Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: human interaction in a virtualising world

I’m speaking at the Educational Innovation in Economics and Business (EdinEB) conference on 3 June, in Brighton. The conference is focused on the interplay between theory and practice, with the focus on “Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world”. I will be speaking about the following…

Abstract

The global economic crisis of 2008 has been followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand, and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. This forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis, which has in-turn recalibrated the landscape of English higher education, with implications for the idea of the University. This process has amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value.

As a result of this restructuring for value, educational innovation has been subsumed under political economic realities, which stipulate that there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. This political economy is underscored culturally and pedagogically through an obsession with innovation that includes: redefining academic labour as entrepreneurial or for employment; enforcing a creative curriculum; amplifying the use of data to establish learning gain; co-opting the staff/student relationship as partnership; developing internationalisation strategies through open education.

This keynote will argue that educational innovations might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the dominant political economy that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the realities of performativity and performance management. The argument will situate educational innovations inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control, rather than to enable social mobility or emancipation.

It will be argued that the ways in which such educational innovations and the services that are derived from them are valorised might offer a glimpse of how the processes that drive capital accumulation might themselves be resisted. The argument will draw on the examples of The Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) at the University of Manchester, the People Political Economy Project in Oxford, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), and the Rethinking Economics conference, in order to examine the social relationships that emerge around notionally neutral, educational innovations. We might then ask, is it possible to reclaim human interaction and sociability in a virtualising world?


On common educational ownership and refusing human capital

ONE. Resistance is futile.

In discussing the financialisation of higher education, and the marketisation that is immanent to it, Andrew McGettigan has argued that:

I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.

McGettigan’s most recent piece on the unfolding political economy of higher education and variable human capital, develops the argument that we are on the cusp of something more profound. This is rooted in a new policy framework inside which the practices of teaching and learning can be disassembled, commodified and traded/exchanged. This new policy framework is enacted through a variety of secondary legislation rather than a specific act of parliament, and seeks to turn the culture of higher education towards entrepreneurialism and social mobility. This culture is grounded in the family acting as a capitalist firm, rather than in other social formations, such as those that are co-operative and collective. Here, performance measurement and management dominate University life, and bring the relationships that emerge in the classroom and within families into stark, asymmetrical relation to the market. As a result, life inside-and-outside the classroom is collapsed around the need to generate value and exchange and enterprise. What happens inside the classroom becomes a primary, societal concern beyond the governance and regulation of individual universities or the higher education sector.

The Coalition government has quietly put in place a series of measures designed to support a new performance metric: repayment of loans by course and institution. It could become the one metric to dominate all others and will be theorised under the rubric of ‘human capital investment’.

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employability Act received Royal Assent at the end of March 2015. Section Six of the bill is titled ‘Education Evaluation’… I quote [the Act]

[The measures] will also help to create an incentive and reward structure at universities by distinguishing the universities that are delivering the strongest enterprise ethos and labour market outcomes for their students.

Here, we have a clear flow between an enterprising policy framework and the imperative to generate learning gain. Thus, we witness the Higher Education Funding Council for England, working with partners like the RAND Corporation:

to develop better ways of capturing excellent educational outcomes, including new approaches to measuring students’ learning. Developing our understanding of student learning is integral to ongoing debates about the quality and impact of higher education, and how we evidence the value of investment in it.

This inter-relationship between teaching quality and outcomes is fore-grounded in the work of the UK Higher Education Academy, which argues that:

This [partnership] approach recognises that engaged student learning is positively linked with learning gain and achievement, and argues that partnership represents a sophisticated and effective approach to student engagement because it offers the potential for a more authentic engagement with the nature of learning itself and the possibility for genuinely transformative learning experiences for all involved. Hence we speak of engagement through partnership [emphasis added].

Whilst the focus on learning gain and achievement here is not specifically linked to performance management and financialisation, it provides a professionally-validated, evidential space for the overlay of financialised services onto the relationships between staff and students. This is a process of evidencing the value of education as a private and positional good.

TWO. Enterprise for everyone, all the time.

In this process of evidencing the value of investment in higher education, McGettigan notes the importance of Lord Young’s report for government, Enterprise for All, in which was “recommended that each course at each institution should have to publish a Future Earnings and Employment Record ‘so that students can assess the full costs and likely benefits of specific courses at specific institutions.’” And we should not be surprised to witness an opening-up and connecting of datasets around academic performance, retention and progression, the repayment of student fees, and future earnings profiles. Because in addressing the structural crises of the economy, new financial mechanisms are pivotal, as are new markets that enable exportable services that mitigate poor performance. And as a result, performance becomes a tradable commodity. And think of the opportunities for value creation if we can compare performance and earnings across programmes of study and institutions and cohorts. And think of the opportunities for value creation if we can re-engineer curriculum inputs so that we can reduce the risk of futures trading in educational outcomes and earnings.

And so the Enterprise for All recommendations included the creation of the Future Earnings and Employment Record (FEER).

In Higher Education we already have the Key Information Statistics, however, the passing of the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill, being discussed in the Houses of Parliament ahead of March 2015, will allow student records to be linked with HMRC tax records to provide a potentially richer pool of information. There will be added benefits for the Further Education sector such as improved access to self-employment data.

The linking up of datasets and preparation of relevant and reliable data will take many years, but the passing of the bill will be a positive leap forward. Only in time, as this information is worked through, will we understand the full extent of what can be achieved as a result of the bill and see the full potential of the FEER.

For McGettigan this policy space, framed by a cultural turn towards entrepreneurialism, underpins the co-option of teaching and learning for exchange.

In October 2013, David Willetts, then minister for science and universities, expressed his enthusiasm for a new research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation:

Professor Neil Shephard of Harvard University and Professor Anna Vignoles of Cambridge University are currently merging a wealth of data from the Student Loans Company and HM Revenue and Customs which should deliver a significant improvement in the current data on labour market outcomes of similar courses at different institutions.

…The project is titled ‘Estimating Human Capital of Graduates’ and seeks to assess how the future earnings of ‘similar students’ vary ‘by institution type and subject’:

If different degrees from different institutions result in very different levels of earnings for students with similar pre-university qualifications and from similar socio-economic backgrounds, then this might affect both student choice and policies designed to increase participation and improve social mobility.

Crucially then, undergraduate degrees are shaped and presented as the individual’s willingness to invest in her own human capital, in order to become productive and as a result socially-useful. One of the policy outcomes is the need to recalibrate HE around the logic of ensuring that the consumers of education have good enough data or information upon which to make their investment choices.

[Education is] a human capital investment that benefits the private individual insofar as it enables that individual to boost future earnings. Universities and colleges are then to be judged on how well they provide training that does indeed boost earnings profiles. Such ‘value add’ ’would displace current statistical concoctions based on prior attainment and final degree classification. The key device is loans: they go out into the world and the manner in which they are repaid generates information. Graduates then become the bearers of the units of account by which HE performance is set into a system of accountability: ‘What level of repayments is this graduate of this course likely to produce over the next 35 years?’

This restructures learning, teaching and scholarship. Structurally, academic work becomes a response to the realities of financiaisation, which re-purpose the design, delivery and assessment of the curriculum for exchange. What is the point of our flipped classroom or our social learning theory or our peer-assessment or our peer mentoring strategy, except as a means to measure learning gain? Our pedagogy is simply a means to produce/capture/use data to commoditise every curriculum asset (learning outcomes, curriculum delivery systems, progression data, content, assessments and grades and so on) to the benefit of finance capital, and the Government, through financial profits and rising asset values that correlate with bubbles and speculation. And given that so much of the UK’s economic growth is generated through services and consumption, this is unsurprising.

THREE. Historical anxiety and data.

McGettigan develops this point by situating it against its historical context, in the relationships between the government, education institutions, and both individuals and their families that were highlighted by Milton Friedman in The Role for Government in Education:

[Education is] a form of investment in human capital precisely analogous to investment in machinery, buildings, or other forms of non-human capital. Its function is to raise the economic productivity of the human being. If it does so, the individual is rewarded in a free enterprise society by receiving a higher return for his services.

The subsidisation of institutions rather than of people has led to an indiscriminate subsidization of whatever activities it is appropriate for such institutions to undertake, rather than of activities it is appropriate for the state to subsidise. The problem is not primarily that we are spending too little money … but that we are getting so little per dollar spent.

For McGettigan this is a critical point in re-structuring higher education.

And here is the rub. The growing and unexpectedly large subsidy built into the current iteration of fee-loan regime points to that same problem: the government is not getting the maximum from borrowers or from universities (which are using tuition fees to subsidise other activities like research). One might blame universities that set fees for classroom subjects at the same rate as lab-based subjects, that blanket £9 000 per annum, or loan funding offered for subjects that do nothing to boost graduate productivity. Either way, it points to the issue of mis-investment rather than underinvestment. Indeed, given the statistics on graduates filling posts that do not require graduate qualifications, from the human capital theory perspective, one might even use the language of overinvestment in HE. It is not clear to many whether the problems of the graduate labour market are recessionary, structural, secular or a combination of all three.

As David Willetts argued in Robbins Revisited “Without radical changes to how universities were financed however it was going to be difficult to change their behaviour. Now there is an opportunity to use our funding changes to push a real cultural change back towards teaching.” And, of course, one of the critical outcomes of this behavioural change is that academic work becomes suffused with anxiety, because judgements are being made. Is this course creditworthy? Is this course meeting externally-imposed standards that are financialised? Does this course have benefit for individuals and the institution in the market? Is this course entrepreneurial enough? Is this course a private, positional good? And flowing from those questions are judgements about the design and delivery of the curriculum, its content and its assessments. And these judgements enable a feeding frenzy for any public/private partner or joint venture that can offer tradable services that are designed for learning gain. This is the background noise that drowns out everything else inside the need to crack new markets for new services.

The current vogue for the private sector to use evidence to drive an allegedly neutral cultural and political space for policy is amplified through analytics and big data. These tend to frame the expectations of the voiceless student as a cipher for a weakly-theorised view of impact, efficiencies, personalisation, scaling, and service-led innovation. There is no space to discuss structural inequalities that amplify issues of autonomy or agency, or the ways in which consent is addressed inside the classroom. In this process, openness or transparency or accountability is no substitute for political engagement. Thus, this article on Lies, Damned Lies and Open Data argues that

Now we must renew the much larger battle over the role of evidence in public policy. On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

In her essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford enables us to wonder whether such a politicisation might emerge from an analysis of anxiety.

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

FOUR. The academic bind: dismantling the curriculum.

McGettigan has connected issues of policy to the mechanics of financialisation through data, and highlights the bind that academics now find themselves in.

What I have outlined here, the coming wave of education evaluation’ threatens to supplant traditional understandings of universities as communities advancing public knowledge. Current regulations governing the awarding of degrees aver that standards are maintained and safeguarded only by the critical activity of the academic community within an institution. It will be harder and harder to recall that fact.

The risk is that academics seeking to resist this further privatisation of knowledge will be cast as vested interests seeking to protect an old, inadequate system lacking in transparency. We will end up on the wrong side of the argument. The difficulty: How to articulate what is threatened? How to defend forms of knowledge which are not subordinate to private returns? Academic freedom and autonomy now face a more pressing, insidious, financialised threat than the traditional bugbear of direct political interference. But all this may prove too abstract for effective resistance.

I have no glib solution to which you might sign up. But when hard times find us, criticism must strike for the root: the root is undergraduate study as a stratified, unequal, positional good dominating future opportunities and outcomes. What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.

Striking at this root means working with students to question the reduction of our lives to economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people, whether that is in the curriculum or beyond. As Joss Winn has argued:

Students are more viscerally outspoken about the need for fundamental changes in the governance of their universities. In occupation – most recently at UCL, Goldsmiths, KCL, LSE, UAL, and in Amsterdam – they too demand democracy as a basic requisite for a free university.

Can academics support both critique and the development/nurturing of alternative forms of learning and teaching that in-turn push-back against the dominant political agenda that commodifies humanity? We see such possibilities inside alternative educational forms, and through the politics of occupations, as well as in the collective resistance to austerity in Europe. Somehow, this means taking Schumpeter’s point in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, that we need to reconnect our work against the dematerialised, defunctionalised and absentee domination of our lives, which is enacted through the market. There is a need to think through how the curriculum and its organising principles might be liberated as a form of open, co-operative, common property that is itself rooted in social struggle beyond the University.

Moreover, they force us to question how to dismantle the curriculum as it is co-opted of exchange, so that at the intersection of common goods, liberation and pedagogic practice, academics might question how to situate the financialisation of higher education, and the use of data and debt to drive control, inside collective action against the politics of austerity. As Winn goes on:

Critics of the ‘co-operative university’ have questioned our commitment to the idea of the ‘public university’. Indeed, co-operatives are anti-statist, but they also exceed the idea of ‘public ownership’ with that of ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that is the antithesis of the right of free alienability (which distinguishes capitalist private property). In short, co-operative higher education is entirely compatible with the idea of the ‘public’ if we reconceive it as an autonomous, open, democratically governed ‘commons’: An academic commons, democratically controlled by academic and support staff, students, cleaners and others.

However, in this move towards common ownership is the formation of a movement whose struggle is beyond the form of higher education, towards engaging with the concept of dismantling as it has been critically developed at UCL. The process of dismantling as it emerges from a critique of “racialised wrongs in our [academic] workplace and in the wider world” focuses upon:

  • unpacking the intellectual and moral arguments for Britain’s former Empire, [in order that] we can begin to challenge its legacies today;
  • analysing the dominance and subjugation which mark these racialised phenomena, we can begin to equip ourselves with the necessary tools to dismantle it; and
  • improving the way we engage with staff, students and the wider world, #DTMH seeks to contribute to a more equal and liberatory future in Britain and beyond.

The concept of dismantling emerges asymmetrically against the idea that the curriculum might be broken-up and commodified for exchange. We might, therefore, look at how this becomes a starting point for a wider questioning of issues of power and ideology inside the curriculum and its organising principles, so that we might offer a wider/societal critique of the co-option of the curriculum.

FIVE. On academic refusal.

As I argue elsewhere on the abolition of academic labour:

Here academics might usefully ask, what activities are we collectively willing to bear and how might they be determined, governed and regulated? This demands that the range of academic labourers, including full and assistant professors, adjunct and sessional instructors, teacher assistants and so on are able to consider points of solidarity rather than division. The work emerging around the new co-operativism, and the intellectual underpinnings of pedagogies like student-as-producer (Amsler and Neary 2012) and of organisations like the Social Science Centre (2014), offer a way of framing and reconceptualising the potential proto/rollback/rollout phases of a co-operative alternative to neoliberalism. This work is also a way of challenging the reality of the competitive restructuring of public higher education, and the idea that the university is for-profit and valorisation. Here it is the spread of ideas across transnational activist networks of co-operators that might enable a reconnection of academic labour as labour across society, in a form that enables it to support mass intellectuality rather than private accumulation (Virno 2001; Winn 2014). As the Social Science Centre (2014) states, hope lies in the “possibilities for associational networks” that critique higher education policy and practice…

This process demands the negation of the reified nature of academic labour, so that social values rather than value are at the core of how society is reproduced.

This demands that we re-engage with the ways in which the labour of academics and students is used by corporations, non-governmental advocacy organisations, and governments, in order to re-frame cultural and educational positions as entrepreneurial, in the name of exchange, the market and the rate of profit. Instead, might it be used co-operatively and in common for work beyond the classroom as it is marketised? Academic refusal to give consent cannot crystallise around silence. As teaching, learning and scholarship are co-opted by the market, in the form of value, money, learning gain or impact, other social or co-operative forms of value are marginalised.

By overcoming our unwillingness to discuss such marginalisation across both university governance and in the curriculum, and in learning from critiques centred on the idea of dismantling, academics might begin to address McGettigan’s point that “What might find broader public support is a vision of higher education institutions that are civic and open to lifelong participation, instead of places beholden to the three-year, full-time degree leveraged on loans and aiming to cream off ‘talent’.” This process of finding commonality and connection across a range of struggles is critical if we are to refuse

A system of educational production that is using learning gain and deliverology and data and performance anxiety to force us into new forms of cognitive dissonance rooted in narratives of labour-market readiness. Might we build something that is engaged and full of care, and where we no longer simply learn to internalise, monitor and manage our own alienation?


Notes on Social Media for Researchers

The slides to accompany this presentation to DMU PGR students can be found here.

The session will focus on linking our individual use of social media to researcher development, through the Vitae RDF, and especially in terms of developing the following capabilities:

A1: Knowledge Base

B3: Professional and career development

C1: Professional conduct

D2: Communication and dissemination

The session will also demonstrate the potential of social media for academic practice/scholarship in public, and for co-operative, scholarly work. It will close with some considerations for future practice for PGR students.


Last week I emailed the 22 signed-up attendees with three questions. What follows are the responses from five DMU PGR students.

  • Which social media tools do you use?

RESPONSE: I currently use Facebook on a personal basis and LinkedIn on a professional basis.

RESPONSE: I don’t really use social media (except occasional work on Facebook and networking on LinkedIn).

RESPONSE: Mainly, I use social media (Facebook & Tumblr), but not for academic purposes.

RESPONSE: I use social media for personal use but intend to use Twitter mainly for my research to keep up to date with what other people in my field are doing and to promote my research.

NOTE: These responses made me consider issues of academic identity formation and boundaries between academic/professional practice and the Self/personal identity.

  • What do you use them to achieve in your academic work?

RESPONSE: I have been hearing about how I should be using twitter from a research/professional basis so am trying to increase my use of twitter now.

RESPONSE: I am connecting with other researchers, keeping an eye on hashtags such as #phdchat for useful information and contact with fellow phd students.

RESPONSE: I would really like to learn what platforms I should be using and how to use them best to engage for success in my phd. Am I doing the right things?

NOTE: These responses made me consider whether there are ever “right things” in research or in the use of specific tools for research? What are good enough approaches? They also made me consider the balance of time/investment and the development of social or cultural “capital” and what this means for practice.

  • What would you like to cover in the session or in a follow-up discussion?

RESPONSE: I’m very interested in how social media can contribute to participatory action research with young people and how it can be used to effectively disseminate research findings & recommendations in ways that can have an impact.

RESPONSE: Probably achieve some marketing of work/ideas and networking.

RESPONSE: I would be interested to understand how others successfully use social media for academic purposes. By successful, I mean more than just adding people into friends lists – for example: did they obtain research projects? did they enter networks that otherwise could not have taken part?

NOTE: These responses made me consider the relationships between social media and collective work across networks and research groups.

NOTE: In the session I will also ask participants to consider the following question.

  • What are the ramifications of your work being social?

The connections between the Vitae Researcher Development Framework and specific technologies are important.

For Knowledge Base (A1), which focuses on subject knowledge, research methods, academic literacy and so on, I will focus on the following.

For Professional and Career Development (B3), which focuses on career management, CPD, responsiveness, reputation and networking, I will focus on the following.

For Professional Conduct (C1), which focuses on Ethics, legal requirements, IPR and copyright, co-authorship, I will focus on the following.

For Communication and Dissemination (D2) I will focus on the following.


I will then look at some specific cases of how researchers have used social media and my interpretation of that use (or what I think is interesting/possible). These cses will include the following

  1. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s site that acts as a pivot for other engagements. The structure of the site enables ready access to a wealth of public scholarship, with pointes to “most read” work. There are also links to speaking/engagement events, as well as external content/multimedia. The site enables an understanding of the relationship between the public, social media and personal academic formation.
  2. Lucy Atkins adventures in EdTech, is a representation of a journey through a PhD. Lucy uses PhD notes grounded in verbs to articulate the process of the PhD, using a standard open technology. It then links to her Twitter feed to enable a public face at low cost.
  3. The transition through a PhD can be analysed through on-line engagements like #phdchat, and also the updates to networks like the Guardian HE Network. However there are also therapeutic networks for PGR students, and other support networks that relate not just to PhD study, but also to the precarious nature of labour in academia.
  4. There is a wealth of useful material on academic writing using social media, including seven reasons why academic blogging is valuable. The DMU Commons is a space for open writing at DMU.
  5. Social media can be used effectively for collective work/co-operation. Joss Winn’s site acts as a blog and a site for notes, as well as pointing to his academic writing, and presentations, but it also highlights the scholars that he follows, and his networks. This has reputational consequences.
  6. The use of social media enables alignment with research nodes/centres/projects, as witnessed by the DMU Centre for Pedagogic Research and the Digital Building Heritage project, both on the DMU Commons.
  7. The use of social media enables participation with user communities, for instance: the DMU Square Mile project on the Academic Commons; the Galaxy Zoo; and the RunCoCo project.
  8. These tools enable public Scholarship. See, for example: Melonie A. Fullick interviews Raul Pacheco-Vega; Doug Belshaw’s Never Ending Thesis; and The Social Science Centre.

There are some follow-on resources for attendees about work at DMU.

DMU Commons: http://our.dmu.ac.uk/

DMU/CELT Guidelines when using Social Media Technologies for Teaching http://bit.ly/1iDiIc2

See also DMU Email, Internet and Social Media Policy: briefing; policy

DMU Library Copyright pages: http://library.dmu.ac.uk/Support/Copyright/


There are also some matters arising for PGR students to consider.

  • What is the balance between the intensity of reading/research needed for a PhD, versus the intensity of networking that you are willing to commit?
  • How risk averse do you *need* to be when working with social media?
  • How open do you *need* to be when working with social media, and with other researchers, students, research stakeholders, participants, supervisors and so on?
  • What is the balance between soft and hard publishing?
  • How do you use your networks to challenge your own orthodoxy/previously held views and conceptions?
  • What permissions do you need to use public or published stuff?
  • What permissions do you want to give your public or published stuff?
  • Think about your identity across disparate platforms. How coherent do you need it to be?
  • Think about being true, necessary and kind on-line.
  • Think about your e-safety, especially in terms of your personal relationships with those you know or don’t know, the institution/your funder, the State.

Slides 8-12 in the presentation are amended from “Social Media for Researchers” by Tanya Williamson and Louise Tripp at Lancaster University Library.

The presentation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


reflections on the post-digital

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective.


An upcoming conference on the flipped university declares that we are living in a post-digital age that is

characterised by transitions of practice and redefining of the individual’s relationships with technology.

The conference seeks to address the question of “What does it mean for higher education to be in engaging in a post digital age? What does it mean for the learner of the future and of today?”

Since we met as the 52 Group back in 2009 the politics of austerity continues to subsume academic and student labour. The realities of this labour are less post-digital and more focused on the interrelationships between first, lives that are subsumed under the dictates of the productive economy, and second, the use of digital technology to proletarianise work. Digital technologies are used to enforce competition and financialisation, and drive the disciplinary control of data and debt, and this enforces widening inequalities inside higher education.

The process of proletarianisation is global, and is influenced both by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy, and internationally through the role of trade partnerships and innovations like MOOCs. Thus, we witness reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; and we witness postgraduate researcher-led committees that “have been pushing the[ir] University to honour the essential role that teaching assistants play in University life in the form of fair pay and treatment.”; and we witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; and we witness a documenting of the processes and pains of casualisation. As students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal they are forced to contend and compete globally. These proletarianised labourers are forced to compete as technological, entrepreneurial, and impactful. Their productive reality points to the future of the learner becoming that of a self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards, whilst inequality widens on a global terrain. This echoes of Marx and Engel’s argument in the Communist Manifesto that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Across globalised HE, we witness zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, the need for collective action like the 3cosas, and so on. In a competitive, transnational educational market, academic labour rights will be threatened by the equalising pressures of transnational competition and productivity, which includes new forms of competition from private providers These might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations. Here Will Davies’ recent work on neoliberalism is useful enables us to analyse capitalist work inside the flipped University, in light of self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity that is.

  • enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism;
  • operating through counter-acting norms that can never be stabilised;
  • rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition; and
  • grounded in vision and desire.

The future of the learner is to be recalibrated as an entrepreneurial life, in order to widen the orbit of productive labour. In part, this is done through the individuated, technologised Self. It is also achieved through the entrepreneurial recalibration of the collective labourer. Critically, this means that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, impact, technological innovation and so on. As the IT Consultancy Gartner notes:

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital…. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

Those working in the University need to recover themselves from narratives of organising principles and curricula that are allegedly post-digital and flipped, in order to address the following.

  1. How might the notion of political decision-making or action be harnessed in ways that broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond the University?
  2. How is it possible for individual agency and collective institutions to be criticized and re-imagined simultaneously, in order to overcome neoliberal narratives of technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?

One possibility lies in the idea of the Commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning as a global idea of socialised solidarity, rooted in mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. This is a mechanism for framing a socially-useful higher education that recognises its own alienation. Refusing the post-digital, flipped proletarianisation of the University hinges on the creation of a ‘direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life’ (Marx on Private Property and Communism). This might be realised in spaces that incorporate increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. It demands a more mature discussion of the possibilities for pedagogic production as a social activity that are for-society rather than for-profit.


Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs: http://markchilds.org/2015/02/04/post-digitalism-an-evolutionary-perspective/

Dave Cormier:  http://davecormier.com/edblog/2015/02/05/looking-back-at-postdigital-6-years-later

Lawrie Phipps: http://lawrie.jiscinvolve.org/wp/2015/02/04/pd_review/

David White: http://daveowhite.com/post-digital-revisited/


on digital literacy in Leicester

The Digilit Leicester Project defined a self-evaluation framework with school staff who could then focus their continuing professional development as it related to their own digital literacy. One of the outcomes of our evaluation work on the was the recognition that school staff are generally unsure about how to frame their work in terms of open education and the production of open educational resources. One of the consistent findings of the series of project evaluation reports was that staff had limited knowledge around creating and sharing resources and limited awareness of issues related to copyright, licensing and re-use.

As a result, the project team focused some work on creating guidance on open educational resources for schools staff, and this has been produced by Josie Fraser working with Dr Bjoern Hassler and Helen Neo from the University of Cambridge. As Josie argues:

At a time when schools increasingly work with, and rely on, digital and web based materials, understanding how copyright works, and making the most of available resources, is essential for staff and schools. Creating OER allows schools to connect and collaborate with others through sharing work. Sharing can also help promote the great work that school staff and schools are doing.

The resources are published on the Leicester City Council extranet and focus upon guidance for school’s staff in four areas.

  1. G1 Open Education and the Schools Sector – this introduces OER, open education, OER freedoms, and outlines some of the benefits of OER to schools.
  2. G2 Understanding Open Licensing – copyright, fair dealing, different types of Creative Commons licences, and the public domain.
  3. G3 Finding and remixing openly licensed resources – how to find OER, how to attribute them, and how to create new resources legally by building on existing work that has been shared under a Creative Commons licence.
  4. G4 Openly Licensing and Sharing  your Resources – OER school policies and processes, how to applying an open licence to your work, and ways of sharing your openly licensed resources.

However, the guidance also comes with the following permission from Leicester City Council to its schools.

Leicester City Council has given permission to the 84 community and voluntary controlled schools across the city to create and share Open Educational Resources (OER), by releasing the learning materials they create under an open licence. By default, the rights of work created in the line of employment are assigned to the employer, unless a specific agreement has been made. This permission makes sharing resources simpler for everyone at these schools. All schools in the city have been provided with information about the permission. You can download a zip file containing the notification of the permission and an accompanying briefing note which provides more information about what the permission means for community and voluntary controlled schools in the city. Also included are two model school policies – one for community and voluntary controlled schools where the local authority has already provided permission and one for schools where the governing body, as the employer, provides the permission. All four documents are provided in Word and in PDF.

The permission itself is rooted in the idea of education as a public good. It states:

The council wants to support schools in promoting and sharing the great work that Leicester schools are producing. Openly sharing high quality educational resources helps other educators and learners benefit from, and build upon, the work our staff are doing. It supports collaboration between staff in the city and beyond. Putting agreements in place to openly license work makes sharing and accessing resources simpler for everyone, and provides additional opportunities for schools and school staff.

The council is committed to equality of access to learning for all. The council is also committed to public value – to get the most benefit possible from publicly funded work. We want to support schools and school staff in increasing access, fostering collaboration and ensuring value for money.

Pragmatically this means a focus on creative commons licensing:

Open Licences build on the existing legal copyright framework to provide permissions for more flexible uses of work. Providing community and voluntary controlled school employees with permission to openly license learning materials means that staff and schools do not have to contact Leicester City Council to arrange individual permissions each time they wish to share educational resources, or to allow others to use and reuse their work – as long as they openly license these resources.

Crucially this means that a whole-school conversation is opened-up with staff, students, leadership teams and governing bodies, about licensing, resources, and relationships.

Permission to share educational resources through open licence represents an exciting opportunity for schools to take a fresh look at the original materials staff are producing, and how these can best be used to promote the school and build connections to other educators and organisations. Community school and voluntary controlled school governing bodies should consider what steps can be taken to encourage staff to openly license materials that represent the quality of learning and teaching that takes place at the school.

All of the original resources provided are released under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence (CC BY 4.0) so that they can be shared and adapted openly, as long as attribution is given. All other resources included are available under their respective licences. This aligns with the idea that the most liberal licensing possible should be implemented to ensure re-use and sharing. There has been plenty of discussion about the place of non-commercial licenses in educational settings, but as the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association argues “The most liberal Creative Commons license is CC-BY, which allows for unrestricted reuse of content, subject only to the requirement that the source work is appropriately attributed.” One issue for the project has been commercial or non-commercial licensing, and whether NC could be considered harmful. Given that the definition of what constitutes commercial use is problematic, and because the project wanted to catalyse sharing and reuse, the CC-BY 4.0 license was chosen.

The City-wide permissions encourage a re-think of pedagogic practices that were highlighted in our article on the self-evaluation framework, in which we argued for a practitioner-led approach to education and technology that would:

enable practitioners to describe how they use digital tools for creating, repurposing and adapting information and resources. Moreover, it enables a co-operative pedagogic agenda to be defined that focuses upon the social use, sharing and production of multi-media artefacts.

The permissions on offer, and the pedagogic conversations that surround the creation, sharing and re-use of related resources connects the work of the City’s schools to other educators who are using CC-BY licenses.

We had a taste of how the new permissions and the guidance would affect educational practice across Leicester at an important Schools’ OER event in Leicester yesterday, under the tag OERSCH15. The presentations made me consider the following points.

  1. What are the relationships that are enabled or opened-up through a discussion of the creation/production, sharing/distribution, and re-use/consumption of resources using an open license? What are the relationships between authors/producers who may be staff and/or students, and those who use/re-use their work?
  2. How does the new permission encourage conversations between school leaders and governing bodies, and staff and students about pedagogic practice?
  3. How does the new permission encourage federated or co-operative work between schools across a City and beyond? How might this work relate to re-purposing and hacking the national curriculum?
  4. What is the relationship between resources created in schools, and the relationships that they reveal, and those used for instance in higher education? How might the processes of open education be revealed in order to encourage transition into higher education?
  5. What is the relationship between open licensing, pedagogic practices and the idea of education as a public good? How do we rethink attribution and sharing, through co-operative permissions?
  6. How do open educational practices encouraged in this kind of permission support global analyses of problems, so that action can be taken locally?

It was important that Josie was able to highlight how the permissions and the guidance have already affected national practices, for example with the Times Educational Supplement re-focusing on creative commons licenses for its resources portal. Its guidance is

Extracted and remixed from OER Guidance for Schools (2014), by Björn Haßler, Helen Neo and Josie Fraser. Published by Leicester City Council, available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Clearly, it is extra-ordinary that Leicester City council has returned permissions to staff and schools in this way, so long as they openly license their work. There are tensions in this, as were noted in the plenary discussion, including the following.

  1. Staff awareness-raising around licensing and copyright, the impact on pedagogic practices, fair-dealing, who validates the quality of published work, and so on.
  2. E-safety and safe-guarding, especially where young people are creating and sharing resources. Again who validates and publishes the work, and issues over co-operation and anonymity were to the fore.
  3. Senior leadership and governing body awareness, and the support they could offer to teachers in coming to terms with the permission and licensing, and the freedoms given in the guidance.

However, as Miles Berry noted, at least the City Council were creating a space for teachers and schools to engage with young people in discussing these issues. Here was a framework that encourages an open educational environment, and through which richer pedagogic conversations might emerge.

NOTE: for critiques of open education and open educational resources as a form of commodity see the following.


for a political economy of massive open online courses

I have an article coming out in a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology next year, on open education. It’s entitled “For a political economy of open education”.

Abstract

In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.

NOTE

I have written about MOOCs and political economy here.

I have written about MOOCs and neoliberalism here.

I have written about MOOCs, networks and the rate of profit here.

I have written about MOOCs and the restructuring of the University here.


on the academic commons

Joss Winn reminds me that Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, “The First International” in late October 1864, included the following statement about the political importance of collective work, association and combination, as a bulwark against the economic and political power of Capital. 

One element of success they [Labour] possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.

I think about this in academia today because Joss is running his final WordPress workshop (related to the Lincoln University Academic Commons). The Lincoln Commons, alongside the work of ds106 and collective work at University of British Columbia was the inspiration for the DMU Academic Commons, which is rooted in collective organising principles, in terms of its decision-making and production/consumption/distribution.

[The DMU Commons is] open, and will encourage generosity, respect, tolerance and sharing. Our DMU Commons will enable permeability and fluidity in collaboration, supporting autonomy in our shared production of DMU as a University committed to engaging with useful social reproduction. Our Commons will help shape DMU as a “knowing University”, where thinking is shared in public, in order to enable society/communities to solve problems, develop alternatives and innovate.

I have discussed the idea of the academic Commons under this tag, although I have been more specific about it, in terms of:

There are examples of student-led, staff-led, public/University spaces, curriculum, journal/publishing, and project sites on the DMU Commons, here.

Current blog-posts and updates are accessible from our aggregator, here.

These developments owe much to the work of Joss Winn and at DMU, Owen Williams.

This earth was made a common treasury/For everyone to share/All things in common.

Bragg, B. 1985. The World Turned Upside Down

 


CAMRI presentation: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

I’m speaking at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) on 25 March 2015 about the relationship between capitalism, educational technology, and the proletarianisation of the University. How lovely.

The working title is: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

The working abstract is…

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between space and time, and to subsume academic labour inside processes for valorisation.

However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. Through such a deformation, it also reminds us of alternative historical and material re-imaginings and alternatives like the Chilean CyberSyn project, the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, the Hornsey Experiment, and so on. This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education and academic labour to be co-opted for value-production. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects with limited power-to produce a world beyond value. A question is the extent to which pedagogical and transitional alternatives might be described, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


Notes on pedagogy, free time and the abolition of wage labour

I’ve been reminded this week, by Joss Winn’s excellent article “Writing about academic labour” that

There is an understandable tendency among critics of the current crisis in higher education to want to restore the university to what it once was, to defend the university from changing into something else, to resist the real subsumption of academic labour under capital. I think this misunderstands the university as a means of production and its historical role.

Joss analyses how the University is increasingly folded inside the ebb-and-flow of capitalism as a process of circulation in the name of value. The flow of circuits of production, commodity and money are structuring and re-structuring what it means to labour as an academic or as a student (wages for students, anyone?). In this way academic labour needs to be critiqued through labour theory, not in order to recuperate a golden age of scholarship and learning, but to re-appropriate and potentially liberate academics and students as organic intellectuals able to help society engage with critical, global problems. As Joss argues, central to this process is an understanding of academic work, by both academics and students, from the standpoint of labour.

When critically approaching the university as a means of production for the valorisation of capital, an emancipatory project must first focus on re-appropriating the means of knowledge production through efforts to control the substance of value: the labour process. This, I think, requires new models of democratic higher education organised directly through the co-operation of academic and student labour; models of practice which aim to re-appropriate the ‘general intellect’ (Marx 1973, 706) and which recognise “the existence of a growing gap between the sort of labour people continue to perform in a society mediated by labor and the sort of labor they could perform, were it not for this ‘necessity’ of capitalism.” (Postone 1993, 370) This effort must be grounded in a thoroughgoing critique of the political economy of higher education that starts from its most simple, immanent categories. It would recognise and develop the significant productive capacity of our existing historical conditions in a way whereby human knowledge or “mass intellectuality” (Dyer-Witheford 1999, 488) is seen as the emancipatory project rather than a resource for valorisation.

In a recent article “On the Abolition of Academic Labour: The Relationship Between Intellectual Workers and Mass Intellectuality”, I also argue for a critique of academic work as labour, in terms of:

  1. the mechanisms through which academic autonomy is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University;
  2. how this alienation relates to the recalibration of the University as an association of capitals;
  3. how academic labour might be understood in concrete and abstract terms, and then abolished as part of a social struggle for subjectivity that is situated against value production and accumulation; and
  4. whether it is possible to liberate academic labour as a form of mass intellectuality that can be used inside and across society?

Akin to Joss, I also wondered about the potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, as transitional, pedagogical moments.

In this, both Joss and I focus upon Moishe Postone’s focus on time and labour as structuring capitalism’s domination.

Central to Marx’s conception of the overcoming of capitalism is his notion of people’s reappropriation of the socially general knowledge and capacities that had been constituted historically as capital. We have seen that, according to Marx, such knowledge and capacities, as capital, dominate people; such re-appropriation, then, entails overcoming the mode of domination characteristic of capitalist society, which ultimately is grounded in labor’s historically specific role as a socially mediating activity. Thus, at the core of his vision of a postcapitalist society is the historically generated possibility that people might begin to control what they create rather than being controlled by it. (Postone 1993, 373)

In this analysis, whilst transitional, co-operative organising principles are important, autonomy over time, and agency in the activities that are usefully and socially structured by time are pivotal. Here I am reminded of an excellent blog-post by Jehu on communism and wage-slavery, entitled (pace BB King) “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there”. Here Jehu states that the premise of communism or a post-capitalism cannot be rooted in the abolition of the wage, or in the working class wishing to give up the possibility of an improved standard-of-living rooted in a job that pays a decent wage. Who wants to give up their access to consumer goods and holidays, aside from the impact of indenture and [private/state] debt-bondage on the need to labour? Jehu notes:

why, in all of [the co-operative or solidarity economy or state capitalist/socialist] examples cited, do we never clearly see a path to the end of class, labor, property and the state? Because they can never move beyond certain definite limits, these systems always collapse into some new state, some new method of coercing labor, and some new form of property.

In this argument, post-capitalism “appears in this society as a catastrophe to existing society.” The end of capitalist work is stagnation, no-growth or de-growth, or the inability to buy a specific set of activities or things. This is economic depression, austerity, unemployment, debt and social dislocation. It is also asset and wealth transfer to a transnational elite. Critically, writes Jehu:

To go from a situation where everyone has to sell their labor power to communism under the premises of present society implies an ever bigger shitload of people can’t find work. Communism may be the end of wage labor, but getting to the end of wage labor implies ever increasing unemployment, competition to sell labor power and social disruption. And if people can’t find work, they will turn to people who promise to create work, not those who argue we can live without it.

Trying, then to fight or struggle for any alternative is placed asymmetrically against valorisation as the structuring reality of society, and which forces us at a deep psychological level to accept our alienation from ourselves, because for those who rely on a wage to survive “the end of wage labor [is] an actual mortal threat to [their] physical existence, as the threat of starvation.” Matters are worse, as Simon Clarke argues in an essay on neoliberalism, because:

While real wages may have risen, the creation of new needs by capital has meant that the socially determined subsistence needs of the population have risen more rapidly, forcing an ever growing proportion of the population to seek work to augment the household income in the attempt to meet those needs. At the same time, a growing proportion of the population is unable to meet the ever-increasing employment demands of capital, while those in employment face the ever-growing threat of losing their jobs.

And this precarious existence, coupled to consumer needs, has also faced an assault on societal benefits and collectively-negotiated safety nets:

the mounting cost of collective provision to counter the tendencies of capitalist accumulation has given force to the neo-liberal attempt to replace collective provision with private provision through insurance-based systems, which provides yet another channel through which capital can intensify the exploitation of the mass of the working population by intensifying and profiting from their fear of misfortune.

However, Jehu is clear that there is a distinction between the capitalist class, for whom the end of capitalism would be the end of production for value and power of the means, forces and relations of production, and the working class. Here control of the means of production of use values across society and the liberation of free time as a structuring reality of that society becomes a critical field of conflict, especially in terms of autonomy over the use of time or the availability of free-time.

Theoretically the separation of the production of use values from the production of exchange values can only begin once the productive activity of the working class is not solely engaged in production of exchange value. This requires society has free disposable time to engage in productive activities that do not and cannot in any way aim at producing exchange values.

In other words, the separation of production of use values from exchange values is possible only when free disposable time of society becomes the prime source of use values. I think this cannot happen until almost all (or at least the largest part) of the personal time of individuals in society is free disposable time. The larger the quantity of free disposable time society possesses, the more likely this free time will itself become the most important source of material wealth.

The problem we face at present is that the production of material wealth cannot be separated from the production of value, because the working class has very little time of its own to engage in any activity that is not premised on value production. This cannot be fixed by demanding the state create jobs, handout basic income, raise the minimum wage or other measures very popular on the Left right now. It cannot even be fixed by more advanced ideas like market socialism, cooperatives and even Soviet style central planning.

The problem is not how wage labor is organized, managed or compensated; it is how communists propose to abolish it in a way that does not result in a catastrophe.

In his analysis of neoliberalism, Simon Clarke argues that any struggle for the abolition of wage-labour and for transcending the structuring realities of capitalism runs counter to the realities of needing access to the next [smartfone] or holiday in the Sun or cultural activity, which in-turn requires a perpetual, fiscal transaction in the present. Any such struggle also runs counter to a hegemonic project aimed at the transnational incorporation of the present and the future inside the law of value. As a result all sociability and all of life are re-produced for value.

The economist critics of neoliberalism have repeatedly exposed how restrictive and unrealistic are the assumptions on which the neoliberal model is based. However, to argue that the neoliberal model is unrealistic is somewhat to miss the point, since the neoliberal model does not purport so much to describe the world as it is, but the world as it should be. The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model. This is not merely an intellectual fantasy, it is a very real political project, to realise which neoliberalism has conquered the commanding heights of global intellectual, political and economic power, all of which are mobilised to realise the neoliberal project of subjecting the whole world’s population to the judgement and morality of capital.

This underscores Ellen Meiksins-Wood argument that:

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

These ideas of labour and time, pivoting around the twin aspects of the concrete and the abstract world, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to exist in a world structured around the wage, underpin the difficulties that Anselm Jappe highlights in his critical analysis of the impact of value and labour on our everyday narratives. He argues that a post-capitalist project would have to overcome the labour theory of value as it plays out in “othering”. He writes of

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”).

Critically we are reminded of these processes of projection that are themselves defences against the alienation of wage-labour in the State’s reaction to Occupy Democracy in London, and in the party of organised labour’s attack on immigration as a function of “progressive politics”, and in the party of organised labour’s belief that “if we want to live better than others, then we will have to be better than others”, and in the reaction of local businesses in #Ferguson Missouri to protests about the shooting of Michael Brown. In the latter it was reported by businesses that:

“I know customers who have left the area … I just want everything to go back to normal and everyone can do business again.”

“We’ve just been trying to go to work, business as usual – nobody wants to take the boards down until we see what happens. It’s more of the not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Whither human or labour rights in the face of economic uncertainty? And who has power-over the narratives that other or that decide who is to be othered? Who has power-over narratives that dehumanise in the face of the scarcity of value? And what courage does it take to refuse or push-back against these narratives?

And earlier this week I saw the film made shortly after the occupation of the Horney College of Art, called The Hornsey Experiment. It reminded me that so many of the defences that appear to have emerged in short-order since 2008, as apparently governmental/neoliberal responses to the forms of direct action that are our collective opposition to the politics of austerity, were also present in the 1960s. That the courage it takes to refuse has a historical and material lineage that is often communal. At Hornsey, there was opposition to the marketization and accreditation of learning, and to the subsumption of learning and teaching for capitalist work, rather than as humanistic activities rooted in love. There was opposition that took the form of general assemblies and occupations. There was opposition that took the form of a new pedagogy of production, with clear links through to the liberation-praxis of the anti-University of London, the Mental Furniture Industry, and Project Sigma. There was opposition that was leaderless and invisible and which lacked demands. There was opposition that simply wished to enact power-over the production of art as a form of sociability, and power-over the organisation of the space, in ways that were against-and-beyond the formalised, accredited curriculum.

The oppositional pedagogy uncovered in the Hornsey Experiment reminded me of the dissonance that Nina Power wrote about, and which might be re-formed as a form of anti-cynicism to prevailing anti-humanist pedagogies.

Theories of universal pedagogy, that is to say, “a pedagogy that takes nothing for granted,” and the attempt to put these into practice may seem out of place in this brave new world of student consumerism and universities-as-businesses, an archaic throwback to outmoded, optimistic Enlightenment models of generic capacity and the promise of knowledge for all. Yet, perversely, the assumption of universalist, egalitarian, rationalist (although not in the sense the market would understand it) principles (or axioms, as we shall see) in education may be precisely the way out of a certain deep cynicism that pervades the attitudes of students toward their degrees, of lecturers to their students, and of the university to its responsibility to educate, and not merely to train.

The Hornsey Experiement was met with threats of Police dogs and barbed wire fences, alongside alleged criticism and cynicism from some local people. Moreover, under the promise of discussions about a new organisational structure, curriculum and pedagogical approach for the College, the occupation ended and was neutralised in the bureaucracy of the College’s administrative structures. The energy of the general assembly was dissipated in the dampening of the committee structure, and in the midst of deliberation in hegemonic structures those with power-over the College securitised the space so that occupations would be harder to achieve, and then excluded students who had occupied, and demanded that visibility and accreditation would be the productive order of things. As Bourdieu and Passeron argue in Reproduction in Education Society and Culture:

An educational system based on a traditional type of pedagogy can fulfil its function of inculcation only so long as it addresses itself to students equipped with the linguistic and cultural capital – and the capacity to invest it profitably – which the system presupposes and consecrates without ever expressly demanding it and without methodically transmitting it.

Those with power-over demand control over our sociability reinforced through a specific type of cultural value, which as Clarke, Jehu and Jappe note has a certain morality attached to it. It is inside-and-against this hegemonic, cultural normalisation that an alternative, transitional politics has to emerge, rooted in the idea of free time. For Alexander Trocchi, in the glow of Project Sigma, this meant the liberation of time for relatively elastic forms of spontaneity and experiment to take root:

Each branch of the spontaneous university will be the nucleus of an experimental town to which all kinds of people will be attracted for shorter or longer periods of time and from which, if we are successful, they will derive a renewed and infectious sense of life. We envisage an organization whose structure and mechanisms are infinitely elastic; we see it as the gradual crystallization of a regenerative cultural force, a perpetual brainwave, creative intelligence everywhere recognizing and affirming its own involvement.

However, at issue is still Jehu’s question of how any such spontaneous, pedagogical experiments enable us to work toward the abolition of wage labour in a way that does not result in a catastrophe. For Marx in The German Ideology this issue has to be addressed communally.

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

Quite how this is to be done in the face of socio-environmental catastrophe, the politics of austerity, crippling levels of personal and State debt, reduced access to cheap, liquid fuel, and the cultural imperative to maintain standards of living and growth-based agendas as the structuring realities of life is another issue.


Notes from a place of resistance

These notes were written whilst listening to Rave Tapes by Mogwai and this alt-J performance on npr.

I attended a seminar in Brighton on Thursday called Resisting Neoliberal Education: Alternative Systems, Discourse and Practice. My notes and thoughts from the event follow.

ONE. In the round-table introductions I realised that of the 15 attendees, I only knew three people. That means there are 11 other stories of resistance in the room. That’s a lot of new potential energy and possibility for #solidarity and association, and also hope.

TWO. In the roundtable Stephen O’Brien from Cork spoke about how he had written a triptych on learning outcomes, and made a point about how certain language and meaning and ways of working in the world get written into culture so that resistance becomes difficult. Contesting the hegemonic power of learning outcomes in educational practice and theory situates us asymmetrically against Pearson Education and their absolute obsession with learning outcomes as an educational business model. It situates us against the idea that aligning high stakes testing and educational improvement is a form of economic patriotism. It situates us against the commodification of educational relationships through data-mining and learning analytics. It situates us with Walter Stroup and his “rebellion” against standardisation. In this I am reminded that the detail is really important, and that life histories of specific technologies (follow the technology), fiscal innovations (follow the money), and pedagogical innovations (follow the technique), enable us to see who has voice and power. Pace Marx (footnote 4, Chapter 15, Volume 1 of Capital), we might note:

[a specific innovation] reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

Critical in understanding and critiquing capitalist social relations and alternatives to it, is a focus on how learning appears to us, and how it appears to those with power [or their power-over our power-to-do].

TWO. In the roundtable, someone, and it’s remiss of me to forget who, spoke of the “unattractive nature of academic life” in its current anxiety-hardened, precarious form. I think that collectively we were questioning the representation and formation of the University and the consequences for learning and teaching (as opposed to the student experience).

THREE. Several people spoke about the idea of the public good. Rarely did we mention co-operativism or the Commons. I think that in re-imagining the University inside a new form of sociability, this is a rich space of potential and possibility. Joss Winn’s blog-post on re-imagining pulls a lot of this together, including Mike Neary’s work on student-as-producer and the genesis of the Social Science Centre. There is also work to be done for us in thinking through and living the possibilities for transitional alternatives. I think that it is important to see alternative forms as transitional and pedagogic, and not to be fetishized. I reconsidered this in the face of Nadia Edmond’s (firm-but-fair) challenge to me about whether spaces like the Social Science Centre were alternatives that were sustainable or whether they are (my words) simply academic philanthropy. I also reconsidered this in light of remembering that the Really Open University had deliberately used the phrase “re-imagining the University.” The critical thing for me about the Social Science Centre is that it forms a laboratory for co-operative production, consumption and distribution that is about democratic organising principles (governance) for both the Centre and its activities, and its content (e.g. childcare arrangements, curricula, events). Whilst the current Know-How course might be represented inside some universities and through some courses, there are some “scholars” who do not wish to/cannot undertake such a course inside. Equally, the content and curriculum is co-negotiated and produced in a way that is different from the bulk of curricula inside. Finally, the production, consumption and distribution of the curriculum circulates inside-and-through the organisation of the Social Science Centre and informs its governance.

FOUR. A sense of work inside/outside the University was seen as pivotal in resisting or defining something different. This reminded me of Elise Thorburn’s brilliant article on autonomy and the Edufactory, in which she writes about the power-to-do that is situated in three strands: first, inside general assemblies as democratic governance and organisation; second, through militant research done in partnership; finally, through work done in public. I think this is the key to much of our re-imagining; that it is done in public as a democratic act of militant research. Someone at the seminar spoke of activist knowledge that “rows in behind”, as an act of solidarity and love. Through such acts, as a kind of solidarity economy, we might enable the amplification of alternatives as an asymmetrical definition of possible forms of sociability beyond the market. Here we might engage with the idea that no alternative is beyond the structural domination of capitalist social relations, but that we might take them to be transitional through a pedagogic appreciation of what it is to be in/against/beyond. But this takes courage and faith. Not to fetishise the institution, which is itself alienating, but to look for points of solidarity.

FIVE. Over lunch Steve O’Brien used the word monastic to describe much of his recent academic work. I love that term. I feel that in the aftermath of the moments of rage and impotence in the academic (staff and student) protests of 2010-11, for personal and academic reasons I became monastic, returning to theory and harvesting historical and material and global stories of resistance and alternatives and mending myself. There is something here about asking whether it is possible to rebuild oneself in the face of systemic alienation, as a brutal form of therapy, in order to embody one’s position. In order to return to a room where people can meet to listen and speak and voice effective demands.

SIX. Throughout I was reminded of fellowship and the links between fellowship, liberation and de/legitimation. This made me reconsider why I keep returning to this quote about liberation, the individual, the community and association, from Marx in The German Ideology:

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

This is about collective and invisible work in the name of counter-narratives and not fixed alternatives.

SEVEN. Ciaran Sugrue spoke about the defence mechanisms that individuals have as “multiple scripts” that are played out differentially depending on context. Steve O’Brien reminded me that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” These two interventions made me reconsider our defences against a world that is increasingly abstract and polarised around inequality and agony. This is especially so where Her Majesty’s Opposition in the UK, the Labour Party, accept an hour-glass economy and the fact that some people will be losers in a globalised economy. Here we might again ask what does it mean to be inside/outside and how are our multiple scripts or defences, acts of self-harm or self-care? The work of Frantz Fanon on cognitive dissonance is important for me here, especially in Black Skin, White Masks.

EIGHT. Throughout I had the work of Anselm Jappe on my mind, and the asymmetry between humane values and the production and accumulation of value. In spite of my knowing that sociability, solidarity, fidelity, courage, hope, whatever, are produced and reproduced inside-and-against private property and value, I am reminded that Jappe wrote:

The difficulty of living in a society dominated by value necessarily leads to the creation of all sorts of ideologies to explain the suffering caused by such a society and that enable the subjects of labour to project onto others the qualities that they are forced to expel from themselves (e.g., “laziness,” “emotions”). (p. 11)

But that in spite of this historically, material formation of values:

even value itself is not a “total” structure. It is “totalitarian” in the sense that it aspires to turn everything into a commodity. But it will never be able to because such a society would be completely unliveable (there would no longer, for example, be friendship, love, the bringing up of children, etc.). The necessity for value to expand pushes it towards destroying the entire concrete world and at every level, economic, environmental, social and cultural. The critique of value does not only foresee an economic crisis of unprecedented dimensions but also the end of an entire “civilisation” (if one can call it that). Even so, human life has not always been based on value, money and labour, even if it seems that some kind of fetishism has existed everywhere. (p. 12)

NINE. It feels important to me to have access to what someone called “resources for resistance”, to situate my work fixed in space-time, against those of others. I hope we can create such a collective thing. Someone else spoke of sharing stories and building life histories as a means of “keeping each other’s fire burning.” These are forms of Luddism. Forms of hacking. Forms of re-imagining.

TEN. I was reminded of Allyson Pollack’s work on an NHS Reinstatement Bill, as an act of courage, public justice and hope. I wondered about the possibility less for a manifesto, and more for a free, public Higher Education Re-instatement Bill.

ELEVEN. I read of Chris Hedges’ work on capitalism’s sacrifice zones, and the idea that “There are forgotten corners of this country where Americans are trapped in endless cycles of poverty, powerlessness, and despair as a direct result of capitalistic greed.” Moreover, these zones are deliberately sacrificed in the pursuit of profit: “These are areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. We’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed”. This reminded me that as Ellen Meiksins-Wood argued:

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

In this she saw hope because:

the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures… Now capitalism has no more escape routes, no more safety valves or corrective mechanisms outside its own internal logic… the more it maximizes profit and so-called growth – the more it devours its own human and natural substance.

This forced me to re-think:

  • Are there other ways of producing knowing? What authority does HE/do universities have?
  • In a knowing world, rather than a knowledge economy, what does the curriculum mean?
  • Does a pedagogy of production need to start with the principle that we need to consume less of everything? What does this mean for ownership of the institution at scale [local, regional, global]?
  • How can student voices help in the struggle to re-invent the world?
  • What is to be done?

TWELVE. I don’t think I used the word neoliberalism once. I realised that I have dropped it from my vocabulary as inappropriate. For me the issue is Capital and Labour, and neoliberalism was just a global, political economic, phase we were going through. This is about hegemony and counter-narratives. Here the work of William Robinson on global capitalism is important to me. Equally important is finding ways in which we can take the energy of the dominant discourse and (akin to a form of t’ai chi) displace it or use it against itself, by revealing stories of inhumanity and inequality and courage. Through an appeal to what it is to be a concrete human rather than an abstraction.