quit moaning about the TEF

The Role specification: Subject Pilot and Year Three Panel members and assessors for the TEF has been published. As ever, HEFCE claims that TEF “is a scheme for recognising excellent teaching, in addition to existing national quality requirements… It provides information to help prospective students choose where to study.” Now, as we move towards subject-level TEF, HEFCE is looking to recruit another 100 academics and students to work on subject pilot panels. I assume that they will also provide some form of deliberative, distributed leadership on the on-going implementation of the TEF in their own institutions.

I mention this move to widen academic labour’s complicity in the implementation of the TEF, because it reminds me that last year, in response to a call on the National Teaching Fellow listserv for positive engagement, I wrote about resistance: “It feels important for me as an NTF neither to consider nor to do this work.”

In part this is because I refuse to have my work as an NTF, and my professional practice, co-opted by a Government that is seeking to damage further the idea of public higher education. The TEF is a means to further the twin agendas of marketisation and privatisation in the sector, which emerging through the White Paper fundamentally damage social mobility and social justice. I simply cannot lend my intellectual and social capital to it. Some of this rationale is set out in the Alternative White paper:https://heconvention2.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/awp-introduction/

My second reason issue is that UCU is currently in dispute over pay, including working to contract. This dispute is focusing our attention on issues of overwork and anxiety/mental health problems amongst staff, increasing casualisation and precarious employment, and gender disparities in remuneration. Many of us resigned as external examiners in support of this campaign (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/may/26/why-we-are-resigning-as-external-examiners). Out of solidarity with colleagues on the HE single pay spine fighting for better pay and conditions I cannot justify doing this work.

The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.

There is plenty of other stuff that I have written against the TEF. However, my endpoint that the TEF will damage both the quality of teaching and learning and the relationships between teachers and students, and that far from enhancing and celebrating teaching (through a culture of promoting excellence) it will solely focus upon the commodification of university life through the proxy of student labour market outcomes, has been amplified. This was emphasised both in Jo Johnson’s speech to UniversitiesUK on 7 September 2017, and also in Chris Husbands’ keynote at the DMU learning and teaching conference yesterday.

Johnson’s speech, titled Embracing accountability and promoting value for money in Higher Education, reiterates the core of the TEF lessons learned summary policy document. In this, strengthening accountability through the integration of rich data about graduate employment (using LEO data), alongside a new supplementary metric on grade inflation, emerges at the same time that the reliance on NSS data is to be reduced. For Johnson, there is a need to pay lip-service to the humane values that underpin higher education, whilst pivoting the re-engineering of higher education around surplus value.

The pursuit of knowledge is the hallmark of a civilized society and for many people a sufficient end for the higher education system in and of itself.

That said, we must accept that the transition from an elite to a mass system of higher education brings with it an expectation of a strong economic return too.

Johnson argues that the current and previous governments’ re-engineering of the system will enable him to support academic and academic leaders in rejecting “the arguments of the statists and the pessimists”, and in justifying the continued existence of English universities through a process of on-going reform. There is no alternative, and “we should welcome the scrutiny and embrace accountability.” However, as Catherine Boyd and David Kernohan note, this “moves the TEF away from something that is done on behalf of applicants towards being something that is done for reasons of policy implementation.” They highlight:

For those who have argued that salary outcomes are a crude or inappropriate measure of teaching excellence, this is bad news. Alongside the halving of the NSS weighting, it looks like the TEF is becoming more focused on student labour market outcomes than teaching excellence.

There was always an inevitability about this transition away from our recent history of quality enhancement across the sector, towards a new normal that subjugates teaching under the rule of money framed by new public management/performance management. Thus, a range of academics no longer discuss the politics of the TEF, rather the focus is how to make it more objective or efficient. This is teaching becoming more efficiently unsustainable beyond the market. Simon Marginson argues:

for better and for worse we live in an era of performance management in higher education. This is dictated ultimately by public accountability, and it is an unanswerable requirement.

There is no space in this argument to deliberate over “outcomes in fundamental areas” or “educational and social objectives”. The rule of money, amplified through the commodification of higher education, becomes the only “viable method for assessing teaching and learning”. This, of course, refuses the history of evaluation rooted in institutional audits, or other models for enhancement-led institutional review (for instance in Scotland).

Marginson continues:

The key to achieving the best possible and least damaging performance management system, is to create a virtuous circle between real outcomes, performance measure and the resulting competitive position.

Outcomes, performance management and competition are the rules through which academic labour is to be kettled.

There is no point in looking for alternative narratives or leadership from senior management within institutions. Janet Beer, the new President of UUK, broadly accepted Johnson’s stated position and argued that universities need to make the case for their work more clearly. Her predecessor, Julia Goodfellow previously noted that “the challenge will be to develop the system to ensure the information is properly communicated and helpful to students in the decision making process”. Effectively, it’s the only game in town so we all better quit moaning and get on with explaining ourselves more effectively. In this moment, the kettle tightens: money in the form of student and institutional debt as a key input; and money in the form of student outcomes/salaries as the key output. This is our teaching excellence.

So yesterday at DMU’s annual learning and teaching conference, the TEF chair, Chris Husbands, reiterated the key points from his post-match analysis of the TEF in a talk entitled 10 lessons from the TEF. The takeaways were a reiteration that: first, democratic accountability is conditioned through value-for-money and efficiencies; second, irrespective of contestation over datasets and outcomes, processes like the NSS and the TEF enable institutional leaders to focus minds on quality improvement; and third, it could be worse (we could end up with the equivalent of Ofsted). There is no space here, and no takeaway, for a discussion of alternative, dialogic processes or strategies. To reiterate, this is the only game in town so we all better quit moaning and get on with it.

Husbands’ 10 lessons focused upon the TEF:

  • measuring the things that matter to students (work, retention, assessment, quality of teaching);
  • being outcomes focused, rather than measuring the things that universities are good at talking about like changes to inputs or processes;
  • enabling metrics and benchmarks to deliver hypotheses and judgements;
  • enabling judgements to be made about strategic clarity, in the relationship between policy, practice and outcomes;
  • focusing minds on impact rather than describing initiatives;
  • catalysing coherent strategies for improvement;
  • shining a light on data (il)literacy, and the impact of innovation on students;
  • supporting analyses of genuine student involvement, embedded at all levels;
  • refusing to accept context as an excuse or point of analysis/challenge for poor performance; and
  • demonstrating that excellence and diversity are interconnected.

He ended by talking about the importance of the subject-level TEF for the investment decisions of students and their families.

Intrigued by his starting point in the strategic value of NSS data that could be triangulated with other datasets, and the importance he placed on situating the TEF against the sector’s history of quality enhancement initiatives, I asked the following:

Following Jo Johnson’s speech to UUK, with the inclusion of LEO data and the reduction in NSS weighting in future iterations of TEF, it appears that salary outcomes are to be used as the measure of teaching excellence. Are you worried [not concerned but worried] that the TEF is becoming more focused on student labour market outcomes than teaching excellence?

[c.f. Andrew McGettigan’s worked on the Treasury view of HE, and this report in the Times Higher Education about reinforcement of sector hierarchies]

He replied: “I’m going to give you the politician’s answer”. He stated that his role was to ensure that the TEF process as defined by government and HEFCE could be robustly implemented; that it was his job to deliver the institutional TEF.

Here I am reminded that I once wrote against a neoliberal curriculum, about who has voice/is silenced and the role of leadership.

It is increasingly less certain that institutional leaders, Vice-Chancellors or Vice-Principals, will challenge the dominant narratives of the State, in terms of the marketisation of higher education. Acting as CEOs the logic is that they will attempt to compete rather than co-operate. Thus, in the UK, University leadership was quiet over the threats of violence made by the State against students who protest, and we witnessed banning orders being sought against protest on campus, PhD students being suspended for protesting via poetry, and elected student representatives being removed from University committees for protesting. This enactment of the University as an enclosed space for dissent is a logical outcome emerging from the rhetoric of competition.

In this process of enclosure, we might ask whether our academic leaders will be able to work communally or co-operatively to roll-back the neoliberal discourse that commodifies all of our social life inside the market, and which kettles free debate about what is legitimate. We might ask then what is the role of the academic as activist in developing alternative discourses that argue for a re-humanisation of educational life and activity.

Game over. Thanks for playing.


on weltschmerz and academic ill-being

In part because I am working on a book on academic alienation, and in part because this week has focused upon the relationship between alienation, overwork, illness and well-being ill-being, the damaging effects of academic labour on both the academic Self as s/he becomes a self-exploiting entrepreneur, and on her humanity as a species-being, have been live for me. I’ve written about this over at WonkHE in terms of academic ill-health. However, more theoretically this might be situated in the relationship between Hegel’s work on particularity and universality, and extended through a more dialectical focus on the internal relations that reveal our subjectivity. Here the realities of an academic life framed by the violence of abstraction are laid bare:

This example of labour shows strikingly how even the most abstract categories, despite their validity – precisely because of their abstractness – for all epochs, are nevertheless, in the specific character of this abstraction, themselves likewise a product of historic relations, and possess their full validity only for and within these relations. Marx, Grundrisse.

I wrote previously how this violence of abstraction leads to a sense of academic hopelessness or academic world-weariness. I have developed this into an article for tripleC on the alienation of academic labour and the possibilities for mass intellectuality. One of the sections of my draft, which I shortened in the accepted version was on weltschmerz, a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects a deeper sense of hopelessness about the academic project. Increasingly, in line with Marx’s focus on subjectivity in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and the German ideology, I view the importance of this in terms of what it reveals about the particularity of the Self and the universality of the individual as a species-being in the current crisis of capitalism.

What is this world of capitalist work doing to us and can we imagine anything different? The issue, of course, is how to see this as a dynamic process, in order to move beyond alienation, hopelessness, world-weariness. I have reproduced the original section on weltschmerz, below.

Increasingly, academics face an intense sense of weltschmerz; a world weariness that lies beyond anxiety, anguish or ennui, and which perhaps reflects a deeper sense of hopelessness about the academic project. This is a recognition that the world once hoped for may never be, and that the concrete world now abstracted for value may never embody our deeper humanity. In fact, in our abstracted world such hopelessness is connected to a loss of autonomy/freedom that is itself rooted in the inability to escape from capital’s domination. Much worse is the fact that the cultural terrain upon which capital works reinforces within us a sense that we are not productive enough, and that this is a sin (Jappe 2013, Kierkegaard 1981). Moreover, our life choices emerge inside a system of structural domination that increasingly alienates us both from ourselves and from our place in the social and natural world.

In response to the revelation that under austerity, academic labour is increasingly a site of alienation, new ideas of good/public and bad/private are projected onto the University (Campaign for the Public University (CPU) n.d., Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) n.d.). It is hoped that the idea of the public good of HE can be recovered against the market. Inside the politics of austerity, academics can either incorporate performativity and control, or internalise the loss of what they hoped the university might become. However, this risks the development of a new depressive position through which despair restricts autonomy and where the overwhelming feeling is one of hopelessness. Addressing such a depressive position requires a different level of grief and mourning to be internalised, so that academics can address their alienation and lack of autonomy in an authentic manner, and in relation to wider society.

The critical issue is that academic alienation is rooted in enforced compliance and coercion, and in a refusal to locate solidarity across a wider social terrain (The Institute for Precarious Consciousness 2014). Instead of loss or grief, competition and entrepreneurial activity are internalised (Kelman 1958), and the induced behaviour is made congruent with the inner, academic self through the signalisation and dressage of performance management (Foucault 1975). As a result, refusal or mourning reflect the incongruence between performance management and a deeper set of personal, educational values.

Our hopelessness is rooted in the academic’s apparent loss of her labour, as it is brought into the service of value. Marx (1844) knew that this is the logic of capitalism that defenestrates labour, in order that it can accumulate autonomy:

Is then only the semblance of an activity, only a forced activity, imposed upon me only by an external and accidental necessity and not by an internal and determined necessity… My labour, therefore, is manifested as the objective, sensuous, perceptible, and indubitable expression of my self-loss and my powerlessness.

Such powerlessness is a reflection of how social or communal spaces, places, identities, and relationships are all means of extracting value or hoarding private wealth. Moreover, with the formal subsumption of higher education under capitalist social relations, this sense of hopelessness is reinforced as we witness just how far the limits to our alienation from space, society and nature can be pushed. As Berardi (2009, 73) argues:

To be recognized in the networked universe one must become compatible with the generative logic of the matrix. What does not belong to a codified domain is not socially recognizable or relevant, although it still exists in the domain of irrelevance, of residuality. It then reacts with rage and despair, in order to violently reassert its existence.

For academics, this is the alienation and subsequent hopelessness of intellectual dispossession that Stiegler (2010, 125-126) argued forms a

toxic economy of regressive tendencies, implemented by consumerism exercising the psychopower of its cultural hegemony through the intermediary of psychotechnologies, in this way controls the becoming of individual and collective behavior, as well as the dynamic processes of the technical system.

Our atomisation and automisation cannot enable liberation, agency or the reassertion of academic autonomy. The technological system that valorises capital itself co-opts and reproduces social relationships that it then attempts to modify or destroy. We are constantly torn between social (re)combination and individual atomisation/entrepreneurialism. The social relations of production extend their domination beyond the space-time of our work, into the space-time of our life, in order to occupy and valorise humanity and kindness. Control enacted through the internalisation and adoption of automatic operational systems forces us to incorporate negative internal objects. The anxieties of capital as a machine, and the anxieties of the University as a node in our machinic whole, are incorporated and projected onto others.

What this entails for the academic/student is an end to self-care; of hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds; of the apparent impossibility of scaling-up kindness. This demands a culture of omertà, or the silence of those in the know, who must co-operate even as they compete, and thereby generate complex inter-relationships rooted in uncertainty and anxiety (Hall and Bowles 2016). The question is how to negate rather than accept the basis of domination, through the academic fails to realise her potential for happiness. Is it possible to define a new form of sociability? For Marx (1844/2014, 82), this reveals the tensions between marketised, economised existence that is predicated on the ‘increasing value of the world of things’ at the expense of the ‘devaluation of the world of men’. The questions are whether that world can be superseded across the social factory (Federici, 2012), and what is the role of the university in that overcoming?


Berardi, Franco. 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Translated by Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia, with preface by Jason Smith. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).

CDBU. 2017. Council for the Defence of British Universities. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://cdbu.org.uk/

CPU. 2017. Campaign for the Public University. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://publicuniversity.org.uk/

Federici, Sylvia. 2012. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1975. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.

Hall, Richard and Bowles, Kate. 2016. Re-engineering higher education: the subsumption of academic labour and the exploitation of anxiety. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labor 28, 30-47. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://bit.ly/2dQMx8X

The Institute for Precarious Consciousness. 2014. We Are All Very Anxious. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://bit.ly/1KnFiOi

Jappe, Anselm. 2013. Towards a History of the Critique of Value. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 25 (2): 25–37. Accessed April 10, 2017. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10455752.2014.906820

Kelman, Herbert. 1958. Compliance, identification and internalization: Three processes of attitude change. Journal of Conflict Resolution 2 (1): 51-60. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://scholar.harvard.edu/hckelman/files/Compliance_identification_and_internalization.pdf

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1981. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin (Kierkegaard’s Writings, VIII) (v. 8). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1844. Comments on James Mill. Accessed April 10, 2017. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/james-mill/

Marx, Karl. 1844/2014. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. London: Bloomsbury.

Stiegler, Bernard. 2010. For a New Critique of Political Economy. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

The rise of academic ill-health

Over on WonkHE I’ve just had a piece published on academic ill-health, which touches on some issues I have raised previously about anxiety, the University as an anxiety machine, overwork and alienation. It complements these things I have previously written about academic labour:

on the University as anxiety machine

on academic labour and performance anxiety

Notes on the University as anxiety machine

on academic hopelessness

on world-weariness

notes on academic overwork

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

Re-engineering Higher Education: The Subsumption of Academic Labour and the Exploitation of Anxiety (with Kate Bowles)

published: Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education

Working with 20 co-authors, Joss Winn and I have just had published Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. The edited collection forms part of Bloomsbury Academic’s series on Perspectives on Leadership in Higher Education.

The abstract, key features and table of contents are noted below.


Higher education in the UK is in crisis. The idea of the public university is under assault, and both the future of the sector and its relationship to society are being gambled. Higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is resolutely instrumental. What and who have led us to this crisis? What are the alternatives? To whom do we look for leadership in revealing those alternatives?

This book critically analyses intellectual leadership in the university, exploring ongoing efforts from around the world to create alternative models for organizing higher education and the production of knowledge. Its authors offer their experience and views from inside and beyond the structures of mainstream higher education, in order to reflect on efforts to create alternatives. In the process the volume asks: is it possible to re-imagine the university democratically and co-operatively? If so, what are the implications for leadership not just within the university but also in terms of higher education’s relationship to society?

The authors argue that mass higher education is at the point where it no longer reflects the needs, capacities and long-term interests of global society. An alternative role and purpose is required, based upon ‘mass intellectuality’ or the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge.

Key features

  1. The book critiques the role of higher education and the University as an institution for developing solutions to global crises that are economic and socio-environmental. In this way it offers an analysis of the idea that there is no alternative for higher education but to contribute to neoliberal agendas for economic growth and the marketisation of everyday life. The restrictions on the socio-cultural leadership that emerge inside the University are revealed.
  2. The book describes and analyses concrete, alternative forms of higher education that have emerged from worker-student occupations, from academic engagements in civil society, and from the co-operatives movement. These projects highlight a set of co-operative possibilities for demonstrating and negotiating new forms of political leadership related to higher learning that are against the neo-liberal university.
  3. The book argues that the emergence of alternative forms of higher education, based on co-operative organising principles, points both to the failure of intellectual leadership inside the University and to the real possibility of democracy in learning and the production of knowledge. The concept of ‘Mass Intellectuality’ as a form of social knowledge that is beyond the limitations of intellectual leadership inside the University is critically developed in order to frame socially-useful responses to the crisis.



  1. Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education ~ Richard Hall and Joss Winn

Section One: Power, History and Authority

  1. Pedagogical Labour in an Age of Devalued Reproduction ~ Stevphen Shukaitis
  2. Co-operation, leadership and learning: Fred Hall and the Co-operative College before 1939 ~ Tom Woodin
  3. Academic Voices: from Public Intellectuals to the General Intellect ~ Mike Neary
  4. Openness, Politics and Power ~ Martin Paul Eve

Section Two: Potentialities

  1. The (im)possibility of Mass Intellectuality: Viewing Mass Intellectuality through the lens of the Brazilian Landless Movement ~ Joyce E Canaan
  2. Still spaces in the academy? The dialectic of university social movement pedagogy ~ Eurig Scandrett
  3. Bradford’s Community University: From ‘Constellations of Knowledge’ to Liberating the ‘General Intellect’? ~ Jenny Pearce
  4. Aesthetic Education, Critical Pedagogy and Specialist Institutions ~ Jonathan Owen Clark and Louise H. Jackson

Section Three: Praxis

  1. Six Theses In, Against and Beyond the University ~ Birmingham Autonomous University
  2. Reconciling mass intellectuality and higher education: lessons from the PPE experience ~ Joel Lazarus
  3. Somewhere Between Reform and Revolution: Alternative Higher Education and ‘The Unfinished’ ~ Gary Saunders
  4. Permaculture education as ecology of mind: the head, hands and heart of transformation ~ Tom Henfrey
  5. Mass Intellectuality from the Margins ~ Sara C. Motta

Conclusion: Politics, Aesthetics and Democracy

  1. Practicing What We Preach? Writing and Publishing In, Against and Beyond the Neoliberal University ~ Gordon Asher

Dismantling the curriculum in higher education

On 22 November I’ll be speaking at the University of Greenwich Open Lecture Series, on the issue of dismantling the curriculum in higher education. I will build on my work on academic alienation, mass intellectuality and decolonising the curriculum. The abstract is appended herewith.

The higher education curriculum in the global North is increasingly co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes, framed by determinist narratives of employability and enterprise. Such co-option is immanent to processes of financialisation and marketisation, which encourage the production of quantifiable curriculum activities and tradable academic services. Yet the university is also affected by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. As the labour of academics and students is increasingly driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of performance, the ability for academics and students to respond to crises from inside the university is constrained by the market.

This discussion argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the commodification of the curriculum is central. This enables us to discuss the possibility that an open curriculum rooted in ideas of mass intellectuality might enable new forms of social wealth to emerge in opposition to a curriculum for private/positional gain. One possible way to reframe the curriculum is by re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Masters House community and the Social Science Centre. Such an exploration, rooted in the organising principles of the curriculum, asks educators to consider how their curriculum reproduces forms of colonisation. It is argued that such work enables a re-imagination of higher education that is rooted in an engaged and co-operative curriculum, with a focus on praxis.

notes on the cybernetic hypothesis

I spoke last night at an event hosted by the Breaking the Frame collective. Breaking The Frame is based on the idea that everyone has the right to take part in decisions about technology. The collective aims to break the frame that conceals the politics of technology — to expose the common roots of the wide-ranging social and environmental problems caused by technologies.

My talk followed that of Ursula Huws of the University of Hertfordshire who described the terrain that defines the relationship between the digital and capitalism. There are details of the event, and other events in this series, here.

I was asked to speak about The Cybernetic Hypothesis, which was published by the collective that produced Tiqqun (reparation, restitution, redemption), a French journal with two issues in 1994 and 2015. It was argued that Tiqqun was a space for experimentation (pace The Situationists). It was an attempt at bridging the gap between theory and a number of practices and certain ways of “being together”. At issue was how to recreate the conditions of another community. See The Theory of Bloom and Introduction to Civil War for more information about Tiqqun’s philosophical basis.

Joss Winn’s notes on Reading the Cybernetic Hypothesis are especially helpful in unpacking the concepts developed in this short-ish tract (published in Tiqqun 2, and 43pp in eleven sections). Below, I detail the core themes I wished to open-out, alongside some further reading.

Cybernetics and control

It is important to situate the Cybernetic Hypothesis against the history and development of cybernetics, which was amplified in the aftermath the Second World War across a range of (inter-)disciplines. In particular, it focused upon structures, constraints and possibilities for homeostasis/regulation across specific systems. This focused around work involving to designate what was hoped would be a new science of control mechanisms, in which the exchange of information, four flows of data as real-time feedback mechanisms, would play a central role.

In discussing the cybernetic vision, Peter Galison argues that ‘Cybernetics, that science-as-steersman, made an angel of control and a devil of disorder.’ As a result, resistance (developed in the final three sections of The Cybernetic Hypothesis) has pointed to mechanisms that increase disorganisation, noise, and uncontrollability, such as capacity, panic and fog, as ways to resist silence and control.

Here it is worth reflecting on Brian Holmes’ work on control, in terms of the continuous adjustment of an apparatus, or an environment, according to feedback data on its human variables. The environment is overcoded with an optimizing algorithm, fed by data coming directly from you and me. In this way we might view our use of social media, search engines and the Internet of things is a way of mapping ourselves both into a wider value-chain (with differential spatial and temporal aspects) and into a new political terrain. See Holmes’ work on Do Cybernetics Dream of Digital Resistance?, and this video on the society of Control: The Neoliberal Civilization.

What emerges in this analysis is a complex architecture the lies beyond the surveillant-architecture of the panopticon, where transnational activist networks (operating as geographies of neoliberalism) continually attempt to manipulate the environments in which individuals exist. This takes the form of ensuring risk-management by focusing on governing networks (as opposed to network governance) exerting hegemonic forms of social authority in a new ways. It also ensures that the system acts as a form of semi-autonomous ‘piloting’ (according to Tiqqun), through which new forms of accumulation can be generated rooted in the circulation of value. One key outcome is control of the future for consumption, and smoothing out outliers, which may form a terrain for resistances and rupture (in the form of reparation, restitution and redemption). For Tiqqun:

It is no longer a question of static order, but of dynamic self-organisation. The individual is no longer credited with any power at all: his knowledge of the world is imperfect, he doesn’t know his own desires, he is opaque to himself, everything escapes him, as spontaneously co-operative, naturally empathetic, and fatally interdependent as he is. He knows nothing of all this, but THEY know everything about him.

Thus, we might see the role of cybernetics in the interlocking systems that congeal as capitalism as enabling a set of holistic, self-regulating, self-organising processes, which in turn underpin a stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. It should be noted that the original hopes for cybernetic theory were in part grounded in systems as self-organising, although this potentially leads to increased complexity and noise, and the possibility for rupture. Such ruptures stand against the production of an objectively-controlled, stable society; such ruptures are amplified by slowing or breaking the flows of information and data. This is important because, as Tiqqun note:

That is to say, cybernetics is not, as we are supposed to believe, a separate sphere of the production of information and communication, a virtual space superimposed on the real world. No, it is, rather, an autonomous world of apparatuses so blended with the capitalist project that it has become a political project, a gigantic “abstract machine” made of binary machines run by the Empire, a new form of political sovereignty, which must be called an abstract machine that has made itself into a global war machine.


In her brilliant MIT PhD, Jessica Eden Miller Medina described the use to which the Chilean state, under Presidents Frei and Allende (and then repurposed under Pinochet), put computers as technologies of the state. She refers to these technologies as “state machines.”

These new record-keeping technologies and practices, including early computers and tabulating machines, in turn allowed state officials to plan economic policies and simulate their effects; map the national population statistically with increasing accuracy; and keep detailed inventories of national resources. The resulting databases in turn shaped future economic policies and their underlying theoretical frameworks, the behavior of international lending agencies, perceptions of government efficacy, and levels of public satisfaction. They also created new forms of state control.

Rationalization, organization, coordination, and, at bottom, tecnificacion not only played a crucial role in Frei’s economic policies for development, but also the social changes outlined in the “revolution in liberty” and the president’s dream for modernizing the state so that he might create a better society.

Crucial here was the focus on the relationship between technical relations of production and political vision. Miller Medina quotes President Allende’s speech welcoming visitors to the Cybersyn Operations Room:

We set out courageously to build our own system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

However, inside Chile, there were problems in realising a new social terrain, because of: the relationship between deliberative democracy and the realpolitik of power relations; the messiness of economic planning and information at different levels of state and society, from the factory/community to central government; and because of the messy relationship between economic planning and social revolution. That said, analysing examples like CyberSyn, the involvement of the FLOK Society in delivering Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living, and the Lucas Plan, each offer alternative ways of exploring the relationships between human activity, human needs and technology.

Relationship to capitalism

The development of cybernetics is a systemic, structural and secular response to the issue of maintaining stable forms of accumulation and avoiding crisis inside capitalism. It is a response to the question of how to develop new forms of value without a fatal disequilibrium arising? For Tiqqun:

It is the tool by which capitalism has adjusted its capacity for disintegration and its quest after profit to one another. A society threatened by permanent decomposition can be all the more mastered when an information, an autonomous “nervous system” is in place allowing it to be piloted.

As a result, cybernetics acts as a lubricant for circulating and extracting value, using control devices to maximize commodity flows by eliminating (or at least reducing towards zero) risk and slow-down. One key issue is the relationship between value and machinery (or state machines), which tends to generate surplus population and to generate popularisation/proletarianisation. Harry Cleaver argues that this forces us to consider the conditions under which people become surplus to a capitalist system based on the imposition of work both waged and unwaged. As Amy Wendling notes this is crucial because “the social tyranny of exchange-value is so comprehensive that it determines how things are made and even what is made […] Capitalism does not care if it produces quantities for use; it cares about producing profit.”

One way of reframing this, which we can imagine emerging from an analysis of cybernetics in Chile or Ecuador, is to recognise how productivity reduces people to appendages of the machine through Capital’s autonomy over the General Intellect. As Marx writes in volume 1 of Capital:

The productive forces… developed [by] social labour… appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them.

We may consider resisting through the recognition of our collective knowledge, skills and capabilities as forms of mass intellectuality, which might be liberated in those unalienated areas of our lives yet to be colonised by capital. This leads us towards a struggle against work. As Moishe Postone argues, this is fundamental because the machining realities of the world we are in

opens the possibility of large-scale socially-general reductions in labor time and fundamental changes in the nature and social organization of labor. Yet these possibilities are not realized in capitalism.


In discussing a co-operative pedagogy of struggle, I argue:

The fight against forms of cybernetic control is not one of destroying or refusing high technology, but rather focuses upon using technology and technique to reveal the internal, totalising dynamics of capitalism. From this position, alternatives rooted in self-organisation and a societal complexity based on variety, improbability, and adaptability emerge. For Tiqqun, this forms the negation of the cybernetic hypothesis through a return to what it means to be human. A critical role for educationalists using technology inside-and-against the cybernetic hypothesis is to develop educational opportunities that highlight the development of counter-narratives of commons, co-operation, sharing, and openness, and against the separation and alienation of money, price, quality, and competition. As Tronti (p. 105) argued, at issue is the extent to which the forms of control that pervade human existence inside the social factory can be revealed and alternatives critiqued so that ‘capital itself [] becomes uncovered, at a certain level of its development, as a social power’.

Here we remember that Kautsky in discussing the class struggle argued:

The economic machinery of the modern system of production constitutes a more and more delicate and complicated mechanism; its uninterrupted operation depends constantly more upon whether each of its wheels fits in with the others and does the work expected of it.

Here there is an argument that the complexity of the wheels make up the capitalist machine offer moments of slow-down and machine-breaking. For Tiqqun, this did not mean a better, or more democratic use of technology inside capitalism. It meant a different set of social and humane formations:

a cascade of devices, a concrete government-mentality that passes through [inter-subjective] relations. We do not want more transparency or more democracy. There’s already enough. On the contrary – we want more opacity and more intensity.

Attacking the cybernetic hypothesis – it must be repeated – doesn’t mean just critiquing it, and counterposing a concurrent vision of the social world; it means experimenting alongside it, actuating other protocols, redesigning them from scratch and enjoying them.

For the collective moments of reparation, restitution and redemption were to be sought: in the increase in moments of panic disequilibrium; in the generation of noise; in becoming invisible inside the system; in the duality of sabotage and retreat; through deliberate slow-down; through humane, rather than technologically-mediated encounters; by increasing the space for opaqueness and fog. It was argued that “Speed upholds institutions. Slowness cuts off flows.”

This reminds us of Marx’s conception in the Grundrisse of the social cost of productivity and technological intensification:

The more developed the capital, therefore, the more extensive the market over which it circulates, which forms the spatial orbit of its circulation, the more does it strive simultaneously for an even greater extension of the market and for greater annihilation of space by time. (If labour time is regarded not as the working day of the individual worker, but as the indefinite working day of an indefinite number of workers, then all relations of population come in here; the basic doctrines of population are therefore just as much contained in this first chapter on capital as are those of profit, price, credit etc.) There appears here the universalizing tendency of capital, which distinguishes it from all previous stages of production.

For Tiqqun, then, the point was widening the space for autonomy.

It gives itself the means of lasting and of moving from place to place, means of withdrawing as well as attacking, opening itself up as well as closing itself off, connecting mute bodies as bodiless voices. It sees this alternation as the result of an endless experimentation. “Autonomy” means that we make the worlds that we are grow. The Empire, armed with cybernetics, insists on autonomy for it alone, as the unitary system of the totality: it is thus forced to annihilate all autonomy whenever it is heterogeneous. We say that autonomy is for everyone and that the fight for autonomy has to be amplified. The present form taken on by the civil war is above all a fight against the monopoly on autonomy. That experimentation will become the “fecund chaos,” communism, the end of the cybernetic hypothesis.

There are some outstanding issues which need to be addressed as part of this discussion.

  • Issues of intersectional oppressions, which are reinforced cybernetically, including the emotional and psychological toll this takes. This is then related to reproduction of white, male, hetero-normative power.
  • The role of accelerationism: see Jehu’s discussions over at The Real Movement.
  • An engagement with issues of proletarianisation, and working class composition, autonomy and power. This leads to a discussion of the abolition of alienated-labour, across the wider social terrain.
  • How do we use narratives to generate forms of solidarity, and in order to offer examples of rupture and alternatives? Here I am interested in the tactics offered by PlanC in generating a machine for fighting anxiety.

NOTE: I have written about cybernetics in the context of the relationship between Autonomist Marxism and eduction, and also in terms of emerging technologies and commodification. There are useful resources in the reference lists.

on being in-and-against the TEF

For there to be winners, there have to be losers.

Truth is an act of love.

I’ve been writing about against the TEF forever. In order to celebrate yesterday’s TEF results, I thought I would see just how much I had written as a recognition that resistance may appear futile but what else are we going to do? The list of posts is given below, but there are three bits that stood out on re-reading, alongside the positions of UCU and NUS.

The lynchpin of our subordination: my availability for my students; my teaching preparation; my relationship to my precariously-employed peers; my turnaround times; my willingness to sit on committees; my NSS scores; my TEF scores; my REF scores; my on-line presence; my impact; my scholarly outputs; my innovation; my everything. My desperate everything, including the subordination of life to work, as a means for the internalised production of anxiety that will help me to re-produce the desires of the machine for productivity and intensity.

Anxiety, alienation, desire, competition, subordination. A machinic whole.

The TEF is likely: to increase casualisation; differentiate between teaching and research staff; generate further performance management; damage academic autonomy and freedom; enhance the risks of market exit, reinforce the link between employment/future earnings and league table metrics for subjects; and so on. Each of these issues damages not only the quality of teaching and learning, but also the relationships between teachers and students.

A key issue is where does our limited energy go in all this? Resisting on all fronts is an exhausting impossibility. Resisting whilst we try to live is also potentially exhausting. Can we resist where we have a lack of agency or control? How do we push back against the normalisation of metrics that feeds into the violence of aspiration, or the internalised desire to optimise our personal and familial outcomes, as they are set by the market?

How do we work collectively inside and across institutions, and between teachers and students, to refuse the TEF? Or must we simply attempt to occupy and recompose the TEF?

How do we build a movement against standardised testing and metrics-driven education? How do we recover our humanity through connection to other campaigns?

How do we connect our work inside institutions to other, concrete and local, social campaigns against austerity?

Elsewhere, Sally Hunt of UCU has stated:

‘If the government is serious about improving teaching quality it should improve the working conditions of the tens of thousands of teaching staff employed on insecure, often zero-hours contracts and the impact this has on students’ learning experience.’

Elsewhere, Sonia Vieru of NUS has written that:

We do not believe that the Teaching Excellence Framework accurately measures teaching quality. The NSS Boycott has shaken one of the core metrics of the Framework and exposed its manipulability and fragility. Students’ unions across eleven institutions have confirmed to NUS that they successfully lowered their fill out rate to below 50 per cent, rendering the data unusable for one year of the next TEF award.

The NSS Boycott has shown that mass student mobilisation around what some would have considered a complex policy issue is possible and effective. The widespread impact of the NSS Boycott campaign will go further than one year of data destabilisation. Thousands of students have taken part in the campaign and have demonstrated their opposition to an assessment regime which is carried out in students’ names, but not to our benefit or to the benefit of higher education as a whole.

The TEF and its results today have opened up a conversation about the quality of teaching across the sector: but it is not a conversation which has been for the good of students or higher education.

’cause we all need heart and we all need courage/In these times

In no particular chronological or thematic order, these are some of the things I have written. They focus upon policy, practice-based implications, resistance, the proletarianisation of the University, and the emotional impact on/of academic labour.

notes on saying “no” to the TEF

notes on metricide

Notes on education-as-gaslighting

on the HE and Research Bill as a terrain of alienation

notes on HE finance: nothing is sustainable

on world-weariness

notes on the reserve army of academic labour

notes on education for a future of ‘declining returns on humans’

the Alternative HE White Paper

notes on desire, anxiety and academic luddism

on resistance to the HE White Paper

on the HE White Paper and academic practice

notes on academic overwork

against the HE Green Paper

on the (im)possibility of speaking

Do you want to be afraid?
Do you want to be afraid?
For life in the cage where courage’s mate runs deep in the wake
For the scariest things are not half as enslaved

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

I came off mirtazapine on May 28th. After almost six years of pouring chemicals into my soul to stay in the game I was so bored. And so ready. There is no moment in which this shift in readiness became apparent. Four years on from a second breakdown and from my Mom’s death, it is just time to get well, and to do so clean. To finish therapy clean. To try to exist a little more on my own terms. To try to excavate and own my life. Because being ill and covered-up and false is so fucking dull.

<NOTE: my mirtazapine journal features 1 year on 15mg, 1 year on 30mg, 2 years on 45mg, 1 year on 30mg, 6 months on 15mg, 2 months on 10mg, 1 month on 7.5mg, 1 month on 5mg. All of this in close dialogue with my GP. How I loathe it for the weight-gain. How I miss its ability to help me sleep.>

Increasingly the black cloud is less depression, because I am able to recognise the shades of sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto melancholia. There is something so humanising about sadness, grief, mourning and loss, rather than locking onto a dehumanising melancholia. However, what has been left is an acute awareness, or perhaps an acute reawakening, of levels of chronic anxiety in spaces where I should feel safe.

I have described elsewhere how, in the face of my second breakdown in 13 years “the very thought of travelling and being away and presenting and being alone was too much. Too unsafe. Overwhelming. Unliveable.” I went on:

Given what had been unlocked, living my life felt overwhelming.

And in wondering whether living my life was self-harm or self-care, all that was left was confusion.

And now I remember the on-going, missed opportunities to stay and engage with people. Because on one warm April day, it became the fight of my life simply to agree to speak, and then to get on a train and to stay on a train. And what was normally normal was lost. And the disorder of my anxiety became the order of the day.

This inner trauma of being out of control, and of being in harm’s way, and of potentially losing my mind, and of not being able to perform, and of the world simply not being safe. Of normality not being safe. Because, when the only thing that feels normal is anxiety, what is normal? And unfortunately I am really good at re-producing really fucking epic levels of anxiety.

And I was in some mutually-reinforcing shit-storm of anxiety about travelling and anxiety about speaking. About being out-of-control. About being unsafe. So that travelling became a problem because getting on trains and sitting on them waiting for the doors to close was too painful. Not that I ever failed to get on one and to stay on it. But still, with cortisol flooding into your marrow, it wears your soul thin.

Always looking for exits.

Praying that my mind would just reboot.

And wanting to be asked to speak, because it’s the only way to reboot myself. And because people ask you when they want to listen to you, and that is lovely and hopeful, and needs respecting. And there is hope wrapped around finding some faith and some courage in myself. To find some peace, if I can find my voice. Is this self-care?

And dreading being asked to speak. Because I’m a Professor and it’s expected, and this reframes the relationship between pressure and anxiety. And because what if I can’t do it and have to run? And what if I let people down? And what if I fail? Is this self-harm?

Stuck in an apparently unresolvable quantum position. Voice/silenced. Self-care/self-harm.

Schrödinger’s academic: neither dead nor alive; both dead and alive.

Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to breathe at all
Oh, I know it wasn’t safe, it wasn’t safe to speak at all

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

Since 2013 I have spoken at 59 academic events, and yet each one was a trial. Lost sleep. Panic attacks. Occasionally on the phone to my therapist 90 seconds before I was due to speak. A test of faith and courage. A test of survival. Each one an act of defiance. Each one a refusal. Each one a moment of excavating my soul. In retrospect.

Excavating my soul from the compacted layers of trauma.

A few months ago I was asked to keynote the Oxford Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference. A few weeks later a second request came in to keynote the University of Worcester Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Conference. Both conferences were slated for this week. Back-to-back. Amazing to be asked. A privilege. Having to say yes. Wanting to say yes. Fearing saying yes.

Trying to forget them and hoping that I would be well in time.

Trying not to voice the fear in my head that was trying to make my perceived failure concrete.

Ignoring that they might in themselves be healing.

Unclear that they might in themselves be healing.

Lacking the ability to comprehend that they might in themselves be healing.

Forgetting to live in the present, to be present, rather than to be entombed by future fears.

In retrospect the pattern of hope/self-care plus dread/self-harm was different. Being awake at 3am the night before was different, because whilst the anxiety felt the same my mind was also fixated on what I was going to say. Visualising what needed to be said; what wanted to be said; what I had to say. Now this is exhausting, this duality of chronic anxiety gripping the chest and also rehearsing the act of living. But the anxiety wasn’t in my stomach, and so hadn’t reproduced itself as panic. An alternative possibility. A normal possibility: to be normally anxious. Because I always remember Mike Atherton stating that the day you aren’t nervous walking out to bat for England is the day to quit, because it doesn’t matter enough.

And speaking really matters. And I spoke. With a normal level of anxiety. A normal act of solidarity. My speaking is always an act of solidarity.

And I remembered that years ago I wrote:

As Maggie Turp argues in Hidden Self-Harm, the issue pivots around enabling voice, and voices in association, to be found and heard and respected. Respected in faith and with courage. And this is a spiritual reckoning, and one that is less about outsourcing the power-to create our lives so that living becomes survival, and more about taking ownership for the decisions and realities of our own self-care.

And as I sat on platform 2 at Worcester Foregate Street yesterday, I processed why I was so close to tears after I speak. Why speaking and its aftermath enabled so much of my life to be processed and mourned, and as a result to be liberated. During the afternoon I had written:

emotion // anxiety // exhaustion // soul // projection // give everything // all played out // being heard // solidarity // worn thin // weeping // do I matter? // do I have a voice? // will it be okay? // mourning // liberation

And I texted a friend to say:

My urge to weep after I speak has really affected me this week. Something about being heard/solidarity, and something about how I’m all-in emotionally when I present. How much of myself I need to give.

How much of myself I need to give, in order to recover myself.

And there are a set of timelines that converged these past few weeks. Feeling physically stronger, as I remember that it took me 4 years to recover my strength from my first breakdown, and from chronic fatigue, and to trust my body. And kicking the chemicals because qualitatively, in my soul, something had shifted. And now travelling first to Inverness, and then to Oxford and to Worcester, and speaking. Telling out my soul.

And the tears are for finding my voice. For persevering whilst the trauma was unpicked, and the scabs formed, and then the scars. For knowing, in my soul, that it won’t always be like this.

And there will always be an opening in my soul for Inverness and Oxford and Worcester.

Boy, we can do much more together it’s not so impossible
It’s not so impossible

Sufjan Stevens, Impossible Soul.

This is the playlist I made along the way.

Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education

On Thursday I’m speaking at the University of Worcester Teaching and Learning and Student Experience Conference . The title of my talk is Against boundaries: Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education, and will be based on this Open Library of the Humanities paper. The abstract is appended below, and the slides are posted below that.

The higher education curriculum in the global North is increasingly co-opted for the production of measurable outcomes, framed by determinist narratives of employability and enterprise. Such co-option is immanent to processes of financialisation and marketisation, which encourage the production of quantifiable curriculum activities and tradable academic services. Yet the university is also affected by global socio-economic and socio-environmental crises, which can be expressed as a function of a broader crisis of social reproduction or sociability. As the labour of academics and students is increasingly driven by a commodity-valuation rooted in the measurement of performance, the ability for academics and students to respond to crises from inside the university is constrained by the market. This keynote argues that in understanding the relationship between the university and society, and in responding to a crisis of sociability, revealing the bounded nature of the curriculum is central. One possible way to address this crisis is by re-imagining the university through the co-operative practices of groups like the Dismantling the Masters House community and the Social Science Centre. Such an exploration, rooted in the organising principles of the curriculum, asks educators to consider how their curriculum reproduces forms of colonisation. It is argued that such work enables a re-imagination of higher education that is rooted in an engaged and co-operative curriculum, with a focus on praxis.

BLTC17, The really open university: working together as open academic commons

On Wednesday I’m speaking at the Brookes Learning Teaching Conference 2017. I love this kind of invite, which enables a testing of ideas and a lot of listening to the practices, activities and hopes of others. My abstract is detailed below, with the slides posted after that. The talk enables me to return to that practical work I was engaged with in 2010-12, around the idea of/re-imagining the university. It also enables me to reflect on my recent work inside the University, on commons and co-operative practices.

This talk questions the role of pedagogic scholarship and innovation in addressing global crises of social reproduction. It argues that working together has both possibilities and impossibilities, which need a richer discussion inside the University.

In the past decade, fall-out from the Browne Review has given birth to a number of alternative education projects. These alternatives focused on creating spaces and curricula that prefigure more democratic ways of doing higher education, in which the boundaries between student and teacher are dissolved and where co-operation and peer-projects between scholars become fundamental. Examples include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Really Open University in Leeds. These projects developed grounded, co-participatory scholarly communities, which acted as incubators for pedagogies like Student-as-Producer (Neary and Winn 2011; Pusey 2016).

However, they also share characteristics with transnational platforms like #RhodesMustFall and#Whyismycurriculumwhite, in attempting to push back against the structuring logics represented by the curriculum (Hall and Smyth 2016). These platforms also connect to co-operative forms of higher education like Mondragon University in the Basque country, the Little Schools of the Zapatista Movement, and the education sector of the Brazilian Landless Movement.

Reflecting on these alternative forms is helpful in analysing our responses to the crisis of higher education, in order to locate spaces for truly progressive pedagogies inside the university. If such spaces do exist, on what are they based and what is their relationship to the curriculum? How do they enable academics and students to respond to issues of inclusivity and diversity, collaboration and peer production? Three responses may be considered:

  • open, academic commons supporting a sharing economy inside and across a porous interdisciplinary curriculum;
  • safe, scholarly communities of practice, perhaps forming solidarity economies that refuse enclosure; and
  • positioning the university and curriculum within (and against?) the development of ‘mass intellectuality’, or socially-useful knowledge produced outside the university.


Hall, R., & Smyth, K. (2016). Dismantling the Curriculum in Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 2(1), p.e11. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.66

Neary, M., & Winn, J. (2011). The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In M. Neary & J. Winn (Eds.), The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience (pp. 192–210). Continuum. Retrieved from http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/1675/

Pusey, A. (2016). Pusey, A. (2016). Strike, occupy, transform! Students, subjectivity and struggle. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 26(2), 214-32. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08841241.2016.1240133