“We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people” Ghent University wants to become a place where talent feels valued and nurtured

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“A university is above all a place where everything can be questioned.”

My last two blog posts have been raising some critical questions about the viability and legitimacy of the scientific ‘enterprise’ in neo-liberal times. The Publish AND Perish blog post led to a lot of responses from colleagues within academic but also from the publishing ‘industry,’ including from the CEO of MDPI, Paul Vazquez. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, Ghent University in Belgium released a statement in which the university declared to go  – what I would call – ‘off-the-grid’ of commodification, marketization and economic globalization by turning towards, autonomy, (local) relevance, responsibility towards people and, hopefully planet as well, by creating spaces for transdisciplinarity, boundary-crossing and collaborative action (perhaps I am filtering the statement using my own lens – apologies if I do so). Below some excerpts form the statement which can be found here as well: Ghent University’s New Pathway

Here is the message from Ghent’s Vice Chancellor Rik van de Walle

‘We are transforming our university into a place where talent once again feels valued and nurtured’

(17-12-2018)

Our university should once again belong to the academics, rather than the bureaucracy, writes the rector of Ghent University, Rik Van de Walle.

Ghent University is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people.

It is a common complaint among academic staff that the mountain of paperwork, the cumbersome procedures and the administrative burden have grown to proportions that are barely controllable. Furthermore, the academic staff is increasingly put under pressure to count publications, citations and doctorates, on the basis of which funds are being allocated. The intense competition for funding often prevails over any possible collaboration across the boundaries of research groups, faculties and – why not – universities. With a new evaluation policy, Ghent University wants to address these concerns and at the same time breathe new life into its career guidance policy. Thus, the university can again become a place where talent feels valued and nurtured. We are transforming our university into a place where talent once again feels valued and nurtured.
With the new career and evaluation model for professorial staff, Ghent University is opening new horizons for Flanders. The main idea is that the academy will once again belong to the academics rather than the bureaucracy. No more procedures and processes with always the same templates, metrics and criteria which lump everyone together.
We opt for a radically new model: those who perform well will be promoted, with a minimum of accountability and administrative effort and a maximum of freedom and responsibility. The quality of the individual human capital is given priority: talent must be nurtured and feel valued.
This marks the end of the personalized objectives, the annual job descriptions and the high number of evaluation documents and activity reports. Instead, the new approach is based on collaboration, collegiality and teamwork. All staff members will make commitments about how they can contribute to the objectives of the department, the education programmes, the faculty and the university.
The evaluations will be greatly simplified and from now on only take place every five years instead of every two or four years. This should create an ‘evaluation break’. 

 

We opt for a radically new model: those who perform well will be promoted, with a minimum of accountability and administrative effort and a maximum of freedom and responsibility. At the same time, we want to pay more attention to well-being at work: the evaluations of the supervisors will explicitly take into account the way in which they manage and coach their staff. The model must provide a response to the complaint of many young professors that quantitative parameters are predominant in the evaluation process. The well-known and overwhelming ‘publication pressure’ is the most prominent exponent of this. Ghent University is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people.

Through this model, we are expressly taking up our responsibility. In the political debate on the funding of universities and research applications, a constant argument is that we want to move away from purely competitive thinking that leaves too little room for disruptive ideas. The reply of the policy makers is of course that we must first do this within the university itself. This is a clear step in that direction, and it also shows our efforts to put our own house in order.
With this cultural shift, Ghent University is taking the lead in Flanders, and we are proud of it. It is an initiative that is clearly in accordance with our motto: ‘Dare to Think’. Even more so, we dare to do it as well.
A university is above all a place where everything can be questioned.
Where opinions, procedures and habits are challenged. Where there is no place for rigidity.

 

I am absolutely convinced that in a few years’ time we will see that this new approach has benefited the overall quality of our university and its people.

Rik Van de Walle, rector.

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“Sustainability” in higher education: from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning

Orwel

In times of systemic global dysfunction, post-truth, alternative facts, cultivated doubt and the erosion of meaning, I found it useful to turn back, once again, to George Orwell’s infamous “1984”.  Well over 10 years ago, in 2004, I co-authored a paper on the danger of ‘doublespeak’ and ‘Newspeak’ in relation to the integration of sustainability in higher education. Back then this was an emerging trend, nowadays, it sometimes signifies a transition in education but more often little more than rethoric and green gloss. For me this is a good reason to re-introduce this paper here with Orwell’s cautionary tale but also with some ideas about how to move forward responsibly. Below an excerpt from the paper which you can find here in its totality:  Jickling and Wals Orwell’s Cautionary Tale

Wals, A.E.J. & Jickling, B. (2002). “Sustainability” in Higher Education from doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. Higher Education Policy, vol. 15, 121-131.  SustinHEOrwellsCautionaryTale

“Sustainability talk can, when used by advocates with radically different ideas about what should be sustained, mask central issues under the false pretense of a shared understanding, set of values and common vision of the future.

However, critical thought depends on transcendent elements in ordinary language, the words and ideas that reveal assumptions and worldviews, and the tools to mediate
differences between contesting value systems. And worse still, sustainability talk can
lead us in the direction of Orwell’s (1989) famously satirical notion of “doublethink”
whereby ordinary citizens can increasingly hold in their minds contradictory meanings
for the same term and accept them both (Orwell, 1989, p. 223).

The power of universal discourse in reducing meaning to a minimum is such that, as in “1984”, antagonistic concepts can be conjoined in a single phrase (“war is peace”, “peace is war”) or concept (i.e. “sustainable growth”) (Jickling, 2001). Big Brother’s “Newspeak” was designated not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was
indirectly assisted by cutting down the choice of words to a minimum (Orwell, 1989,
p. 313).

In Newspeak concepts capable of opposing, contradicting or transcending
the status quo were liquidated. As a result of this devaluation of language the people
in “1984” found themselves in a state of linguistic dysfunction which was exactly
what Big Brother wanted (Jickling, 2001).

Seen this way sustainability tends to blur the very distinctions required to evaluate an issue thoughtfully. When comparing the sustaining of ecological processes with the sustaining of consumerism we immediately see inconsistencies and incompatibilities of values, yet many people, conditioned to think that sustainability is inherently good, will promote both at the same time.”

Deconstructing a Happy Meal – making everyday life routine practices a source of transformative learning – indeed: food for thought!

“Today we’re going to study the food pyramid for healthy living!” the High School Social Science teacher Mark told his class. Mark was excited about launching a healthy food project that would enable kids to analyze their diets. He was well-prepared and had collected a number of teaching resources from government agencies, NGO’s and food-companies concerned with youth obesity and increasing health costs. One of his students called out: ”Food pyramids?” Boring! Why can’t we go to McDonalds?” This idea got the whole class excited, but frustrated Mark. After all, he had thought of something new that was hands-on and seemed very relevant. Later that evening Mark asked himself how he could motivate his students and engage them in an exciting learning process that would teach them something about health issues. He got an idea.

The next day Mark said to his class: “Today we’re going to McDonalds!” The whole class cheered. They couldn’t believe it.  Their teacher was actually going to take the whole class to the McDonalds near the mall across the street. “But…, there’s one condition. We will only buy one happy meal for the whole class”.  This got the students a little less excited, but they went anyway, just to get out of school. The class bought one cheeseburger happy meal and took it back to the classroom. Mark told the class that “unfortunately we are not going to eat the happy meal, we are going to carefully study it instead”.  He wrote down two questions on the blackboard:

What is in it?

Where did it come from?

They first dissected the meal: a plain bread bun, a slice of melted cheese, a grilled beef burger, salt, mustard, ketchup, pickles, French fries, diet cola, and, finally, a nice toy.

Then Mark divided the class in six groups of four students. One group got the bread bun, another group the salted French fries, another group the diet soda, another group got the burger, another group the accessories; ketchup, mustard and pickles and the last group got the plastic bagged happy meal toy.

“You have the remaining social science hours of the week to answer the two questions. Next week I want a short presentation with your findings from each of the groups. You can use the internet, the school library, the telephone in my office, and, if you need to ask questions across the street at the restaurant you can do so with my permission.”

All the groups went to work and the more they found out, the more interested they got. The group investigating the french fries found out that fast food chains need enormous volumes of potatoes and demand a certain type of potato that guarantees a consistent quality. As a result potato farmers around the world have reduced the number of potato varieties greatly. This has led to a loss of crop-biodiversity, making the remaining crops more vulnerable to pests and leading to an increase of pesticide use. A common response to this vulnerability is use genetically modified crops that are resistant to these pests. However the students also found out that McDonalds, pressured by concerned consumers, decided not to use Monsanto’s GM new leaf potato. The group’s investigation led to an interesting discussion about the pro’s and con’s of GM-foods. Most students were not aware that they were already consuming GM-foods. In fact the group studying the diet Cola found out that the sweeteners contained GM corn.  When presenting their finding students used a provocative quote from the internet to start a classroom-wide discussion:

Giant agribusiness, chemical and restaurant companies like Cargill, Monsanto and McDonalds dominate the world’s food chain, building a global dependence on unhealthy and genetically dangerous products. These companies are racing to secure patents on every plant and living organism and their intensive advertising seeks to persuade the world’s consumers to eat more and more sweets, snacks, burgers, and soft drinks.

Meanwhile the group investigating the happy meal toy learnt some things they didn’t expect to learn either. The discovered that the toys served cross-marketing purposes. Meaning that they bring parents and their children to the restaurant but they also promote things like Disney movies.  Most of the toys were made of plastic and not used by the children for a very long time. They went back to the McDonalds and studied how and for how long kids played with the toy and asked parents to estimate for how long the toy would remain in use. They estimated that the effective play time would be less than 10 minutes. Perhaps the most interesting finding they got by using the Internet. They found many sites – mostly activist  sites – that suggested that the happy meal toys were made in China. They came upon an article that stated that “.. a happy meal toy manufacturer, China-based City Toys Limited, employed children as young as 13 to assemble the “Happy Meal” toys.” These young teenagers were reportedly forced to work 16 hour days, seven days a week, and lived in crowded, on-site dormitories for a salary of less than 3 dollars a day. As a result of these revelations made in the Summer of 2000, McDonalds quickly responded by denying to have any knowledge about these conditions. The company distanced itself from City Toys Limited and moved its operations elsewhere. Since McDonalds was, at the time, not required to disclose information about its overseas contractors, it was difficult for the students to trace where they moved the operations and what the working conditions are at the new facilities. When this group presented their results to the class the were discussions about child-labour, children’s rights, ethics of moving jobs to countries with different standards and laws, but also about the consequences of McDonalds using a ‘cut-and-run’ strategy for the children in China working for City Toys, whose income might have been crucial for their families. The teacher also raised the issue of the reliability of the information of provided on the internet. Who put the information there? With what purpose? Is it based on fact?

The other groups too, found interesting information and point of discussion related to a happy meal (varying from beef imports, hormones in meat, clear cutting of rainforest to the sweeteners used in Diet-coke). One group was interested in figuring out ‘how many miles a happy meal has travelled to get to the local McDonalds? They didn’t get a chance to figure it out but they guessed tens of thousand of miles. The whole excersise was transformative in that they view of fast food in general and of a happy meal had changed. Mark’s concern was that, even though the students learnt a lot about food-related sustainability issues (health, environment, equity, economics), gathering information, presenting information, critical thinking, debating, etc., the project may have resulted in a rather bleak picture of something they really enjoyed: eating a nice juicy cheeseburger at McDonalds. He wanted the students to think about viable alternatives. So he asked the students a third question:

Can you design a happy meal that makes everybody happy?

The same groups started thinking about alternative buns, cheese, beef, mustard, pickles, soda, and even an alternative toy. This took another week of investigations but in the end they designed a happy meal that was more organic, healthier, socially-responsible and used up less energy. They cooked the happy meal themselves in the school kitchen for all junior high students and did a taste survey which demonstrated that the meal was a least as tasty as a McDonalds happy meal.  There was one problem: the new happy meal was far more expensive that the McDonald’s version. This raised another issue in the classroom: are we willing and/or able to pay more for meals that are healthier, more equitable, have less environmental impact? Some argued that consumers should demand this kind of food so that big corporations will change their own policies and practices, making alternative foods more affordable as demand increases.

“When McDonalds, Pringles, and the other major potato buyers decided not to sell Monsanto’s GM New Leaf potato, for example, it was soon taken off the market. McDonalds and others doomed Monsanto’s potato because they wanted to satisfy consumer demands. We have that power.” “In the U.S., Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe’s announced that GMOs would be removed from their store brands. Gerber baby foods, as well as scores of health food products, have similarly changed their ingredients.”

“When a store or brand removes GM ingredients, it has a ripple effect through the industry. After a supermarket chain commits to eliminate GMO’s, they usually send out a letter to their suppliers who in turn contact their suppliers and so on. A store may have hundreds of food items, each with a list of ingredients. Hundreds or thousands of businesses can be affected, right back to the farm level.

Others pointed out that their parents make decisions about what to buy, since they are the ones going to the grocery store.

The deconstructing of a happy meal became a transformative learning experience for all those involved, including Mark, the teacher. The happy meal brought out issues, tensions, dissonance, north-south relationships, health issues, ethics, the role of corporations, consumerism, economics, crop-biodiversity, etc.  It made an ordinary activity (going to McDonalds), somewhat unordinary and raised many critical questions that demanded some serious reflection. It developed a range of competencies in the students: asking questions, finding reliable information using a variety of sources, analysing data, presenting information, critical thinking, etc., etc.

Mark’s point of it all was not that students would reject going to McDonalds but that they would become aware of range of food-related issues: ethical ones with respect to using GMO-food or not, or with respect to children making toys for children, or which also raises questions about animal-well in relation to industrial agriculture, ecological ones, for instance, with respect to the potential loss of agro-biodiversity, environmental ones, for instance, with respects to the use of batteries in toys, the use of plastics or the energy used in food miles travelled or in ‘producing meat’ , and then there are economic ones, as well, for instance, with respect of the economies of scale of mass-production and consumption but also with respect to the shortening of food-chains and going local, when factoring in so-called “hidden” environmental costs.

Obviously, students can still choose, having considered all aspects and given their own situation, socially and economically and so on, to go to McDonalds but in all likelihood, having done an activity like this will have transformed the way they look at (fast) food. How this episode of transformative learning will affect who they are, who they’d like to become and how they will behave in the future cannot be known or measured shortly after the activity or even months of years later. This will depend on future experiences and circumstances, but what we do know is that having a learning experience like this will make learners a bit more conscious of what they eat and how this may impact themselves and the world around them.

Post-script:

Deconstructing a Happy Meal is a composite example based on a number of stories and ideas from critical teachers engaged with transformative learning and problem-posing-based teaching. The Happy Meal represents many forms of fast food and just as easily could have been built around other meals. The activity is meant to be educational and not prescriptive in that it tells people what to think and how to behave. It should be recognized that McDonalds, like many multi-nationals, are aware of their ecological footprints and have a range of sustainability and environmental-oriented policies and guidelines. Whether these efforts are genuine driven by a deep concern about the well-being of people and planet or driven by purely economic interests is in the eyes of the beholder.

The Happy Meal case has been presented at several international meetings on Education for Sustainable Development. For references to this example and type of learning please go to:

Wals, A.E.J. (2010) Mirroring, Gestaltswitching and Transformative Social Learning: stepping stones for developing sustainability competence. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, (11(4), 380-390.

Sriskandarajah, N, Tidball, K, Wals, A.E.J., Blackmore, C. and  Bawden, R. (2010) Resilience in learning systems: case studies in university education. Environmental Education Research, 16(5/6), 559-573.

New book – Sustainability Science: Key issues

 

 

SustScienceSustainability Science Key Issues Edited by Ariane König (Université du Luxembourg, Luxembourg) and Jerome Ravetz (Oxford University, UK) is a comprehensive textbook for undergraduates and postgraduates from any disciplinary background studying the theory and practice of sustainability science. Each chapter takes a critical and reflective stance on a key issue of sustainability from contributors with diverse disciplinary perspectives such as economics, physics, agronomy and ecology. This is the ideal book for students and researchers engaged in problem and project based learning in sustainability science.

I co-authored Chapter 2 with Michael A Peters titled: Flowers of resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm. Here’s a short intro to our joint effort. “When democracy can be hijacked, power corrupts and capitalism penetrates deeply into society, including into our schools, what prospects still exist for education for a more sustainable world? Democracy is painfully slow and open to manipulation: the question must be asked whether it is up to the task in the new global environment where action is through agreement of interest-based states. And yet in a post-truth world there are important issues that yoke science as empirical truth with democracy that we might christen ecological democracy which provides the warrant and justification for civil action, and demonstrates the new power of citizen science groups that can act autonomously in the interest of their local communities. In this paper we seek comfort, inspiration and support from emerging forms of ecological democracy, civic science and transgressive education.  The latter invites conflict and disruption as mechanisms to break with stubborn, unsustainable routines, that encourage people to leave their comfort zone. The resulting discomfort can be generative when it invites people to explore other options, to build new alliances or to re-think what they always thought to be normal or true. Learning on the edge of one’s comfort zones amidst a plurality of ideas, can help us interrogate and rethink the way we frame – or are made to frame – our experiences, as well as our cultural narratives and associated encultured and embodied ontological pre-dispositions.”

Full reference: Wals, A.E.J. and Peters, M.A. (2017) Flowers of Resistance: Citizen science, ecological democracy and the transgressive education paradigm König, A. & Ravetz, J. (ed.). 2017.  Sustainability Science: Key Issues.  London: Earthscan/Routledge.

Here’s the link to the book: Sustainability Science: Key Issues

Radical ruralities in practice: Negotiating buen vivir in a Colombian network of sustainability – new article!

The Journal of Rural Studies just released a new paper on the conceptualisation and realization of buen vivit in a Colombian sustainability network. Martha Chaves as a part of her PhD-work (see earlier blog posts on this) led a team of authors that also included Thomas Macintyre, Gerard Verschoor and myself.

JRScover

This paper explores the emerging concept of buen vivir –  interpreted as integrative and collective wellbeing  – as it is being envisioned and practiced by a network of sustainability initiatives in Colombia. As an example of a transition narrative currently taking place in Latin America and beyond, buen vivir represents a turn towards a more biocentric, relational and collective means of understanding and being in the world. Yet despite the many discourses into buen vivir (many of which tout it as an alternative to neoliberal models of development), there is a general lack of research into its varied forms of application, especially in terms of lived experiences. Drawing on the new ruralities literature, this paper explores the extent to which buen vivir visions and practices represent radical new ruralities e so-called alternatives to development. Data were collected from individuals and ecological communities in predominantly rural areas who are members of the Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas (CASA), a
network which promotes many of the principles of buen vivir. Through participatory methods, results demonstrate that CASA visions are based on constructing territorial relations through intercultural knowledge exchange and experimentation into alternative lifestyles. Despite the substantial challenges and contradictions of putting these visions into practice, we argue that lived experiences promote processes of self-reflection on what buen vivir really is or could be. We hold that the inclusive nature of buen vivir offers opportunities for diverse peoples to cohere around shared meanings of the ‘good life,’
while providing the freedom to live variations depending on social and ecological context.

Here’s the DOI: //dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.02.007

For a sneak preview you can also have a look here: Chavesetal2017RadicalRuralities

Answering the “Call of the Mountain”: Co-creating Sustainability through Networks of Change in Colombia

It is one thing to talk about wanting to live in harmonious relations with people, nature and Planet or Mother Earth, but quite another to put this into practice.

Today, Tuesday November 22nd, the day the FARC and the Colombian government are signing a new peace treaty, one of PhD students, Martha Chaves, successfully defended her dissertation. Martha’s thesis represents a systematic attempt to investigate individuals, communities, networks and gatherings of networks that seek to develop a more relational and caring way of living and of being in the world. In her native Colombia she studied what is it like to attempt to bring the principles of buen vivir such as; reconnecting to ancestral wisdom, questioning values of competition and individuality, and forming new relations to place and territory, into practice. Below you see a happy group of people who all played a role in the ceremony.

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Her research unveils the tensions between the dominant ontology or (ways of being) of modernity, and other marginalized more relational and cosmological ones such as those of Indigenous Andean communities. Her thesis also re-affirms the importance of plurality in creating the ‘dissonance’ that invites continuous learning that is sometimes at the edges of people’s comfort zones. More so, she shows how intercultural encounters between different ontological positions can lead to more a confronting and overcoming of our unsustainable habits. As such the thesis can help inform socio-ecological niches and movements across the globe that seek to provide a counter narrative to economic globalization, modernity and the neo-liberal agenda.

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After the defence – from left to right: Prof. Danny Wildemeersch, Prof. Rutgerd Boelens, myself, Dr. Martha Chaves, Dr. Gerard Verschoor, Deputy Rector Prof. Francine Govers, Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka and Prof. Noelle Aarts.

Furthermore, her results show or at least suggest that encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially ‘transgressive’ learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate unsustainablity. This finding connects well with here future work within the ISSC-funded project on T-learning (www.transgressivelearning.org) that I blogged about in the post below this one.

Afterwards there was a WASS seminar Symposium “Disruptive Networks of Change: Can ‘Transgressive’ learning alter the status quo?” where some critical follow-up questions were asked such as: What types of learning are needed to disrupt ingrained unsustainable behaviour? And how can learning-based change be upscaled? With invited speakers from the fields of environmental education and social learning, and building on the ISSC funded T-learning project which addresses issues of transformative/transgressive learning, we will set out to explore these questions, and possible paths towards more sustainable futures. Martha Chaves first presented here work briefly (presentation-for-defense-22-nov-2016), followed by responding presentations by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University in South Africa (issc-tkn-seminar-wageningenn) and by Prof. Danny Wildemeersch (paper-presentation-maynooth) of the University of Leuven in Belgium.

 

Time for ‘T-learning’ – transformative, transgressive learning in times of climate change

transgressive

Still feeling very privileged and a bit lucky to be part of a very rich consortium of partners from 4 different continents – as one of 3 selected proposal out of more than 500 (!) original expressions of interest – to work on this ICSS-funded project on T-learning. The project just launched its website: http://transgressivelearning.org/ with the case studies form the 10 different countries. Here is what we are talking about:

Radical changes in society are needed for responding to climate change, and for transforming to sustainability. It is increasingly clear that people everywhere will need to learn to transform to sustainability in ways that are socially just, peaceful and ecologically sustainable.

It is now already widely known that transformations to sustainability can occur if people learn to make changes at niche level. This can drive wider social changes and regime shift transformations, especially if such forms of learning become more collective.

Transformations to sustainability do not come about easily because of ‘lock-ins’ in the system. Transformative, transgressive types of learning are needed to help ‘unlock’ the lock-ins and to strengthen wider forms of collective social learning.

Yet, we know little about the type of transformative, transgressive learning (t-learning) that enables such change.

Here’s the initial ‘academic’ paper we wrote: transgressiveSocialLearning (only to have a look, not for sharing with others).

Full reference: Lotz-Sisitka H, Wals AEJ, Kronlid D, McGarry D. (2015) ‘Transformative, transgressive social learning: rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability , 16, 73-80, doi:10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.018

Go visit the website! http://transgressivelearning.org/ or here: Join T-learning form