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  • Mark 7:24 pm on May 13, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, , , , , , ,   

    What is platform literacy? 

    In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the idea of platform literacy. By this I mean a capacity to understand how platforms shape the action which takes place through them, sometimes in observable and explicit ways but usually in unobservable and implicit ones. It concerns our own (inter)actions and how this context facilitates or frustrates them, as well as the unseen ways in which it subtly moulds them and the responses of others to them.

    This understanding seems increasingly crucial to me because the alternative might otherwise be a diffuse paranoia. As knowledge of data brokerage and data politics expands throughout society, it generates a certainty that we are being manipulated but an unknowability about precisely who is doing the manipulation, how they are doing it and what the effects might be. Platform literacy helps ground this in a concrete understanding of specific processes and their implications for our agency.

    Any recommendations for reading on this are much appreciated! Particularly those with a pedagogical focus. I’ll be working my way through the Digital Polarisation Intiative’s work and the Polarisation MOOC in the meantime.

    • X. Li 2:15 am on November 10, 2018 Permalink

      Hello Mark!
      Thanks for sharing. I’m teaching a “Cross-platform” class as a part of a Graphic Design BFA curriculum and have been thinking about the topic.
      I found the article “The politics of ‘platforms’ ” really informative. https://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/handle/1813/12774/pop.pdf?sequence=1

      We might have a different focus in this but I’d definitely love to follow your thoughts on this.

  • Mark 12:35 pm on May 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Digital Universities,   

    E-mails outside of office hours 

    Taking inspiration from Mark Reed’s e-mail signature:

    I work two evenings a week, so if this email arrives outside office hours, please do not feel you have to reply until normal working hours.

    I’ve added this to my own:

    I often work unusual hours as my preferred way of balancing multiple roles. If this e-mail arrives outside of office hours, please do not feel obligated to respond until office hours have resumed.

    Any thoughts?

    • mcverbeke 9:01 pm on May 8, 2018 Permalink

      I’ve been thinking about this…I like it! I frequently work at 2 am. I do not expect a response, but I either get met with guff about the hours I keep or people worried about my sanity 😉

    • Mark 10:20 am on May 9, 2018 Permalink

      You could address that in the e-mail signature!?

  • Mark 7:22 pm on April 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , atari, Digital Universities, , , ,   

    Why would senior managers feel contemptuous of their expert staff? 

    At various points in the last few months, I’ve seen the claim made that the senior management of universities hold their staff in contempt. A claim like this can’t help but be polemic and I’m not sure how helpful it would be to examine the particular cases if we’re interested in addressing the broader question: why might managers come to feel contemptuous of their expert staff?

    From the perspective of higher education, it would be interesting to consider prima facie examples of such contempt in other sectors. This is one I stumbled across in Trouble Makers, by Leslie Berlin, describing the tensions in Atari after a new CEO took over the company and open hostilities broke out between developers and management. From pg 277:

    The programmers had asked Ray Kassar for a pay raise or a bonus, as well as recognition as the games’ authors on the cartridges. (Already some designers had taken to hiding their initials as “Easter eggs” in secret rooms that players could discover in the games themselves.) Kassar allegedly responded that the game programmer was no more essential to the company’s success than was the line worker who put the cartridge in a box.

    From pg 278:

    Even with the higher pay, many on the engineering side felt that Kassar and the managers he hired did not appreciate their ideas or their work. Kassar gave an interview in which he called the technical minds behind the games “superstars” but also “high-strung prima donnas.” Many programmers felt the jab was a closer approximation of Kassar’s real feelings.

    The case suggests a clear message to me: management can view the self-proclaimed expertise of staff as a ludicrous conceit on the part of a group who are just one feature of an organisational chart, with their capacity to exert themselves and demand respect provoking resentment on the part of a management who have their sense of autonomy challenged by this. How far away from higher education is this?

  • Mark 5:18 pm on March 15, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, ,   

    The Intellectual Self-Defence of #USSStrikes: Social Media, Critique and Collective Intellectuals 

    Towards the end of his life, Pierre Bourdieu underwent an activist turn and offered a public sociology which I’ve long thought we can learn much from. In his Firing Back, he offers important ideas about how academics and social movements can work together. He maintains that “the work of academic researchers is indispensable to disclose and dismantle the strategies incubated and implement by the big multinational corporations and international bodies” who are able to “enlist unprecedented scientific, technical and cultural resources” to their cause (pg 46). He goes on to explain how such cooperation necessitates that activists and academics overcome their differing orientations:

    Though they are different in their training and social trajectories, researchers engaged in activist work and activists interested in research must learn to work together, overcoming all the prejudices they may harbour about one another. They must endeavour to cast off their routines and presuppositions associated with membership in universes governed by different laws and logics by establishing modes of communication and discussion of a new type.

    One of many things which has fascinated me during the recent university strikes has been how academics participate as activists in a quintessentially academic way. This is how I put it earlier in the week:


    I suspect I’ll be trying for some time to analyse and articulate the characteristics of the social media commentary which seems to have played such a significant part in this dispute. This has spanned multiple genres: auto-ethnography, investigative journalism, quantitative analysis, organisational documentation. But they are all “modes of communication and discussion of a new type” relating to events taking place within higher education which are of concern to all parties to the exchange, as opposed to being specialised communication within a narrow subset of academics about events taking place ‘out there’.

    In doing so, it moves beyond the limitations of critique as it is conducted within the academy where, as he puts it on pg 21, “it enchants itself without ever being in a  position to really threaten anyone about anything”. We can see here the outlines of a reconstruction of the “whole edifice of critical thought” driven by the immediate need by academics for intellectual self-defence in the face of a disingenuous and calculating onslaught. Is there an emergent subject to be found in this activity? This would be an immense overstatement but this is the question I feel we should be orientating ourselves towards. As Bourdieu writes later on the same page:

    This is where the collective intellectual can play its unique role, by helping to create the social conditions for the collective production of realistic utopias. It can organise or orchestrate joint research on novel forms of political action, on new manners of mobilising and of making mobilised people work together, on new ways of elaborating projects and bringing them to fruition together. It can play the role of midwife by assisting the dynamics of working groups in their effort to express, and thereby discover, what they are and what they could or should be, and by helping with the reappropriation and accumulation of the immense social stock of knowledge on the social world with which the social world is pregnant.

    This is not where we are but it is where we could be. There are many questions to answer about the campaign of the last four weeks, as well as further struggle in a fight which is far from over. But we should take stock of the gains that we have made, as well as the spontaneous methodologies which have contributed to them. I’m convinced something very important happened with how social media was used by academics in the last four weeks, driven by:

    1. a mass harmonisation of intellectual attention
    2. emergent cooperation and distributed creativity by workers usually bound in to hyper-individualised temporal regimes
    3. the necessity of intellectual self-defence

    How can we ensure this activity survives when these conditions are not present? To put it crudely, it seems obvious it was in part an expression of people having much more discretionary time available when their usual daily obligations were absent. But there is more to it than this and we need to understand what this supplement is, how we can nurture it and how we can apply it to maximal effect.

  • Mark 4:46 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, student engagement, ,   

    ‘Student Experience’ and the social ontology of the student 

    What is a ‘student’? To many outside higher education, such a question would seem absurd. A student is “a person who is studying at a university or other place of higher education”. But what this means has undergone profound change in recent years, such that ‘the student’ as a category, as well as a material factor within the university, encompasses a whole range of mutually exclusive roles. This is how Clive Barnett describes them in an incredibly insightful blog post:

    And it’s worth noting, in the middle of all this, just how variable the subject of ‘The Student’ has become. It’s easy to bemoan the idea that students are increasingly treated as consumers, but it in fact students are figured in various ways in contemporary higher education policy and strategy: as future recruits, they serve as security against which Universities can secure loans; they are quite publicly presented, amazingly, as superficial air-heads who are easily dazzled by ‘shiny buildings’ when making life-changing decisions; they are expected to be only ever motivated as utility-maximisers by the promise of future earnings in their choices and expectations and satisfactions (giving rise to a weird sense of what ‘vocational‘ means in education, which is reduced to quite instrumental ideas about value for money; which doesn’t leave much space for the idea of a calling, a passion, a life’s worth of mission); and, rather importantly given the debt-leveraged nature of all this building work, as reliable rent-payers. And this disaggregation of ‘The Student’ into a dispersed range of abstract singularities facilitates in turn the re-aggregation of “student voice” and “student experience”, always and only ever spoken-for by University managers.

    Some of these are purely cultural, identifying the category in certain ways unlikely to have effects upon the person occupying the role, beyond leaving them exposed to all manner of management guff. Others are purely structural, such that each fee-paying student registers as a “reliable rent-payer” regardless of their awareness or understanding of this mechanism. However many exists unevenly between the two, disrupting the student experience just as “student experience” becomes an object of managerial intervention.

    Caught between these powerful forces, disaggregated and re-aggregated through rapidly evolving cultural and structural mechanisms, we find the real people who are the students. If we understand the social ontology of the student adequately, would it be possible to conceive of a ‘student experience’ agenda which addresses them as people? Can we use the discursive room which the prominence of ‘student experience’ opens up to find ways of encouraging and facilitating student voice which represent students in their totality?

  • Mark 4:21 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, , , , , ucu strikes, uss stries   

    Social media, #USSStrikes and Digital Sociology 

    It was perhaps inevitable that I would find myself obsessing over the role of social media in the current strikes. In my academic life, I’m a sociologist studying how social media is used within universities and how this is changing the academy. In my non-academic life, I’m a digital engagement specialist at a charity and a social media consultant. Since the start of the strike, I’ve been helping out with the social media for the Cambridge UCU branch while running the #FromThePicketLines campaign for The Sociological Review. This has left me fascinated by how the strike is being represented, co-ordinated and responded to through Twitter.

    The most enjoyable aspect of this has been an outpouring of multimedia creativity which has quickly been circulated through these channels. In part, it is easier to produce such material as barriers to production have lowered with each successive generation of smart phones and a rapidly consolidating culture of amateur multimedia production. But there has also been a mimesis effect, as initial examples have spurred other branches and campaigns to produce their own multimedia project. This also reflects the visual turn in social media, initially driven by Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat before older platforms expanded their visual capacities to avoid losing users to these newer competitors. For instance, 1,582 tweets were made with the hashtag #GIFusourpensions after the first week of the strike, using the animated GIFs now built into the Twitter platform to illustrate the evolving strike using extracts from popular culture. These 720 users produced 3,265,401 impressions between them (occasions on which a post was seen by a user). There have also been creative uses of tools which streamline the process of generating social media content, such as meme generators and caption makers, with my favourite example being a vice-chancellor themed Hitler bunker parody. As the strike has progressed, we have seen increasing numbers of videos being produced, ranging from serious attempts to explain the concept of the picket line through to comedic offerings which gently satirise the privilege of those who appear in them. While any one example is probably insignificant, the aggregate effect represents an expansion of symbolic participation in the strike, itself significant for knowledge workers without many material correlates to their labour or its withdrawal.

    What fascinates me about this is how it has arisen spontaneously, without prior coordination or any meaningful sense of what one does with social media under these circumstances. It would obviously be mistaken to imagine that branches were previously insulated from one another, acting in institutional silos while only the national organisation linked all the nodes together. To a large extent, we have seen activists around the country taking up these social media platforms as tools, perhaps informed by their past professional and/or activist experience of them, finding uses which are enjoyable but also finding receptive audiences. The fact these audiences are often made up of other activists, as well as a broader academic community which has in effect taken to activism en masse, incites them towards similar action. For all that popular debate has been concerned with ‘filter bubbles’, we see the other side of online community here, as people with converging motivations inspire each other in pursuit of common aims.

    These are just speculative thoughts, informed by helping with the social media of my local UCU branch and running a #fromthepicketline social media campaign as part of my (non-academic) day job during the strike. But there are a great many empirical questions which have been raised by the role of social media in this strike, inviting answers which would have a double significance as matters of union strategy but also as empirical social science.

  • Mark 10:33 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, , ,   

    Collective action and the realisation of your own smallness 

    After nine days of strike action, I’ve begun to realise how formative I have found this experience and how frequently I will think back to it in coming months and years. In part, this is a reflection of the novelty of the action itself for me but also the novelty of the context in which this action is being taken. When I finished a three year part-time postdoc at the University of Warwick in January 2017, I was ready to be outside of the university for some time as a department I had previously felt at home in had become unrecognisable to me and the university itself unwelcoming. After a year spent consulting while continuing to work in my role as Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review Foundation, in late January I joined the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge as a part-time postdoc in the new Culture, Politics and Global Justice.

    I found it a strange experience being part of a new university for the first time in a long time, with the partial exception of nine months at LSE when the experience was mediated by being part of a tightly organised group. This is compounded by the peculiarities of Cambridge, as I tried to get my head around the mundane operations of a university quite unlike any other I had been part of. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had mastered it as of February 22nd. I still hadn’t managed to log into my office computer or discovered how to access one of the many libraries. Irritatingly, I can’t get Edu Roam to work, in spite of this being the one thing I really missed when not attached to a university. But it was nonetheless the case that I had started to learn my way around the place. I had begun to form routines and a certain Cambridge-inflected rhythm was beginning to enter into my day to day life, even on the three days a week where I was working elsewhere. Then the strike began.

    I think of myself as someone who is politically active. At different points in my life I’ve campaigned for the Labour Party, the Green Party, Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Stop The War and various others which failed to lodge themselves in my memory to the same extent. I’ve stood as a local councillor and organised fund raisers for multiple charities. I helped setup Campaign for the Public University and a local anti-arms trade campaign. I’ve run a speaker series with a political purpose and written political articles for blogs and zines. I’m currently running the digital engagement for the Imagine 2027 project and volunteering at a homeless shelter. But if I’m honest, it has always been tangential to my everyday existence. It has always been easily boxed, in spite of the significance I have accorded it in my own self-understanding at various points in my life. It has been something to put down and pick up. It has been something I do on my own terms or don’t do at all. The strike has left me reflecting on why this is the case, as well as how this might express a broader academic condition. A wonderful essay in the Varsity by a politics student at Cambridge captured at least part of this wider malaise. Describing the strikes which have engulfed the university, Alice Hawkins identifies the agency this demands from those involved or even just impacted by them:

    The impacts of these strikes are extraordinary because they are intimate. They are forcing engagement with the real political issues that have a direct impact upon us – right now, standing outside our lecture halls, and for a long time into the future. They are forcing a new level of cognizance of the institutional power structures within which we exist, yet so often fail to recognise. They are forcing a recognition of the political agency which we all possess. And from my experience, the best kind of political agents that we can strive to be – the best kind of people – are those who are thoughtful. Those who can reflect on their own context, experiences, and values to challenge their own assumptions about the way the world works, and evaluate their role within it.

    Does this pose a particular challenge for those whose occupations revolve around discussing such action? The evidence would suggest it does:

    Yet, from my experience, there exists in this institution a bizarre cognitive dissonance between people’s willingness to engage in political theory and their willingness to engage in political reality. I know firsthand which place is the more comfortable place to be. I know the temptation that exists to retreat from the latter into the safe confines of intellectualised debate and armchair philosophising in the former. But if I’m not prepared to at least attempt to overcome this, I’m really going to have to start asking myself what kind of student of politics I think I am.

    A similar question is often asked of those university leaders whose avowed radicalism is belied by the actions they undertake at their universities. As many have pointed out the University of Sussex Vice Chancellor Adam Tickell once wrote of his ambition to “slay the neoliberal dragon” yet now presides over an aggressively marketised institution in which students attempting to do precisely that have found themselves objects of police violence. However my favourite example is the radical geographer Nigel Thrift, something which is perhaps unsurprising given I spent over a decade at the University of Warwick. But this still positions the cognitive dissonance as something out there rather than a feature of oneself and the last few weeks have left me thinking about how it exists within me rather than merely being a feature of self-seeking university leaders who it is easy (and fun) to pick apart at a distance. Defining myself as someone who regularly engages in political action has, it seems to me, propped up a version of this cognitive dissonance: externalising my own limitations about politics on to others.

    In parallel to this, the strike has forced me to confront the role of work in my life, recognising how I rely on it to provide order to the everyday flow of my experience. I find it much more unsettling than I expected to suspend routine in this way. It’s compounded by the weird environment created when those you co-exist with have similarly suspended their routines. This collective suspension of routine reveals how open are shared lives really are, in spite of the false necessity which our language and customs imbue them with. The real constraints on doing things differently are elaborate rather than powerful, multifaceted and woven into the fabric of our daily lives rather than being external forces pressing down upon us. But our autonomy leaves us organising our existence in a way which accentuates their power, isolating us from the creative possibilities which emerge from gathering together with a shared commitment and an open agenda, as we have been doing every day on a picket line.

    Most of all it has left me thinking about action and the cognitive, emotional and financial costs associated with it. It is tiring to be an agent, working with others to express and enact collective purposes rather than being carried along by the tides of habit which underpin social order. It also involves recognising how small your own life is, in spite of the significance which the quotidian terms of your existence accord to it. We are dependent on others, shaped by others, dominated by others. The hilarity of the Universities UK Twitter meltdown is coupled with a terrifying realisation of how incompetent these people who shape our lives really are. How similarly mired they are in their own smallness, with all the particularly toxic qualities which flow from their status, commitments and projects. The whole thing has left me newly aware of how alienated I am and have been for a long time. I run up against limitations I was only dimly aware of having when I struggle to participate in the way I want, withdrawing into myself when I want to be out there and longing for a routine which I know would isolate me from current events. It’s also left me newly aware how this capacity to withdraw is a function of my own privilege, one that has shaped me in all sorts of ways I’m only now beginning to understand. Ways I want to try and transcend.

    A brief but unpleasant experience on the picket line took place earlier this week. A college officer aggressively interrogated my presence outside my place of work and asked for my name so it could be reported to my head of department. The principal of the college then emerged to demand we leave the picket line, shouting at me to “leave now” without any attempt to explain the legal or moral justification for this request (beyond the college officer’s repeated and bewildering assertion that it wasn’t my place of work because it was rented by my employer rather than owned by it). After contemplating whether to walk away, we stayed and were faced with another interrogation during which the officer in question denied any threat had been made and ridiculed the idea his behaviour had been anything other than polite.

    The subsequent intervention of the union was reassuring and we made it a point of principle to sustain the picket the following day, preparing ourselves to explain firmly but politely that they had no basis for their request and should please stop harassing our picket. As empowering as the return was, it was a catharsis predicated upon a feeling of shame provoked by my initial acquiescence to a request that was neither legitimate nor justified. It’s frustrating to realise how easily authority you deny intellectually can nonetheless exercise a power over you in practice. There’s a particular poignancy with which l’esprit de l’escalier occurs under such circumstances, as rumination about how you might have reacted becomes a way to avoid the unpleasant feelings which your failure to act had provoked within you. But my initial acquiescence to this, my lack of preparation for others trying to exercise power over me in problematic ways, underscored my own privilege even further in a much deeper manner than the usually intellectualised way in which I had reflected on it previously.

    Three weeks of the strike have left me aware of my own moulding with an immediacy I had never had before. What I can do, what I can’t do. What I can be, what I can’t be. The gap between my self-concept and my self, the creative tension that can arise from this but the capacity for illusion which is its unspoken corollary. It’s also left me with a sense of collective efficacy I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. A sense of how we can realise other possibilities and transcend the smallness which actuality leaves us mired within, but only if we do so collectively. There’s no personal routine, no writing project, no transition and no promotion which can accomplish the same effect if undertaken in an individualised way. The whole experience has left me newly aware of my own alienation while also showing me how to transcend it. The world feels unsettling but profoundly open to me at the moment. It’s going to be strange going back to work.

    • Kriss Fearon (@christabel6) 1:10 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      Mark, you are always thoughtful but rarely as personally reflective as you have been here. I like it, and can really relate to what you say.

    • lizmorrish 2:31 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      This is excellent and so helpful for me in constructing my own analysis of institutional abuse of power, past and present. Universities coerce in us the most frightening of hypocrisies. The political forcing ground of engagement of the last 3 weeks will hopefully give birth to a more ‘woke’ workforce prepared to resist this. Analysing and discussing institutional power will need to be part of our DNA henceforth.

    • Mark 5:26 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      that’s really nice to hear, thanks Kriss.

    • Mark 5:27 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      Yes definitely, I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘organisational literacy’ as a political goal and how social media can help entrench it.

    • Kriss Fearon (@christabel6) 10:41 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      Also if you haven’t seen Sara Ahmed’s blog or Twitter feed on her research on making harassment complaints in HE, it is well worth a look. She is @feminiskilljoy.

    • Cathy R 9:02 pm on March 14, 2018 Permalink

      Great article, Mark. Thank you. One of the unexpected (but incredibly valuable) outcomes of collective action is that realisation of both individual powerlessness and the potential of exercising collective power.

      When we have been driven to strike in the past (Australian university context), the thing that has really turned members out onto the picket line is the harsh reality of the university management’s naked exercise of power. The power to say “no”, the power to ignore the people they otherwise claim to be “our most important asset” (an expression offensive in itself, and all the more so for its manipulative intent), the power to threaten our livelihoods and wellbeing.

      The (re)discovery of the power of collective action is a great thing. The exhilaration of telling a university security officer “no, we’re not moving, and we will continue to stop traffic and tell people why we’re here”, the sheer catharsis of taking action on years of pent-up frustration due to overwork, ridiculous bureaucratic requirements and ever-escalating expectations of productivity (both research output and student enrolments).

      And yes, as you say, for those who choose to reflect, the realisation of privilege in a broader context. The critical questioning: what happens to workers who are not in a position to withdraw their labour? Those in the gig economy, the minimum wage workers, our own casual staff…? To me, as a union leader and poltical activist, the potential personal and political transformation that can result from collective industrial action is reward in itself – and a source of hope.

      Best wishes and solidarity to you and your sisters and brothers on the picket lines.

    • Mark 7:40 pm on March 15, 2018 Permalink

      I haven’t read it for ages, I think it will be particularly poignant to go back and start reading it properly again.

    • Mark 7:43 pm on March 15, 2018 Permalink

      This is a kind and insightful response, thanks Cathy. This had been the most personal thing I’d published in a long time & I was trying to make sense of the feelings the strike was provoking in me. Your comment has helped me see those feelings with greater clarity. Thank you 🙂

  • Mark 10:02 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cognitive dissonance, Digital Universities, , radical academics, , vice chancellors   

    The intellectual adventure of slaying the neoliberal beast 

    Social media reassures me I’m not alone in my fascination with Sussex VC Adam Tickell’s role in the current university crisis. As Tom Slater put it, it’s disturbing to realise that “someone who is capable of such excellent critical analysis, expressed with such elegance, has now become an appalling neoliberal VC, who is apparently treating his striking staff with sneering and arrogant disdain”. His quote from a 1995 paper about “slaying the neoliberal beast” has done the rounds on social media and Tickell has been held up as an example of an avowedly radical academic turned neoliberal manager, raising an obvious question: what happened? Were his politics merely a sham to win the approval of his peers? Has he somehow persuaded himself his current actions conform with those politics? Is it merely the case that his politics have changed? Or does reaching such a position necessitate insulating one’s working life from one’s politics in a manner which ensures such cognitive dissonance won’t be an impediment to your day job?

    These are questions which have fascinated me for a long time. As someone who spent over a decade at the University of Warwick, I found myself asking them about Nigel Thrift on many occasions. The most pronounced occasion was when the release of Thrift’s co-authored book, Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left, coincided with a particularly active period of political protest on campus. The university sought to remove occupying students and forcefully resisted their demands precisely as the vice chancellor opined about the importance of the political and the necessity that new openings be taken up by the left. Not long after this police called to campus attacked occupying students in an act of needless brutality. As I tweeted at the time, his own book contained an account of state power and violence, as well as a call to recognise the creativity of those working within mediating organisations. If I read him correctly, he offers a turgidly polysyllabic but theoretically compelling account of why he should have been held responsible for these actions:


    In the absence of an in-depth qualitative project which seek to understand the personal morphogenesis of vice-chancellors, it will be difficult to ever reconcile these questions. The occasions on which I’ve discussed these questions with those who’ve actually spent significant amounts of time with such people, including at least one who had been in pretty senior university management, leave me assuming the worst about the people concerned. Nonetheless, I find a default assumption of the venality of power unsatisfying. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to look through Tickell’s work to see if there are signs of his later development in his early analysis.

    I since found Tom Slater, co-editor of The Sociological Review, had the same idea and this makes me wonder if such analysis could be an interesting exercise in the sociological analysis: the sociology of ideas to inform a biographical analysis of the political economy of higher education? It is obviously the case that we cannot read back an individual’s motivations and commitments from their writing in a straight-forward manner. This is particularly so when it comes to the peculiar conventions of academic writing, as well as the limited audience of peers to whom such writing is primarily directed. Nonetheless, I think it’s feasible to bracket those considerations and take the writing seriously as an expression of belief, in order to understand the possible ramifications those beliefs had for the individual’s subsequent choices and trajectory. To that end, here are some beliefs expressed by Tickell in his Reflections on Activism and the Academy:

    • It is important to distinguish between different varieties of capitalism. Even if we might agree that capitalism is the enemy in the abstract because we see it as an inherently exploitative system based on inequality, we must recognise “that the living standards of people can both improve and deteriorate within the system”. For this reason, we identify neoliberalism as “the most potent threat” while recognising the limitations of what we can do and the compromises necessary to do it.
    • It is important to  “work at the community level, to use people’s understandings of the problems and potentials of their lives in order to help them to improve their lives” but we have to recognise “the potential achievements at the microlevel are limited”. We can no more solve problems such as homelessness or widening inequality through action at the community level then we can by writing papers, even if our action may be components of a broader solution. Neoliberals “operate on the national and international levels” so “neoliberalism needs to be resisted at these levels.
    • “It is not enough to understand, we must act on our understandings”. This action inevitably involves compromise and engagement on different levels with the “complex, multifaceted structure” which is the state. Purity is not an option if you want to make a difference. Much as the state can be “detrimental and reactionary” it is not necessarily so and a fatalism about power obscures the opportunities we have to exercise an influence over it. What might make sense on an “abstract level” becomes indefensible on a political level for Tickell, as someone who “would opt for a welfare state any day”.

    A lowering of expectations follows from these points, with Tickell suggesting that “perhaps we should set our sights a little lower than capitalism and attempt to slay the neoliberal beast”. In fact, it’s not clear even this is his ambition, as he ends with a call which is not mutually exclusive but nonetheless somewhat different:  to strengthen civil society: “we need to help in the construction of a new, better meso level social order which may involve collaboration with the state and even with capital (itself a contradictory phenomenon)”.

    From anti-capitalism to anti-neoliberalism to strengthening civil society in the space of a four page essay. If this deflation of ambition happens within the context of radical writing, what hope was there to sustain a critical outlook over the course of a career? Tickell sets up his radicalism in terms of a realism which would always be deflationary: bracket ‘abstract’ considerations in order to focus upon the opportunities available in this particular moment and the capacity we have to realise them. It might follow from this that we seek to extend our capacity to realise these concrete steps, congratulating ourselves on avoiding the abstractions in which our colleagues are mired in while we make a real difference to the world. What could be better than running a university for someone committed to strengthening the meso-level social order in a practical and immediate way?

    • landzek 6:39 pm on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      It sounds eerily similar to that saying “if you want a liberal when you’re young you have no heart, and if you want conservative when you’re older then you have no brain”

      I wonder if it’s just a simple function of getting older and having a house in having things and enjoying the salary that you get but then along with that comes certain responsibilities and obligations to people that you work under or for. Whereas when we are young we don’t have those kinds of obligations and we still think we can change the world. When you got a good life and good income I think you Kinda don’t want the world to change, And new ideas can become scary.


    • landzek 6:40 pm on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Not ‘want’. Aren’t. Damn auto correct. 🙂

    • landzek 6:42 pm on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      And come to think of it, even the most liberal ideas become conservative ideas when you stick to them like dogma.

    • Mark 4:17 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      I really don’t think conservatism is a function of age. If it was, political views would be clearly delineated by age and they’re obviously not. Take your broader point though, I’d like to understand how these play out alongside many many many others factors in shaping how we change politically as we get older.

    • landzek 1:52 pm on April 2, 2018 Permalink

      Yes. Age does not determine politics… But it seems to me that there could be some sort of general progression if someone who is young is liberal and goes crazy and parties and travel the world and everything there seems like there could be as you get older calming down. Like a certain natural progression, where now you have a house and a family and so you’re more interested in securing those things. Seems like that’s the kind a different progression say if someone were total staunch conservative when they were 15 and join the ASP government and then they go to college and meet their husband or wife and their children are out on their own by the time they’re 40, and at 45 or 50 all the sudden they go crazy and travel the world and start partying and not giving a shit and wearing tie-dye T-shirts in Birkenstock seems like that’s a kind of a different progression say if someone were total staunch conservative when they were 15 and join their ASP government and then they go to college and meet their husband or wife and their children are out on their own by the time they’re 40, and at 45 or 50 all the sudden they go crazy and travel the world and start partying and not giving a shit and wearing tie-dye T-shirts in Birkenstockss. This latter seems kind of more like a break, like it doesn’t seem so natural, in fact some people maybe it could be called a midlife crisis if someone were to do that.

      They don’t call a young person who was crazy getting older and suddenly being concerned about having a bank account they don’t call dad a midlife crisis or some sort of crisis.


    • landzek 1:53 pm on April 2, 2018 Permalink

      Not by the time the children are 40, by the time the parents are 40…

    • landzek 1:53 pm on April 2, 2018 Permalink

      Wow that post just doubled and repeated itself. 🧐

    • landzek 1:57 pm on April 2, 2018 Permalink

      But I would add also, philosophically, that just because people speak a certain way when they’re young doesn’t mean I necessarily “our“ that way. I think that’s one of the problems with what we generally called postmodern theory and just it’s a fact on things it seems ( but that could be overgeneralization perhaps people of always been manipulating things) . but people might have a certain kind of selfish agenda and so people speak a certain way because they see that it’s going to gather a certain crowd allow themselves certain avenues in a program, but they aren’t really “that kind of person”. And this is not to say that there’s some sort of duplicity going on in their head or anything but that they’re just a certain type of person that thinks that everyone is doing it and they’re just better at it. So when they get established and they’ve sold a few bucks and they have a certain name for themselves and they are established at a university in their teaching and they have certain credentials in an identity and I feel really good about themselves all the sudden some kids come along some students… some people get older and they just have an attitude and they feel insecure and they don’t even know it until it hits them.


    • Mark 5:54 pm on April 3, 2018 Permalink

      I’m still not convinced sorry! I’m not denying people change with age or that some people go through the changes you’re talking about, I just can’t see the age is something that helps us explain these changes and it actively obscures other kinds of changes to focus upon it.

    • landzek 6:32 pm on April 3, 2018 Permalink

      At risk of appearing an anarchist; it appears to me that you feel like there must be some real reason that behaves as a substrate upon which all human beings behave. I submit that it might be possible that whatever sort of psychological or cultural or maturation factors might be available to explain his behavior might only serve to refi this idealism of R reason, such that where it might explain his instance it might only serve to narrow the type of people who are allowed to be included eventually in what is “reasonable“, so far as there is some sort of problem with him behaving in a certain manner before under a certain label and then now seemingly behaving oppositely or contrary to what he appeared before hand.

      I’m suggesting that there is no inconsistency in his behavior. That perhaps what we are perceiving as an inconsistency is really indicating a failure in our matter of appropriating how people are for what they do.

      What I see when I read your post here is The possibility ofconsistency of person.

      But then I tend to look at things through the case of outliers and not through statistical correlation. I have a certain issue with catering application to the “greatest common good”. Because what comes up for me eventually is a narrow systematize version of what is allowed to be included as human being.

      But I’m not so much offended at this guy you talking about as I am amused. 😆. Because to me just appears like an idiot.lol. But when it comes down to critical Theory and Acadamy we’re not allowed to just call the person an idiot and leave it be we have to come down with logical and proven argumentative strategies for a while we may want to label various people as certain types. So in that area I rescind my calling him a moron. 👽

  • Mark 7:15 am on March 1, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, , , , ,   

    The Sociology of Trolling 

    What is a troll? The term is encountered with ever greater frequency yet its meaning has changed with the years, moving from a definition in terms of motivation (deliberately producing discord for amusement) to a definition in terms of behaviour (the fact of having produced discord in an online community). My fear is this change collapses the sociology of trolling into a psychology of trolling, reading back common personality traits from a common behaviour. This matters because it leads us to misunderstand trolling, including the possibility we should see it as a symptom of broader political problems which can only be adequately addressed in a political way.

    This is a line of thought I found myself returning to when reading George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage. On loc 852 he writes:

    When I make the mistake of reading the online comments below my articles –or anyone else’s –the image that strikes me is of people trapped, alone in their cars, in a traffic jam, unable to see past the vehicle in front of them. Their anger and aggression is focused on the drivers ahead, and they lean on the horn, blaring pointlessly at them. Their isolation and frustration blind them to the context: the reasons for the jam, the reasons for their anger, the wider problems the snarl-up might reveal. Alienation, separation and stress suppress empathy, understanding, curiosity and cooperation. Deep thought becomes impossible. Rather than deliberating together to solve our common problems, we shout and shake our fists at each other.

    This is not to excuse what is often inexcusable behaviour. But it is to stress the necessity of understanding it. This is particularly important given the figure of the troll is increasingly influencing the terms under which the conditions of exchange are being established on social media platforms. In some cases, these might be technical tweaks which are opaque to users, whereas in others they are important shifts which respond to external political pressure. Our current concept of the ‘troll’ is so amorphous, liable to be stretched and expanded so easily to support a pre-existing agenda, it is crucial that we interrogate how it is deployed to support technical and political interventions, even when we agree with the substance of them.

  • Mark 11:46 am on February 26, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Digital Universities, , , , , , ussstrike   

    Social media strategy and #USSStrikes 

    In the last week, I’ve found myself obsessing about the use of social media in #USSStrikes. This was probably inevitable, helping with two social media campaigns related to the strike while also being someone who studies social media. In preparation for a teach out later today and to feed into the social media strategy for my local branch, I spent a couple of hours this morning preparing some thoughts on social media strategy for #USSStrikes and reading a really helpful paper someone sent me about @UCU.

    In this 2015 paper, Andy Hodder and David Houghton offered a systematic analysis of @UCU’s twitter activity over a four month period. They frame this in terms of the uptake of the internet by trade unions, which in the earlier literature was “centred around debates on optimistic and pessimistic opinions about the possibilities for the Internet to enable union renewal” (174). The core claim of the optimists was a now familiar one: internet communications made it possible to flatten the hierarchies of trade unions, producing a more distributed and democratic discourse in the process. However the pessimists recognised that new communications technologies can be taken up by existing elites within organisations in order to extend their control over deliberation, contrary to the assumption of a binary opposition between bureucracy and the internet (174).

    Hodder and Houghton reconsider these considerations in terms of the emergence of social media, which they recognise as less a technological innovation (for these capacities existed in ‘Web 1.0’) as an extension and mainstreaming of existing opportunities, facilitated by a technical infrastructure allowing much greater opportunity to access the internet. This leads them to stress how a platform like Twitter has no intrinsic democratising effect on trade unions, simply offering another channel through which the existing leadership can formulate, communicate and manage a collective message:

    However, for example, while Twitter largely facilitates interaction and conversation between users, it still enables a union to control what message is coming from an account, and to monitor and control the content of such communication. Therefore, the way in which social media platforms are used by unions can reinforce the power and
    authority of union leadership. (175)

    The novelty is in how fast moving these platforms are rather than how organisations approach them. It is possible these communications challenges drive pluralism through making traditional message discipline difficult to sustain and incentivising engagement as a root to increasing visibility online. Their empirical study sought to clarify this through three research questions:

    1. Is the content of the message in line with mobilisation theory?
    2. What is being said by trade unions on social media?
    3. Who are the audience?

    The four month period in which they collected and categorised all @UCU tweets (original, retweet or conversational) included four instances of strike action. The original tweets were coded in terms of mobilisation theory: framing of an injustice, attribution of blame for the injustice or evidence of action. 61.79% of the original tweets could be coded in this way. They take this to mean that “although UCU is using a modern platform to communicate, the content of the majority of tweets (61.79 per cent) remains in the traditional style of unions” which I’m not sure I agree with (185). In a parallel analysis, all  tweets were subsequently categorised as recruitment, campaigning, external campaigning, strike building, strike action, solidarity, engagement, news, other. This analysis produced a range of interesting findings:

    • There was little use of Twitter for recruitment during this period: only 4 instances. I found this particularly striking given it was during a period where there was repeated industrial action, higher visibility and a greater propensity of non-members who were engaging with @UCU to join.
    • This finding on pg 181 seems particularly important: “An interesting approach UCU adopted was to tweet to those affected by industrial action—students—explaining the reason, purpose and necessity of such action”. My hunch is the capacity of social media to not only generate solidarity between staff and students but also to produce action on the basis of this has barely been tapped.
    • Another finding on pg 181 which seems interesting: “UCU frequently retweeted posts that linked current issues to wider cultural references, or current Twitter trends, often containing humour. For example, a parody of Monty Python’s The Life or Brian, ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?’ had been tweeted by users in a video entitled, ‘What Have the Unions Ever Done For Us?’, which listed union successes. Links to the profession were also made around Valentine’s Day, when a Twitter trend for academic valentine’s poems was hijacked by users writing similar style poems about the pay dispute, which UCU often retweeted.” My impression has been this has declined with time but I’ve not examined it systematically.
    • They note how useful social media is for allowing “workforce that does not have common, set hours or a physical place of work when they are not teaching or attending meetings” to signal their participation in strike action, expanding visibility beyond the picket line (182).
    • @UCU was on the whole more active during strike periods, retweeting more often but engaging in less conversation (182-183). This presumably reflects greater engagement coupled with greater demands on the time of union staff. But could carefully escalated conversational engagement prove to be a crucial strategy during strike periods? In its absence simply retweeting more could be seen as “an attempt to demonstrate some form of controlled interaction with followers” (186) without the underlying reality.
    • It was interesting to note that in spite of the decline in conversational engagement, @UCU was well engaged with publications such as Times Higher Education via Twitter: “UCU was particularly engaging with the Times Higher Education’s request via Twitter for details on those VCs earning more than £100,000 per annum. In these tweets, the language became increasingly subversive towards institutions, VCs and UCEA, especially regarding pay deductions for participation in the strike action.” 
    • Tweets were used to coordinate strike action, being “sent to indicate when strike action began, but also when members
      should return to work, coordinating the different picket lines and those working from home who had ‘downed tools’ in their own way” (183). Coupled with the aforementioned conversational strategy, I wonder if this could be used more directly in order to address some of the confusion and uncertainty which circulated online in the run up to the current extended period of strike action?
    • Unsurprisingly, sharing solidarity messages was a distinct feature of @UCU’s tweeting during the period.
    • Another interesting observation they made in the paper was the non-existent relationship between the size of a membership and the size of a Twitter following for the trade unions they analysed.

    It was particularly interesting to see who UCU was engaging with. This classification is difficult on social media and the author’s chose to interpret multiple self-identifications into which ever was most relevant to the union:

    Towards the end of the paper, the authors acknowledge the limitation of focusing only on @UCU. The question which seems urgent to me is: how are branches using social media? Can it be analysed in the terms above to understand strengths and weakness? How can @UCU maximise its engagement to harness the reach and creativity of these branches? How can branches develop their own strategies which hook in to national campaigning in an effective and sustainable way? These issues are not a million miles away from ones which Labour has dealt with in the last two years, as the run away success of their social media strategy has come from building a flexible and open relationship with a vast array of affiliated initiatives.

    Any thoughts on this are much appreciated. We are shaping the local branch’s social media strategy on the fly, as I suspect are many other branches around the country. To whatever extent time allows, it would be great to share experiences and coordinate action, particularly as the strike continues beyond this week.

    • Tony Coughlan 8:46 am on March 3, 2018 Permalink

      Thanks for this timely and interesting post Mark.

      You end by asking how union branches are using social media. I might be wrong, but I think during the current USS dispute UCU have asked local branches to emphasise that it is a national dispute, potentially limiting local branches’ autonomy.

    • Mark 10:44 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Hi Tony, I’d love to read about that. Do you have any more details?

    • Tony Coughlan 11:36 am on March 9, 2018 Permalink

      Regret that I’ve not seen anything in writing Mark; I heard it during a discussion on a picket line on 27 Feb.

    • Mark 4:17 pm on March 11, 2018 Permalink

      Ah I haven’t seen anything here. Would be really interested to know more.

  • Mark 6:45 pm on February 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, , ,   

    Using social media as a social theorist 

    A video of my talk is available here, starting at 2 hours in.

  • Mark 4:28 pm on February 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , career advice, career building, , Digital Universities,   

    The changing character of the academic game 

    At a recent event, I heard an extremely distinguished professor make the argument that there was a certain sequence to career development which all academics who sought jobs in high status university ought to pursue. One ought to publish papers in well regarded journals before writing books. One ought to establish a reputation within a field before writing for a broader audience. The professor qualified by this recognising the dynamic might not hold for lower status universities. The statements were also clearly couched in terms of the United States, without this framing being qualified.

    It nonetheless raises an interesting question which has often occurred to me in recent years: does advice about ‘playing the game’ have a shelf life in a system which is itself undergoing change? The tenure system in the United States plays a large role in creating continuity between successive cohorts, as careers pass through a nodal point which only changes incrementally. The research assessment system in the U.K. brings a different dynamic with it because so much of institutional status hinges on your relative value for the forthcoming assessment exercise. My perception is that the rules of the game change with each cycle, in terms of the institutional requirements and how they are articulated on a local level, meaning advice about career development necessarily has a shelf life.

    • Debra Bassett 1:41 pm on February 7, 2018 Permalink

      Discussing an inspirational lecturer who had encouraged and helped me in my late-blooming academic life with a respected professor I said “you may know him he was a student here” to which he replied “gosh they let anyone into academia these days”

    • Mark 9:12 am on February 9, 2018 Permalink

      I’ve heard so many stories like this. Horrible attitudes beneath the surface, waiting to be revealed.

  • Mark 5:43 pm on January 14, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , craftsmanship, Digital Universities, ,   

    On intellectual craft  

    I’m currently reading On Intellectual Craftsmanship, in preparation for a talk I’m doing in Berlin next week. This famous appendix to The Sociological Imagination is something I’ve long been inspired by, finding in it a way of organising my own life that belies the text’s apparently humble ambition to merely guide the novice scholar through the daily minutiae of scholarship. It might be the case that, as Mills puts it in his introduction, “Only by conversations in which experienced thinkers exchange information about their actual ways of working can a useful sense of method and theory be imparted to the beginning student”. However it is in such conversations that we also renew our connection to what matters to us, finding energy and affirmation in the curiosity and concern we share for the social world we inhabit. If we dispense with the masculine language that marks the time in which it was written, there is a deeply powerful vision of scholarship as a vocation offered here by Mills. It is one which is all the more powerful for being grounded so precisely in a realistic sense of the “actual ways of working” which are the substance of our professional lives yet often fade from view when we describe what we do in terms of the lofty abstractions of theory and methodology:

    It is best to begin, I think, by reminding you, the beginning student, that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other. Of course, such a split is the prevailing convention among men in general, deriving, I suppose, from the hollowness of the work which men in general now do. But you will have recognized that as a scholar you have the exceptional opportunity of designing a way of living which will encourage the habits of good workmanship. Scholarship is a choice of how to live as well as a choice of career; whether he knows it or not, the intellectual workman forms his own self as he works toward the perfection of his craft; to realize his own potentialities, and any opportunities that come his way, he constructs a character which has as its core the qualities of the good workman.

    It is a subtle vision, which I suspect I’ll return to in future posts over the next week as I reacquaint myself with it. It isn’t just an individualised matter, in spite of the vivid sense of interiority which Mills conveys in his urgent reminder that we should work to ‘keep our inner world awake’. It is in such awareness that Mills sees the possibility of methodological renewal, as a community can flourish when its members can converse about their foremost concerns rather than the dead formalities which their organisational lives demand of them:

    informal interchange of such reviews of ‘the state of my problems’ among working social scientists is, I suggest, the only basis for an adequate statement of ‘the leading problems of social science.’ It is unlikely that in any free intellectual community there would be and certainly there ought not to be any ‘monolithic’ array of problems. In such a community, were it flourishing in a vigorous way, there would be interludes of discussion among individuals about future work. Three kinds of interludes—on problems, methods, theory—ought to come out of the work of social scientists, and lead into it again; they should be shaped by work-in-progress and to some extent guide that work. It is for such interludes that a professional association finds its intellectual reason for being. And for them too your own file is needed.

    It is a powerful vision, worth returning to as our “actual ways of working” are undergoing a profound transformation. It should be treated carefully, because the notion of the ‘craft’ can obfuscate as easily as it can ground. But it provides an ethos which can guide our trajectory through the space of opportunities opened up by digital platforms, helping ensure that we use these platforms for our own ends rather than being used by them.

    • landzek 6:53 pm on January 14, 2018 Permalink

      I feel like I read that years ago. I always liked that idea that our work lives are not separate from the life we live or whatever he puts it so great.

      I mean because isn’t that the modern way? Segregate activities into bubbles of knowledge that a person actively segregates and avoids conflation?

      It’s kind of funny because I’ve never understood that but I find it in so many of my neighbours and people around me. Lol it’s almost like a skill set that I developed because I have noticed for so long people is resistance to having a life where information from all areas flows in and out depending on the circumstance; I had to develop a certain kind of skill set in order to deal with these people in a manner so they wouldn’t think that I’m annoying or something. Lol.

  • Mark 7:18 am on January 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bureucracy, , Digital Universities, , , , , , , ,   

    The social struggle between collegiality and bureaucracy 

    The network scientist Emmanuel Lazega studies collegiality and bureaucracy as ideal typical forms of social organisation which co-exist in a fluctuating balance within organisations. Collegiality involves actors recognising each other as autonomous, existing in relationship to each other and necessitating consensus as a preliminary for what will always be non-routine action. Bureaucracy merely requires interaction, being organised around hierarchy and impersonal relationships, operating through routine action. 

    As I understand Lazega’s outlook, these modes of organisation always exist in tension because collegiality is a threat to bureaucracy, as the formation of collectivity between autonomous actors intrinsically carries the possibility of solidarity and subversion. What are otherwise bureaucratic organisation rely on residual collegiality, often organised into what Lazega describes as ‘pockets’, in order to perform non-routine tasks which necessitate creativity. However bureaucracy remains suspicious of collegiality, seeking to minimise its overall function and the autonomous character within the collegial  coordination which remains necessary within the organisation.

    The ethnography of Dreamfields academy undertaken by Christy Kulz in her Factories for Learning offers a vivid account of strategies which bureaucracy adopts in its war against collegiality. From loc 1221:

    A staple in most schools, the omission of a staff room was another design decision described by SMT members as a positive move to prevent factionalism and increase productivity. Mr Vine feels staff rooms are places ‘where staff go and hide out and try to avoid students’ and are ‘a breeding ground for negativity … where people get together and talk about others or moan’. Mr Davis thinks the lack of a staff room fits ‘the businesslike nature of the school’. Administrator Mr Fields feels private-sector businesses and Dreamfields share a similar work ethic: 

    “There is no doubt that people at the school work very hard … it’s not a question of, well, you come here and you can relax for the first hour and have a cup of tea and have a long lunch break, which I think is probably still the case in some local authorities, but here people do work really hard. “

    Eradicating the staff room symbolically severs Dreamfields from the perception that local authorities are unproductive spaces in comparison to private businesses, responding to narratives of public-sector failure. Staff taking a break or talking to one another are framed as troublesome activities eliminated by preventing congregation.

    The teachers are only too aware of how this prevents them gathering together. As one describes, it is “very clever that we don’t have a staff room ’cause it means that people work harder then, and they can moan, but they moan less because there are not so many people gathered together, moaning together” (loc 1241) This ‘moaning together’ might otherwise be the coalescence of collectivity from which a challenge to the bureaucratic organisation of the school might ensue. The headteacher describes a similar concern to break up collectivities of children: “We do not have groups of more than six or seven congregating together. If you see large groups of children, you need to break them up so they do not cause silliness and mayhem” (loc 1241). They even breakup such congregations outside the school grounds. Such ‘silliness and mayhem’ is precisely what bureaucracy fears in collegiality and why it seeks to stamp it out.

  • Mark 7:11 pm on January 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Digital Universities, , , ,   

    Before the culture war on universities, there was a culture war on schools 

    Reading Factories for Learning by Christy Kulz, I was fascinated to learn of the new right’s cultural war on the educational establishment in the 1980s which I had only been dimly aware of. I knew the central place of the local authorities in this but I hadn’t realised how central education was to these attacks. From loc 376:

    These changes intersected with the widely publicised ridicule of some local councils as bastions of ‘loony-left’ policies by New Right Conservative politicians and the popular press. The New Right used numerous fictitious tales targeting white anxiety to attack anti-racist education, presenting it as the cause of British cultural decline (see Gordon, 1990). Concerns over local anti-racist movements were crafted ‘into popular “chains of meaning”’, providing an ‘ideological smokescreen and hence popular support for the Thatcherite onslaught on town hall democracy’ (Butcher et al., 1990: 116). Outlandish tales of political correctness gone awry blurred the lines of causality, with New Right organisations tying left-wing extremists and slumping educational standards to the development of anti-racist education (Tomlinson, 1993: 25–6). Many local authorities adopted less robust approaches to race equality towards the late 1980s owing to negative publicity, while the Labour Party avoided directly identifying with radical urban left authorities. Sally Tomlinson (2008) describes how there was far more commentary on anti-racist, multicultural education than action within schools. Yet the political climate of the late 1980s veered towards framing anti-racists, rather than racist attitudes, as the problem (Ball and Solomos, 1990: 12).

  • Mark 8:59 am on January 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Digital Universities, , , , ,   

    Trump and the ascent of the spiralists 

    In a recent article, Michael Burawoy warned about what he termed the spiralists. These are “people who spiral in from outside, develop signature projects and then hope to spiral upward and onward, leaving the university behind to spiral down”. While he was concerned with university leaders, I observed at the time that the category clearly has a broader scope than this. Reading Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury, I’m struck by the role of spiralists within the Whitehouse who are objectively enablers of Trump while subjectively congratulating themselves for restraining him:

    Still, the mess that might do serious damage to the nation, and, by association, to your own brand, might be transcended if you were seen as the person, by dint of competence and professional behavior, taking control of it. Powell, who had come into the White House as an adviser to Ivanka Trump, rose, in weeks, to a position on the National Security Council, and was then, suddenly, along with Cohn, her Goldman colleague, a contender for some of the highest posts in the administration. At the same time, both she and Cohn were spending a good deal of time with their ad hoc outside advisers on which way they might jump out of the White House. Powell could eye seven-figure comms jobs at various Fortune 100 companies, or a C-suite future at a tech company—Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, after all, had a background in corporate philanthropy and in the Obama administration. Cohn, on his part, already a centamillionaire, was thinking about the World Bank or the Fed.

    These figures regard themselves as performing an important public service, enforcing moderation on the immoderate and providing competence in an executive characterised by incompetence. They will then be justly rewarded for this service, spiralling out of the Whitehouse and on to bigger and better things. Who could blame them for this? After all, they have spent time and energy giving to the public sector when they could have made so much more money in the private sector. This is a crucial rhetorical strategy of the spiralists: their ambition is justified by their public service but their public service is a tool of their ambition. They approach it as a means to elevate themselves, increasing their standing and seeking out new opportunities, while expecting to be praised for that which they have forsaken in the process. The ascent of the spiralists understands itself to be motivated by much weightier things than money.

  • Mark 2:06 pm on December 28, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Digital Universities, , social knowledge, ,   

    Ontological bias and social knowledge in a post-truth era 

    In a thought-provoking essay, Jana Bacevic reflects on the problem of prediction and its relevance for social scientists in a post-truth era. This issue has become institutionally relevant, as opposed to being a philosophical consideration or a practical challenge, for two reasons:

    One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future.

    These claims seem far from self-evident to me. If prediction is indeed impossible, it would seem ridiculous to engage with these future developments in a serious way. We can believe it’s possible to infer from one case to another without assuming the stability we impute to these cases is temporal as well as spatial. Even this stability could be radically provisionally, susceptible to representation only through transactional data produced in real time. It seems overreaching to try and build some limited acceptance of prediction into the concept of social knowledge itself. The most that seems plausible to me is to claim that there is some minimal notion of objectivity presupposed by the assumption that research techniques produce discursive outcomes which constitute social knowledge.

    My instinct is to reverse the direction in which these issues are addressed. It is because of the evident breakdown of the predictive apparatus elsewhere that the authoritativeness or otherwise of the statements social researchers becomes newly urgent. Some of the factors driving that breakdown, such as mass uptake of social media and the emergence of content factories, in fact play a crucial role in creating these new opportunities for academic speech. A quote from someone attached to a university helping a hastily written article stand out, the veneer of expertise promising to transcend ‘rant-driven journalism‘, creates a pull for academics who are being pushed out to the public sphere under the sign of impact. These academics for the most part aren’t being quoted because a judgement has been made about their authoritativeness. It’s simply that it’s become easier than ever to get some statements from an individual who has at least a vague aura of epistemic privilege. Considered as an isolated transaction, it might solve a problem for a journalist while the currency of expertise nonetheless declines precipitously in the aggregate. The current debate about social media and social science largely fails to capture what’s at stake in these boundary interactions, with the risk that all manner of problems are being generated by the call to use social media to get your research ‘out there’. This has implications of what social scientists do, as well as how what they do is evaluated, which can be characterised philosophically but should be recognised as a messy, over-determined process which resists theoretical closure. The claims being made by academics might (sometimes) be predictive in a semantic sense but the content of those predictions has little to do with the expanded array of speakers and claims.

    How much do we know about the sociology of how “social researchers increasingly find themselves in [these] situations”, what they are being asked to speak about and how these statements are being evaluated? These questions seem crucial to understanding how these philosophical problems are unfolding in practice and their implications for the future of social science. As well as the aforementioned case of social media for academics, the other case which I find myself preoccupied by is social research beyond the academic bubble, where it seems likely we will see increasing calls to demonstrate the provenance of research and to root out ‘bad’ research in order to prop up the epistemic credibility of institutionalised social knowledge and its role within government. As someone who has begun to have a (marginal) role in these debates through the Social Research Association, I’m concerned by the tendency to sidestep the philosophical issues which Jana raises and the damage this could do to the subtle fabric of the social research apparatus. It will deepen the failure to account for what she describes as “the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future”. But it’s also a failure to address the sociology of the problem, neatly theorising it in terms of a clearly identified deficit then proposing action to address what is lacking. Again the predictions made by social researchers might be predictive in a narrowly semantic sense but there’s much more going on here, including methodological disputes which touch on prediction without being reducible to it.

    My point here is not to disagree with Jana’s account, only to reflect that avoiding what she adroitly terms ontological bias (“epistemic attachment to the object of research“) might also require a distancing from a philosophical construct like ‘prediction’. If we consider a class of statements made across institutional sectors in terms of their philosophical status, it might be unproblematic to talk of ‘predictions’. But if we talk of predictions as if they are the same thing across sectors then, at least in terms of the two case studies I know well enough to be confident making this claim about, we obscure crucial differences relating to these claims, why they are made, how they are received and the ‘work’ which they do. In other words, ‘predictions’ might be a better philosophical designator than a sociological one. Or so it seems to me, as someone who has spent academic life torn between a yearning for the concrete and a propensity for abstraction. After reading Jana’s essay I’m now pondering my own ‘ontological bias’ and how, like everyone else, it shapes how I approach questions of the future of the social sciences. It’s really worth reading in full: here’s the link again.

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