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"In shadowy, silent distance grew the iceberg too": an Australian blog about changes in higher education

Ratfarming: let’s not

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But in our minds the answer to the question “Should I blog?” is now a clear and resounding “Yes”, at least, if conventional indicators of academic success are your aim. Blogging is now part of a complex online ‘attention economy’ where social media like Twitter and Facebook are not merely dumb ‘echo chambers’ but a massive global conversation which can help your work travel much further than you might initially think.

Inger Mewburn and Pat Thompson, “Academic blogging is part of a complex attention economy leading to unprecedented readership” (LSE blogs, this week)

Now that I’m on sick leave, the question of what counts as work has slanted a bit. Academics are chronically prone to working while sick. Often this is accompanied with a little self-justifying jig in which we explain that we love to do our research/teaching etc so much that it doesn’t count as work. But it’s just as often the way deadlines don’t wait, and what we do is essentially contract project work that’s hard to pass on to others. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, we all feel the pressure of the snowcave of email in which we’re slowly being buried. And so we chip away at it anyway, because it’s easier to maintain an airway of sorts by tunnelling constantly, than to have to dig yourself out from six feet of snow at the end of it.

This is fantastically good news for universities, who couldn’t stay open without the human chain of volunteer labour that extends from graduate students and other adjuncts working well beyond their paid casual hours, to salaried workers taking their email, grading, peer reviewing and online teaching into doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals and bed.

But the funny thing about cancer is that it seems so extreme, that everyone is advising me to make sure that I’m not working. So I’ve had to think again about what counts as work, and figure out what it is that I want to protect during this confronting, confusing time.

It turns out that I don’t think of either blogging or Twitter as part of my paid employment. Quite the opposite: I started writing online secretively in 2011 because I was looking for somewhere to think for myself. I didn’t want a platform; I didn’t want to promote my research or improve my profile. I didn’t even want people to know who I was, in case this troubled my employer. I wanted to make a bower for collecting things of value to me: thoughts, information, other people’s words that would amount to a better grasp of why higher education felt like a difficult place to be.

A whole lot has changed since then. Academics are now being advised and trained to blog; and as Inger and Pat suggest in their thoughtful discussion of the impact of blogging profile on journal article downloads, it may be that they will eventually be considered delinquent if they don’t.

As it happens, I don’t dispute the utility of blogging in the “attention economy”.  It does work, if that’s what you’re after. And I really can see why people get into Twitter for its amplifying capacity. We’re all unsettled by the way that academic publishing encloses writing that was already paid for by a public that then would have to pay a second time actually to read it. As citations are becoming both the carrot and the stick for survival then it makes sense that research managers are becoming more interested in the way that academics could deploy social media work to make themselves more upworthy.

But I have some serious reservations about hitching public online conversations to the pseudo-productivity of formal academic publication. It’s not about the impact of social media on the academy, but the reverse. Academic publishing is collapsing as a meaningful forum for the circulation of ideas precisely because its true function is now to maintain the scarcity of repute, in an economy that trades individual reputation for institution reputation, all of which washes back to the journals themselves. Journals pride themselves on equating difficulty with quality: how hard it is for anything to be published, and how long it takes. They do this because they need to maintain their own business models and market value; these are very hard times for them too. So for prestige to attach to publication, a huge volume of written work that has already gone through many drafts and redrafts has to be rejected.

The squandering of human time that closed, peer-reviewed academic publishing represents is truly astonishing. It’s a similar in scale, nature and damage to the other competitive systems on which higher education stakes its claim to excellence: hiring, tenure, grant-getting, ranking schemes. For all of these to be meaningful in the current scheme, they require massive failure rates. This required failure ratio then expresses itself as a kind of personal shame that works as an inducement to further overwork, which is exactly how the human cost is becoming so significant.

And the idea of publication as a means of making funded research genuinely useful has been substituted by the work of counting and factoring up research outputs. The classic story told about perverse incentives is ratfarming under colonial rule in Hanoi: in an economy where peasants are paid per rat kill, the sensible response is to farm rats to kill and turn in for reward. In other words, the rational decision that the system triggers is the exact opposite of the system’s goal. The hyphenation of citation to rankings means that higher education is very close to perfecting in its workers its own ratfarming calculation, and we all know it.

Sure, social media has versions of all this, but it’s still possible to make a space within its generous and substantially ungovernable folds for practices of thinking, sharing and listening that are self-managed, and that work just because they work for you. You can chase followers, or not mind at all.  You can spend all day listening to three people and no more.  You can maintain a valuable and engaging life on Twitter in the same way that you’re stimulated by listening to the radio in the car or having coffee with three friends: you don’t need the whole world in your ear at one time. And above all, you can do this without having to file an end-of-year report.

These not-work practices now need protecting against the seductive but ultimately quite sleazy pull of the attention economy. Surreptitiously joined up networks of people thinking quietly, on their own time, now offer higher education a whole range of models for learning and discovering that will still be here after the MOOC circus moves on.

That is, unless blogging becomes professionally compulsory, in which case we’ll all be in the ratfarm.

Thanks to Bon Stewart for the conversation today that got me thinking to write this down.

Also, health update: I’m off to hospital tomorrow for further surgery. Getting a big diagnosis as a higher education worker, and writing about it here, has taught me that there’s far, far more in this gift economy than the attention economy will ever offer.  Thank you.

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Author: Kate

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

10 thoughts on “Ratfarming: let’s not

  1. Ratfarming…you do have a knack for titles and bons mots. Somehow I knew it had to be about blogging maybe because I’d gotten sucked into a variant (but recently escaped). It makes you really not want to blog. Then, the best you can manage is to sneak away from the rat farm to read and comment on someone else’s blog. That can keep you going until you can make a run for it.

    Now to go find that thread…

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  2. I am relatively new to blogging and have beeb a bit shocked by the number of likes, comments, visits etc that are geared to self-promotion and selling something. It puts me off. Especially when associated with things I value. Once that would have included higher education. I am now finding that much harder to care about. On the other hand I have also encountered some lovely genuine people and a whole world of people who are interested in the same kind of things as me. That’s life I guess.

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  3. have been thinking a lot about you and the conversation we had last night…and especially about the not-work practices that you talk about here, about the generosity and companionship i know to be real yet keep reading in major magazines and news articles is Simply Not Possible on social media. i think they’re looking in the wrong places, or with the wrong eyes.

    funny, though, that you bring up the gift economy. i actually started this whole research project two years ago arguing pretty strenuously against Twitter being truly (or completely, at least) a gift economy – i went on at length about how the “brand” piece and the attention economy can’t be entirely left out of the picture. even if they’re not part of an individual’s practices, they’re part of the context that shapes how those practices are understood. but i’m still thinking Mauss’ concept of prestation or obligation – to keep the relationship alive – may drive some of the non-work we do here. in other words, i think gift economy practices are entirely possible – and i benefit from them and try to reciprocate where i can – but i also think of them, in academic social media as in anthropology, as markers of privilege. in some cases that’s privilege of time, though that’s scarce across the board as you’ve noted; in some cases it’s security of a sort, in the sense that the employed (or esp tenured, here in North America) may not need to participate in this alternative attention economy so overtly b/c they’ve already succeeded in the formal academic attention economy. for those of us who are adjuncts and grad students and otherwise in the high-debt/low-income academic precariat, this alternative attention economy may not be so easy to dismiss, even if we take it with a grain of salt or compensate with gift-like practices to ensure we don’t totally lose cultural capital. others may simply not perceive the gift economy – it’s the part of social media i think is most experiential, the part Sherry Turkle never quite got her mind around.

    we shall see. i look forward to your thoughts/feedback on this. later. after the healing’s good and underway. xox.

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    • Hi

      Your thought about whether there’s a divide between what adjuncts and workers-with-benefits need from the attention economy has been tugging at me through the holiday and healing period — I’m just not sure. That is, I don’t think there’s an absolute divide between those who need it and those who don’t, so much as a continuum of need-for-what. Tenure is often positioned as a state of having “already succeeded”, as you put it. But I feel that this is changing far more quickly than we realise.

      Certainly in the Australian higher education system it’s possible to lose a permanent academic position by “underperforming”. This is a very challenging situation for academics to judge because of the rapidity with which performance measures change. In other words, the formal attention economy of academic publishing trades in a currency that can deflate, and a cynical view would be that it’s being manipulated just like any other currency in order to maximise incentive to manufacture.

      So the alternate economy of social attention proposes itself as another currency, and in a climate of uncertainty it feels as though it’s irresponsible not to shift some investment into it.

      This makes it very, very difficult to preserve the cultural practices of sharing and collaborative or cooperative care that it represents. So I guess part of me wants to speak against any of us, and we are all indentured one way and another, falling for the idea that we can preserve the culture of the gift (which is time) against the culture of capital (which is repute).

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  7. The attention economy is interesting, because you could rephrase that, perhaps, maybe even transform via synonym to the fame economy. Attention is limited, as time is. Tabbing and favourites makes us think things are being read, but in reality it is straight to dusty archive.

    I think it is more likely that attention leads to fame for a handful of academics – like any celebrity model. However X blogging who works for Y helps Y (as the Uni) in a way that Y provides credentialising for X and that helps Y, until almost like Chomsky, Cox, Schama, Sharkey et al (can’t name as Aussie one?) who transcend their Y.

    It is a bit like indie bands

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    • Hi Pat, sorry for the late reply — finally graduated from the tiny screen of my phone to my laptop where I can write whole sentences using both hands.

      I think Bon’s project might also, obliquely, think about this key problematic: academic celebrity. Twitter and blogging offer a complementary narrative of “impact” and I think this is why it has such appeal to academics, because we are trained to value ourselves in this way. The precedent behaviour was television: academics who made TV shows, or got invited on TV shows, who then snarked not-quite-lightheartedly about each other’s susceptibility to the culture of fame, which of course was a huge mask for the ways in which we all give more and more of our time for free.

      I’ve often wondered if this is what MOOCs were so effectively able to harness: the appeal of “audience”.

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