Call for participation Monday 8th and Tuesday 9th May 2017 University of the Highlands and Islands, Inverness Campus

This two-day symposium arose out of a series of conversations and reflections on the nature of openness within Higher Education. It started with the observation that openness is increasingly seen as a technical question, whose solution lies in employing the low transaction costs associated with digital technologies with open licences to open up academic content to new groups of learners.

Where critical voices have engaged this partial reading they have often rightly critiqued the degree to which this is truly open, for example, drawing on older traditions of open to question the freedoms free content allows for those already distanced from education.

However, other questions also arise in a critical reading of open, and these include:

  • What does open mean beyond releasing content?
  • What is the role of open academics in dealing with problems ‘in the world’
  • How should staff and students become learners within community contexts, developing and negotiating the curriculum based on those contexts?
  • What would it mean for openness as a way to allow new voices into the academy, to acknowledge knowing and ways of knowing outside the academy, and where can and should our open spaces – both digital and physical – intersect?
  • If we are to advocate allowing learners’ experiences and organisations to inform the academy how open should academics be to the influence of private capital?

These are the kinds of questions, amongst others, that we want to explore in this symposium.

More Information: https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/learning-and-teaching-academy/events/the-porous-university-2013-a-critical-exploration-of-openness-space-and-place-in-higher-education-may-2017

This New Yorker feature on Robert Mercer is a fascinating insight into what I’m come to think of as defensive elites: self-congratulatory yet paranoid billionaires who are prepared to use their wealth to stave off what they see as unwarranted social attack. The analysis offered by David Magerman, formerly a senior manager at Mercer’s hedge fund, seems particularly worrying:

Magerman told the Wall Street Journal that Mercer’s political opinions “show contempt for the social safety net that he doesn’t need, but many Americans do.” He also said that Mercer wants the U.S. government to be “shrunk down to the size of a pinhead.” Several former colleagues of Mercer’s said that his views are akin to Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Magerman told me, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.” Magerman added, “He thinks society is upside down—that government helps the weak people get strong, and makes the strong people weak by taking their money away, through taxes.” He said that this mind-set was typical of “instant billionaires” in finance, who “have no stake in society,” unlike the industrialists of the past, who “built real things.”

Another former high-level Renaissance employee said, “Bob thinks the less government the better. He’s happy if people don’t trust the government. And if the President’s a bozo? He’s fine with that. He wants it to all fall down.”

In the excellent Lower Ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom reflects on the market-orientation of for-profit colleges, tending to seek a continual growth in student numbers. This growth imperative can manifest itself in marketing and recruitment outstripping teaching in institutional spending. From pg 20:

If budgets are moral documents, the fact that some financialized for-profit colleges reportedly spent 22.4 percent of all revenue on marketing, advertising, recruiting, and admissions staffing compared with 17.7 percent of all revenue, on instruction speaks to the morals of financialization

Since the previous Labour government kicked off the radical changes in higher education in the UK, I’ve been interested in the transformation of university marketing. The reforms created a pressure to differentiate but to what extent did that incentivise the growth of marketing and communications at the (potential) expense of investment elsewhere? I hadn’t thought about this issue for a while but it occurs to me that the extreme end of the US for-profit sector represents an exemplar of where the market logic now taking hold in the UK could lead, in so far as that linking financial performance to student numbers increases the structural importance of marketing and communication functions. How this logic plays out in practice depends on many organisational and sectoral factors which I’d like to understand better than I currently do.

How do we characterise the broader change in the sector? Cynics would see it as a distraction from the core functions of the university, with increasing resources being directed to marketing exercises with a possibly uncertain payoff in terms of recruitment. What concerns me is the competitive escalation that can arise in a (relatively) undifferentiated sector where actors compete for scarce attention: how can universities be heard above the din? One way is to accelerate the investment in marketing and communications, expanding into new arenas and further investing in staffing and systems. This is something which those staff are liable applaud, a message that might have particular force when their function is on the ascendency within the university and they can speak with authority gleamed from work outside the sector.

But others would argue that any uncertainty could be overcome by instilling a “marketing culture” in which “return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up”. This is how Communications Management, ‘the education specialists’ report on findings of a project they were involved on:

Key findings

  • Over two-thirds (69%) of UK marketing directors have seen an increased investment in marketing over the past three years
  • Branding is often still not understood within the higher education sector
  • Modern students are ‘demanding customers’ looking for a response 24/7, meaning that a shift in marketing techniques is crucial
  • Social media must be handled in the right way to avoid “pushy communications” and encroaching on student space
  • Increase in senior strategic marketing appointments in Higher Education Institutions

However survey respondents – a third of the UK’s HE marketing directors – also stated that though budgets still rarely approach those in the private sector, they consider short term funding to be less important than moving to such a “marketing culture,” in which return on investment of each activity is carefully weighed up.

http://www.communicationsmanagement.co.uk/blog/he-marketing-has-become-more-credible/

There are many things to explore here. What particularly interests me is the role of professionalisation (within the sector) and external agencies (from outside the sector) in shaping the new common-sense concerning marketing in the digital university.

I just stumbled across an interesting report, Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Recruitment, and Technology, focusing on the United States context and would welcome any suggestions of reading that focuses more on the UK.

I’m not a fan of The End of Absence by Michael Harris but I love this term. From pg 216:

The experience of one person’s distraction compounding another’s. Julie kept texting while I was talking about my cat, so I started texting, too. Existing in two varietals: “limited compound distraction” refers to a moment of positive feedback (Bailey kept texting while I was telling him about the exam, so I started tweeting about it instead), whereas “assumed compound distraction” refers to a predetermined atmopshere of distraction wherein sustained, meaningful interaction feels awkward and unwelcome (Harry and Bryce mumbled to each other about Iran while scrolling through the news on their respective phones).

The concept of overspire isn’t bad either: “the experience of too much inspiration, resulting in no further gains in creativity. Over the weekend I watched a dozen TED Talks in a row and got this vaguely overspired feeling.”

Notes from this Webinar. I had to leave after the second speaker so they’re not complete.

Alt metrics are a complement to existing metrics, addressing some of the key issues posed by metrics: the lag time of citations, the limitations of impact factor, the time to publication and their focus on a niche audience. The intention of alt metrics is to expand the focus, in order to assess what a broader audience think about research. This has many aspects but one increasingly important one is blogging, currently encompassing 10,000+ blogs with over 1 million mentions of research, from 2006 to now.

Research commentary plays a crucial role in the public understanding of science. It mediates access to research, sometimes providing a more accessible articulation and other times providing a critical focus. The webinar gave an overview of four different types of blog which Alt Metrics are concerned with:

  • Newspaper blogs: often hosted on a subdomain, with a large and diverse audience.
  • Public education blogs: written by specialists and scientists, with public education as a main goal. They tend to have a social media presence and a large but specific audience.
  • Blogs hosted by academic institutions: a lab or department, often used for promoting that groups work, a narrow academic focus and act as a press release outlet for the group.
  • Research blogging platforms: these are a large collective domain, aggregating lots of different blogs, with an audience that tends to be researchers, helps build a research community.

One of the guest speakers, Rolf Degen, talked about how the internet has disrupted the work of freelance science writers. What were once 95 weekly science sections had become 34 in 2005 and 19 in 2012. He embraced social media in order to help build the audience for his writing, though encountered the problem of people not following links through to his article from his tweets. He tried to compress the complexity of a science story by taking a screenshot to post on Twitter, inciting readers to click through to the piece itself. Another problem is that people on Twitter like negativity, sarcastic comments and the tearing apart of established studies.

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise that the ‘dirty side of science’ has been ignored by the media, who get most of their information from big science institutions and their press releases. Many of his followers are well qualified, prone to instantly criticising him if he makes a mistake. His editors have never been experts in his field, with criticism from readers being confined to letter to the editor. For this reason, the quality control is much higher than it has previously been. He argues that social media has created “an acquired taste for criticism” which is greatly beneficial for science writing. It’s creating a climate in which it’s just as much fun to find error in something, as to find great new insights, contributing to a turn away from the bias for positive results.

The next speaker, Neuro Skeptic, spoke about his experiences as a science blogger. He drew a sharp distinction between science blogging and science journalism. Blogs have become an accepted part of the media in a way that they weren’t until recently, leading people to talk less about blogs as they’ve become a normal part of the landscape. He discussed a really interesting case when Science Blogs lost many of its audience in protest over Pepsi Gate, leading this audience to disperse over the media ecosystem. He draws a distinction between science bloggers (as niche content creators and often research active or with research experience) and science journalists (as generalists with a science background). Blogs offer scientists a way to communicate directly with readers (stripping out press officers) but that means they can be used to push an agenda. He warns that we shouldn’t romanticise science blogging as a pristine way of ‘getting the science out’ because it’s agenda driven. This means we can’t take social media popularity as being an intrinsically good thing, because this might mean things are being celebrated within circles we would regard as unscientific.

Some interesting points about their policy for blog tracking which I’d like to know more about:

  • Their tracking is based on what they happen to hear about.
  • All blogs are weighted equally.
  • They are indexed by author, in order that multiple mentions of the same research by the same author will only be counted once.
  • They are filtered to ensure quality, in order to avoid counting spam blogs etc.

As the workings of civil society are being disrupted by the challenges of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and notions of post-truth, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal has decided to devote a special issue to this topic. Our approach is broad; the flow of information is fundamental to civil society and that flow and its interactions with the structures of society and the individuals in society takes many forms. The following list is by no means exhaustive: Journalism (and fact checking); Cultural Studies and the World of Make-Believe; the scientific record and predatory publishing; climate change and climate deniers; Civic literacy and democracy; Public Relations and Spin; social media, experience and opinion; state strategy and astro-turfing; the new right and post-facts; dramaturgy of post-factoids …
We are calling for papers between 4,000 and 8,000 words which reflect in some way on the concepts of alternative facts/fake news/post truth either on our understandings of civil society or on professional practices within civil society.

Our deadline for submission is Friday 31 March. Decisions on acceptance will be communicated by 28 April. The issue will be published in July 2017.

See the journal at:

http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/mcs

For more information please contact Hilary Yerby at: Hilary.yerby@uts.edu.au

I thought others might find this interesting. I’d certainly be interested in hearing people’s perspectives on what we were discussing. I’m in bold, Benjamin is in italics. 

Does the situation of skholè still obtain in the accelerated academy?

This is a great question. Maybe an answer could go something like this, focusing on the distinction between scholastic thinking and practical sense: When I’m sitting at my desk, reading about bullfights (which I know only from books, having never seen one), I have considerable distance from the urgencies of the world of bullfights. Even if I only have ten minutes to read about bullfights while preparing a lecture I have to give in an hour, I’m still treating the bullfight as an object of scholastic contemplation. It’s not me fighting the bull. But if my colleague walks in and announces that he’s just published an article in that journal I’ve always wanted to publish in, and which has always rejected my submissions, and I’m overwhelmed with jealousy, I have no such distance. My reaction comes from my practical sense. The accelerated academy reduces the amount of time available for skholè, but that reduced time can still be time spent in a scholastic relation to the object of study. But how little time can we get away with? What happens to academics when they no longer have time to read?

Thanks Ben, that responses makes a lot of sense to me in terms I’ve been writing about as cognitive triage. So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right? Your point is that an erosion of the former doesn’t necessarily preclude the latter. But is there a tipping point at which it starts to render it so peripheral that it largely becomes impossible?

And does this preclude scholarship? Or are there other forms of engagement which can produce knowledge which are congruent with the temporalities of the accelerated academy? Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be. But they seem obviously distinct, even if I can’t specify the basis of the distinction.

The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive, offering faster & iterative forms of engagement which allow knowledge production without detachment. The ethos of the pirate sociologist perhaps: https://markcarrigan.net/2016/11/03/towards-a-pirate-sociology/

“So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right?”

Yes! Your habitus is adapted to the kinds of thinking that go on in your field. They’ve become second nature for you. So you can turn on that kind of thinking any time, even for a few minutes, just as a skilled pianist can sit down any time, at any piano that happens to be handy, and play. But to acquire that habitus, you have to go through a long, gradual process of adaptation and integration into a field, which in academia means spending a lot of time reading about and thinking through ideas and problems that are considered important in your field. I think that in the humanities and social sciences, the main time when people get to do this is during their PhD. But if time for reading and thinking becomes very scarce after the PhD, what happens? Perhaps people’s academic habitus is durable enough to allow them to keep repeating the same patterns in teaching and writing, year after year. But original thinking, or serious engagement with other people’s original thinking, must become very hard to do.

“Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be…. The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive….”

I’m guessing that it depends on the objective relation between the people involved. Today I got an email announcing the latest issue of a journal I’ve published in, and as usual I had absolutely no interest in any of the articles. Whereas when I saw the title of this blog post, I was immediately interested, and in the post you brought up a lot of things I care about. I’m guessing that these shared preoccupations reflect a homology between our positions in academic fields. Given that sort of objective relation, I think you can have a great interaction with someone, whether it’s in person, via email, or on social media. On the other hand, getting trolled, or just subjected to everyone’s relentless self-promotion, clearly isn’t going to do you any good. What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.

I feel like social media aren’t really designed to facilitate these kinds of connections. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out who to follow on Twitter, and Twitter’s suggestions of academics for me to follow usually aren’t much help. I could imagine a social media platform that does something like the analysis in Homo Academicus, where Bourdieu identifies a whole group of scholars like himself who, at a particular historical moment, had similar positions and career trajectories. But then I’d worry about it selling my data…

“What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.”

I couldn’t agree more with this but it’s a theoretical question that interests me. Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…

“Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…”

I think it’s both. In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu argues that in the 1960s, young academics whose professional aspirations were based on the old mode of academic recruitment were surprised and angry when it didn’t work for them. The shock of this hysteresis of habitus led them to question the previously taken-for-granted social structures of academia, and then those of society at large, and some of them then became leaders of the mass uprising of May 1968. I take this to mean that a person’s habitus and social trajectory can predispose them to become more reflexive.

You and I both have unorthodox career trajectories. We occupy peripheral positions in the landscape of academic institutions, in sort of no-man’s-land between the worlds of research and of applied technology. Simultaneously insiders and outsiders, we have an intuitive feel for how academia works, but we lack the total investment (illusio) of those who occupy dominant positions. I think sort of position is ideal for developing reflexivity. Bourdieu studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but as the son of a provincial postman, he felt like an outsider there. However successfully he adapted and gained access to the centres of academic power, his trajectory would never be the same as that of someone whose parents were normaliens. This experience of being different no doubt had a lasting effect on his habitus, helping him to gain the reflexivity needed for a study like The State Nobility.

I see what you’re saying but the impression I’ve got from reading the Pascalian Meditations thus far is that Bourdieu conceived of the university as consistently solely of students and professors. He may have had conditions which were epistemically conducive to understanding the rules of the academic game, but does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations? I’m not sure if I’m being unfair, but it’s the thought I keep coming back to & relates to what you’re saying about our respective positions as people who are not students, professors or researchers in the straight-forwardly post-doctoral sense.

“does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations?”

I don’t think it does. Although I think Bourdieu’s initial trajectory has something in common with ours, his experience of universities was also very different, and not just because he ended up in a dominant position in his field. For one thing, I think French universities in the second half of the twentieth century enjoyed greater institutional autonomy, and were more firmly under the control of professors, than universities in most other parts of the world. Perhaps struggles between administration and professors weren’t as big a part of his experience as they are of ours. And France hadn’t (and still hasn’t) introduced precarious, low-wage academic employment on a large scale, as the US has, or subjected academics to anything like Britain’s REF.

Bourdieu was definitely concerned with threats to the autonomy of academic fields, including ‘the more and more frequent recourse of university research to sponsorship, and of the creation of educational institutions directly subordinated to business’ (The Rules of Art, 344-45). He explored some of this in The State Nobility, but that book is mainly about individuals’ academic careers, and about the field of academic institutions, rather than about considering each institution as a field in itself. His response to these threats was to call for cultural producers to engage in a collective struggle for ‘power over the instruments of production and consecration’, and I think that’s more relevant than ever. In his day, that meant things like creating his own academic journal. Today I think we need to do much more, and I think projects that seek to transform the economics of academic publishing, like the Open Library of the Humanities, are part of that.

I think it’s important not to limit Bourdieu’s theoretical tools to the ways in which he himself used them. It’s tempting to get frustrated with him for not being interested in some of the things we’re very interested in today. But it’s inevitable that his horizons were different from ours. We can ask a lot of questions about reflexivity and autonomy that he never asked, and that’s as it should be. It could be very interesting to try to find out what sorts of habitus and social trajectories are likely to give people insight into universities as organisations.

So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context? That fits very nicely with Margaret Archer’s critique of Bourdieu which I think is pretty much uniformly misunderstood. Her problem isn’t with the sociology as much as the unthinking transposition of it from a very particular kind of centralised and relatively stable structural context.

A further thought: in The State Nobility, the people who don’t succeed in their academic careers end up as schoolteachers. Bourdieu emphasises that the division between those who succeed and those who fail is often arbitrary, but he doesn’t envisage any academic future for the rejects. All they can do is try to convince themselves that they’re content not to do research anymore. But now there seems to be a greater variety of non-academic or quasi-academic positions in and around universities, occupied by people who, in one way or another, are turning their knowledge of academia to their advantage. A lot of this seems to involve various kinds of servile roles (such as selling advice about how to game the system in order to succeed as an academic). But I’m wondering whether it’s possible for such a position to lend itself to autonomous research. In particular, if nobody expects you to do research at all, you’re under no pressure to publish, and this might make it possible to do certain kinds of ‘slow’ research that would be more difficult for others to do. And getting back to your theoretical question, what would make someone in such a position want to do something like that, while others don’t?

That’s exactly why I’ve been interested in alt-academic careers since I first came across them (as well as the practical concern of being fairly sure I wanted one) – what I’m now realising is how theoretically significant this is for academic labour and academic self-conception. An obvious empirical question: do alt-academics seek to consecrate their research as research? If so, how do they do this?

‘So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context?’

Yes, and I think that in general, as insiders in any context, we’ve internalised certain assumptions about what sorts of things are important in that context. That’s part of our insider’s habitus. For Bourdieu, reflexivity in social science requires a constant, conscious struggle against our habitus. We need all the objectifying tools that social science has to offer, such as ethnography and statistics, to make gains in that struggle. He used those tools to gain some reflexivity about the academic world he had been initiated into, but his reflexivity had limits.

I think one striking example of this is his relative neglect of the topic of religion. Despite having developed field theory through an engagement with Weber’s ideas about religion, and despite using all sorts of religious metaphors (‘consecration’, ‘theodicy’, ‘prophecy’, ‘heresy’), he didn’t pay much attention to religion itself in his research. I have a suspicion (though no direct evidence) that this was because, like many French intellectuals of his generation, he assumed that religion was a spent force, one that had become nearly irrelevant. It must have been easier to hold that view in France than in many other parts of the world, especially at that time, and perhaps if he were alive today, he would see things differently.

I used to read a lot of critiques of Bourdieu, but I ended up finding it a tiresome activity, because they nearly always turn out to be arguing against straw men, and usually it’s clear that the authors have read very little of what Bourdieu actually wrote. I suppose that many have read a bit of Bourdieu for the sole purpose of dismissing his ideas, ‘as a shortcut towards visibility more convenient than producing work of their own’, as he says in Pascalian Meditations (in the section ‘Digression: a critique of my critics’). I’ve just had a quick look at Archer’s critique in Making our Way Through the World, and it seems to be based on a common caricature of the concept of habitus, which Bourdieu rejects in that same passage, and which takes habitus to be a ‘monolithic’, ‘immutable’, ‘inexorable’, and ‘exclusive’ principle. I rather think Bourdieu saw habitus merely as a guide to improvisation, much as a song is a guide to a jazz musician’s improvisation. It makes certain things more likely and other things less likely, and provides ready-made categories that can be used to make sense of new situations, but in no way does it rigidly determine thought or action.

About the consecration of the work of alt-academics, this just occurred to me: perhaps in the old days, academics whose work was too heterodox (e.g. because they didn’t fit neatly into any academic field) would simply be ejected from academia. Or if they were very lucky, like Bourdieu, they might be able to cross over from one field to another (from philosophy to sociology in his case). But nowadays, they might also get a ‘second chance’ in alt-ac jobs. If those jobs really tend to be populated by such individuals, and if they still want to do research and publish, it stands to reason that they would need to engage in a struggle over the means of consecration. The question of how they do it is a good empirical question.

that’s very interesting, thanks. I’m certainly becoming much more open-minded since engaging with Pascalian Meditations.

I wonder if the key problem is how to avoid the research being construed as effectively a hobby. the desire to avoid playing the game of seeking high-status journal publications is definitely one factor in the alt-academic discourse but, without this consecration, what’s the status of the work that’s not being written up? I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?

‘I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?’

I think that would definitely be a place to start. Bourdieu placed a high value on understanding the author’s point of view: what were the alternatives the author faced? In his examples of revolutions in fields, he often talks about authors who were confronted with a field divided into two opposing camps, and who rejected both of them. I’m wondering whether a refusal to choose between ‘high-status journal publications’ and ‘work that’s not being written up’ could lead to new forms of research and consecration.

Personally I want to keep publishing, but since I no longer need to care about how a publication looks on my CV, and since I don’t think aggressive peer review adds much value, I don’t care how high-status the journal is. It’s more important to me that it’s an open-access journal and doesn’t make me wait a year for a decision, and it’s even better if it’s interdisciplinary. My feeling is that the consecration that matters happens after publication in any case, if it happens at all.

I would also like to reclaim the respectability of doing work as a hobby. In historical terms, all scientists did research as a hobby until very recently. Today, someone like Charles Darwin wouldn’t be able to spend thirty years working on the theory of evolution before publishing it, because no institution would fund him for that long. He was able to do it because he was independently wealthy, and science was a hobby for him. But perhaps alt-ac careers offer another way to do science as a hobby, and thus to escape the pressure to publish quickly.

But I’ve had the argument put to me that the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions. There’s something self serving and dismissive about this but I’m worried there’s also an element of truth to it.

“the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions”

The history of science shows that this is not true. I’ve mentioned Charles Darwin, all of whose scientific work was done as a hobby. Some other examples are Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Henry Fox Talbot, and Ada Lovelace.

“I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances.”

One doesn’t need to be a salaried researcher to publish in scientific journals. Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking papers during his seven years as an employee of the Swiss patent office.

But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.

I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances. Your work is taken seriously if it can garner engagement by others (particularly outside of the academy) even if it lacks formal consecration within it.

“But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.”

I think it depends on what kind of research you want to do. If you need a particle accelerator, you probably have to be a professional scientist. But in the social sciences and humanities, a lot of research is done with nothing more than a PhD plus time, thought, publicly available data, and a bit of computing power. Time seems to be the scarcest resource for academics. I actually have more time for research now, with an alt-ac job, than I had when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor.

I think it’s important to distinguish between academic fields and academic institutions. Perhaps the biggest barrier to what I’m suggesting is the illusion, promoted by academics and academic institutions themselves, that having an academic position equals participation in an academic field. I think this is a bit like when priests say that there is no salvation outside the Church.

I’m reading through the Stern review in preparation for various impact related things I’m doing in the next few weeks. It takes the view that the 6,975 impact case studies produced and £55 million estimated to have been spent on the impact element of the last REF has clearly contributed to “an evolving culture of wider engagement, enhancing delivery of the benefits arising from research”. These costs could be mitigated in future because “participating institutions now have processes in place to capture the information required”. Or perhaps they might expand, as the infrastructure surrounding the assessment described here by Les Back seems likely to grow, even if the number of case studies does not increase much as per Stern’s recommendations.

Offering institutions more flexibility in the distribution of case studies (as opposed to requiring a certain number of case studies proportionally to the number of staff submitted to a unit of assessment) could have interesting results. As will the recommendation for ‘institutional level’ impact case studies, both in terms of identifying cross-disciplinary impacts which might otherwise fall between the cracks and perhaps justifying institutional level investments in impact capacity: 

Some of these aspects of environment reflect the strategy, support and actions of the institution as a whole. This has not been assessed in REF2014 and we recommend that this should be captured in a new Institutional Environment Statement, which complements the Unit of Assessment Environment Statement.

Environment and impact are mutually supportive and should be seen together. The strategy and support of impact are closely linked to the environment for research at both Unit of Assessment and institutional level. Therefore, it is also recommended that the aspects captured by the Impact template of REF2014 should be incorporated into both the Unit of Assessment and Institutional level Environment statement.

This will involve recognising:

  • the features of the research environment that are the product of institutional level activity, including steps taken to promote interdisciplinary and other joint working internally and externally and to support engagement and impact, beyond that which is just the aggregate of individual units of assessment
  • the future research and knowledge exchange strategy of the HEI, as well as the individual Units of Assessment, and the extent to which both have delivered on the strategies set out in the previous REF
  • the individualism of the HEI and the eclecticism of academic life within it
  • the contribution that its academics make to the wider academy (‘academic citizenship’).

Each statement would focus on how the institution or Unit of Assessment enhances the development of research capability within it, how it provides opportunities for high quality research and related activities, how it motivates and rewards researchers, and the contributions made to the wider academic community.

Additionally, weakening the link between impact and research outputs could have interesting implications for social media activity, expanding the range of activity which can be measured and argued to lead to impact.

The review suggests that the potential range of impacts possible to record was made narrower by the assessment process. It also advocates emphasising cultural impact and now recognising impact internal to higher education, including though hopefully not limited to teaching:

We recommend that impacts on public engagement and understanding are emphasised and that impacts on cultural life be specifically included. Better to align the REF with the TEF, we also recommend that research leading to major impacts on curricula and /or pedagogy within or across disciplines should be included; and in order to encourage long-term, interdisciplinary research endeavours, we recommend that ground breaking academic impacts such as research leading to the creation of new disciplines should be included.

Another extract from Audrey Watters, this time from The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, who analysis of the rhetoric of disruption has fast become one of my favourite examples of digital cultural critique. From loc 184:

“The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

Our opening talk at the second Accelerated Academy conference in Leiden in December:

Some two years ago the two of us started discussing Hartmut Rosa’s theory of social acceleration and how it manifests in the present condition. Though we found his theory fascinating and provocative we also noted important conceptual and empirical problems with his account, namely the incomplete notion of agency in his conceptual scheme and Rosa’s overall tendency of treating acceleration as some sort of a sweeping mega-force colonising human lifeworld in its entirety and irreducible complexity. We were compelled to explore such Rosa’s theory and intuitively felt that not only individuals might step back and reflect upon accelerating modernity, but also that many embrace it without necssarily associating it with neither capitalist forces nor with what is now labelled as ‘accelerationism’. We begun thus to think about acceleration in a more nuanced way and concentrated on our own environment – the academy. 

For both us the phrase ‘accelerated academy’ signifies a research trajectory, one we’re pursuing collectively but also through our own independent projects. Filip’s research concern encompass sociology of time and specifically then ‘hidden rhythms’ in and of academia. In his current project he examines the causes and manifestations of temporal pressure in the lives of scientists in the Czech Republic and its personal and epistemic consequences. Focusing on theoretical, experimental and applied physics he and his colleagues investigate what ‘lost time’ means for scientists and how scientific institutions ‘trade’ (with) time. Mark’s particular interest is in digital technology within the university, particularly the implications of social media for the future of intellectual life. Too often framed in terms of the personal gains to be accrued for individual careers, the full significance of social media has often been missed. This encompasses positive dimensions (such as new forms of solidarity and new capacities for political mobilisation) as well as more negative ones, such as the intensification of labour and the possibilities for expanded surveillance by university managers. Building on his book Social Media for Academics, his current project seeks to develop a broader theoretical framework within which the digitalisation of the university can be understood. 

But we also saw ‘accelerated academy’ as an assembly device, a provocative way of bringing together researchers from different disciplines and traditions in order to find new ways of understanding and intervening in the transformations going on around us. This could be seen in the diversity of the participants at last year’s conference in Prague, encompassing scholars of education, time, political economy, labour, science, organisations and metrics as well as natural scientists. But it could also be found in the sheer range and quality of the papers themselves, as well as the dialogues they gave rise to before, during and after the event itself. 

The phrase has indeed seemed to resonate with many. There is an apparently pervasive sense in the contemporary scientific world that things are speeding-up incessantly – scientists report chronic busyness, psychological discomfort, anxieties and insufficient time for research-related activities. They are expected to publish more papers, read more texts, meet strict deadlines, ‘fundraise’, engage in science administration, press ahead. Similarly as the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass it seems that scientists simply need to run ever-faster but only remain where they are. This widespread experience in the contemporary academy needs to be nonetheless contextualised with rapid other important trends in science organisation, administration, evaluation and culture. However, we also note that recent propositions offered by slow science movement and similar initiatives are rather problematic and that acceleration in/of academic life cannot be reduced solely to the aforementioned pathologies and differs significantly across disciplines, institutions and national contexts.  

We hope that the ‘accelerated academy’ can continue to be a useful device to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations about the transformation of the university. Ones that link the psychological and the social, connect technical systems to lived experience and couple a critique of managerial power with an analysis of how the affectivity and concerns of academics leave them entangled and sometimes complicit within these power structures.

In September this year Milena Kremakova organised one-day symposium on acceleration and anxiety in academic life. The papers and discussion addressed how contemporary ‘accelerated academy’ induces anxiety environment and how careers, working lives and identities of scholars and academic institutions are affected. We’re hoping to have one or even two events in the UK next year, subject to success with funding. Hopefully there can be further events beyond this and we can sustain these conversations on an ongoing basis.

This isn’t solely a matter of face to face meetings. We are extending last year’s series of blog posts on the popular LSE Impact Blog and we’re inviting everyone here to contribute to these discussions. There are many podcasts and videocasts from last year’s conference, hosted on The Sociological Review’s website. We’re hoping that the Accelerated Academy website and Twitter feed can provide a platform for further projects and events going forward, using the affordances of social media to facilitate ‘accelerated’ conversations in the best sense of the term.

An admirably concise definition by Trebor Scholz on loc 432 of Uberworked and Underpaid:

This term can be briefly described as follows:

First, it is about cloning the technological heart of Uber, Task Rabbit, Airbnb, or UpWork. Platform cooperativism creatively embraces, adapts, or reshapes technologies of the sharing economy, putting them to work with different ownership models. It is in this sense that platform cooperativism is about structural change, a transformation of ownership models.

Second, platform cooperativism is about solidarity, sorely missing in an economy driven by a distributed and mostly anonymous workforce: the interns, freelancers, temps, project-based workers, and independent contractors. Platforms can be owned and operated by inventive unions, cities, and various other forms of cooperatives such as worker-owned, produser-owned (producer-user –produser), multi-stakeholder, co-ops.

Third, platform cooperativism is built on reframing concepts like innovation and efficiency with an eye toward benefiting all, not just sucking up profits for the few. I propose ten principles of platform cooperativism that are sensitive to the critical problems facing the digital economy right now. Platform capitalism is amazingly ineffective in watching out for people.

I love this concise formulation by Trebor Scholz in Uberworked and Underpaid. From loc 338:

Every day, one billion people in advanced economies have between two billion and six billion spare hours among them. 13 Capturing and monetizing those hours is the goal of platform capitalism.