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Digital Humanities as Cognitive Dissidence

In Uncategorized on 2014/02/04 at 03:55

It’s hard to believe but it was a year ago that the Primer Encuentro de Humanistas Digitales (First Meeting of Digital Humanists) was held  in the Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City (17 and May 18, 2012).

I participated remotely via a poster / flyer and a website entitled “HD/DC“, which I set up to provide further context and references, as well as to keep track if anyone had followed the links included on it from the event on the days it took place. (Some indeed did, according to the stats provided by, where I hosted the site).

It was a way of communicating that in the digital humanities it is also necessary to examine how we practice “academia”. For example, I wanted to say that not being able to be physically at an event in real-time taking place in a specific geographic location does not necessarily mean we can not participate on it. Digital/Web technologies do offer accessible means to participate remotely, if one is so inclined.

I know that “Cognitive Dissidence” sounds pompous and naïve, but the intention was to suggest that in my opinion “DH” should mean not only new ways of doing things but also new ways of thinking about them. What are academics event for? What are the minimum requirements to hold them? When we say “meeting”, what do we mean? Can digital technologies help us think/do academic meetings differently?

So, inspired by the Day of Digital Humanities in Spanish and Portuguese 2013  and by the next Postcolonial Digital Humanities Summer School (#DHpoco) I  have now uploaded to figshare that poster / flyer as a slide in PPT format  (not a PDF, which means it is editable by whoever downloads it, if such a thing were of interest).

This means that a resource which is already one year-old is given a new lease of life by making it available on another platform. Figshare allows me to see some metrics of who views and downloads the file, and most importantly gives me a Digital Object Identifier for this work that would otherwise be at the mercy of the fragility of a free blog, buried somewhere in the vast expanse of the World Wide Web and completely ignored by the forms current academic recognition.

Humanidades digitales: espacios para la disidencia cognitiva (póster para Primer Encuentro de Humanistas Digitales en la Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Ciudad de México, 17 y 18 de mayo de 2012). Ernesto Priego. figshare.

Retrieved 08:43, May 22, 2013 (GMT)

Ernesto Priego is lecturer in Library Science at City University London and editor in chief of The Comics Grid. Journal of Comics Scholarship.



Original Spanish (minus minor edits).

Reblogged from

Es increíble pero fue hace ya un año que tuvo lugar el Primer Encuentro de Humanistas Digitales en la Biblioteca Vasconcelos de la Ciudad de México (17 y 18 de mayo de 2012).

Participé remotamente a través de un póster/volante y un sitio titulado “HD/DC” que abrí para ofrecer contexto y referencias.

Fue una manera de querer comunicar que en las humanidades digitales es también necesario interrogar la forma en que “practicamos la academia”, es decir, el no poder estar físicamente en un evento en un lugar geográfico en tiempo real no necesariamente significa que no podemos participar en él.

“Disidencia cognitiva” suena grandilocuente e ingenuo, lo sé, pero la intención era sugerir que las “HD” en mi opinión deberían significar no sólo nuevas formas de hacer las cosas sino también nuevas formas de pensarlas.

Inspirado por el Día de las Humanidades Digitales y por la próxima escuela de verano de DH Postcolonial he ahora subido mi póster/volante en formato PPT (por lo tanto editable por quien lo baje, si es que acaso interesase) a figshare.

Esto quiere decir que ahora el recurso está accesible en otra plataforma que me permite ver nuevas métricas y lo más importante me da un Digital Object Identifier para este trabajo que de otra forma quedaría a merced de la fragiliad de la web y completamente ignorado por las formas de reconocimiento académico actuales.

Humanidades digitales: espacios para la disidencia cognitiva (póster para Primer Encuentro de Humanistas Digitales en la Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Ciudad de México, 17 y 18 de mayo de 2012). Ernesto Priego. figshare.

Retrieved 08:43, May 22, 2013 (GMT)

Ernesto Priego es catedrático en ciencias de la información en City University, Londres Inglaterra, y editor en jefe de The Comics Grid. Journal of Comics Scholarship.

Various Shades of Digital Literacy: The New Digital Divides

In Ernesto's Posts on 2013/01/17 at 01:03
Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK.

An initial version of this post was originally published on HASTAC 10/22/2012. 

I’d like to thank my colleague Melonie Fullick for the conversation that led to this post.

As a researcher interested in the digital humanities and as a blogger, editor and academic blogging and social media workshop facilitator, I have observed different shades of digital literacy levels. I have witnessed it not between groups from different countries, disciplines or institutions, but within self-contained groups or communities that are often assumed to have the same skill sets or more or less similar degrees of access to infrastructure, financial means, education, and connectivity amongst others since these groups’ members belong to the same organisation, faculty or department. That members of the same organisation should not be assumed to necessarily have the same digital skills or level of access to said skills, education or resources is precisely one of the motivations for this post.

At the time of writing this, the current “Global Digital Divide” Wikipedia entry reads:

“The global digital divide is a special case of the digital divide, the focus is set on the fact that “Internet has developed unevenly throughout the world”  causing some countries to fall behind in technology, education, labor, democracy, and tourism. The concept of the digital divide was originally popularized in regard to the disparity in Internet access between rural and urban areas of the United States of America; the global digital divide mirrors this disparity on an international scale.The global digital divide also contributes to the inequality of access to goods and services available through technology. Computers and the Internet provide users with improved education, which can lead to higher wages; the people living in nations with limited access are therefore disadvantaged.

This global divide is often characterized as falling along what is sometimes called the north-south divide of “northern” wealthier nations and “southern” poorer ones.”

In this case, I would like to suggest there are other types of digital divides that are not necessarily between those with access and those without. As Howard Besser pointed out,

“Much of the promise of the digital ages is an increase in democratic values and of broadening public participation in the various aspects of society and culture. In order for this promise to be realized, we need to take concerted action to narrow a host of different digital divides and allow everyone an equal opportunity to partake in this democratic promise.”

Besser is right to point out that “The digital divide also includes a gap between those who can be active creators and distributors of information, and those who can only be consumers.” Nevertheless, the other types of digital divides I have been thinking about take place within those who can be both active creators and distributors of information, as well as consumers of that information.

The group I am talking about is graduate students, postdocs and academic staff in higher education institutions, and specifically within the arts and humanities and in developed nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. The sometimes exceedingly high standard expected from candidates as specifically detailed in some digital humanities job descriptions announces a new digital divide, between those who can build the digital platforms and those who would only consume them.  Importantly, it may also announce a time in which there might only be funding available for large institutional projects that already involve a great deal of infrastructural support and, very importantly, qualified human resources with advanced levels of humanities resource building –as in coding– and not for those that “only” involve advanced levels of engagement –as in, interpretation and teaching– with those humanities resources.

But there are various shades of complexity before we even get to that divide between those who “build” and those who don’t. New digital divides created by the great diversity of digital skill sets amongst most arts and humanities scholars. The recent popularity of the digital humanities (or rather, of the term “digital humanities”) has meant that many propose that in the near future everyone in the humanities will be a digital humanist, and that the adjective “digital’ will have to be dropped soon. It is more and more common to see job adverts seeking scholars with PhDs in very specialised arts and humanities themes who can also code (for example, PhP, Python, whatever). In general, these are skills that are not formally included in most postgraduate humanities degrees. As an educated guess one might be able to generalise that many if not most humanities scholars who possess some level of coding skills often acquired them through alternative methods, taught themselves or have backgrounds in disciplines that until very recently were not part of the humanities curricula.

The job descriptions out there seem to tell a different story. It is as if suddenly, in some section of the academic world, we were witnessing the rise of a super-humanist, who is not only an expert in Aramean manuscripts but can also develop XML schemas, tweak APIs, design WordPress templates, who is a master of custom CSS design for ebooks and blogs, tweets, curates data sets and visualises online networks and quantifies her open access journal articles webometrics and altmetrics. This prototype scholar seems to be some kind of mutant 21st century super-powered being who simultaneously designs and maintains algorithmic architectures and deconstructs the history of literary theory and textual scholarship by heart.

On the other hand, we have what I think is a more immediate scenario, that of the scholar (please humour me for the sake of argument) who mainly communicates over emails and listservs, who, say, struggles to save a PDF, only recently figured out what a hashtag is and has never used a shared Google Drive document. This scholar knows her/his stuff very well indeed, hates Microsoft, resents having to use a Moodle or PowerPoint (or absolutely loves them), but is not really comfortable with this whole Web 2.0, scholarship-in-the-cloud malarkey.

There’s also an in-between group if you wish, confirmed by scholars who are very fluent (or think of themselves as very fluent) in off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools, they blog, share what they do, keep track of  who reads them and engages with them, who might know what a MOOC is and might even have facilitated or participated in one, who know what tags and attributes are, who learned what they know in different ways, who may know a lot or who may struggle with some aspects of it but just about manage to get along.

And, of course, there’s always those who will belong to all of the above, to just a couple of them or to neither of them, or any other combination you can possibly imagine. The thing is, all these categories are destined to be caricaturesque generalisations, precisely because there are so many shades of fluency and engagement with technical digital skills, expertise and tools.

Therefore these new digital “disparities” in digital fluency are not necessarily about access (or privilege, or wealth, or technology, or connectivity, or language, etc.)  as it used to be discussed (between the rich and the poor, the north and the south) but about actual varying degrees of skills within the same groups. These disparities have allowed a technically savvy elite to sometimes get hold of a position that depends on a big group not possessing the skills they have, so rarely there are situations in which they are encouraged to teach others. Sometimes those others will not think they have anything to learn, or will resent being told that perhaps it would be a good idea to sit down and learn how to do something. Sometimes those others wish they had the institutional support to count with the time and space and access to training necessary to acquire new digital skills, no matter how “basic” or “advanced” they may seem to others.

Moreover there is the assumption that commercial off-the-shelf web services are simply picked up by intuition and trial and error. This is true in some cases. It’s come to the point though in which the web is not something that only interests technically-minded people, but the platform on which and with which, for better or worse, a great percentage of human communication is increasingly taking place, and as such it is worth considering if it would not be a good idea to stop taking for granted that academics (of any age) do not need structured learning opportunities to master the nuances of the web (in this case not as coders, but as skilled users). Perhaps tool-based learning is doomed to failure as these are likely to change or disappear, but core critical and practical skills applicable to a wide variety of web tool scenarios would be a great thing to have a structured, recognised framework for.

Arguably, as web platforms become the mainstream rather than the underground, not only do those platforms become more complex: their users also cannot be expected to always-already have a great degree of proficiency in their management or use. (It can be argued that unlike mainstream scenarios,  underground scenes are more or used to be more likely to engage in Do It Yourself and self-taught activities and processes). For instance, some knowledge that some social media users might take for granted, such as logging in, updating profiles, uploading files, making hyperlinks, etc. might be unknown to even the most apparently prolific of social media users, as sometimes things happen “as if by magic” without users necessarily understanding the processes behind them or without being able to replicate them when contexts or circumstances change. We must stop taking these skills for granted, and reconsider how we might be contributing to new digital divides amongst groups of peers by assuming everyone has (or even should have!) the same digital skill sets, when perhaps they don’t.

These are just some quick notes seeking to suggest that before all arts and humanities scholars become that mutant 21st century super-powered being we need to first recognise the existence of the great diversity of levels of digital literacy, and second that academia needs to figure out how to ensure that, for example, everyone feels comfortable using a search engine before asking them to code one from scratch.



This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Who Gives a Tweet? Who is to Decide?

In Ernesto's Posts on 2012/04/28 at 00:36

Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK

Recently, there’s been considerable interest in how academics can evaluate the impact of social media outputs. A recent article, titled “Who Gives A Tweet? Evaluating Microblog Content Value” [PDF] and signed by Paul André, Michael S. Bernstein and Kurt Luther, shares the results of a study which involved the creation of an online tool, titled “Who Gives ATweet?” (WGAT). This online tool encouraged and enabled users to voluntarily rate the “value” of tweets. Using a corpus of approximately 43,000 ratings, the authors asked: “What content do Twitter users value? For example, do users value personal updates while disliking opinions?” and “Why are some tweets valued more than others?”

Though the tool was developed by academic researchers within higher education institutions (WGAT is hosted at the MIT), the study involved general users (not only academics) and therefore discusses all types of tweets, not only what could be called “academic tweets” (as stated on the title of this post). I am interested in making this distinction because in order to discuss how to evaluate (or “measure”) the impact of academic content shared on social media (or academic activity on social media), we would need to focus specifically on how academics make sense of social media content. My gut feeling is that as academics we evaluate the quality of academic social media content through the same set of basic interpretive skills we employ to evaluate anything else we read.

Not everyone agrees on what an academic tweet is, but I would like to suggest it means something more specific than a tweet posted by someone who happens to work in an educational institution. Academics have all types of conversations online and offline; even those conversations that could be labeled as “academic” take place under different contexts; they have different themes and approaches, nuances, agendas, etc. These different types of conversation fulfill different functions and interpreters evaluate them accordingly. Though it could be said some of these functions are essentially social, they do contribute as catalysts of academic work (phatic communication, if you will). Therefore, it would be difficult to agree on what could or should be considered of strict academic value, but we might need to say that words, conversations or data should be evaluated in specific contexts, and therefore qualitatively. WGAT focuses on individual tweets as decontextualised units, asks users to categorise them according to pre-established value judgements, and makes generalisations from these individual qualifications. I find this troublesome for the academic evaluation of social media content, and I will try to explain why.

Twitter is a public and asynchronous medium. Because it is non-linear and distributed, pieces of information are received by very different people in very different times and places. Twitter de facto decontextualises information in the shape of the individual tweet, and though the individual tweet is Twitter’s most basic technical unit, meaning and interpretation, and indeed Twitter’s full capabilities, are only actualised when connections are made between these single units (a tweet is always part of a bigger conversation a specific user may or may not be aware of). A the same time, Twitter enables re-contextualisation by encouraging further research so users can get the complete picture. This means that when taken on themselves, tweets as isolated units offer a particular “value” that often (if not always) require recontextualisation in order to be fully appreciated. I consider this distinction important, not the least because academics, when in “strictly professional mode”, often appreciate very different types of information (or appreciate differently) what the general public would generally prefer, or what the general public version of their academic selves would publicly accept preferring.

I am unavoidably attracted to tools developed using the Twitter API, and I am convinced that very interesting conclusions can be drawn from their development, use and data they provide. Nevertheless I have serious doubts that we would need, as the authors write, “technological intervention: design implications to make the most of what is valued, or reduce or repurpose what is not”, especially when the judgement criteria is so inherently subjective and context-specific. When is critique “whining”? When is geolocation data useful, and when is it “boring”? Maybe millions of users have already read that link, but what about the other potential timelines with users who are not connected all the time?

The concern I have with these “approaches [with] the potential to address issues of value and audience reaction” (here we can include Topsy, the service used by the altmetrics tool) is that they resemble too much what is done in market sentiment research. When I worked on the market sentiment research sector, I discovered that the ways to classify audience reaction avoided the complex qualitative analysis one expects from university research. In my experience, the categories used to classify reactions to content did not always enable nuance, and aimed for pragmatic, market-driven graphic presentation, rather than the reasoned argumentation traditionally used in academic field studies or literature review.

Sentiment research might be well-suited to survey public opinions about, say, a new soda, but if we are interested in discussing academic or scholarly uses of social media, a similar conceptual framework, based on the surveying and generalisation of public opinion, seems to me constraining and even counter-productive. A given user (or millions of them if you will) may think a certain tweet is boring or devoid of value, but that same tweet may be of great interest for a different type of user: one who cares precisely about that which others find uninteresting.

Social media services like Twitter and Facebook tend to have a way of self-regulating. Eventually, most semi-capable users can become fluent in new social networking platforms and can even learn good practices by mere trial and error. Without a doubt, there is at the same time a real need to discuss and establish guidelines and policies for institutional social media good practice, and for the inclusion of social media literacy education in school curricula.

And yet I am troubled by the suggestion that an automated crowdsourced rating system would be necessary to perform a basic interpretive task. What kind of collections would academic libraries have if only those books the crowd thinks to be the most popular were considered of any value? I love technology, but I also want to believe academics are still perfectly prepared to decide, without the need of “technological intervention”, who gives a tweet about what, and, most importantly, why.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Globalisation of Digital Humanities: An Uneven Promise

In Ernesto's Posts on 2012/02/07 at 01:54

Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK.

Last October, I gave a lecture at the Lifelong Learning Division of the School of Humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This was one of the ways I participated in the University of Venus Networking Challenge, where I was aiming to “go interdisciplinary” and “go international”.

My lecture (the slides are available here) explored how blogging fits within different models of academic knowledge production and research cycles. Using examples from music and popular culture as guiding examples, I discussed the importance of innovation and the positive power of disruptive change, explored blogging initiatives I personally admire and engage in, and suggested good practices and paths for future action.

Meeting with colleagues and students from my home university was a very fruitful and thought-provoking experience. They  were eager to learn and debate the ways in which blogging can be adopted as a method to increase teaching and research outputs and, perhaps more importantly, to increase the international visibility of the academic work which is already being done.  There was a special interest in discussing ways in which intellectual property can be protected and shared online, and in the technical requirements of setting an academic blog with its own domain.

One of the ideas I took with me was how important it is to realise the significant infrastructural differences between academic institutions around the world. This means going beyond the usual common-sense educated awareness that not all countries, and therefore not all academic institutions enjoy, or suffer, the same structural conditions (funding, human resources, access to technology, salaries, academic work and “impact” cultures).

In this case, it means understanding that in a globalised higher education market, some simple measures, involving digital literacy strategies, can be, for the time being, an initial step towards preventing a normalization which often leaves many scholars out of the competition. It is no secret that “the promise of the digital humanities” is being pushed upwards and forward to the academic mainstream in the form of significant funding granted to projects involving digital technologies for teaching and research in the humanities, like the one provided by the Office of Digital Humanities of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States or JISC in the United Kingdom. In the specific case of Mexico, though the National University and the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) fund projects that would fit within a digital humanities category, the sums granted and the global impact of the initiatives pale in comparison, not least because of very different cultural and disciplinary attitudes to the perceived relationships between computer technologies and the humanities. (I must add that had it not been for CONACYT, I would have never been able to start and finish a PhD!).

The feedback I received from the audience was that following best practices (including reliable multilingual metadata) for personal academic blogging holds a lot of potential for educational environments where it is harder to achieve quick and significant institutional change. Projects such as the Biblioteca de Pensamiento NovohispanoEstrategias de Lectura and Reflexiones marginales have recently received funding to continue their work of digital scholarship, and the Mexican Digital Humanities Network blog (Red the Humanistas Digitales) is gradually improving their output and playing a role in forming a new generation of digital scholars.

It seems to me that “the promise of the digital humanities” is not only where the big money is; it is also where innovation using readily-available and inexpensive technologies is at work. The recognition of digital scholarship in the form of institutional funding is an essential step in the advancement of the digital humanities, but we should also be aware of the increasing digital divide between institutions and scholars. This year, international collaboration with a focus on open access, interoperability when possible/desirable, affordable technologies and sustainability might be one of the essential steps towards the fulfillment of that promise.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

#Alt-Academy: An Interview with Bethany Nowviskie

In Ernesto's Posts on 2011/08/01 at 11:46

Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK

During the Digital Humanities 2011 conference in Stanford, Bethany Nowviskie launched #AltAcademy, a site within the Media Commons project.

#Alt-Academy offers an ongoing collection of essays on the theme of unconventional or alternative academic careers through a “bottom-up, publish-then-filter” approach to scholarly publishing and networked community building. I asked Bethany about the initiative…

Ernesto Priego: You’ve already written a compelling introduction to #Alt-Academy here. You’ve defined the project as “something between a meditation, a home-coming, and an antidote.” Could you please say more about these three aspects?

Bethany Nowviskie: That might have seemed a little cryptic! I think you’ll find that the two dozen initial contributions to #Alt-Academy speak to multiple audiences in overlapping ways. They’re all deeply thoughtful pieces, in their different modes, and together they offer a serious meditation on the roles that scholars play within the academy but outside its professorial ranks, and on what our increasing numbers and visibility — particularly in the digital humanities — may portend. One of the most important contributions made so far by the “#alt-ac” label (problematic and complex as it may be!) has been to create a sense of interdisciplinary and energetic community among people in such positions. Hence the “homecoming.” This project also works to demonstrate to graduate students — and, indeed, to the increasing numbers of faculty members who are looking with interest at “alternative” academic careers — that there is deep commitment, vibrant intellectual life, and a great deal of satisfaction to be felt in careers that they may have been acculturated to see as consolation prizes for so-called “failed academics.” (In fact, I’ve found in my work for the #Alt-Academy project that most of us have sought out non-tenure-track jobs as a first choice!) Clear and positive statements about the reality of #alt-ac choices are an antidote that particular poison sorely needs.

EP: This may seem obvious to you or to others who are deeply involved in current discourses around higher education, but would you mind explaining what are the main obstacles that those without tenure-track jobs (either by choice or not) face, and how do you see an online platform like #Alt-Academy challenging and offering alternative ways to established academic career paths?

BN: Well, it’s no surprise that most books and websites addressed to PhD students and scholars seeking jobs outside of the normative, tenure-track professorship stream have been cast as resources about “non-academic” careers. Social and institutional challenges face people who stay in or around the academy, but outside what has come to be seen as the single path to success and self-worth for humanities PhDs. A major one is the base assumption that you’re not doing academic or scholarly work if you’re not employed as a full-time teaching and research faculty member. Others relate to the job security and intellectual freedom that tenure is commonly accepted to provide — although several essays in the #Alt-Academy collection question that assumption.

Other challenges are more systemic: for example, university policies related to intellectual property can impinge differently on employees classified as faculty vs. staff. This means that equal collaborators, identically-trained and doing identical work on a project, may have different rights to the products of their own intellectual labor. And some types of knowledge work are so new to the academy that established paths for career advancement do not yet exist within them. #Alt-ac employees may experience this uncertainty either as energizing (we are fashioning our own careers in a more entrepreneurial way than many of our grad school colleagues) or as stressful: we have not been trained to blaze trails in this way!

It’s my hope that the #Alt-Academy project can help us, collectively, interrogate our current situation and offer some potential models through which readers can inform not only their own career decisions, but also broader hiring practices, institutional policy-setting, curriculum development for graduate studies, and a host of other concerns.

EP: It seems to me that open online resources used in academic activity (for research, teaching, networking), both institutional (custom-made) and employing “off-the-shelf” web tools embody a conceptual and pragmatic shift more established structures can find challenging. How do you see #alt-ac practice intervening in these structures?

BN: Perhaps the most interesting aspect of #Alt-Academy in this regard is what I’ve called its grass-roots, bottom-up, “publish-then-filter approach” to networked scholarly communication. While the initial set of essays, narratives, and dialogues in the collection were solicited and edited in a fairly traditional manner (in part because we were flirting with print publication), our partnership with MediaCommonshas allowed us to release the project in a much more extensible, sustainable, open, and interesting way.

Any user who registers for an account on the site (or who already has one within the MediaCommons network) is able to compose and publish a post at #Alt-Academy. I intend to do only the lightest possible vetting of this kind of unsolicited content — mostly to make sure that it is not abusive and that it’s roughly on-topic. Posts like these will be made immediately available to readers at a stable #alt-ac project URL, and they’ll be indexed for discovery in our regular search interface. However, they won’t become visible on the #Alt-Academy home-page or in one of our existing, edited “clusters” until I or another editor have selected them as featured content. So we have a platform in which thematic and aggregated publishing can happen as freely as it ought to, on the Web, and yet where measures of quality control and coherent arrangement come into play as well. Readers of the site will see a call for contributions, and a call for cluster proposals as well. Some people have already expressed interest in adding further essays or multimedia contributions, or in working with collaborators on a new cluster or taking over editorship of an existing one.

The #Alt-Academy project seemed to me like the perfect place for this kind of experimentation. Many of us on the #alt-ac track gain no special professional reward from publishing with prestige journals or presses, or from adhering to established standards of academic peer review. So why not try something new?

And that question, in itself, probably sums up the project’s ethos better than anything else I could say!

Bethany Nowviskie is Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library. She chairs the MLA’s Committee on Information Technology and is vice president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Postgraduates and the Privatization of English Higher Education

In Guest Blogger on 2010/11/18 at 00:09

Casey Brienza and Ernesto Priego

On November 3, British universities minister David Willetts announced a proposal to raise the basic tuition fee cap for all UK and EU citizens to £6000, or up to £9000 under certain conditions, as early as 2012. This announcement comes in the wake of the Browne Report, which proposes to eliminate the block teaching grant received by all English universities for all non-STEM subjects. This, argues Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books, constitutes a de facto forced privatization of the university system.

Yet lost in this debate is much in the way of discussion of postgraduate education and the future of research in the UK. Although Conservative-led “reform” is primarily directed at the block teaching grant for undergraduate education in the non-STEM subjects, its effects will not be confined to a transformation of the undergraduate experience. Postgraduate fees for domestic and EU students in most fields are also subject to a cap which will rise in line with those for undergraduates. Furthermore, given the concern that even a fee rise will not compensate for the loss in government funding, it seems inevitable that universities will seek to balance their accounts by enrolling even more non-EU overseas students, particularly into money-making postgraduate courses. In short, these policy decisions are sure to result in a huge collective rise in sticker price for all students seeking postgraduate degrees in England.

Any substantial increase in the cost of postgraduate education will in turn have a huge effect upon those public and private institutions which fund postgraduate research. Either fewer worthy projects will be funded, or fewer projects will be funded well. In both cases, we would expect research students to try meeting their expenses through undergraduate teaching. Indeed, given the cost advantage, it is hard not to imagine UK universities going precisely this route and employing postgraduates for occasional lecturing and tutoring. This will, in turn, accelerate an exploitative process more advanced in the United States whereby, as per Marc Bousquet’s thesis in How the University Works (NYU Press, 2008), receipt of the PhD marks the logical end of a university teaching career, not its beginning.

Receipt of the PhD will be the logical end of a career if this de facto privatization of English higher education becomes reality. New lectureships are certain to be scarce in an age of austerity, even for UK and EU citizens, and new non-EU overseas degree-holders will be faced with stricter visa requirements and a permanent annual cap on highlyskilledimmigrants that will limit their job opportunities in England to the near-vanishing point. In other words, the very human capital that the country has cultivated will be lost to it, and in the future much of the potential global talent that the UK currently attracts will simply go someplace else. Overseas students in the UK will be of one kind–the ones from rich families seeking an exclusive-looking finishing school to burnish their reputations back home. These will be relieved of their cash and then politely shown the door.

The attack on aspiring researchers from overseas does not stop at an individual or even collective level solely within the UK–international degree holders also contribute to the general development of their home countries, whose own programmes often look up to the British model and have for a long time awarded considerably more funding to “strategic” or “priority” areas such as the STEM fields. It is truly a bleak situation, and one with the potential to stunt societies around the globe for decades to come with its implicit skepticism of intellectual pursuit as a collective, public good. As overseas students working toward our PhDs at English universities in non-STEM fields, we are in a unique position to hear most intensely the message being sent to all aspiring researchers in the humanities and social sciences: We don’t want you; go away.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media coverage of the November 10 student demonstration in London missed the point. It comes as no surprise that hardly anyone involved in higher education is pleased by the situation, but the problem goes far beyond a mere debate about the increase of student fees. In fact, the very future of higher learning and research in the UK–and of its positive influence upon the rest of the world–is at stake.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Can the Subaltern Tweet?

In Guest Blogger on 2010/06/28 at 09:00

Guest blogger, Ernesto Priego, writing from London, England in the UK.

I am not sure I could be writing these lines in any other language than English. It is very possible you could not read these words were I writing them in my native language –Spanish–, because there might not be a platform where I could –or perhaps want to– publish it, at least not without me as an author facing the danger of a negative critical backlash. I say this to state my awareness of a relatively privileged position, of me as an author of this text in the present form in which you are reading it as enabled by specific technologies.

The effects of colonialism still disempower individuals, often reducing them to roles of consumption rather than production.

How can we live up to the promise of the Internet and the Web without erasing each other?

I believe a way in which the subaltern can make herself heard/read/seen at a planetary level is through a conscious, often painful process  where individuals learn to see the English language and specific technologies as tools to think with and to do things, not just to consume things passively. This shift is also political: it means to stop seeing oneself as the oppressed of a given hegemonic power.  This shift does not mean abandoning,or even less, repressing national languages or cultural traits. On the contrary, user-generated online content, with metadata in several languages and geo-tagging can be an essential part of this process.

One of the goals would be the inclusion of this content within the network of academic knowledge production. This would work as an act of online self-determination, understood as the freedom of misrepresented individuals and communities to determine their own online content.

In other words, online self-determination is necessary to affect the wider international community of communities by populating the Web with tagged, hyper-linked multilingual content. Online self-determination can also mean one’s technical, and very importantly, financial ability to represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.

Perhaps a community of communities may seem idealistic.

Disciplinary, social, geographical, national, linguistic and financial borders are realities that   internet access has not and cannot erase. Deeply rooted cultural traits/practices and beliefs are also obstacles to a practical critique of power dynamics in the language of those who are often perceived as the oppressors.

Computers are not places we live in, but they affect the way we think about ourselves and the planet.

Computers do not make the subaltern or marginalised individual think she can control the “globe”; on the contrary, computers can be windows to an inhospitable world. As means of establishing relations with Others, national languages and online technologies can both create communities and alienate large numbers of individuals. Simultaneously, computers have in fact transformed and continuously transform our ideas of who we are, what we do and how many we are.

A specific politics of planetary online friendship is at stake. Online decolonization and daily exercises of online self-determination are ways of befriending Others by acknowledging them as our contemporaries regardless of the time zone they might be in.

We start by recognizing our current positions.

The hyperlinking will follow.

Ernesto Priego was born in Mexico City and now lives in London. He is a PhD candidate in Information Studies at University College London. He has a background in English, comparative literature and cultural studies. His research sits at the crossroads of comics scholarship, history of the book and digital humanities.


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