On becoming mid career and post-disciplinary

A few months ago my colleague Louis Major suggested that we were both now mid career. I was slightly resistant to this idea but it came back to me recently when I realised that my two main programmes of research (digital scholarship in a changing university and the social ontology of digital agency) are coming to a natural conclusion. I’d already seen one programme of research through to completion at a relatively early stage of my career, as a fairly straight forward empirical research question (“how does one come to identify as asexual?”) led to five articles, an edited collection and a lot of public engagement. It was when I realised that I was regularly repeating myself and feeling increasingly bored of the topic that I recognised I had comprehensively answered the question I set out to investigate.

The questions which motivated the two other programmes of research were sufficiently diffuse that I don’t think I’ll reach saturation point in the same way. But it nonetheless feels that when my current monograph projects are finished these programmes of research will be at an end. I’ve not included blog posts in this list but there’s a whole series of short articles (in the LSE Impact Blog and Chronicle of Higher Education) which were serious contributions to the first research programme and literally thousands of more informal posts which were serious contributions to the second. There’s a whole programme of research I undertook from 2014 to 2017 on the sociology of data science which led to four online collections (two in Discover Society, two in LSE Impact Blog), a whole series of events/workshops and lots of talks but which didn’t really have any outputs in a traditional sense.

In general as someone who finds writing fairly easy (rigorous editing and negotiating the hurdles of peer review less so) it strikes me that I could have published far more if I had sought to do so. In part I haven’t because I had no interest in pursuing an academic career between 2014 (when I finished my part-time PhD) and 2019 (when I applied for a senior lectureship in digital sociology). I applied for another lectureship early in the pandemic but it was only in the summer of 2021 when practicality meant I really needed to make a decision about what I wanted to do. It’s one I’ve been pretty delighted with, as much as I have no illusions about the nature of academic work.

In retrospect there was an element of avoiding competitive pressures which I wasn’t then psychologically robust enough to handle, entrenched by the social privilege and academic capital which meant I could float in a directionless way from one luxuriously autonomous postdoc to another (while for a time enjoying the entrepreneurial hustle and endless travel opportunities of freelancing on the side). But there was also a sense in which I was genuinely following my interests, finding satisfactions in pursuing my curiosity rather than pursuing quantifiable outputs.

Digital Scholarship in a Changing UniversityThe Social Ontology of Digital Agency
Social Media for Academics
The Public and Their Platforms
Building the Post-Pandemic University
Platforms and Institutions in the Post-Pandemic University
Public Scholarship in the Platform University
How to Build Research Networks Online
How to Use Social Media for Public Engagement
How to Disseminate and Promote Your Research Online
A Handbook for Digital Labour in Higher Education (title TBC)
Becoming Who We Are
Post-Human Futures
The Imperative To Be Seen
The Fragile Movements of Late Modernity
Flourishing or Fragmenting Amidst Variety
The Evisceration of the Human Under Digital Capitalism
Realism and Contingency
Realism, Reflexivity, Conflation and Individualism
Subjects or Subjected?
Structure, Culture and Agency
Growing Up In A World of Platforms
A Critical Approach to Platform Literacy
Platform & Agency: Becoming Who We Are in a Digital World

So what do I do now? My current enthusiasm for generative AI is motivated by a sense this is a topic with so many facets (e.g. how it will change scholarship, futures of work, educational policy, critical sociology of the hype, social and cultural ontology) that it will keep me interested for a long time. It’s struck me in my initial engagements how naturally my thinking cuts across theory, empirics, practice and policy at this stage; rather than the oscillation between theory and practice which used to leave me feeling I was wearing completely different hats in different contexts. I have a much narrower interest in the metaverse which combines a morbid fascination concerning the inflationary cultural dynamics of capital accumulation in platform capitalism with a sense there are nonetheless interesting questions of philosophy and practice posed by the resurgence of virtual reality and development of mixed reality.

Underlying both of these is a sense that the philosophy of digital education as it currently exists isn’t adequate to the accelerated rate at which emerging technologies (and associated hype) circulate through higher education and wider society, demanding socio-technical adaptation in a way which undercuts the possibility of sustained socio-technical innovation. I increasingly have a sense of digital education as a nomadic specialism which brings a multidisciplinary toolkit across theory, practice and policy to the micro-social and meso-social sites at which technology is generative of institutional and practical problems within education. Rather than a technical specialism, it needs to be a mobile problem solver which builds up practically-orientated accounts of socio-technical change within education in a non-linear way.

There are philosophical challenges involved in fleshing out this vision but it’s also an institutional project in which we we think about how expertise is enacted in education systems undergoing accelerating change. The problem I see is that infrastructures of knowledge-exchange and professional training are operating at a glacial pace relative to the underly socio-technical changes. There’s a whole set of practical challenges which the ex-consultant in me finds incredibly exciting but the theorist in me finds just as engrossing, because there’s a bigger picture unfolding before us which has yet to be adequately characterised. The distinction between critical, analytical and diagnostic research which increasingly preoccupies me has a role to play here but so too does the interface between digital education and other fields. I feel like there’s a lot of shallow incorporation of ideas from other fields and we need a more sophisticated meta-theoretical conversation about how and why theory is drawn up in digital education.

There are a whole range of social media policy issues which continue to interest me, even if I’m become completely bored of talking about social media practice. In part this is because I personally despise social media at this stage and increasingly go out of my way to avoid it. But I suspect the extent of my immersion in this over the 2010s makes me an outlier (e.g. I think it’s possible I ran more academic Twitter accounts over this period than anyone else in my national system) who began to experience changes at the level of my practical experience which are becoming much more mainstream. The transition to a multiplatform landscape in which academics are distributed across a range of platforms entirely changes the social media landscape within higher education. We’re in a new phase of institutionalising social media in the sector which raises questions of how we recognise its role within the broader research infrastructure and support its productive use while addressing the many problems it generates e.g. academic labour, EDI issues concerning harassment, institutional regulation. There’s probably an intellectually aggressive aspect to this in the sense that ‘you should use Twitter because it will increase your readership and make you publicly engaged’ framings increasingly infuriate me. They are sociologically illiterate, actively harmful to academics and they urgently need to be deprived of oxygen.

Finally I guess I see myself as a curator of critical realism (CR) in the sense that I have a strong commitment to ensuring the health and vitality of this tradition of research. I have a complex relationship to CR but it has deeply shaped me and I’m committed to sustaining this tradition as a tradition, which involves some activities which count as research (e.g. curating conversations about Margaret Archer’s work, particularly the micro-sociology) but others which are slightly more applied, such as the work I’m doing with Dave Elder-Vass, Jack Newman and other colleagues on the Critical Realism Network. This commitment is slightly different to the others because it’s more of a moral one than one driven by curiosity in a straight forward way, which is something I’ll try and explore over the coming years.

I guess the other thing is the intellectual community lab which has occurred to me in the last year. At the heart of so much of what I do is the question of intellectual communities of inquiry, the conditions which enable them to flourish and the systemic purposes which they can serve. I increasingly imagine a theoretical/practical agenda which studies these communities and practically supports their development, maintenance and decline under ever changing institutional conditions. It’s when I think about what this means that I start to feel that my disciplinary attachments have really loosened. I’m still engaged with the digital sociology community but this is mainly because these are the people with whom my intellectual conversations tend to flow most naturally. Much like CR it’s a community I contingently belong to, for long enough that it matters, even if it’s not a prime object of intellectual fascination for me anymore. I feel equally like a philosopher and educationalist at this stage in my life. Perhaps it’s time for me to leave behind a disciplinary identity, which in itself poses a whole range of meta questions which I would like to eventually explore.

This post leaves me confident that I’m never going to run out of interesting things to do. But I’d like to leave this space open, as well as probably move beyond the fixation on speculative objects (the accelerated academy, the morphogenic society, the platform university, the post-pandemic university etc) which characterised my intellectual development in the 2010s. With the exception of a few things I’m already committed to (the CSO metaverse project, an edited book about the realist concept of reflexivity, a few social media in education projects and the institutional aspects of what I’ve described here which are an unavoidable part of my day job) I want to avoid committing to anything until at least next year.

I’m determined to finish the two monographs by my 38th birthday (August 19th) at which point I’ve got three weeks of leave booked for travel, rumination and catching up with old friends. Even after this I’m keen to take a prolonged break from research after these projects are finished. It’s so easy to jump from one thing to the next without a sense of the bigger picture and I’m keen to ensure I enter the mid career phase of my life as a researcher in a thoughtful and reflective way.

In my personal life over the last year I’ve experienced an overturning of “habitual perspectives just as a gust of wind might tumble down the panels of a stage set” which was initially terrifying but in retrospect was the most important transition in my adult life. By defining the final phases of my early career research agenda and leaving the contours of my mid career research agenda open (while delineating the impulses which might shape it) I’m hoping to let the intellectual stage set of the last 15 years tumble down, taking my time before I begin the process of constructing a new one.

(though perhaps I’ve actually just mapped out my mid career research agenda in a way which negates the impulse to keep things open 🤦‍♂️)

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