The University in a Connected World

Our convenor Susan Robertson was interviewed by CGTN while taking part in the World University Presidents Symposium held last week in Beijing. Susan reflected on the university in a connected world and the possibilities which platforms offer for rethinking its operations:

Susan Robertson, a professor of education at the University of Cambridge, who has taken part in MOOCs, found that one of the most characteristic challenges in online teaching stems from the sheer number of participants and the rich sources of relevant reading materials that they can access on the Internet.

“This made me think, ‘Oh my goodness: MOOC is teaching thousands of students at a time’,” the professor told CGTN on the sidelines of the World University Presidents Symposium held last week in Beijing. “I did a huge amount of work, maybe more work than it took for my normal class that I might teach.”

See here for the full article and video interview.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships

The new Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships have been launched. See their website for full information.

A call for applications for MSCA Individual Fellowships, which provide fellowships for scholars to move to conduct research in another European country for 12-24 months, is now open. The deadline is 12th September 2018.

Please get in contact if you’re interested in applying for the scheme through our cluster.

How do I use social media for networking?

By Mark Carrigan

‘Networking’ is a horrible term.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who hates it. It  nonetheless refers to something important, albeit perhaps pervasively misunderstood. The usual connotations of the term ‘networking’ are insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness. There have been a few occasions when I’ve been conscious of being ‘networked’ by someone else in a way that made me deeply uncomfortable. It’s worse when someone is really good at it, projecting enthusiasm for their encounter with you while nonetheless failing to engage with anything you’re actually saying: smiling plausibly while looking over your shoulder to check if anyone more useful has entered the vicinity.

In fact I think ‘useful’ is the key term to understanding the problem here. If you see ‘networking’ in terms of people being ‘useful’ to you then it will be a soul-destroying activity. You’ll either succeed in building a collection of ‘useful’ people around you (and destroy your soul in the process) or your confidence will be crushed by the feeling you’ve pervasively failed to do things properly (though your soul may very well be intact).

Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding.

Social media can be immensely powerful tools for networking in this sense. The first step to doing this successfully is to give people a clear sense of what it is you are interested in. This involves choosing facts about yourself, compiling them into a story and telling this story through your social media accounts. Here are the most common features of profiles like this:

  • Your institutional affiliation
  • Your research interests
  • Other accounts you’re involved with
  • Your personal interests
  • Hashtags you contribute to
  • An institutional disclaimer
  • An additional website

This will always be an ongoing process because yourself, your position and your interests change over time. It can be a helpful exercise to try using different formats to tell a story about yourself, what you’re interested in and who you’d be interested in talking to. Try having a go at crafting an online identity in each of the following formats:

  1. One paragraph
  2. 160-character Twitter bio
  3. 2–3 word tagline, intended as a pithy summary of yourself

The limitations on Twitter can seem restrictive but there’s a lot you can say in the 160 characters which Twitter allows for profiles.  My favourite example of this is the profile of Yanis Varoufakis below who positions himself in a vivid, memorable and detailed way. Other platforms give you much more room to tell a story, particularly if you’re using a blog. Though brevity will always be valuable in the distracting and distracted environments of social media. Choosing a picture and a header image is also important. What do you want to convey? Do you want people to be able to recognise you at conferences? What do other people in your field use for this?

Once you’ve given people a sense of where you’re coming from, networking becomes a matter of what you do with social media. Here are a few general strategies about using social media for this, with a bias towards Twitter simply because this is such an powerful means for networking in the sense in which we’re talking about it:

  1. Share what you care about online. In a recent book, the Sociologist Les Back suggests that Twitter sometimes facilitates our “inhabiting the attentiveness of another writer” by providing “signposts pointing to things going on in the world: a great article, an important book, a breaking story”. Through the things that others share, we sometimes enter into their world and participate in an economy of “hunches and tips” which is the “lifeblood of scholarship”. These provide pathways through the literature, allowing others to use them as guides into and through often difficult bodies of work. If you consistently share what you care about then other people to whom this matter will find you online. It’s in this subtle way that I think everyday use of social media can help mitigate the competitive individualism which dominates the academy.
  2. When in doubt, connect! The capacity of social media to flatten academic hierarchies is vastly overstated but there’s a kernel of truth to it: unless you’re a remarkably outgoing and talented networker, it’s much easier to approach well known academics online then it is in person. If you find yourself hesitating about whether to make contact with them, err on the side of connection. At worst they’ll ignore you & the architecture of social media is built from the ground up to encourage people to interact as much as possible. Furthermore, use community resources like hashtags to connect with others at a similar stage to you.
  3. Ensure you have a way of following people doing interesting work when you encounter them. At its most simple, this might be simply following them on a platform or adding them to a Twitter list. But if you use software like an RSS reader, it ensures that if you stumble across someone’s writing then you’ll always be able to come back to it at a later stage. People who share your academic interests now will almost certainly still be interesting later, even if they go on to do different things. This can include looking to see if people you see talk at conferences have academic social networking profiles (e.g. Academia.Edu), Twitter feeds or blogs and connecting with in this way. If you have a question about their talk then why not ask them online?

There are many platform specific issues we could discuss but it’s helpful to begin on this general level. It’s not something you have to think about in as much details as the awful language of ‘networking’ tends to suggest. If you see this as a case of building connections with other people who share your interests, in order to talk about those shared interests, it’s a relatively straight-forward matter even if the academic context can make it seem like a rather difficult thing.

The epistemic privilege of platforms

By Mark Carrigan

What is the relationship between platforms and their users? I’ve been thinking about this all morning while reading The Know‑It‑Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball, by Noam Cohen. On loc 277 he writes:

In fact, tech companies believe that through artificial intelligence tools they understand their users’ state of mind in a way few other companies can, and far better than any regulator. They can track, measure, and analyze the billions of decisions their users make, and they can detect even the most minor feature that may be turning them off. And rather than wait for problems, these companies can compel their users to express a preference by staging so-called A/ B testing, which involves showing groups of users slightly different versions of the site and measuring which group stays longer and is thus happier with the experience. Google famously went so far as to prepare forty-one shades of blue to test which was the best color for displaying links in its Gmail service.

This epistemic privilege is inflated but it nonetheless has to be taken seriously. There are forms of knowledge about users which platforms have unique access to, discerning real-time behaviour (including responses to planned stimuli) with a degree of granularity that would be difficult to match in any other context. What matters is how this epistemic relation is raised into a political claim: if we know our users better than any external party, how could regulation be anything other than incompetent?

This relies on a reduction of the salient characteristics of the user to their actions which register within the confines of the platform, representing the core of what I’ve written about in an upcoming chapter as the evisceration of the human: the reduction of real agency to its empirical traces. Furthermore, it is bound up with the conviction of transcending the murky mess of self-interpretation, offering apparent insight into what OK Cupid data scientist Christian Rudder memorably described as Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) in the subtitle to his book Dataclysm. This is bound up in a political economy which Mark Andrejevic identifies on loc 870 of his InfoGlut:

In this regard the digital era opens up a new form of digital divide: that between those with access to the databases and those without. For those with access, the way in which data is understood and used will be fundamentally transformed. There will be no attempt to read and comprehend all of the available data – the task would be all but impossible. Correlations can be unearthed and acted upon, but only by those with access to the database and the processing power. Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one hand, the familiar, “old- fashioned” one in which people attempt to make sense of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can “teach” themselves will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

Does anyone know of ethnographic work which looks at how this epistemic relation is talked about in everyday labour within these firms? It must presumably be invoked constantly, in an everyday manner, during user interface design and similar activities. This could help elucidate the micro-structure for the inflation of epistemic privilege which I suspect Cohen is correct to identify as one source of hostility to regulation.