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What are you reading this open access week?

I miss the days when I had access to a university library. Wandering through the stacks on a crisp cool fall day felt cozy and intimate. When I first learned to navigate the multitude of online journals, I would eagerly  download and sort articles for hours at a time, curating my own library.

As a teacher, I miss that wide-ranging institutional access, though I am much more fortunate than most. I teach at an international school with access to some journals on JSTOR and my administration strongly supports us by ordering books for professional reading. But having access to journals and books should not turn on our luck and I still run into cases where an article I want costs upwards of $30. Once I paid over $100 for a Kindle book from an academic press.

Access to readings are a fundamental condition that enables teachers to be public intellectuals. On that theme, I recommend three open access books that engage with some of the defining issues of our times.

Guy Standing – The Precariat The New Dangerous Class

danah boyd – It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Martin Weller — The Battle for Open: How Openness Won and Why it Doesn’t Feel Like Victory

Guy Standing’s book offers a class and status-based analysis of what many call the ‘gig’ economy. Instead of romanticizing the deteriorating employment conditions and social safety-net as a kind of freedom, Standing examines precarity. While employers talk of ‘flexibility’, that really means that workers lack several forms of labour-related security.1Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011, p  10 “A feature of the precariat is not the level of money wages or income earned at any particular moment but the lack of community support in times of need, lack of assured enterprise or state benefits, and lack of private benefits to supplement money earnings.”2Standing, p 12 It’s hard to see how the anxiety brought about by the so-called ‘free market’ could possibly translate into the innovation that many commentators like Thomas Friedman believe are so desperately needed.

What really enables our society to grow and innovate is not just the work that gets defined as labor (work that people get paid for), but all of the other work that doesn’t make the headlines when the business management crowd wrings their hands about the future. Most of this work has historically been feminized and racialized: caring for children and the elderly, grocery shopping and cooking, and cleaning. And with a strong focus on making and production, our definition of labor “degrades and devalues some of the most valuable and necessary activities – the reproduction of our own capacities as well as those of the future generation and activities preserving our social existence.”3Standing, p 117

Increasingly, people must do more work in order to labor: unpaid time spent writing CVs, taking courses, and filling out applications. “Working on those manufactured CVs, in the dispiriting effort to impress, to sell oneself and to cover as many bases as possible, takes up a huge amount of time. It is dehumanising, trying to demonstrate individuality while conforming to a standardised routine and way of behaving.”4Standing, p 122 And for those who have paid work, it increasingly creeps into the home and anywhere else one has an internet connection. Against the trend to view this as an expression of individual choice, Standing argues that “Working and labouring outside a workplace is not indicative of autonomy or being in control of the self.”5Standing, p 130

That lack of control and autonomy shapes the extent to which online technologies really empower people or not. “Constant connectivity may not only produce the precariatised mind but, because the precariat has no control of time or a regular schedule, it is more vulnerable to the distractions and addictions of the online world. There is nothing wrong with connectivity; it is the context that matters.”6Standing, p 127

In It’s Complicated, danah boyd presents invaluable ethnographic research on the connectivity of teens. boyd is tuned into how inequality shapes online experiences, and overall her message reflects the title of her book. At the heart of It’s Complicated, lies a narrative about loss: today’s youth have less freedom to congregate in person, though by all accounts, they are doing all right compared to us.

As teenagers navigate a host of issues to do with maturation, “The structured and restrictive conditions that comprise the lives of many teens provides little room for them to explore these issues, but social media gives them a platform and a space where they can make up for what’s lost.”7 danad boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Yale 2015,  p 95–6 Sometimes boyd goes back and forth between arguing that technology is a neutral tool that simply mirrors existing problems, and arguing that we need to take seriously the affordances of new technologies such as persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability. Either way, boyd clearly recognizes that “the same biases that configure unmediated aspects of everyday life also shape the mediated experiences people have on the internet.”8 boyd, p 158 While we cannot escape offline biases, technology also does not guarantee an escape from the other painful aspects of offline life: “teens who are struggling in everyday life also engage in problematic encounters online.”9 boyd, p 113

boyd’s writing brims with the kind of genuine care and compassion for teenagers that is often missing from the business management gurus who chalk youth unemployment up to a ‘skills gap’ or argue that schools must adapt students to the precarious economy. On her blog, she writes:
“I want to start a conversation so that we can think about the society that we’re creating. I will be forever grateful for anything that you can do to get that message out, especially if you can help me encourage people to calm down and let teenagers have some semblance of freedom.”

boyd made a free pdf of the book available from the day it was published, and she explains her decision not to publicize the availability of the pdf until a week later:

“My desire to be widely read is why I wanted to make the book freely available from the getgo. I get that not everyone can afford to buy the book. I get that it’s not available in certain countries. I get that people want to check it out first. … But what I started to realize is that when people purchase the book, they signal to outside folks that the book is important. This is one of the reasons that I asked people who value this book to buy it.”

Clearly, offering open access copies of one’s book is a more complicated decision than many might have thought. However, boyd’s decision to release a free pdf of her book signals that ‘open’ is winning as a value. On this front, Martin Weller’s work is absolutely essential reading if you care about the work left to be done. At stake is the overall direction open will take, and Weller orients us to many of the contested areas that would be unfamiliar territory to people outside higher ed.  The titles of his chapters indicate that he is ready to fight against attempts to assimilate ‘open’ with a larger corporate agenda: “Education Is Broken and the Silicon Valley Narrative.”

Weller concludes that “Policy will be the lever by which open practice can become sustainable and mainstream.” How will we measure impact if not in book sales? How will we support academics who make their work freely available? And as Tressie McMillan Cottom urges, for those teachers and academics who take to social media, “we should call for institutions to state explicitly what they owe those who venture into public waters.” Being open engenders a vulnerability that I have rarely seen addressed by those who urge teachers and students to share their work publicly.

A debate between ‘open’ vs. ‘closed’ is past, and Weller calls for us to not stop there:
“Underlying the success of openness for education is the opportunity for experimentation and innovation. MOOCs, OERs, open access and open scholarship have all been the result of those working within higher education seeking to engage with the possibilities that openness allows. Having won the first battle – that it is an effective way to operate – it is essential that the second battle regarding the future direction of openness is not lost by abdicating responsibility and ownership.”10 Weller, M. 2014. Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: p. 201-2

Besides being well-researched and argued, the authors write with compassion in an engaging, and accessible style for the non-expert. As such, they are models for the kind of open scholarship that that prizes having a social impact. A careful reading of these books suggests that we must consider how we promote real freedom and autonomy, especially for our youth and those most vulnerable in uncertain economic times. The point of increasing openness could be easily defeated if we don’t work to change the broader systems and conditions that create precarity for an increasing number of people.


header image by Lola Guti

References   [ + ]

1. Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011, p  10
2. Standing, p 12
3. Standing, p 117
4. Standing, p 122
5. Standing, p 130
6. Standing, p 127
7. danad boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Yale 2015,  p 95–6
8. boyd, p 158
9. boyd, p 113
10. Weller, M. 2014. Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: p. 201-2

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I footnotes