Naming our time: some new terms to try on

What should we call our time?

I’ve been looking at answers for this question for a while.  Beyond nullities like “the 2020s” no label has really emerged.  It’s been hard to settle on a handy word or phrase which summarizes some leading features of our moment, like “the Renaissance” or “the Era of Good Feelings.” No overdetermining political developments serve, as opposed to handy labels of revolution or war.

Maybe the problem is that we’re caught in an interstitial moment.  An old era ended, perhaos in 1990s (fall of the USSR) or 2001 (September 11th), and a new, agreed-upon one has yet to behin. Back in 2016-17, reflecting on Brexit and the Trump election, I explored some ways of thinking about our era as a transition state.  Paolo Freire’s remark fit well for that purpose:

It is a time of confrontation, this transition, the time of transition of the old society to a new one that does not exist yet, but it’s being created with the confrontation of the ghosts.

Four years later I still felt that interstitial vibe.  No phrase had seized the world’s developments, bringing together (say) climate change, COVID, a rising authoritarian right, wokeism (or whatever else you’d like to call this iteration of progressivism), a new space race, digital expansion and techlash, and the demographic transition.  There was consensus neither in labeling nor in politics, which led me to George Packer’s nice formulation:

This is the [American] election’s meaning. We are stuck with one another, seeing no way out and no apparent way through, sinking deeper into a state of mutual incomprehension and loathing.

Lately I’ve been finding a term which might solve the labeling problem.  Adam Tooze has led the way in using polycrisis, which describes multiple, simultaneous crises which overlap with and exacerbate each other.  For example, the World Economic Forum offers this handy concept map:

polycrisis WEF Global Risks Report 2023

DALL-E offers this view in response to my simple prompt:

A polycrisis with a crowd, cityscape, and storms

One criticism of polycrisis is that it’s nonspecific in time.  Surely 1929-1945 was a polycrisis, as was 19th century colonialism or the French Revolution/Napoleonic wars. It might be a good placeholder for now, especially if this turns out to future historians to be an intermediary period after all.

(This is a good point to issue a caveat. Yes, there is a *lot* more to the question of historical naming and periodicity.  However, this is a quick blog post pointing towards some examples of names in a brisk way when I’m also writing on several deadlines.  If you’re interested, I can say a lot more later.)

A New Yorker staff writer, Kyle Chayka, recently assembled some alternatives and added a few of his own.  Here I’ll share some of the best, ranked alphabetically to dismiss my biases and for neatness:

The Age of Emergency A pretty good term when we want to identify individual crises or their polycrisis combination as emergencies, like the climate emergency.  As with polycrisis, though, it seems adrift in time.  Surely 1914-1920 was such an emergency, at least in Europe?  Or the Taiping Rebellion?  Maybe called it “Global Emergency” might be better.

Age of Unhingement Coined by Liz Lenkinski, who runs a Substack about it.  Interestingly, she describes this as a title for a transition time:

It’s wild in these streets and we’re at a pivotal moment, collectively. Do we get our shit together and try and fix something… everything… before it’s too late? Or do we just succumb under the weight of war, climate change, cultural chaos, and unhinged occurrence after unhinged occurrence, until we welcome our new AI overlords and enter the optimized reality they have created for us by ingesting old Pinterest boards?

The 2020s have allowed (forced) us all to reassess how we engage with the world and the community around us. Join me as I unpack what the fuck is going on in these unhinged times of great transition.

The newsletter is new to me, so I’ll check it out.  I like the way the word “unhingement” calls up images of dislocation and dismantling.

Chthulucene This one comes from the great Donna Haraway in her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble.  Gothically inclined folks like myself would guess the word referred to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, but Haraway says she’s thinking of cthonic, of deep, ancient roots coming to life and flexing their power in our epoch.  Climate change, species collapse, and more are flagged by it.

Epoch of Disarray This is one Chayka came up with by asking ChatGPT: “I asked ChatGPT to offer its own snappy name for our times, the results were ineloquent…” I do like the phrase’s emphasis on entropy, of undoing rather than creation or positive reconfiguration.

The Jackpot The term comes from a Robert Heinlein short story about a polycrisis on steroids, which ends up in an apocalypse.  Galaxy magazine gave it a fine cover illustration:

Galaxy_magazine 195203

William Gibson then resurrected the term for a bad 21st century in his 2014 novel The Peripheral.  One character explains:

droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but just big enough to be historic events in themselves…

The Amazon tv adaptation offers a good visual summary here:

Note the wry, black humor of the phrase.

New Dark Age James Bridle repurposes the classic description of post-Roman empire Europe for our time in a book of the same name.  The author focuses on technology as a major driver of change.  As you might guess, Bridle sees this as mostly bad change.

off-modernism This one came from the philosopher Svetlana Boym and was new to me.  Wikipedia introduces it thusly:

It recovers unforeseen pasts and ventures into the side-alleys of modern history at the margins of error of major philosophical, economic and technological narratives of modernization and progress. Off-modern reflection involves exploration of the lateral potentialities of the project of critical modernity. In other words, it opens into the “modernity of what if” rather than simply modernization as it is. As such, the term can be understood as an intervention in the larger theoretical discussion surrounding modernitypostmodernityhypermodernityaltermodernitylate modernity, and post-postmodernism.

I’m not sure what to make of that yet, so I’m checking out one of Boym’s books now.

The Omnishambles Some Brits use this to describe their recent government – quite accurately, I aver.  Applying it more broadly does a good service of identifying the present order’s inability to grapple with, well, the present.

Terrible Twenties Google search shows this to usually mean someone aged 20-29, and that’s a fun usage (for example).  Repurposing it for our shared decade sounds good, literally, with strong alliteration. It’s also nonspecific other than the negative, so maybe everyone could use it.  And I like the callback to a century past’s Roaring Twenties.

For a bonus, there’s also the Assholocene.  One Tadzio offered the word earlier this year and it’s already made, or was already in, the Urban Dictionary.  One sample:

The epoch in human history in which assholisation, i.e. the normalisation of group-specific misanthropy, is a dominant political dynamic, and the nationalist, patriarchal asshole replaces the neoliberal sociopath as the dominant subject: this is what I call the assholocene – the age of assholes.

That’s a good one, pungent and descriptive.  I don’t think it addresses efforts to reform discourse and action, like calls for civility or purging language of variously offensive baggage… unless we see such moves as part of a struggle against assholism, or if we view those activists as assholes.


And with that I’ll stop. Each of these terms points to a different aspect of our era, a different understanding of how our times are proceeding. They each speak from a kind of imagined future: “Oh yes, the ’20s certainly were terrible.” “What a time of unhingement indeed, before the [X] of the 2030s!”

See what you think of them. Or add your own.

 

Posted in futures | 13 Comments

America and China’s big ask for higher education: on the Sunnylands statement

Last month Chinese and United States leaders met in the San Francisco area. It was a major diplomatic meeting for the world’s largest geopolitical struggle. Many developments emerged from this event, yet I want to draw your attention to a single item.  It appeared from one of several communiques, the Sunnylands Statement (English language, Chinese language).  It has several implications for higher education, but also one clear demand of the academy, which I’d like to share here.

I don’t have time today to go into the broader geopolitical details and implications of the series of meetings: the hot line, different readouts, trade, etc. There are some good, basic commentaries out there.  There are also solid analyses of the Sunnylands statement, like this one.  Instead, I’m going to focus on this one document and what it could do for – and to – academia.

Why should educators care about international agreements?  Because when it comes to climate change these impact us directly and indirectly, on multiple fronts.  (Chapter 5 of my Universities On Fire addresses this in some detail.)

The Sunnylands Statement is a multi-point pledge for bilateral cooperation on the climate crisis.  John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua represented their respective nations in its crafting. It calls on both countries to triple renewable energy production in seven years.  Methane and other gas reduction is on the table, in addition to CO2  Both sides agreed to build five new “large-scale cooperative” carbon capture facilities.  China didn’t sign up for any details about reducing its immense coal production sector.  Both nations agreed to set up a shared climate working group (which restarts an older one, which China nixed after Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan) as well as a U.S.-China Energy Efficiency Forum.  They stuck to the 1.5 degree cap as a goal.

What about colleges and universities?  Why should we care?

First off, we can think about how Sunnylands might change the world we inhabit, if China and America follow its directions.  Let’s use my concept map for academia’s multileveled engagement with climate change:

How higher education engages with the climate crisis_overall

The communities around our physical campuses may change, sprouting wind and solar installations, perhaps with tidal and geothermal structures as well.  We might re-source campus electrical power thusly.  Carbon capture facilities may also appear.  Coal, oil, and gas sites may disappear.  So there are implications for community relations as well as our physical campus.  Beyond the local community, we might see academics comment on Sunnylands in public intellectual mode.

Some faculty, staff, and students may research this process, especially in fields like engineering, economics, politics, and energy.  Similarly, the topic could well appear in classes taught by those departments.

(Note that I wrote “if” above. Academics will also, mostly likely, wonder about the likelihood of China and America actually following the document’s directives.  All kinds of things could sap the document’s impact, notably domestic political shifts in either nation or changes in the international relationship.)

Second, Sunnylands calls out higher education explicitly at one point, and it’s a topic which might surprise many academics:

DALL-E circular economy society

DALL-E: “The illustration showcases a futuristic society living in harmony with circular economy principles. The cityscape and the activities of its inhabitants reflect a sustainable and ecologically responsible way of life.”

14. Recognizing the importance of developing circular economy and resource efficiency in addressing the climate crisis, relevant government agencies of the two countries intend to conduct a policy dialogue on these topics as soon as possible and support enterprises, universities, and research institutions of both sides to engage in discussions and collaborative projects. [emphases added]

I was impressed to see this – that the two leading powers of the world were gesturing towards the circular economy idea.

What is that idea about?  Briefly, a circular economy aims to to reduce waste to zero by  recycling goods throughout the economy.  Wikipedia has a nice summary:

It employs reusesharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, reducing the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions.[17] The circular economy aims to keep products, materials, equipment and infrastructure[18] in use for longer, thus improving the productivity of these resources. Waste materials and energy should become input for other processes through waste valorization: either as a component for another industrial process or as regenerative resources for nature (e.g., compost).

Which is a huge shift from the go-go state capitalism of China and America’s financialized neoliberalism!  This is an example of the kind of deep, bold thinking climate change calls forth.

And the shift to a circular economy needs universities to work, at least according to leading diplomats from the world’s leading nations.  Think about this.  The statement commits the two leading world powers to a major economic shift, and explicitly asks higher education to help make it happen.

How might this play out?

Scroll back up to my multi-level concept map of how academia can engage with the climate crisis. We can reuse it here.  First, the Sunnylands statement calls on universities (and others, with some academic overlap, as with think tanks) to “to engage in discussions and collaborative projects.”  I hear this as a request for research and development, functions right at academia’s core. Based on scholarship on the circular economy, we can see a range of disciplines ready to go: economics, of course, along with political science, sociology, history, architecture, engineering, business, and more.

Second, given American academia’s practice of linking research with teaching, we might expect more classes to include the circular economy in their subject matter.

To be sure, American and Chinese academics already do these things.  I’m talking about doing more of them, and with more of a public exposure.

Back to my concept map: academics might experiment with implementing circular economy principles in their operations and physical plant.  The easy first step is to expand recycling of materials, including food, but then to look to recycling and reusing building materials in renovation and construction. The same idea might apply to institutionally owned vehicles, grounds, and more.

More: we could see town-gown collaborations on circular economics. Think of a college or university engaging the community recycling center by adding and using more stuff, research it, staffing with students, and so on.  Beyond the immediate community, Sunnylands might encourage faculty, staff, and students to take up public intellectual roles on this matter, speaking to the broader world.

And yet. Once again, this document might fade away into the long list of ineffective diplomatic communications.  The present COP meeting might vitiate it. The Washington-Beijing tension could flare up. Either Xi or Biden might fall from power in a year. Or neither nation’s leaders will take the circular economy idea seriously.  Americans and Chinese, both marinaded in growth-at-all-costs capitalism, might reject the circular economy outright.

On the other hand, the opposite might occur.  Local, regional, or national leaders in either the United States or China could take Sunnylands seriously and issue policy accordingly. This might not happen right now – I haven’t seen any signs yet! – but the downstream possibility is there.  In which case colleges and universities, especially public ones, may well be impacted.

If we look some years out, up to a decade, there’s also a change that as generation Z rises in the workplace and into increasingly positions of authority that it might be more supportive of the circular economy than the rest of us. Already they are less enamored of neoliberalism, due no doubt in part to their different life experiences (no Cold War, the 2008 Great Recession hitting their youth).

So a geopolitically-driven drive for higher ed to take the circular economy seriously is… possibility.  It’s one sparked to life by a major geopolitical summit. Perhaps it nudges academia in one direction.  It’s something to watch – and maybe participate it.

PS: on a related note, I’ve been working on analogous political economy models, like no-growth and degrowth.  I will follow up on those as time (sigh) permits.

Posted in climatechange | 2 Comments

Come study with me at Georgetown University

It’s that time.  Yes, it’s the time of year when I invite people to study in the program where I teach.

Are you interested in education and technology?  Is the future of higher education a major focus for you?  Then consider taking classes with my colleagues and I at Georgetown University’s Learning, Design, and Technology program!

This is a graduate program where people study the intersection of higher education with technology, from a design thinking perspective.  The curriculum is rich. Required classes cover vital topics: technology, learning and design methods, learning analytics, the university as design problem, and educational research methods.  A foundations class introduces new students to graduate study, our topics, professional directions, and more.   An eportfolio class helps students build an online presence, with an emphasis on WordPress and students’ own web domains.  Then there are a host of electives, from social justice to gaming, educational technology to liberal education, data analytics to critical speculative design for antiracism.

Technology and innovation class LDT 2023 fall

This year’s technology and innovation class.

(I teach the ones on technology, educational technology, gaming in education, and the future of higher ed, plus lead Foundations.)

Pedagogically, LDT is all about active learning. We keep lectures to a minimum and instead emphasize discussion, student inquiry, hands-on work, and constructivism.

The student body is brilliant. Students come from a wide range of backgrounds: higher ed, K-12, nonprofits, media, museums, and more.  They are thoughtful, creative, and ambitious.  And lately the LDT class has been more international than American, with students from around the world.

And my colleagues are great.  They include Eddie Maloney, Maggie DebeliusYianna VovidesRandy BassDavid EbenbachLee Skallerup Bessette, and more.  I consistently learn from them as we design every semester’s offerings. I feel like I’m getting another MA by talking with them and, refracted, their thoughts through our students.

Naturally I love teaching in the program. It’s a joy to work with these students on these topics. Every day I’m excited to be in classes build around active learning and to see students flourish.  I bring in my latest research to see what folks make of it, which is both productive and fun.

emerging technology class printing exercise joyful June 2019

So much good stuff comes right out of the LDT world.  In classes students create great research and projects.  Faculty write books and make other media.  A bunch of, well, everyone collaborated on the powerful Big Rethink project.  After getting their MAs, students go on to great professional success: promotions, new jobs, PhD study, changing their organizations, rethinking education… which is the point of the whole thing.

Here’s a bonus: if you get your application in before January 15th, the program waives your fee.

Check out the LDT website.  Look into the classes I teach, if those interest you.  Fling questions at me or the program staff.  Then, if this engages you, apply!

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Undergraduate completion rates stabilize; one third of students don’t finish college in under six years

How long does it take for a student to finish college?  How many students don’t complete a certificate or undergraduate degree?

Today the National Student Clearinghouse published a new study, looking at students who started post-secondary classes in 2016.

I’ll identify some key findings, then add my reflections.

The leading takeaway is that completion rates have continued at their previous levels, “essentially unchanged since 2015.”  62.2% of students who started in fall 2017 have completed a degree or certificate.  Note that’s within six years, not the two years we normally think of for an associate’s degree or the four for a bachelor’s.

Now, there are differences by institutional type.  Private four-year institutions offer the highest completion rates, followed by state universities. Community colleges for for-profit institutions have the lowest rates, below 50%:

enrollment completion by institutional type _Clearinghouse 2023 November

Overall, 8.5% were still pursuing their classes after 6 years, without completing yet.  And a larger number, 29% of students, stopped out of their education altogether.

The Clearinghouse broke down these numbers by demographics.  In terms of gender women achieved degrees seven points higher than their peer males, the widest gap the Center tracked since 2008.  In terms of race, some groups completed at higher rates than others, with “Native American (-2.0 pp) and Black students (-0.4 pp) posting the largest decreases.”

enrollment completion by race _Clearinghouse 2023 November

There’s an important connection between race and institutional type:

Black students also lost ground, but these losses were concentrated at public four-year institutions, where they fell by 1.5 percentage points (from 50.2% in 2016 to 48.7% in 2017, see Appendix Table 4). Unlike at four-year institutions, Black students at community colleges saw completion rate growth, increasing by 0.5 pp over the previous cohort year. Hispanic students experienced a similar phenomenon, with losses concentrated at public four-year institutions (-1.1 pp; from 57.1% in 2016 to 56.1% in 2017). Like Black students, Hispanic students at community colleges saw slight growth (+0.2 pp).

In terms of age, “[o]lder students continue to make gains, but they still lag behind traditional aged students.”

There were also some differences by states:

While most gains seen at the state-level were small (less than 1 pp), nine states saw gains over 1 percentage point, with Idaho and New Mexico seeing gains over 2 pp (see Figure 4). Five states posted completion rate decreases of over 1 percentage point: Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington.

The national decline of 0.6 percentage points at public four-year institutions was driven by declines in 33 states, with the largest declines in Washington (-3.1 pp), New Hampshire (-2.8 pp), and Connecticut (-2.3 pp). Four states saw rates increase by over 1 percentage point (New Mexico, +2.2 pp; Utah, +1.6 pp; Montana, +1.3 pp; and Idaho, +1.2 pp; see Dashboard Figure 3).

The national growth of community college completion rates was driven by increases in 29 states, with nine states seeing gains of more than 2 percentage points. North Dakota and Idaho saw the largest increases (4.6pp and 3.7 pp respectively). Fifteen states saw community college completion rate declines, but only four states saw declines greater than 1 percentage point. Massachusetts and Oregon saw the largest declines (-2.8 pp and 3.7 pp respectively).

What can we make of all of this?

First, I’m struck by how the COVID pandemic didn’t adjust this cohort’s progress, at least compared to its predecessors.  Or perhaps completion rates would have been higher without the crisis?

Second, this plateau of completion rates marks a change from improving numbers.  As Liam Knox notes,

Before the pandemic, national completion rates had steadily increased for five years, from 53 percent in 2015 to 60 percent in 2020. That boost was spurred in large part by a new commitment to student success services, such as tailored advising for underrepresented student groups and wraparound services for those who are struggling financially.

Third, the number of people not completing degrees within six years (again, more than the expected two or four) is disturbingly high.  As the report concludes, we confront ” a single uncomfortable truth”:

[M]ore than 1 in 3 students today, and in some cases closer to one in two, do not complete a credential within six years of starting college. And with more than three times as many stopped out as there are still enrolled at that point, allowing the cohort an additional two years to complete barely moves the needle any higher. This is true even though, for part-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, eight years might be considered a normal time to completion.

I would like to know what proportion of that population holds student loans, and how much when they do.  Given how the labor market generally fails to reward classes without certification, and setting aside students who took classes purely for intellectual gain and who are capable of affording it, this is surely a massive failure for American higher education.

Fourth: I’ve been wondering for a decade about the impacts of peak higher education.  One potential implication is that if many campuses experience a decrease in enrollment quantity, would they decide to invest seriously in improving enrollment quality?  Degree completion could be a good proxy for that strategy, and we might look ahead to see if it improves.

Thanks to the Clearinghouse team for letting me see the study early on.

 

Posted in enrollment | 4 Comments

How to support an independent higher education futurist on Giving Tuesday

Today is Giving Tuesday, an American-invented day to encourage people to support good causes.

If you think what I do is such a cause, I’d like to encourage you to support this work.

To explain: my work concerns the future of higher education. I model how post-secondary education might develop, based in part on researching the history and present of academia.  To that end I conduct a continuous research campaign, scanning the horizon for signals, diving deeply into certain topics which look most likely to have a major impact, identifying and tracking trends over time, and building scenarios.  The results appear in articles, books, book chapters, presentations, workshops, seminars, and all kinds of digital content, from videos and podcasts to social media and this very blog.

Bryan Alexander Future Ready

Along the way, I also try to share my work process.  For example, as I find materials I push them out via social media, email, this blog, Substack, and other venues – partly to get feedback and improve what I do, but also to add to the overall conversation.  I also report on projects under way, like books, which take several years, or redesigning classes and digital programs.  That’s because I’m committed to the spirit of open source, as far as I can go before hitting limits of sustainability.

And sustainability is key.  I’m an independent futurist, not backed up full time by any organization, campus, government, or company.  This gives me the freedom to do the work as I see fit, which is marvelous, but with the condition that I must continually support that work (and myself, and my family). Every day involves scrambling to cover operational costs and to settle the whole thing on a stable foundation. Additionally, not being tenured means I take serious risks when researching very controversial or unattractive topics which look like they might have a huge impact on colleges and universities, such as racism or climate change.  Being ahead of the curve is what a futurist is supposed to do, of course, and can be rewarding down the road when the world bears out my forecasts, but can be very challenging to keep alive in the meantime.

Giving Tuesday is largely about charities, which is excellent, but I propose something different today. If you’re interested in higher education’s future and want to support my work, I’d like to make sure you get something of value in response, in addition to contributing to this independent futures project.

For example, you could support me on Patreon.  That’s a reliable way to support someone working on something you approve of.  Also, I regularly host discussions there and share my research in its earliest stages.

Or if you’re concerned about AI, you could subscribe to my Substack about artificial intelligence and the future of education.  It began this summer and is where my research into AI appears.  It looks at a range of issues and dimensions of the topic, from practical pedagogy to macroeconomics. I rely on professional research into AI, journalism for cutting-edge events, a broad network of fine colleagues, my classroom and workshop experiments, as well as my own hands-on trials with the stuff.  You can follow for free, but a paid subscription helps make this particular line of inquiry sustainable.

Alternatively, if you are thinking about higher education more broadly, you can sign up for the monthly Future Trends in Technology and Education (FTTE) report.  It’s a long-running analysis of the trends reshaping higher ed, backed up throughout with evidence. And I’m just redesigning one aspect of it right now.

You can also buy one or more of my books.  That’s the classic, old school form of research manifestation. I love writing books more than almost anything else in the world and am working on three (yes) such projects right now.  Ordering copies of Academia Next, Universities on Fire, or The New Digital Storytelling in hardcover, paperback, ebook, or audiobook (depending on title) for yourself, your friends, colleagues, and libraries will hopefully give some insights into how higher education is changing while also helping me write more of them.

Now, if you’d like to support this future of higher education work at a larger scale, consider sponsoring the Future Trends Forum.  This is, as far as I can tell, a unique program.  It’s a weekly, live video discussion about higher education’s future.  Each session features one or several guests with a particular angle on academia in conversation with myself and the Forum community.  It’s not a boring PowerPoint recitation nor a series of canned talks.  Instead, every Forum is entirely interactive, driven by participants’ interests and curiosity.  We’re coming up on our eighth anniversary and would love to keep going.  New sponsorships would go a long way to covering our production costs and also let us try out some new ideas.

I hope one or more of these ideas appeals to you, dear reader, because I think this work is vital.  Thinking through the future of the academia matters to academics, of course, but also should matter to the rest of society, as the world badly needs what colleges and universities do.  This is true even when – perhaps especially when – parts of society turn away from or against the academy.

I appreciate anything you can do to help.

Bryan reflection Vienna Metro excellent

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Some critical readings on AI for my graduate students: an updated reading list

Earlier this month I blogged about finding good readings about AI for one of my graduate seminars.  I listed a few, then blegged for more.

In response, folks were very generous.  Suggestions flooded in through the comments, then also by social media and email.  So I wanted to corral all of them into one spot for my own use, and hopefully other people will find it helpful. If so, I can keep updated it over time, or migrate it to another platform.

About the list: I alphabetized it by author(s) but not into consistent subcategories.  I haven’t formatted it too rigorously, because I’m under the gun of several deadlines.

These are mostly articles, but also blog posts, short stories, Substack posts, a comic strip, and several books. I asked for readings, then violated that textual precondition by including a game. Respondents added items in other media, such as podcasts, web-based databases.  I asked for recent stuff, but people suggested older texts which were really useful, so I’ve included them as well.

university students working with an AI to create an annotated bibliography in a library setting

DALL-E: “university students working with an AI to create an annotated bibliography in a library setting”

Jiafu An, Wenzhi Ding, and Chen Lin, “ChatGPT: tackle the growing carbon footprint of generative AI,” Nature, March 21, 2023.

Brent Anders, The AI Literacy Imperative.  Sovorel Publishing: 2023.

The Artificial Intelligence Incident Database.

Emily M. Bender, Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan-Major, and “Shmargaret Shmitchell,” “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜”

“Blueprint for an A.I. Bill of Rights.”  White House, 2022.

Ian Bogost, “ChatGPT Is About to Dump More Work on Everyone” and “ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think”. The Atlantic, 2022 and 2023.

Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.  Oxford University Press: 2014.

Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky. “The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.” The Cambridge Handbook of Artificial Intelligence, Cambridge University Press, 2014. Free access: http://faculty.smcm.edu/acjamieson/s13/artificialintelligence.pdf

James Bridle, “The Stupidity of AI,” The Guardian, March 2023.

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic, originally published 1945.

Ted Chiang, “ChatGPT is a Blurry JPEG of the Web” and “Will AI Become the New McKinsey?”  The New Yorker, 2023.

Seán Clarke, Dan Milmo and Garry Blight, “How AI chatbots like ChatGPT or Bard work – visual explainer”. The Guardian, November 1, 2023.

Kathryn Conrad, “Sneak Preview: Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights for Education,” Critical AI 2.1., July 2023.

Eamon Costello, “ChatGPT and the Educational AI Chatter: Full of Bullshit or Trying to Tell Us Something?” Postdigital Science and Education, 1-6.(2023)

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, “How to Learn and Teach Economics with Large Language Models, including GPT “  SSRN, last revised May 2023.

Kate Crawford, Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. Yale University Press: 2021.

Yun Dai, Ang Liu, and Cher Ping Lim, “Reconceptualizing ChatGPT and generative AI as a student-driven innovation in higher education,” Procedia CIRP Volume 119, 2023, Pages 84-90.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procir.2023.05.002.

Douglas Engelbart, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework | Doug Engelbart Institute.” Doug Engelbart Institute.  Originally published October 1962,

Jason Fagone, “The Jessica Simulation”. San Francisco Chronicle, July 2021.

Tirse Filibeli, “Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning Algorithms: A Descriptive Analysis of the Digital Threats in the Post-truth Era,” Galatasaray University Journal of Communication, issue: 31, 91 – 110, December 28, 2019.

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit. Princeton University Press, 2005.

Jason Furman, “Is this time different? The opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence.” Remarks at AI Now: The Social and Economic Implications of Artificial Intelligence Technologies in the Near Term, New York University, 2016.

Leon Furze, Teaching AI Ethics, blog post series, 2023.

Gartner Research, “What’s New in the 2023 Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies.”

“GenAI Practical Use Cases,” CPA.com, 2023.

Chris Gilliard, “Friction-Free Racism.” Real Life, October 15, 2018.

Lauren Goodlad and Samuel Baker, “Now the Humanities Can Disrupt ‘AI,’” Public Books, 2023.

Sam Harris, “Can We Contain Artificial Intelligence?: A Conversation with Mustafa Suleyman” Making Sense podcast, episode #332, 2023.

_____, “Debating the Future of AI: A Conversation with Marc Andreessen” Making Sense podcast, episode #324, 2023.

Alex Heath, “Poe’s New Desktop App Lets You Use All the AI Chatbots in One Place.” The Verge, August 28, 2023.

Sheila Heti, “According to Alice,” The New Yorker, 2023.

Wayne Holmes and Ilkka Tuomi, “State of the art and practice in AI in education.”  European Journal of Education, volume 57, issue 4, December 2022, pp 542-570.  https://doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12533

Ayanna Howard & Jason Borenstein, “The Ugly Truth About Ourselves and Our Robot
Creations: The Problem of Bias and Social Inequity.”  Science and Engineering Ethics 24, 1521–1536 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-017-9975-2

Alex Langstaff, “The Bulgarian Computer’s Global Reach: On Victor Petrov’s ‘Balkan Cyberia,’” Los Angeles Review of Books, November 10, 2023.

A bearded college prof works with an AI.

DALL-E: “an AI helping a professor create a bibliography.”

Donella Meadows, “How to Dance with and Intervene in Systems.”  2001.

Anna Mills, Maha Bali, and Lance Eaton, “How do we respond to generative AI in education? Open educational practices give us a framework for an ongoing process,” Journal of Applied Learning and Teaching, vol. 6 No. 1 (2023). https://doi.org/10.37074/jalt.2023.6.1.34.

Melanie Mitchell and David C. Krakauer. “The Debate over Understanding in AI’s Large Language Models.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 120, no. 13, Mar. 2023, p. e2215907120, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2215907120.

Melanie Mitchell, Alessandro B. Palmarini, Arseny Moskvichev, “Comparing Humans, GPT-4, and GPT-4V On Abstraction and Reasoning Tasks,” arXiv, November 14, 2023.

Ethan Mollick, “What people ask me most. Also, some answers. A FAQ of sorts.”  Substack, October 2023.

Frank Pasquale, The New Laws of Robotics.  Harvard University Press: 2020.

Billy Perrigo, “OpenAI Used Kenyan Workers on Less Than $2 Per Hour to Make ChatGPT Less Toxic,” Time Magazine, January 18, 2023.

“Prepare for truly useful large language models,” Nature Biomedical Engineering volume 7, pp 85–86 (2023).  https://doi.org/10.1038/s41551-023-01012-6.

Mitt Regan and Jovana Davidovic. “Just Preparation for War and AI-Enabled Weapons.” Frontiers in Big Data, vol. 6, May 2023, p. 1020107.  http://www.doi.org/10.3389/fdata.2023.1020107

Paola Ricaurte, “Artificial Intelligence and the Feminist Decolonial Imagination”. Bot Populi, March 4, 2022.

Alberto Romero, “Fear Wins: The US and the UK have decided what the future of AI looks like.”  Substack, Novermber 3, 2023.

Daniel Rosenberg, “Data before the fact.” In “Raw Data” Is an Oxymoron, edited by Lisa Gitelman Also available here.

Jane Rosenzweig, “What Happens When A Novice Writer Asks Chatgpt For Editing Advice?”, CriticalAI, 2023.

Tahereh Saheb, “Ethically Contentious Aspects of Artificial Intelligence Surveillance: A Social Science Perspective.” AI and Ethics, vol. 3, no. 2, May 2023, pp. 369–79. DOI.org (Crossref), http://www.doi.org/10.1007/s43681-022-00196-y.

Ilia Shumailov et al, “The Curse of Recursion: Training on Generated Data Makes Models Forget.” arXiv, May 2023.

George Siemens et al. “Human and Artificial Cognition.” Computers and Education: Artificial Intelligence, vol. 3, 2022, p. 100107.   https://doi.org/10.1016/j.caeai.2022.100107.

Sara Solarova et al. “Reconsidering the Regulation of Facial Recognition in Public Spaces.” AI and Ethics, vol. 3, no. 2, May 2023, pp. 625–35.   http://www.doi.org/10.1007/s43681-022-00194-0

Jane Southworth et al, “Developing a model for AI Across the curriculum: Transforming the higher education landscape via innovation in AI literacy,” Computers and Education: Artificial Intelligence, volume 4, 2023, 100127, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.caeai.2023.100127.

Lucy Suchman, “The uncontroversial ‘thingness’ of AI.”   Big Data and Society, November 2023. https://doi.org/10.1177/20539517231206794

Clive Thompson, “Warning Labels For AI-Generated Text: Maybe we should just start sticking icons on this stuff.”  Medium, October 31, 2023.

Krista Tippett,  “Reid Hoffman –  AI, and What It Means to Be (More) Human,” On Being with Krista Tippett, updated October 5, 2023.

Victoria Turk, “How AI reduces the world to stereotypes,” Rest of World, 2023.

United States Department of Education, Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Teaching and Learning, Office of Educational Technology, May 2023.

Universal Paperclips, computer game.

Vauhini Vara, “Ghosts,” The Believer, 2021.

Joana Varon and Paz Peña, “Artificial intelligence and consent: a feminist anti-colonial critique”. Internet Policy Review, volume 10, issue 4, December 7, 2021.  DOI: 10.14763/2021.4.1602

Angie Wang, “Is My Toddler a Stochastic Parrot?” The New Yorker, November 15, 2023.

Stephen Wolfram, “What Is ChatGPT Doing … and Why Does It Work?”  Stephen Wolfram Writings, February 14, 2023.

Shoshana Zuboff. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York, PublicAffairs, 2019. (Our online book club read it in 2019.)

There are also some treasure troves of resources from an Axim Collaborative workshop, Anna Mills. and Mark Corbett Wilson.

Remember, we can keep expanding this list.

(thanks to many people, including Jessie Cheng, Maha Bali, Anna Mills, Lance Eaton, people across social media, and everyone who contributed to that blog post)

Posted in automation | 9 Comments

What should my grad students read about emerging AI?

I have a seminar meeting coming up for my technology and innovation class, and I’m not sure what readings I should assign. The subject is AI, and I have many thoughts but no conclusions.  So today I’m asking for readers’ suggestions.  Yes, I’m firing up a good, old fashioned bleg post.

To explain: I teach in Georgetown University’s Learning, Design, and Technology (LDT) program.  This class, Technology and Innovation by Design, is required for all LDT students. It takes them through a range of ways of understanding tech, from historical accounts to imaginative writing, economics to critical theory, sociology to feminism, antiracism to area studies.  I love teaching it and am always looking for ways to make it better and more exciting. (see latest syllabus at end of this post)

This year I’ve expanded the unit on AI because of the current large language model (LLM) revolution. We’ve done some AI exercises during the semester, and now we’re going to devote hours to the topic.

A_university_seminar_discussing_AI.

Midjourney’s best attempt.

For the class session (and maybe two) I have some plans. First, an informal and quick series of go-rounds where I ask students to share what they know about generative AI, what they think about it, then what they’ve done with the stuff.  Second, students will do hands-on work with various tools, including chatbots, image creators, and others.  That will include discussions and lots of peer learning. Third, I’m going to break habit and lecture for a bit, based on my AI work.  That’s to give them a sense of what I see as rapidly emerging things happening, along with a grounding in the technologies.

Besides all of that, and before all of it, I’d like the students to read mind-expanding and interesting material which should challenge them, which is where you come in.  Readings should be scholarly, preferably, as one goal of the program is to acculturate students to reading academic research.

Some parameters:

  • The students are brilliant.  They are mostly international.  Age is mostly in the 20s. Gender is balanced.
  • They don’t have a lot of coding background, generally, being more grounded in media work.
  • So far they have expressed interest in AI, but have not revealed a great deal of experience or enthusiasm for the tech.
  • They come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, with an emphasis on the social sciences and humanities.
  • While the class is focused on technology, the end point is its use in higher education.
  • I love historical documents, but want to make sure we include current writing which addresses emerging AI.

I’ve been considering some items with a diversity of approaches and themes, tending to be from the past couple of years:

Brent Anders, The AI Literacy Imperative.

Emily M. Bender, Timnit Gebru, Angelina McMillan-Major, and “Shmargaret Shmitchell,” “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜”

Ian Bogost, “ChatGPT Is About to Dump More Work on Everyone” and “ChatGPT Is Dumber Than You Think”

James Bridle, “The Stupidity of AI”

Ted Chiang, “ChatGPT is a Blurry JPEG of the Web” and “Will AI Become the New McKinsey?”

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, “How to Learn and Teach Economics with Large Language Models, including GPT “

Jason Fagone, “The Jessica Simulation”

Paola Ricaurte, “Artificial Intelligence and the Feminist Decolonial Imagination”

Joana Varon and Paz Peña, “Artificial intelligence and consent: a feminist anti-colonial critique”

Also, using this game for the paperclip problem.

What would you recommend, o readers?  Some of these, or others?  Thank you for any suggestions.

DALL-E envisions the class.

DALL-E envisions the class.


PS: Here’s the class syllabus so far, for context.  I’ve removed some things which don’t seem relevant and anonymized students, as I haven’t asked permission to use their names:

Tuesday, August 29, 2023 – introductions

Readings:

Tuesday, September 12, 2023 – Histories of technology, I

Tuesday, September 19, 2023 – Histories of technology, II

Tuesday, September 26, 2023 – Imagining innovation

Readings:

Student tech presentations: the toilet

Tuesday, October 3, 2023 – How innovations spread, I

  • Readings: Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition: 1-52; 72-3; 87-218  (chapter 1; chapter 2 through the Miracle Rice story, the STOP AIDS story, and from “Opinion Leaders” on; chapters 3-5)
  • Referenced: Moore, Crossing the Chasm

Student tech presentation: vaccines

Friday, October 6 – analysis of one innovation due

Tuesday, October 10, 2023 –  – How innovations spread, II

Student tech presentations:   GPS

Tuesday, October 17, 2023 – How to nurture innovation

Readings:

  • Jon Gernter, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation (part one, chapters 1-11)
  • Rosen, “Prologue and Changes in the Atmosphere”

Student tech presentations: birth control pill

Tuesday, October 24, 2023– Justice and innovation, 1

Readings:

Student tech presentations:  cement

Tuesday, October 31, 2023 – Justice and innovation, 2

Reading:

  • Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, 97-end.
  • Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (one copy)

Student tech presentations:  antibiotics

Tuesday, November 7, 2023 – Beyond America and Europe

Reading: Digital Middle East, selections:

    1. Zayani, “Mapping the Digital Middle East: Trends and Disjunctions”, 1-32
    2. Any four (4) chapters of your choosing, based on your interests  

Student tech presentation:  eyeglasses

Three technologies to think about

Friday, November 10 – annotated bibliography due

Tuesday, November 14, 2023 – Critiquing technology

Student tech presentations: WiFi

Posted in automation, classes and teaching | Tagged | 33 Comments

Academic cuts and queen sacrifices across the country

Greetings from a dark November.   The past few days have been rainy and chill, the perfect atmosphere for this post.

(It’s November?  I’m not sure how that happened.  I’ve been on overdrive mode for months now and calendars have become… blurs. On a given day I only know what to do based on what my calendar and to-do lists tell me.)

Today’s topic is cuts to higher education.  Some readers know I’ve been tracking what I’ve called “queen sacrifices” for years.  The term comes from chess, and describes the move of giving up one’s most powerful piece – the queen – in a gambit to win the game. It’s usually seen as a desperate move. I applied the term to higher education, where tenured faculty play the role of the queen, given their tenure protection and institutional governance roles; colleges and universities can cut them in various ways, often as an attempt to get out of a financial crisis.

cloudy skies over a bare tree

A gloomy sky from a winter month

Usually I write about a single instance, typically in the American northeast or midwest.  Oftentimes the institution’s leaders cite declining enrollment and ballooning budget deficits as motivating forces.  Sometimes a reduction in state funding plays a role for public institutions.  Occasionally there are stories of financial mismanagement ranging from bad strategies to actual crimes. Typically – but not always – programs with low enrollment (either majors or total students) face the ax; the humanities stand out among others on the chopping block.

Now it seems that the queen sacrifice appeals to a lot of campuses this season.  In addition, other colleges and universities are making or preparing to make other kinds of cuts, which fall upon other populations: staff, non-tenure-track faculty.

Let me offer some evidence, broken down by states.

ILLINOIS Bradley University announced a series of cuts, called for by “[t]he university’s provost and deans, and a faculty review committee,” which can “potentially eliminate over 20 academic programs and cut 68 faculty positions.”

Which programs and people face the ax?

The announcement unveiled plans for cutting math programs like statistics and actuarial science, as well as programs in the arts, such as printmaking and ceramics. For five programs — economics, French, mathematics, philosophy and physics — the plan calls for continuing classes but dropping majors and concentrations.

The reason for the cuts?  The appearance of “a $13 million [budget] shortfall, which amounts to about 10% of the college’s operating budget.”   One reason for that gap is declining student numbers: “[t]he university recently counted 5,217 students enrolled for fall 2023, down from 5,552 students the year before.”

MISSOURI Columbia College will end 122 jobs and close nearly 20 sites.

The reasons given are interesting.  The first, “a declining number of high school graduates,” is to be expected, as my readers know.  Two others, though, are a bit narrower: “an increasingly competitive online education environment and ‘evolving student instructional preference’ as reasons driving the changes at the nonprofit Christian college.”  I’m not sure if that second point refers to decreasing religious affiliation among Americans, but that is plausible.

VERMONT In October Vermont State University announced it would end 33 faculty and staff positions across its four sites, in addition to “cuts to the schools’ health insurance and retirement plans.”  Reasons include a reduction in state support, as well as realizing staff efficiencies through merging multiple campuses.  Indeed, a report described the institution as “about 20 percent overstaffed, based on the ratio of students to full-time staff.”  Most of the positions targeted are administrative, from assistants to a budget director.

This month VTSU scaled back its original cuts, firing only one professor, after more than a dozen accepted buyouts for early retirement.  The school increased the number of  programs to be merged and closed.

WEST VIRGINIA West Virginia University has gotten a lot of publicity and criticism over the past few months for the cuts president Gordon Gee has directed.  What the leadership ended:

28 of its majors, or about 8% [of the whole catalog], and cut 143 of the faculty positions, or around 5% [of the whole instructional staff]. Among the cuts are one-third of education department faculty and the entire world language department, although there will still be seven language teaching positions and students can take some language courses as electives.

Here’s a rare thing: a sympathetic portrait of five of those professors.

The reason for the cuts: Gee launched a massive effort to grow WVU enrollment and it failed, with student numbers actually reversing, and so driving a major budget crisis.

WISCONSIN Several public universities are planning cuts, in part in response to Republican anti-DEI pressure:

The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh cut 140 jobs.  In addition, 76 took early retirement offers.   34 full time positions will be unfilled.  The composition of these jobs is a mix: “The layoffs affect UWO administrative employees and staff while no faculty members were laid off. Of the 76 who accepted voluntary retirement, 49 are staff, 21 are faculty and six are instructional academic staff,”

The rationale?  To save nearly $15 million.

The University of Wisconsin-Parkside is cutting 55 jobs, or “about 9.5% of its workforce positions.”  These cuts are in addition to furloughs.

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville announced major cuts, costing 111 people their jobs, or “12.2% of its workforce.”  The goal is to save $9 million, which represents a structural deficit. Which people? “there were 49 academic staff, 27 university staff, 20 limited appointments, 11 faculty retirements, and four positions from other categories that were included in the cuts.”

The University of Wisconsin system also shut down a two-year campus, UW Platteville Richland.  This is from its official webpage:

University of Wisconsin-Platteville closing

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Washington County and UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac will no longer teach in-person classes, but only online ones.  Note the rationale for the latter move: “[system president Jay Rothman stated that]  online enrollment has been trending up.”

Beyond cuts to tenure-track faculty, other faculty, staff, and program cuts are in the air.  San Francisco State University announced plans to cut 40% of its adjunct population, which is now organizing in response.  Simmons University in Massachusetts will end (“sunset”) eight majors: “Art, Art Administration, Asian Studies, Chemistry Management, Economics and Math, Financial Math, French, Music, and Philosophy.”  Other programs will be folded into other majors:

 .

Biostatistics, Math, and Statistics will be absorbed into a Mathematical Sciences major, Environmental Science will become a track in the Biology major, and International Relations will become a track in the Political Science major. The Spanish major will become an Applied Spanish Language and Culture major.

Simmons University majors changes 2023

I would not be surprised to see the administration encourage some faculty in those fields to retire, or to remove them directly, in the near future.

Similarly, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay is openly discussing a series of program cuts.

UWGB is considering cutting majors in economics, environmental policy and theater and dance, according to an email sent to faculty and staff Tuesday. It’s also looking to discontinue minors in international environmental studies, geography and physics.

I haven’t found Green Bay officially airing personnel cuts yet.

Also along these lines are cuts from Newman University in Kansas: “english [sic], finance, history, marketing, math, philosophy, social work and theater.”  Newman isn’t just cutting, but adding new programs  “[i]n a strategic effort to realign educational offerings with changing student trends, market forces and emerging industry demands.”

Despite cutting some programs, the university said it implemented new undergraduate majors in the 2023-24 academic year, including agribusiness, computer science, digital design and adult and professional studies. Additionally, graduate degrees were added in biomedical science, business administration, data science, online social work and education.

Once more we can see the humanities overrepresented in the cuts and invisible in the additions.

Meanwhile, other institutions have been signaling the possibility of cuts to come:

ITEM: the University of North Carolina-Greensboro is undergoing a financial planning exercise, and it’s not one based on plenitude.    The Chancellor charged participants thusly:

All divisions are asked to engage in a budget reduction exercise at 1%, 2% and 3%. The table below provides amounts per division. All divisions should plan for submission of the 1-3% scenarios by Thursday, January 18, 2024.

There’s no call for staff or program cuts so far.

ITEM: Nevada’s state higher education system is trying to figure out how to close a big deficit.  They don’t have to share their deliberations in public, so their plans are thus far unknown.

ITEM: The University of Arizona announced it was in a financial crisis, with only 97 days of cash on hand.

ITEM: the state of Alabama decided not to financially assist Birmingham-Southern College in its economic crisis.  BSC has position this as an existential crisis.

Now, news of these proposed and actual cuts has elicited commentary and protests from within and beyond those institutions.  A Bradley University graduate and current French teacher wrote this moving appeal.  Vermont faculty criticized the layoff plan and students protested.  University of Wisconsin system faculty are open about the new pressures they face.  West Virginia University faculty voted no confidence in their president and some students, organized by their union, protested.  An accounting adjunct organized an alternative plan to save the same amount of money by cutting some administrators and staff compensation instead.

WVU_protest_Ryan_Quinn_IHE_2023 Sept

A critique of these cuts as a whole, especially queen sacrifices, has been rising.  This New Republic piece offers a useful example, arguing that cut programs can actually be profitable and that administrators ax faculty before staff.  Indeed, in the West Virginia case the president was actually completing a scheme to  “manufacture a fiscal crisis as a pretext to reengineer the academic core of WVU.”  Labor historian Myya Helm argues that the WVU showed a preference for physical buildings and administrative salaries over faculty and student support, tied to a lack of state support and refusal to seek more public funding.

Where does this leave us?  What do these stories suggest for higher education’s future?  Let me offer a few quick thoughts for a post which has already gone on too long:

  1. Some of these stories share elements, notably enrollment pressures and cuts to the humanities.  We should watch for this to keep appearing and in other locations.  Perhaps there’s a through line, a commonality to be identified.
  2. At the same time each cut story is specific, with particular or even unique details.  It’s vital to not lose sight of them and their individual salience.
  3. The critique that appeared around WVU might grow in popularity, especially as cuts and queen sacrifices grow.  I’d very much like to see more of it.
  4. American higher education often behaves in herds, with multiple members seeking to follow what looks like an established direction.  If this post’s summary of cases holds up, then we should expect other colleges and universities to follow along.

Over to you, readers.  What do you think?  Are you seeing any signs of cuts elsewhere?  Is this picture too gloomy?  The comments box stands ready for your thoughts.

Posted in higher education | Tagged | 14 Comments

More academic climate action occurring

Greetings from COVID containment. My wife and I remain sequestered. We spent Halloween night watching costumed visitors from our bedroom window and watching horror movies.

But COVID can’t stop my work!  Today I’d like to share several stories about global warming and academia.  I think they might be evidence of rising climate action within higher education.

First, students from six campuses – Pennsylvania State University, Tufts University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania,  Pomona College, and Washington University in St Louis –  filed legal complaints with their respective states atttorneys general.  The charge: “by investing in coal, oil and gas, the schools are violating their obligations as non-profit organizations to prioritize the public interest.”

I found several interesting details in this story.  For one, it wasn’t just students: “Each filing elicited signatures of support from dozens of faculty and staff members, alumni and local, national and international climate-focused groups.”

For another, they charged campus fiscal support of fossil fuel firms to be contrary to institutions’ intellectual missions:

“Fossil fuel companies have long engaged in a well-documented campaign to undermine climate science and distort public debate about how to deal with the climate crisis – including through efforts targeting Penn scientists and researchers,” University of Pennsylvania students wrote in their filing. “The industry’s spread of scientific misinformation undermines the work of Penn faculty and students who are researching and designing solutions for a sustainable future.”

Students also raised this point about consistency:

“If universities say, ‘We’re climate leaders, we stand for justice,’ but then on the other hand financially contribute to the climate crisis, we just see that as unacceptable,” said Moli Ma, an undergraduate student at Tufts, who helped lead the complaint against her university. “There’s an incongruence there. It doesn’t match up.”

"A view of the oil fields from the bluff on Panorama in Northeast Bakersfield, CA - USA"

“A view of the oil fields from the bluff on Panorama in Northeast Bakersfield, CA – USA”

Not being a lawyer, I can’t offer authoritative comments, but was struck by two legal strategies which look to be nearly universally applicable.  One concerns a specific law, which paying petroleum companies might violate:

Four of Monday’s filings allege that schools breached the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, a law adopted by 49 states requiring non-profit institutions to consider their “charitable purposes” in their investments and to do so with “prudence” and “loyalty”.

Pennsylvania apparently stands alone on this score:

Pennsylvania has not passed such a law, so students’ legal complaints against the University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State University are based on similar regulations that fall under the state’s Decedents, Estates, and Fiduciary Code.

Then there’s this very pragmatic point:

Another key argument in each complaint: investing in fossil fuel stocks not only harms the climate and threatens human health, but also creates financial risk.

“We make the case that fossil fuels from a purely financial point of view are a very bad investment,” said Ted Hamilton, a lawyer with the Climate Defense Project who has worked on each of the legal filings. “This sector is very volatile. It’s been underperforming lately, and especially for long-term institutional investors like universities, it has a very bad value thesis [for] the coming decades.”

The next two stories aren’t purely academic, but include a bunch of faculty and staff.

Several health care groups with large memberships are about to post a joint letter calling for urgent climate action.  Apparently the text is all about the impact of global warming on public health:

“We the family doctors, doctors and health professionals of the world call on world leaders to take urgent action to safeguard the health of global populations from the climate crisis,” the open letter reads.

And the urgency is clear:

The signatories include health bodies from Canada, India, Europe, Pacific nations and the UK, who are demanding all governments end the expansion of any new fossil fuel infrastructure and production, phase out existing fuels, remove subsidies and invest in renewable energy.

“If we are to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5C and halting the escalation of the climate health emergency, we must end the proliferation of fossil fuels,” the letter says.

Now these are health care practitioners, not all academics, but some of them surely are academics: full time faculty members, medical professionals working as adjuncts, and so on.

 

Matt Hrkac Farewell Party for Fossil Fuels Extinction Rebellion put on a 'farewell party' for fossil fuels outside of a fuel terminal in Yarraville, Melbourne.Third story: the Washington Post reports on what it finds to be a growing sense of climate emergency among scientists.

References to “climate emergency” and “climate crisis,” once used primarily by activist groups like the British-based Extinction Rebellion or the U.S.-based Sunrise Movement, are spiking in the academic literature…

Tim Lenton,… professor of earth system science at the University of Exeter… said he isn’t afraid to use terms like “emergency” or “climate and ecological crisis.”

Shannon Osaka notes an increasing desperation among scientists to get political leaders to pay attention and take action.

As with the medical associations story, not all climate scientists are academics, but some are, either full- or part-time.

What do these stories signal about academia and the climate crisis?

Overall, I think they point to incrementally rising climate concern among the higher education community. It’s not a radical break, but an advance along a growth curve.

Note the students taking that bold legal and political step. I wonder how many campus presidents and (for private institutions) trustees feel outflanked and irked.  Personally, I admire the combination of student research and practice.

Note, too, the overlap with non-academic professional societies.  They may become a soure of climate energy.

Watch for more stories like this.  See if the students, faculty, and staff around you are following suit.  And hey, you could join them.

(two links via Bill McKibben’s excellent newsletter; crowded oil field photo by Babette Plana; “Just Stop It” photo by Matt Hrkac)

Posted in climatechange | Leave a comment

2023 can stop doing this stuff right now

This past week saw me doing a whirlwind of work. I taught three classes, flew across the country to meet with one client, led a Future Trends Forum session, worked up the next FTTE report, held several virtual meetings, started redesigning FTTE, honed my next book proposal, prepped my spring class, and tried in vain to stem the email tide.

I hate leaving town when my wife is still recovering from heart attacks (first, second). I only do it for professional purposes – and those trips are extra needed now, given medical bills, as we decided to handle health care in America. I actually turned down some trips which took me away too long. Meanwhile, we set up care at home (our two adult children coming in handy).

Then to make things worse, last week Ceredwyn came down with COVID.  You all know the drill: she tested positive, re-tested to make sure, then we confined her to our bedroom. We brought her food and other supplies, leaving them outside the door. I slept in the living room.  She very all too symptomatic: joint pain, headaches, throat pain, fevers, chills.  It was like a bad flu for several days.

This made things worse for her in all kinds of ways.  Being sequestered isolated her from human contact. Ibuprofen interacts badly with some cardio meds, so my wife can’t use “vitamin I” to address pain. Acetaminophen has no effect on her now, so the suffering is wretched.  Plus she can’t do cardio rehab sessions while being infected.  And there’s the general psychological stress piled onto genuine dread.

Several days into this vileness, I left for a work trip.  From the road, I kept checking on her by phone and text.  She was gradually getting better, but was exhausted and in pain. I felt frustrated and sad and could only listen, plus tell her stories and read her poetry.

On Friday I started traveling back east and began feeling poorly myself: coughing, fevers, chills, sore throat. I slept unusually badly on a redeye from Seattles to Dulles. When I arrived home I at once fired up a COVID test for me and sure enough:

COVID test reading positive

The usual time for a COVID test to complete is 15 minutes, but that hard red line appeared in only about 2 minutes.

I don’t know the infection’s source.  Did someone give me COVID from an airport? Did the virus leap from a stranger’s nose and into mine at a restaurant?  Did my wife give it to me before she tested positive and it just lurked in my body, struggling with my full battery of vaccines and boosts, until emerging triumphant a few days later?

This test result occurred right when I got home, before I unpacked, before I said hi to anyone, so I immediately just hauled all my stuff into the bedroom and joined my wife.  I am goofily romantic enough to love that I could hug and kiss my wife again for the first time in a week, even if for a disgusting reason. And I could care for her in person.

So here we are, husband and wife, down with COVID. We occasionally order food and folks bring it to out plague-barrier door.

My symptoms are currently uneven.  Some hours I only feel tired and cranky. Other times my throat tightens up or itches.  Fever comes and goes.  I dropped about six pounds, due mostly to depressed appetite.

Disturbingly, my mental operations vary.  I can read something carefully, then feel very tired and disengage. One minute I’ll be thinking through complex problems or multiple ideas, then the next those thoughts fade and I have to start again.  This scares me worse than the physical aspects.

Based on my previous COVID experience, symptoms should start fading soon.  I’ll take virtual meetings from home and test daily. Classes this week will probably be online, as will one in-person trip.  Hopefully I can maintain concentration enough to keep doing my asynchronous work: research, writing, planning.

Looking back over the past five months, 2023 seems determined to have a dark side.  It can stop now.

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