.

Q: Where did the idea originate to produce a volume on zombies in the academy?

Walker: I had just sent what I thought was a rather snazzy abstract for a paper about the zombification of student literacies to a plagiarism conference in the UK. Sadly, it was rejected, with the referees' comments basically, "Oh dear, you can't call students zombies." I was disappointed that they had misread the point of my paper, but resigned. That is, until I realized that the majority of accepted papers were all pretty much saying the same thing about plagiarism ("it is bad") and that the solution was plagiarism detection software ("amazing silver technological bullet"). This was exactly the same kind of cliched commentary that my paper was poking sticks at -- punitive solutions instead of unreflective educational responses -- so I was furious!  At this point, Andrew, Chris and I got together and decided that, rather than moan about our various frustrations with what we saw as more dead-than-alive systems and practices,  we would find a way to poke big pointy sticks in a more organized fashion. Andrew suggested a panel about zombies and higher education at a conference on popular culture (POPCAANZ) , which was  a raging success, which lead to an offer of a book contract by Intellect.

Q: What does it mean to say, as you do in the introduction, that "perhaps the zombie apocalypse has already happened in the academy"?

Whelan: Perhaps one of the most accessible meanings is that in a way the "fight" for the university, or for the ideals of the humanities and social sciences in the university, is like a dead romantic fantasy. The reason for this is that those ideals were a kind of a dream associated with a specific historical era that has now past. It is not possible to conduct research or to teach in accordance with those ideals because most of these institutions are simply not resourced to support that (the "golden age" was anyway not so golden, in that access was limited to rather specific social groups). Continuing to try to meet the ideals in the massified system often happens at tremendous personal cost, especially to postgrads and adjuncts and early career researchers. Continuing to espouse the ideals (and selling the claim that they can be realized to young people) at an institutional level is disingenuous and unethical, particularly in those places where the education system is oriented to servicing a labor market that cannot actually offer work to graduates.

The paradox is that although those ideals are at the level of what is possible in universities quite dead, they are not permitted to rest by universities or by the fantasies and the funding mechanisms that sustain them. Universities are supposed to keep pretending they can do these things even as the means to do so steadily degrade, and as their staff are asked to do ever more things in addition.

Saying that that particular fight is done is actually kind of liberating, in that the cored-out space of the institution is still there, and maybe now we can start talking about what to do next with what’s left, rather than lamenting that which it is no longer possible to do. Like other large and now shambling social institutions, the borders between the university and other social spaces are porous. So it is not really about tinkering with education policy, or hoping MOOC brokerage will make it go away. It is about deciding what kind of commitments we as a society want to make and hold to young people, and the concrete means we have for honoring those commitments. Universities are important and socially symbolic in this context, so it is really only a start to say they are alive or (un)dead. Like anything else, if people care, they should do something about it.

Q: In what ways is it useful (as opposed to, say, simply different or novel) to view higher education through the lens of the zombie apocalypse?

Walker: It's hard to express just how frustrating and oppressive the bureaucracy of higher education can be. Most academics get into the game because of their love of teaching, or their passion for research. It is extraordinary, given we are lucky enough to have got a foothold in the academy, how many of us report a weariness and despair at the kinds of practices that have been codified, and how so many of these administratively enforced procedures that underpin our teaching and research are counter to the fundamental point of higher education: for instance, we insist on critical analysis, but woe betide those who are critical of the institution itself. My impression is that our original panel and book proposal for "zombies in the academy" got such an immediate response because we were acknowledging the deadening conditions that we all are working in. Don't they say that the first step to recovery is recognizing that you have a problem to start with?

Whelan: We wanted to get away from most of the standard laments, "what is to be done," and critical lines, we wanted to unsettle all of that. There is a lot of quite conventional intellectual radicalism in the social sciences and humanities, simultaneous with quite conventional conformity in practice. We wanted people to not really be sure about what we were doing or saying, and to not be sure if we were saying something about them or speaking up for them. We wanted to try to paint something of how absurd and fantastic university spaces are, and how they have such scope for amazing things and involve such grotesque wastefulness. We wanted to stop being reasonable and start playing.

Q: All of you work at universities in Australia. To what degree do you view the trends addressed in the book as being national vs. global?

Walker: Actually, I first started to teach in the French public university system, which was ironically even more ossified and zombified, given its reputation as the origin of continental philosophy and critical thought. Maybe things have changed since then, but the French university system I worked in relied on incredibly rigid hierarchies and practices.  At my institution, student engagement at an all-time low, and it was incredibly clear that this was due to the set up of their degree programs: for instance any student could enroll in any subject in their first year, [so] I was trying to teach Shakespeare to students who couldn't speak or read in English. There was no requirement for class participation, with 100 percent exams at the end of the session.  I couldn't believe that students even bothered enrolling -- and then I found out about their fantastic tax breaks and rental allowances for being full time students! Many of them didn't care what they were enrolled in, and whether they failed, as long as they turned up for exams and cashed in their checks.

I am quite certain that the disillusion with the current state and future direction of higher education is a global condition.  This is not to deny that inside every institution, faculty, and department there are fantastic teachers, researchers and students, who do extraordinary things with their small pockets of opportunity.  Sadly, they stand out because they are the lone few, the survivors in Romero's abandoned shack, surrounded by the zombies who are pushing against their barricades...

Moore: There is no hiding from this. We are both isolated and co-experiencing zombification, but that also means there is resistance and complication everywhere you want to look. Most often it in the corridors and the grumbled shuffling between committee meetings, the universal language of bureaucratization. We are not alone and so we are going to take what we do best and invert it to examine the conditions of our own existence.... The zombie is not a monster; it is the horror of our own selves dropping round for a quick snack.

Andrew Whelan on his essay, "First as Tragedy, Then as Corpse"

Q: You write, "I take zombification here to refer to those processes within the university ... which, in instrumentalizing action (teaching, research) in the service of pseudo-market principles, decapitate the real ends of that action, while reconstituting the means as a kind of spectral presence of themselves." Can you give some examples of what you mean by this?

Whelan: Where to start?

Success in teaching is usually indicated by forms filled out by students. It is a kind of popularity contest. It collapses the future in that students are asked about the course they are taking right now, how the teaching is in that. We never ask them the following year or three years later or at any other time what they remember of that course or of the teaching in it, because, evidently, we don’t care. It is hard to understand how bribing this semester’s cohort into up-voting us on a form in a few weeks’ time safeguards the quality of their education. Perhaps this is supposed to make sense because they are being treated like customers, buying something a bit like a burger. How’s that burger you are eating right now? Quality control and customer satisfaction are synonymous. But of course, educations are not like burgers and more or less by definition it is not easy for the "customer" to judge or understand what a good education is.

Research is much the same: success is judged by your capacity to fill out forms asking for money to do research (in Australia, the only money that matters is that from the Australian Research Council). It helps if you have "outputs" in the form of previous publications around which metrics like the H-index can be generated to quantify how useful you are (in a disconcertingly short run). You should therefore publish whether you have anything to say or not. Economists have been able to demonstrate that these funding processes are ridiculously wasteful in terms of both labor hours and the allocation and dispensing of the funds: it’s basically a lottery, where the only guarantee is that most players will be losers and will be treated accordingly.

An interesting consequence of this system is that effectively the capacity to spend money is rewarded with more money. There is no discourse of frugality or sustainability. Far better to maximally inflate the cost of whatever it is you do so as to ask for the most money possible: profligacy is here the sign of quality.

Insofar as there is any logic to this at all, it appears to reside in a cultish faith in bureaucratic "transparency," the idea that whatever supernatural weirdness research and teaching involve; they can be made visible, explicable, and rankable through forms.

Alongside this bureaucratic absurdity – which has fantastic structural implications in terms of its costs and how it has reorganized the social field and the day-to-day practice of everyday life inside the institution – there is the inane idea that having everyone compete with everyone else at every level, from nation down to individual, somehow guarantees efficiency. If we look at the other social problems we face, a case can be made that it is time to consider moving beyond this dogma and using our imaginations. We could start by imagining that, by and large, people can be trusted to do the job they are paid to do. Then we could start thinking about the work that gets done that nobody gets paid to do, and whether we value this work or not.

Christopher Moore on his essay, "Zombie Processes and Undead Technologies"

Q: What are some of the "zombie processes and... undead technologies" common in higher education? What are their impacts, and what perpetuates them?

Moore: They are everywhere you look -- many are common to other industries and practices, but in the hands of administrators and academics they become powerful plagues.

PowerPoint: The digestible brains of concepts in nice bite-sized chunks. E-mail: The deadening of communication, under heavy load. Online learning management systems, and now MOOCs: click here to learn. Plagiarism software: Steal students' work, automate assessment marking, retire.

The industrialized model of education perpetuates the needs for all of these, alongside other once-lively forms, now simply more undead technologies and zombie processes, like exams and essays. It is the endpoint for the pedagogical model that starts with the massification of learning in primary school and sharpened to a... fine point in secondary education, increasingly administrated through performance metrics and continual assessment. The system perpetuates itself, and now expands through the principles of capitalism, where degrees are marketed, institutions are branded, and the impact is an ecology of blandness and sameness.

Q: Why do so many students and academics "thrive under the conditions of zombiedom"? Is this a bad thing?

Moore: That is one of the more powerful moments in the comic book series The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore... where a character decides to become a zombie, because resistance and survival when everything you knew is gone, is sometimes just too difficult. For some the systems work, they make sense and within them they can even thrive, but for others it can seem like we are surrounded by the unliving, and their very existence challenges everything we know, everything that we hold out for. But is that a bad thing? What a great question. The answer has to be no. Who am I to decide to say that it's ultimately wrong? Plenty of us choose to give up our privacy for Facebook -- another great undead technology -- we choose to support slave labor conditions and unequal power relations by buying iPhones and iPads -- but there is a difference in knowing that we make the choice for zombiedom and having the zombie thrust on us because we don't know any different. 

Ruth Walker on her essay, "Undead Universities, the Plagiarism 'Plague,' Paranoia and Hypercitation"

Q: Your article takes an unusual structure: in a piece on "undead universities, the plagiarism 'plague,' paranoia and hypercitation," you've created an essay entirely of footnotes, rife with citations. What message do you intend for this to send?

Walker: In my own research field -- which is a crossover between cultural studies and education -- there are relatively few opportunities to take risks in the presentation of scholarly work. In some disciplines, articles are churned out in something close to templates, and sometimes I find myself teaching really generic approaches to academic writing to my students; this is what an essay paragraph looks like, fill in this report template etc. There are two big taboos in academic writing, at either ends of the spectrum of using research:  if you attribute to carefully and closely, you end up being derivative and weakening your authorial voice. Not acknowledging your sources, on the other hand,  leads to accusations of plagiarism, and can result in expulsion and other horrors. In my ficto-critical chapter I was interested in drawing attention to the very fabric of scholarly writing, the referencing conventions themselves. Also, I've always liked the way footnotes are kind of like amputated limbs patrolling the bottom of the page, pointing up and begging for attention. I'm quite proud of one page of my Ph.D. thesis that had so many footnotes crowded in that there was only room for one or two lines at the top of the page, and show it to my Ph.D. students as an example of what not to do. I guess this chapter is an extension of that moment of truly terrible academic writing!

Q: How would you summarize the relationship between plagiarism, hypercitation, and the zombification of higher education?

Walker: I teach academic writing, and have a research interest in academic integrity and plagiarism. In Australia, cuts to federal funding have meant that once-free education is now user-pays, and to make ends meet universities are accepting increasingly large numbers of students, from a variety of backgrounds. Many of these students don't have adequate academic literacies, and of course many of the international students struggle with English language. So there is a growing academic field of learning development that attempts to bridge the gap between the institutions' acceptance of students who lack skills to succeed, and the students' need to quickly learn the academic codes suitable for their discipline, to understand and meet the assessment requirements. 

One of the outcomes of the increasing numbers of students, and the exhaustion of the teachers faced with large classes, is to find someone to blame for a perceived lowering of academic standards, and the perception that plagiarism is on the rise. The international students cop a lot of the blame, as teachers struggle to adapt their classes to suit their learning needs. The university has an ethical responsibility to support these students, but quite often they are left to sink or swim.  i can't tell you how many times I've heard colleagues blaming international students, in language that depicts them as a kind of contaminating mob storming the ivory tower, or a contaminating plague that infects the academic integrity of the institution. As if the institution that accepts them without properly resourcing their support, of investing time to develop curriculum to scaffold their learning, has integrity!

In my everyday teaching practice, I am particularly frustrated to be asked again and again to teach remedial classes on referencing, as if this was the cure-all for good academic writing and scholarship. (NB: I think assessment tasks should be better-designed, and curriculums should scaffold learning with discipline-specific approaches). Some of the faculties I work with encourage students to rely on Endnote (a referencing software program) to insert perfectly coded citations, and then the teachers rely on Turnitin to check their plagiarism and, effectively, to "grade" their assignments. One of my students once produced a 3000-word essay that was filled with perfectly referenced paraphrases and quotes, but when I took a highlighter pen out and marked where she used her own words, there were probably 300 words between her citations: "However," "on the one hand," "But," "Therefore" etc. It was a beautiful collage with nothing of the student's own argument. This struck me as the perfect of and horrifying result of all the training we were giving the students, that talked about the mechanisms of citation but didn't help the students to find their own voice, their own critical opinion. They were producing empty essays with no heart.

I love teaching academic writing, but I am concerned that the pressures to "fix" student writing, to focus on the remedial skills, misses the point that we all, as an educational institution, have a responsibility to the students who have been accepted into our programs. Focusing on students as a deficit, as problems to be fixed, as zombies circling our ivory tower, just adds to the problem.  A lot of our expectations about teaching and learning hearken back to a nostalgic vision of the university, of what it does, who inhabits it, and what it produces. We need to shake up the curriculum, to renew our approaches so that we deliver high quality programs that engage with and meet the learning needs of the students we have in front of us. Otherwise we will perpetuate an unwinnable situation, a living death.

 

 

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