Notes for a panel I’m doing in April with Claire Aitchison, Inger Mewburn & Pat Thomson. The idea for the panel was partly provoked by this Discover Society piece.

I’m an enthusiast about social media for academics. But for all the examples I see around me of social media enriching and enhancing scholarly practice, it’s hard not to be concerned by the broader context within which this is taking place. These problems are hugely worrying in their own right: the casualization of academic labour, the ceaseless ratcheting up of the expectations placed upon academics and the replacement of professional self-regulation by hierarchical audit all contribute to an environment I’ve talked about elsewhere, with my collaborator Filip Vostal, as the ‘accelerated academy’. But what I’m increasingly preoccupied by is how social media for academics doesn’t just take place within this context but rather influence how academics, individually and collectively, shape this context through resisting or reinforcing these pernicious tendencies.

It’s easy to see how social media for academics might fit into the ‘gig economy’ which we’re seeking to explore through this panel. It’s straight forward to imagine how rootless and nomadic academics would make themselves available through their online presence and mobile technology. What was once loftily conceived of as a vocation, though in reality more often simply a career, instead finds itself reduced to an endless iteration of ‘gigs’. In a way, the only thing I find implausible about this Doonesbury cartoon is the lack of digital technology in the world of employment it represents:


Digital technology further fragmenting the academic workforce, scattering overly earnest scholars who seek only to teach and research across the international system, measuring and scrutinising their activity as they are ranked hierarchically to determine who gets first access to gigs that are ever shrinking in number as MOOCs replace the bulk of university teaching. Is this the future we face?

There’s something dystopically intoxicating about this narrative. In fact that’s what makes me suspicious of it. The polarisation of the academic labour market was not something caused by digital technology and there’s no reason to assume it will be intensified by it. In fact, if we look at how doctoral students and early career researchers are using social media, we can see lots of examples of social media being used to enhance the autonomy of younger academics: raising their visibility, helping them create networks and sustain a sense of professional identity when their working lives are split across many institutions.

My point is not to counterpoise a ‘good news story’ to a ‘bad news story’. For what it’s worth, I do think the picture is pretty bleak. But if we reduce the uptake of social media by academics to an extension of managerial power then we’ll struggle to understand exactly what influence it is having. If we impute too much to the technology then we fail to do justice to the social processes through which any technological influence is necessarily mediated.

Much depends on how social media is taken up by academics. The potential outgrowths of it are diverse: everything from what I’ve elsewhere described as ‘networked solidarity’ (including, though not limited to, satire) to displays of academic incivility which can only fairly be described as ‘trolling’. The key question for me concerns which of these uses become more likely under present circumstances and how these influence might, in turn, feed back into changing that context or reinforcing its existing characteristics.

I wonder if the key issue might simply be why people are turning to social media. My fear is that we are seeing a growing sense in which people feel they have to use social media. There are many potential reasons why this perception might be becoming widespread:

– how central social media is becoming to debates about impact and public engagement
– the growing frequency with which training is offered in universities
– the message this implies about the desirability of engagement
– people seeking contributions for things like collective blogs
– universities, departments and research centres seeking contributions for such projects obviously has an additional dimension to it
– stories about career success founded on an online presence: a sense that this stuff is crucial for career opportunities, without anyone being able to specify quite why this is the case, perhaps propped up by a few mythical cases
– the anxiety about not missing out on opportunities which inevitably abounds within an unhealthy job market.

My fear is that if ‘social media is the new black’, something which everyone is expected to do, instrumental concerns will come to squeeze out the more nebulous joys and satisfactions which can be found at present.

Social media for academics might provide a framework within which the ‘Uberisation of Higher Education’ becomes entrenched. But it might also provide a bulwark against it, facilitating solidarity and collective action between those who are nonetheless dispersed across many workplaces. We simply don’t know yet. But that’s why we have to be careful about how we conceptualise these platforms, the tools they offer for academics and what it means for them to be taken up within a changing landscape of higher education.

A few years ago I produced a list of all the radical education projects that sprang up in the wake of the government’s agenda for higher education ‘reform’. I didn’t really have a clear definition of ‘radical education projects’ beyond people “trying to explore different, freer and more autonomous ways of learning”. Looking back at the list now, I’m struck that I’ve forgotten what half of these projects actually were or how I came across them:

  1. Left Overs (podcast)
  2. The Social Science Centre
  3. The Really Open University
  4. The Really Free School
  5. The University for Strategic Optimism
  6. The Third University
  7. The University of Utopia
  8. Campaign for the Public University (podcast)
  9. The Free University of Liverpool
  10. Birmingham Social Centre and Free School
  11. WikiQuals
  12. Student as producer
  13. The University of Incidental Knowledge
  14. The University Project

It seems I saw a family resemblance between a lot of different projects I encountered in a very specific period of change within higher education. However a conversation with Nick Mahoney yesterday has left me wondering if my focus on responses to government policy was overly restrictive: it left me ignoring things that were more recent (the post-occupy education projects) and things that were much more long standing (the Workers Education Association). So I’d like to compile a new list of projects that represent different, freer and more autonomous ways of learning. Any suggestions? Here’s my attempt:

  1. The Social Science Centre
  2. The Ragged University
  3. The Workers Education Association
  4. WikiQuals
  5. New Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

It’s interesting to look through the previous list and see how many of the projects lapsed within a few months and how many continued for a few years. I’d love to interview people involved in both, as well as those that are still ongoing, in order to understand how these developed over time and how they changed the people involved.

This expression by Will Davies has stuck with me since I read it a few months ago. Teaching is a disturbing example of the process Will is alluding to: ratcheting up demands on staff to the point where many are unwilling to continue. In fact increasing numbers seem unable to continue:

The BBC has also seen a survey of 3,500 members of the Nasuwt teaching union which shows more than two-thirds of respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year.

Workload was the top concern, with 89% citing this as a problem, followed by pay (45%), inspection (44%), curriculum reform (42%) and pupil behaviour (40%). In addition:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

Much of the issue here stems from the demand for ‘excellence’: as David Cameron recently put it, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change. If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. For head teachers a bad Ofsted report can mean the end of their career and this tyranny of excellence mutates into something ever more brutal as it works its way down the hierarchy.

Replace ‘heads’ with ‘HoDs’ and ‘Ofsted’ with ‘REF’ and we can see the same trend at work in higher education. Meanwhile the VCs fly around the world, creating strategic partnerships to actualise latent synergies. Here on the ground, one in six universities refuse to answer freedom of information requests about their expenses.

Across both spheres, we can see people breaking the professions, one personal tragedy at a time, while rewarding themselves extravagantly for doing so.


Friday, 30th January 2015

Lecture Theatre J, Lecture Theatre Block,

University of Surrey


This seminar, supported by the British Sociological Association’s Education Study Group, aims to bring together researchers, from all career stages, who are interested in exploring further the ethics of education research. We welcome papers that focus on any ethical issue(s) relating to conducting education research, including, but not limited to:

·         Ethical principles

·         The role of ethics committees

·         Regulatory frameworks

·         The ethics of research design

·         Ethical dilemmas in data collection

·         Working with funders and sponsors

·         Informed consent

·         The role of participants in research

·         Positionality and the role of the researcher

·         Dissemination

·         Variation in ethical principles and practices across place and space

The seminar will end with a wine reception, sponsored by Sage, to publicise the book ‘Ethics and Education Research’ which has been published recently.

Abstract Submission: Please send abstracts of up to 250 words by 30th November 2014 to Rachel Brooks at the University of

Registration: £35 standard price; £25 for PhD students and unwaged. To register, please follow the link on the conference webpage:

Conference organisers: Rachel Brooks (University of Surrey) and Meg Maguire (King’s College, London)

The 6th International Conference of the Popular Education Network (PEN)

Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 April 2014

University of Malta Valletta Campus

This conference seeks to build on the success of previous PEN conferences held in

Edinburgh (2000), Barcelona (2002), Braga (2004), Maynooth (2007) and Seville (2011).

The conference is an opportunity for university-based teachers and researchers, student-activists and others involved in higher education, who share a common interest in popular education – many of whom work in considerable isolation in their own institutions – to meet, exchange ideas, learn from each other and enjoy some much needed solidarity and conviviality.

The language of the conference will be English.

For a better understanding of the rationale of the conference and for immediate steps to follow:

The study of emotions within the field of education has been a growing area of study, which has highlighted how emotions are central to student’s learning and educational experiences both positive and negative and to the practice of education itself by teachers (Zymbylas 2007). Where education is often positioned as a rational and logical practice (Kenway 2011), this seminar will question what happens when emotions are considered in educational processes and projections (both real and imagined) of educational futures.

We would like to invite you to attend a one day seminar on ‘Education, Emotions and the Future’ taking place on the22nd January 2014 at the University of Leicester. The event is open to all, but is particularly aimed as postgraduate researchers. It will explore the role that emotions play within educational environments, in the creation of educational futures and the perceptions of risk in the education process. We hope the day will develop and form new discussion and debates about the role of emotions in education and will be a relaxed and friendly environment to share ideas and current research projects.  Confirmed keynote speakers include Rachel Brooks (University of Surrey) and Darren Webb (University of Sheffield). Space will be given for Postgraduate Research Students to present their work and we would welcome contributions to present a paper.

We would welcome papers based broadly on emotions and education including but not exclusively:

Emotions in the construction of educational futures Emotions in mainstream educational space Governing emotions in education Emotion and risk in Education Hope, emotions and education Affect in the classroom /educational space Parents/carers, emotions, and education Education and the pursuit of happiness Emotions and pedagogy Risk and the future Emotions around the subversion and resistance of education Emotions in non-mainstream education

The conference is free to attend but spaces are limited so please email to reserve a place by Friday 6th December. Please send abstracts to by Friday 6th December.

There are also a limited amount of travel bursaries for unwaged / PhD students.

Does anyone else get e-mails like this?

I went through your blog while surfing in Google, and was very much impressed with your site’s unique information. So, just thought of dropping you a note of appreciation.

Well, my name is Jenny and I’m from We recently published an infographic “13 Unusual Masters Degrees” which I think falls right in line with your blog’s content. You can check it here:

I hope you would be interested in sharing it with your blog audience. Please let me know if you have any concern.

The precise content of them varies. Sometimes they’re asking me to share infographics, occasionally articles and often asking if I will accept a ‘guest post’. They’re invariably polite but nonetheless written in a style which makes it obvious that the recognition of my “site’s unique information” served solely to add my name to a very long list. What they do all have in common though is that their websites never explain who is behind them. It’s viral marketing but without any discernable economic aim. The sites have no advertising, rarely any branding beyond that pertaining to the topic and I cannot see how any financial benefit accrues to whoever is doing this. Any insights into this strange world of educational viral marketing would be welcomed, as I’m receiving ever more of these e-mails and I’m utterly baffled by them.