Living Death in the Academy

University lecturers, and high school teachers, are often puzzled by the behaviour of their students these days; their quiescence in lectures, with fixed stares and apparent lack of interest; their curious, inexplicable night-time animation, contrasting with their shambling daytime gait. Added to this is the lack of any initiative; a desire for simple routines and highly predictable outcomes, as if intellectual effort were physically painful. They also often appear to be under the influence of some external, unfathomable force. Well the reason for their curious state is made clear in a fascinating set of essays put together by Andrew Welan, Ruth Walker and Christopher Moore.   The current student body is rapidly becoming Zombies!

Students are powerless against the zombification that is destroying education all over the world. This is illustrated by writers drawn from Australia, the UK and the USA who use the trope of the undead as a powerful allegory for examining a variety of aspects of present-day university life. This covers how teaching is controlled, research is managed and computer systems are put in place.

For example, a fascinating analysis of the computerisation of academia reveals just how deadening are the programmes that are now embedded in university life. A string of software systems are taking the humanity and heart out of many academic processes. As Christopher Moore  describes them: “Undead technologies, ensnaring instances of software and hardware that plague our living, working and learning lives with senseless, repetitive, bureaucratic or toxic conditions: PowerPoint, plagiarism software, Digital Rights Management, e-mail, Learning Management Systems , committee structures,  student and staff surveys…”

A couple of examples illustrate how deadening are the software systems that are infecting the academy. One is the plagiarism checking software, Turnitin, which is now endemic. Students are required to submit their work via this system that compares the text with published work and all other student work submitted. The consequence is that detecting plagiarism has become a mindless text matching process. Simple use of a thesaurus will readily avoid detection. The engaged lecturer, who would bring wit and experience to the task is displaced by an automaton. Also, in the hungry way of zombies, the machine digests all who engage with it, absorbing their work into its own dead existence without acknowledgment or even a thank you.

Another piece of zombie software that has infected UK universities is that for tracking time use. Every month or so all teaching staff have to provide the details of what they have done every half hour for all twenty-four hours of every day of a randomly selected week. In the way of such institutional systems developed by bureaucrats, options have to be selected from a predetermined menu. These are devised to cover the possibilities the bureaucrats think likely and consequently have nothing to do with the real lives of academics. The mindlessness of all this is revealed by the fact that I have yet to meet a colleague who takes this menu selection seriously. They slouch through the process, unthinkingly selecting menu options on automatic pilot. One colleague in an English department has admitted to me in private that he regularly chooses the menu option for teaching statistics, on which he is quite ignorant. Yet he has never been reprimanded for this demeanour. Apparently those monitoring the system are as zombified as those using it.

Lesson plans, learning outcomes, model assessments, and all the other means of controlling the learning and teaching process from above, may have seemed a good way of improving standards but they quickly ossify into mechanical straightjackets that require little intelligent human input.  They take the soul out of the educational process. Whether it be the UK government’s Minister for Education specifying exactly what should be taught in the history curriculum, so depriving the history teacher of any specialist enthusiasms, or the endless university audit committees that are only concerned that all the appropriate documents have been completed and the average student ratings are high. The undead quality of top down bureaucracies is turning education into a process that is at best clerical but typically lacks vitality or life.

The hallmark of active, intelligent thought, research, is not immune from zombification either. Where once research funders focussed on the intellectual excitement and thoughtful riskiness of a project, now it has to tick boxes, obtain support from putative stakeholders interested in the benefits to them rather than to science and scholarship, and demonstrate that it can be explained to non-experts in none technical language in such a way that it will be lauded in the tabloids. Developing a research proposal is now a limping slog rather than an energising adventure.

The mindless focus on centres of learning as corporate entities, in which publication for its own sake, tenuous tenure and narrow research is the order of the day, is producing an intellectually dead environment in which bureaucratic zombies are sucking the life out of teaching and learning. A contagion is spreading for which the allegory of the undead is all too appropriate.

“Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education” Edited by Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker and Christopher Moore is published by Intellect, University of Chicago Press (2013)


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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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It is a world of brave new people programmed (not educated like I was) by something wicked this way comes….Monarch Programming. People now do the bidding of others without demur. To recognise Monarch Programming read anything by researcher Tim Baber, who met Mengele in this context. Mengele was a master programmer who I have traced I think by Villa Almarin in Mougins to his son. and It is possible Mengele might have been working past his sell by date after 1979 on whatever Monarch programming became. The death in 1979 is now no longer an accepted fact in my researches.… Read more »

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