Chop wood. Carry water.

Bucket dipping into natural spring

I’ve been reared to go down to the well for a bucket of water, bring it back up, fill the black pot. … My baking is done on the hearth fire. I bake my own bread in my pot ovens. Perhaps it is long drawn out. But it’s all I’ve ever known.

Margaret Gallagher, 1992, All I’ve Ever Known

In 1992, Margaret Gallagher was turning 50. She landed her first job at 46, working as a local historian. Today she’s still living in the same cottage, with an MBE and a hearth fire and a big pile of books, and I can’t stop watching the opening moments of John Callister’s beautiful film of her daily living. Over and over, I watch her bucket dip into the spring, and how she steadies herself slightly as she turns on the small stone step to carry water back to her home.

I don’t know how I found this video, but YouTube is now eager to suggest that I might like to watch other things about Irish cottages, or old people, or the Queen. It’s watching me back, trying to mine the sentiment that brought me here, to take on the chore of thinking for me so that I don’t summon the energy to leave.

But I’m not a rational market element with a one track mind. I have all the tabs open, all the tabs. I am avoiding Moodle with near-religious conviction. And look: here’s Barack Obama and he has a beard and is somehow even hotter than before, except that he doesn’t, it’s photoshop, and the network composes itself again around this little bit of insider knowledge, this homage, that takes such delight in foolery.

Attention in the network isn’t even a butterfly, it’s a reflected bit of dancing light, it’s nothing and never was. I’m running through my life with a phone instead of a bucket, trotting and scrolling, putting out a hand to steady myself on the steps so that I don’t pitch headlong into a pile of students because I’m trying to find the meeting email and skim the agenda before I walk into the room.

2.

I came to this university in 1995. It was a hot summer. The cicadas were startling. I was shown a room and a computer, and my first job was to understand the email. The head of department, who didn’t really understand the email, still had a personal secretary but the email was about to change that, and many other things. I called a friend at another university. “I have email,” I said baffled. “Oh! We’ve got one for the department.” she told me. It felt like we’d discovered a secret spring.

In 1995, John Perry Barlow and bell hooks sat on a stoop to talk about love, grief, mindfulness, chores, and the internet to come. In 1995, it seemed as though the network would remedy the effects of broadcast media, reconnect humans to each other, and address our disassociation from experience. Email was still a wonder; to Barlow it was a signal of “the general human condition [that] makes me feel more connected to the entire species.”

What I’m hopeful about is that because cyberspace is an interactive medium in a human sense, we’ll be able to go through this info-desert and be able to have something like tele-experience. We’ll be able to experience one other genuinely, in a truly interactive fashion, at a distance.

In a way, Barlow was right. Now the network is experience itself, dopamine-driven, sentimental, frightening, corrosive, comforting. We gather at the well each day to marvel and scold. “Look,” I say to my daughter. “Here is this amazing woman carrying water in a bucket, watch it with me.” I don’t notice that she’s in her work shirt, literally weeping with exhaustion at the thought of another 6 hours at her checkout. She’s 17 and she’s already learned that time is not her own. She has to show up so people who are rushing through their lives can make last minute Valentine’s Day purchases.

“Wait, is Valentine’s Day a public holiday?” she asks, brightening. I have to tell her no.

3.

John Perry Barlow and bell hooks talk about love and dying. They have shared loss. They can’t know about the future, when things will come to pass for either of them. Neither can we, and if we could, what would we do? What would we do with this year, this day, that knowing? The irreducible fact of mortality continues to shape to how we choose to live.

Barlow again, and hooks in reply:

I keep thinking about the modern plague of boredom, which, ironically, is connected to the general social desire to make everything as familiar as possible, to turn everything into McDonald’s land or television land. And at the same time people are expressing a feeling of crushing ennui. I remember one of the few truly Buddhist things that my very non-Buddhist Wyoming mother said to me when I was little. I’d complain about being bored and she’d say, “Anyone who’s bored isn’t paying close enough attention.”

bell hooks: Whereas my mother in Kentucky always used to say, “Life is not promised,” in the sense that boredom is a luxury in this world. Where life is always fleeting, each moment has to be seized. For us children, that was a lesson in imagination, because she was always urging us to think of the imagination as that which allows you to crack through that space of ennui and get back going.

For hooks, this work of the imagination is bound up with the need to put out your own garbage, to do for yourself the chores that you don’t want to do, to maintain attention to the little things of daily life.

“Chop wood. Carry water,” says Barlow.

Think for yourself, at least.

4.

It’s 2018. I’ve joined a short global dialogue about participatory engagement in a time of polarisation, via the EdX platform. You can find it on Twitter at #engagemooc. You can find people writing about it including Sherri Spelic and Kay Oddone, and you can come join it. It involves many people I admire, especially Bonnie Stewart who since last year has been developing ways of connecting long-standing community-led education institutions like the Highlander Research and Education Centre and the Antigonish movement to the network that we live in, and the education that we need for the future.

The network that hosts this project is the exact same network that nourishes polarisation, seeds misinformation, and makes the trust of strangers—the wellspring of community—so hard to imagine. To restore the health of this system, we need to take much better care of (and in) it. In 1995, bell hooks put it like this:

The future is in moving out of the self into another space, not as a kind of tourism, but as a willingness to bring something to the other situation. This is involved with the whole tradition of gift-giving around the world. I think true hybridization is about your taking whatever you have to give and mingling it with whatever other folks have to give.

Bucket dipping into natural spring
Still from John Callister, All I’ve Ever Known, 1992

The work in network is the water lifting. It’s the labour that the algorithm can’t appropriate, that needs our time and vulnerability to loss. And to restore this vision of the networked self having the capacity to labour cooperatively and effectively, to bring something to the other situation, we first need to imagine other refusals: of the email, of the browsing, of the personal branding, of the suggested-for-you.

There’s still a well. We just need to learn how to make time for it in our lives.

The peacock and the fish

Lava lamp

That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.

Solomon Asch, Opinions & Social Pressure, 1955

1.

Lava lamp
Lava Lamp, Ged Carroll 2011, CC BY 2.0

It’s been a week of sitting and thinking as the presentations slide by. University strategic planning is a bit like a lava lamp: ideas rise and fall gently, and come back up again later in much the same shape. We’re mesmerised by incremental change on slow repeat.

So, full of coffee and fancy catering, we stew over trends and brainstorm ideas for budget repair. Corporate euphemism bingo is an easy mark. People who haven’t taught for a while say “at the coalface” a bit awkwardly. Students are represented only in charts. Percentages make us feel sciency, and tempt us to compare things of incomparable size. The data is so convincing, the narrative so authoritative, it feels naive to ask whether the problems we’re facing might be messier, less obvious, in their causes.

While I was looking away, I noticed Mike Caulfield on Twitter pointing out that data can only see what it has been trained to see. If an algorithmic image search has never seen an emotional support peacock being taken through an airport before, then “fish” is a good enough guess. And if an algorithm tells us that a peacock is a fish, the natural human response is to sort of see it that way too. We’re trained sympathisers.

Google image search misidentifies this peacock as a “fish” which I find fascinating (because I can sort of see it!) pic.twitter.com/2y6fXrjOfW

Solomon Asch’s famous conformity tests of the 1950s demonstrated that an individual can sometimes be persuaded that the evidence of their own eyes is wrong, if the majority claim to see things differently. Asch experimented on small groups of male students, planting an individual among actors who had been coached to provide the wrong answer to an obvious test of size. The unknowing individual gave the wrong answer less than 1% of the time when left alone to think, and when allowed to report privately; under the pressure of a consensus on the wrong answer, and having to report publicly, he yielded to the group 38% of the time.

This is the part that the history has chosen to remember, and that crops up in the business and leadership literature. But in his post-test interviews, Asch documented the more nuanced accounts of what participants thought they were doing, while they were trying to work out what they were going through. Humans are social: attending to contradictory reporting of phenomena we expect to experience commonly is part of an intricate ethical negotiation over the way we hope to get along together. It’s critical to understand this, because it hits us hard when it fails.

Ronald Friend and his colleagues map out the erroneous reproduction of the conformity thesis in social psychology literature from 1953 to 1984, and point their readers instead to Asch’s underlying view of the way in which we all encounter the world as different members of a shared social field. Asch believed that we start with an expectation that others see the world as we do. That’s the starting point for responding to statements that provide evidence of a contradictory position; we accept that someone else, standing where they stand, might see things differently, while acknowledging the epistemological trouble that this brings us. To Asch, consensus isn’t simply a practice of yielding to untruths, but of placing confidence carefully in the possibility of sufficient cohesion—but this is exactly how the risk of conformity is introduced. So in the social field, we balance the need for productive consensus with the need to call out data that we know to be misleading.

And as Mike knows, this balance is now radically undone. He’s driving a key initiative in the US to raise understanding of digital polarisation; he really thinks about algorithmic judgment as a new political formation, one that we’ve underestimated. We’re not alone together in Asch’s social field any more: we’ve outsourced the work of seeing the peacock from the fish to non-human actors, even though as humans we will go on trying to make sense of their inputs using the same social efforts that Asch observed. We will learn to sort of see it.

And so the more we squint and try to see students as enrolment data points on charts, the more they start to look like fish too.

2

While we’re watching the charts glide by, my daughter is moving to another city to become someone else’s commencing enrolment data point. Is it worth the debt she’ll take on? And what responsibilities do universities have for recruitment to debt using the vision of employability, when we have so little influence on the deterioration of the labour market?

The future of work we’re selling to students like her looks a bit like the new Amazon campus in Seattle, all natural light and four storey plant walls and treehouse pod meeting points. We hope our graduates will drift among the unassigned workspaces being cherished for their creativity and problem-solving energy and critical thinking skills. We tell them that the jobs we’re preparing them for haven’t been invented yet, or at least that all the jobs we’re doing now have been so transformed by technology that they might as well be new. (For a deep look at the history of this ruse, read Benjamin Doxtdator’s marvellous Field Guide to “Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet”.)

But the social impact of the future of work is more complicated. This week tech media has discovered Amazon’s 2016 patent application for a tracker to record worker hand movements, reducing the need for local human supervision.

Ultrasonic tracking of a worker’s hands may be used to monitor performance of assigned tasks. … The management module monitors performance of an assigned task based on the identified inventory bin.

This is undeniably futuristic too. And as every tech journalist points out, it doesn’t matter whether there are active plans to use this device this year, or even this decade. It’s just a patent.

But this is our culture making sense of something: this is group human consensus forming around what’s acceptable in disruptive innovation. For Amazon’s corporate employees to enjoy the benefits of 40,000 different plants from 400 species that are specially chosen to be comfortable at temperatures comfortable to humans, its warehouse operations need to be optimised to the point of cruelty. And so there would have been corporate level college graduates involved in every step of this awful thing, from vision to design to patent preparation and submission, apparently seeing black as white at every step, apparently not speaking up.

So we come back to the real value of what we do. As Alex Usher points out, the debate over the economic value of education pivots on whether it improves skills and has the potential to raise productivity; or whether it’s a signals game, in which case benefit is primarily private. Universities need to stop hovering on this one. We need to stop carrying on about employability, and take a wider view.

Sure, we need to know what college degree will help this year’s 18 year olds survive for the next 40 years in a future where work is being transformed so aggressively.  But let’s set a more ambitious strategic goal for ourselves. The role our graduates play in shaping this future can’t be confined to whether they survive and what they earn. Our real future lies where it always has: in what our graduates will do to build a socially just future for themselves and others.

So what kind of strategic courage can we embed in our planning now, and what values should guide our conduct, to make this more likely?

Subject outline

Above their heads, whether the visitors are sleeping, dreaming or making love, the laws keep watch.

Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality

Heather Paul, ‘Dead Body Outline’, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s that time of year when the deadline rears up for next year’s syllabus. Where I am, we call this a “subject outline”, and I’m momentarily stuck on all the ways we could take this. Who is the subject outlined here?  Whose subjectivity are we trying to confine?

There’s a template, of course. It’s there to assure compliance with codes of practice and national standards for quality in higher education. The template fixes the parts that have ridden the updraft of committee approval right the way to the top: descriptions, assessment tasks, subject learning outcomes mapped to course learning outcomes mapped to the appropriate level in the Australian Quality Framework. The very few sections that are open to change have been highlighted in yellow; and the rest is fixed.

It’s easy to chafe at it. The wording is, as someone said to me last week, “uncivil”. I’m sure it’s a singalong in the policy divisions, but to the rest of us the tone is one of deficit and threat. Its small aggressions are couched in the passive voice; it speaks of students in the third party as though they’re bystanders to the whole process; and the vocabulary is frankly unreasonable for anyone struggling with English. “Pursuant”? Really?

But at a busy time of year it’s also a very fair effort to speed up a process that requires every outline to be signed off. There isn’t time to read them all, now that they’re all so long. So there are about about ten closely typed pages worth of quality assured policy words that are exactly the same in every one. In fact, there’s a whole section covering nineteen separate policies and guidelines.

No one can say they weren’t told.

Thanks to this bulking up, we no longer print outlines to hand out to students in the first week of class, torching whole forests in the process. Our cunning plan is to upload each one separately as a 20 page PDF to a different subject specific LMS site—thus doubly missing the point of the internet as a place where information can be managed centrally, and accessed conveniently.

And the result is exactly as you’d expect. It’s not just that students don’t download them, let alone scroll through them. Our method of distributing them is actively training students not to read them. Compliance is satisfied by their having been written, approved and made technically findable; for anyone to read them is a perversion of their unreadable form.

2

In Of Hospitality, Derrida has things to say about the prospect of achieving unconditional hospitality in a world in which the encounters between self and stranger are already managed by hospitality’s conditional laws. He makes use of Les lois de l’hospitalite (1965) by French philosopher and de Sade translator Pierre Klossowki. This story involves house rules handwritten and hung under glass over the bed in the guest room of a home that anticipates a stranger who might—who would be expected to—substitute himself for the host in the most intimate way. (It’s not for the faint-hearted; Tracy McNulty has more details about the story in her 2005 essay ‘Hospitality after the Death of God‘.)

What matters to Derrida is the placing of these laws of hospitality. Because of where this manifesto is located, both hung above the bed in the story, and separately printed at the front of the book, “one ought to be unable not to make acquaintance with it, and yet one can always omit to read it.”

This feels familiar.

So if the laws of hospitality represent an inevitable failure of communication, where do they succeed? To Klossowski, and perhaps Derrida, they succeed transactionally by being written, not read; they work to codify the transformation of strangers into visitors. A bit like the Innkeepers Act that manages the legal transformation of travellers into guests for the purposes of staying in a pub, the laws of hospitality outline a space for the visitor to occupy. But precisely by accepting the invitation to sleep in the guest bed, the subjects of these handwritten laws also can’t comfortably remind themselves what’s on offer, or what’s prohibited, because the laws are literally hanging over their heads.

Inevitable and inaccessible, intangible, these “handwritten pages” are placed above the bed, like the law, certainly, but as threatening as an epic above your head, in this place where the guest rests, but also where he won’t have been able, where he wouldn’t have been able, where he won’t have had to fail to read the texts of a law of which no one is deemed ignorant.

It’s wordplay, for sure. But it’s also apt. It’s how we try to regulate our relationship with all the imagined strangers in our futures, whether through university syllabi, software terms and conditions, or border protection: the laws that are placed where you can see them but may avoid reading them outline the shape of a stranger to come who can only be anticipated in the most generic way.

3.

What Derrida lays out here is that even if this comes from a playful source, a libidinous story, it’s a game of the highest stakes. The rules of hospitality protect themselves by limiting the risk that we pose to each other in a classroom, at a border, in the street. In education, they codify the transaction we most need to understand, which is the transformation of stranger into student through the act of paying money (or taking on debt) in order to submit to being taught.

If we want to do this better, and write expressions of welcome and inclusion that students will actually read, what should we say?

Earlier this year, I heard Sara Goldrick-Rab speak about our failure to acknowledge the real living and working conditions of college students. Her focus on food and housing insecurity is framed by this exact moment where I’ve become stuck:

I thought the syllabus was finally finished, having just added the series of requisite College of Education policies (on things like plagiarism, attendance, etc.), when suddenly I realize that something was missing. And then I began crafting a statement on basic needs security, appending it to the set of policies. This was a first for me, but it felt necessary and internally consistent with the course. Here’s what it says:

Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

This has cheered me up quite a bit. The rules and policies are still there—Sara’s not pitching for Derridean unconditionality, and honestly, I’m not either. But together with Derrida, today she has really helped me think through the perverse unreadability of our usual outlines as not so much a failure to communicate, but as a successful covering of the transactional cost of college.

By exposing the possibility of students experiencing food or housing insecurity, Sara opens up a new and more respectful conversation about this cost, and about all the things that students have to balance in their lives. She imagines not just students in general but “any student”, whoever they are, and she redesigns her syllabus for a more generous pedagogy in doing so. She signals that she acknowledges and respects their identity, and she makes room for their agency (“if you are comfortable in doing so”).

In writing my own outline as an educator—which is really all this blog has ever been about—I realise I want to think much more carefully about pedagogy as a practice of compassionate hospitality. I want there to be a way of teaching that owes policy its due but also holds a space between the conditional and the unconditional. It’s a pedagogy that’s tentative, optimistic and governed by care; and it’s constituted in listening to all the strangers-as-students whose vulnerabilities might be shared with us if they are comfortable in doing so, but aren’t ours to outline.

A post for Kris Christou.

Day to day

Currently focused on the doorway of every lecture theatre, cameras record students as they enter, matching their faces to university records.

Using Hitachi Data Systems to improve student life at Curtin University,  in the black: leadership, strategy, business 

I’m really stuck on this article. I’ve read it over and over. I think about the world we’re making, and the world we’re mining, and I’m trying to process something that feels like grief at the way we speak about innovation. It’s not the innovation itself, entirely: it’s the claims we make for its use.

Surveillance itself isn’t new. We’re used to machine learning, and keystroke monitoring, and dashboards. Facial emotion recognition is front of mind for education researchers working on online student retention. And using the campus as a laboratory via the exploitation of students as research subjects has a long history; until Amazon Turkers came along, students were the obvious choice for surveys, experiments and observations. But tracking students in and out of lecture theatres is not fresh thinking; the most stubborn problem facing students continues to be the bit we take for granted, which is using lectures to deliver content in the first place.

So what is this about? At this level of investment, the “living laboratory” isn’t a philosophical inquiry. It has institutional weight and is getting marketing attention, because improving student life is a business matter. Students are the predictors of revenue: unless they drop out, they’re here for a fixed duration, at a mostly fixed price.

Unless they drop out.

This is why we end up here:

And specifically here:

The data allows us to generate contextual information about the lifecycle of the student, the day to day reality of the staff member, the activity pattern of a lecture theatre, and the dynamics and environmental health of a library.

But what allows us to do anything with data are the standards of our research protocols. University-technology partnerships introduce two unlike research cultures to one another, and there have been cases where the seemingly lower standards in commercial research have dragged university researchers into some wet sand. Facebook emotion manipulation study? Yes, that one.

So while it’s good to read that “[e]xcept where specific consent is given, data collected is not linked to an individual” this is quite an odd promise: surely the point of behavioural monitoring is to know whose behaviour you’re looking at? Because this isn’t just space utilisation surveying, whether by clipboard or thermal counter mapping. This promises to ticket a specific struggling individual and send resources to help, and that means somewhere in the system knowing who they are, and being able to track them over time.

Help button
At the University of Mary Washington, 2017.

And there’s a set of steak knives thrown in: insights about the “day to day reality of the staff member”, who is presumably also known as an identifiable individual somewhere in this system. Unless this project is suggesting that day to day reality is substitutable among different members of the same sample population, which is really not what day to day reality is, not at all.

So, trying to be fair, maybe de-identification is a detail that’s been poorly represented in marketing. Conceivably the project itself has robust consent standards that aren’t visible here. Possibly students and staff involved in its trials are keenly aware of the volume of data on their behaviour that is collected, and have been told where it is stored, and how and with whom it can be shared. Ideally all experimental participants are regularly reminded how to review, delete or use their own “living laboratory” data in whatever way is useful to them. You’d hope.

This bit, however, is unambiguously in the road map.

In the future, the system will identify students who live only kilometres from each other and drive to attend classes around the same time.

From there … the university can put those students in touch with one another for carpooling and study buddy reasons.

And truly, this is not trivial. This weird mix of Snapchat maps and the High There! hopper service is coming to a campus near you because no one at the executive level thinks it’s even slightly creepy to put students in touch with one another on the basis of their private data. So this should make us all sit up: in this world, digital privacy must quickly become a core literacy in every discipline at every level. (Happily, understanding the day to day reality of surveillance is a more work-facing graduate capability than mastering the passive voice so it’s a win-win, of some shabby kind.)

In her fine essay on the need for a digital sanctuary movement on US campuses, Amy Collier argues that as higher education becomes more intensively extractive, “we need to recognize and deconstruct our perspectives on the relationship of data to our understanding of student learning.” We need to unthink the assumption that when we measure visible actions like showing up, or logging on, we’re generating insights into what a student is thinking. We need to caution ourselves against data hubris and remember that watching what someone is doing is the most limiting way of learning what motivates them to do it.

This is the story digital ethnographer Mike Wesch tells in his beautiful 2015 video The Sleeper. Like many of us, he had the experience of teaching a student who regularly fell asleep in class. Students are shift workers, carers, commuters, overloaded social beings, and sometimes just tired with the day to day reality of their lives. He decided to learn more by taking the student out to lunch. He learned that his observational judgement, using the data visible to him, was wrong; he also realised that this misplaced assumption had real consequences for this student, and all students similarly written off.

Because that’s the real tragedy.  It’s not just that I saw David in a certain way. It’s that he saw himself that way too.

Like Mike Wesch, Amy Collier argues that we need to act with far more care, and attend conscientiously to the risk of unintended consequence as we hoard data on student behaviour and mistake this for their day to day reality.

We in higher education need to seriously consider how we think about and handle student data, and we need to respectfully and empathetically acknowledge where our practices may cause harm.

She’s right. It’s time to pause, and to reset our goals.

We have built the extractive technology to track students minutely. We can continue to invest in improving its efficiency and extending its range. We can boast and promise and envision the seamless world in which human gesture is all the window we need into human thought. We can forget everything we know about the history of surveillance and social vulnerability.

Or like the other mining industries in our world economy, we can start to think ahead to the risks and consequences of carrying on like this. This future is not inevitable, and our concerns are not naive. This technology is part of a business strategy thats trying to fight its way out of the bag of Baumol’s cost disease, by turning service into product. Counting students in and out of lecture theatres is not trying to improve student life or learning. It’s searching for solutions that will contain the labour cost of actually listening to students about why they come to lectures, or don’t.

All around us are troubling signs of the automation of educational care, from a future that we need to challenge. To live well with the technology we are developing in universities, we are increasingly going to need the courage and the humility to interrogate its use.

All this owes a lot to Audrey Watters and Chris Gilliard for keeping track of those who are keeping track of us.

All the routine jobs

All the routine jobs will eventually be replaced.

Someone talking on the radio one morning

1

It’s the morning routine. I’m driving to work, and thinking about my job, and all around me are the people doing their jobs as I’m on my way to mine.

Right there in the morning traffic, there are two men laying out bollards in a row, because something’s up and today’s the day. And beyond that the freeway and all its stuff that’s only there because people with routine jobs were sent out in all weathers to put road things in place: traffic lights, direction signage, concrete lane separators, small new plantings of suitably tough freeway trees.

But suddenly a voice on the radio is telling me we’ll all be better off when driverless cars reduce the possibility of human error and with it, presumably, the need for all this signage when vehicles are guided by satellite, and don’t need to know what the speed limit is.

Who will pay a premium, he asks, for a human driver? And maybe this won’t be the only road-based job that’s lost in the workless future he’s explaining to us.

2.

At Macca’s, people are the key to our success.

We’re taking a quick road trip break, and her eyes light up. We can do this, she says, and shows me how. We stab at a brightly lit board, like we’re checking in for a flight. It’s drive through, just indoors. While we’re waiting in line for the food to come, I point out to her that she’s a low-waged supermarket checkout worker and this is exactly the tech that’s coming for her. “I suppose it is,” she says.

Together we watch her peers and even younger doing the kind of routine minimum-wage work that disruptive tech can’t be bothered yet to replace: putting fries in a bag, calling out the number on the docket. It looks to be unsmiling work, requiring the minimum of customer engagement. The voice on the radio promised that factories are already competently staffed with robots. But service work is something else.

A tired looking girl who looks about fourteen calls out our number, and hands over our bag.

3.

I’m at my desk, filling out forms. The forms are all the same. If this isn’t routine, I don’t know what is. The voice on the radio promised that cognitive labour won’t easily be replaced, that computers aren’t coming for the thinking or emoting or analysing jobs, just the routine jobs. Computers can provide brief sports reports, he said, maybe a paragraph. But we will still be needed for the thinking work.

The voice on the radio is a professor. He works in my profession, and I can guess roughly what he earns for the cognitive work of writing books on the automation of labour, and talking about this on the radio.

To see if I’ve remembered his words properly, I stop filling in forms, look up the radio program, download the recording, play it back, and then search again to read about his book. It’s routine academic work to link from this blog to all of that, to play my part by contributing those unrecoverable moments of my human time and attention to his enterprise. (It’s much rarer to acknowledge this invisible labour in the academic attention economy.)

If I don’t do this routine work of citing the specific individual who put these words in a sentence and frisbeed them out into the public conversation, then I’m also eliding the work of their career building effort, their sacrifices, their hopes, their research and all the supporting labour that got them to the point where they could be on the radio in the first place. If I don’t do my routine job properly, they’re just an anonymous someone talking on the radio one morning. Because the most easily replaced part of any idea is the person behind it, once it’s out there.

The taken-for-granted routines of respectful academic practice are those that we don’t think about nearly enough in labour terms: making connections, citing, linking, building each other’s reputations, carrying each other along like a raft of fire ants in a flood.

4.

Last week I had the honour of leading a track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg with Maha Bali. Maha’s blog is titled “reflecting allowed”, and perhaps more than anyone I’ve worked with, she means it. She reflects constantly and compassionately and deeply, and you can see this in her two blog posts about the event, here and here.

Though the week I learned that we’re still struggling to centre professional development on the most urgent questions of labour in higher education. This event did touch briefly, and painfully, on the question of what it means (to Americans) to have tenure, and what it means to walk away from tenure and start a business instead, to become an employer instead of a cultural critic of capital. But the majority of workers in higher education, including in America, don’t have anything like tenure. This isn’t some dystopian future: most work in universities is already done by people who can be let go or replaced in a variety of ways, because there is both a labour surplus in our profession, and a politically-inflected funding crisis in higher education, and these two system failures converge to create the business conditions in which precarious staffing is a norm.

And at the same time digital pedagogy is significantly and continuously extending the ways in which we and our students volunteer our labour for large (American) corporations with every keystroke we contribute, every search term we fashion.

Labour is not an optional topic.

5.

The room that Maha and I worked in during the week was furnished with the kinds of seating designed for learning that irks Amy Collier.

These chairs rile me too, for so many reasons. They’re the fidget spinners of higher education. It’s not just the overblown claims made about their transformative potential by the vendors who are excited to sell them to us, but because of all the ways they normalise a particular body type, and in doing this prepare to humiliate any student who doesn’t fit the mould, literally.

And in Fredericksburg we quickly learned that a roomful of 30 of these chairs places a particular burden on cleaning staff who are required to restore room layout at the end of every day. Rolling them back into line, if you’re not sitting in one, is back-bending work.

rolling classroom chairs
So much transformation, taken by Amy Collier, DigPedLab 2017

To craft good pedagogy, we need more than fancy chairs. We need to be vigilant in keeping all levels of labour in view. The workless future that is purportedly going to free us up for more creative and engaging lives will not treat us all the same. And we need to be equally scrupulous in acknowledging all of the work of invisible hands that make digital pedagogy possible (and thanks to Audrey Watters for that link). This is essential critical justice work; without it we really are just putting fries in a bag.

5.

Automated cognition: a footnote

It’s lately seemed that updates to autocorrect have dialled up its intensity. It’s becoming either quicker to finish our half-formed thoughts, or we’re slower to notice.

Halfway through a conversation with a friend, I read back over what I’ve written and notice that Deleuze has been substituted with delouse.

When I back up to explain what I was trying to say, autocorrect jumps in to suggest that what I really mean is delusion.

And all the routine jobs will eventually be replaced. But not like this.

Unconverted

Once you have a conversion, that doesn’t mean game over. Your first exchange with a prospective student is only just the beginning. Nurturing leads through the enrollment funnel is a complex process.

Christina Fleming, ‘4 Quick Stops on the Road to Increase Student Enrolment

Marketing funnel diagram
Marketing funnel, found on flickr at https://flic.kr/p/9TpTcX

Colleagues in university sales and marketing, we need to talk about the language that we use when we talk about student recruitment. I work alongside you, and I’m writing this respectfully and appreciatively: you are trained and experienced, and the language that you use is part of that. So I’m writing in the hope that we can come to an understanding of what I hear when you say “conversion”. (See also: conversion rate optimisation. And win-loss analytics. And funnel. So much nope.)

First, let’s get some things out of the way. I’m genuinely comfortable that universities are run responsibly and accountably with good business practice at the forefront of our thoughts. We use public money, which is scarce, and we must use it in ways that are efficient, effective and ethical. To do what we do at all, we need students to show up, which means we need them to know we’re here and what we are trying to do. I appreciate this is why everywhere I go in my community, or when I’m browsing online, and even when I’m watching television in my own home, local universities are coming at me with messaging.

I’m not afraid of data, large or small. I’m up for analysing complex situations with measures other than anecdote and hunch. You can’t be too evidence-based for me. I’m all for tools and perspectives that genuinely help us with the complex particulate matter of our working environment, and enable us to plan and deploy our scarce resources with better outcomes for everyone. The lives of university students are tiny floating fragments of human data in the sea of university operations, and sometimes by standing back at a great distance from this we can get a sense of the directions they’re floating in, the patterns they form, the future they project. I’m here for this.

I’m also in that peculiar window: I’m both the product that you’re marketing, and the parent of someone you’re marketing at. She’s finishing high school, she’s potentially a university student of some sort in the next calendar year, she has the results and the extracurricular and the attitude you’re after, she’s attended marketing events, and actually she’s been on our campus the whole of her life since she was a tiny thing walking the corridors holding my hand and looking at names on doors of people she knows, people who come to our house. She’s an insider, a natural, a sure thing, a home run. And while we’re at home watching TV with cups of tea, she and I, I know that converting her and hundreds like her keeps me in a job. It’s a loop, it’s capitalism, it’s how things work, at least for now.

I get this.

But I’m currently working in an area of university operations, internationalisation, that needs to be especially mindful of care in recruiting. International students make our universities smarter, better places to work and learn. They bring the world forward, including for local students who haven’t had the opportunity or resources to travel. Enrolling at an Australian university comes at a cost that’s different from many domestic students. International students are living away from home, under visa conditions that make it hard to vary their pattern of enrolment if they come unstuck; they’re learning in an unfamiliar language, tangling with the social rules of an unfamiliar culture, managing a new climate,and often dealing with the rougher edges of exclusion and isolation in our communities. They have tough stories for us to hear about workplace exploitation, health problems that they’re managing without family support, and a sense that they’re not sure how to reach out to fellow students or to the staff teaching them.

Sometimes we don’t even know what their names are.

And yet they’re here, and they’re doing great things. It’s honestly good to work in this area because of the students, and because of the colleagues I work with who are committed to their wellbeing. This week I had the privilege of a conversation with a student who has come to our university from somewhere else. I asked him why. He told me: the person who held this position before me, showed up at his high school and talked to him. She listened to him. She was enthusiastic about what he would have to offer, and what he would have to gain, by enrolling in this university. Just as I am now so glad that he is here.

I believe we can hold ourselves to this standard: in listening properly to students; in remembering that the prospect of their taking on major debt to enrol at this university or another one binds us to them ethically; in insisting that the way we reach out to them must be uncompromisingly relational, respectful and open to the possibility that other choices could also be good for them. And for me it’s also about how we talk about them when they’re not in the room, and how we refer to our own processes of inviting them to join us.

Here’s the thing. The quote at the start of this blog isn’t from an Australian university, for reasons of courtesy. But we’ve all heard this language where we work. It doesn’t intend harm, it’s just a label. But in most areas of university work, especially in the humanities, we argue that language matters, and that the words we choose suggest something about the beliefs that we hold. So for me, when we speak about prospective students and their families using the borrowed e-commerce language of conversion, we slip into the trap of converting student recruitment into a competitive game that we’re seeking to win. When the language of this game descends to nurturing actual humans as sales leads through a funnel, this isn’t just complex: we have lost our way entirely.

And a final thought about how language works. Any word means what it means to you when you use it, sure. But words are also given meaning by the company they keep. So recruitment colleagues near and far, that word you keep using, it does not just mean what you think it means.

[and every trigger warning ever on that link]

Who we are to each other

We are not in a place the way a tree or a rock is in a location.

David Kolb, Sprawling Places

1

I’m at Heathrow, standing in the line of non-EU nationals with my EU passport in my pocket because my daughter is only Australian, although I’m a dual national. I’ve filled out the arrival form with my usual sense of awkwardness about what I do, and as usual I’ve said it’s “academic”. Academic, as in moot. Academic, as in “the rest of the world thinks we are complete wankers.”

Here I am, home/not home.

Welcome to Terminal 3 (2015), by Michael Summers [details below]
Marc Auge describes airports as non-places, transactional zones in which we’re stripped down to function: arriving passenger, Australian, academic, travelling with child, visiting family, two weeks, nothing to declare, no stowed fruit or live birds or more than $10,000 in cash. In his maze-like hypertext/book on contemporary place making, David Kolb recasts Auge’s idea in relation to roles. For Kolb, non-places are thin, not in the Celtic sense, but thin in that they are the places in which our roles are made thin. We become what we are reduced to by the function of the space. He quotes this passage from Auge:

A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver. . . . The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude. There is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. (103)

But it’s not that simple. Like every other person in the line, I’m shawled in my own history of standing exactly here, over many years: coming home for the first time, coming home after a break-up, visibly pregnant, pregnant without knowing, coming home to surprise someone, coming home for a funeral.

And just ahead of us in time is that other part of the airport story: friends and kin and professionals with signs, the whole Love Actually  of the arrivals hall. They’re fidgeting, slumped, waiting to perk up at the sight of the person they’ve come for. Everyone who’s ever stood there for me is there, but not now. And when we all finally make it into the same zone of being together in time, place is remade, thinned out roles thicken into human form again, citizenship falls back into its latent state.

2

Just before travelling, I participated in a week of talking about digital hospitality, across Twitter, mastodon and blogs. I was invited to do this by Maha Bali as part of #digciz, a month long online event curated by Sundi Richard and Autumm Caines. (Read their concluding reflection here.)

I went in with misgivings. In airports, citizenship is not a language game, or a virtue, or a goal of being a better person; it’s not a state of mind or a way of acting towards others. Before any of these metaphorical layers can be added, citizenship means belonging to a limited-membership group, being subject to its laws, gaining access to its conditional privileges. Alan Pelaez Lopez writes about citizen privilege in the US, that critical attention to citizenship is not aimed at better understanding citizenship or addressed to the hope that citizenship can be made just. The goal of rebuking citizen privilege is to put an end to citizenship itself, because the functionality of “citizen”, in both its emotional meaning and practical application, is fully shaped by the existence of the non-citizen—the alien, the undocumented, the stateless, the refugee. The experience of belonging is given meaning by those from whom the privilege of belonging has been withheld.

This is why I still can’t work with citizenship as a metaphor for way we are with others online. But we shouldn’t stop thinking about this being together just because it’s difficult to name. Something is trying to get heard among the metaphorical limitations of language and its tethers, an appeal for better ways of treating friends, strangers, fellow travellers, when we meet them online. And to do this, in a world of talk, we need words for common places and shared hopes, for ways of bettering the world, as Kevin Hodgson puts it.

Ideally, a word for citizen-ness might do this well. But it can’t while it also has to delineate our fraught and exclusionary political relationship to the states that have us as members, shaped by the violence those states impose on those they force out, subdue or incarcerate. For me the usefulness of digital citizenship is only that it keeps in view our equally fraught dependencies on the real gatekeepers of our relations with each other: Silicon Valley’s data mining corporates, who will always design the platforms that connect us for maximum extractive value. Citizenship as a metaphor for digital engagement reminds us how flawed things are, not how good they could be.

So what else could we say? Lora Taub shared Kate Reed Petty’s article in the LA Review of Books on retiring the word “citizen” where she notes the tendency for citizen to be used generically to mean something like person to whom we have some sort of relation of obligation. For Kate Reed Petty, who works with a wide range of organisations, the word is “difficult to give up”, precisely because of this more elastic meaning, that applies regardless of “technical nationality”. But replacing it (subject? resident? person? human? denizen? denizen, really?) without changing the intended function of setting up a category of actors that can be interpellated into acting well, doesn’t address the primary problem of regulating membership. And it certainly doesn’t address the issue of what happens when implicit membership expectations aren’t met.

Thinking about alternate words asks us to think hard about what we are trying to say, and this is really about what we are trying to do, or change. This doesn’t have to be about setting up ground rules, of sorting out who belongs and who doesn’t. This will lead us again and again to the cul-de-sac of group norms. In the end, we can only decide how to take responsibility for ourselves and how we choose to act; and try to do this personal thing in a way that acknowledges something like a relationship to a common place, a place we make by the way we meet one another there.

3

During this week, I also learned that sometimes talk looks like a failure to act, even on the internet where talk is both the currency and medium for action of any kind. This is not my view. I believe we have to champion dialogue, and trust each other also to be acting, based on what we learn from listening.

But the belief that talk is just talk has to do with a resonant stereotype, that’s making things worse. Academics have a public reputation for self-interested, obscurantist talk. It’s not helpful to respond defensively to this: #notallacademics. In his blog on not being an academic jerk, James Arvanitakis gets stuck in to why we should acknowledge it instead:

Seriously most of them see us as a bunch of privileged, spoilt brats swanning around the world attending talkfests. They have the right to think that until we show them otherwise: so what are we doing to change that?

And if this stereotype isn’t deserved individually, the institutional context that generates academic talk really needs calling out: impact gaming, rankings chasing, productivity measures that lead to vanishingly unproductive outcomes in any real sense, vanity careers (and travel) for the few, and precarity for most. These are the conditions that many people outside academia don’t see, and the expansion of talk is their symptom.

What are we doing to change that?

Image credit: Welcome to Terminal 3, Michael Summers, shared on Flickr CC BY-ND-NC 2.0

 

Kith

Kith originally meant native land or country, not just in the sense of one’s place of birth or ancestry, but in the sense of a loving, intimate, friendly relationship with the landscape of home, the place you come from and the people and things that share it with you. Kith is not only the place you know and love, but the place that knows and loves you back.

Susan Beal, A Place of Love

We’re watching the UK election, and my daughter says: can you still vote there? It’s been so long, I’m not sure. I don’t think so.

Home 2017, image by Kate Bowles

But I know that in the background of every news shot, I’m watching the summer light in the sky and thinking about long evenings, and chalk and flint farmland. This is the practical condition of homesickness: at the sound of a thrush or the thought of a real beer in a proper pub, it flares up like a headache.

In the small community where I live I can drive past three homes I’ve lived in as an adult, and the ghost of another. Above the surf club there used to be a rundown weatherboard beach house that has been replaced by a showy oceanfront mansion. It was the first house I stayed in when I came here to work. It was rambling and unrenovated, filled with someone else’s Australian childhood furniture. I could walk out in the morning and drink a mug of coffee sitting on a low wall watching the sun come up over the ocean. I really loved it.

Since then we’ve moved around within a very small area, street hopping, trying to stay close to the ocean. Each of our three daughters was brought home from the local hospital to start life in a different house; finally when the older ones were very little, one and two, we stopped rolling and settled in the home where we now live. They all learned to ride scooters and bikes in this street, and then skateboards, and now two of them drive cars, more or less.

Our street, 2011, Kate Bowles

This morning I drove my daughter to her work, and then dropped off a friend of hers who had stayed overnight. We talked about how we each appreciate living in this place. She’s 17, she’s been away for six months and come back, and can’t believe her luck at still living here. I drove and listened, and didn’t say: I remember you when you were five years old. But what I was really thinking was that I didn’t grow up here. This is not my home. And everyone who was a child here, learned these streets by walking with small feet, will have a different way of seeing the big sky and the escarpment and even the wide Pacific ocean, than I do, because I still see it with a shock of not belonging, every day.

I have no kith here, and I shouldn’t. It’s not my place. It’s not my place to love, to ask it to love me back.

2

In March 1797 at Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria, five British and 12 Bengali seamen swam ashore after their longboat was ripped apart in a storm.

Sydney, a town of barely 1,500 people, was over 700 kilometres to the north. Meanwhile, their fellow-survivors from the wreck of the Sydney Cove were stranded further south, on a tiny island in the Bass Strait.

I listened to historian Mark McKenna tell this story on the radio as I was driving through this country that I see as beautiful, and where I didn’t grow up.  The seventeen sailors washed up on a stretch of coastline still described today as “untamed”, and set off to walk. They walked for two months, running out of food and leaving people behind. On May 15, three survivors were seen from a fishing boat, crawling along a beach just north of here. They had walked 800 km. One was from Scotland, and one was Bengali. The other, I don’t know. They had foraged and swum and climbed and been poisoned by eating the wrong things, and interacted regularly with Aboriginal people without whose help and guidance and foodsharing they would not have survived.

What did they make of any of it? When they were rescued and made it to Sydney Cove, how did these three sailors feel about where they had arrived, where they had been? How did they come to terms with the fact of the people who had shared resources and knowledge with them, who had showed them where to go and what to eat and how to overcome their own fundamental unfitness to be in this country?

What did it mean to each of them, different as they were, to be so far away, to be so kithless?*

3

This week I’m part of a rolling conversation on digital citizenship as a metaphor for thinking about how we manage our aspirations, responsibilities and resources in creating an online environment that works. It’s an annual conversation curated by people who think and care about citizenship, and this year it’s run into trouble with the idea of citizenship as a metaphor for anything, in these times of walls and borders and sinking boats and offshore processing centres of astonishing cruelty and even, really this is a thing now, calls for a return to internment.

I’m one of those who feels that citizenship can’t work as a benign metaphor now, and perhaps it never could. I hold two passports and I can only see citizenship as a bureaucratic exercise in which I don’t know if I can vote in one place, but voting is compulsory in the other. I have bank accounts and pay tax in both; I have healthcare rights in both, just about. The apparatuses of both states treat me well, and recognise my children as connected to me. But none of this suggests to me that citizenship is anything other than the grounds of our refusal to care for others as we’d like to be cared for if misfortune tore us from our homes and threw us onto the mercies of others.

I’ve been helped in my thinking about belonging and statelessness by Amy Collier’s recent post on the hidden immigrant, the immigrant who passes in two places but is at home in neither. Amy asks whether this idea of belonging and not belonging helps us get beyond the difficulty of applying citizenship as a metaphor for what we do online (especially as this is far more obviously regulated by capital than by any state). At the end of her post, Amy raises the question of digital kinship, a term I’m drawn to because of the way it sits with ideas about kindness. Kindness (kin-ness) has ancient origins that connect us both to nature and to relationships, and took me back to kith (as in “kith and kin”), and the importance of knowing the place where we are, the way that knowing place nourishes our capacity to belong.

Where can we experience anything like kith online? Are there places that we love online, environments where we feel at home, that seem to love us back? Is this about user experience, or ethos? Is it about the trust we’re willing to place in design, in what data is kept and what is done with it? Can we feel at home under conditions of continual digital surveillance? Can we love a place that is manipulating us for business or political gain? Is it ever possible to experience kith when the whole thing is set up, controlled, regulated and organised in service of values we don’t share?

For the moment, it seems to me that these questions are worth asking, and move us beyond a narrow dispute about citizenship as a metaphor.

#digciz

Last week’s #digciz conversations came to rest on the question of belonging, and next week with my colleague Maha Bali I’ll be taking up the organisers’ invitation to think about what comes next. There’s a separate post coming about that. But in the meantime, we both hope you will join us next week on Twitter and other places where you feel at home online. You can read some of Maha’s thoughts on citizenship here.

*(kithless: not knowing anyone, having no acquaintances or family.)

 

Unbroken

If we don’t sit with the rough edges of our journey, we forget how we made it.

Kevin Gannon, The Tattoed Professor, ‘On being broken, and the kindness of others

1

It’s Friday at the end of a long week of being trivially unwell. Trivially in the not-cancer sense, but disruptively in the whole-family-down-with-it sense, the “Oh, everyone has this, isn’t it dreadful, have you got the cough yet?” sense. Whole days in bed, shivering and sweating. And coughing.

Having to cancel a large lecture and now being very late with grading, I’ve been struck by the kindness of students who sent messages of sympathy when I said I was sick. These are the ways we all work together to shape workplaces worth working in. (And if you feel cynical about the contribution students make to this, please go back to Liz Morrish’s account of students comforting staff at times of workplace distress. Or anything by Sean Michael Morris, but especially this post.)

The students where I work are easy going, understanding, and when they need to complain, they’re constructive and tactful. They want things to be less awful, and that includes for the people who are teaching them. They know what it’s like to have a bad day at work, to be dealing with difficult people, to juggle work, study, illness, stress and exhaustion. As Kevin Gannon says in his beautiful post on disclosing our own brokenness in higher education:

We’re not sending graduates “out into the real world”–they’ve been there for their entire lives, and most of them know at least implicitly how the deck is stacked against people regardless of how hard they’re bootstrapping. We have given our students a wide array of tools, and tried to prepare them to use those tools well for themselves and for their communities. We teach in the hopes of a better, more compassionate, and more just world. But then we tell a graduation-day story that assumes our graduates will go out into a broken world riven by hate, fear, and inequality but also that it’s their fault if that world beats them down.

Fault is the shadow thrown by the magic bean we sell as the means of clambering up to a future in which not everyone can win. This bean is something to do with making an effort, toughing it out, following the rules. Resilience, grit—we peddle all sorts of qualities demanded when the world is harsh. And I think this is why we monitor attendance as a kind of minor virtue, a practice of grit. But when we make showing up compulsory, then we have to have a system of checking it, and penalties, and some means of managing something we call “genuine” adversity, and the whole thing has to be insulated against complaint. (And if you want to know more about how this goes down, this forum is an eye-opener.)

Where I am we have a fixed tolerance for not showing up 20% of the time, which has the rat farming perverse incentive effect of causing every sensible student to calculate that they have two free tutorials they can plan to miss. And I’ve written this all over the place, so just bear with me while I haul out my soapbox one more time: we then ask students to get a GP certificate for every single additional missed class over the two free passes, which means that we are clogging up the waiting rooms and schedules of our overworked public health bulk billed GP clinics in order to sustain a rigid and penalty-driven policy that doesn’t prepare students for their professional futures, while they’re sneezing all over the really sick people around them.

(University business data divisions currently measuring every passing cloud over the campus, why not measure this? How many GP certificates for trivial illness have your attendance policies generated? How much public health time have you wasted pursuing this?)

Just quietly, I take a different approach. We talk about modelling attendance on the professional experience of attending meetings, including client meetings. If you can’t be there, you let people know in advance. If you can’t be there a lot, this will impact on your client’s confidence in you, or your manager’s sense that you are doing a good job. It may come up in performance management. Your co-workers may start to feel that you’re not showing up for them. Opportunities may dry up a bit, if people think of you as someone who won’t make a reliable contribution.

And at work there won’t always be a form, but you will need a form of words. You need to know how to talk about what you’re facing with the relevant people comfortably and in a timely way, ideally not after the fact of the missed project deliverable. If hidden challenges are affecting your participation now, you can expect some of these to show up again when you’re working. University should be the safe space to develop confidence in talking about the situation you’re in, and what helps you manage it most effectively. You need a robust understanding of your rights in law. And, sadly, you also need to understand that sometimes the human response you get will be uninformed, ungenerous or unaware of your rights, and you’ll need either to stand your ground or call for back up.

To me, this is all that’s useful about expecting attendance. It’s an opportunity for us to talk with students about showing up as a choice that may be negotiable if you know how to ask; about presence and absence as ethical practices; and about the hardest conversations about times when you just can’t, and at that point need to accept the kindness that’s shown to you, just as you would show it to others.

2

Thinking about how important it is to learn to have these conversations, I’m watching the rise of automated employee mood tracking with unease. Attempting to track employee mood over time is a natural consequence of discovering that we can track other physical health indicators, and that wearables (or implantables) give HR an opportunity to track health as one of the predictors of both absenteeism and presenteeism in teams. The Global Corporate Challenge (now owned by Virgin) is all over it. They even have a Grit In the Workplace Report (“Research shows that grit is a significant factor in success. Employees who have it help their organisations achieve better business outcomes”) which I can’t bear to read.

This morning someone was telling me about a Slack bot that could be set to enquire about my mood, and I know there are plenty of apps that can do the same. I’m all for journaling my own thoughts about this, but we do need to notice that these apps are now also being pitched at HR. My friend wondered if this was about our failing capacity to listen to each other, to ask how someone is feeling and really wait for the answer. I think it’s that organisations are starting to perceive all human interactions as potential data points, and conversational care as wasted data that evaporates uselessly into air. We’re affronted by our own forgetting: surely it would be better to remember that over the last six months, Thursdays have been good days?

The problem with this is that mood is far more nuanced than any algorithmic system can be bothered with. One I saw this morning offered a happiness scale of 1-5, and three mood choices: Great! Stressed! Or Tired! The Slack bot has a menu of five options, with emojis.

Screenshot 2017-05-12 13.04.43.png
Screenshot from http://oskar.hanno.co

But really, life is more complicated than this. To sustain compassionate workplaces, we’re going to need to do more than dashboard our moods in these simplistic ways and hurry on. We’re going to need to “sit with the rough edges of our journey”, as Kevin Gannon puts it, to understand how we each got here differently, in different states of mind, and to hold each other up with care.

This will take time.

Shared values

It happened because our corporate policies were put ahead of our shared values.

Oscar Munoz, United Airlines CEO

It happened: a passenger hauled by his arms from a plane to enable airline staff to get from airport to airport. His reaction to being grabbed out of his seat seemed to take everyone by surprise, and from the moment he refused to go along with things, every mistake was made. He was physically harmed, mentally harmed, and then further abused by media and social media investigations of his personal and professional life. His identity was publicly debated and he was shamed, in crude and judgmental ways.

Speaking to the media, his lawyer proposed that this is not just about the harm from an isolated incident. It’s that corporate culture as a whole has shifted decisively in favour of profit, efficiency and compliance, and away from dignity, care and respect. Far from producing better outcomes, competition has introduced unsustainable levels of aggression towards consumers, backed up by corporate policies driven to protect profit, and soothed by corporate euphemism.

Mostly this aggression is contained in backstage planning; occasionally, we catch sight of it in unintended ways. We learn that planning focused on the capture of market share, the reduction of labour costs, and the shaving of resources to the bone is covered for by marketing that focuses on superior customer experience, softer blankets, fresher food in supermarkets. What’s really at stake for businesses feeding their shareholders:  how can we win, and how can we win cheaply? And above all, how can we manage the obstructions and interruptions to our winning strategy introduced by the very people that we’re here to serve?

Universities see themselves in this greasy mirror. Under increasing budgetary pressure, we’re actively investing in policy and technology that will let us serve more passengers with less. We’re thinking like airlines: shrinking seat pitch, charging a premium for the extra inch that enables passengers to sit comfortably, and then finally adding seat overbooking as a further layer of profit-protection. Specifically, we’re increasing class sizes, casualising labour, cutting contact hours, and burbling about “blended learning”. And behind it all we’re building big data telescopes through which individual students are glimpsed only as tiny, tiny dots on the landscape of market, demographic and behavioural analysis. Analytics in higher education are instrumentalising the way we develop the environment in which individuals come to learn. Through this lens actual learning is the pea that disappears under the cup of measurement: it’s the diversion, the misdirection that makes the whole trick possible.

What can we do? It’s easy to complain and feel defeated, but here’s the plan. We can tell each other stories, and listen well.

I’ve had the opportunity to deliver professional development training recently, on narrative practices that help leaders identify and defend their own values rather than simply promoting the institutional vision hammered out in brand, policy and threat. Narrative practice has the potential to reframe academic professionalism as an expression of what we care about, what we choose to stand for. It lets us bring a fuller sense of self to decision making, and challenges the “shared values” of reputational vanity, market capture, or whatever we’re currently chasing.

Development, future, strengths: a note from a workshop, image: Kate Bowles

I developed this training with students (in a class which I’ve written about before here). We learn from stories of professional experience that work is a continuous practice of relational ethics, demanding skilful and intentional ways of navigating challenges. We learn that to work well and sustainably is to be protective of good climate: to moderate the impact we are prepared to have on the lives of others, and to contribute in mostly quite modest ways to the creation of workplaces worth working in.

The best thing that’s come from this was to hear from a student that she had been successful in her first graduate interview because she was able to take her insights from this narrative class and talk about herself in ways that felt authentic to her. They chose her—but that wasn’t the best thing. A bit later, she wrote and told me that narrative insights also helped her to react quickly and confidently when it became clear that the job was a gift she needed to return. After observing how often the things she was asked to do made her feel uncomfortable at a deep level, her confidence in her own values helped her to work constructively with this discomfort, and separate from the job calmly and professionally.

Fun fact, as my daughters like to say: it’s easier to work in this narrative frame with students than with staff. The students who come to this class are open-minded and curious about their futures. They are interested in being heard, and in listening to each other. They are open to uncertainty and risk. Workplace leaders, on the other hand, have more on the line; they’re watching the rising tides of redundancy and job casualisation around them, and hoping that by clambering to higher ground they can stay one step ahead of what’s coming. On top of this, they’re increasingly seeing colleagues being dragged from the plane, and responding with helplessness and loss.

And this is the climate in which they have to lead.

In The Renewal of Generosity, which I’m currently mentioning in everything I write, Arthur Frank identifies the presence of menacing possibility in our workplaces as one that leads to demoralisation. By this he literally means the sapping of moral capability, the ability to stand for our own values, rather than the supposedly shared values of the strategic plan or the corporate vision. I agree: to restore the climate of our workplaces through practices of hospitality, generosity and consolation, we need to create space and support for leaders to listen to the stories that they’re hearing every day. The consolation of small stories, these ways in we keep in touch with each other as humans through the day (“How was your weekend?” “How’s your mum doing?” “Have you got plans for the holidays?”) aren’t trivial, or unproductive. They’re the ways in which we offer each other the gift of appreciative listening, and learn what matters to us.

And as it happens, they’re a win for organisations too: leaders who make space for storytelling in teams are building capacity to last over time, to work cooperatively through the most adverse circumstances, to be able to articulate and argue for their values, and to maintain their ethical focus. This is at least as useful as the current corporate fad for paintball-style team building, or team-based wellness challenges, all based on the myth that competition is healthy, fun and a win for all. (Which can’t possibly be true, when you think about it.)

Values-centred narrative practice on the other hand actually strengthens the “shared values” claim in corporate culture. But it does this by challenging the logic of chasing profit (or survival) through aggression towards consumers, service users, clients, students and staff. Having recently learned how empathy developed through touch and eye contact expands our neural capacity, I’m proposing that we also need to look more closely at story work in teams, and treat this as real, productive work. Narrative practice has taught me that small stories shared in a climate of trust create the conditions for innovation. Storied values expand our imagination of how others see the world; and they develop the generous, hospitable and empathic culture we need if we are going to learn from failure, risk, slow progress and small gains.

In other words, this is exactly how universities should be working. We’re not low-cost airlines, and even low-cost airlines don’t seem to like the way things are going.