Drawing the Line: Reflections on open practice and digital labour

This is a transcript of my short online talk at the OER20 Conference. 

My name’s Lorna Campbell, I’m a regular contributor to the femedtech network and I’m speaking to you today from Glasgow in Scotland. I make no apology for the fact that this talk raises more questions than it answers, and like much in the world right now, it has evolved significantly over the last few weeks and months.  The original inspiration for this presentation was a post I wrote for the femedtech Open Space during last year’s OER19 conference.  The Open Space sought to question dominant narratives of “open” and explore whose voices are included and excluded from our open spaces and practices. 

As Catherine Cronin reminds us, openness, by its nature is highly diverse and contextual. We all experience openness from different perspectives and different positions of power, prejudice, privilege and discrimination. For some of us, openness is part of our job, our research, our field of study. For some it’s a philosophy, a personal commitment. For some it’s political. For some it’s emotional. For many, me included, it’s a complex mix of all of the above.

I’m fortunate to experience openness from a position of privilege.  I work at an institution with a strong civic mission and a real commitment to open knowledge, where my primary responsibility is to support engagement with open education and OER.   I also contribute my labour to other organisations that support like-minded goals, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes in a more formal capacity, as a Trustee, sometimes just for fun. 

We all have a deep personal commitment to our open practice, to equity and social justice. We all want to be good citizens of the open community, making a positive contribution to the global commons. But when do the hours that we willingly devote to open education start to become unacknowledged, invisible digital labour? How much does the open community rely on this invisible labour?  And perhaps most importantly, how far does it exclude those who are unable or unwilling to contribute their labour for free? 

These are questions that many in the open knowledge domain are increasingly trying to address.   One of the key concepts underpinning the new Movement Strategy being developed by the Wikimedia Foundation is Knowledge Equity, the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge. If the Wikimedia community is serious about honouring this commitment to knowledge equity then it must also acknowledge the problematic issue of invisible labour.  

CC BY-SA, NASA + VGrigas (WMF), on Wikimedia Commons

As open practitioners, the boundaries of our labour are complex and porous and this has both positive and negative consequences for ourselves as individuals, community members, workers, activists and volunteers.

These complexities have been thrown into stark focus by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent UCU industrial action, which focused on equality, job security, fair workloads and fair pay.  The strike highlighted the problems of exploitation, discrimination and precarity that exist right across academia, and from which open education is far from immune. When our personal and political commitments and activism are so interwoven with an exploitative system, boundaries become blurred and it’s hard to know where, if anywhere, to draw the line. How can we balance our agency as open practitioners and citizens of the global commons with cognisance that it is our digital labour that sustains a system that is by turns inspiring and dispiriting, empowering and exploitative?

USS Strike Rally, George Square, Glasgow, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

These issues were encapsulated in a twitter thread from @HEreflections1 during the previous round of industrial action.

“One of the most pernicious aspects of stress, anxiety and burnout in education is that it often starts with individuals who work longer hours through enjoyment and an ethic of care. But at some point the organisation captures this as core work which has to be done.

As a result the enjoyment, the agency is lost and the stress begins to grow, leading eventually to hate and/or exhaustion in some cases. And it creeps up on people so that they blame themselves. This is the failure of the system, and any discussion of well-being or expert groups focusing on happiness misses the point completely.

What starts with dignity and vocation is smashed by performativity, by human as resource, and by an inability to see education as a community.”

And yet despite the toll taken by the exploitation of our invisible digital labour and ethic of care, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in our collective response to the current coronavirus crisis.  Colleagues returning from strike threw themselves into the task of supporting the online pivot, while dealing with the new reality of working from home, juggling childcare, home schooling, caring for elderly relatives and immunocompromised friends, while coping with financial insecurity, and unprecedented stress.  All of this emotional and affective labour has been contributed without question or complaint at the same time that institutions are deducting strike pay from our wages and, in some cases, making redundant the precarious staff who carry so much of the burden of this labour of care.

There are no simple answers to any of the questions I’ve raised here, but I believe it is important that we raise these critical issues and that we keep talking about them, so I’d like to invite conference participants to reflect on the nature of their own open practice and invisible labour and, if they feel so inclined, to share their experiences and reflections at the femedtech Open Space

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