Institutional fragility and resilience?

The impossible triangle

Individuals, networks and institutions –  in their impossible triangle of resilience

My very lovely slice of the Interwebz has thrown up lots of interesting ideas about how all of us can (and can’t) take care of ourselves and each other, and how institutions respond to the idea that there might be a problem in caring for ourselves. My ideas are all over the place (not least because I am just coming out of the common cold from hell) but I thought that I would set them down in their current state of flux and see where they take me.
Helen Beetham has written about digital wellbeing  with links to a Martha Nussbaum book that aims to give a theoretical introduction to the capabilities approach to contribute to a partial theory of justice. In a review that Helen references , the capabilities approach is shown as one that questions which genuine opportunities are open to people. Catherine Cronin builds on Helen’s ideas  in the context of real initiatives that help promote staff and student digital literacies

Positioning wellbeing and self-care at the heart of institutional initiatives to build digital capability is both radical and vitally important. 

Acquiring digital literacies and building identity in digital networks has to be a good thing but the institution is a context as well as an agent.

Viv Rolfe has written on institutional responses to the issue of the resilience in the work place. Viv identifies the proliferation of resilience training courses in UK Higher Education, and notes the emphasis on individual attributes rather than what institutions can do. She worries

that the upsurge in this approach as a strategy puts a ‘sticking plaster’ over some deeper seated organisational issues

In this recent article, Helen Lees contrasts the two academic lives she has led, first on a fixed term research contract, and now in a permanent position. She acknowledges that she became more resilient over time but crucially identifes the role of context in this. Precarious employment is not a good environment for learning resilience.

Kate Bowles isn’t sure that HE can be reformed but instead celebrates the kindness that we can show to each other as “we are all here now”.  That seems more attractive than sitting in a room learning how to be less of a problem.

Ronald Barnett  has identified resilience as a disposition but he does not paint a rosy picture of the prospect of conditions of flexibility being able to secure a more responsive higher education system

Forms of flexibility are leading to an enhancement in students’  experience of higher education and to an impoverishment in that experience; and it is by no means clear as to how, in general, matters might proceed from here.

One of the recommendations of this report is to

conduct a self-scrutiny of the extent to which an institution is responsive to its environment.

I retired from UK Higher Education 3 years ago, and have had plenty of time to reflect on the recent turbulent environment of HE.  For me, what Viv describes is a bit of a knee-jerk response from management to a problem that relates more to internal and external environments rather than any inherent deficits in staff or their attitudes.   In my employment, I experienced several occasions where a problem that was experienced in the classroom was not explored systemically to find out the roots and possible responses.  Centralisation of processes eg admissions can not only cause some problems but simultaneously separates the process and those who mandated  its centralisation from its outcomes.  Communication needs to travel up and down hierarchies and feedback upwards on problems can be seen as off-message to preferred institutional narrative, pushing responsibility and blame back down the hierarchy. This is consistent with the worst sort of resilience training.  Staff welfare cannot be looked at in isolation from the contexts in which they work.

Actively confronting challenges, escaping emotions so you can behave in a problem-focused way sounds like a great idea but what happens to staff who try to solve problems within their organisation but are blocked because the solution would involve change of policy within the institution?

As Viv says in her post

What do staff perceive resilience to really mean? Are staff also being encouraged to speak out and are they listened to in their organisations? What if staff perceive resilience to mean not speaking out and to generally shut up?

Viv shared compelling evidence that stress is endemic in HE workplaces. As the labour workforce changes, with fewer permanent contracts, more  short-term and part-time contracts, more redundancies and retirements, the needs of staff are placed in tension. I have to say that the staff who are placed in the most untenable situations are those on fixed and very short-term contracts doing jobs that would previously been have done by permanent staff. They can be paid, usually poorly,  for “teaching” with sundry administrative tasks associated with assessment and student support falling between the cracks.   Full-time staff, like module and programme leaders already themselves experiencing stress from increased workloads, can then be put in the invidous position of  asking colleagues on part-time contracts to increase their work (for example to attend examination boards) for no additional pay or taking on this additional work themselves. This pits staff members against each other without looking to the broader causes.

Not only staff but also students are stressed.  A recent survey found that student wellbeing is in question and students with the lowest contact hours scored lower on satisfaction and wellbeing

‘The survey also provides the best available evidence on student wellbeing. Students are less likely to regard their lives as worthwhile and are less happy than others. This suggests good support services, including counselling, should be a priority despite the impending cuts.’

So responses like JISC Building Digital Capability Project are very much to be welcomed but they should not ignore institutional and broader contexts.  The version of the Jisc ‘Six Elements of Digital Capabilities’ model that is to support Jisc’s offer in the area of Digital Leadership is still in development but it does identify one area where tensions could occur

Specialist: Lead marketing teams with an awareness of the role digital technology plays in organisational branding.

 

How does organisational branding sit with the need for institutional self-scrutiny that Ron Barnett recommends and a culture for not speaking out that Viv Rolfe hints at?

I don’t think that individuals, networks and institutions need be an impossible triangle of resilience but if silencing as a covert form of power exists in an organisation, the triangle can become a neat way of shifting responsibility away from the institution to the individual, thereby increasing the individual’s stress and decreasing their ‘resilience’. Resilience is a shared responsibility but one that exists in unequal power relations.

I have read a lot about fragility in the past couple of years observing and sometimes experiencing examples of male fragility and questioning my own white fragility.  I wonder if there is also some institutional fragility going on in institutions that instigate training for resilience in the absence of self-scrutiny. Is this an example of presence or absence of institutional resilience?

 

 

 

Homophily, Intersectionality and Institutional Cultures as played out on Social Media

This has been a bad week for trust and humanity on the Interwebz. First Kathy Sierra left Twitter for reasons she gives in this article (having already been driven off social media and public engagements in 2007), then Julie Pagano who describes how she became a tech feminist killjoy from working in the tech industry.

Wikipedia defines a troll as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a serious and respected organisation that defends the Internet as a platform for free speech. There is a culture, visible but not universal in some gaming communities, technical forums and the tech community in general that is voluble about its defence of Internet free speech, seeing it as under threat from any attempt to curb what many of us might see as pathological behaviours.  In this culture, the word troll is used ambiguously, suggesting playfulness and defending anything that is done to combat those who are seen to challenge free speech.  This article, from its own particular slant , suggests a political link to free speech “To conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, it’s a welcome pushback against left-wing cultural diktat, particularly in the area of gender politics.”

EFF’s defence of anonymity is admirable when considered as a means of enabling whistle-blowers, say, but anonymity is experienced differently when short-lived anonymous Twitter accounts post obscene images and threats to their chosen targets.  Internet culture can be a culture of truth/ lies, right/wrong – no shades within the discourse, and some see trolling as a necessary part of free speech online.

“The trolls are the immune system of the internet, and if you have the immune system ganging up on you, then you need to fight back or give up, according to whether they are right or you are right.” Commenter on Kathy Sierra’s article in Wired

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence of women being abused online but social media may be exposing an existing epidemic rather than causing that abuse.  It’s tempting to see a gender split between male trolls and women victims but it’s much more complicated than that. There are trolls and victims of all genders and races, and ‘trolling’ is subjective – the same post being perceived very differently by different people.

For me, the death threats and intimidation that Kathy Sierra experienced were criminal harassment and such harassment should be pursued vigorously under the laws of the country in which it happened. But this extreme behaviour exists in the context of online networks where apparently rational people can disbelieve the existence of threats, or even condone them as being justifiable when the recipient is seen as challenging Internet free speech/ in favour of censorship (even when they haven’t ).

cathysierra When I searched for posts aimed at Kathy Sierra’s Twitter account, I came across these amongst the last sent to her stream.

 

I was struck by two aspects: first the characterisation of Kathy Sierra as a passive-aggressive troll; and secondly, the patronising way in which she was advised how to behave online.  The author of those tweets expressed himself in a rational manner, not appearing to be the sort of person who would harass anyone online.  But it seems to me that in the circles around the extreme harassers are rational people with strong views on freedom who lend support to the less rational who carry out the vile harassment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stories like Julie Pagano’s tell us is that this is a reflection of tech work culture played out in offices and online. Around this tech culture is yet another circle of ‘male allies’ whose existence I became aware of through #gchmanwatch, where a panel of ‘male allies’ lectured women on how to solve gender problems in the workplace – with no opportunity for questions.  I can recommend the viewing the storify for a rich view of what went on.

allybingo

The silenced audience amused themselves by completing a bingo card with phrases the male allies used in their speeches.

The thing that it is supposed to come with freedom, responsibility, may help shed some light on what is going here. If the culture in which you live your life online tells you that it’s OK if harassment is collateral damage in the cause of freedom of speech on the Internet, then you are wanting that freedom without responsibility.  You may claim that you are not directly responsible. If you are a leader in technology who tells yourself that you are helping to solve gender discrimination in the workplace by telling women how to behave differently, then you are ducking your responsibility.

Homophily is the principle that a contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. On the Internet, (Alstyne & Brynjolfsson, 2004) characterised this as voluntary balkanisation with a loss of shared experiences that was damaging to the development of both democratic societies and de-centralised organisations.

So the same Internet that promised freedom and a Global Village is the one where we allow ourselves to reinforce our views by hanging around with people who think like us, and over time we lose trust in people who might think slightly differently. Surely we can do better than this?

I have been thinking recently about the (lack of )diversity in my own Twitter network, and I captured some of the ideas sparked by others in a storify that I concluded with

“But it is a good question – when we network across multiple channels how can we maintain the tension between diversity and drowning? If we pick “really great people” to connect to we are subject to their (lack of) diversity and to the Spiral of Silence.”

Maybe we can employ intersectionality that Wikipedia defines as “the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.”  So when we think about tech culture, we don’t just think about in terms of gender but also class, race and other categories. I am a practical person, and I am trying to extend my Twitter network to include people whose struggles I understand less well.

My last example is of institutional appropriation of social media and the ethics of anonymous monitoring. Sara Ryan blogged the experiences of her 18 year old son, who had learning disabilities, and was admitted to an Assessment Centre, where he later died, having had an epileptic seizure when unattended in the bath (fuller account here). An independent report found his death to have been preventable and Sara has been using social media to campaign for #justiceforLB.

Last week, Sara discovered that, despite assurances to the contrary from the Chair of the Health Board, her blog had been monitored and a briefing issued that seemed to be aimed at damage limitation and media management. Two worrying issues emerge from the briefing: first that monitoring of the blog revealed Sara’s concerns about the dangers of her son fitting unattended but were ignored; and secondly that the Trust saw itself as the victim of ‘trolling’ on Twitter.

I think that all of these examples show the balkanisation of social, organisational and extra-organisational cultures mediated through face to face and Internet communication.  The question is – what can we do about it?

  • We can look at how we can understand and appreciate the experiences of others by really listening
  • We can take a break like Kathy Sierra and Julie Pagano have done
  • We can challenge hostile and malignant cultures by mocking them like #ghcmanwatch did or when a grave injustice has occurred by campaigns like #justiceforLB

Note: These are complex ideas and this post is my first attempt to work through them. I welcome factual corrections/ constructive criticism

Acknowledgements

Thanks to:

Richard Hall for reminding me of the importance of love and the importance of producing our world collectively – you can watch/listen to his professorial inaugural at http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/10/09/on-my-inaugural/

My dear friends Jenny Mackness and Mariana Funes who have helped me think about the ethics of online learning and being and how things might be different
Trust and security in open networks
http://marianafun.es/ct101/2014/10/07/reflection-3-your-stalker-my-friend/

Victoria (best wishes with that PhD) who wrote a great post about trolling
http://digitalmentalhealth.co.uk/wp/when-is-a-troll-not-a-troll-and-who-decides-2/

My great Twitter network who help me reflect, look near and far, and cheer me up when I get grumpy

Alstyne, M. Van, & Brynjolfsson, E. (2004). Global Village or Cyber-Balkans ? Modeling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities. Management Science, 1–37.