Director's Update: February 2021

Nick Monk: Smiling man with brown hair and tailored blue jacket.
Nick Monk, CTT Director

Those of us who spend our working lives in universities are fond of predictions. A kind of secular prophecy that emerges from the practice of advancing and testing hypotheses. There is nothing like a full-blown crisis for bringing this tendency to the fore. Barely a week passes without an article appearing in The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed either predicting the end of the campus university in the face of the shift online, outlining the potential of a new approach or a cutting-edge technology to save us, or foreshadowing the collapse into darkness of the entire project of a wide-ranging humanist education. 1 These articles remind me of the doomsday cults who, when the time for the predicted destruction of the planet passes and no such cataclysm occurs, merely reset the date and begin anew the broadcasts of coming catastrophe. The psychologist, Leon Festinger, conducted research into one such group, the UFO cult The Seekers. His subsequent book coined the term ‘cognitive dissonance.’ 2

I sometimes feel uncannily like a member of such a group as, in regular cycles in the academic press, some of our colleagues predict the apocalypse and others predict the opposite, and I’m required to simultaneously hold both possibilities in my head. The evidence shows, however, that higher education in the United States, Europe, and other countries that operate their universities in ways similar to our own, has been on a pathway of long-term growth. It’s just that the pace is glacial compared to lightning-quick occurrences like COVID-19 and the global financial crisis of 2008. This slow-moving expansion makes anything that obstructs progress or that is retrograde hard to contextualize so that, even in an extended period of growth, these dramatic events can seem like the heralds of imminent dissolution.

This is not to be pollyannaish about the future of the university, nor to dismiss those who sound often prescient and thoughtful warnings, and still less to diminish the real effects upon people’s lives of such crises. People are losing their livelihoods and others live in constant fear of redundancy, or go from annual contract to annual contract with little real security. I intend only to note that we live in an age of head-spinning contradiction, and radical shifts from extreme to extreme. An age in which responses to potentially existential threats, like climate-change and global pandemics, are polarized to an extent that there seems no way to resolve differences, so impetus slows. As a result of social phenomena such as these it is possible to feel more than ever that we are at the mercy of global events beyond our understanding and control. Simultaneously, community and collective action appears to fade in the face of the increasing prominence of individual agency. The result can produce further layers of cognitive dissonance as we struggle to reconcile opposites both internal and external.

So how do we teach from our internally bifurcated positions? Some of us scurry down our subject-specialist rabbit holes. Others try to use their research and teaching to address larger multidisciplinary challenges, and others fall back on a collection of meta-assumptions that hitherto felt entirely reliable. The latter approach is one that has been challenged in interesting ways recently, and such a challenge might help us to move towards a more cognitively harmonious position. In the coming weeks in this space I will share material that considers whether, for example, the flipped classroom does actually produces better results for students, if critical thinking really is the best way we can equip our students to cope with the misinformation crisis, and if challenging lies with facts does anything to change the status quo.



Camera, Lauren. “College Closings Signal the Start of a Crisis in Higher Education.” U.S. News & World Report. March 29, 2019.


Kroger, John. “10 Predictions for Higher Education’s Future.” Inside Higher Ed, May 26, 2020.


Gleen, Lane. “The Biden Administration and Higher Ed: Predictions for the Future.” Running the Campus - NECC President Lane Glenn shares stories and perspectives on leadership, higher education, and going the extra mile. December 14, 2020.



Festinger, Leon; Henry W. Riecken; Stanley Schachter (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 1-59147-727-1.

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