By Ibrar Bhatt
I was honoured to organise, introduce and chair this SRHE digital university network event on 22 February 2019 at Queen’s University Belfast. It was the second Digital University Network event to take place here at Queen’s and I hope that it becomes a new tradition for both the SRHE and QUB.
The event hosted three papers, from varying perspectives, to discuss the issue of digitisation and how it has affected the professional work of academics. Since most research on digitisation tends to focus on students, there is now a justifiably growing body of work which examine the impact of digitisation on academics, especially in light of new practices of knowledge production, knowledge distribution, and, more broadly, academic identity formation in current times. In other words, what it means to be an academic and to do academic work.
The event began with the team of the ESRC funded ‘Academics Writing’ project (David Barton, Mary Hamilton (both Lancaster), and myself (QUB)), outlining how digital media and digitisation policies are shaping the knowledge-producing work and professional lives of academics in new and unexpected ways. One focus of this talk was email and how to manage it and experience it as part of professional life in academia. Much of the discussion which emerged was around how universities are managed and how, if at all, academic labour is divided. You can read more about this project’s findings in our new book Academics Writing. I worked on this project and found that it was a great induction into the academic working life!
This was followed by Katy Jordan’s (Open University) paper, which drew on three of her recent projects. The projects focused on academics’ use of social media platforms for networking, how these engender different types of impact, different types of professional connections and relationships, and how these relate across different discipline groups. Notably, one of Katy’s many findings is that academic online spaces are not ‘democratising’ spaces, but rather spaces where hierarchies are reflected and in some cases algorithmically perpetuated.
Mark Carrigan’s (Cambridge) paper explored how the proliferation of platforms is reshaping social life, particularly in relation to the social sciences and their role within and beyond the university. Among the various perspectives critically explored by Mark were ‘project time’ in academic work, ‘amplification-itis’ where pursuit of online popularity is an end in itself, and overall ’acceleration’ in the academy as a result. You can find out more about Mark’s work here.
The papers together presented arguments about how many of these new practices, brought about through digitisation but also given impetus by deeper changes such as the marketisation and massification of HE, are becoming key indicators against which academic professional success is being measured, with online profiles being factored into an academic’s reputation and potential to influence their own field. This event, therefore, critically explored some of the challenges faced by new and established researchers in understanding what the ‘digital university’ portends for the future of the academic workforce and for scholarly work in general. The scope is quite vast so we hope to cover this theme again in future events to include more international perspectives.
All three sets of slides for the papers are available here.Ibrar Bhatt is a Lecturer in Education at Queen’s University Belfast, a member of the SRHE’s Governing Council, and a convener of its Digital University Network. His recent publications include the following monographs published by Routledge/T&F: Assignments as Controversies: Digital Literacy and Writing in Classroom Practice and (co-authored) Academics Writing: The Dynamics of Knowledge Creation. He tweets at @ibrar_bhatt