Apologies. This post is not formatted properly with paragraph spacing and hyperlinks. I’m up a mountain in Bulgaria and have been tapping away on my iPhone to write this post. It has been a bit of an ask. I’ll fix this stuff when I get back down and back on a proper laptop. It might be a while. So, like I said, apologies.
I’ve never attended #ALTC but I usually follow along via the live stream and social media. However, this year my virtual participation was somewhat restricted as I’m taking a break from my studies. I’m currently on bit of a road trip/mountain walking through Europe, also the reason this blogpost has taken ages. All I could manage to catch really were the tweets, particularly relating to the keynotes, and the conversation around Frances Bell’s and Catherine Cronin’s presentation about feminist and critical perspectives. To supplement the presentation Frances and Catherine are curating a series of personal reflections that underscore these perspectives. I’ve been meaning to write something similar for a while. It’ll help me to articulate my researcher subjectivity. So, here goes.
There’s a growing body of interest in feminist perspectives in ed tech and open education but I think I’ve said before that my feminist sensibilities are somewhat muted. I think this is because for me it’s first and foremost class struggle that takes my attention and feminist issues seem to trail behind. I know I’m a product of my gender, but my family background, working experience and undergraduate studies have attuned me to class issues more than anything else and how the relationship between capital and labour is a massive engine of inequality. How can it be in this day and age that 1% of the population have 95% of the world’s wealth, or something like that. More pertinent perhaps is how can such a situation pass by barely countested, like it’s the natural order of things?
So, I was born in the industrial East Midlands of England in 1967. I left school in 1983 in the midst of an economic recession and it seemed that the key criteria was just to get a job and stay employable, there was definitely no talk of a ‘career’ or of a profession. I was brought up in a pub so it was a no brainier where I could earn a crust.
This was the most formative experience of my childhood, the fact that my parents were self-employed and ran a series of pubs. Although I’m from a working class community it took me a while to work out what this really meant.
Growing up, the talk at home was centred on buying stuff (beer) and selling it for a profit in order to make a living. With the business being the pub trade, talk also involved the importance of the legal status of the property. At first my parents were tenants, paying rent to the brewery and compelled to sell that brewery’s beer at whatever rate the brewery demanded for both rent and beer. Later on my parents owned a free house, which gave them autonomy over what they could buy and sell and what profit they could make. After leaving school I understood this as the way of the world for a number of years. However, this began to change as I started to work more and more for other people, not just at home in the pub. I realised there was another side to this. I wasn’t the tenant or the freeholder, that is the capitalist business owner. I was an employee, someone who sold their labour by the hour. Talk about transformative experiences, I’ll never forget when that particular penny dropped. I was working in another pub in the kitchen. My job was on the grill. I had to cook the food orders as they came in, no matter in what combination they came in and no matter what frequency. All I could do was complete the orders for the agreed hourly rate. However, the real kicker was realising not only how many others were relying on me to assemble these food orders for their hourly wage as well (waitresses, kitchen porters, bar staff etc.) but also how many others I was creating profit for in the value chain (the brewery, the meat and veg producer, the wholesaler etc.), all of which turned on me assembling the food to order.
I used my hospitality experience to travel. Until the age of 22 or 23 I worked a number of seasonal jobs in ski resorts in the Alps and on yatch flotillas in Greece mainly. However, it eventually dawned on me that at the end of the season most of my seasonal colleagues were heading home to resume university studies whereas I was doing this seasonal stuff as my job. It was not some gap experience; it was my job.
Subsequently, I returned to the UK and did an Access course. It was the beginning of the ‘widening participation’ initiative designed for people like me when the knowledge economy started up but before the employability or STEM agenda really took hold. You could enquire into stuff just because it interested you. The Access course proved another transformative experience. In history we read ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ by E.P. Thompson. It’s a Marxist social and economic account of how the workers of the Industrial Revolution organised in order to understand and improve their economic conditions and the culture that developed from this. As a result, my head is full of history about the trade union or cooperative movement, friendly societies, working men’s clubs etc. It’s funny that I had to learn about this, class consciousness, from a history book and not from my parents. At university I continued to take an interest in working class history. Here I learned about Antonio Gramsci and his theory of hegemony, how your culture might not in fact be working in your own class interests. I loved this. It resonated totally. Having been brought up in a pub I could see that I’d had a unique insight into working class culture, well, part of it any way – white male working class culture.
Just as I started university I met my husband. He’s from the same place as me but he’s almost 10 years older. He’s from a mining family and had worked in the coal industry from when he left school to when the coal industry was destroyed by the Thatcher government at the end of the 80s. His family background and understanding of this period of history has also shaped my class sensibilities.
It’s fair to say that at first I didn’t leverage my Humanities degree for a change of employment. I went off working or volunteering and travelling again but this time with me husband. It was interseting to work and travel with this new found knowledge, or consciousness.
Around 2001, on moving to Ireland to build a house, I decided I was done with the hospitality industry and became an Adult Literacy Tutor. My interest in literacy stemmed from my experience managing housekeeping staff and through mandatory on the job training realising that not everyone could read and write easily. I also thought I could probably provide a few pointers about power and hegemony at the same time. Turns out I probably learnt more about structural inequality. LoL.
Over recent decades it seems that the concept of class has lost its relevance, or edge. People don’t earn their living in large concentrations of manual industries anymore. Besides, class has been challenged as a homgenous concept, feminism being a case in point. On the other hand it’s also been suggested by Hardt and Negri that the idea of a working class is outmoded. Given such a vast gulf in wealth today between the 1% and the rest, they suggest the idea of the ‘multitude’. However, people like Ursula Huws wonder how helpful this is as it might not help us to see the allegiances that can be formed as labour continues to confront capital, only this time in the global networked era.
A couple of tweets with slides from the ALT conference on this subject caught my eye. Amber Thomas highlighted digital labour and Tressie MacMillam Cottom, I think, mentioned the ‘inceasing liberalisation of academic labour’. My study is causing me to wonder about the type of value that open education practices create and the type of labour that’s involved. After all, there’s exchange value and use value with the exchange value of a commodified product, or resource, being realised through the surplus value that labour creates. And then, when it comes to labour there’s productive labour that directly produces the commodity or the resource itself and there’s reproductive labour that goes into making sure that the labour is available in the first place, like preparing your breakfast but now in this case it could be something like social networking in order to secure a job in the first place. It was noticeable that a number of participants in my study have said that they engage in open practices because they’ve been in, or are in, precarious employment and it might help secure the next ‘gig’.
I’m also wondering to what extent open education is a liberal, or rather neoliberal project, involved in the increasing liberalisation of academic labour. I’ve been reading the work of Joss Winn who makes the point that while open education with its open licence sets the product free, it does not do the same for the producer. I’ve also been reading about the idea of postcapitalism when commodified labour is no longer a ‘thing’. In fact, the economic commentator Paul Mason reckons networked peer to peer production plays a significant part of a this. Big stuff, I know, but it’s a historical project and that’s no bad thing in my book. E.P. Thompson would surely agree.
Perhaps this is why I sometimes find that the open education and ed tech discourse doesn’t always hit the right note for me with my Marxist sensibilities and leaves me wondering why exactly. It’s often remarked that we’re privileged. I prickle at this because I really don’t feel privileged. No, no, no, no, no, I don’t think it’s a privilege to have to sell my labour and create surplus value for god knows who to symphon it off for their own ends. Admittedly, I’m privileged in the sense that I can sell my labour in the global north, but even so…
I might be getting all mixed up in this because as I’ve been reflecting I realise that I don’t think I understand political economy as well as I should. I’ve also realised that despite having all this stuff in my head about class struggle etc. it turns out that I’m also a pretty accomplished neoliberal subject aswell, having developed my human capital through lifelong learning accreditation in order to stay employable. As, I think David Harvey says, we’re all neoliberal subjects now. But what can we do about it? Do we want to help create a postcapitalist future or not? That is the question.
Note to self: get hold of a copy of Richard Hall’s book about the alienation of academic labour.