What do you do, exactly?

I often suspect that millennial British sociologists are uniquely prone to reflecting on their intellectual and professional trajectory. It’s a habit I picked up long ago, exacerbated by how readily blogging and tweeting lends itself to thinking about these things in public. It’s one I wondered if I might begin to lose now my odd meandering career has taken a slightly more defined form in which there’s seemingly a clear answer to the question asked by P.O.S. in one of my favourite hiphop tracks:

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?

I lead a digital education MA programme and co-lead a digital education research group. All my teaching relates to digital education, as do a significant percentage of my professional conversations. The vast majority of what I’ve published in the last 6-8 years relates to digital tools/platforms in education, even if it doesn’t strictly speaking relate to ‘digital education’. But spending an enjoyable day at the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) conference earlier today I realised I don’t feel like a digital education person.

This raises the question of who, if anyone, does feel that way. It’s also worth noting that ALT is primarily a conference for learning technologists, so it’s possible that I simply felt slightly out of place as an academic in a conference orientated towards non-academics. But until late 2020 I had never been employed full time as an academic and most of my work would most accurately be described as being that of a practitioner. I’ve spent lots of time in non-academic conferences and I usually prefer them to academics ones. There’s obviously a limit to what you can discern from fleeting impressions, particularly when it is the first conference you’ve attended in person for years. But it did set me off again on wondering about what I do and how to explain it, to myself and others. This is what I wrote in the cover letter when applying for my current job:

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 educationthe structural changes & digital divides generated within higher education by the COVID-19 pandemic and digital learning within universities.

I guess this is still true, even if the work I was planning to do on the digital divides hasn’t reached fruition. But it still doesn’t sound quite right to me. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, if I’m enjoying what I do and I think it’s (vaguely) useful. The cognitive itch nonetheless remains. If a blog isn’t a place to scratch such an itch than what is it for? It still leaves unanswered the question of where this impulse to endlessly narrate one’s intellectual trajectory comes from but there’s a risk this becomes a meta-fixation in which auto-preoccupation bends in on itself to become something truly myopic. Though perhaps I passed that point a long time ago. Worrying. It did eventually get me to a point where I can describe my research is less than 100 words so perhaps this could be seen as part of a process:

My current research explores the socio-technical transition underway in society through two parallel projects

  • Analysing digital change in higher education, with a focus on finding ways to steer it through design, practice and policy. I’m currently writing my third monograph on this topic while leading a range of initiatives at DTCEManchester.
  • Analysing its implications for reflexivity, relationality and collective action at the level of social ontology. I’m interested in broad social perspective but also the specific ways in which education is bound up in these changes, as well as how it can contribute to steering them in emancipatory ways.

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