How do we change the table?

Poking my head above the mid-semester waters to ask this question: how do we change the table?

There are two conversations going on in my world that provoke for me the same question: do we want to find ourselves a seat at the table, or do we want an entirely different table? And if we want a new table altogether, what do we have to do to get it?

In early October I participated in the HuMetricsHSS Workshop in East Lansing. This workshop featured Buffalo Wild Wings with Regina and an out-of-nowhere sighting of a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 25 years in the Michigan State Library. Amazing. It also included two days of conversation with engaged scholars and teachers from a range of disciplines about what it would look like to develop a set of values for humanities scholarship and faculty work that would push against the reductive and often-punitive institutional focus on things like impact factors and raw counts of scholarly output. If we want higher ed to value things that humanities faculty value, what would those values be, and how would we measure them?

A second and related conversation in my library world surfaced this week during an Educause session about connecting the library to learning analytics initiatives in universities. As institutions rely on “data-driven decision making,” the argument goes, libraries need to be engaged in those initiatives too, lest we miss out on the opportunity to demonstrate our value in the terms that our provosts and academic vice presidents can understand. For librarians whose values are rooted in respect for patron privacy and confidentiality, whose initiatives are not data gathering but data masking, such talk is anathema. If we begin to track our students as a strategy for embedding ourselves in the university, what is the point of being librarians at all?

In both cases, we find ourselves needing to make strategic decisions about what methods of building power we will deploy so that the things that matter to us–things that I would argue ought to matter without proof or data, spaces for the life of the mind and critical engagement and social life–can continue to exist, much less thrive, under the weight of corporatizing neoliberal higher education. Who will determine the terms of the debate? What ground will we concede in order to secure that space for ourselves? The underlying issue during the HuMetrics workshop was the way that the conversation concedes that institutional measurement is necessary, a system and structure that was itself not subject to change. Given that the table has already been set, what do we want on the menu? The same givens are in place in the library privacy conversation. If data about individual student learning drives resource allocation, what can we do to get some of that allocated our way? How can we be sure that we get a plate too?

It is quite easy, I think, to proclaim that we should resist!, in the popular phrasing of the day, these various neoliberal reductions of the work we do, as this twitter thread suggests:

We need to reject metrics. We need to reject learning analytics.

But what would it take to actually do this? What does that rejection look like if we were to reject it an organized way, in a way that reflected a meaningful we, rather than as single individuals taking loud public stands and then getting fired for it?

This is the conversation I’d like to see happening, that I’d love to see funded by a Mellon grant. Instead of talking about what’s on the menu, or how to keep us from being what’s served for dinner, how can we change the table? How can we change the terms of the debate?

That’s an actual question, and I would love to hear any answers people have, things they are trying. When people say “stand up against it,” what does that actually look like? Not turning in assessment reports or tenure portfolios?

For me, this week, it looked like spending an hour with a colleague talking about a small thing we’d like to change–making our union executive meetings open to any and all observers–and what a meaningful vision might look like in the wake of a devastating contract fight. We made a short list. We agreed to meet again after I get back from the NYLA conference in Saratoga next week.

I have no idea. I really don’t know. We really need to know. Do you know?

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