Friday, January 17, 2020

Resolution Read Week 3

This week's read is:

Mark Erickson, Paul Hanna, & Carl Walker, (2020), "The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance", Studies in Higher Education; preprint here.

It's dire.

Following in the footsteps of UK Higher Education's desire to put metrics on everything, the authors produced and ran the first "Senior Management Survey" (SMS), "investigating satisfaction with senior managers and university governance" (p. 1). Over 5000 academics responded (I have a suspicion, unconfirmed, that I was one of them; I seem to remember taking such a survey at the time the authors say they were gathering data), with the primary result being that the mean satisfaction score across all universities that had at least 25 responses (78 universities in total) was 10.54%.



Of course the first thing I did, when the reference came across twitter, was search to see where my own university falls. I was rather shocked to find it was no. 3 on the table, but less shocked when I saw that the highest satisfaction score of any surveyed university was 36.60%. That's still pretty dire.

The authors quote, anonymously, one free-text response to their survey:

We hold students accountable (through marking and attendance monitoring), students hold us accountable (through teaching evaluations and NSS), senior management holds us accountable. Why do we not get to evaluate senior management in the same way students get to evaluate us, and why can’t these necessary metrics carry at least some weight? (p. 8)

This I think hits the nail directly on the head, and is reflective of the problematic balance of power that UK HEs currently have to deal with. There is little, if any, recourse (beyond union activism) that academics have to the increasing erosion of their working conditions through systemic mismanagement.

A few things stood out to me, reading this paper:

Firstly, "academics are estimated to be one of the most surveilled groups in history" (p. 3). Working in academia, you tend to get inured to the constant measurement that is done. Of your research quality, of your student satisfaction (which is NOT teaching quality!), of your intrinsic value as a person (I jest...or do I). But this statement made me pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that I can't think of any such metrics that my partner, a computer scientist in industry, is subjected to. It also made me remember this FB post I posted last year. Why are we so closely surveyed? Why are other industries not?

Secondly, the authors did not pull any punches when they came to describing general HE management structures in the UK: "Senior management teams now appoint self-selecting and self-reproducing boards of governors that allow them to exercise largely unlimited powers that are endorsed by governing boards, usually after faux exercises in consultation (Holmwood et al. 2016)" (p. 4). It's hard not to read that and feel a sense of recognition: I know I've been involved in too many "faux exercises in consultation".

Thirdly, "the [SMS] survey sought to move the gaze from the narrow metrics of staff performance to the senior management teams who set the conditions through which staff performance becomes possible" (p. 7). Yeah. We're always being told how important it is to contextualise things, and yet there seems to be very little desire to contextualise the metrics that academics are measured by via the conditions which they must work in.

Finally, in the subsection "Work as a mental health hazard", a few quotes struck quite a chord with me, including: "my anxiety levels have reached critical to the extent that I literally find it hard to breathe. I often wake in the early hours and can’t go back to sleep because of having to make notes about things I’ve forgotten to do at work" (p. 13) and "characteristics of generalised anxiety disorder (e.g. struggling to sleep and breathe)" (p. 13). These resonated with me at a very personal level, because this describes my own experiences of the last year or two precisely, and I would not have known, otherwise, that something as simple as waking up at 3am with a huge jolt of adrenaline as your brain starts going over all the things you didn't do the day before (or the day before that or the day before that or the day before that) and all the things you need to do the next day (and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that) and that you can't shut down for at least an hour or so in order to fall back asleep (no wonder I am constantly exhausted, it's not just because I have a busy life with a partner and a kid and outside hobbies, etc.) rises to the level of problematic anxiety. I think I'm going to make an appointment with my GP to discuss this further.

Reading the article, it was hard not to recognise a lot of my own experiences within it. On the other hand, I couldn't help but think how easy it would be for the very people that should be reading it with horror and changing their practices as a result to simply disregard the content of the paper as sour grapes. And therein lies one of the biggest problems UK HE faces: The power dynamics are such that although "academics cannot wait for university leaders to rise to a challenge they do not recognise" (p. 5) it's not clear what power we have to do anything to address this challenge.

I hope the authors continue to circulate the SMS (maybe on a yearly basis?) and publish follow-up results. It would be interesting to see what longer term trends can be seen.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Resolution Read Week 2

My first paper for my New Year's not a resolution is:

Wang, Hao. 1957. "The Axiomatization of Arithmetic", Journal of Symbolic Logic 22, no. 2: 145-158.

This was recommended to me as a recommendation for one of my students, but it's a topic I'm also interested in, especially as we're heading into the term where I teach PA! Maybe I can fill in a bit more history, this year.

The paper addresses a question that I've asked myself, and my own students have asked me, namely: Where do the axioms come from? This isn't just an abstract question, but a historical/conceptual one. Once you have an axiom set it's easy (well...) to see that they are the right ones; but how do you discover the axioms in the first place? Wang identifies one option:

  • You start from typical proofs and results, and work backwards to determine what the underlying assumptions are.

Another option would be to pick some reasonable assumptions, and adopt them until they are shown to be inconsistent. A third would be to prove what you can, and when you get stuck, add what you need as an axiom.

The focus of Wang's paper is Peano's axiomatization of arithmetic, which is not wholly Peano's but is in fact a borrowing from Dedekind and Grassmann (p. 145). All three were, however, rooted in a desire to make "an explicit statement of some adequate group of natural rules and conventions which enables us to justify all the true numerical formulae containing 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, +, *, =, (, )" (p. 146)" (note the lack of exponentiation). Wang describes Grassmann's Lehrbuch der Arithmetik (1861) as "the first serious and rather successful attempt to put numbers on a more or less axiomatic basis" (p. 147); his scope covered not only the non-negative integers but also the negative ones. Wang gives Grassmann's axiomatization (which he calls L_2), and notes that from it, the system L_1 (which consists in the commutativity and associativity of + and *, the distribution of * over +, the fact that 0 is the identity for + and 1 for *, that a+(-a)=0, that if c is non-zero and ca=cb, then a=b, that sums and products of positive numbers are positive numbers, that every number is either positive, not positive, or 0, and a version of mathematical induction) can be derived. (L_1 is described as the contemporary -- i.e., in the 1950s -- characterisation of the integers in abstract algebra).

Wang points out a drawback of Grassmann's L_2, which is that it does not require distinct integers to have distinct successors, and hence L_2 has models consisting in only a single object (p. 149). This was made explicit in Peano, whose system contained the basic concepts of 1, number, and successor, and five axioms:

  1. 1 is a number
  2. The successor of any number is a number
  3. No two numbers have the same successor
  4. 1 is not the successor of any number
  5. Any property which belongs to 1, and also to the successor of every number which has the property, belongs to all numbers

(Nowadays, presentations of PA often start from 0, as opposed to 1; in this, Frege's account of numbers differs from Dedekind's in that Frege did begin with 0.) These axioms were taken from Dedekind's essay Was sind und was sollen die Zahlen? (1888) (p. 149), and Dedekind's source for these axioms is preserved in a two-page letter that Wang quotes (in translation) (pp. 150-151). What's important is that these are an axiomatisation of the concept of number only -- there's nothing here to cover the arithmetic operations. These (addition, multiplication, and exponentiation) Dedekind defines later in the essay.

Sadly, since Wang's interest is in how Dedekind got to the axioms, and not what the axioms were, he does not discuss the axioms for the arithmetic operations, which leaves me with two questions:

  1. How do you define the arithmetic operations if you're starting from 1 rather than from 0?
  2. Is Dedekind 1888 translated into English so I can read it and find out the answer to the previous questions myself?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Not a New Year's Resolution

As I was lying in bed last night (thanks, jetlag, for three hours only half-asleep during the middle of the night), I realised that while I've gotten into a good writing habit (first via my resolution of 2014 and later on via the Any Good Thing monthy writing challenge plus tracking my words at, and am making a conscious effort to keep my email under control, the thing I feel like I never have time to do any more, or that I feel guilty about doing because there's always something better/more important I should be doing instead, is read journal articles just for the sake of reading about something that interests me and may one day be relevant (or may not be) -- to be distinguished from seeking out articles and reading them specifically because I'm writing a paper about the topic right this very moment.

So my not-resolution for 2020 is that I'm going to read one journal article a week, excepting weeks I'm on holiday, or probably also during marking season in May/June, and then blog about it briefly here, hopefully every Friday. Then it will be a Thing To Be Done rather than a Thing To Do, and hopefully I can get it done guilt-free!