The fiction future of faculty: Design fiction and the future of academia

Last week Joe Lindley, Mark Carrigan and I hosted a workshop to explore through design fiction potential futures and ever-presents for universities and academia. We billed the event as follows:

The ability of storytelling to help us envision and discuss a gamut of plausible futures, from dystopian visions to everyday utopias, is increasingly being harnessed using the nascent practice of ‘design fiction’. Design fiction, a term coined by author Bruce Sterling, “tells worlds not stories”. Although inspired by sci-fi, design fiction is less about the “hocus pocus” of far-flung techno-futures, and instead is more practical, hands-on, and mundane. Design fictions extrapolate from current data, trends, research and technologies, not in an attempt to predict the future, but to interrogate the plurality of plausible futures by forging a discursive space from which insights may emerge. This session will explore how design fiction can help us illuminate preferable, or indeed undesirable, futures of academia.

The university is a site of managerial and neoliberal transformation, with increased applications of competitive logics and performative technologies to re-define academia and academic practice. There are however examples of resistance and hope, with everyday utopian experiments such as the Social Science Centre, Lincoln. In this exploratory session, we use design fiction as an approach for exploring the potential for change latent within current circumstances, through contrasting utopian and dsytopian visions for the future of higher education.

If you are interested in the future of the University and academic practice, or if you have a position or provocation to share, then please come and join us. During the session we will present two contrasting visions of the academy in 2020, one dystopic and one utopian. These positions will provide the foundations for a broader conversation about the future and design fiction. We will unpack questions such as can design fiction inform a better future for Universities? Are dystopian or utopian visions of the future more likely to help us get to a better future? What is ‘better’ anyway?

After presentations on the Sans Duty project, Joe Lindley’s design fiction 101, and Mark talking about accelerated academia in an institutional context in which management are ‘heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest’ (in Will Davies’ felicitous phrase) we had a rather pleasant afternoon doing design fiction.

To help map potential artefacts and features of our emerging storyworlds we used a deck of cards with different features and attributes such as ‘3d printed’, ‘a hat’ and ‘foldable’. The participants drew cards and sought to construct scenarios that included the artefacts in an academic setting. So, for example, a course that is 3d printed as a book (foldable) and is worn as a hat because…. well, ‘because’ indeed. Then, drawing on the work of Mark Bylthe the ‘fictions took [sic] the form of “imaginary abstracts” which summarize findings of papers that have not been written about prototypes that do not exist.’ The group developed the abstracts, reports and news articles below:



My abstract explores an academia that counter to the individualisation of neoliberal academia, where we work every harder to develop our academic brand. Instead, there are no names in academia and knowledge is presented numerically, which raises questions of how knowledge would be organised in ways that would enable people to be able to map and make sense of academic fields.

#45893893495870345897 contributes to KNOWLEDGE in this paper by drawing attention to potential contradictions between extensions #17654781263478 and #87623487326487b, in domain #5567812/social/science/policy/democracy/pedagogy/enactment. #17654781263478, (arch. Willis and Smythe 2022) suggests that democratic pedagogies are constrained by neoliberal force dynamics operating on domain subjectivities. #87623487326487 investigated the enactment of the ‘Domain Law’ to outlaw academic identities in the contribution of KNOWLEDGE, stored on epist-hub. Subsequent forks in #87623487326487a and #87623487326487b present alternative interpretations potentially based #45893893495870345897 on different contextual factors between sites.

The ‘Future of Academia’ is a report from a senior member of MMU Art School who used the opportunity to outline his/her vision that art schools return to their roots, away from research to focus on the development and assessment of aesthetic achievement.

The Future of Academia 

This report proposes the withdrawal of all creative based courses from higher education and creating a workshop based hothouse for all music, writing, poetry, art, and film products. The workshops would be of varying length, between four weeks and two years, and the only criterion of assessment would be aesthetic achievement. Collaboration would be encouraged but not essential; the whole ethos would be of making and showing (a performance, a reading, a show).

There would be no critical theory at all, except in support of an aesthetic creative ideal.

The outputs would not be research, although they might involve research in the old fashioned sense, of preliminary thought in preparation for an emotional, intellectual or transformative experience. There would be no funding for artefacts masquerading as research.

The aim is to take the art/music schools back to the mid fifties, before the creative writing MA and the film school, when there was no contextual studies and the art school created rock and roll as we know it.

This will be funded equally by the national lottery and individual investment from the student (creative artist) loaned by the government at no interest repayable over £10K earnings (average artists’s wage).

Every two months there would be an international workshop/ meeting/collaborative point with differing cultural viewpoints.


References Nicholas Bourriard, Relational Aesthetics (2000)

The next describes an app that protects management from staff violence by enabling managers to make decisions about recruitment and promotion using a Tinder-style app. I like how the reduction of staff to simple metrics and the gestures of an online meat market are justified as a defence against violence.

The Excellence in Higher Education app

After years of speculation, higher education has finally adopted what have become mainstream human resources practices in most other sectors. This long overdue modernisation, motivated by the infamous case of Professor Smith’s violent iPad attack during a weekly probationary intervention, will shield university managers from the violence that increasingly characterises the modern workplace. For health and safety reasons this is a useful new process ; supported by Ministry of Health.

The Excellence in Higher Education app, the result of a game  changing collaboration between Facebook and Shell Oil, takes digital dashboards to the next level: hiring and firing decision will now be made via a user friendly iPad app, allowing managers to review key metrics (h-index, income generation, customer satisfaction, flexibility) and quickly renew contracts or dismiss staff by swiping upwards or downwards respectively. Tom , chairman of the spin off company founded to commercialise the application, told the THE that “awkward human resources meetings are a thing of the past, the sentimental idea of face-to-face interaction is now thankfully long gone. Realistically life has never been that simple, senior managers can’t be expected to be at their university campus. Now managers can take important personal decisions from the convenience of their jets as they prepare to build global collaborations and pursue synergies at the global level recruiting international students.”

However the new innovation has not received universal acclaim. The temporary chair of UCU, Jane Smith, observed that the system was problematic and damaging to the self-esteem of lecturers: “higher education isn’t like Tinder, no matter how much university managers seem to want to believe that it is. A number of lecturers have approached us and said that they felt dismissed, believing themselves to be an acquired taste, unamenable to being reduced to simple metrics.” These comments were echoed by lecturers on social media, with many claiming that “university managers don’t take the time to get to know us any more”.

The university management are the only the permanent staff, and thus the real stakeholders who can decide to adopt the Excellence in HE app.  After all these managers are permanent fixtures in the university whilst the teaching staff and students are fleeting features of the university establishment. It remains to be seen whether this will prevent waves of violence that have dominated other workplaces, only time will tell how the adoption of this app will contribute to a harmonious and efficient institution.

But for now Facilitating real-time reward in excellence and innovation through a Metrics-driven transparent process is the best option.

The next fiction takes the form of a report on a pilot to ‘rank and yank’ the bottom 5% from the course.

Pilot study of producing the elite student body

The status quo of higher education is that students come into universities lack motivation to study and ambition of their future.

The system we have piloted a system that there will be no pass or fail in the system instead, we eliminate the bottom 5% student in the system.

A leader board system we use in the university to manage and monitor students performance would be accessible to students thus they can see their own performance in comparison to their peers.

We do not only evaluate student based on your academic performance only we appreciate the effort students put into ameliorating themselves too. For instance, they can gain bonus point by visiting the library frequently, accessing the virtual learning environment, and the time they spend in the library would also affect their final score.

The outcome of the pilot study is very pleasing. The student engagement and performance have been dramatically improved. We aim out to roll this out to all faculties across the universities. As for the students who didn’t make it to the end of this system they can still take their credits throughout the years to the MOOC system to continue and complete their studies.

The final fiction reports on a pilot study in which students aged 18-20 years old weren’t given loans because of a tendency towards inefficient use. I love the mundane detail and feel of the report.

Study Reports on the Non-funding of 18-20 Year Old Students 
From 2015 to 2019 approximately 600,000 students sought student loans to cover the expenses of undergraduate degrees. The austerity policies of the Corbyn-lead department for education require that individual Universities contribute to reducing the number of loan applications by 50% over 10 years. At MMU 50% of undergraduate course applicants are aged 18 to 20. Current research demonstrates that the 18-20 age group tend towards inefficient use of loan funding, with 85% agreeing to the statement “Is a student loan free money?”. 
 In the paper we describe a trial conducted at MMU across the departments of geographical and environmental sciences and in the department of fine art. This longitudinal study was carried out over 2 years. During the study period, applications from 18 to 20 year olds were automatically rejected. In order to evaluate the impact of the intervention the study gathered data to produce metrics pertaining to student attendance, concentration, disruptiveness and overall attainment. In addition a qualitative study reports the perceived impact from the point of view of teaching staff. 
 Initial findings report clear distinction in impact between the two departments. In the fine art department the mean level of overall attainment remained the same, however deviation from this mean increased considerably. In contrast the geographical and environmental sciences department’s intervention highlighted significant improvement in attainment and attendance. Various unintended consequences of the trial were reported colloquially within the teaching staff, the most notable of which was the possible sale of the Birley Fields campus buildings.

After each person shared his or her design fiction, Joe asked, ‘What do you think that design fiction is for? What’s it’s purpose?’

Although we varied on the specific detail in each case creating design fictions provided an opportunity somewhere between a thought experiment and the chance to set the world to rights communicating this is the way I think things should be or fear they are and will become. I think it’s also interesting the way in which the fictions use different strategies to compel the reader to engage with them, from something that happened in the past to the use of mundane detail. Although it probably goes without saying, if design fictions involve making things up we need to think what this means in relation to the ways in which academics, communities and policy makers etc can assess and evaluate the claims they communicate, the possibilities they outline, and the potential to align with or bleed into the world.

Thanks to Hayley and Paul at Digital Innovation for hosting the meeting at the Shed!

James Duggan

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