Some thoughts on technology in the post-pandemic university

 One of the curious spectacles of the pandemic (which at least anecdotally it seems many have observed) is the figure of the gifted speaker who we have seen hold an audience in rapt attention struggle to engage or connect through digital media. The obvious parallel to this is the speaker who thrives through the mediation of a platform and demonstrates the capacity to command the attention of an audience in a way which eludes them in face-to-face encounters. It could be argued that the terms used here (‘hold’ and ‘command’) have problematic implications which fail to capture either complexity or the variety involved in engaging with audiences in educational settings. It’s clearly not possible to do justice to this issue in a single section of a paper but my intention is to draw out the role of cultural capital in such professional encounters in order to consider how we can relate it to the mediation of platforms. While there are obvious micro-sociological differences between the types of encounter which take place within universities (lectures, seminars, workshops, conferences, meetings etc) but in so far as a single speaker addresses an audience there are similar questions raised in spite of these differences. How easily does the audience follow the speaker’s narration? To what extent do they feel the speaker is someone worth listening to? How inclined are they to trust what the speaker is saying? 

If we frame these questions in entirely practical terms then it’s easy to see the role of technological meditation in determining the answers. It’s easier to listen to the sound from a high quality microphone than it is from one which produces poor sound quality, particularly if the speaker has learned to modulate the settings and has some grasp of the acoustics of the room they’re speaking from. It’s easier to attend to a speaker with a clear picture undisturbed by glare or background distractions than it is with someone using a crackling picture against a chaotic background. It’s easier to follow the flow of interaction of a speaker who can handle the modulation of mediation (muting/unmuting, sharing screens, managing distractions etc) with the confidence of habituation, letting it fade into the background at least from the audience’s perspective. These are claims about tendencies because the technology clearly isn’t the only factor at work in producing this outcome, as will be clear to anyone who has ever seen a bad presentation delivered inelegantly by a speaker who nonetheless has perfect sound and video. In this sense we could say that the mediating technologies are both unnecessary and insufficient for winning the attention of an audience, leaving the exact cause of the causal relationship involved feel disturbingly nebulous despite the fact there clearly is a causal relation between the mediating technology and the social outcome. 

The same analysis can be offered of the familiar world of face-to-face encounters within higher education, even if the role of technology in these tends to fade into the background for the reasons discussed in this chapter. I once organised a large international conference which had to be evacuated due to an explosion, leading me to interrupt a keynote speaker who happened to be speaking about terrorist networks which lent a distinctly unsettling air to the reason for the disruption. In an organisational exercise I remain proud of even ten years later, I relocated the conference to another lecture hall on the campus in less than an hour. In the preceding minutes 150 audience members had been transfixed by the spectacle of a bus consumed by flames and deteriorating into scrap metal. The reason for this narrative digression is because it foregrounds how the campus environment tends to create a ready-to-hand orientation towards the technology involved in academic work, leading us to expect its availability in order that we might draw on it in a pre-theoretical flow of activity to accomplish our tasks. The sudden withdrawal of the ready-to-hand character involved in having to evacuate a room, as well as the logistical challenge of reestablishing the affordances of that room in another at extremely short notice, makes clear how reliant on the technology we were. 

The technological implications of the pandemic within higher education are often misdiagnosed as a forced transition from one set of technologies involved in face-to-face teaching (most of which are not regarded as technology within the folk sociology of academics) to another set of technologies involved in digitally mediated teaching. There has been a widespread failure to attend to the enormous transition underway within research practice because the ‘online pivot’ has (understandably) occupied so much of the university’s attention span during this transition. The transformation of knowledge-production during the pandemic is no less significant than the transformation of knowledge-communication (either through the first mission of teaching or the third mission of public engagement) for the emerging character of the  post-pandemic. However the misdiagnosis goes deeper than this in so far as the crisis has involved a changed orientation towards technology rather than a transition from one set of technologies to another. A significant factor in the suppression of the technological described earlier in this paper is the organisation of infrastructure within the university and what this means for the technological prerequisites for teaching and research. To the extent the institution provides these conditions reliably and uniformly, they cease to impinge upon academics as preconditions and are experienced as taken for granted features of the environment. There are certainly exceptions to this which are seen by anyone who encounters a breakdown in technology within the university. Nonetheless the fury and bewilderment which a malfunctioning printer or photocopier can produce in academic staff suggests a complexity in how they relate to this infrastructure which cannot be adequately characterised in narrowly functional terms. Their work depends upon the sustained provision of services in a way which tends to be denied in practice by academics who conceive of themselves and their work in highly individualised terms. What has been described as the acceleration of academic entrenches this individualism, with a constant state of rushing being inimical to reflecting on the logistical undertaking involved in keeping the network running, the computers operational, the buildings heated and the timetable synchronised to name just four of a long list of conditions needed for the university to fulfil any of its three missions. 

The rupture of the pandemic was not a matter of switching from on campus to off campus technologies, as much as a changed orientation to this provision. To establish a home office shifts the burden of provision from the institution to the individual in matters such as connectivity, heating and electricity in ways which those within the university are differently equipped to meet. Woodcock (2018) makes the important observation that for precarious staff the university has long been akin to a platform, accessed a distance through online services such as institutional subscriptions and e-mail accounts. It involves, as he puts it, “a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university”. Precarious workers often find themselves split across multiple geographies without ever been welcomed fully into any, expected to bear the extensive costs of synchronising across multiple working contexts with little to no support from the university in question. Each short term contract involves registering with a new system, rendering oneself legible within its horizon, following up with overworked and underfunded technical staff in the event of any difficulties. The university unburdens [finish off concept of unburdening]

Which are seen by anyone who encounters a breakdown in technology within the university. Nonetheless the fury and bewilderment which a malfunctioning printer or photocopier can produce in academic staff suggests a complexity in how they relate to this infrastructure which cannot be adequately characterised in narrowly functional terms. Their work depends upon the sustained provision of services in a way which tends to be denied in practice by academics who conceive of themselves and their work in highly individualised terms. What has been described as the acceleration of academic entrenches this individualism, with a constant state of rushing being inimical to reflecting on the logistical undertaking involved in keeping the network running, the computers operational, the buildings heated and the timetable synchronised to name just four of a long list of conditions needed for the university to fulfil any of its three missions. 

The rupture of the pandemic was not a matter of switching from on campus to off campus technologies, as much as a changed orientation to this provision. To establish a home office shifts the burden of provision from the institution to the individual in matters such as connectivity, heating and electricity in ways which those within the university are differently equipped to meet. Woodcock (2018) makes the important observation that for precarious staff the university has long been akin to a platform, accessed a distance through online services such as institutional subscriptions and e-mail accounts. It involves, as he puts it, “a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university”. Precarious workers often find themselves split across multiple geographies without ever been welcomed fully into any, expected to bear the extensive costs of synchronising across multiple working contexts with little to no support from the university in question. Each short term contract involves registering with a new system, rendering oneself legible within its horizon, following up with overworked and underfunded technical staff in the event of any difficulties. The experience of precarious staff highlights how the university as an institution unburdens non-precarious staff, even as it undoubtedly generates all manner of tensions in what Hall (2018) has memorably described as an anxiety machine. There’s a sense in which the pandemic temporarily generalised  aspects of this experience, leading to a reburdening of academic staff as the institution retreated into a more or less virtual existence with academic labour shifting from the locus of the campus. Furthermore this takes place at time when there’s a huge increase in the technological mediation of academic work. The university as a technologically unburdening institution retreats from the working lives of academics at the same time as academic labour comes to be entirely mediated through digital platforms for a sustained period of time. This has two implications which I’ll explore in detail before considering how this shift is likely to play out in the post-pandemic university. Firstly, the existing fault lines within the university have been rendered new visible by this transformation, both in terms of who continues to receive support from the institution and how different groups are able to bear the newly individualised burdens. Secondly, it places a new emphasis on technological decision making as a condition for (successful) academic labour, with digital literacy or its absence constantly on view within academic life. 

In the first year of the pandemic an incident from the acting world illuminating this dynamic, with the breadth of its viral transmission suggesting it resonated with many people across sectors of social life. The actor Lukas Gage was preparing for an online audition when a director, failing to mute his microphone, could be heard reflecting on how “these poor people live in these tiny apartments like I’m looking at his, you know, background and he’s got his TV and his, you know” (Guardian 2000). While the director was immediately apologetic, his unguarded reflections illustrate how domestic inequalities were rendered new legible by the enforced digitalisation of the pandemic. The sudden window into the lifeworlds of those with whom we worked could be startling, as it was for the director who who seemed so surprised by the “tiny apartments” in which “these poor people live”. It suggests a deep unfamiliarity with the stark inequalities in our living conditions, with those who have long enjoyed space and comfort in their housing prone to forgetting this is a rare privilege rather than an uniform experience. It should be stressed the director is in a position of power in the context of the audition, wittily alluded to by Gage who suggested he given the part in order that he could move to a better apartment. The fact this is the conversation the director was having when the actor was seconds away from beginning his audition reveals how the window into the lifeworld provided by Zoom inevitably changes how appraisal works within professional settings. The conditions in which Gage lived would not have entered into how the director perceived him in a pre-pandemic audition, highlighting the formal equality which is created by assembling people together in a professional space (even if there remain substantive inequalities about the capability to reach, access and thrive in that space).

I remember being vaguely uncomfortable when a senior academic (in an entirely benign way which was relevant to the conversation) referred to me joining a Zoom call from my bedroom, whereas ironically I was in my home office which surely put me in a privileged minority of postdoctoral researchers, particularly in the extremely expensive city in which I lived at the time. There is a sense in which these problems can be solved through technological means. For example the rapid development of video platforms meant that virtual backgrounds soon become viable even for those who didn’t have the green screen which was once necessary. Furthermore while the default towards video plays an obvious role in acting auditions, it’s a curious fact about higher education that the fatigue caused by endlessly being on camera was a near uniform complaint during the pandemic yet the assumption of cameras being on continued to be norm even when it served no obvious purpose. In part this might reflect the widespread discomfort that many teachers felt with the tendency of students to leave their cameras off, even as empirical research revealed the entirely legitimate reasons for students to do this (Castelli and Sarvary 2021). Nonetheless it reveals the cultural limitations upon technological fixes, as the capacity to do something as simple as leaving a camera off to prevent an unwanted and unwarranted intrusion of colleagues into your lifeworld runs up against rapidly evolving norms of engagement and social presence. 

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