More than their share. 27th February.

A glitched image of Oxbridge dons processing

As a member of the UCU I have been on strike a frightening amount this year. During the strike action, a colleague sent a tweet pointing out that much of the dispute we have with the employers’ organisations around fair and equal pay and precarity is figured in terms of ‘management’ being in dispute with ‘management’ but that many senior academics are involved in the recruitment of early career staff, from who’s precarious labour they then benefit. 

To elaborate: the rhetoric of the dispute could be understood as figuring ‘management’ as a ‘them’ and the unified mass of ‘workers’ as ‘us’. However, I am inclined to agree with my colleague that things are rarely that simple.

Responsibility for early career academics’ precarious contracts and the often-unfair nature of remuneration for anyone in a university that is not white and male is shared. 

Responsibility is shared by those of us that bring in grant income and attach PhD studentships or research assistant positions to them.

Responsibility is shared by those of us that request post-graduate teaching assistance.

Responsibility is shared by those of us that benefit from any kind of teaching ‘buy out’ or relief that comes from temporarily employed staff. 

No doubt (given my far-from-comprehensive experience), I have failed to identify other ways in which that responsibility might be shared.

Responsibility is shared then, but the ability to effect change in relation to that responsibility is a little less clear. The forms of ethical reasoning we might variously make in relation to how our responsibility works are difficult.

I want to work through a couple of the cases I identify above. The responsibility for the precarious working conditions and (potentially) unfair remuneration and/or workload of an early career researcher (ECR) is shared by the principle investigator (PI), the employing institution (departmental management, HR and others) and the funder. 

If a senior academic wants to do some research the cost of buying themselves out is very high, the cost of employing a junior colleague is less. The PI wants the research to be done, they may feel it would also be valuable experience for an ECR. A series of compromises ensue, hence the difficult ethical reasoning.

A prospective PI pulls together an application. They identify the work they want to do. Then, they look at the funder’s requirements and try to translate the ideal into the ‘fundable’. The funder might: only fund for a particular length of time; only cover some of the costs (e.g. pay = yes, expenses = no); have specific requirements about expertise; and other things I cannot think of.

So, the PI compromises. They want to do the research, but due to budget constraints and funder requirements they can only employ a research assistant part-time. They submit the grant with a part-time post because may believe an ECR will also compromise for ‘experience’, that there’s other valuable things they’ll get as a result, or because they hope to ‘top up’ the post with other funding.

Who bears responsibility? The PI seems to be making the active decisions here. Nevertheless, they are compromising because they face constraints. The funder will not pay enough, or for long enough, perhaps. The institution has increased its ‘overheads’ which increases the cost of employing someone. For a specific grant application, the PI has to decide how to negotiate their constraints to arrive at a ‘fundable’ project that (in the terms of this discussion) is also ‘fair’.

For research conducted in a particular university, the institution has to decide what research is ‘worth’ – do they want to invest in researchers, to develop the careers of all of those involved in any given project? Do they want to make the opportunity to do research open and equal? Do they want to support the administration and management of research-related people and resources? And as a result they will compromise. Sadly, the compromises that have been taken have become increasingly torturous. A PI is responsible for more and more complex administrative work, which may once have been done for them.

For a research funder, like the UK research councils, the political weather dictates the money available and the priorities. That politics can be unsavoury. Do they fund everything equally? Or focus resources on perceived priorities? Do they fund comprehensively or exclude some costs?

In the UK, the pot of money for research has diminished significantly in recent years. That pot is also largely prioritised. If an academic does research in a priority area they are, perhaps, lucky. Those that don’t work in such areas get weaker and weaker gruel. 

In the social sciences in the UK there is a growing pool of applicants, more grant applications being submitted and the success rate has plateaued somewhere around 13% for the ESRC. So, all things being equal (which they’re decidedly not), you need to submit over seven applications to see one succeed. 

I have seen estimates that a grant often takes up a month’s worth of work time to prepare (if the PI spent 100% of their time on the application for a month), so seven applications would be a huge investment of time and the resources and salary to which that equates.

Why bother? Well, the PI wants to do the research for a number of reasons. It is why we get into academia – (in overly-simplistic terms) to find things out. Many of us want to contribute to our understanding of the world around us, to contribute to the debates we find stimulating. Careers are also, sadly, pegged against grant income success. When I began my first ‘permanent’ position as a lecturer I had an income target set. Fortunately, it was not enforced and later was removed.

As you become more experienced and/or successful as a PI, it seems to me, you solidify a reputation and grant success breeds further successes. Research funders like to back ‘safe’ bets. We have arrived not at a meritocratic system of peer-reviewed excellence but at a recapitulation of a feudal system of ‘science’ (taken in its broadest sense) that would be familiar to 18th and 19th century academics. Careers are often contingent upon the decisions of powerful (whether they like it/recognise it or not) professors with grant success. Being written into a grant as a named researcher or co-investigator makes a career. Being alienated or ignored can break one.

Sadly, I do not have an upbeat conclusion here. None of this is sustainable. Especially when government steadily withdraws support and imposes metrics that encourage institutional behaviour that damages ordinary staff. We are already in a feudal system that exacerbates the worst kinds of workplace behaviour. This is a systematic issue more than anything. Individual (successful) professors can choose to exercise their power (such as it is) benevolently but (it seems to me) they cannot alter the system.

Faced with these issues it is incumbent upon all of us inside the system to find a way through – I suggest this involves collaborating a lot more, it involves acting in solidarity and with compassion. This may prove difficult for those of us who found our way into academia because it permits the ‘lone wolf’ worker autonomy rarely found anywhere else. Working cultures need to be rethought, collectively, with care.

Take care of yourselves and those around you, regardless of how it appears – we are in this mess together. If you are up the ladder, do not pull the ladder up – pull others up after you.

More than their share – Dolly Parton

Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space Spring Academy – PGR/ECR opportunity

dystopian city

The IRS Spring Academies are a fantastic opportunity for anyone with an interest in the theme and in an early career position (postgraduate or post-doctoral researchers).

Investigating Space(s): Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches: Part 4 – Spaces of Crisis

26 – 29 May 2020        
Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS) in Erkner, near Berlin

leibniz-irs.de/springacademy2020

The IRS Spring Academy is a yearly format similar to a PhD summer school but, as the name suggests, taking place in spring. It is an international and interdisciplinary format that provides spots for 25 participants, typically doctoral students but also post-doctoral researchers in the early phase of their careers. The overarching aim of the IRS Spring Academy is to support qualification projects which seek to explore the spatial dimension of societally relevant topics. In particular we seek to stimulate debates at the intersections of disciplines and seek to promote academics who wish to conduct research with a spatial perspective. The IRS Spring Academy is dedicated to stimulate conceptual debates around a spatial perspective and to support new methodological knowledge that is required to conduct the related empirical investigations. Moreover, the IRS Spring Academy is a brokerage event that supports participants to build up personal networks and it provides feedback from acknowledged seniors for researchers at the early stage of their careers. 

Each IRS Spring Academy will take four intensive days of collaboration, discussion and exchange. The program combines different elements and thereby offers plenty of opportunities to debate conceptual issues and methodological challenges as well as to engage in a critical, yet constructive and supportive dialogue.

This year’s fourth IRS Spring Academy titled “Investigating Space(s): Current Theoretical and Methodological Approaches: Part 4 – Spaces of Crisis” is supported by the Leibniz Research Alliance “Crises in a Globalised World”.

The German Red Crosswill act as a local cooperation partner in 2020.

Part 4 on “Spaces of Crisis”

There is little doubt. We live in times of crisis. Core functions of democratic societies, like the financial system, democratic institutions, the free press or human-nature relationships are under severe pressure. Global problems, like increasing social inequality and mass migration tend to escalate while those political institutions that have been built up to deal with international emergencies, like the UN and WTO, experience a loss of legitimacy and funding. As a consequence, more and more political and economic decisions are made under conditions of high uncertainty and great pressure. In other words, they are made in crisis.


In the social sciences, crisis has not yet been used as a properly defined scientific term. Rather, most typically it is used as a signifier of relevance in cases, in which “problem” is no longer sufficient to express the severity of the perceived deficiency or the felt urgency to act. In crisis management, a rather recent and strongly practice-oriented knowledge domain, crisis is defined as followings: It denotes escalating threatening situations, in which actors feel an increased pressure to act under conditions of fundamental uncertainty. Crises erupt surprisingly and once the dynamics are in place, they unfold in an unpredictable manner. Crisis is a highly ambivalent notion. It marks a turning point for better or worse. 


The term crisis is full of temporal implications. It suggests a certain dramaturgy of abruptness, urgency and surprise. In hindsight, the course of events is often arranged around the acute crisis. Crisis mangers differentiate between pre-crisis (or: the ‘primordial phase’), the acute crisis and the post-crisis. The first phase is about preparation for crisis but most often also about ignored warning signals. The acute phase is about crisis management and techniques to regain control. The latter phase is about reflecting the course of events and learning from crisis. Up until recently, the spatial dimension of crisis, however, has been neglected, despite the fact that in an era of increasing global inter-dependencies, crises have become more “trans-boundary”.


Against this background, the 4th IRS Spring Academy has the following aims:

To come to a theoretically ambitious understanding of crisis, highlighting in particular…

 the enhanced relevance of uncertainty and non-knowledge, 

 the mechanisms behind the dynamics of crisis,

 the relationship between crisis and normal, 

 the particularities of decisions made under conditions of crisis,

 the transformative potentials of crisis and

 the often implicit assumptions that underlie the idea of crisis.

To explore the temporal and spatial dimensions of crisis and their connections. Of particular interest are

  • tipping points, in which crises emerge or calm down, 
  • ways of thinking about the future in situations that lack orientation,
  • the transgression of territorial borders and the embeddedness in multi-level systems and
  • how crises affect and connect different places.

To collect empirical knowledge about crises in different sectors and domains in order to

  • explore the possibilities to compare crises and to
  • discover additional aspects of crisis.

Discuss methodological challenges and strategies. Of particular relevance are

  • ethical concerns of doing research with threatened actors and organizations,
  • access to highly confidential information and 
  • the challenges of dealing with multiple perspectives and with ex-post accounts.

Program

The overarching goal of the IRS Spring Academy is to enable junior researchers from the social sciences to identify relevant research gaps, to encourage them to use a spatial perspective in their analyses and to learn from leading experts in the field about theoretical approaches and innovative methods for empirical work. Participants will have the opportunity to present their projects in paper pitch formats and to access leading experts for one-on-one consultancies. We therefore cordially invite doctoral and early postdoctoral researchers in the social sciences, geography and history to join us for an interesting program to discuss their own research with internationally leading scholars and their peers. 

The IRS Spring Academy combines well-tried and proven formats such as lectures and seminars with less common formats such as doing-research workshops, paper pitches, or academic speed networking. It offers various possibilities to exchange ideas, to discuss current concepts and methodological approaches, as well as to getting feedback on one’s own research projects from leading scholars in the field.

:: download Call for Applications – the call closes on 28 February 2020

Participation

In order to foster in-depth discussions and reflection as well as extensive opportunities for establishing and consolidating networks, both among each other and with leading international scholars, a maximum of 25 participants will be admitted to the IRS Spring Academy. 

Thanks to funding by the Leibniz Research Alliance “Crises in a Globalised World” we do not charge any tuition fees. Meals, snacks and drinks during the event are included, as well as one evening reception and one dinner.

Participants are required to organize accommodation and make travel arrangements themselves and to cover these expenses.

For applicants who a) cannot receive any funding from home institutions and b) travel and accommodation costs would prevent participation, may receive a scholarship. 3.500 Euro are reserved for participants in need. These scholarships will be divided between selected candidates and shall contribute to compensate for travel and accommodation costs. 

If you wish to apply for a scholarship, please briefly explain your situation and indicate the amount that would make your participation possible.

Keynote Speakers

 Prof. Dr. Dennis Dijkzeul | Ruhr-Universität Bochum

 Prof. Dr. Jörg Sydow | Freie Universität, Berlin 

Lecturers

Prof. Dr. Olivier Berthod | Jacobs University Bremen
Dr. Natascha Bing | German Red Cross
Jun.-Prof. Dr. Verena Brinks | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Dr. Sarah Marie Hall | University of Manchester
Prof. Dr. Oliver Ibert | Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space
Dr. Thorsten Klose-Zuber | German Red Cross

Organizer
Oliver Ibert

Locations
Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Spacer (IRS), Flakenstraße 29-31, 15537 Erkner
Deutsches Rotes Kreuz e. V., DRK-Generalsekretariat, Carstennstraße 58, 12205 Berlin

AI Now’s Data Genesis programme – job opportunity

Facial tracking system, showing gaze direction, emotion scores and demographic profiling

The excellent AI Now institute have announced a fantastic new project titled ‘Data Genesis’ – I’ve copied some details below. Importantly – there are jobs, so – if you think you might fit the bill then apply!

 AI Now Institute has been developing new approaches to study and understand the role of training data in the machine learning field. Key research questions include: What type of information is used as training data? Who generates and collects it and for what purpose? What segments of society does it reflect? Who and what does it exclude? And how does that affect the functioning of AI systems themselves?

The Data Genesis program’s goal is to answer and demystify these questions through three core components:

  • Archiving and analyzing the origin and construction of key datasets that serves as foundations for today’s AI systems;
  • Producing visualizations, maps, and other designs to help crystallize and contextualize what this data is and what it means to communities, practitioners, companies, and policymakers; and
  • Convening experts from across disciplines to help build a field around this topic.

The rapid proliferation of AI into various social and political contexts demands a thorough understanding of the data that these systems are trained on, including the biases and flaws this data may encode. Our Data Genesis program will investigate the complex foundation on which AI is built and will call into question the perception of AI as a magical force that is superior to human judgement.

Check out the jobs associated with the project here.

Absence makes… blogging harder

I haven’t written here for some time. It is not because I am short of ideas, but rather – I am short of time. I am convening three modules this year at work and had to write one (from scratch) and modify two. Coupled with the strike action, becoming a new ‘Co-Editor-in-Chief‘ and various things going on outside of work – I have been stretched!

I really do want to return to posting here though. I am unsure how often and in what way… I hope to return to the ‘work notes‘ in particular, I find these quite helpful, personally. So, I hope people are still reading things that get posted here, I also hope that, if you like things I have written in the past, you might like to get in touch and talk about them – I would welcome it 🙂

As Adam Greenfield used to regularly say in his own blogposts: be kind to yourselves and those around you.

Automation and Utopia – John Danaher’s new book

Twiki the robot from Buck Rogers

A fascinating new book from an excellent and rather prolific scholar John Danaher – presenter of a fantastic podcast. Definitely worth a look – I’ll certainly be ordering a copy. You can get a copy here: [Amazon.com] [Amazon.co.uk] [Book Depository] [Harvard UP] [Indiebound] [Google Play]

Here’s an excerpt from John’s blogpost celebrating the publication:

The book tries to present a rigorous case for techno-utopianism and a post-work future. I wrote it partly as a result of my own frustration with techno-futurist non-fiction. I like books that present provocative ideas about the future, but I often feel underwhelmed by the strength of the arguments they use to support these ideas. I don’t know if you are like me, but if you are then you don’t just want to be told what someone thinks about the future; you want to be shown why (and how) they think about the future and be able to critically assess their reasoning. If I got it right, then Automation and Utopia will allow you to do this. You may not agree with what I have to say in the end, but you should at least be able to figure out where I have gone wrong.

The book defends four propositions:

  • Proposition 1 – The automation of work is both possible and desirable: work is bad for most people most of the time, in ways that they don’t always appreciate. We should do what we can to hasten the obsolescence of humans in the arena of work.
  • Proposition 2 – The automation of life more generally poses a threat to human well-being, meaning, and flourishing: automating technologies undermine human achievement, distract us, manipulate us and make the world more opaque. We need to carefully manage our relationship with technology to limit those threats.
  • Proposition 3 – One way to mitigate this threat would be to build a Cyborg Utopia, but it’s not clear how practical or utopian this would really be: integrating ourselves with technology, so that we become cyborgs, might regress the march toward human obsolescence outside of work but will also carry practical and ethical risks that make it less desirable than it first appears.
  • Proposition 4 – Another way to mitigate this threat would be to build a Virtual Utopia: instead of integrating ourselves with machines in an effort to maintain our relevance in the “real” world, we could retreat to “virtual” worlds that are created and sustained by the technological infrastructure that we have built. At first glance, this seems tantamount to giving up, but there are compelling philosophical and practical reasons for favouring this approach.

CFP AAG 2020 – ‘New geographies of automation?’

Still from the video for All is Love by Bjork

I’d welcome submissions, questions or any form of interest for the proposed session I outline below.

My aim with this session is to continue a conversation that has arisen in geography and beyond about as wide a range of tropes about automation as possible. Papers needn’t be empirical per se or about actually existing automation, they could equally be about the rationales, promises or visions for automation. Likewise, automation has been about for a while, so historical geographies of automation, in agriculture for example, or policies for automation that have been tried and failed would be also welcome.

There are all sorts of ways that ‘automation’ has been packaged in other rubrics, such as ‘smart’ things, cities and so on, or perhaps become a ‘fig leaf’ or ‘red herring’ to cover for unscrupulous activities, such as iniquitous labour practices.

I guess what I’m driving at is – I welcome any and all ideas relevant to the broad theme!

CFP: New Geographies of Automation?

Denver, USA, 6-10 April 2020

Organiser: Sam Kinsley (Exeter).

Abstract deadline: 16th October 2019.

This session invites papers that respond to the variously promoted or forewarned explosion of automation and the apparent transformations of culture, economy, labour and workplace we are told will ensue. Papers are sought from any and all branches of geography to investigate what contemporary geographies of automation may or should look like, how we are/could/should be doing them and to perhaps question the grandiose rhetoric of alarmism/boosterism of current debates.

Automation has lately gained a renewed focus of hyperbolic commentary in print and online. We are warned by some of the ‘rise of the robots’ (Ford 2015) sweeping away whole sectors of employment or by others exhorted to strive towards ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (Srnicek & Williams 2015). Beyond the hyperbole it is possible to trace longer lineages of geographies of automation. Studies of the industrialisation of agriculture (Goodman & Watts 1997); Fordist/post-Fordist systems of production (Harvey 1989); shifts to globalisation (Dicken 1986) and (some) post-industrial societies (Clement & Myles 1994) stand testament to the range of work that has addressed the theme of automation in geography. Indeed, in the last decade geographers have begun to draw out specific geographical contributions to debates surrounding ‘digital’ automation. In similar if somewhat divergent ways, geographers have paid a closer attention to: the apparent automation of labour and workplaces (Bissell & Del Casino 2017); encounters with apparently autonomous ‘bots’ (Cockayne et al. 2017); the interrogation of automation in governance and surveillance across a range of scales (Amoore 2013, Kitchin & Dodge 2011); the integration of AI techniques into spatial analysis (Openshaw & Openshaw 1997); and the processing of ‘big’ data in order to discern things about, or control, people (Leszczynski 2015). 

The invitation of this session is to submit papers that consider contemporary discussions, movements and propositions of automation from a geographical perspective (in the broadest sense). 

Examples of topics might include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • AI, machine learning and cognitive work
  • Boosterism and tales of automation
  • Gender, race and A.I
  • Labour and work
  • Autonomy, agency and law-making
  • Robotics and the everyday
  • Automation and workplace governance
  • Techno-bodily relations
  • Mobilities and materialities
  • Governance and surveillance

I intend to organize at least one paper session, depending on quantity and quality of submissions.  If you would like to propose a paper presentation, please email an abstract of 250 words to me by 16th October.

If you would also like to participate in a special issue on this topic I welcome expressions of interest.

Changes. 16th September

“Now it is the autumn again; the people are all coming back. The recess of summer is over, when holidays are taken, newspapers shrink, history itself seems momentarily to falter and stop. But the papers are thickening and filling again; things seem to be happening; … Everywhere there are new developments, new indignities; the intelligent people survey the autumn world, and liberal and radical hackles rise, and fresh faces are about, and the sun shines fitfully, and the telephones ring.”

The History Man – Malcolm Bradbury

Just over a year ago I began ‘work notes‘ as a means of reflecting on the rhythm of academic life. The indignities of my year meant that it did not last – exhaustion got the better of me. I hope to resume work notes with some periodic reflections on what ‘work’ might mean for ‘knowledge workers’ like us in academia. As I said last year:

Some perform their indignities, some have them thrust upon them. While many labour under increasing pressures and are forced into indignities, there remains a, privileged, few in the loftier perches of the ivory tower that seem to habitually perform indignation from positions of relative comfort. Just as Bradbury observed through the acerbic whit of his “campus” novels.

Perhaps I have over-egged my performance of indignities. I am perhaps closer to those in the loftier perches now. We are, all of us, working through our issues. Time may change me but I can’t trace time. I confess, as this medium almost dictates, that mine overwhelmed me this summer. However, I was helped and for that I am truly grateful.

A new academic year sometimes feels like a new start. Capturing some of that energy, and the energy of the new and returning students can, sometimes, be helpful. Nevertheless, it can also feel somewhat like Groundhog Day. Except, of course, the students remain young and I get older. I watch the ripples change their size
but never leave the stream
still the days seem the same.

The rhythm begins to shift. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Self-determined schedules give way to institutional timetables – even in advance of official term-time. For me, the big shin-dig of (UK) geographyland, the RGS-IBG conference, marks the end of summer. My attention turns (even more) to teaching.

Like many colleagues, I must surpress a sigh as non-academic friends persist in the misconception that I have had three months off and must be marvellously rested. In the cooling air and faintly lengthening shadows, term awaits with new beginnings for staff and students alike. Turn and face the strange.

Changes – David Bowie.

Reading Clive Barnett’s The Priority of Injustice

The Priority of Injustice – Clive Barnett

There is now a ‘review forum‘ in Political Geography around Clive’s The Priority of Injustice featuring some excellent reflections by Jack Layton, Juliet Davis, Jane Wills, David Featherstone and Cristina Temenos – with concluding reflections from Clive himself. I hope you may take the time to read these thoughtful reflections and perhaps consider reading Clive’s excellent book.

In my introduction I suggest:

The Priority of Injustice is an articulation of theory-in-practice, not the reified practice of theory as mastery but an ‘ordinary’ practice of scepticism and puzzling out. Barnett articulates the book as a form of “prolegomena for democratic inquiry”, as a means of rigorously laying the groundwork for asking questions about how democracy and politics actually play out. To respond to Barnett’s provocation might provoke another question: is this a clarion for ‘radical’ geographical theory? In The Priority of Injustice Barnett is doing theory, which is (differently) radical – insofar as it has perhaps become common for critical/radical geographers to (very ably) ‘evaluate’, ‘translate’ or ‘use’ of theory, for example by applying theoretical ideas to empirical case studies. The invitation of The Priority of Injustice is to put theory in action as a part of ‘ordinary’ democratic practice. The principle of ‘charitable interpretation’, with the aim of “maximising understanding”, invoked by Barnett throughout the book, should, I think, be a tenet to which we all aspire.

Hope that encourages you to read on. If you do not have access please do get in touch.