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The True Power of Working Out Loud #WOL #WOLweek

Blimey. That was some year!! I’ve had no time to blog as I’ve been thrashing away under the workload of a research masters (MRes). It’s been a full-on year, but I’m happy to say that I’ve passed, and I’ve learned tons in the process.

My dissertation was a bit of a pragmatic choice. As you know, I’ve been following/advocating Working Out Loud for a while and since we’d covered discourse analysis on the MRes, I thought I’d put the two together. So that’s how I came to do ‘An Investigation into the Phenomenon and Discourse of Working Out Loud’.

During this, I was asked if I’d like to join a ‘random’ Working Out Loud Circle (a small peer support group that follows the principles of Working Out Loud as you work towards a personal/professional goal). However, the random circle proved difficult to get going as people couldn’t commit when it came down to it. Not to worry, this is where serendipity kicked in as I noticed Sue Beckingham was talking about Working Out Loud in one of her presentations. So I asked Sue if she’d like to join and see what she thought of the circle format, to which she promptly agreed and, even better, she managed to persuade a colleague, Hala Mansour to join me and Robyn Santa Maria in forming a WOL circle. Despite scheduling difficulties that come with life-in-general the circle quickly became a supportive environment in which to develop and work towards our goals. The circle prompted the following blog posts from my fellow conspirators:

The Soft/human Side of Working Out Loud!

A virtual cup of tea.

Reflecting on #WOL.

They pretty much give you a flavor of what Working Out Loud and being in a circle is all about, full of warmth, kindness and general bonhomie. And this is why the findings from my discourse analysis are so depressing. Let me explain.

It’s so depressing.

In my research I used the concept of discourse as put forward by Michel Foucault. That is, discourse is the production of knowledge through language. Foucault contends that we can only have knowledge of things when ‘things’ have meaning, and meaning is constructed within discourse. Akin to a body of knowledge, or system of representation, a discourse consists of groups of related statements that cohere in some way to produce meanings and these meanings have real world effects. It’s discourse that produces the objects of our knowledge, such as Working Out Loud. Moreover, discourse governs the way in which an object can and cannot be talked about and what’s more, it puts forward a particular version as being ‘true’. Conceding that knowledge is produced through discourse leads to the realization that discourse involves relations of power. What counts as knowledge, and how is this determined?

Foucault further argues that discourse not only constructs objects, but it also constructs subjects. That is, discourses create subject positions that individuals can accordingly take up, effectively specifying ways of seeing and being in the world. Such a conception has implications for individual agency. Foucault argues that institutional discourses prevail over human agency. He considers institutional discourses to always bear power, and that the production of knowledge can never be separated from institutional discourses and their practices, which serve to control professional practices and defend them from alternative expressions of power.

OK. Now that I’ve (hopefully) explained that head wreck, let me tell you what my analysis revealed.

It revealed that the discourse of Working Out Loud is constructed by uniting a discourse of social business and a discourse of personal development/self-actualization. In what seems to be a direct appeal to one’s humanity, the word ‘help’ appears, like a rash, across both discourses. By conflating different meanings of the word help, or intentions of who or what is being helped, it means that the primary subject position created in the Working Out Loud discourse effectively aligns individuals’ personal development/self-actualization with the realization of business goals. In this analysis, it seems that Working Out Loud represents an expression of what Foucault calls biopower. Although Foucault coined the term in relation to how modern states control subjects through the subjugation of bodies, some contemporary scholars are starting to identify biopower as a form of workforce control. They contend that the everyday life qualities of individuals are increasingly being indexed to the needs of the organization and that this essentially amounts to a form of self-exploitation. This is strong stuff, and to understand it you need to see the historical relationship between capital and labour and the evolution of techniques of control within the workplace.

In the classic studies by Weber and Marx, the de-humanizing aspect of work is a defining element because it was thought that the qualities that make us human weren’t required in the productive process. Now, as work processes have become more focused on the customer and value-added productivity is derived from personal and social aspects of the workforce, organizations no longer need command and control methods to constrain or separate individuals from non-work aspects of their life. Rather, biopower is the new order of the day because it seeks to capture individuals as they already exist and utilize our whole selves, or ‘life itself’ in the service of work.

I told you it was depressing. Mind you, having said that, I still can’t help but like Working Out Loud, after all it contains the very best of human nature, it’s a crying shame that it’s being used against you in these neoliberal times. The upshot is that I’m now more attuned than ever to power and politics and to contemporary methods of control in society. Consequently, I’m wondering about the big picture and what I can do about it. I’m also wondering how others develop critical sensibilities and what they propose to do about it, or is that what we think they can do about it. 🙂

Although it was quite an effort, and despite it being a thoroughly depressing analysis, I enjoyed this research project. I must’ve been crazy taking a topic that doesn’t significantly figure yet in the literature and combining it with a difficult methodology. Any way, moving on, for my PhD I’m going to work on a project that focuses on how professionals in the finance sector learn to make, or recognize, ethical decisions in times of rapid and complex change (Brexit). That’s sure to be another big learning adventure, and I’ll just have to see to what extent it’s possible to Work Out Loud.

References: Fleming, P. (2014). Review Article: When ‘life itself’ goes to work: Reviewing shifts in organizational life through the lens of biopower. Human Relations, 6 7(7), pp. 875-901. doi: 10.1177/0018726713508142.

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Networks: a many splendid thing #WOLweek

Haven’t blogged in a while. Haven’t blogged regularly for quite a while. Well, here’s hoping things are gonna change, especially as I’m sold on the idea of working as openly and as transparently as possible, because that’s how work gets done in networks. Besides, in relation to blogging about our work, there’s a bit of momentum gathering amongst my newfound network of peers at the Open University. Plus, it’s International Work Out Loud Week  #WOLweek and I’m looking forward to re-connecting with a few fellow advocates and starting back up our little Work Out Loud Circle. So no excuses!!

Interesting to note that the initiative of my new peer network was prompted by a presentation from Sheila MacNeill, who happens to be a solid member of my learning network and a good friend of mine. Also interesting to note is that Sheila’s presentation on Openness relates to the context of research and higher education, whereas within the context of Work Out Loud, similar discussion around openness and transparency relates to a more corporate or professional learning context.

I think these two things say a lot about where I’m at the moment in my learning journey, and maybe point to its future direction. As you might be aware, I’ve spent the last year or two roaming around the web, looking, listening and learning. Because I’ve been pretty much resident on the web, learning in the network (or is that networks), and because I’ve not really belonged to an identifiable real-world context, I don’t see the boundaries that other people might see. I guess that’s how I came to propose researching ‘something’ that relates to professionals learning in open networks. Hopefully, such a perspective means that I can bring together ideas from across sectors (or is that networks) and work across traditional boundaries to help professionals learn in an increasingly networked future.

Mind you, having said that, you might think that having this experience and perspective is great, but it’s not been without its surprises. Since arriving at the OU, I’ve discovered that my take on learning in networks is not the only one. When I think about networked learning I’ve hitherto only considered the ego or the personal learning network with the individual in full charge – determining their own learning, not that this could be designed for by others, and not that it could take place within organizational structures. A bit of an eye-opener.

Any way, we shall see where my inquiries take me. As always, it’s interesting to engage in the conversations out on the web but it’s also interesting to re-engage with the research literature again.

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Celebrate success, acknowledge support – the Camino way.

Check this! I just finished walking over 1200km from Cadiz in Southern Spain to Santiago de Compostella in North West Spain. In a venture that took 5 trips to make the distance, I just walked 210km in 7 days to complete the final stage of the Camino de Santiago. Walking along each day gives you the chance to slow down, to think and to reflect. That’s what this blog post is really about, I’ve been reflecting on my learning journey and about the success and support I’ve had along the way. Before I come to that though, I’ll enlighten you a little bit about the Camino itself.

The Camino de Santiago is the name given to a collection of pilgrimage routes that lead from all over Spain and Europe to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella and the shrine of St. James in Galicia in North West Spain. The place has been a site of pilgrimage since the middle ages, and indeed it continues to thrive as such today.

Easily, 500 to 1000 modern-day pilgrims arrive into Santiago each day in the summer months. Pilgrims come from all over the world. They walk alone, as couples, as families or as groups and associations. They are amazingly diverse: from the octogenarian undertaking a few kilometers each day, the life-logging speed merchant, the holidaying couple or professional on sabbatical to the infant being pushed along in its buggy or the joyful group of ‘jovenes’ who bounce along the track as they belt out their Camino ‘playlist’. Needless to say, motivations to undertake the journey are myriad, some deeply personal or religious, some to do with the physical or social aspects of the Camino whilst others take it as an opportunity to disengage from the frenetic pace of modern day life. What’s my motivation you might wonder. Well, the route(s) is signposted as a European ‘cultural itinerary’. Frequently the word cultural is scribbled out in favor of the word spiritual. I asked my husband, Steve, why we were walking the Camino; he said “because it’s an itinerary” – as in ‘because it’s there’. Sounds about right.

There’s fantastic infrastructure associated with the Camino. If pilgrims wish to gain the Compostella, the traditional certificate of a successful pilgrimage, they need to carry a pilgrim’s passport and get it stamped along the way. We were intent on gaining the certificate, but we were also spurred on by the thought of celebrating our success in a nice restaurant with a menu that included scallops and a bottle of fine wine, particularly apt as the scallop shell is the emblem of St. James and is worn by pilgrims to distinguish them as such.

There’s also provision made along the way for pilgrim accommodation or shelter. As is tradition, municipal albergues or religious orders provide dormitory accommodation for around €10 a night. You can however choose your lodging according to your purse, 5 star paradors if you like. We are in the complete minority and carry a tent as it gives you loads of flexibility in terms of the distance you can walk each day. Free camping is permitted in Spain. You can call it wild camping, guerrilla camping or stealth camping if you prefer; either way, it’s not for everyone. Besides, you actually have to carry the tent, plus the rest of the gear that camping entails, and no matter how ‘lite’ you go, it inevitably all adds up. I wouldn’t be able to carry it all on my own. I carry what I can (camping stove, food, water) but I don’t actually carry the tent. Steve has to carry that. This is where I got to thinking about the support we receive as we go along in life.

Support that without which we couldn’t do half of what we do or be half the person we are today.

This got me thinking further. As much as I might like to think of myself as an autonomous learner, you have to wonder if the notion isn’t just a little phony. I mean, if I read a book then surely I’m learning from the author. You get the point; the author is facilitating or supporting my learning. Similarly, since I started using Twitter, started blogging and learning in MOOCs and in open networks my learning has been marvelously facilitated and supported by a whole bunch of people, people who share their work openly online or who engage online and take an interest.

I’ve recently been fortunate enough to have been awarded a 4 year, fully funded MRes/PhD studentship with CREET (Centre for Education and Education Technology) at the Open University. I start in October. Such an occurrence wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the help and support I’ve received from others. Here, I’m particularly thinking of people such as Jane Hart, who alerted me in the first instance to the potential of Twitter and whose workshops have helped me understand the evolving landscape of learning that’s both social and personal; Steve Wheeler who showed me the value of Twitter and nigh on chapter and verse regarding Web 2.0 and digital pedagogy;  Harold Jarche, blogging genius and formative thinker who prompts me to consider how life is altered in the network era; similarly, Jeff Merrell who’s opened up his master’s course to explore innovations in networked learning; Catherine Cronin, who warmly and inclusively engages the conversation about openness and the democratization of learning, and who’s wonderfully supportive on a personal level too, as is Sharon Flynn and Mary Loftus and the ‘Signals of Success’, or OLDSMOOP, group that includes Paige Cuffe, Sheila MacNeil and Yishay Mor.

As life moves from one phase to another, it’s good to reflect, to take stock and to show your appreciation for any support you’ve been given. It’s also good to pan forward and to set new learning goals or milestones, to outline improvement strategies you’d like to make to your learning regime and, most importantly, to imagine how you’ll reward yourself and celebrate success once all the hard work pays off. So, if I’m successful in my PhD candidacy (Steve, take note), I’d like to dine on lobster thermidor and sip Margarita cocktails on a yacht in the Mediterranean 🙂 In the interests of clarity and propriety, I’d better make it clear that I’m referring here to Steve, my husband, and not to Steve Wheeler. LOL

Finally, before I go, if you want to get more of a feel for what the Camino is about, you might like to check out the film, The Way, starring Martin Sheen; it does a fair job of capturing the spirit of the thing. Or, if you like, you can check out my FB photo album here.

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