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?

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

 

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.

Tenet

The Latin word is from PIE root *ten- “to stretch” (source also of Sanskrit tantram “loom,” tanoti “stretches, lasts;” Persian tar “string;” Lithuanian tankus“compact,” i.e. “tightened;” Greek teinein “to stretch,” tasis “a stretching, tension,” tenos “sinew,” tetanos “stiff, rigid,” tonos “string,” hence “sound, pitch;” Latin tendere “to stretch,” tenuis “thin, rare, fine;” Old Church Slavonic tento “cord;” Old English þynne “thin”). Connecting notion between “stretch” and “hold” is “cause to maintain.”

1

What are the things that we hold to be true? What are the tenets of our time that arouse conviction, that we stretch towards, that we grab hold of and hold dear?

Sometimes we hardly know what we believe. The state of the world is manipulated from a village in Macedonia. Everything is crooked, and rigged. The algorithm has misled us and continue to stumble. Powerful forces. What is trustable, if we don’t have faith to guide us? Like many unbelievers I’m in the world with a compass of secular hope. I trust in the safety offered me by others, and I accept the risk that this could end poorly. I know that the life in front of me, the face that is not mine, is part of the vast archive of human data that exists well beyond our capacity to track—all life, ever—and that is what defines me as separate, myself, mostly coherent in my sense of how to proceed.

Travelling round the world I realise there are also some practical things I take as being trustable: air traffic control; the safe interval programming of walk/don’t walk; subway maps. It’s how we function at all: we flourish because we know how to learn, trusting signs and faces and evidence, and making evidence based decisions.

Yesterday in the subway I was standing with my daughter when a tiny girl came by, just learning to walk, in that bowlegged tiptoeing way, holding her tiny arms above her head to the adult she was leading by the finger. They walked on together very slowly and intently, turned back and passed us again. The astonished delight on her face at seeing my daughter’s bright yellow coat—again!  right there where it was! —that’s how humans learn, by memorising it, walking it, storing it away, coming back to it.

We all laughed.

This is the life-defining skill that we are trying to hand over to computational learning. I think it’s both possible and probable that machines will get better at something that approximates to human thought. But I can’t care about this as much as I care about whether humans will inadvertently in the process deprive ourselves of the same capacity.

It is fundamental to the joy of being human that we learn how to process the data of our world, to recall and rearrange the evidence, to think.  I am here for this. I am here for the slowness of thinking, the cognitive complexity that inhabits every gesture that we make, for the greetings, the avoided glances, the votes, the clicks, the sentences that end properly, the thoughts that half fly up.

2

I’ve been thinking this while walking the streets of Brooklyn waiting for the marathon US election cycle to finish up at last. Yesterday, in bright Autumn sunshine, New Yorkers took a breather from it all to stand on their pavements and sit on their front steps and sing in gospel choirs and wave signs and hang out of windows yelling encouragement at the other kind of marathon, the one that involves actually running.

Sport is what it is: business being made out of the spectacular performance of the most exceptional and highly developed human bodies, that are pressing right up against the skin of what’s possible, turning time itself into something measured in shavings of seconds. But what’s so great about marathons is all the rest having a go: all ages, so many different bodies, running with help, barely running at all, costumed, underprepared. It’s a camino of sorts, a pilgrimage, a passage of faith.

#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016
#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016

We stumbled into it and stayed the course, buying cupcakes from bake sales and chatting in a neighbourly way to people from all over the world. And along with these complete strangers, we ended up cheering the strangers sweating past us. “Don’t give up! You’ve got this! Go Sweden!” Runners grinned, waved, jogged, slowed to a walk uphill. Wheelchair athletes, blind runners, runners for charity and for personal bests and for each other and for the sense of being in the spectacle and just getting to the end, in any shape.

We loved the man who shuffled by wearing a sign that said “34 finishes”. That’s not competition, it’s not even sport. It’s the project of being a person, showing up, making it to the finish of the thing, and coming back next year.

3

I’m in the US because I attended the OpenEd 16 conference in Richmond VA. It’s a conference that encourages warmth, commitment and solidarity among its regular participants. “Is this your first time?” I was asked (see Sundi Richard’s beautiful post on this). It was a little disconcerting, and describing it as a family reunion didn’t entirely help because, you know, families. But there is something important to the prospect of achieving change in higher education around the world that relationships of care grow and develop over time. And until now, conferences have been as obvious as marathons as a thing that people do to express their solidarity with this ideal.

But I’m worrying more and more about the carbon cost of this, and the food waste, and the endlessly discussed problem of conference schedules being stacked with presentations so that people can attend at all, when what we most need is time to confer. There are far better ways to encounter and process other people’s research, and I think those of us who are committed to openness as a tenet need to lead on this one.

What if we shifted the content of conferences into asynchronous distribution; and treat the opportunity be in place together as the discussion, as a literal practice of conferring? What if we took out all of the sessions, and made the corridors the central venues, as many do (and thanks to Alan Levine and Sean Michael Morris for so many thoughts on this.) What if we built in time to write together, to share quick thoughts with others, to use all our networks as a central platform for conferring on key ideas and questions, not a conference backchannel? (See this link for the “big ball of conversations around OpenEd16“.)

A few things would need to happen. First we would need to acknowledge that the nature of long-term friendships within communities make it easy for cliques to form, newcomers to be missed, and sameness to roll on. Northern hemisphere events and associations of this kind in education technology and open education have a whiteness problem and a gender problem, and we need to say it this plainly. (See posts by Martin Weller and Tomo Nagashima.)

Second, we can all take a step towards undoing the cult of community stars and heroes, of deciding who matters and who is marginal. Keynote stars, corridor celebrities: none of this makes education more open. Let’s focus on the ideas whoever has them, and celebrate all the runners with the same joy. We’re in it together.

Thirdly, those of us with institutional positions need to lobby hard against the hyphenation of conference presentation to research outcome to career uplift. This is doing enormous harm to the quality of thinking at environmentally costly events like academic conferences. (And don’t get me started on conferences doubling as hiring fairs. Stop with that.)

And finally, we really need to think about placedness. There is a real privilege of being in the same place as other people, but that’s not the only way to be with people. So this is a cheer to the tireless Virtually Connecting team. I’m not always on board with the way they select and promote their hallway conversations, as I’m concerned that this in itself is sustaining the prestige hierarchies that we most need to get shot of. But they have been really significant in reminding everyone that a professional conference can and should include those who don’t trash the planet to be in the room.

This really is a tenet—a stretch goal—that we can’t afford to avoid any longer.

More to read

There are many blogs coming out of this conference, and I will post the link to the David Kernohan’s archive when I find it. Update: OK, found it. What a resource this is: go there.  But if you have less time, please read this on the need to pause, from Autumm Caines, and this from Laura Gogia on stories as a way of being.

For now, our own

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

Maha Bali, ‘Reproducing marginality,’ September 2016

We so easily forget our bodies.

Mary Freer, ‘This body goes to work,’ August 2016

Over the last week I’ve been skirting a significant conversation begun by Maha Bali (“I don’t own my domain, I rent it“) and continued by Audrey Watters (“A domain of ones own in a post-ownership society“). Never far away is Andrew Rikard’s Edsurge post “Do I own my domain if you grade it?”

The question for me is how the idea of “own” works as a metaphor. It’s complicated enough as it is: my own, to own, owned, owned. We own our mistakes, we own our work, we own our politics, and none of this is quite like the way we own our homes—which for most of our working lives means some version of renting, in a funhouse world in which access to credit, like debt itself, has become an asset.

Conceptually, home ownership makes an ironic pass at all this, promising dominion over property that is actually quite a temporary thing in geohistorical time. Home ownership offers a misleading sense of permanence in relation to our provisional space in the world. A home that’s owned is always haunted by both its past and future. Far from sheltering us against the churn of things, it’s a daily reminder that we’re not here for long.

And inside our own homes where we might think of ourselves as free to do as we please, we remain legal subjects, subordinated to the local laws or ways of being to which our citizenship is bent. We house our human bodies, our social selves, our presentability. Our houses face the street; and behind the scenes, who knows what.

As legal subjects, we have modest rights to allow our homes to fall into disrepair, although these are limited by heritage considerations, public health and safety and so on. Zoning laws fence us in. Meanwhile there are all the social obligations of habitation to keep up: from the pragmatics of rent, rates, taxes, body corporate fees and utilities, to the labour of being a considerate neighbour, maintaining a yard, planting a tree that will outlive you. All this takes some skill, some literacy. No one really remembers how we learned to pay bills, or manage our garbage, but we do.

The implication that ownership of things is the beginning of practice of civic participation is something we both assume and overlook when we use ownership as a tech metaphor, without thinking ahead to use. It’s as if the ownership of a domain becomes an end in itself. Domain names are fetishised, like novelty license plates. They’re collectable and tradable, despite having no inherent functionality except to indicate an empty lot where something might be built, or a lot where something has been abandoned, that might be recaptured at a price for a new project. But achieving naming rights in the use of a domain doesn’t come with the skills you need to know what to do next, how to build what people will find if they search at those coordinates.

This is where I’ve come to in the conversation about whether personal domain ownership is a useful or socially equitable project for higher education. Maha’s post set off a deep and thoughtful exchange among some of higher education’s most experienced and engaged champions of student and personal blogging. Really, go read through those comments, they’re a model for the conversations we should have when we think about bringing tech innovation as a requirement into the lives of others.

As companion pieces, I read Maha’s further post on how things get paid for in Egypt; Audrey’ post on the impact of student debt on credit score; and two articles by Tressie McMillan Cottom, on the $20 principle and on preferential student recruitment as reparations for slavery (spoiler: it’s not reparations.) Then I fell into this exchange on Twitter about the critical importance of making small barriers to educational participation visible, kicked off by Robin deRosa reminding her students  to bring a credit card and working laptop to class.

To lower these barriers while keeping them visible, which is very much Robin’s project, we have to get much better at noticing them. We need to be scrupulous in attending to the assumptions that lie behind our metaphors, our proposals, our sense of being agents for change largely on the side of the good. We are teaching people with different life experience than our own–different educational capital, cultural capital, actual capital. I teach students for whom a missed shift at work may mean a lost job in a sinkhole local economy; a required online textbook with a digital key may prevent joining the class at all; a credit card may already be maxed or cut up; a laptop may be both so cheap and so broken that it’s hard to see through the cracked screen. All of these are actual barriers to participation that actual students have discussed with me in the last four weeks.

And it’s easy to say that we have policies or options for students who can’t do what we expect, and measures to show that they are in a tiny minority; but in reality we rarely check what disadvantage and/or risk comes with our Plan B. We don’t think nearly enough about students for whom the language of digital making is unfamiliar, or the demands of content generation are disempowering and demoralising. We don’t adequately accommodate the students who have poor internet access, exhausted data plans, or have to do everything through a second hand phone.

So when we say that it’s a good thing for students to own their domain, we need to ask what we mean by owning, and what we think home might be as a metaphor–especially given that the metaphor for our times is not home ownership, or even post-ownership; it’s homelessness.

It’s the global political scale of this homelessness, the mobility of whole populations for whom the modern projects of both nation and property have entirely fallen apart, that presses an anxiety of ownership on the rest of us. Having a home is more than a matter of shelter, it’s the presentation of a certain kind of survivorship, assessed in cultural competence, the assertion of literacy, the visible privilege of know-how. And like home ownership, domain ownership is the practice of insiders, survivors, using the skills and languages that flex their cultural power by asking to be taken entirely for granted, not just in terms of what appears on the screen but increasingly in terms of the coding that lies beneath it.

This weekend I walked past a house that I like. It’s in a gentrifying Sydney neighbourhood, defying the trend. It’s been taken over by an unpruned wisteria draped over its rotting balcony; curtains are never pulled back from its verandah doors. Who knows what’s inside? Who lets their property, in Sydney of all places, fall into this unproductive, vegetative state? But now there’s a notice stapled to the fence. Development is planned. The house will be demolished and replaced. There will be a plunge pool. This abandoned property will retake its place in the proper, and properly owned will become an asset to the whole neighbourhood in house price uplift.

Ownership can never be less of a public spectacle than this. It’s whole point is to be knowable by others, to turn exclusivity of access and control towards a model of social order and a vision of security that will miraculously extend to all, including those who are most obviously excluded. Owning and gentrifying are inseparable economic forces. So when we talk about securing a domain of one’s own, we’re also talking about this privatising vision of the proper—and we’re at risk of missing the fragile, important lesson that just as with homes, the security of ownership is always measured against the temporality of the bodies walking past.

Note: This blog is parked with Reclaim Hosting, for whom my admiration is unreserved. None of the questions I’m asking here are a criticism of their model.

Chorus of voices

The chorus not only results in a more complete understanding, but properly conceived and executed encourages more participation as well.

Mike Caulfield, Choral Explanations, May 2016

This flashmob can catch you a little off guard. The song is sung with such heart.

Amazing Flashmob (Library Singing)

Screenshot 2016-08-02 12.20.38
Image by Pat Demassy, details below

Back in May I read Mike Caulfield’s long post about the social architecture of participatory thinking. I can’t do justice to it in a snapshot, so just make a pot of tea and go read it. It’s really great. I felt myself get smarter with each paragraph, including the ones I had to go over several times. Why does Quora work? How do we explain things to ourselves and to each other? What happens if we have multiple explanations for a thing? How do use these handholds in understanding to lift ourselves up to the level we can achieve in grasping things? And of course, Wikity.

For me, the first thing is to understand is what brings us to the foot of the climb. There’s a world of difference between how you pursue something under obligation to a deadline, whether as a student or a scholar; and getting to grips with something because you really want to know. You want to know—or remind yourself—what a thing means, or how to do it, or how it turned out, or how to say it in French. Curiosity is an itch: for two days I’ve had a song in my head, and couldn’t place it beyond two words, a key, and a trace memory that it was sung by a chorus of voices. Because I was searching for it, I thought about it more intensively than I will now I’ve found it, although finding it taught me at least three new things about its history. (Bob Dylan, who knew? Most people, probably, but I didn’t.)

Here, listen to this.**

What happens next in the participatory web is that our solitary and wandering search trails can become visible, shareable and open. Of course, they also get fed into the algorithmic mincer in the hope that a drop of profit can be squeezed out of enthusiasms we might be part of. And of course, open is also always open to abuse. But whatever predatory or corporate interests have an eye on our pathways, the fact is that we make them first by ourselves, and then we make them socially. We answer one another’s questions, generating spin-off curiosities of our own. We follow another person’s line of thinking. We’ve always done this in conversation, in a way that leans on presence and familiarity, and we’ve always done it as scholars (at least, until we took a wrong, wrong turn into the citation farm). Now on the open web we do it asynchronously with strangers:  leaving a book on a bench, lemons on a fruit stand, a message under a bridge, a comment on a blog post, all for someone else to pick up.

Here, listen to this.

This is the third step, where we organise our thoughts in collaboration with others. We write together and release an idea that has more than one voice behind it into the world. And very often this emerges from having the time and capacity to have a conversation among those other voices in the first place, so that you learn how they sound, and how you sound in their company. There’s much more backstage work here as everyone gets used to their part, to the thing they’re going to say. Collaborative writing is delicate, skilled, and really hard work. (As an aside: writing together is a practice that humanities research quantification calculates as representing less of an achievement than single authored work. It literally weighs less on the scale. Just ask musicians how ridiculous this is.)

So finally, the thing I wanted to share, that took me back to Mike’s post and this lovely passage:

It reminds me that the origin of “chorus” is thought by some to have been derived from the Ancient Greek for “enclosed dancing floor”, and although that’s just an accident of etymology, I can’t help but thinking of a chorus as individual agents we push into a bounded space; it’s really the bounding of that space — whether through harmony, melody, implied chord progressions, whatever, that allows us to see both the connectedness and the difference at the same time.

We write in bounded space, and in writing we make a bounded space that is bounded in the sense of bond, not border. We make a bonded space held together by thoughts that are working in collaboration with one another. We write ourselves into bonded spaces all the time, and we spin from one space to another. There’s chance, there’s intention, there’s call and response, and sometimes there’s full blown orchestration.

Here, watch this. Watch this bonded space get made. Watch the faces of the surprised, and the glances shared among the singers. What was this for, except to generate joy for others? What did it mean to be present, except to be astonished by the accident of timing? This chorus of voices, this profound gift of surprise and joy to strangers who happened to be there—it’s everything a library is meant to be.

Some things are dark, difficult and stuck just now—but just wait. We’re all here, and we know it.

(Thanks to you, Mike Caulfield. **And thanks to Frances Bell for letting me know that the first version of this song I linked to has been taken down. The web: so fragile, so quick to be respun.)

Image credit above: P4304311m (2011) is by Pat Demassy and shared on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Networked professionals

Ambiguity is always at the centre of an interesting experience because this causes us to question, to wonder why a thing holds our attention.

– Bill Henson, Oneiroi

How will the professional identity or professionalism of academics be supported, rather than eroded as the University is proletarianised?

Richard Hall,  ‘On the HE White Paper

I can’t pin down when I started to say “professional” so much. Maybe I’m gesturing towards something that might help students think outside of the frame we place around them. What if not student, if not casual worker? Future professional. A professional, I want to believe, is someone who manages frustration, responds to challenges with equanimity and not spite, who keeps it together. Be professional,  I say. And for good measure, I add that all this is sure to be helpful to them in their graduate professional future.

But Bill Henson’s right, we should stop and think when a thing holds our attention. In the era of the employability mantra, values are on the fritz. So I wonder if I’m trying to keep something on side, or whether I’m just trying to get a fix on a moving horizon.

I catch myself noticing, in much the way that Kathleen Stewart describes her ethnography in her beautiful 2008 essay “Weak Theory for an Unfinished World”:

A noticing that gropes from a haptic space in the middle of things. The objects of such a practice are things noted obliquely, as if out of the corner of the eye, but also, often, as punctums or punctures. Things that have impact. Things caught in a circuit of action and reaction.

Workshop poster on noticing details
#dlrn15 workshop on change in higher education, 2015

Professionalism: I’m noticing it everywhere. It’s in the inflight magazine, it’s in conference codes of conduct, it’s in the recruitment toolkit and the career planner. It’s in songs. It’s ironic, and hopeful, and thrown into disarray by the current condition of work. What is our professionalism within this labour market that has come so spectacularly unstuck? Who is exploiting our professionalism, and what business models are glued together by it?

I find other people using “professional” to mean two things. One is about the boundaries that keep us apart from one another. A nurse educator told me that she felt it was unprofessional for nurses to share any detail about their lives with patients, even if this made patients feel more comfortable and trusting. She explained to me that this practiced professionalism also kept nurses safe from the risk of empathy with patients who might, you know, that. Both sides are protected when the behavioural boundaries are clear.

Something similar sidles into this assertion about how university staff and students are supposed to get along:

Victoria Bateman, fellow and director of studies in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, believes that “the relationship between a student and an academic needs to be a professional one, rather than something more informal.

Nina Kelly, ‘Should academics avoid friendships with students?’, June 2016

The idea that the opposite of “professional” is “informal” gets some academics worked up about the value of titles, the way that students write emails, the need for standards to be unyielding, and things to be done properly. It seems we’ve awarded ourselves the contract for the moral education of students, all managed under the shingle of employability (“And, let’s not forget, any increased laxity in marking, deadlines and attendance will not help students prepare for the reality of a career after university.”) There’s something defensive and sad in all of this, as though a levee has failed and the water’s coming in.

But there’s a second meaning that Liz Morrish brought out recently in a post I’ve already cited, that’s not threatened by students calling us by our first names, and that holds itself accountable to something other than the expectations of compliance and self-management set up by the first meaning:

In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain.

Liz Morrish,  ‘Care in the Virtual Community’

What is this professional self, that holds itself together, that is opposed to casualisation and fragmentation? How does this professionalisation connect us to each other, and enable us to go on making community, both inside and in refusal of the perverse project of transforming higher education into a sporting contest? Can we prise it away from the ruses and routines of our credentials, our legacy of vocationalism that is suddenly transitioning into chronic volunteerism, and then notice something principled, enduring, and trans-institutional that is not fully subordinated to the market anxieties and brand vanities of our sector?

There are ideas emerging around us. When doctors refuse to return children to offshore detention centres because they have a professional commitment not to place children in harm’s way, we get a look at something beyond the ordinary verticals of career and employability. This isn’t about getting on and getting up, but about standing up for something that goes beyond self-interest.

So what is our version of this action?

At least one model showed up in Australia and internationally this week as academics responded to La Trobe University treating a Facebook comment about Australia’s flag as “serious misconduct” — and a cheer to the Thesis Whisperer for her fierce intervention on this case. It turns out Twitter isn’t just cat pictures (looking at you, Baroness Greenfield) but is some kind of professional community prepared to speak out for one another, who quickly recognised something symptomatic in this case—something really demoralising about universities playing social media gotcha with their staff without the faintest idea how the network actually works.

Mulling all this over, last week I finished delivering two courses. The first has been with a generous, creative and inspiring group of students who came together with me to use narrative methods to think about how professionalism might become a critical practice. The second has been a values-centred examination of the role of research in our cultures and our working lives, which closed on the topic of professionalism itself.

I shared things that are personal to me, especially on the predicament of human time. In return, students shared with me their experiences as casual workers. I heard about professionalism as something you make for yourself even when work doesn’t offer much in the way of status or appreciation. It’s not how you put up with the customer that’s hassling you, but how you speak up for yourself, how you ask to be treated properly. Professionalism, they told me, is a potential for conduct in all circumstances, but it’s a contract: an expectation of dignity, integrity and a right to be engaged.

When I asked if they have the opportunity to rehearse this professionalism as students, the answers were discouraging. To conduct yourself, you have to have some choices, some range. You have to be able to see yourself setting a course of action, exercising judgment, appraising standards, reflecting, and being open to change. And more or less everything we do—with increasing force as we dig deeper into the error of treating rules as qualities—prevents students from learning these skills. We deprofessionalise students as we herd them around, organise their time for them, set their tasks according to inflexible internal standards, grade their work according to rubrics that leave no room for surprise, claim credit for their employability, prize ourselves for their graduate salaries, and bolster the competitive durability of their qualification by minimising creative tinkering with its curriculum.

So it’s not surprising that our own sense of professionalism has become imperilled as we become the functionaries to these shallow procedures. Not to mention that we’re so busy contributing two unpaid working days of our lives every week to keep our chocolate factory running at a competitive pace relative to the one up the road, that we should have no time to sustain ourselves as ethical professionals. But we do, and increasingly we do it in the network, in the things we write, share and debate online.

So this is really why universities are starting to monitor social media more closely. It’s the space to which our professionalism has escaped and regrouped. It’s where professionalism correlates as much to care as it does to competition, where despite the occasional misstep there is a resilient community of purpose, making a network of our better selves.

And perhaps because of all this, it’s also the one space where we get to welcome students who choose to join us as our collaborators, already building their own professional futures, alongside ours.

 for Paul