[iDC] #DL14

t byfield tbyfield at panix.com
Mon Sep 22 03:06:35 UTC 2014

On 19 Sep 2014, at 16:31, Trebor Scholz wrote:

> Forward!

I always enjoy the ritual offerings of IDC introductions, which are 
almost Norman Rockwell–like in their sincerity. Reading them -- on a 
listserv, no less, one of the great urforms of the net -- is so 

Trebor, your intro email was excellent. One passage especially intrigued 

> This isn't merely an academic event because this discourse has not 
> only been shaped in universities. Philosophers, artists, sociologists, 
> designers, toolmakers, activists, MTurk workers, journalists, legal 
> scholars, and labor historians ... all co-shaped the ongoing debate 
> about digital work.

I'm interested in the word "merely." On first blush, it sounds humble 
almost to the point of self-deprecation, but that's mainly rhetorical. 
The logic of the email as a whole affirms very traditional ideas about 
the academy -- as an autonomous context from which to examine the world 
(e.g., to ask questions in a nearly monarchic first-person plural), to 
assess and even to judge things (like "crooked language"), to advocate 
and "give voice," and so on.

Those things describe some of what happens in higher ed, but they also 
leave a lot of things out. In particular, they gloss over the 
catastrophic changes -- material, economic, political -- that are 
redefining what that 'autonomy' might or might not mean. The most 
obvious is the financialization of higher ed, which I think should be 
seen as a kind of death by a thousand cuts.

Let me review some of the most serious wounds. Some are obvious, some 
less so.

(1) Higher ed in the US is based on indentured servitude in the form of 
nondischargeable debt. Maybe I'm showing my age, but I see this as 
fairly new, the result of various legislative changes made between the 
mid-'80s and mid-'90s -- in other words, *reversible*. Either way, the 
consequences of that debt will play an overwhelming role in defining 
what 'labor' means to alumnae/i (a category that should include people 
who dropped out). For many students, alma mater -- your boss -- is a 
debt collector.

(2) Faculties are almost uniformly silent on this subject. Most people 
on this list would struggle to name five people with "professor" in 
their title who've publicly challenged this debt-driven model. Given the 
staggering volume of this debt, the word "complicit" is looking pretty 
good. Sure, we all know why: faculty are threatened by various kinds of 
informalization (full-time > part-time, tenure-track > contract, etc). 
Like I said, these immense changes are redefining academic autonomy.

(3) Universities and colleges are coming under growing pressure to 
diversify their revenue sources. Obvious examples include external 
sponsors ('partnerships' is the normal euphemism), the pursuit of 
intellectual property (most of which is aspirational, to put it mildly), 
'global' campus franchises, and so on. Less obvious (or at least less 
openly acknowledged) revenue sources include nonresident students -- 
notably 'international' students -- who can and will pay more. In many 
ways these are *positive* developments that are forcing curricula and 
pedagogies to grapple with a quickly changing world; but those 
educational aspects are often used to cloak the financial logic that 
drives these changes.

(4) The amount of money coursing through higher ed is so vast, and the 
quality of management so poor (drawn mainly from the ranks of failed 
researchers and teachers), that the sector has become an attractive 
target for neoliberal 'rationalizing' strategies. An important but 
little-recognized stalking horse for this is the outsourcing basic 
institutional functions under the rubric of 'IT'. With every year that 
passes, universities are becoming ever-less inefficient bundlers of 
third-party IT services: email and document-sharing; 'learning 
management' and 'course management'; recruitment, advising, and 
retention analytics; course and faculty ratings; publication 'tracking'; 
and so on. Every one of these 'services' represents a missed opportunity 
for disciplinary experts to assert their authority *in practice* within 
their institutions.

(5) And then there's 'academic publishing,' which for the most partly 
has become a disastrous mix of exploitation and irrelevance. And that's 
just the (again) *aspirational* output in the form of disciplinary 
publications. What's less visible to professionals who've grown used to 
jockeying with each other for status but *very* visible to most students 
who don't aspire to become academics is the 'textbook' racket -- or, 
more generally, the commercialization of curricular support materials. 
Academics working in ~humanist fields aren't very aware of this, but in 
practical and professional fields the systematic translation of 
curricula into scaleable modules suited to standardized 'delivery' and 
'assessment' is the norm.

I could go on, but my point is simple: academics can't talk about labor 
without candidly addressing the issues that define the conditions under 
which they think and speak. DL14 could be an excellent opportunity to do 


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