On July 1st I had the great pleasure of delivering the opening keynote address to the APT Conference. Before I try to represent my talk here, I need to thank the conference team, and especially Jason Davies, who contacted me last year to see if I would be interested in speaking at the event. And I was, and I did, and I was glad to be there. When I got up to give this talk, I thanked the people in the room, and said “I hope I make you very uncomfortable.” I suppose the conference feedback will indicate whether or not I was successful. (by the way, the slides and speaking notes for this talk are here. )
In April 2019, right about the same time that I was thinking about what I wanted to say at APT, a report from the UK Department of Education came out, titled “Realising the Potential of Technology in Education: a strategy for education providers and the technology industry”.
This government document is to set the vision for the use of technology in education (specifically in England, but with implications for the rest of the UK). So I wondered at its approach, but did not do so for long, as its emphasis was clear from the table of contents.
This report centers the needs and desires of the tech industry. It trades in deficit models, starts from the assumption that there’s not enough technology in educational contexts, and that more tech is the answer to “drive change”
Words with the root “innov” (innovate, innovation, innovating, innovative) show up 43 times in this 48 page document. Section 6 in particular gives the game away, with quite detailed concerns about the health and well-being of the edtech business sector in England, and the need for the industry to have streamlined access to education and educators.
The word “procurement” shows up 13 times, but “pedagogy” is nowhere in this report.
The DfE report came out just after Lawrie Phipps and I had presented on findings from work we had carried out in 2018-19, on the teaching practices of lecturers in HE and FE. We released this report at Jisc’s Digifest in March, the same month that our article on this same work was published in the Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning. I’ve discussed the broad outlines of this research elsewhere in the blog (and if you like you can watch our presentation on our approach and methods here)–for the purposes of this talk, I wanted to focus on the way we framed the work, and contrast it to the DfE report, because the research that Lawrie and I did seems to me the antithesis of that government document. While that report started with technology, and assumed that there wasn’t enough of it, Our assumptions were as follows:
- People who teach have practices that involve digital.
- People have expertise, and make reasoned decisions around what to do and not do.
In our approach to our project we did not start off asking about technology (even though our research questions definitely were about technology in teaching and learning contexts). We started off asking about teaching.
Among the themes that emerged in our interviewees’ discussions about technology were the barriers and enablers to the uses of of that tech. Nowhere in these barriers were “lack of access to education technology markets.” There were plenty of barriers that were human, and organizational. Time, priorities, values, relationships, and trust (or lack thereof) all informed the extent to which people did or did not engage with technology, both institutionally provided, and otherwise.
It was also made clear over the course of our research that there were things being done with technology that were not particularly “innovative” (e.g., lectures, grading, depositing materials for consumption). During our analysis, when thinking about barriers to technology use and in particular to “innovation” we found that practitioners were struggling with the disconnect between what they need to do in the spaces their institution provides, and what is possible–before they ever get to what they want to do, or what they might not know about yet.
In institutional contexts where people do not have the time, organizational support, or access to resources that would allow for exploration around new tech, or using old tech in new ways, it’s not hard to see why “innovation” is hard to come by. And also easy to see that “more tech” or “use the tech more” or even “create a market more friendly to vendors” isn’t going to produce more innovation. Or, more effective teaching and learning contexts.
We have encountered, over the course of this research and also in the other work we do in the sector, a distinct lack of compliance around certain kinds of education technology.
We witnessed and heard about a lack of participation in lecture capture, in people not wanting to do it, citing concerns about labor exploitation and picket-line crossing, and even expressing fears of the wholesale replacement of lecturers with captured content.
We spoke to and also heard about academic staff who keep a minimal presence in the learning management system (course content, syllabi, calendars), but who engage in their actual teaching practices in digital contexts outside of institutional control.
For this example, I told the story (shared with her permission) of a student who studied abroad as a part of her degree. This experience led to a full time job before she had finished her time at university, and that job also made it financially possible for her to complete her university degree. In her final year there was a conflict between (required) attendance in class and the times she needed to be on site at work. Her department had recently instituted card-swipes to track student attendance in class. She worked with her head of department to get permission to not always be in class, and with that permission was “swiped in” by a classmate to satisfy institutional requirements.
I have told elsewhere the story of students engaging in an elaborate ID card charade to get a non-student into the library space they wanted to study together in–in the end, four students went into the library, and the ID system only recorded three of their own students, not the fourth unaffiliated one.
An inordinate managerial focus on Compliance makes it hard to see actual practices. The examples I list above show us that if we mistake what is reflected in the VLE/LMS, card-swipe systems, and only the lectures that are recorded for the holistic reality of teaching and learning practices, we are terribly wrong.
Our “precision bias” means that the numbers given to us via card swipes and attendance records feel far more accurate than they actually are. Knowing the behaviors that give us these numbers means we cannot trust them as proxies for what we want them to be. Attendance numbers don’t actually tell us much about the engagement of students with their courses of study. Course content placed in institutional online places doesn’t necessarily reflect actual teaching practices. Card swipes in libraries that don’t represent who is actually in the building at any given time.
One overarching message in these stories, and in the research project overall, was that lack of trust can be corrosive. Not being able to trust your institution with your actual practices means that you don’t share, and they don’t know, what you are doing.
I gave a brief presentation earlier this year about our research findings around non-classroom digital spaces and practices. After talking about the ways that instructors engaged with students in non-classroom non-LMS/VLE digital places, the main question I was asked was “How can we make them use the LMS?”
Too often the institutional response is concerned with compliance, and furthermore assumes that if people are not complying, perhaps it’s because they don’t know how to do the “thing.” So then we end up with lots of workshops and webinars about How To X. How to embed your gradebook into Canvas. How to upload captured lectures into Moodle. How to take attendance using clickers or card swipes.
I have been reading Dr. Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness. In this book, she writes a black feminist, critical race studies informed take on surveillance studies. I was familiar with surveillance (being closely observed, especially by an institutional power such as police or military, but increasingly by corporations, and any entity with access to the stream of data we leave in our wake these days), but unfamiliar with Steve Mann’s concept of sousveillance, which he describes as a way of “enhancing the ability of people to access and collect data about their surveillance and to neutralize surveillance (61)”
So, an example of surveillance tech would be CCTV. An example of sousveillance would be using cameras in your smart phones to film the police during a protest.
Dr. Simone Browne introduced me to the idea of dark sousveillance: a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight (Dark Matters p. 21 in the Kindle Edition.) In particular she is theorizing and describing the means by which racialized people avoid being seen, so that they cannot be victimized by the structures and practices of surveillance. An example of such behavior would be publicizing where the cameras are, so that you can avoid them.
Central to the idea of dark sousveillance is the fact that the surveilling gaze is institutionally White, and furthermore, as Browne demonstrates in her book, that the technologies and practices of surveillance have a deep history in the colonization and enslavement of Black and indigenous people. The history of current surveillance practices involves the production and policing of racialized categories of people, in particular blackness and black people, so that they can be controlled and exploited.
Dark sousveillance is a refusal of the power structures of surveillance. I am helped in making this connection with the work of Lilian G. Mengesha and Lakshmi Padmanabhan, who define refusal as “what we conceive of as disruptions to the vicious dialectic of assimilation and resistance”
So in thinking again about surveillance, we can see that assimilation would be having an Alexa in your house. Resistance would be hacking Alexa to observe only when you want it to. Refusal is not having any such device in your house at all.
The options of assimilation vs. opposition are still in reference to a given system, such as systems of gender relations, racial identity, and economic class. Think of the revels of Mardi Gras, that serve to strengthen the message that you should observe Lent. The presence of The Fool requires that of a Monarch. There are fundamental assumptions and premises, hegemonies that are shot through these systems.
Refusal is not participating in those systems, not accepting the authority of their underlying premises. Refusal happens among people who don’t have access to structural power. Refusal is a rejection of framing premises. Recognizing refusal requires attention, and credit to tactics such as obfuscation, or deliberate misinterpretation.
“The tactics of refusal include: illegibility, opacity, and inaction” (Mengesha and L. Padmanabhan 2019)
In making this argument about refusal, I want to point to some examples of what I mean.
Ethnographic refusal has been defined by Dr. Audra Simpson (an anthropologist and member of the Kahnawake Mohawk–Haudenosaunee people) as “a willful distancing from state-driven forms of recognition and sociability” (2014) (cited in L. G. Mengesha and L. Padmanabhan p. 3). In her discussion of doing work within her own community, she describes moments where the person she was talking to simply did not share what they knew. Even if it was something “everyone knew”–it remained unspoken. And she, as an ethnographer and a Mohawk, joined in that refusal and did not write that information down, rejecting the assumption that anthropological knowledge requires the right to know everything.
Think of any people among whom anthropologists want to do work, or on whose land archaeologists want to dig. They have the right to refuse. They have the right to say No. And anthropologists historically have a difficult time with that, and continue to need to work on recognizing and respecting ethnographic refusal.
Simpson suggests that there is a great deal that is generative about refusal, and theories of refusal–what we can learn from the limits that are indicated by refusal?
In 1997 I was still doing my own anthropological fieldwork in Northern Ireland, and this book by Begoña Arextaga came out. The blanket protests in the H-blocks of Northern Ireland from 1976-1981) were an example of refusal. Republican and Nationalist men who were “on the blanket” were refusing their assigned (by the British State) status of criminals, and asserting their status of political prisoners, protesting the removal of the Special Status that defined them differently from criminals by refusing and rejecting regular prison uniforms. These protests ended when Thatcher’s government reinstated Special Status but only after the deaths of the hunger strikers, including Bobby Sands, in 1981. Arextaga’s focus on the political tactics of Nationalist women in Northern Ireland, including those who themselves participated in blanket protests, reveals not just their refusal of the status of common criminals, but a further rejection of the idea that as women they could not be political prisoners, or active participants in Nationalist/Republican struggles at all.
Refusal is an action, not just a lack of action. It is exercising agency, not just “non compliance.” So, faculty/academic staff refuse to use systems, such as an LMS/VLE, or lecture capture, refusing and rejecting the premise that they and their expertise can be reduced to a piece of content like a lecture, or a cache of powerpoint slides.
These choices are not about inability, or digital skills or capability. These choices are made because of people’s concerns about how their labor can be exploited, taken advantage of, made invisible or redundant. They are refusing in a context of lack of trust, precarious labor, and a de-valuing of academia and academic work.
This is the point where I remind you that the Luddites were not anti-machine, and I would point particularly to Audrey Watters’ discussion of the Luddites and their frequently misrepresented agenda here. The act of the Luddite “isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation (Watters 2014).” Luddites broke machines in protest against factory practices that devalued and erased their labor.
To what extent is edtech a “Captivating Technology “ (to quote Dr. Ruha Benjamin in her introduction to her 2019 edited volume)–a technology of domination that embeds and fossilizes and perpetuates racial, economic, and other inequalities in the name of technosolutionist “neutral” fixes. Benjamin argues we need “ethical engagement with technoscience, where the zeal for making new things is tempered by an ability to listen to the sounds and stories of people and things already made.(9)”
Benjamin asks, “How, then, might we craft a justice-oriented approach to technoscience? It starts with questioning breathless claims of techno-utopianism, rethinking what counts as innovation, remaining alert to the ways that race and other hierarchies of difference get embedded in the creation of new designs, and ultimately refashioning the relationship between technology and society by prioritizing justice and equity.” (11)
Education technology is still technology. People generate systems of classification to contain and control, and we need to ask, what racialized logics are embedded in the ways we point systems at students with concerns for their “success?” Or that require staff compliance with edtech systems in the name of consistency, or quality control? Do we assume there aren’t any such logics?
Do we assume or insist that “they can trust us?” We do that at our peril, and theirs too, especially in a larger context where vulnerable students and staff are already under surveillance, where technology is implicated and embedded in the ways that race, gender, and class are produced and reinforced. What reasons do students have to trust, given that context? Representatives of institutions cannot simply say “trust me” and have that come to pass.
We can find examples of refusal in specifically educational contexts, too. The recent UIC graduate student strike is a refusal to work until the material conditions and their labor contracts (especially their pay, and health care provisions) were improved, in an overwhelming context of lack of trust in institutions, and overall economic and political precarity.
An archivist at Hollins University, in Virginia, USA, refused to withdraw examples of students in blackface in yearbook pictures in the university archives. They did not trust the motives of their institution in removing those images, and called it out publicly on social media.
A group of faculty members at Yale withdraw their labor from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program because of a historical lack of resources and other structural support, as well as insufficient institutional recognition of their labor. Dr. Tricia Matthew, at the time, highlighted that the problem was in part one of classifying labor as a “service,” something antithetical to robust program-building at universities. Recently Yale seems to have made assurances that new structural support will be made available to ER&M, and faculty members have “recommitted” to the program.
When we pay attention to the refusals of students and faculty, we learn more about what is at stake, and what is actually happening. We also need to ask, if people cannot refuse, what does it mean?
Do we want to define education as control and compliance, rather than growth?
What are the limits of refusal? What does that tell us about power and the structures we have to navigate?
And there are many things we should be refusing:
- Employability narratives
- Tracking and Surveillance
- “More with Less”
Those things are emerging from the wrong way to frame education, if we value it as a form of social justice (and we should).
The framing of education as a place to sell more tech, as a potential market for a home-grown edtech silicon valley, rather than a common good to be opened up to as many people and practices as possible, this framing is a political act
The narrowing of education to a credential that gets you a job is a political act
I have mentioned the tactics of refusal–in discussions of agency, and notions of what people can do in their given contexts, it’s useful to remember and incorporate deCerteau’s definitions of tactic vs. strategy
Tactical refusal comes from a position of no power. People will be exerting what agency they can, and we can learn from tactical refusals, seeing them as ways of communicating as well as trying to survive
So then strategic refusal would come from a position of power, but one that acts to dismantle current structures of power on behalf of powerless people. Those of you who have power, what refusals can you make on behalf of the people who work for you, or for your students? How can we create situations where it’s possible for more people to refuse strategically (as in a strike, as in collective action?)
I want to emphasize again the importance of power structures in definitions of refusal–we need to recognize that those with less power are the ones who are doing the refusing, the rejecting of the structures that disempower, misrepresent, and potentially victimize them.
As Dr. Sara Ahmed notes:
“A struggle against power is a struggle for a right to no, a right not to agree with what you are asked to do or to be.”
What does any of this have to do with Education technology?
When people refuse (for example) to use the VLE/LMS, capture their lectures, or take attendance with digital tools, very often the institutional response is 1) “they aren’t capable, we should do more training” or 2) “We need to make them comply, or some combination of 1 and 2.
The lens of refusal gives us option 3) “they have reasons for saying no.”
This appeals to me, an anthropologist, as I am a big fan of my discipline’s conviction that there is an underlying logic to the behavior of people. Even if it’s not immediately apparent to the observer.
The correct response therefore isn’t “How can we make them comply” but “Why are they refusing? Have we done something wrong?”
And then you FIND OUT.
I gave a talk once where I cautioned libraries not to invite anthropologists into their midst if the reasons they wanted to learn about people was to make them do the “right thing” in the library. The right way to go is to invite anthropologists to help libraries think critically about their practices, and change those practices so that people’s myriad needs can be more effectively met.
Recognize the refusal. Recognize it as evidence that something is wrong with what you are doing, as an institution. Possibly the wrong is outside of your institution, but erupting within it (like student homelessness. Like lack of access to mental health care. Like lack of funding for higher and further education). Take heed in Dr. Sara Ahmed’s reminder that the person who says no, the person who registers a complaint, is far too often framed as the problem, rather than seeing the thing they point to or refuse as the problem
Then your actions cannot just be about pedagogy and systems, but must be about politics and policy.
We, the people in the (APT) room, are trying to enhance, improve, change the practices we see. We use lots of change management approaches, we use technology and there is a tendency to see resistance and refusal as a way of disengaging, or as evidence of incapability. But most of the people I have worked with, and interviewed, or taught with, when they get to the point of refusal it is because of none of these things.
I would point to the example of the government (in particular the Prime Minister) of New Zealand trying to define the value of their economy not around growth, but around well-being. What if, instead of caring so much about growth of tech sector, or compliance with uses of technology within institutions, we cared about well-being of our students and staff? What would that look like?
We need to stop seeing refusal as evidence that there’s something wrong with the people doing the refusing. We need to see refusal as evidence that there is something wrong that they are communicating about, something wrong with the systems they are being presented with, with the structures in which they are placed. And then we need to take responsibility for changing things. Value the people who refuse, because it is from those people that you can learn, and then work to build a more effective, more powerful set of practices within your institution.
WOC Faculty (2018) “A Collective Response to Racism in Academia” Medium, May 8, https://medium.com/@wocfaculty/a-collective-response-to-racism-in-academia-35dc725415c1
Ahmed, Sara, (2017) “No” feministkilljoys, June 30, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/06/30/no/
Browne, Simone. Dark matters: On the surveillance of blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.
Department for Education (2019). Realising the potential of technology in education: A strategy for education providers and the technology industry. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/791931/DfE-Education_Technology_Strategy.pdf
Lanclos, D., & Phipps, L. (2019). Trust, Innovation and Risk: a contextual inquiry into teaching practices and the implications for the use of technology. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(1), 68 – 85. https://journal.ilta.ie/index.php/telji/article/view/53
Mann, S., Nolan, J., & Wellman, B. (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance & society, 1(3), 331-355.
Matthew, P. A. (Ed.). (2016). Written/unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure. UNC Press Books.
Mengesha, L., & Padmanabhan, L. (2019). Introduction to Performing Refusal/Refusing to Perform. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 1-8.
Rahman, Zara, (2019) “Can data ever know who we really are?” Deep Dives, Medium, May 15. https://deepdives.in/can-data-ever-know-who-we-really-are-a0dbfb5a87a0
Benjamin, R. (Ed.). (2019). Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life. Duke University Press.
Simpson, A. (2007). On ethnographic refusal: indigeneity,‘voice’ and colonial citizenship. Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, (9).
Watters, Audrey. (2014) “Ed-tech’s Monsters” Hack education, Sept 3, http://hackeducation.com/2014/09/03/monsters-altc2014