November 29th and 30th
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Organised by Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal 

Keynote: Liberalism Must Be Defeated: The Obsolescence of Bourgeois Theory in the Anthropocene by Gary Hall, Director of Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, UK.

The conference seeks to conceptualise change in contemporary knowledge production in a way that transcends the dichotomy between theoretical frameworks that emphasise the role of humans (e.g. pragmatism, cultural sociology, critical realism, Bourdieusian sociology) and those that seek to dissolve the human and/or focus on non-human actors (actor-network theory, poststructuralism, STS, new materialism, transhumanism). Bringing together scholars in social sciences and humanities whose work engages with relationships between the human, post-human, metrics, and agency in the ‘neoliberal’ university, the conference addresses the methodological implications of how we theorise human agency, the agency of technical systems, and the relationships between them, in order to foster and support critical scholarship and engagement the current (and future) socio-political environment requires.

It is by now widely accepted that the transformation of the structures of governance and funding of higher education and research – including pressures to produce more and faster, and the associated proliferation of instruments of measurement such as citation (‘H’) indexes and rankings – pose serious challenges to the future of the academia. The critique of these trends has mostly taken the form of calls to ‘slow down’, or assertion of the intrinsic value/unquantifiable character of scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. While these narratives highlight important aspects of academics’ experience of neoliberal restructuring, they often end up reproducing the inter- and intra-disciplinary division between theoretical and interpretative frameworks that foreground human agency (focusing on student movements, working experiences of academics, or decision-making) and those that foreground the performativity of non-human agents (focusing on the role of metrics, indexes, analytics or institutions).

This intellectual fragmentation constrains attempts to study these processes in genuinely interdisciplinary ways. On the rare occasions when meaningful exchange does happen, conceptual, ideological, and institutional fault lines hinder sustained dialogue, often leading to the reassertion of old certainties in lieu of engagement with complex relational, institutional, socio-technical, and political/policy realities of transformation. The conference aims to provide an intellectual and institutional framework that challenges this dichotomy, and seeks to develop ways of thinking that are mutually reinforcing, rather than exclusive. It focuses on the issue of the (post)human as the ontological underpinning to the descriptive and explanatory work needed, as well as the normative horizon for resistance.

It links with preceding events in Accelerated Academy, an international interdisciplinary network assembled to develop new approaches to the analysis of higher education around critical interrogation of the concept of ‘acceleration’. The first event (Prague, December 2015) focused on metricisation and power in the academy; the second, smaller symposium (Warwick, September 2016), was dedicated to theories and experiences of anxiety and work in relation to acceleration; the third (Leiden, December 2016) to the politics and sociology of evaluation in universities; the fourth (Prague, May 2018) explored academic timescapes and the challenges posed by their complexity; the fifth (Cambridge, June 2018) reflected on the role of agency in the transformation of the academy.

This conference engages with and responds to the growing interest in scholarship on trans- and post-humanism, and its impact on understanding change in the context of knowledge production. It also has wider theoretical significance, as the intellectual dichotomy of the human and non-human is confronted in any attempt to understand socio-technical changes unfolding in digital(ised) capitalism. In this sense, we aim to address broader questions of social ontology and explanatory methodology posed by the imbrication of the social and the technical, and, not less importantly, the questions this raises for conceptualising agency and resistance in the ‘accelerated’ academy.

We invite contributions for 30 minute talks which speak to any of these themes. If you would like to submit a proposal then please contact with a 500 word abstract and short biographical note by 10th October.

There will be no charge to attend the conference. If you would like to attend as a non-speaker then please e-mail the address above to be added to the list. 

From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 4896:

Asserting that mankind had entered a new era in which the value of brands mattered far more than any material factors, Dru argued that successful brands would have to invent some high-profile scheme for identifying themselves with liberation; they would have to identify and attack some social “convention” (one of those “ready-made ideas that maintain the status quo”); and would have to align themselves with some larger “vision” of human freedom.

An important argument by David Graeber in his new book. I’ve been thinking about this (particularly on university campuses) since events at Warwick last term and I find his analysis deeply persuasive:

And indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating and ultimately deploying physical violence, just about everywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.

All this takes place as social theorists continue to insist that the direct appeal to force plays less and less of a factor in maintaining structures of social control. The more reports one reads, in fact, of university students being tasered for unauthorised library use, or English professors being jailed and charged with felonies after being caught jaywalking on campus, the louder the defiant insistent that the kinds of subtle symbolic power analysed by English professor are what’s really important. It begins to sound more and more like a desperate refusal to accept that the workings of power could really be so crude and simplistic as what daily evidence proves them to be.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,pg 32-33

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts and the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validating ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical force.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pg 58

Dave Coplin, ‘chief envisioning officer’* at Microsoft, recently gave an interesting talk on ‘Re-Imagining Work’ at the RSA. As part of a broader argument concerning the increasing disjuncture between how digital technology is used outside the workplace and how it is used within the workplace, he discussed the ‘consumerization of IT’ and its implications for organisational structure. Here’s an extract from a Wired article about this a couple of months ago:

The consumerization of IT and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) megatrends in the workplace provide great potential for improved employee productivity, lowered costs, and an easier integration of work with life. They also leave substantial room for disruptive technologies to emerge. In the same way employees prefer to use their personal devices, we’re noting a paradigm shift towards software and applications that enable employees to get their work done more quickly and cost effectively […] Typically employee driven, consumerization of IT has little to do with technology itself—and has everything to do with the way employees work. Throughout time, the most disruptive technologies completely alter the way we work, communicate and live. With consumerization of IT and BYOD preferences in the workplace, the demand for more efficient and consumerized technologies are in high demand—and the technologies that emerge to support these inclinations will be the most disruptive to the current market.

This reminded me of a post written by Amber Thomas, who runs the academic technologies team at Warwick, about the challenges this poses for delivery of IT services within higher education.

And at the same time as the growth of a global infrastructure for researcher identifiers, universities are laying more claim to the published outputs of academics, through the “green” open access self-archiving route (which I strongly support). And we have an increased attention to other academic outputs: the data produced within research projects, and the extent to which other digital outputs create impact, or evidence of public engagement.

And yet, as others have pointed out, as the academic workforce becomes more transient, with more part time contracts, more semi-retirements, more people holding multiple contracts, the rights of the institutional employer become less and less.

I feel that the solution to this paradox is in the way the institution relates to an academic’s whole digital footprint, the way it accommodates the academic’s identity. Perhaps we, IT Services departments, should just embrace the reality that academics’ identities live outside the university. Their profiles live outside the university. Their outputs live outside the university. Their impact happens outside the university. It’s long been the case that universities buy and sell “academic reputation”. Maybe it’s time we fully accept that, and embrace a “bring your own identity” concept in IT Services.

In Coplin’s talk he tries to explore the ramifications of this trend for working practices and organisational structure. However, it’s much more difficult to ‘envision’ these ramifications within higher education. The role of ‘academic technologist’, as something distinct from educational technology, strikes me as important for this: actively exploring new opportunities, facilitating implementation and promoting best practice. But surely there must be more than this to the ‘consumerization of IT’ within higher education?

*To be fair he acknowledges the ludicrousness of this title at the beginning of the talk.