Digital Platforms and Academic Rhythms

The changing nature of work.

October 24, 2013

During his keynote address at EDUCAUSE 2013, Sir Ken Robinson reminisced about his own days at as a graduate student. He talked about hitting the library at the “crack of noon” for three or so hours of grueling work before hitting the pub.

Sir Ken may have been exaggerating somewhat the life of an academic in the 1970s, but his description of a typical day in the life of an aspiring academic conforms pretty well to my own graduate school experience circa 1992.  

Back in those pre-Google and (mostly) pre-email days we measured productivity somewhat differently.

A big day was when we were able to find a few articles in the library to photocopy. Most of our communications (at least most of my own) in 1992 were with people on our own campuses.

Perhaps things were different for faculty in 1992, as cross-institutional collaborations have long been a hallmark or research life.  But I’m betting that these communications were not all that frequent, and certainly the majority of conversations were still local.

Fast forward 21 years to 2013.    

Today, if the campus network goes down all work stops.   

Have you had the experience of a brief network hiccup at your school. It is like everyone has been simultaneously unplugged from their oxygen supply. We stand around in dazed confusion, wondering if we should just all go home until the web returns.

In 1992 it took real work to find and photocopy 3 good articles from the library. We’d read those articles. We would use them in our work.   

Today, we may skim 30, or 300, discrete pieces of content on our various screens in any given day. (I made this number up, as a factor of 10x and 100x for content sounded about right to me. Does anyone know the real numbers?).

Digital platforms have also greatly expanded our professional networks.   We need to spend as much time as ever collaborating and building relationships with our local colleagues, but we also interact with and nurture a far flung group of peers.   

How many of your e-mails each day originate outside of your campus gates?  How many e-mails do you send that are aimed off campus?

Every academic that I know works very long days. This is true for both faculty and staff.

Every academic that I know basically works all the time. 

The stereotype of an academic working at a leisurely, professorial pace has become the exact opposite of the academic reality.   

The norm for professionals on campus is now to work long days, weekends, and often during vacations.

There is simply too much information to process, and too many collaborative projects to juggle, to take much time off from work.

Digital platforms, such as the web and e-mail, have made academic work both more interesting and more intense.   

We have opportunities to work with more smart people on more fascinating projects than ever before.  

The economics of higher ed, supported by a culture that values productivity more each year, seems to demand an incredibly high level of commitment.

This is not to complain.  One big reason that we all work so hard in academe is that most of us love what we do.  

Sir Ken Robinson may not have been totally serious in his remarks at EDUCAUSE, but he does remind us how much has changed in such a short amount of time.

How has your academic work changed since your pre-Google / pre-email days?

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Joshua Kim

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