Digital labour in the university: understanding the transformations of academic work in the UK

My notes on Woodcock, J. (2018). Digital labour in the university: understanding the transformations of academic work in the UK. TripleC, 16(1), 129-142.

This important paper by Jamie Woodcock sees to rectify the lack of application of ways of analysing work to the work conducted within the university. His main focus is on the introduction of new management techniques and the introduction of digital technologies, exploring the entanglement between the two. This requires taking the role of information in Labour seriously, acknowledging it predates contemporary digital technologies, as can be seen for instance in Taylorism. If we recognise how information is used for control and production, it becomes easier to see how the emancipatory potential apparently found in digital technology actually gives rise to its opposite:

New technologies have reduced paperwork and increased the pace of tasks, in effect augmenting the labour process by automating parts of it, and there have been increasing applications of technology for supervision and control. For example, Bain et al. (2002, 3) previously noted that it is now ‘feasible to attain total knowledge, in “real time”, of how every employee’s time was being deployed, through the application of electronic monitoring equipment.’

Woodcock goes on to consider the two functions universities have served: knowledge production and teaching/training. In the UK these institutions are formally at a distance from the state yet dependent on state funding, as well as increasingly under pressure to collaborate with the private sector. We must understand the imperative for “control over and improving the effectiveness of academic labor” against this background. Academic work lacks the measurability on which information-led control depends but this is a problem which digital technology can solve, “creating more opportunities for the generation, capture, and analysis of data” and allowing the kids of ‘quantified control’ described by Roger Burrows et al.

This is most apparent in citations leading to a situation in which it is “not enough to simply produce an academic output – for example, a journal article – but that output itself has to be measured along a variety of metrics: the quality of the journal in which it was published, the number of times it has been cited (in where the citing paper was published), and so on”. But the rankings produced through such a process extend beyond matters of ‘outputs’. These metrics function in place of the “dictatorial and electronically enabled forms of control and surveillance” which can be found in other work places, with the “creative dimensions of academic work (the need to produce new and meaningful ideas, or to provide up to date and relevant teaching), along with the classic problem of the indeterminacy of labour” making these more direct forms of control unfeasible.

Social media is changing the orientation academics have to their ‘outputs’/, as it promises to be a vehicle for attaining the wider audience (outside of the discipline and/or outside of the university) which has often been an ambition of academic authors. But in doing so, it leaves them bound into an increasingly well understood attention economy. Digital technologies more broadly are coming to mediate between students and teachers, from the intensified communication which e-mail engenders through to the pressure to create supplementary learning materials to share online and the implications which lecture capture has for face-to-face interaction with students. Finally the instruments used by academics are changing. As Woodcock describes it, “The historical image of the academic working in dusty offices or libraries is increasingly giving way to that of a person typing away on a laptop, whether at home, an office (possibly shared), or a coffee shop with wifi.” He suggests this is giving rise to a platform university:

One of the interesting dynamics that this introduces, as opposed to the analogue resources of the physical library, is a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university. In this sense, the university becomes more like a platform – allowing access to institutional subscriptions, email accounts, and other online resources, that do not require a worker to physically be present within the university itself.

What’s important to grasp is the ambivalent character of these tools, how the “relative freedom of being able to use digital tools to engage with teaching, research, and administration to engage with the university from wherever” also goes hand-in-hand with the “the possibility of greater precarisation and outsourcing via a platform mode of organisation”. He includes a useful table discussing the impact of digitalisation on different aspects of academic work:

He suggests Operaismo provides useful resources for making sense of how we can resist these changes, relying on the distinction between technical composition (“the labour process, the application of technology, management strategies, and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power”) and class composition (“the practices, traditions, and forms of struggle, something that is itself continually in a process of re-composition”). He cites Roggero’s notion of ‘blockages’ created by the pressures attendant upon the technical composition. This is a similar argument to the one Filip Vostal and I have tried to make about acceleration and the difficulties it creates for collective action. Their result is that “sustained struggle within the university has become limited, giving the impression that not much is currently happening on the terrain of workplace struggle”.

He suggests that workers inquiry can provide a response to this, observing that rather “than watching the new digital tools being used to further the precariousness and alienation of academic work, they can be adapted and modified to fit a project for a very different kind of university”. Collaborative inquiry into shared conditions can provides a means to better understand their contours, suggest new ideas and experiment with new forms of organisation. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he’s suggesting this as a method of inquiry with precarious workers outside the university, other workers within the university, entirely by academics or all three. But it’s an exciting idea nonetheless.

Posted In:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.