The precariat of academia [2]

Computer says so. [2]

A colleague once described my work as “interweaving warm-blooded humans and the screens“, and I was delighted with that description. At that confluence of the social and the technical, I am becoming more and more mindful of the unequal power dynamics between disciplines in the face of new methodological developments such as computational social sciences, biosocial research, and digital humanities. This post is intended to be a little space here for my own continuous reflection.

Digital Humanities as Thunderdome (Meeks, 2011)

Recently at a workshop on digital tools for the humanities, a Stanford graduate student rather poignantly noted that oftentimes collaboration with computer scientists felt more like colonization by computer scientists. This statement, even if not true, is far too sharp to ignore. Frankly, I think it is true. Not long after that workshop, I attended a THATCamp, where I spent my time teaching folks how to use Gephi, and I tried to spend some time telling them that the network they create is the result of an interpretive act. I don’t think they cared, I think they just wanted to know how to make node sizes change dynamically in tandem with partition filters. This is an issue that has concerned me for some time: the way wholesale importation of digital tools, techniques and objects into humanities scholarship tends to foster a situation where rich, sophisticated problems are contracted to fit conveniently into software.

Big data, little questions (Uprichard, 2013)

If we are creating a mess by generating so many haystacks of big data that we are losing all the needles, then we need to figure out a different kind of way of doing things, as we cannot sew new cloth without any needles. Whatever else we make of the ‘big data’ hype, it cannot and must not be the path we take to answer all our big global problems. On the contrary, it is great for small questions, but may not so good for big social questions. Social scientists need to find a way not to be complicit in the new wave of struggle over the politics of method that is intrinsic to what big data brings.

The mild identity crisis of computational social science (Holme, 2018)

But as Hanna Wallach writes in this great article in Communications of the ACM, the methodology is often instead: “Why not use these large-scale, social datasets in combination with the powerful predictive models developed by computer scientists”… and see what we get? (I guess you can replace “powerful predictive models” by any (for social scientists) non-standard method.) So “computational social science” has come to mean something slightly different from what it sounds like.

Why computing belongs within the social sciences (Connolly, 2020)

Within computing we have generally only focused on the wondrous and have ignored the terrifying or delegated its reporting to other disciplines. Now, with algorithmic governance replacing legal codes, with Web platform enabled surveillance capitalism transforming economics, with machine learning automating more of the labor market, and with unexplainable, non-transparent algorithms challenging the very possibility of human agency, computing has never been more deinon. The consequences of these changes will not be fully faced by us but will be by our children and our students in the decades to come. We must be willing to face the realities of the future and embrace our responsibility as computing professionals and academics to change and renew our computing curricula (and the worldview it propagates). This is the task we have been given by history and for which the future will judge us.

The values encoded in machine learning research (Birhane et al., 2021)

We reject the vague conceptualization of the discipline of ML as value-neutral. Instead, we investigate the ways that the discipline of ML is inherently value-laden. Our analysis of highly influential papers in the discipline finds that they not only favor the needs of research communities and large firms over broader social needs, but also that they take this favoritism for granted. The favoritism manifests in the choice of projects, the lack of consideration of potential negative impacts, and the prioritization and operationalization of values such as performance, generalization, efficiency, and novelty. These values are operationalized in ways that disfavor societal needs, usually without discussion or acknowledgment. Moreover, we uncover an overwhelming and increasing presence of big tech and elite universities in highly cited papers, which is consistent with a system of power-centralizing value-commitments. The upshot is that the discipline of ML is not value-neutral. We find that it is socially and politically loaded, frequently neglecting societal needs and harms, while prioritizing and promoting the concentration of power in the hands of already powerful actors.

A love letter to fellow ‘anti-KonMari’ researchers

On top of the strong hoarding instinct that I apparently was born with, I am a firm believer that inspiration comes from everywhere. This means that research in my dictionary is synonymous with trying not to drown in files and notes. Here is a playlist I am compiling for my kind of people.

What matters isn’t your writing software, it’s your file structures (sorry!) (Katherine Firth, Research Degree Insiders, 16 July 2020)

The morality of writing ‘well’ (Katherine Firth, Research Degree Insiders, 8 July 2021)

File not found: A generation that grew up with Google is forcing professors to rethink their lesson plans (Monica Chin, The Verge, 22 September 2021)

Why computing belongs within the social sciences (Randy Connolly, Communications of the ACM 63(8): 54-59)

Report examines emerging field of computational social science (Ed Grover, NCRM, 27 October 2021)

The four dimensions of feedback [3]

A very helpful thread. Resonates with why I like using the metaphor of a “perpetual stew” in thesis writing workshops. 🍲

Grey matters (pun intended) [2]

Ethics of studying illegal behaviour 

Ethics of researching on leaked data

Staying afloat [2]

9 remote interviewing tips for journalists (Damian Radcliffe, 17 August 2020)

How to transcribe interviews like a pro (Nicholas Yarmey, 18 August 2020)

RT @noor_halabi Hello! I have done so much research and arrived at two different software. One is Microsoft streams (available through your institution’s Office 365). You can upload the video and wait for about 2 hours while it generates CC. You can then copy-paste the text, or download. Otter.ai also works, and so does Dragon I hear. (17 August 2020)

What is Qualitative Data Analysis Software? (Daniel Turner, 20 August 2020)

Beginner’s guide to coding qualitative data (Daniel Turner, 19 November 2019)

What is actually Grounded Theory? (Daniel Turner, 8 July 2016)

Writing up qualitative research (Daniel Turner, 25 August 2020)

The precariat of academia

Saw the following thread keep coming up in my timeline yesterday, and found it resonating, so this post is to archive it for my own re-read. Why don’t people blog any more, instead of leaving these beautiful remarks in the ephemeral streams of microposts, but that is my problem.

RT @DrSudaPerera My contract finally arrived. It took a threat to quit unless it happened, and 10 years of being undervalued and underpaid at 5 different institutions. This moment is not one of joy. It’s one of relief and finally having the security to actually rage against precarity. THREAD (5 June 2020)

Long-term precarity is exhausting & humiliating. It’s a constant conveyor belt of toxic productivity. It’s not being able to put roots in one place. It’s never being able [to] plan for the long-term because of fluctuating salaries and never having savings.

It’s never getting a promotion or pay rise and spending your salary on house moves and train fare. It’s constantly having to adapt to new systems, rules and procedures. Of living that “hellish first year” writing new courses again and again.

It’s not saying “no”, or calling out exploitation, in case you burn bridges or get ‘a name’. Being unable to say “I don’t know how to do that” and having to learn. It’s always showing goodwill in the hope that you’ll be in good stead when a permanent job comes up.

It’s the kick in the teeth when the job you’re basically already doing gets advertised as a permanent role and you’re not even shortlisted. It’s having to take that kick with good grace because you still need a job and there might be a next time (but ‘next time’ never comes).

Trying to get out of precarity means spending your free time applying for things. It’s the Kafkaesque feeling of being excluded from funding calls because your contract doesn’t last long enough, then having that held against you when you apply for permanent roles.

In precarity you document all the work you do as lines in your CV and displays of competence for your next job application, to keep being paid, so you can make your next rent. Your permanent colleagues put their work on their promotion applications for higher pay.

Precarity is having to hide your precarity from students and networks because it might undermine your expertise. It’s realising that your knowledge is judged on your position rather than what you know and you’ve got fake it till you make it (knowing you might never ‘make it’).

I got out of precarity because my colleagues @SussexDev fought for me. Because my Head of School had the savvy to use the Uni trying to cut staff that weren’t “business critical” to frame me as such. I’m good value for money. The Uni accept my worth as a number not as a human.

I’m still cheap labour, but at least now I can make a fuss. For all those precarious staff still dealing with this shit, I will fight for you. I can’t promise I have the power for change, but now I at least have the power to try. And I’ll keep banging on about your disadvantage.

I’ll speak up for the hardships you face. I’ll explain that we don’t have diverse faculty because we don’t value diversity of experience. I’ll speak up about how valuable you are because you’ve taught widely, sat on committees, run social media accounts and written blogs.

I’ll promote the emotional labour of caring for students, of the pressure to be collegiate and never say ‘no’. I’ll argue that your experience shows versatility and adaptability not a lack of expertise. That your string of shitty contracts shows resilience not mediocrity.

I’ll call out when permanent staff don’t value that and get seduced by research superstars who never contribute anything that doesn’t advance their careers. I only got to this point because some really great permanent staff did it for me, and my HoS & HoD used their power for me.

So today, as I sit with my new permanent contract, I’m not going to celebrate my ‘success’. I’m going to reflect on how much it took out of me to get here. I’m going to remain angry I had to go through it. I’m going to acknowledge my new privilege, and use it as best as I can. ❤

Since we are on the topic of a “constant conveyor belt of toxic productivity”, in academia, here are a few more that have weighed on me.

  • @ryancordell on the vicious circle of academic overwork (13 July 2018)
  • @sophiephilpott1: “Y’know how on the London Underground you’re never more than 10ft from a rat? In Higher Education you’re never more than 2 years from a restructure.” (4 July 2019)
  • @zeyneparsel on academia as third shift (15 January 2020)
  • @wishcrys on microaggressions against junior, women, and PoC scholars (22 May 2020)
  • @LizWFab: “Academia is feeling guilty for doing 4 hours of work on the weekend instead of taking time off and also feeling guilty for *not* doing 16 hours of work on the weekend instead of taking time off.” (27 September 2020)

One day at a time

Pandemics and PhDs (Pat Thomson, 16 March 2020)

I’m a PhD student and I’m worried by my university’s coronavirus approach (Jafia Naftali Camara, The Guardian, 18 March 2020)

Some advice for PhD students and their mentors in the time of coronavirus (Meghan Duffy, 15 March 2020)

Postgraduate supervision in the COVID-19 era (for supervisors and students) (Miguel Nacenta, 25 March 2020)

Effective practices in supervising doctoral candidates at a distance (UKCGE, 1 May 2020)

Should you quit (go part-time or pause) your PhD during COVID-19? (The Thesis Whisperer, 8 April 2020)

Interrupted fieldwork could mean terminated careers for PhD students (Lorena Gazzotti, THE, 8 October 2020)

Changing PhD research in response to COVID19: key considerations (Nimesh Dhungana, LSE Impact Blog, 22 October 2020)

Virtual Not Viral (since March 2020)

Remote vivas (Nathan Ryder, Viva Survivors, 6 April 2020)

Doing fieldwork in a pandemic (Deborah Lupton, since March 2020)

Doing arts research in a pandemic (Vida L. Midgelow, June 2020)

Social research for a COVID and post-COVID world: An initial agenda (Deborah Lupton, 29 March 2020)

Fieldwork in the times of COVID-19: Doing ethnography during a pandemic (Raul Pacheco-Vega, 17 March 2020)

Fieldwork in the context of COVID-19 (The New Ethnographer, 7 April 2020)

Doing fieldwork in a crisis or a quarantine (Benjamin Bowles, April 2020)

Research methods to consider in a pandemic (Helen Kara, 20 May 2020)

Conducting research despite travel restrictions (Lee, 2020, crossposted 4 June 2020)

Teaching social research methods in a time of crisis (Emma Jackson, The Sociological Review, 10 September 2020)

Changing Research Practice: Undertaking social science research in the context of Covid-19 (Melanie Nind et al., NCRM, since September 2020)

The rush to research COVID-19 risks compromising research integrity and impact (Tina Haux, LSE Impact Blog, 2 October 2020)

Researching in the age of COVID-19 (Helen Kara, 6 November 2020)

Carrying out qualitative research under lockdown — Practical and ethical considerations (Adam Jowett, LSE Impact Blog, 20 April 2020)

How to conduct an ethnography during social isolation (Daniel Miller, 3 May 2020)

Doing STS research in a COVID-19 world: Voices from the global South (Joseph Satish Vedanayagam, Backchannels, 29 April 2020)

Doing qualitative research on inequalities during Covid (Living with Data, since October 2020)

Covid-19 research and legal help (CaMP Anthropology, since November 2020)

Participant observation: How does it work online? (Janet Salmons, Methodspace, 20 April 2020)

LSE Digital Ethnography Collective Reading List (since February 2020)

Collecting COVID-19: A crowd-sourced digital ethnography of the COVID-19 pandemic (since April 2020)

Why you should ignore all that coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure (Aisha S. Ahmad, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 March 2020; or as @robin__craig aptly puts it, “a pandemic isn’t a writing retreat”)

5 strategies for writing in turbulent times (Chris Smith, LSE Impact Blog, 30 March 2020)

The Science of Well-Being (Laurie Santos, Yale University/Coursera)

Are we all digital scholars now? How the lockdown will reshape the post-pandemic digital structure of academia. (Mark Carrigan, LSE Impact Blog, 10 April 2020)

The post-pandemic university (since July 2020)

The Politics of COVID-19 (daily reading recommendations from The Syllabus, since March 2020)

Public Books Database (Public Books)

Teaching materials for computational social science (SAGE Ocean)

Tools and Resources — Creative Commons (Open Access Oxford)

How to create an APA style reference for a canceled conference presentation (Timothy McAdoo, APA Style Blog, 16 March 2020)

Security features in Zoom, MS Teams, and Google Meet (@joedale, April 2020; see also EFF’s advice on how to harden your Zoom settings, 2 April 2020)

The oldest story in the book [2]

I am a big believer in the pedagogic power of narratives. So, unsurprisingly, I am always interested in how others narrate their points in their (online) courses and learning tools. Here are a few interesting examples that I have saved for my own reference. The blurbs are mostly in the developers’ own words. Hmmm, it feels like this summer I am just making mixtapes one after another here.

The Hero’s Journey in Higher Education (Robert Farmer, Innovative Practice in Higher Education): This paper outlines and makes the case for a new, twelve stage narrative approach to the design of university modules. The twelve stages in the narrative approach to module design mirror the twelve stages which comprise the hero’s journey in myth and legend, as discussed in the work of Campbell (1993) and Vogler (1985). See also “the quest for the PhD” (McCulloch, 2013).

Game of Research (LSE): This game functions like Snakes and Ladders in that players will roll a dice and count squares along the board. However, in this version the ‘snakes’ contain a research-related setback and the ‘ladders’ have a positive research-related activity. See also the PhD Game.

E-learning Training on Prevent (HM Government): This offers an introduction to the Prevent duty and explains how it aims to safeguard vulnerable people from being radicalised to supporting terrorism or becoming terrorists themselves.

Responding to Hate and Extremism (Centre for Hate Studies): A suite of digital training modules which will equip you with evidence of ‘what works’ in challenging hate and extremism and in supporting those affected by it.

Facing Facts Online: With this course you will explore what hate speech is and why it is difficult to define. You will get an understanding of the harm of hate speech on individuals and on society.

Bad News (DROG): In this game, developed as a publicly accessible media literacy tool, you take on the role of fake news-monger. Your task is to get as many followers as you can while slowly building up fake credibility as a news site.

NRKbeta: Norwegian news site that has made readers take a quiz before commenting

UnBias Awareness Cards: News feeds, search engine results, and product recommendations increasingly use personalisation algorithms to help us cut through the mountains of available information and find those bits that are most relevant, but how can we know if the information we get really is the best match for our interests? The EPSRC-funded project team have developed an educational toolkit, including the said Awareness Cards, to help (young) citizens learn how to assess the trustworthiness and fairness of systems that heavily rely on algorithms.

The Legislator: License to Bill (Daily Show): In this game, released in the aftermaths of the 2019 El Paso shooting, your objective is to get gun control legislation passed by the Congress. It basically involves navigating through a series of decisions in order to get your bill passed — culminating in an intense showdown with Mitch McConnell himself as the final boss.

RT @GrubStreetWomen

Kapital!: A new game about class struggle, injustice and French politics created by a married couple of French sociologists, Monique and Michel Pinçon-Charlot. See also 수저게임.

국민 양형체험 프로그램 (대한민국 대법원 양형위원회)

Mountains of Metaphor (Clare Williams, tl;dr)

Skills and literacies, everyone’s favourite words

# Skills is not a dirty word (Leonard D. Pertnoy, Missouri Law Review, 1994)

# Hacking is a mindset, not a skillset (Tanya Snook, LSE Impact Blog, 16 January 2014)

# Effects of postgraduate medical education “boot camps” on clinical skills, knowledge, and confidence: A meta-analysis (C. Blackmore et al., Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 2014)

# In conversation with Sir Ken Robinson (August 2015)

# UK Engagement Survey: universities have limited impact on students’ ‘soft’ skill development (THE, 10 December 2015)

Responses of more than 24,000 undergraduates indicate limited development in areas such as creativity and citizenship over course of degree.

# Academic superheroes? A critical analysis of academic job descriptions (Rachael Pitt & Inger Mewburn, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 2016)

# Null effects of boot camps and short-format training for PhD students in life sciences (David F. Feldon et al., PNAS, 2017)

# “Students should encounter research or activities linked to research and innovation at all levels of higher education to develop the critical and creative mind-sets which will enable them to find novel solutions to emerging challenges.” (Paris Communiqué, 2018)

# Media literacy – everyone’s favourite solution to the problems of regulation (Sonia Livingstone, LSE Impact Blog, 8 May 2018)

# Future graduates will need creativity and empathy – not just technical skills (Natalie Brett, The Guardian, 20 December 2018)

# Our soft skills can keep robots in their place (Ed Conway, The Times, 18 January 2019)

# RT @timeshighered It’s time to start calling soft skills “power skills” @RBC CEO Dave McKay tells #TeachingEx (5 June 2019)

# Digital literacy demands new thinking from higher education (THE, 2019)

Students have a heightened confidence in the digital space that is not necessarily matched by their competence.