Some thoughts on ableism and ‘objectivity’ in academia

As gentle readers of my prior blog posts know, I make a habit of mentioning how I don’t post as much as I mean to; cue the passing of months, the tumbling of weeds. When I do post something, it’s normally because I have the feeling that I must express something, and yesterday has been one of those inspiring, depressing days that made me think, I need to write this down.

Yesterday the Ableism in Academia conference (@AbleismAcademia, ) organised by the wonderful Nicole Brown (and sorry to others that I am neglecting to mention) took place at UCL Institute of Education. This was something I knew Nicole was organising and had an interest in attending, and then suddenly tickets went like proverbial hotcakes and it was sold out. And then excellently, along with Kent and Manchester (and thanks to Mark Pimm, Sarah Sherman and my colleagues in the Birkbeck AV team), the Bloomsbury Learning Environment hosted a ‘breakout’ live stream of the conference at Birkbeck (where I work), so more people could attend remotely, but together.

And again knowing this was happening, I thought I must go to this, but then of course I worried about all the things I am not doing, if I choose to do something. I should be doing work, whenever I am not doing it I should be doing my PhD, or writing blog posts or occasionally perhaps I should see human beings in my life who are actually nothing to do with any of these activities. You know, that familiar sense of guilt tinged with panic.

Anyway I went along to join the live streamed session ‘for a while’, and then I stayed all day. The stories of the conference speakers were too compelling. They were talking about how much of a disservice we frequently do to our colleagues and students with our unthinking assumptions of able-bodiedness, either in failing to understand problems posed by things like flights of stairs, or the need to work or study remotely, or have a predictable schedule of part-time working. In expecting students to amass volumes of evidence of their disability on multiple occasions. Or in assuming that invisible or intermittent disabilities don’t really exist, or at any rate are not all that serious.

So the conference was about all these things which to some degree I expected it to be, but it was also in many ways also about the grind of working in academia, the depressing sense of how much worse this has gotten, for everyone. Phased returns to work were discussed in terms of the feeling of never doing enough, despite working almost all one’s contracted hours. Also, a speaker mentioned not being able to have travel to the conference funded by his institution, as it was not about his research, only about the lived experience of the human being who does the research, without which of course, there would be no research. There was a deep concern throughout the day, echoing the discussions around the recent strikes that I have seen on Twitter and had with colleagues, for the lack of dignity and decency in the contemporary academic workplace. This is an issue that concerns and that should concern us all, not only in seeking to be decent human beings, but as members of a community that is seeing policy driving us down this superhighway of metrics and markets, powered by the academy’s favourite fossil fuels, overwork and precarity.

The researcher in me was also struck by the frankly flabbergasting discussion of there apparently being a debate over whether disabled people are ‘biased’ regarding the topic of disability, and should not therefore be researchers of it. Are we still having that conversation, academia? Can we move on from pretending that we approach research objectively, as if as researchers, we simply stumble across a research problem we have no real personal interest in, and go, oh look here’s a gap in the literature that needs filling, I will just get my trusty intellectual putty, and I’ll have that sorted out in no time. Instead of pretending to objectivity, could we not aspire to honesty?



On starting the PhD

I know good advice. I used to be a writing teacher.  

On the all-too-rare occasions that I’ve blogged, references to my lousiness at blogging seem to have come up all-too-often. I seem to feel the need to pepper my reflective prose with mea culpas, because I actually really do believe in the value of blogging for getting woolly or amorphous thoughts out into a visible, shapeable form, and I admire many people who do it (probably on balance, more for what they have to say than sheer force of will in sticking at it, but both are vital).

When I say my lousiness at blogging I am mainly referring to the pathetic (in)frequency of my output. I tend to write quite slowly. Ideally, I would edit every syllable before it gets to the page, then edit some more. The posts that make it to the point where I click ‘publish’ have passed quality control. Others have been abandoned in those dimly lit cryosleep chambers of my computers where unwanted pieces of writing remain drafts forever (or until catastrophic systems failure). And of course I know that the point of blogging (or indeed, writing drafts and notes that will turn into ‘real writing’ later) is to get ideas down, rather than to perfect their expression. I would say that to anyone who asks. I know good advice. I used to be a writing teacher.  

All this is how it’s always been. What’s changed now and prompted my return to this apparently favourite theme is that I am now, officially, finally, doing my PhD. So I am going to try and change my relationship with blogging and drafting, and put some half-baked ideas out there. Deep breath. Here goes.

student ID cardSomething I was musing on today is this early stage of the project involves quite a bit of trying to work out what I should be doing, instead of just doing stuff. This requires a new approach. I am used to having projects on the go, and chipping away, work and life permitting, and getting them done eventually. This has been working for me, I’m comfortable with this! But now I need to be more strategic. Given that I’m studying part-time, I am aware of the danger of thinking ‘I have plenty of time’.

On the other hand, some things do take time and working out what is part of the PhD and what is related but not really part of it might well be one of them.

I would say watch this space, but you might be there a while.

A new chapter: ‘Open Educational Resources’

Having decided quite a while ago that I needed to set up a new blog, I didn’t have quite the right impetus to do it until now. My old one has been more about work-in-general, whereas this one should focus on work-in-progress, specifically in the open education space. My hope is to put digital pen to paper more often to discuss developing ideas. So this new blog is a new chapter in that sense for me, but the main point of this post is also to mark the publication of a literal new chapter, which I am excited to share at last. I will also take this opportunity to say a few thank yous and explain the approach taken.

The chapter is actually described by the publisher (Springer) as a ‘living reference work entry’ and it is part of the volume Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, edited by Michael A. Peters. Markus Deimann, the section editor, invited me to contribute this entry on Open Educational Resources (there is an open access manuscript version available here). I was honoured to be asked, but quickly realised that this was not as straightforward a task as it sounds. Should it be a history of OER, explore differences in definitions, consider the various strands of related research? I started making notes, reading, writing, and rewriting, but the chapter was slow to form. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it seems to me that the same might be said of an apparently solo-parented article or book chapter. This is certainly true of mine, but perhaps I am just lucky to have had the support and guidance of friends near and far. Specifically I wish to thank Dawn Marsh for her fine-toothed comb, Joana Barros who always tells me when I don’t make sense, as well as Javiera Atenas and Catherine Cronin, who are always so generous with their thoughts.

I have also been assisted on this journey by others who didn’t necessarily know it at the time. A few months ago I listened to an excellent podcast from Tara Brabazon (in conversation with Steve Redhead, Sunny Rue Chivaura and Glory Gatwiri) prompted by the anniversary of an early work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the book Policing the Crisis. In the podcast Tara mentions that the book investigates ‘the career of a label’, in this case mugging, and about how this influenced her own PhD research, in which she looked at the career of the label youth. And this got me thinking about how one of the things that greatly interests me in this nebulous and wonderful field of open education is what we might call the career of the label open. And this also fed in to my thinking about the question: what would I want to tell someone about OER, if they were going to start learning about it by reading this?

And so, in this short chapter, rather than attempt a comprehensive literature review or history of OER, I tried to give some sense of the career of open in education – the idea that this term has historicity and contingency attached, that the educational resource with an open license attached to it is a relative newcomer. I also wanted to reflect the more recent turn towards discussion of Open Educational Practices (OEP) and signal why this is an important development, rather than simply a ‘rebadging’ of OER. For me, this means exploring the benefits of thinking about OEP as a lens for studying and transforming practice, rather than as a list or collection of practices considered open. I am looking forward to returning to this theme in an upcoming conference paper at OER17 which will be an opportunity to reconnect with many more of the people I haven’t managed to name above, but who also keep encouraging me to ask open questions.