Un-doing Design Anthropology: Uber-versities and not belonging

Title slide of my final lecture at Swinburne. Elizabeth Tunstall, CC BY-NC

If you have been following the media, American universities are under pressure to make their campuses culturally safer for students, in particular black students. Even the Australian version of the Guardian posted the events of the November 18th #StudentBlackOut protests.

In the most heartbreaking story by Steven Petrow in The Atlantic, an Asian American student describes her feelings of what it is like to be a woman of colour student at Duke University:

If everything had gone according to plan…I would have been another suicide because I don’t feel safe here. I don’t feel that I belong here.

These are feelings with which I completely empathise, except that I feel them as a professor. One of the things that does not get talked about or recognised as much is how professors can also suffer the same lack of safety and belonging to the University that is expressed by students.

In two weeks, I leave Swinburne University to return to the United States. The joy and relief I feel in leaving is only tempered by the fact that it has meant that the Design Anthropology program, which I built from scratch, closes.

My un-doing of Design Anthropology is not a direct indictment of Swinburne University. Rather, it reflects systemic changes in the Australian tertiary education system that makes having a program like Design Anthropology feel as if it does not belong. Considering how my heart and soul was built into the program, its lack of belonging makes Australian universities feel unsafe for me, and by extension for my students.

To provide some context, Design Anthropology is/was a postgraduate Masters and Graduate Diploma by coursework program offered in the School of the Design. When it launched in 2010, it was one of only five programs of its kind in the world.

Its purpose was to create a safe space for the misfit designers and researchers, who either wanted anthropological knowledge and skills to give their designs deeper meaning or design knowledge and skills to make their research insights actionable. For the majority of the about 45 alumni and current students of the program, it was a safe space. I remain humbled by the students, some of whom sold their homes and moved to Melbourne to be able to study in the program.

Lecture by Dori Tunstall explaining the history and evolution of Design Anthropology.

In spite of the program’s successes for the students, changes in the Australian tertiary education sector has made it best for me to close the program and leave because I see that the future Uber-versities would not be good places to work.

In October, Professor Linda Kristjanson, the Vice Chancellor of Swinburne wrote an opinion piece on the disruption that technology could bring to the tertiary education sector:

We do not yet know what the ‘Uber’ will be for our universities. But rather than wait and see what disruptions emerge, I would rather embrace and use the technologies that could otherwise displace us, to allow us to benefit our students and remain relevant.

In many ways, she is correct. When designing the Design Anthropology curriculum in 2010, I required that three/fourths of the program’s units were to be delivered in blended online and on-site modes. The rationale was that it would better attract domestic students who worked full or part time. In the Design Anthropology programs, ninety percent of the students were domestic students, compared to about 40% in the other design postgraduate programs.

Online audio lectures with recorded student discussions, video demos from YouTube, digital submission only using Blackboard blogs, synchronous online chat sessions at 7am on Wednesdays and 9pm on Sundays to accommodate working parents and overseas students in Italy, the US, and Venezuela were all ways in which the Design Anthropology programs used technologies to build deeper relationships between the students and the instructors and with each other.

Yet, I feel alienated from the talk about the use of technologies in higher education. Maybe it is because the market logic of most service technologies is to dis-intermediate the direct worker from the customer because the worker, and the benefits paid to them, is still the biggest expense. Think about the way ATMs replaced bank employees or self-service check-outs replaced cashiers.

In this case, Uber is an appropriate metaphor also for the discontent workers feel. American researchers, Alex Rosenblat and Luke Stark, recently published a paper on the experience of Uber’s drivers in which they found that it is not great to be an Uber driver:

We argue that Uber’s digitally and algorithmically mediated system of flexible employment builds new forms of surveillance and control into the experience of using the system, which result in asymmetries around information and power for workers. In Uber’s system, algorithms, CSRs, passengers, semiautomated performance evaluations, and the rating system all act as a combined substitute for direct managerial control over drivers, but distributed responsibility for remote worker management also exacerbates power asymmetries between Uber and its drivers.

The same algorithmic management through student evaluations, uploading of grades to Blackboard, Student One systems that handle the student vetting process, data on student retention and conversion are the true technologies of an Uber-versity, not Blackboard.

They create power asymmetries between the University and the its teaching staff. For example, most recently, Swinburne instructors were asked to consider ending the requirements for hurdle assignments and scheduled mid-term exams as a means to increase student retention rates.

Race and gender becomes important to this discussion because history and experience gives me a particular perspective on these changes.

The fact is that two hundred years ago as an African American woman I could have been killed for having an education. This makes education sacred to me and also creates a healthy cynicism towards unfettered capitalism.

The sacredness of learning and teaching was something built into the curriculum of Design Anthropology as a way to impart that belief to my students, some of who have been traumatised by the education system in the past.

Over the last few years, I have seen the Australian tertiary education system treat learning increasingly as a commodity. In that system, my over twenty years of life experience, which I have distilled into lesson plans and activities, becomes transformed into information packages with no soul, which can be bought and sold online or delivered by Amazon drones without my control.

I cannot express how viscerally painful it feels everyday to experience the incremental devaluing of my work as an educator. I don’t want to belong to an Uber-versity of transactional teaching and learning.

My students do not want it either. As I am leaving, my students finally confess how much the Design Anthropology has changed their lives by giving the work they do in industry more meaning. They remind me of the things I told them years ago that they have the wisdom to understand now. They thank me for not making them feel embarrassed when they cried in my office over how what they were learning was opening up their spirits. These are not customers. These are passionate human souls.

The extent to which I am not aligned with the flow of the Australian tertiary sector makes being here feel unsafe. It makes it unsafe for the ethos of Design Anthropology programs.

So in spite of all the problems in the US, at least the problems are being recognised and addressed. Thus, when you find you do not belong, it is best to go home where you do.

I un-do Design Anthropology and my Un-Design column. Thank you readers for all your years of support. Hope to see you States-side.