What do you do? Intellectual biography as self-constitution

I’ve often found the act of academic autobiography fraught with anxiety. The occasions on which we’re asked to define what we do invite an account which goes beyond the sterile quasi-autobiography of CVs and publications lists. In conversations with those outside higher education, ‘what do you do?’ is a question which asks for a social role in response but in conversations with those who share this role, it’s a much deeper question. In the words of P.O.S:

Now what do you do… exactly?
N-not, not exactly like you don’t do anything exactly
But more like, what exactly do you do?

It’s assumed we’re an engine of intellectual creation, producing things (books, chapters, articles, blogposts, tweets) which reflect some underlying project expressed through these more or less ephemeral items while also transcending them. I suspect many academics rarely feel this is true of them, though I know enough people who do have extremely clear intellectual projects that I couldn’t dismiss this being widespread. These projects may become clearer towards the end of a career but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there throughout. The fact we continually (re)articulate a project often constitutes its continuity as we grapple with a question, struggling to get it into words and feel we get slightly closer with time. For example I explore with Margaret Archer in this book (interview in the final chapter) how there was a central question underpinning her work from her PhD onwards even if the systematicity of the project only came into being through the labour of enacting it over decades. How could it be otherwise?

I rarely feel like I have a coherent project and that bothers me. I mostly feel like a bundle of intellectual curiosity, pursuing lines of thought (or flight? given what I’m addressing here is intellectual projects and self-constitution) in more or less systematic ways, often failing to pursue them to the finish line. It’s clear to me as I amble into the later part of my 30s that satisfying my intellectual curiosity is the highest pleasure I’ve found in life and which shapes what both love and friendship mean to me. I often feel gripped by curiosity, the sense that something important is obscured as if a lack of knowledge is a thick epistemic fog, with the labour of unveiling it imbued with a subtle urgency which keeps me returning to the matter until it’s resolved*. I realise increasingly this is an orientation I bring to culture as well, though it expresses itself in slightly different ways.

I say ‘often’ but I worry that’s decreasingly true. In part this might be because the subjects I’m curious about are finite which means they inevitably shrink over time as I act on my curiosity. In part it’s harm caused by feeling stressed by the process of trying to find a permanent job once the pandemic made my precarity feel emotionally untenable, leading to a confusion between things I was doing because I care about them and things I was doing because I knew universities would want to employ me as a consequence of them. In part it’s because I’m reading less for various reasons and I hope I’m going to reverse that decline. It often helps to write a blog post in order to throw the contents of my mind up in the air to see where they land. Though it only works if there’s the feel of an idea, a subtle pull which can act as an ignition to get words out onto the page. It nonetheless feels to me as if something is changing about how I write and think, not least of all because I’ve largely lost the ability to do the quasi-automatic writing which I would regularly do in my 20s. I would often write thousands of words in a day but rarely would they fit together in any coherent way

What do I do? Exactly? This is what I wrote in a cover letter when applying for my current job. It’s an accurate description of what I do as a sociologist in education (thanks to Eric Lybeck for getting me thinking about how this differs from being a sociologist of education) which encompasses what I’ve done since joining the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge in January 2018 and what I plan to do over the next few years since I joined the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE) In September 2022:

I am a sociologist whose work explores how digital platforms are institutionalised within educational systems, as well as what this means for educational practice. My work analyses the transformative implications of this process in relation to three educational issues: the influence of social media platforms in education, the structural changes & digital divides generated within higher education by the COVID-19 pandemic and digital learning within universities.

What does this look like in practice? There are a range of things I’ve finished in the last few months or am trying to finish off before the Christmas holiday:

  • A paper with Katy Jordan about social media and the REF which was published last month.
  • An edited book about the Post-Pandemic University which contains an introduction with my co-editors (Susan Robertson, Hannah Moscovitz and Michele Martini) and a co-written chapter with Steve Watson about how social media is reshaping the boundaries of the university.
  • A round table discussion about the relationship between Critical Realism and Pragmatism for the Journal of Critical Realism where I’m participating along with three others from both sides of the divide.
  • A series of chapters on social media for academics (with associated video) for a Sage handbook.
  • An internal funding bid to build up a resource bank for online conferences and establish a framework to ensure we learn from the experiences of the last 18 months and don’t drift back to f2f events.
  • An internal funding bid with Dan Silver looking at how community organisations used digital platforms to adapt to the pandemic and what this means for their operations going forward.

This is what I’m doing next year in a research capacity, not including teaching & administration or projects (such as CR Network, Post-Pandemic University or editorial boards) I’m involved in:

  • A chapter with Andrea Maccarini for the next Centre for Social Ontology (CSO) volume, probably on ontological issues involved in framing the pandemic as an educational catastrophe (though we haven’t decided yet)
  • A paper with Katy Jordan analysing the institutional assumptions found in university social media policies.
  • A paper with Huw Davies and Sheena MacCrae analysing the rise of the higher education culture warriors
  • I want to finally turn my PhD into a monograph by combining it with my postdoc work at the CSO
  • Applying for funding with Phil Brooker to build up the Python research community we run together
  • A funded project with Steve Watson and Naomi Barnes looking at how teachers use Twitter for political engagement
  • Doing the research for the community education project described above with Dan Silver if we get the funding
  • Establishing the online conferences working group described above if I get the funding for it
  • Building up a research community (starting with a public series of forum events) with my new colleagues on the MA Digital Technologies Communication and Education at the MIE

What do you do? This is an adequate answer to that question but it doesn’t account for what exactly do I do. The obvious way to go deeper is to consider the questions which motivate me. I tried to express the underlying issue which drives me a few years ago:

What they all share is an intersection between digital platforms and human reflexivity that produces conceptual, methodological and practical problems which I believe are (a) socio-culturally urgent (b) theoretically interesting (c) demanding new modes of scholarly practice. I’m interested in practical reasoning in the lived experience of those engaging with platforms as actors within social life, as well as its nascent psychoanalytics and their codification into the hyper-reflexive expert systems of late modernity. There is a deep tectonic shift underway within human culture, which the accelerated pace of our experience makes difficult to dwell on and the distracted character of our agency makes it difficult to see clearly.  I see studying platformisation as the latest frontier in a much more established project of analysing social change, as well as the reflexive management of the novel demands these changes impose upon scholarly practice. My own experience of the internet being necessary rather than contingent to my own bildung has left me preoccupied to my core with the role of digital technology in establishing the parameters of our self-formation

There’s a fundamentally self-interrogative motivation here reflecting how deeply the internet has shaped my own existence, not simply in what I’ve done and become or how this process unfolded. In this sense I’m interested in the parameters of self-formation and their relationship to technology. But to say this is the reason for the work that I do is obviously misleading. It’s an interpretation of my motivations rather than the reason for my actions as I respond to the opportunities available to me, ranging from what I’m intellectually capable of through to the possible collaborations which open up for me given who I know. It’s possible to bridge the gap between these two levels by thinking about the questions I’m interested in:

  • How can academics use social platforms in ways which are intellectually enriching and collaborative? To what extent can an adequate user culture secure the conditions for such use? How do academics develop such a culture and prevent it from being undermined by managerial intervention?
  • How has academic practice been changed by the online pivot in teaching and research? What factors have driven these changes?
  • What role are social platforms playing in reshaping processes of socialisation? How does their influence intersect with other factors which precede and exceed them? What are the implications of these changes for education at the level of policy and practice?

*This is how I feel about my asexuality research from 2010-2015 in which I did satiate my curiosity to the extent I felt I had to move on from the topic, particularly as I reached a saturation point where I realised I was just repeating myself (in an increasingly deadening way) in the face of requests to talk about the topic to others.

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