My friends, what a time to be working in education.
When I sat down in November to plan this year’s Digital Detox, I really struggled. Reading back through the essays of the last few years, it is easy to believe that nothing has really changed or improved since the start of the pandemic, and that we are still struggling against the same-but-worse forces of surveillance capitalism, disaster capitalism, and plain-old classic edition neoliberal capitalism.
Do I have anything new to say? Some days, I feel like to work in education in a pandemic is the ultimate task of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Big “fiddle while Rome burns” energy.
I think a lot about the idea of moral stress. The idea behind it is that there’s a personal cost in upholding systems that don’t align with our values, and while the idea didn’t emerge from educational contexts, there are compelling reasons to consider how it might apply here. The things we do in the name of keeping our jobs — and I’m not pretending my own innocence here, as I do a one-month fill-in for a course that uses surveillance technologies I deeply disagree with for the final exam — weigh upon us. And as we look at our institutional haphazard return-to-campus plans, many of us (suddenly? for the first time?) feel alienated from places that once seemed aligned with our values.
I’ve never known a time in higher ed where so many of my friends and colleagues sector-wide were showing such obvious signs of burnout and overwhelm. I wrote about how it feels to be inside it for me in 2021. We’re told The Great Resignation is coming for higher ed, but I agree with this great Twitter thread that suggests it’s going to look less like a wave of resignations and more like a wave of detachment and disconnection. Indeed, I think it’s already here.
The good and bad thing about the academy as a structure is that it is by and large governed by collegial governance. When it works, I actually think it’s like a kind of magic where different perspectives come together for the common good. But it depends a lot on hours and hours and hours of unpaid labour — there’s a reason you always see the same fifteen people rotating through every committee — and if people begin to pull back, what then?
I worry that when we let our guard down, the worst elements take hold: for-profit ventures, surveillance technology, big data. And it’s not easy to wriggle free from these agreements once they’ve been made. But who has the energy to ask the questions? It’s supposed to be me. But friends. I am tired.
And yet, I know that every day people I admire are working hard to challenge and push back against the encroaching paradigms, to resist surveillance tools at their institutions, to stand up for collegial governance, to demand better. And when I hear their stories, I know that this is my work too. Indeed, this is all of our work: students, staff, faculty, and community members who care about the future of education, who care about equity and access, who care about openness. It’s up to all of us to fight.
So that’s the theme of this year’s Digital Detox: Fighting Apathy. Maybe it’s only my own apathy I’m fighting, but I suspect it goes beyond one straggling, tired, and beleaguered educational technologist. I want to take this month to remind us all of what we’re fighting for, and to build a space together where we can connect and support the work that is still to come. And we’ll be clear-eyed about the support we aren’t getting from our institutions and governments and the places we need to put pressure to make change.
I hate the word resilient. I’m tired of being thanked for my resilience by people with the power to lessen my burdens. I’m broken down and used up. I’m tired. I’m not indefatigable and my work is not effortless. These words are not compliments; they are systemic failures. But I do want to find the right words to talk about how and why we come to the fight every day. I want to remember why it’s worth it.
This Digital Detox is developed at Thompson Rivers University, but it’s created for everyone. As in past years, we encourage you to comment on posts, discuss on social media, or blog along with us. We’ll also continue our tradition of having virtual meet-ups to connect in real time. And new this year, we’re inviting anyone who has more-than-a-comment to contribute a post themselves that will be archived as part of the Digital Detox itself.
Welcome to the party. If all I manage this year is to write my way out of my own apathy, it’ll be a heck of a win. But if I can bring you along for the ride, and spark or reignite or fan some of your own activist fire to fix or productively break our education system together, well that just might keep me going for all of 2022.