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Cyborg University Studies: A new framework for critically evaluating university technological practice

Cyborg University Studies: A new framework for critically evaluating university technological practice

Since the turn of the 21st century, a wealth of terms have emerged or taken on new life that describe the diverse ways research, teaching, and the university itself are adopting new technologies and technological practices. Some of these terms call overt attention to technology, such as “the digital humanities,” “digital scholarship,” “digital pedagogy,” “digital learning”, “e-learning,” “educational technology,” “escholarship,” “digital rhetoric,” “the digital university,” “the virtual university,” “networked participatory scholarship,” and so forth. Other terms, while less explicit in their relation to technological practice, still describe academic practices that have come to depend equally on recent technological advances in the ability to cheaply and rapidly share or analyze information, such as “open access,” “data science,” “participatory learning,” “scholarly communication,” or “the information-rich university.”   

Given this linguistic plentitude, one might be skeptical about the need for yet another label to describe the technological situation of the university. However, while there are many terms to help us think through the ways digital technology are changing academic experience across multiple of dimensions--from scholarly communications to teaching in the classroom--there are not terms to direct our attention to the software politics of this transformation, or who gets to make decisions about the design and use of software and what interests are served in those decisions.

For very good reasons, scholarly and professional discussions tend to evaluate technological practices according to the ways they support research or educational goals internal to the academic site in which they are used. What is less common in such discussions is the evaluation of these practices according to how they resist or advance problematic technological trends in the broader public sphere.

In this #SocialDiss draft chapter (new draft alert), I suggest that a cyborgian framework can help us begin to conceptually connect the use, history, and implementation of information technologies within the university to broader technopolitical issues. In the same way that scholars of critical pedagogy have examined the university as a “device through which a corporate society reproduces its class-based order” (Shor 2), a cyborgian analysis of the university would enable us to newly examine the complex and often non-intuitive ways in which the university reproduces the social order of the cyborg world. In particular, we might look to analyze how the university supports the production of passive technology users, or users who are unable to collectively understand and transform software code for their own interests.

Reconceptualizing the university as a “cyborg university” allows us to momentarily set aside conventional conceptions about the nature, purpose, and effects of the university and concentrate on its role in a broader technopolitical struggle. Within this framework we can ask, what if the most important consequence of the university’s activities is not the actual content of knowledge being produced, taught, and learned, but the way it advances corporate technological power and intelligence by acculturating its student population to a certain status quo of technological exploitation and surveillance?’  And how then might we conceptualize the university as a promising site for intervention?  

Anyone interested is welcome to read or review my draft chapter "The cyborg university and its invisible discipline" (updated draft alert) on Google Docs. Be warned, there will be some tedious eavesdropping on deans, foundations, and professional organizations proclaiming the university's digital revolution as early as the 1960s. My hope is to help shine some light on the fact the even the most luddite academics among us have always already been a product of the cyborg university. 

(This post is an installment of #SocialDiss, a project in which I'm socializing drafts and reflections related to my dissertation on a variety of platforms for public review. The wonderful painting above is Scott Listfield's "The Bus" as seen at Gallery Station 16 in Montreal last August.



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