three presentations on academic labour

I have three presentations coming-up at really exciting events. The presentations are on academic labour, and I’m pleased that Joss Winn is also involved in two of these.

The first is at the Governing Academic Life conference, which is “oriented by the concern to think critically about the conditions of possibility of the academy today”. There is an amazing list of speakers at this event. I’m speaking about “Academic labour and co-operative struggles for subjectivity’


The academic has no apparent autonomy beyond the temporary amelioration of her labour relations with those who direct the University for the logic of accumulation, commodification, and profit-maximisation. Those who direct the University for the market are not simply Vice-Chancellors, but include policy makers, private equity fundholders, credit rating agencies, technology firms and publishers, and, indirectly, fee-paying students. This transnational activist network forms an association of capitals (Ball, 2011; Marx, 1993) that subsumes and disciplines academic labour.

This subsumption of academic labour emerges under “the social tyranny of exchange-value” and the profit motive (Wendling, p. 52). What is currently being enacted through global labour arbitrage, outsourcing and precarity, is the alienation of academic labour through the enclosure and commodification of its products and relationships. This focus on production for exchange is then furthered through the cultural imperatives of student-as-consumer, league tables, impact-measures, knowledge exchange and so on. Against this tyranny might the value of academic labour, in the costs of its labour-power, the research/teaching products that it creates, and the relationships that it enables and maintains, be re-evaluated for its social use?

Such a re-evaluation demands that academics imagine that their skills, practices and knowledges might be shared and put to another use, in common and in co-operation. We might ask, is it possible to live and tell a different, overtly political story of academic labour? This focus on politics and organisation is a focus on recovering subjectivity as an academic and a labourer. As Cleaver (1993) notes in his final two theses on the Secular Crisis of Capitalism, this idea of recovering subjectivity through radical democracy is critical in liberating humanity from the coercive laws of competition and the market. For Cleaver, the creation of a revolutionary subjectivity is entwined with the need to develop: [a] politics of alliance against capital… not only to accelerate the circulation of struggle from sector to sector of the class, but to do so in such a manner as to build a post-capitalist politics of difference without antagonism. Here the idea of academic as labourer is central, rather than academic as fetishized carrier of specific skills, practices and knowledges.

This paper will make three points. First, it will address the mechanisms through which the academic is increasingly alienated inside-and-against the University as it is recalibrated as an association of capitals. Second, it will ask whether and how academic labour might be renewed as part of a social struggle for subjectivity? The potential for co-operative alternatives based on solidarity, where they connect to a radical, societal, democratic project of refusal, will be highlighted. Third, the paper will ask whether it is possible to liberate academic labour for use-value that can be used inside and across society?


Ball, S.J. 2012.Global Education Inc. New Policy Networks and the Neo-Liberal Imaginary.London: Routledge.

Cleaver, H. 1993. Theses on Secular Crisis in Capitalism. Available online:

Marx, K. 1993. Capital, Volume 2: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Wendling, A. E. 2009. Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.


The second is at the Building Sustainable Societies conference, which aims “to develop collaboratively a definition of social sustainability, we suggest it might include: a society with a more equitable distribution of economic resources; greater equality, rights and social justice; fair and equal access to essential services such as housing, health, transport and education; a renegotiation of the work-life balance; and opportunities for everyone to participate actively in community life and decision-making.” I’m discussing Social sustainability, mass intellectuality and the idea of the University


This presentation considers the interconnections between critical pedagogy and the idea of mass intellectuality, in order to reflect on the current crisis of higher education. The argument will situate the liberationist perspectives of critical pedagogy inside the idea of mass intellectuality, or the process of democratic knowledge production at the level of society. It will be argued that in the face of the secular crisis of capitalism, which is recalibrating the idea of the University and of higher education through marketization and competition, it is the development of mass intellectuality that offers a mechanism for a different, co-operative form of social sustainability. In confronting enforced, structural changes, this approach offers more than the tropes of individual resilience, or of mitigation or adaptation, which emerge from readings of environmental sustainability. In fact, it enables a critical, alternative reading of the social sustainability of higher education strategies for internationalisation, entrepreneurialism, consumerism, and so on. These alternatives pivot around the re-politicising both the curriculum and the University, and are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of higher education inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. As a result, mass intellectuality potentially offers a richer way in to revealing higher education as a key site of struggle over the production and accumulation of value. More importantly, in forcing educators and students to ask “what is to be done?”, a focus on mass intellectuality suggests possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary higher education for capitalist work. As a result we might ask whether alternative forms of social sustainability are desirable and possible.


The third is at the Academic Identities conference. Joss Winn and I will be discussing academic labour.


In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.


Camfield, D. (2007). The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52. 

Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. (2013). What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?, tripleC, 11(2) 237-292.

Hardt, M. and Negri, T. (2000). Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Krisis-Group (1999). Manifesto against labour. Krisis.

Newfield, C. (2010). The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26. 

Noble, D.F. (2002). Digital Diploma Mills. The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, M.A. and Bulut. E. (2011). Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. New York: Peter Lang.

Postone, M. (1993). Time, Labor and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006). History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18(1).

Robinson, W.I. (2004). A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. (2011). The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scholtz, T. (2013). Digital Labour. The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978). Intellectual and Manual Labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

notes on the university and a pedagogy for change

“We often cause ourselves suffering by wanting only to live in a world of valleys, a world without struggle and difficulty, a world that is flat, plain, consistent.”

bell hooks (2008). Belonging: A Culture of Place. New York: Routledge.

“It is important for this country to make its people so obsessed with their own liberal individualism that they do not have time to think about a world larger than self.”

bell hooks (2000), ‘Simple Living: An Antidote to Hedonistic Materialism’. In Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara, Regina Austin, Clyde Taylor (eds), Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems. New York: W. W. & Company.

“Feminist effort to end patriarchal domination should be of primary concern precisely because it insists on the eradication of exploitation and oppression in the family context and in all other intimate relationships. It is that political movement which most radically addresses the person – the personal – citing the need for the transformation of self, of relationships, so that we might be better able to act in a revolutionary manner, challenging and resisting domination, transforming the world outside the self.”

bell hooks (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

“A key issue for Student as Producer is that social learning is more than the individual learning in a social context, and includes the way in which the social context itself is transformed through progressive pedagogic practice. This transformation includes the institution within which the pedagogical activities are taking place, and the society out of which the particular institution is derived. At a time when the market-based model for social development appears increasingly untenable, the creation of a more progressive and sustainable social world becomes ever more necessary and desirable.”

Neary, M. (2010). Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange, 1(1).

“This analysis suggests that a post-capitalist university is one where the labour power of individuals is not measured relative or equivalent to each other according to the magnitude of its socially determined value, represented by the universal commodity: money.

“Their respective labour power is understood qualitatively in terms of their individual experience, skills and knowledge of the social and physical world: their ability or capacity as social human beings, and it is not deemed deficient during acts of ‘unequal’ reciprocity. In a post-capitalist university, social relations would accept absolute difference between individuals, rather than acknowledge difference while at the same time organising our social lives around an objective form of equivalence: money.

“In a capitalist university, students’ and academics’ labour power are qualitatively different use values brought into an exchange relation, yet it is a distinctive relationship because it is at the same time co-operative and productive. It produces knowledge, which might be sold directly through consultancy, patents, etc. or through its role in the reproduction of labour power, it will be sold elsewhere by the student for a wage.

“Neary posited the student as producer without analysing the student’s role as consumer. Moten and Harney argue students are producers through social, cooperative production. As I have tried to show, this social co-operation is expressed as the relative and equivalent poles of the value form, in which the producer and consumer are immediate to one-another at all time in a unity of opposites, dominated by the money-form.”

Winn, J. 2014. Academic labour, students as consumers and the value form.

“Before this dangerously authoritarian mindset has a chance to take hold of our collective imagination and animate our social institutions, it is crucial that all Americans think critically and ethically about the coercive forces shaping US culture – and focus our energy on what can be done to change them. It will not be enough only to expose the falseness of the propaganda pumped out by the commanding neoliberal cultural apparatuses. We also need to create alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be for our children and ourselves.”

Giroux, H. (2014). Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability. Truth-Out.

“At this moment, football is full of philosophers. People who understand much more than me. People with fantastic theories and philosophies. It’s amazing. But the reality is always the reality. A team that doesn’t defend well doesn’t have many chances to win. A team that doesn’t score lots of goals, if they concede lots of goals, is in trouble. A team without balance is not a team.”

Mourinho, J. 2014. José Mourinho takes aim at Chelsea’s ‘philosopher’ critics ahead of Atlético tie.

“VIII. All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.

“XI. The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx, K. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach.

The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology

I have a new article out in Learning, Media and Technology, with the fun title of “The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology”. The article is available (if you subscribe) here. Sadly, the article is only available behind a paywall, although there are 50 free copies here. I was approached by the editor to write a theoretical piece for Learning, Media and Technology. I accepted because that is the kind of thing that academics do. Martin Weller writes critically about open access and open scholarship. Wherever possible I will try to find ways to publish openly, as I did with this article on digital literacy.

The abstract is appended below.


This article considers the relevance of Autonomist Marxism for both research and practice in education and technology. The article situates the Autonomist perspective against that of traditional Marxist thought – illustrating how certain core Autonomist concepts enable a critical reading of developments in information and communication technology. These include notions of the ‘social factory’, ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘cognitive capital’, the ‘general intellect’ and ‘mass intellectuality’, and the ‘cybernetic hypothesis’. It is argued that these perspectives are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of education and technology inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. The Autonomist approach can be criticised – not least for its apparent network-centrism and its disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production. Nevertheless, this position offers a powerful ‘way in’ to understanding education and technology as key sites of struggle. It lays bare the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work, while also suggesting possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary education for capitalist work.

Call for contributions to a book on “Mass Intellectuality: The democratisation of higher education”

This is a final call for contributions to a book on “Mass Intellectuality: The democratisation of higher education” that Joss Winn and I are pulling together. More details are available here.

The book aims to provide international critiques and accounts of the crisis in higher education, with a focus on the creation of alternative forms. Its premise is that globally, higher education is increasingly unaffordable, its historic institutions are becoming untenable, and their purpose is resolutely instrumental. What and who have led us to this crisis? What are the alternatives? To whom do we look for leadership in revealing those alternatives?

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

We welcome anyone who is involved with and/or working on alternative higher education projects such as free universities, transnational collectives, occupied spaces, and co-operatives for higher education to contribute to the book. We also welcome those who are working inside the University to provide critical analyses of recent and existing efforts to develop alternatives to mainstream higher education.

If you would like to contribute to the book, please email Joss Winn as soon as possible. We will then be in-touch about submitting an abstract connected to intellectual leadership in higher education by 10 May.

NOTE: whilst Joss and I both work in UK higher education, we would welcome a range of voices in the development of the book. International, critical engagements with intellectual leadership are central to this project.

on the University as anxiety machine

I would be your king

But you want to be free

Confusion and art

I’m nothing but heart

(as we stumble to the shore… as we walk into the night …. this before can’t say it anymore…)

Low. 2011. Nothing but Heart.

We think we know what the narrative is. But over time it fractures and cracks and dies and is reborn. As we fracture and crack and die and are reborn.

Inside this world, inside our history, inside this capitalism we fracture and crack under the stress of it all. The toxic stress of being for economic growth. Of being for an entrepreneurial life. Of giving away our labour. Of alienating our labour. Of giving away ourselves. Of alienating ourselves. We willingly give it up. This is the new normal. We willingly give up our very selves so that they can accumulate value. We accede to their dominance so that we can survive and breathe and have hope. Hope in the face of the reality that our fracture and our cracking are driven by their hegemony and their economic growth.

The power of their narrative of economic growth, which subsumes our labour, and that is visited upon the University. Their common sense. Their intellectual rigour. The new normal.

As Jehu argues:

The sale of labor power has the effect of scrubbing all the concrete manifestations of labor from our consciousness.

We are scrubbed clean of our humanity, and this is done systemically:

It does this by validating the reduction of our capacities to just another commodity in the market.

This is all we are. A reduction. Scrubbed of the potential of what our lives might be. Marketised. Abstracted from reality. Made contingent on the production of value. And as we have witnessed in countless testimonies the University is increasingly a space inside which this scrubbing, this abstraction, this contingency, plays out psychologically. So that our desire to be something other than an entrepreneur is disciplined. So that we witness:

For many, like myself, like those closest to me, anxiety and depression are not technical terms but personal experiences.

And we witness:

Too many casual academics find themselves barely surviving as they are suspended in a state of near constant poverty.

And we witness:

The evidence of our anxiety is not exactly hidden – it’s scattered across social media and in discussions within session-by-session teacher networks, that universities mostly don’t see. More and more stories are emerging in these networks about the hardships of poverty, and families under immense stress.

And we witness:

Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide,

This is insidious. This latter-day higher education. This University as anxiety machine. This University as means for the production of anxiety. This University that forces us to internalise the creation of value and the extraction of value and the accumulation of value. This University that is recalibrated for value as we seek to resist in the name of teaching and learning and becoming and emancipation and us. The anxiety of the future collapsed onto the present; trumping the present; devaluing the present. The University not as a place where students can find themselves, but where they can create themselves. This is the University that demands we overcome our present imperfections; our present lack of impact; our present lack of student satisfaction; our present lack of staffing efficiency.

Future perfect trumps our present tense. Our present made tense.

As Giroux argues in Border Crossings, we might seek redress through the politicisation of our relationships inside the University, and by reflecting on the politics of pedagogic power.

Gramsci points to the complex ways [through hegemonic control] in which consent is organised as part of an active pedagogical process on the terrain of everyday life. In Gramsci’s view such a process must work and rework the cultural an ideological terrain of subordinate groups in order to legitimate the interests an authority of the ruling bloc. (p. 163)

What this maps onto is a project for

the construction of an educational practice that expands human capacities in order to enable people to intervene in the formation of their own subjectivities and to be able to exercise power in the interest of transforming the ideological and material conditions of domination into social practices that promote social empowerment and demonstrate possibilities. (p. 166)

What we might therefore do as educators is rethink how our pedagogic practices reveal and reinforce the hegemonic and objective material conditions of capitalist society. We might rethink how those practices enable teachers and students to define new relations of power that are against privilege. Such rethinking demands new relations of power inside the classroom that are against the taking and accumulation of power. Such rethinking demands democratic and participatory alternatives through which the curriculum and the relationships that shape it and the assessments that validate it are negotiated.

This is the dissolution of the University as a means for the domination/hegemony of a particular world view or a specific class. This is the dissolution of the University as a coercive space that is re-forged inside-and-against student-debt and impact and research excellence and analytics and employability and entrepreneurship. This is the dissolution of the University as the civil society of tenured professors versus casualised precariat. This is the dissolution of the consensus that reshapes the civil society of higher education in the interests of capital through the ideology of student-as-consumer. This is the dissolution of a higher education that is for materialism and value.

This is for the production of a University rooted in solidarity and co-operation. This is for the production of a University that is active and critical and popular.

The purpose of popular education is to enable those who are marginalized to become more fully human.  I see it as essential to facilitate not only action, but also critical refection on the consequences of action as an essential element of educational practice.  It contributes not only to learning, but to what Paulo Freire call the act of knowing. (Carlos Cortez Ruiz, p. 6.)

As Gramsci noted in 1916 this turns into “a problem of rights and of power”. This is the meaning of education as culture, and it is the relationship between political and civil society played out in the curriculum. In the prison notebooks (p. 330) Gramsci goes on to state that in whatever context, the problem of rights and power is a deeply conflicted, political process:

The average worker has a practical activity but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his activity in and understanding of the world; indeed, his theoretical consciousness can be “historically” in conflict with his activity. In other words, he will have two theoretical consciousnesses: one that is implicit in his activity and that really unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the world and a superficial, “explicit” one that he has inherited from the past. The practical-theoretical position, in this case, cannot help becoming “political”—that is, a question of “hegemony.”

Inside the University, our confronting this as a political pedagogic process is, as Mike Neary argues, potentially revolutionary. At issue is the possibility that we might frame a curriculum that:

is driven by a lack of faith in the inevitability of progressive transformation, based on a negative rather than a positive critique of the social relations of capitalist society… the future is not the result of naturally upturning economic cycles, nor the structural contradictions of capitalism, but is made by the possibility and necessity of progressive social transformation through practical action, i.e., class struggle… the logic of revolution is not based on the call to some lofty liberal principle, e.g. social justice, or the empowerment of the powerless, but the more practical imperatives driven by the avoidance of disaster beyond human imagination.

Here it is worth highlighting Neary’s focus on Vygotsky’s belief in the revolutionary nature of teaching, where it emerges from inside the student as a social being. As Neary notes, teaching becomes radical where the social context of the curriculum is arranged by the teacher so that the student teaches themselves:

‘Education should be structured so that it is not the student that is educated, but that the student educates himself’ or, in other words, ‘…the real secret of education lies in not teaching’ (Vygotsky, 1926).

This is therefore beyond the impact of the teacher. This is beyond the student’s adaptation to the given teaching environment. This is for the creation of a person able to create and organise her own life as a pedagogic project. As Vygotsky notes in Shorter Logic this depends upon the ability to become concrete; to become for ourselves; to be.

… the man, in himself, is the child. And what the child has to do is to rise out of this abstract and undeveloped ‘in-himself’ and become ‘for himself’ what he is at first only ‘in-himself’ – a free and reasonable being.

And I am left wondering how to reconcile the University as an anxiety machine with the idea that the teacher might be revolutionary where s/he gives herself up to the process of arranging a practical, political pedagogy. This is revolutionary in the sense that bell hooks argued for an education that was more real, rooted in vivid, personal struggle against alienation and estrangement. This is the internalisation of the pedagogic process as a form of emancipation inside the student; and the restructuring of the student’s world based on the radical organisation of the classroom; and the student’s challenging of the prefigured world of the teacher in her everyday life and her every day actions; and the student’s on-going struggle to overcome the prefigured world of our political and civil society. This is the student’s struggle to be heard.

This is the same emancipatory process that Gramsci highlighted through his focus on critical awareness, the role of organic intellectuals who emerged through everyday life, and on the place of ‘common sense’ in maintaining hegemonic positions of power through civil society. However, it is also the same emancipatory process that underscores the therapeutic relationship. In therapy, Martha Crawford reminds us that the client/therapist relationship is potentially revolutionary in its identification and acceptance of limitations and past injuries as they are replicated and represented in present actions and thoughts and hopes, in order that these identifications and fractures might enable the self to be healed. For Crawford the deepest therapies change both client and therapist because they work from inside the client as social being.

We might also argue that the deepest pedagogic encounters change both student and teacher because they work from inside the client as social being. This is a relationship based upon identification and empathy, upon humane values of love, upon what we are willing to share and to bear co-operatively. This is the revolutionary, emancipatory space for teaching that is threatened inside the University as anxiety machine: what are we willing to share and to bear co-operatively? In the face of the iron law of competition and of value; in the face of the projection of the entrepreneurial self onto the curriculum and its relationships; in the face of the hegemony of efficiency and impact and satisfaction and growth; what are we willing to share and to bear co-operatively?

This is revolutionary teaching as a mirror that enables the student/teacher to overcome her being “trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.” This is teaching as therapy inside the anxiety machine. This is teaching and learning as the ability to reflect; as the act of reflection; as the act of looking into one’s soul; this is our looking in the mirror inside the anxiety machine. The power of this is not to be understated. The threat of this is not to be understated because says Crawford:

Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.

Perhaps the revolutionary teacher always asks what we are willing to share and to bear co-operatively?


Henry Giroux writes that:

The transformation of higher education into a an adjunct of corporate control conjures up the image of a sorcerer’s apprentice, of an institution that has become delusional in its infatuation with neoliberal ideology, values and modes of instrumental pedagogy. Universities now claim that they are providing a service and in doing so not only demean any substantive notion of governance, research and teaching, but also abstract education from any sense of civic responsibility. 

And we are caught and made fraught as our labour is stripped bare and alienated from us. As the corporate control of the University restructures our pedagogic agency into student satisfaction and consumption; as the corporate control of the University restructures our public scholarship into impact metrics and knowledge transfer; as the corporate control of the University restructures our solidarity into performance management; as the corporate control of the University attempts to restructure our souls, which have to cope with the dissonance of it all; as the corporate control of the University attempts to restructure our selves as we introject their performance management against our critical identity.

And Josh Freedman writes that this stress, this anxiety, this dissonance, is amplified though excessive University borrowing:

in the long-term, public and private nonprofit schools alike will find it even more difficult to provide a quality education to a wide array of the population. And in a battle between students, faculty, and creditors, the creditors right now have the upper hand – which calls into question the core of the future of American higher education.

And Eric Grollman writes about radical battle fatigue and survival:

Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academiaEveryday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival.  Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus.  By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars.  Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus.  Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival.  And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.

no chance of escape
now self-employed
concerned (but powerless)
an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)
fitter, healthier and more productive
like a pig
in a cage
on antibiotics.

Radiohead. 1997. Fitter Happier.

PhD Studentship: A critical evaluation of continuing professional development strategies for digital literacy in UK compulsory education

Starting October 2014, and available to suitably qualified UK or EU students.

Closing date for applications: Friday March 21st 2014.


In the last 18 months I’ve been working with Josie Fraser and Lucy Atkins on a co-operative project between Leicester City Council and De Montfort University called the Digilit Leicester Project. In September 2013, the project won one of five Reclaim Open Learning innovation awards, an international award supported by the Digital Media and Learning Hub, MIT Media Lab and the MacArthur Foundation.

In order to build on the success of this project and our work in translating the DigiLit Leicester Project’s outputs for the University, we can now offer a bursary (stipend) plus fees Ph.D. studentship to work with me and Chris Goldsmith. I hold a Chair in Education and Technology at DMU, and I have just convened the University’s Centre for Pedagogic Research. Both Chris and I are UK Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellows. Chris has also led EU-funded pedagogic innovation projects, co-authored work on games-based learning with me, and been an integral member of the UK Changing the Learning Landscape programme at DMU.

Working with us will be challenging but it offers exceptional possibilities.

Project overview

The concept of digital literacy is increasingly recognised as a critical terrain for twenty-first century life. However, there are two key areas of concern for practitioners and school-leaders. First, there is a deficit of critical guidance on how to integrate relevant digital practices in classrooms, in order to support a diverse range of learners. Second, can a focus on pedagogically-grounded, self-evaluation of digital literacy underpin teacher professionalism? This project will undertake a critical evaluation of continuing professional development strategies for digital literacy in UK compulsory education, in order to develop a model for the transformation of professional practice across school settings and educational sectors.

How to apply

For details of how to apply see DMU’s Ph.D. Scholarships pages (check out Scholarship BAL FB3).

For a more detailed description of the studentship project please contact Professor Richard Hall on +44 (0)116 207 8254 or email

On students, teachers and the pedagogical alliance

We look for an idea that is beyond student-as-consumer, and we witness a reinforcement of a deterministic, manifest destiny of the student who bears the risk for her higher education. We witness statements that divide student and teacher: “we continue to use technology to reinforce 19th century teaching practice to meet out-dated assessment models.” We witness statements that tie information and employability to metrics and risk, through choice and accountability. We witness statements made about the rule of money in the creation of a market that will lever teaching excellence: “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.” We witness statements made that reduce education to value: “Without high educational attainment, the UK will not maintain its wealth, quality of life and status in the world. A highly educated population is essential to Britain’s success in the global knowledge economy.”

Education defined by price; defined as value; defined for value. Relationships framed by price; defined as value; defined for value. Educational relationships framed by the ability of the student to manage her own risk: in finding £9,000 per annum to pay for access to her education; in managing her transition into higher education; in accessing and corralling sufficient resources to ensure progression across years; in enclosing and commodifying sufficient emotional and cultural and social capital to be employable. To become an entrepreneur in the face of the growth delusion of the UK economy, and the global assault on labour and the sociology of moderation that some would have us believe is opportunity, or skills for jobs as yet not invented, or the natural order.

Capitalist work as the natural order. The only alternative being there is no alternative.

And in this what is lost is the critical relationship between the student and the teacher. What is the complicity of the teacher in the entrepreneurial reinvention of the student? What is the definition of the pedagogy and of the curriculum worth in the face of the entrepreneurial reinvention of the student? What is the purpose of the teacher in the face of the risk- and compliance-based culture of higher education? What is the value of the teacher’s academic labour inside a marketised higher education? Where the social relationship between student and teacher is commodified around outcomes, performance, managerialism and risk, is there an alternative to a culture of performativity?

Where is the space to debate the alternative? We don’t witness this in the current UCU industrial action based on pay. We rarely witness this in the campaigns that claim to defend the British University. We are left, as Andrew McGettigan notes, with financialisation as the key determinant of the student-teacher relation.

Consumerism produces a new ‘teaching’ vector: customer-manager-ombudsman-regulator. It displaces traditional academic relations: it is essentially deprofessionalising. It cannot be emphasised enough that, no matter how many regulatory bodies, quangos and paper-trail hounds clog up the sector, the bottom line is that universities have degree awarding powers because they demonstrate (or are meant to) a ‘self-critical community’ of academics and scholars who safeguard standards.

As the pressures of the rule of money are exerted we wonder, what is to be done? Do we buy the idea that the University, governed by vice-chancellors as chief executives, and students as carriers of units of debt, and credit ratings agencies, and private providers operating with impunity inside its walls, and the realities of insurers of risk and bond markets, is lost? Do we cave to the idea that as a globally-competing business, the relationship between student and teacher is lost to the market, or as Neary and Hagyard argued to we re-radicalise the curriculum, and our relationships inside it?

In order to fundamentally challenge the concept of student as consumer, the links between teaching and research need to be radicalised to include an alternative political economy of the student experience. This radicalisation can be achieved by connecting academics and students to their own radical political history, and by pointing out ways in which this radical political history can be brought back to life by developing progressive relationship between academics and students inside and outside of the curriculum.

And this echoes and amplifies the radical, critical, pedagogical work of bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress, that

to educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin (p. 13).

This is spiritual, because it is about the person, in the form of the teacher and in the form of the student. It is about having soul and spirit and connecting to the soul and the spirit. It is not about connecting through the base abstraction of money. Thus, she continues:

that means that teachers must be actively involved committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students. (p. 15)

This is the testing of reality through the organising principles and values of the curriculum, in a way that Freire acknowledged in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

[T]he more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side. (p. 39)

Transformation is liberation because it is deeply and politically personal and rooted in solidarity. It is not about the entrepreneurial internalisation of the risk of failure, it is framed by spaces inside-and-through which it is possible to challenge one’s perception of one’s place in the world with others. Thus, Freire maintains that this is about education and the politics of place, linked to identity, without which “there can be no real struggle.” In turn this is rooted in questioning and praxis: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (p. 72)

Here the role of the teacher is not as liberator, but as member of a solidarity economy through which pedagogy is not done to the unfortunate student as a form of emulation, but is defined and produced by the student. For Freire, “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption”. (p. 54) Elsewhere Freire noted that “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” (p. 181)

This connects deeply to the idea that the teacher might hold the same liberation role, born out of solidarity, as the therapist who is able to effectively support the emancipation of her client as a human being. As Wampold has argued for psychotherapy, relationships that emerge from trust, care and love rooted in empathy tend to have an impact on recovery/liberation.

Putting aside the debate about whether some treatments are more effective than others, it is clear that if there are differences among treatments, the differences are quite small (Wampold, 2001, 2007, 2010). Thus, we are left with the question: If the differences among treatments are nonexistent or are very small, are there other factors that do have an influence on the effects of psychotherapy? The answer is yes—the therapist who is providing the psychotherapy is critically important. In clinical trials as well as in practice, some therapists consistently achieve better outcomes than others, regardless of the treatment approach used (Wampold, 2006).

Whilst Wampold highlights 14 qualities of effective therapists, the following seem especially pertinent in reflecting on Freire, hooks and Neary and Hagyard’s pedagogic radicalisation of the student/teacher relationship:

Clients [students] of effective therapists [teachers] feel understood, trust the therapist [teacher], and believe the therapist [teacher] can help him or her. The therapist [teacher] creates these conditions in the first moments of the interaction through verbal and importantly non-verbal behavior. In the initial contacts, clients [students] are very sensitive to cues of acceptance, understanding, and expertise. Although these conditions are necessary throughout therapy [the curriculum], they are most critical in the initial interaction to ensure engagement in the therapeutic [pedagogic] process.

Effective therapists [teachers] are able to form a working alliance with a broad range of clients [students]. The working alliance involves the therapeutic [pedagogic] bond, but also importantly agreement about the task of goals of therapy [learning]. The working alliance is described as collaborative, purposeful work on the part of the client [student] and the therapist [teacher]. The effective therapist [teacher] builds on the client’s [student’s] initial trust and belief to form this alliance and the alliance becomes solidly established early in therapy [teaching].

Moreover, this approach is reinforced in some analyses of the interrelationships between the client’s theory of change and therapist variables in psychoanalysis. Here what emerges is the critical “interplay between therapist variables (the person of the therapist) and the client’s theory of change. When these two vital factors meet, something new is created. It is crucial that the therapist becomes aware of, and manages, the effect of therapist variables on the alliance.” Just as the client’s theory of change in therapy co-evolves with the therapist through dialogue, meaningful pedagogic engagements are deeply political in that they involve the co-evolution of the spaces inside-and-against which the student and the teacher negotiate the liberation of the former from the latter’s power over her, alongside the understanding that the student has over the structural domination that de-limits her power to create her world.

Critically, this does not involve a uniform creation of the client/therapist or student/teacher model. That model might be revealed as advocacy or directive or designing or co-operative. They are individually framed and defined, and are grounded in phenomenological difference. As Robinson notes:

Research further suggests the most important aspect of therapy that involves the therapist is the therapeutic alliance. According to Assay and Lambert (1999), the therapeutic alliance accounts for 30 per cent of outcome variance. For Wampold (2001), the alliance accounts for more than half of the 13 per cent attributed to therapeutic factors, rather than client and extra-therapeutic factors. Put another way, the alliance accounts for seven times as much outcome variation as the model or technique being used by the therapist.

Thus, what is clear in the therapeutic situation, is understanding how the specific therapist meets the client’s theory of change, as it is revealed in the therapeutic alliance, precisely because: “each therapeutic encounter is a one-off encounter between a unique client with their unique theory of change, and a unique therapist with their unique response.” Here, for Robinson, two types of questions emerge in the therapeutic alliance: “They will ask ‘what part does my client’s theory expect me to play?’ They will then ask ‘Is this a part I have the skills to play and am capable of playing, and is it a part that ethically I am willing to play?’” In critical pedagogic terms teachers might also ask: “what part does student’s epistemological theory expect me to play in her learning? Is this a part that I have the skills to play and am capable of playing, and is it a part that ethically I am willing to play?

From a willingness to ask these questions emerges a social dialogue around: power and roles in organising a curriculum for liberation; the expertise, skills and knowledge to be shared; the practices to be uncovered, trialled and tested. This feels like the solidarity of connection that is beyond the rule of money. Pace Robinson, we might continue thus: “The client [student] comes to therapy [learn] with their presenting [pedagogical] problem(s), their solutions, their internal and external resources and, arising out of all of this, their own unique theory of change. The many variables that contribute to ‘me’ as a therapist [teacher] then come into play as I endeavour to meet the challenge to connect with this person and their theory.” At issue is then finding a dialogic solution that is constantly negotiated by student and teacher, which accommodates the student’s epistemological and ontological view of the world inside a pedagogical alliance. Such an alliance addresses what the student considers important and relevant, and helps the student frame a pedagogy that can support her action in the world. This needs to take place both inside and outside the classroom, in order to reflect what the student needs from the curriculum.

The question is whether educators have the will to struggle for a pedagogical alliance that is based upon the collective, socially-negotiated overcoming of power-over learning, teaching and the curriculum. Do they have the will to struggle for the humanistic connections between students and teachers, or will the abstracted power of money dominate and de-legitimise? How might a critical pedagogy enable self-actualisation and the genesis of the soul of the student through a pedagogical alliance?

On alienation and the curriculum

ONE. On alienation, time and exchange

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the possibility of human subjectivity, of an autonomy or agency for humans in their work and their leisure, was impossible inside the structuring social relations enforced by capitalism. For the worker:

the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him… Thus all the progress of civilisation, or in other words every increase in the powers of social production… in the productive powers of labour itself – such as results from science, inventions, divisions and combinations of labour, improved means of communication, creation of the world market, machinery etc., enriches not the worker, but rather capital; hence only magnifies again the power dominating over labour.. the objective power standing over labour. (pp. 307-8)

Through the process and outcome of her labour, the worker continually negates herself, but as importantly she internalises the means through which she is objectified, over and over again. The worker’s labour time, energy, skill and practice are continually appropriated, alongside the products of that labour, and through the disciplinary nature of the market her humanity and her relationship to others is objectified. The expropriation of her surplus value is compounded by the fact that this expropriation forms an apparently natural and deterministic process, which persistently re-produces the relations of wage labour. There is no alternative to this natural order.

Alienation through time and exchange, is revealed for Rikowski under the following conditions: that we labour in capitalist society; that the product is not owned by us; that work is imposed or forced upon us; and that competition rules. As a result, we are alienated in four senses: from the commodity; from the act – the conditions – of production; from our fellow workers; and from her/himself – from our species-beings. This reminds us of Fromm’s point that ‘Man has created a world of man made things… He has constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine [i.e. industrial capitalism] he built. Yet this whole creation of his stands over and above him… He is owned by his own creation, and has lost ownership of himself’ (Fromm, 1955: 115).

In this argument, the continual circulation and exchange of commodities in a market or under market conditions realises the fact that each individual producer’s labour-power and product is for others and never for herself. Labour and its products can only ever be alienated, and this applies socially, so that in one circuit of capital production becomes a means to earn a wage or to subsist or be reproduced as a wage labourer. Production is not undertaken by free social individuals, but forms a totalising process of alienation.

From this process, there is no apparent escape, either in the present or the future, as all work is for-value and as all means of production either as labour-power or as commodities are enclosed through futures or debt. In fact time itself becomes central to the mechanics of control. As Marx notes “labour does not exist as a thing but as the capacity of a living being” (Grundrisse, p. 323); it alone creates value through invention, efficiency, productivity, measured by time. The control of present and future time is the control over labour-power, and vice-versa. This makes the sale and use of labour-power, and the sale and use of time, a deeply political act. Marx argued:

On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. Just as in the case of an individual, the multiplicity of its development, its enjoyment and its activity depends on economization of time. Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs… Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time in the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time. (Grundrisse, pp. 172-3)

TWO. For co-operative education and post-capitalism

However, it is important to remember that for Marx, communism or the communist hypothesis would emerge from inside capitalism. It would not be a form of anti-capitalism, it would instead be post-capitalist. As Marx argued in his Critique of the Gotha Programme

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

In his analysis of the Critique, Joss Winn has pointed towards the co-operative and cultural importance of defining a new form of society that might emerge from inside capitalist social relations, and that Marx argued that such a new form would be stamped throughout production, consumption and distribution. Moreover, labour becomes predicated on value that is reclaimed socially for use rather than for exchange. Co-operative or communal definitions of the mechanisms that support the use and distribution of commodities, including those for consumption, become central in creating common ownership and supporting direct rather than marketised production.

It is important to note the imperative to drive the development of post-capitalist forms from inside the existing system, and that education is a central element of that project. For Winn, autonomous co-operative practice, or the formation of co-operatives that could reinforce and reproduce worker-agency, is central to Marx’s work:

Marx is clear that the need for workers themselves to “revolutionize the present conditions of production and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.” The meaning and purpose of co-operatives is, we might say, expedient or pedagogical. They are a step towards communism and away from the capitalist state, but should not be confused with a form of communism itself. They provide the conditions for communism to historically, materially and epistemologically emerge.

“But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme)

This focus on co-operation connects to a critique of alienation and alienating educational or pedagogical practices. Our lived educational realities, which are underscored by the loss of time through debt and indenture, alongside the commodity fetishism attached to the research and pedagogic outputs of higher education, and the attack on labour rights and labour-power through outsourcing, monitoring and precarity, connect the pedagogic institution to alienated labor and the alienated production and consumption of goods. At issue is whether the University offers a space in which alienation can be refused or pushed back against, to take back social ownership of the curriculum and its means of production, and the pedagogic cycles or circuits through which an emancipatory curriculum might be renewed. As Wendling has argued:

The revolution has the power not only to restore the worker’s activity, but with it to restore the essence of the human species as such to produce freely, and to produce itself as a free producer in nonalienating practical life activity. Revolution thus restores objectification and what alienation has taken away as a result of objectification’s loss: spirit (i.e. personality). The effect will be a notion of human activity, or production, unlimited by the alienated constructions that make up the notions “labor” or “work.” Marx’s call to revolution thus extends beyond a critique of distribution to challenge the mode of production (p. 21)

THREE. The formal, performative curriculum

It is against this process of alienation that I reflected on two pedagogic spaces or events in the last week. The first was the initial meeting of 20 lecturers who are studying on the second module of a post-graduate certificate in higher education. The module analyses Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education, and takes a formal, institutionalised form, whereby the learning outcomes, assessment tasks and weekly schedule is given by the programme teaching team. As module leader I attempted to set the first session up discursively, so that we could discuss the content and structure of the curriculum, and analyse how the assessments interconnected and how they might be addressed in the specific context of the module.

However, I also tried to include some negotiated, co-produced elements based around eight, Fight Club-style rules.

The rules

#1 – The first rule of EDUC5003 is that, inside the agreed curriculum framework, everything is most things are negotiable.

#2 – The second rule of EDUC5003 is that we are expected to contribute based on courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness.

#3 – The third rule of EDUC5003 is that I will be on-time for sessions and tutorials, and in giving participants feedback in good time so that it can be acted upon. Or I will explain why this is not the case in good time.

#4 – The fourth rule of EDUC5003 is that participants will be on-time for sessions and tutorials, and will submit assessments on-time so that they can be marked in good time. Or the participant will explain why this is not the case in good time.

#5 – The fifth rule of EDUC5003 is that learning set and self-directed study are critical components. I will expect report on what has been discussed, produced, achieved, or not.

#6 – The sixth rule of EDUC5003 is that participants are expected to produce and to contribute, as well as to consume the module.

#7 – The seventh rule of EDUC5003 is that teaching sessions will go on as long as they have to.

#8 – The eighth rule of EDUC5003 is that whether this is your first time discussing assessment in higher education or not, you have to assess and be assessed.

This was a deliberate hacking of the Third University’s rules of alternative teacher training, and it was designed to create a negotiable, co-operative and humane space. However, the creation of that space was predicated upon its insertion inside a formalised University, whose curricula are rarely defined in terms of co-production, and where those curricula and their assessment are structured and disciplined by external agencies (the Higher Education Academy, public and regulatory bodies, the Quality Assurance Agency) and external imperatives (accreditation, licenses to teach in higher education, validation of outcomes). Moreover the space is further disciplined through the internalisation of boundaries between teacher and student, assessor and assesse, and the cultural norms of an institution which demand that whilst attendance in formal teaching, contact sessions is expected, competing demands (running student labs or inductions or team meetings) take precedence.

In this way, constant and terrifying performativity moderates and nuances the labour of the academic participant, through the dictates of the market (the power of the student as consumer and her power-over the labour of the participant – if you can’t find someone to cover your lab session then what are you going to do?), and the dictates of management (the need to demonstrate capability in a range of administrative, teaching and research spaces and to balance which has most power-over your labour at any one time), and the dictates of monitoring mechanisms (have you written that essay, given feedback to your students in time, completed that research plan?). Collectively these mechanisms ensure that performativity is internalised inside the academic with a focus on individual entrepreneurial activity that focuses upon value rather than human values.

Thus, in terms of the first essay, which is a reconsideration of an assessment strategy on one module or programme, in order to analyse how feedback might be enhanced, the discussion has to focus on the exact meaning and definition of the essay question as it is handed down. How might it be analysed? What are the contextual and disciplinary boundaries for the work? What do the grade boundaries and assessment criteria look like. The meaning of the power-over us, exhibited through the assessment process, is socially-constructed so that we can attempt to liberate some freedom to act and to write. However, at each turn is a question over the validity of our interpretations, and whether sufficient trust exists in the space that we can collectively, as students and teacher, come up with a better approach to the essay, in process and outcome. Or does the validated module handbook become a disciplinary tool that further objectifies our work? Is there a possibility for overcoming the alienation that we feel where:

  • we have to submit a non-negotiable thing in a specific time;
  • the production of this thing impacts and interferes with our practice in other areas;
  • the production of this thing involves our judging the labour of ourselves or others as non-enhanced or non-optimised or non-legitimate against the realities of established pedagogic research and practice;
  • the production of this thing is an individuated rather than co-operative and social activity;
  • the production of this thing dominates the learning and teaching landscape, so that the space and time that teacher and student are together get recalibrated by it;
  • the production of this thing makes and reinforces a boundary between students and between student and teacher?

FOUR. A co-operative, pedagogic space

Yet it does not have to be this way. The second pedagogic space that I attended was the second meeting of this terms Social Science Imagination course at the Social Science Centre in Lincoln. The course is an on-going process of defining the relationships between co-operation and education, through repeated, facilitated negotiation and a willingness to voice and be heard, with a focus on “the importance of education, training and information to help think critically about running a co-operative and organisational forms beyond co-operatives.” Crucially, in terms of a co-operative pedagogy and an alternative social means of producing and consuming that pedagogy, the first session concluded “by starting to think about some of the themes that came out of the discussions with the aim of starting to develop concrete themes that we will examine for the rest of the course.”

I was not present at the first session, but what was clear from the reflections on it that were read out in the second session was the depth of common ownership of the course as a common treasury from which all could draw down. This does not mean that it is not challenging or uncomfortable, but more that elements of the rules of EDUC5003 noted above were present in a much more humane way. So: the negotiable elements of the curriculum (its organisation, form, content, modes of assessment, ways of sharing and so on) were agreed to be negotiable; the sessions will be based on contribution that is based on courage, fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness; that time was to be defined socially and around use, rather than the production of things that could be exchanged; that scholars might take the lead, and that it is hoped that all will be able to produce and to contribute, as well as to consume the course.

The reflections from participants on week 1 made me consider the following elements of any curriculum, and how any curriculum inside or outside an institution might be critiqued and reframed.

  • The soul is at work when we learn and when we teach. We place ourselves on the line as teachers and students and scholars. How might we overcome the alienation of our souls from our selves in the formalised classroom through a connection that was more than an exchange of educational goods? How do we define a pedagogy that is based on love and courage and care?
  • How might we redefine the ways in which we organise the curriculum, so that we re-engage with democracy and autonomy? What might this mean for the “rules” which govern our teaching and our study, or for power-over others and their work in our classrooms?
  • Words are critical tools. In the important words of one scholar at the Social Science Centre, they are “a sign of solidarity.” How do we use our definition of them to open up critical spaces and times in our pedagogy and in our curriculum, so that we can live an education that is co-operative or based on mutuality and contribution? How do we use them to push-back against performativity?
  • How do we define an educational space that is based on “our pedagogy” (as a second scholar put it)? How can we do this in a space that will be defined by “an increasing collectivity”, rather than one which is collective from the outset? Our shared, co-operative enterprise is not born whole, rather it emerges, pace Marx “economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Might we, as educators, be able to create a safe space against which the internalised logic of entrepreneurial activity that is calibrated by exchange-value can be resisted, whilst a new co-operative form is defined? In addressing this question I am mindful of the point made by a third scholar who said: “What is our practice? Why am I asking these questions?” Our own position as student or teacher or scholar is critical in developing a response to the established educational position, which is in-turn framed by the market, management and a need to monitor.

FIVE. A curriculum against alienation

As a result of the conversation in the second class, I realised that a class based on co-operative practices and values might be able to build a shared conception of its own pedagogy through:

  • shared readings that ground and focus a discussion, and connect it to other content, ideas, skills, practices;
  • shared roles in/against the classroom (teacher, student, scholar, blogger, note-taker, tea-maker);
  • the communal, negotiated production of a curriculum jargon-buster;
  • the communal production of a common bibliography, as a commons that might circulate a new form of collectivity (perhaps akin to some of the elements of ds106);
  • an increasing inclusivity and democracy and autonomy of practice, so that scholars can give voice and be heard;
  • the idea of production and consumption of ideas generated through co-operative education as a solidarity economy, where all could contribute their expertise or energy or voice or encouragement;
  • the curriculum as a form of struggle to know or to become, so that the form and content is not prefigured, but is rather re-negotiated (so that one scholar asked why the rest of the course had to be 8 weeks. Why not 10?).

The definition of a co-operative education as a solidarity economy that is based on use-value and sharing, and that is against entrepreneurial and performative activity based on exchange-value is a critical process in confronting alienation. It is an overcoming of the fear of freedom that is inscribed and reinscribed through the objectified relations of the established curriculum. The at times painful, co-operative negotiation of the curriculum, its content, its (non-)assessment, and its organisation and forms, can be intensely uncomfortable, but it is also a process of legitimising our own claims to what we want to learn and who we want to be. It is a process of reclaiming our labour: for the social uses it has; for the mutuality of its products; for its reconnection of our soul to that of our fellows; and for its recognition and re-making of our alienated selves.

This is a lifelong pedagogical process of finding spaces to reclaim time and space against capital’s demand to be the automatic subject, and against its demand to dominate over our existences so that they are objectified. Whether this is possible inside the dominant forms and structures of higher education (the University) is questionable. Perhaps it is as a space both to reflect on the demands of performativity that affects academic labour inside the formal university, and to liberate the practices of knowing, that the Social Science Centre becomes important. Inside it, the description and liberation of a co-operative curriculum and the common ownership of the production, consumption and distribution of knowledge becomes possible in a way that might enable common ownership and organisation. Moreover, it offers a model against which alienation might usefully be resisted.

Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference next September, at the University of Brighton. My abstract is below.

Abstract: Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time so that all of life becomes productive, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation. This project aims at marketising all of social life, so that life becomes predicated upon the extraction of value. In part the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. This occurs inside both formal and informal educational institutions and spaces, like universities and MOOCs, as one mechanism to offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and to re-establish accumulation. This pedagogic project also tends to recalibrate and enclose the roles of staff and students as entrepreneurial subjects, whose labour is enabled through technology. This is achieved through learning analytics, big data, mobility and flexibility of provision, and so on. This paper will analyse the relationships between technology, pedagogy and the critical subject in the neoliberal University, in order to argue for the use of technology inside a co-operative pedagogy of struggle. This demands that we ask what education is, before we ask what it is for, or the place of technology-enhanced learning in the university. The article considers whether it is possible to uncover stories of how and where education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, and what technology-enhanced co-operative education might look like?

On money, labour and academic co-operation

As David Kernohan has argued over at Followers of the Apocalypse, the Coalition is busy re-writing history in the name of its cultural revolution. This is usefully applied to David Willetts’ recent pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, Robbins Revisited. The pamphlet made me think of three things.

ONE. This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? Whether this will happen in think-tanks whose policy advisory boards represent the structural hegemonic power of the media, politicians and academia is questionable. Are we able to create activist literacies through co-operation that connect academics and disaffection in society?

TWO. Willetts’ pamphlet pivots around money, productivity and data-informed choice. Notably, he writes the following.

The expansion in higher education has had little impact on the considerable positive graduate earnings premium, which today stands at comfortably over £100,000 (p. 18)

a one per cent increase in the share of the workforce with a university degree raises long-run productivity by between 0.2 per cent and 0.5 per cent, which implies that at least one-third of the increase in UK labour productivity between 1994 and 2005 was due to the growing number of people with a university degree (p. 19)

One reason for this exceptional performance [in research] is that over the past twenty years the academic community and governments have created very strong competitive funding… However there was no matching incentive to focus on teaching. Universities had a fixed allocation of student places which most could fill almost regardless of the offer they made to students. The student experience suffered… The introduction of higher fees covered by income-contingent loans has stopped this decline (p. 36)

Students aren’t merely buying a degree, as they might a holiday. They are engaging in something inherently worthwhile and also investing in their future. The paradox is that unleashing the forces of consumerism with more information for prospective students and funding following their choices is the best way of bringing back traditional academic focus on high-quality teaching (p. 36)

The clear breakdown of work commitments for each course now provided to all students and parents – including the percentage of time spent on independent study – gives them a realistic idea of what to expect, as well as an important basis for judging institutions (p. 37)

Institutions can lay on extra lectures – but this is unlikely to result in more satisfied students with a better grasp of their subject. This brings us back to Robbins, and his analysis not just of teaching time, but of the time spent in discussion periods (p. 40)

This is a very useful pointer for us as we review how we might extend the Key Information Set data in the future. Asking institutions to provide a breakdown of the average number of discussion classes for each course – broken down as Robbins suggests into tutorials, small seminars and large seminars – would allow students and parents to judge courses by the sort of teaching they value (p. 44)

One option would be for the Key Information Set data to mirror what was available to Robbins fifty years ago, with a requirement for institutions to specify how many essays or how much work students can expect to have marked on each course – and whether feedback will be written or discussed (p. 46)

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 (p. 47)

It is not for ministers to dictate what subjects universities offer – nor the subjects that students choose to study. Yet given that going to university can change your life, it is quite right that students and parents should think hard about which institution and course is right for them. That is why we are requiring universities to provide more information than ever. Students now have easy access to comparable information on everything from employment outcomes for particular courses to how satisfied students are with course assessment or feedback (p. 55)

Yet a report from 8th October by technology consultancy Gartner made some startling predictions for IT Organizations and Users for 2014 and Beyond, which materially affect Willetts’ assumptions and assertions. These include:

  • The organising principles that underpin how academic/student data is regulated and used;
  • The labour relations that underpin employment in the increasingly digitised and stratified economies of the global North;
  • Predictions about the economic utility of higher education as a positional good that is based solely on income.

In particular Gartner focused upon the impact on labour and labour-relations of technological changes linked to the digital economy, smart machines and consumerisation. It noted the need to engage with “disruptive shifts [] coming at an accelerated pace and at a global level of impact.” This impact is predicted to be deeply political and based on economic disenfranchisement. The report goes on as follows.

Gartner’s digital business predictions focus on the effect digital business will have on labor reductions, on consumer goods revenue, and on use of personal data [emphasis added]… Engineers, scientists, IT professionals and marketers at consumer goods companies are engaging crowds much more aggressively and with increasing frequency using digital channels to reach a larger and more anonymous pool of intellect and opinion. Gartner sees a massive shift toward applications of crowdsourcing, enabled by technology, such as: advertising, online communities, scientific problem solving, internal new product ideas, and consumer-created products.

By 2020, the labor reduction effect of digitization will cause social unrest and a quest for new economic models in several mature economies. Near Term Flag: A larger scale version of an “Occupy Wall Street”-type movement will begin by the end of 2014, indicating that social unrest will start to foster political debate.

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 [emphasis added]. Long term, this makes it impossible for increasingly large groups to participate in the traditional economic system — even at lower prices — leading them to look for alternatives such as a bartering-based (sub)society, urging a return to protectionism or resurrecting initiatives like Occupy Wall Street, but on a much larger scale. 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.

The escalation of consumer awareness of data collection practices has set the stage for offering consumers more control over the disposition of personal data — collected both online and offline. As increasing demand and scarcity drives up the value of such data, incentives grow to entice consumers to share it voluntarily.

Smart Machines The emergence of smart machines adds opportunity and fear as “cognizant and cognitive systems” and can enhance processes and decision making, but could also remove the need for humans in the process and decision effort. CIOs will see this as a means of delivering greater efficiency, but will have to balance between the active human workforce and the cold efficiency of machines that can learn [emphasis added].

Gartner forecasts that smart machines will upend a majority of knowledge workers’ career paths by 2020 [emphasis added]. Smart machines exploit machine learning and deep-learning algorithms. They behave autonomously, adapting to their environment.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis onThe State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

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

This is increasingly critical in the world described by Gartner, where large proportions of society are subsumed under a system in which they cannot participate, and against which they demand to push-back. It also makes it critical that the academic world described by Willetts, which is reduced to money and data, is refused. Clearly this refusal needs to reflect the fact that Willetts’ argument for debt-driven study and choice risks the creation of indentured lives. Debt-driven study is in-part based on the demand for entrepreneurial education that delivers economic impact inside a society organised around the market. But what is the value of that inside economies in the global North that are de-developing, or in the face of risks to the US economy of attacks on the dollar as the global reserve currency (especially from China and Russia), or where capital intensity and reduced productivity/wages become the norm, or where jobs are leveraged or outsourced, or where commodity skills are in short supply?

One response might be to open-up a discussion about the link between the production of a higher education that is against-and-beyond indenture, and that is described by alternative, co-operative organising principles. In this way, Willetts (p. 47) might do well to understand the ramifications of the University of Lincoln’s curriculum that driven by the idea of student-as-producer, not just through banal connections between teaching-and-research for new inventions or productivity or entrepreneurialism, but in its democratic intentions and organising principles.

THREE. We need to discuss Ecuador and the environment, not just because of the IPCC’s recent report on climate change or the Royal Society’s People and Planet Report, but because addressing global problems demands more than the poverty of the market. Willetts cannot see beyond this space:

Many developing countries have extraordinary ambitions to expand the number of people entering higher education, and at a great pace. British institutions are well-placed to help, and it is fortuitous that we now have MOOCs to help achieve these ambitions. The jury is still out on whether there will be one or two dominant platforms or whether there will be several diverse names (p. 68).

In The Republic of Ecuador’s National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State, the Government argues for five interconnected revolutions: democratic; ethical; economic; social; and Latin American dignity; in order to build a fraternal and co-operative coexistence. In part, this is based on “The transformation of higher education and the transfer of knowledge in science, technology and innovation.” The plan explicitly critiques neoliberal market-driven solutions to problems, and attempts to tie education to co-operative, democratic renewal that will in turn overcome inequalities. The aim is:

The combination of ancestral forms of knowledge with state-of-the-art technology can reverse the current development model and contribute to the transition towards a model of accumulation based on bio-knowledge.

This aim of linking environmental to historical and cultural knowledge through a democratic agenda based on equality not the liberal sop of equality of opportunity, is further realised in Ecuador’s recent announcement that Michael Bauwens of the Peer-to -Peer Foundation will join “a major strategic research project to “fundamentally re-imagine Ecuador” based on the principles of open networks, peer production and commoning… The project seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge.”

What remains for academics in the global North is to resist and push-back against the tyranny of the rule of money and the marketisation of everyday life, in order to explore whether another, co-operative way is possible. This means an activist stance in-and-beyond capitalist work that strives for the common. Refusing the Coalition’s agenda for higher education, through alternative projects like the Social Science Centre or critiques/negation/occupation of the REF or of open pedagogy or whatever, is a start. However, the realisation that technology consultants like Gartner are focused on the political and economic marginalisation of large swaths of the global population, and concomitant social unrest, ought to sharpen our thinking about the lived, transnational realities of capitalism and the need to describe and reveal alternatives. We have access to alternatives based on different organising principles, and these historically and geographically distinct examples need to be rehabilitated and discussed. The question is whether collectively we have the courage.