This great post by Martin Weller takes issue with the recent click bait published by the Guardian Higher Education’s anonymous academics series. He argues that they perpetuate an outdated stereotype of academic labour which has no relationship to the reality:

There are undoubtedly more, but when you piece these three together, what you get is a picture of an academic in the 1970s (Michael Caine in Educating Rita maybe) – shambolic, aloof, and unfettered by the concerns of normal working life. It’s a romantic image in a way, but also one that lends itself to the ‘ivory tower’ accusation. It is also about as representative now as the fearful matron in charge of a typing pool is to office life.

These might be the myths non-academics affirm about academics. But what are the myths academics propound about themselves and their labour? To what extent are these myths entrench by an unwillingness to come to terms with the managerial denigration of academic labour and the curtailment of professional autonomy?

  1. Does the situation of skholḗ still obtain in the accelerated academy? This is what Bourdieu described as “the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world” (p. 1). This condition was always unevenly distributed, its ubiquity apparent only relative to one’s own elite status within similarly elite institutions, allowing practicalities in here to pass unnoticed and those out there in other institutions to evade recognition. The organisational sociology of skholḗ seems implausible, suggesting the distance is between the institution and the outside world, rather than within the institution itself. There are many changes in the university which have undermined the experienced situation of skholḗ but the one which interests me most is automation. In so far as support staff have been replaced by digital technology, meeting the practical demands of professors now entails their own participation in what Craig Lambert calls ‘shadow work’ (i.e engaging with automated systems) rather than delegation to those within the institution whose role it is to handle practicalities. I’m still relatively new to Bourdieu’s work on universities but thus far, it’s hard to avoid the impression that he sees universities as exclusively populated by ‘professors’ and ‘students’ (see for example p. 41).
  2. If the scholarly vocation involves a form of learned ignorance, in which “base calculations of careerist ambition” are systematically excluded, scholarly blogs and tweets which address professional issues become a crucial site of struggle over shared identity. The lived frustrations of pluralistic ignorance, as well as the more mundane challenge of what to tweet/blog about and the fact this generates traffic, generates a tendency for academics to blog about their own practice. This reclamation of scholarly craft must proceed within strict boundaries, lest it be accused of advocating careerism. I was fascinated by someone who felt the need to comment on sociological imagination that they found some career advice I linked to ‘disgusting’ because it represented the ‘neoliberal subject’. The discursive tendencies of academics who have taken to social media represent a challenge to the disavowal of the practical which, argues Bourdieu, should be seen as partly constitutive of the scholarly field. But perhaps this represents a form of “making explicit what ordinarily remains implicit” (p. 37) which opens up the professional socialisation process to those excluded from it.
  3. Are we seeing the emergence of an organic reflexive sociology of the digital university? It seems to me that we are but we should add a crucial caveat about its organic character. It necessarily reproduces the illusio of its players, with even the most sophisticated accounts taking the stakes of the academic game as a given. This is why arguments about ‘careerism’ and the coverage of ‘ex-academics’ prove so richly divisive. This is when the stakes of the game are seen to be susceptible to challenge, even by those who are party to them, opening up contrasting possibilities that this is just a game that we are playing and furthermore it is a game that we can elect to leave. This mechanism produces systematic blindspots, leading what might otherwise be communally empowering reflections on shared conditions into meandering and myopic alleys which permit of little practical development. There are cultural forms which circulate successfully under these conditions which it is valuable to critique on this basis e.g. the slow professor. The politics of advice in academic social media are complex and little scrutinised.
  4. Social media can prove alluring for the scholar because of the “excessive confidence in the powers of language” which plague them (p. 2). It offers an imaginative recuperation of the “apartness from the world of production” that is experienced as “both a liberatory break and a disconnection, a potentially crippling separation” (p. 15). The combination of a vaguely defined audience on to which one can project and architecture of platforms which encourage contention provides a perfect forum in which those who “regard an academic commentary as a political act or the critique of texts as a feat of resistance, and experiencer revolutions in the order of words as radical revolutions in the order of things” can act out their political ambitions on a safe and inconsequential stage of their own making (p. 2).
  5. Until perhaps they confront those from adjacent fields, their movements similarly inflected through comparable processes of digitalisation. What happens when scholars meet journalists? What happens when they meet policy makers? What happens when they meet their own students? What happens when they meet ‘trolls’? How do these increasingly everyday encounters provide opportunities for the reproduction or transformation of their investment in the scholarly field? The sociology of such boundary encounters is much more complex than tends to be acknowledged. What seems clear to me is that accounts of social media as democratising the academy in relation to wider society fail to capture what is going on here.

 

In the last few months, I’ve begun to seriously plan a much more sophisticated follow-up to Social Media for Academics, investigating the implications of social media for academic labour. A crucial aspect of this, which seems likely to become much more so with each passing year, concerns the toxicity of many of the online environments in which academics are participating. If academics increasingly find themselves expected to use social media as a means of demonstrating engagement or at least signalling engagement-willingness then the toxicity of these environments will become an increasingly central labour issue.

My fear is that we will have the worst of both worlds. Academics will be coerced outwards into these online environments under the sign of ‘impact’, while finding themselves blamed if anything they do online attracts disapprobation for their employer. It’s easy to imagine how the moralism we see lurking beneath the impact agenda (those who claim not to ‘get it’ should be ‘ashamed’ as I recently heard an extremely senior person say) could find similar expression in managerial expectation of social media use. On our present trajectory, the likely outcome will be an individualised one: take responsibility for your own engagement and take the blame if you bring about any perceived damage to the corporate brand. This problem is compounded because, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it “the risks and rewards of presenting oneself “to others over the Web using tools typically associated with celebrity promotion” (Barone 2009) are not the same for all academics in the neo-liberal “public” square of private media.” Far from counteracting exclusion in higher education, social media for academics is amplifying the risks for those already marginalised.

As an example of how this is developing, consider this dispiriting reflection on being an academic video blogger on YouTube which Philip Moriarty passed on to me:

One of the main reasons why I think the promise of YT as a place where intelligent life might flourish is failing is the well-documented level of trolling and hatred that permeates the site, and which threatens to silence any but the most obnoxious or innocuous voices. I stopped making regular videos a couple of years ago when the vitriol I was receiving for having the temerity to make unpopular content spilled over into my personal life. In addition to receiving the usual grammatically-challenged insults and thinly-veiled threats the university I was working at was also contacted several times by folk demanding my removal. Eventually these ‘downsides’ to being an academic on Youtube outweighed the benefits and I gave up making public videos entirely.

And it isn’t just me. Over the past three years I have known four other academics leave Youtube for reasons very similar to my own. These were folk who were similarly motivated to bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’, between universities (which are often seen as elitist) and the wider world represented on social media. These people wanted to contribute their knowledge and also to learn from the contributions of others. They wanted to find ways to speak and to listen in ways which were more inclusive, and which the diverse communities on Youtube seemed to be able to offer. These fine people, like myself, became disheartened by the inability of YT to foster anything but the lowest common denominator, the most clickbaity, the most provocative, the most crudely entertaining, and the failure of the platform to support those who wanted to raise the bar.

Some might say (and indeed have said) that this toxicity is just a natural part of the online ecology and we should grow a thicker skin, or not feed the trolls, or any of the other platitudes that are trotted out to excuse bad behaviour, but I don’t think that’s good enough. When the comment section under a video is two thirds insult or threat then the value of that comment section drops to zero. No one with anything to contribute wants to be part of it. When you have to wonder if your latest video will prompt some faceless anti-intellectual gonk to contact your employer then the chilling effect takes hold and you censor yourself, (God forbid you should talk positively about feminism, or BLM, or the representation of women in video games). The number of eyeballs on the site might increase but the I.Q. of the site goes down.

https://medium.com/@fredmcv/intelligent-life-on-youtube-aa46f4404861#.37wdwagtp

The architecture of these platforms militates against their sustained pedagogical use. It might be that, as Pausé and Russell put it, “Social media enables scholarship to be publicised more widely within the  academy,  and  in addition to that, it enables  scholarship to become part of broader  social conversations”. The problem is that the incentives of these platforms have over time proved to be generative of a dialogical toxicity which tends to be obscured by the high-minded rhetoric of public engagement. The promise that social media might “bridge the gap between ‘town and gown’” is proving to be rather misleading. A large part of my new project will be exploring the implications of this at the level of the institutional politics of the university, with a particular focus on what it means for academic labour.

The role of social media for academics discourse in obscuring these issues, mystifying the complex politics of social media in the university through breathless reiteration of the individual benefits to be accrued through engagement, means it will be a central object of critique for the project. But I want to avoid slipping into utopian/dystopian, pro/anti framings of social media for academics. I still believe in its scholarly importance and it’s capacity to inculcate solidarity and (in limited ways) flatten hierarchies. There’s a great example of the latter in this paper by Pausé and Russell which I’m otherwise pretty critical of:

Accessibility means individuals who are not academically trained are able to  learn  about  a  field  of  research  and  contribute  to  it,  bringing  their  own  ideas  and  experiences  to  the  table.†    And  accountability  has  enabled  greater  criticism  of  the  process  of  scholarship  and  research.    Through  connecting  on  social  media,  marginalised  people  have  been  able  to  gather  sufficient  force  to  challenge  the  conventions  of  research;  to  insist  on  an  intersectional  perspective.    The  lived  experience  of  a  Māori  woman  living  in  Aotearoa  New  Zealand  can  challenge  the  theorised understanding of an academic.‡ People have objected to being studied, and  have demanded the right to participate in framing the discussion.  For example, the  Health  at  Every  Size®  (HAES)  movement  has  largely  been  led  by  advocates  from  within  what  is  known as  the  Fatosphere  (Harding,  2007),  prompting  research  that  questions the basic assumptions made about the relationship between body size and  health by health scholars and those working in the health field. This both challenges  and enriches scholars’ research.  There is now a rich empirical literature on the efficacy  of HAES (Burgard, 2014).

 

This interesting aside in Jamie Woodcock’s superb Working The Phones is worthy of further discussion. From loc 2698:

Researchers often attribute a level of importance to their own research that is not shared by others, assuming that because they spend so much time on it others will want to know all about it too.

How does this attitude develop? How widespread is it? How is it connected to how people see their occupational roles? 

My hunch is that it’s absolutely central to academic exceptionalism: the notion that academic labour is intrinsically different to other forms of labour. The (self) importance of the scholarship goes hand-in-hand with a mystification of the conditions under which their scholarship is enacted.

This introduction to Conflict in the Academy, by Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert, nicely captures something I’ve been preoccupied by recently. From loc 63:

we would like to suggest that tired clichés of ‘ivory towers’ and ‘dreaming spires’, or even more self-complementary myths of universities as platonic institutions directed towards disinterested enlightenment lead to an unhelpful black-boxing of these zones of social life from attentive sociological enquiry, usually on the odd assumption that the ‘real world’ is somehow always going on elsewhere. This book intends to contribute toward a growing literature that refuses to content itself with such popular accounts of academia as a withdrawn and therefore somehow asocial zone, and which instead takes the reflexive academic analysis of the social processes of academic life seriously

What comparable myths are there? I’m interested in how these notions of academic exceptionalism inculcate a blindness about the character of academic labour.

It’s an argument that needs to be made carefully, but I suspect entrenched stereotypes prop up this exceptionalism. From loc 933:

a fusty character, whose eccentricities depend upon the removal from practical necessity that his (the classical stereotype remains almost invariably the unmarried male) cloistered archaic existence affords him, and who treats any prospect of ‘progressive development’ in the running of university or college affairs with the utmost suspicion. Again, whether or not it bears any resemblance to reality, the popular cynical image of the Oxbridge don (much of which seems to have arisen from a period prior to the reforms of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Roach, 1959: 235–6) is of an individual comfortable in his sinecure, perhaps more interested in the quality of the college claret than in the quality of their own research, let alone the quality of an undergraduate’s education (e.g. Rose & Ziman, 1964).

Notes for my talk in Leeds tomorrow

It is increasingly hard to move without encountering the idea that social media is something of value for academics. The reasons offered are probably quite familiar by now. It helps ensure your research is visible, both inside and outside the academy. Many of us might be sceptical of the dominant discourse of impact within which such a concern for visibility tends to be expressed. I certainly am in many ways, worrying that this is irrevocably tied up in the instrumentalisation of research, the declining autonomy of researchers and the marketisation of the Academy within which research takes place. Nonetheless the imperative to make and demonstrate impact is already an entrenched characteristic of the research economy and looks likely to stay that way.

In this short talk, I will make the case that social media in general and blogging in particular represent a way to expand academic autonomy, improve the quality of our scholarship and nonetheless meet the demands of what I have elsewhere called the Accelerated Academy, all at the same time. This might seem implausible, so please bear with me. If it seems overly optimistic, let’s talk about this at the end because my actual view of the research economy is pretty grim and depressing. My enthusiasm for social media comes in large part because I see it as something that can, at least potentially work to ameliorate a whole series of problems that afflict those within the contemporary research economy.

A good way into this is to consider some of the other benefits increasingly held to obtain through academics using social media. I already mentioned visibility, internal to the academy and outside of it. Related to this, is the chance to practice communication with nonspecialist audiences. It’s a faster way to get your research findings out. It allows you to build an audience for future publications, in advance of their actual release. In doing so, it allows you to find people who share your research interests, as connections more or less inevitably form on the basis of what you publish and what you read online.

But the advantage that I’m most interested in and the one that will be key to the argument I’m making here, is that the more you write, the easier writing gets. The more you think, the easier thinking gets. My enthusiasm for social media in general, as well as blogging in particular, stems from the endless occasions they offer for thinking and writing.

But isn’t thinking and writing what we do anyway? Well yes, on one level, it is. Though I think there are important questions to be asked about how the accelerating pace of working life in contemporary universities impacts on the time and energy available for thinking and writing. But talk today is not about that.

It’s this presumably everyday quality to academic thinking and writing  which has increasingly left me confused about one of the most common concerns, even objections, to academic social media: isn’t it just one more thing for already busy people to do? On the surface, this makes complete sense. This is certainly true for some people. It’s almost certainly true for everyone at least some of the time. But much of what academics do on social media  should not be something extrinsic to their scholarship but instead should be constitutive of it. As the sci-fi author, digital rights activist and blogger Cory Doctorow puts it: blogging is “my major way of thinking through the stuff that matters to me”. This is true of myself as well. I think it’s true of many academics using social media, even if they don’t recognise it. Furthermore, I think much of the value that social media has for academics within the contemporary research economy won’t be actualised until this has become a ubiquitous feature of how we talk about the way we can use social media as researchers.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic social media. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

In this way, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it. Whether this non-instrumental exploration of ideas remains the norm or could be sustained in the long term is a different question – as I’ll come on to, I think there are reasons to worry that the research economy is inimical to this.

What does this all mean practice? I’m talking about quite straight forward practices which all of those conducting research engage in to differing degrees. I’ve often used the term ‘public notebook’ and the existence of non-public notebooks is the most obvious point of comparison here. Prior to starting a research blog early in my PhD, I use to scribble notes in a succession of moleskin notebooks – ones I would later struggle to decipher due to my scrawled handwriting. The radical sociologist C Wright Mills wrote a wonderful appendix to his famous The Sociological Imagination about scholarly craft: he argued for the necessity of keeping a ‘file’ in order to ‘keep one’s inner world awake’.

These are activities we all engage in but which, rather interestingly, tend not to feature in public discourse: the daily minutae of scholarship. Notebooks, filing cabinets, file cards, newspaper clippings, print outs, drawings, marginalia in books, annotated papers, reading lists etc. Modern digital equivalents involve tools like Evernote or OneNote. These have many of the advantages of using social media – they can also of course be integrated with them, for instance by quickly sharing notes from Evernote or automatically clipping content you discover on social media into the appropriate Evernote folder. But as with social media use, they have the advantage of mobility, in so far as that one can use them across devices and across contexts – rather than the careful work of keeping physical files or the necessity of ensuring one always has one’s physical journal and never, under any circumstances, lose it.

The features I discussed earlier might all sound individualistic. But it’s in considering how the use of social media differs from contemporary alternatives like Evernote that it becomes apparent how the benefits of social media are intrinsically social. Later in the book I mentioned earlier, Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work.

It’s in this sense that I’m arguing social media increases the autonomy of researchers, both individually and collectively. If we accept the argument that metrics necessarily entail the evisceration of self-governance, with hierarchical regulation replacing horizontal norms, then this new horizontal space of collaboration and cooperation begins to looks exceedingly valuable. It’s a new kind of space and one which could be easily destroyed if we too easily accept that what we do within it should be measured and incorporated into the logic of career advancement.

The kinds of scholarly communities of practice we can see perpetually coming to life online are obviously not confined to the digital sphere. But academic social media is at present profoundly generative of them, whereas the broader research economy is increasingly characterised by a competitive individualism which works to preclude them However I think this not just important within the academy but also in the relationships between academia and other institutional spheres. For instance, academic social media is changing how journalists and academics interact: it’s easier to identify academics, but it’s also easier to make demands upon them which might be unreasonable or unwelcome, often with only a cursory understanding of what they hope to achieve through such a potential collaboration. It’s also changing the relationships between social scientists and the communities they research, as organised groups increasingly monitor and engage with academic research, in ways that can throw up all such of problems. This is why the nature of the ‘third space’ of academic social media is so important.

There are all sorts of instrumental gains to be had through engaging with social media: increasing your visibility, expanding your network, ensuring your work is widely read, engaging with non-academics publics and making an impact outside of the academy. But there are gains to scholarship which are more important and perhaps more diffuse than this. What increasingly interests me is the tension between them the two tendencies: how the instrumental use of social media, encouraged within the contemporary research economy, might imperil the gains which I’ve suggested can be made on the level of craft and collaboration.

I’ve suggested that the value of social media for academics can be seen in terms of craft and careers. These two dimensions often overlap but I think it’s useful to separate them analytically: contributions to individual and collaborative scholarship on the one hand, contributions to the development of careers on the other. Obviously the former usually takes place in the context of the latter – though the rise of the ‘alt-academic’, pursuing scholarship without pursuing a traditional academic career, can be seen to break this link. But the relationship between them isn’t always clear. For instance, in recent work, myself and Filip Vostal have been exploring the manner in which the accelerative pressures found in the contemporary academy militate against good scholarship. If people are asked to do more with the same or less, then what effect does this have? If we construe it in traditional terms, particularly as something conversant with and contributing to ‘the literature’, then good scholarship becomes structurally difficult 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. Under such circumstances we come to encounter surface writing rather than depth writing, rearranging ideas rather than developing new ones: scholasticism on the one hand, empiricism on the other. My point is not to explore the accelerated academy here but simply to flag up how institutional changes complicate the link between craft and careers. This is the environment within which the latent value of social media for academics comes to be actualised along either dimension.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m particularly interested in how time pressure figures into the developing discourse about social media for academics. On the one hand, I think the idea of social media being ‘just one more thing to do’ is straight forwardly a mistaken way of understanding what academics do on social media. On the other hand, I think the temporal pressures to which academics are subject in their institutional lives will inevitably shape the character of their social media use:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandizement available (Ian Price)
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions: past commitments ‘choose’ for us
  4. The accelerative pleasures and creative inducements of ‘binge writing’ and working to a deadline (Maggie O’Neill)
  5. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully (Harmut Rosa)

These all contribute to a broader context in which speed becomes problematic within the academy. It comes to enjoy an immense psychic charge as something which feels like, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, the cause of and solution to all life’s problems:

Coupled with intense competition within the academic career structure, as well the broader spectre of redundancy which Bauman argues characterises academic life as a whole in late modernity, it’s inevitable that what Ruth Müller theorises as anticipatory acceleration arises as a situationally logical strategy: going faster without specific goal in mind, seeking to outpace competitors given limited positions available for a cohort. As I understand her argument, which I really recommend reading directly, this gives rise to a subjugation of present pleasures to anticipated future rewards, with a contraction of alternative futures envisaged by the subject. The more hyper kinetically you commit yourself to career advancement, pursued through anticipatory acceleration, the more difficult it becomes to climb off the treadmill because your horizons narrow to the next goal. Though her empirical work has focused on post-docs in the life sciences, the scope of her concepts seem broader than this, both in terms of discipline and career stages. The conditions she describes in the condition from post-doc to faculty surely also obtain in the transition from lecturer to senior lecturer, from senior lecturer to reader and from reader to professor.

The ensuing dynamic of competitive escalation is crucial to understanding labour in the contemporary academy. It is a social mechanism driving the intensification of labour and destroying solidarity, tied up in a life-destroying feedback loop with the systems of audit which work to replace the horizontal regulation of professional standards with the vertical regulation of metrics. The value of social media for academic craft can mitigate these effects by grounding individuals in non-instrumental motivations for their work (curiosity, playfulness, exploration) and facilitating collaboration between such individuals outside the rubric of competitive individualism. But how likely is this to continue? I’m interested in how what Jose Van Dijck calls the popularity principle intersects with the competitive individualism of the accelerated academy: will the metrics of social media become just one more way in which academics can evaluate themselves in relation to others and be evaluated as they proceed through an increasingly rigidly defined career structure? If the logic of careers comes to dominate academic social media, can the logic of craft survive? If not then what does this mean for the broader conditions of academic labour? The institutionalisation of alt-metrics seems likely to be the most important vector through which the answer to these questions will begin to unfold. How will social media activity be measured and how will this new process of measurement intersect with existing processes of measurement? Will alt-metrics unsettle existing hierarchies or simply lead to dual hierarchies that might converge upon the same academic celebrities who dominate the intellectual attention space?

However there are other substantive areas in which these issues are currently being played out: online harassment of academics, social media policies within universities, institutional reaction to online academic speech, regulation of the corporate brand, social media training and support offered by staff. I think the way in which the benefits of social media are coming to be framed is particularly interesting and we’re likely to see this come to be dominated by the language of ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ on the one hand, ‘academic citizenship’ and ‘academic civility’ on the other. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these things but what gets squeezed out in the middle is scholarship. I’ve not really talked about substantive cases in these areas today. There’s a few reasons for this: some of them are very contentious and I’m more comfortable writing about them then speaking about them, doing them justice requires a lot of empirical detail and would take a long time, it’s easy for this reason to get lost in detail and miss the broader picture. After all, it’s this broader picture which interests me. Social media is tied up in all manner of ways with the transformation of the university, as well as the transformation of the universities place within wider social life. There are many other factors, but the institutionalization of social media is a key vector in these unfolding changes. One which, I’ve tried to argue and hope we can discuss further, has important ramifications for academic labour.