Magazine article Academe

The Academy in the Age of Digital Labor

Magazine article Academe

The Academy in the Age of Digital Labor

Article excerpt

Employers are increasingly asking universities and colleges to produce a digital labor force. Despite the demands for high-tech skills, today, more than ever, faculty need to promote liberal learning.

Much discussion among academics today centers on labor in the academy, in particular on the uses and abuses of that labor. Such discussions are important, but it is equally critical to look at the ways in which we shape laborers in our classrooms, especially how we prepare students to enter the digital labor market.1

In this article, I address a problem I have encountered in my professional life as a teacher of writing in the context of computing, a teaching field often referred to as "computers and writing," "electronic writing," or "computer-assisted writing instruction." The problem I have observed has to do with teaching technology in a curriculum increasingly driven by the labor market's need for skilled workers. I have often been asked to design curricula focusing on teaching students particular technical skills, leaving little time for practicing critical reading, writing, and thinking. The increasing emphasis in higher education on placement and assessment leads me to suspect that such curricula are designed specifically to feed students directly into the digital labor market. What are our responsibilities as educators in this context?

There are at least two identifiable parts to the problem. The most obvious is the digital labor market itself, with its tyrannies; the second is the educational system that prepares laborers for that market. While I doubt my ability to alter the shape of the digital labor market, I do believe that I can prepare students to interact successfully with that market. How can we as teachers educate students to be more sophisticated laborers? We might begin by raising their consciousness about labor issues in general and the digital labor market in particular.

Simultaneously, as academic laborers ourselves, we might raise our own consciousness about the labor market. Our responsibilities as educators change when the goals of our programs change, and those responsibilities constitute a component of our working conditions. Many of the issues faced by digital laborers parallel those faced by academic workers; critical analysis and discussion of the problems of digital laborers can therefore inform our investigation of the difficulties of workers in the academy.

Responsible Teaching

I use the phrase "school-to-work" in this article to signal an increased pressure to make writing programs vocationally responsible. I do not think that vocational responsibility is in itself a burden or that vocational irresponsibility is to be heralded, but I do worry that the push to make writing programs vocationally responsible often comes at the expense of making them critically responsible.

As I near the end of my first decade as a writing teacher, I find that I have increasingly been asked to narrow my focus by replacing critical and theoretical approaches to the practice of writing with technical training. Working in a first-year program that initially focused on interdisciplinary approaches to critical writing, I found that over the course of four semesters, my electronic-writing courses came to concentrate less and less on the art, craft, and aesthetics of-writing so that students might have more time to learn software applications.

My sense that we are witnessing a shift in curricular focus conies from professional observation and personal experience. In part, school-to-work manifests itself as a desire to push students through universities and colleges quickly, to train rather than educate them. The trend has already had far-reaching effects on curricula. Each year, students have fewer choices about their schedules, which advisers set for them far in advance to guarantee that they take no "irrelevant" courses. Electives are increasingly seen as wasteful, as time spent goofing off. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.