Student-as-producer: reflections on social protest, social media and the socio-history of re-production

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 16 November 2010

I was taken with Mike Neary’s description of the 10th November national demonstration by students, staff and supporters of HE as a public good. It was important that Mike called his piece “History (Change) in the Making”, in order to highlight the possibilities for fusing the production of our futures through an engagement with the past. In the quest for progress, too often we dismiss any attempt at critique of our present moment as historically-situated, especially in terms of our use of technology. Too often we make claims for technology in education as progressive because we believe it enhances engagement or participation or the value of a student as a knowledge worker, and this tends to be collapsed into a discourse around employability. However, a more critical, democratic reappraisal of our shared positions in the academy, underpinned by socio-historical narratives, rather than socio-technical ones, is being focused by Neary through the student-as-producer project. This project is working in the institution, against neoliberal views of the curriculum-as-consumption, to move beyond prescribed social relations. Neary notes that:

“Student as Producer is not only about encouraging students to produce products, whether in the form of artistic objects and/or research outputs. Student as Producer extends the concept of production to include ways in which students, as social individuals, affect and change society, so at [sic.] to be able to recognise themselves in the social world of their own design.”

In relating the project to the protest, he powerfully highlights that the students in London were not those who will feel the cold-wind of fees, and yet they were standing-up for higher education as a public good. He also stated that they could see that “the lack of money is a constant grinding relentless reality”, which diminishes us all. This diminishing of education and our social relations in the face of externally-imposed, economic necessity reminds us “how the power of money has so overwhelmed human sociability that it now seems like a natural phenomena, rather than the outcome of an oppressive social process. And, as such, it appears impossible to resist.” Critically, as the Rector of Edinburgh University, Iain MacWhirter, noted, this means that in the name of supporting coercive capitalism and the financialisation of our economy and life-world, prospective undergraduate students must mortgage their futures before they can consider a traditional mortgage.

One of the critical outcomes from the protest was around the importance of re-politicising the question of what higher education is for, not just amongst academics and established intellectuals, but also amongst others who benefit from the forms of HE. I do not know whether the students engaged on the NUS/UCU demo regard themselves as intellectuals, activists, citizens, agents or whatever. However, the ability of 50,000 people physically to see 49,999 other people, alongside brass bands, drummers and carnival grotesques, is an important moment in radicalising and re-imagining what our concrete, living experiences of higher education might be. This re-politicising offers the promise of a re-imagining and a re-production of the forms of higher education.

In this way the reality of this national event was its appearance as a crack in the dominant form of resourcing, sharing and delivering HE. As a crack in the dominant moment of higher education it forces other students, academic and professional services staff, society, workers, the state, to grapple with alternatives, or at least to defend their orthodoxies. This is important because, as Holloway argues, this is a disruption in the dominant logic of our social determination. He quotes: “We shall not accept an alien, external determination of our activity, we shall determine ourselves what we do”. For Holloway, moving away from imposition and alienation, towards automomies of doing is a critical, radical moment. I wonder the extent to which Wednesday was important because of the spaces it prescribed for autonomous activity.

The value of actual, living experiences, where fellowship can be described and re-formed through direct action in the world, shines through this crack. Whilst I tweeted my descriptions of activity from the demonstration [as activists have done in a range of spaces before], and whilst Twitter enabled newsrooms to manage live representations of activity, social media only ever remained a second-order instrument, as a reporting tool, or a mechanism to disseminate information, or to re-publish live information. After the fact it gave a way for me to re-interpret lived events and to correlate that with those of others. My ability to use social media to reflect on my position in relation to a range of others is critical. [Note that there is a wealth of vimeo footage, #demo2010 tweets and blog postings about the protest.] However, social media only described a representation of our power to recast the world; it described a possibility, or a space where radical moments might be opened-up; it was never, of itself, that re-presentation without taking the form of concrete action-in-the-world.

One of the great spin-offs of the use of social media by the protest movement is the ability of autonomous groups to see their peers exercising their power-to re-create the world. Technologies are a means through which the idea of the university is being critiqued, or through which the possibilities of collective and co-operative re-productions of higher education are being discussed ahead of concrete action-in-the-world. In this way autonomous movements in Popular Education, student protests in Italy, automonist student collectives in the UK, an Education Camp in Parliament Square, and planned and actual student occupations based on teach-ins and the historical, educational experiences of radical communities, are engaging with social media as a means of re-producing their living experiences of higher education. It is this latter point that is central. Technology in and for education is at once an external portrayal of a living reality, and a means of re-inforcing the ways in which established cultures are being challenged. This is why its use by students-as-producers is so energising, where it is keyed into: their social relations and their relationships with the environment; their production and governance processes; their conceptions of the world; and the conduct of their daily life that underpins their social reproduction.

The view of students-as-producers connects to Collini’s case for the Humanities, which moves us beyond the economy and its reductive/hostile positioning of the academy, towards the need for a public discourse on the nature of the university as a public good. Collini urges us to move away from a discourse framed by the power assumed by the state in the name of the taxpayer, to reconsider our educational and socially-mediated values. In the struggle for higher education, in moving away from formulae of impact, excellence and assurance, Collini urges us to engage with issues of trust and “contestable judgements”. This is exactly what the use of social media by students-as-producers is hinting at, in particular addressing the contested meaning of constructed positions, especially the socio-historical positions taken by coercive capitalism.

This issue of engagement with socio-historical positions is underlined by Zizek who argues that we need to reappraise ourselves of what “interesting times” actually means, in terms of the consequences of socio-cultural, economic and environmental dislocations. He argues that it is not newness that is interesting, but how the new and the old are mixed. Otherwise our present fiction, in which the future as defined by the dominant form of capital, will continue to function as our dominant, living culture. Zizek argues that our socio-historical culture, and our understanding of the past is critical here in developing “a culture of tolerance, this is a culture of its own, not just being open to the other, but open towards the other in the sense of participating in the same struggle.” One of the pivotal points that he raises is that in order “to change a view you must reveal the extent of your oppression.” Social media is one such way in which students and academics are revealing this in their living experiences.

This mixing of a socio-historical critique of our social relations, our ability to produce our world, and technology is needed to engage with any work on futures. In this, no meaningful engagement with technology in education matters beyond the question of what is higher education for? Keri Facer has argued that we need to ask some serious questions and whether our hegemonic educational systems, oriented towards accreditation in the current economy are viable. She has asked what sorts of worlds do we want to live in, what skills and relationships do we wish to encourage, how do we integrate education into our communities?

These are big questions, and they sit uneasily alongside our view of UK HE and economic growth through, for instance, internationalisation agendas. Can we really look to extend market share in a world where countries like India, South Africa and China are expanding their domestic, higher education provision to support their own economic growth? However, more importantly, how does higher education react to, and plan within, critical international issues of political economy, like banking bailouts and structural trade deficits. What value futures’ planning for higher education in these scenarios, beyond blind faith in business-as-usual?

Facer argues that we are not having right conversations about HE, that Browne is a symptom of a failure to have debate over what HE is for and how it should be funded. She states that we need “a serious public debate about education” and speaks for a critique of socio-technical change rooted in an analysis of the radical possibilities of the curriculum. In this she sees universities as democratic public spaces, which need to be reinvigorated. Where we have the university as servant of the knowledge economy and no more, where our lives are based on technical skills alone, we will see radical socio-economic polarisation and economic inequality. We need to imagine alternatives tied more closely to needs/aspirations of our communities.

The realpolitik of this is that new funding models framed in the name of sustainability, as outcomes of the shock doctrine, increase our alienation from imposed social determinations visited through manifestations of business-as-usual. I would argue that the key to grappling with Facer’s question of what HE is for, is a meaningful socio-historical critique of the forms of higher education. Within that the use of technology is an area of activity interconnected with concrete activities and decisions that can be described, compared, offered and critiqued. The current use of social media by students in producing new, radical moments for the university is a valuable starting point for fighting for the idea of higher education. In planning alternatives to prescribed futures, we must recover our socio-historical positions. Students-as-producers have demonstrated how critical engagement with technology in education may offer hope in this praxis.

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