Digital 'deviants' and the spirit of '68

In May 1968 the old order was upturned by marginalised contract lecturers. Today, the proliferation of online courses offers slow-track academics a similar opportunity to seize the scholarly high ground, argues Paula Humfrey

November 18, 2010

In the history of the 1960s, mai '68 is now seen as a pancultural turning point. France's événements de mai started with a small, contained protest against the administration of the university of Paris-X Nanterre, sparked by a significant increase in student numbers that necessitated hiring lecturers on contract. By the time the strikes and rioting reached the Sorbonne, campus protests had opened rifts beneath the established social and institutional order of French academic life.

Lately, comparisons of May 1968 to 21st-century life have been much in evidence, occasioned in part by the recent 40th anniversary of the unrest. It's not just the date correspondence, though. It's the connection between a spirit of academic rebellion then and an emergent sense of scholarly rebellion now.

Perhaps it is not incidental that we are approaching a revolutionary moment in online education - a field populated by contract lecturers - that smacks of the conditions Pierre Bourdieu outlined in his sociological analysis of the university crisis of May 1968 in France. The present position of online lecturers in the academy resonates with Bourdieu's depiction of the lowly faculty hired on contract who revolted in solidarity with the students during les événements.

In Homo Academicus and The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power, Bourdieu offered a provocative assessment of the structural problems that confronted the French university system. The student population had increased overwhelmingly, with the number of students pursuing a university diploma growing from 30,000 in 1900 to 8.5 million in 1968-69. Contract lecturers were hired to meet increasing student demand, but the lecturers were then marginalised within the academy by the tenured professoriate, adding fuel to an intellectual rebellion that was already under way.

Bourdieu found that in France, the university as an institution had become the sanctifier of social divisions, not least between tenured faculty and contract lecturers. His theory was that credentials within the academy "help to define the contemporary social order, in the medieval sense of ordo, a set of gradations at once temporal and spiritual, mundane and celestial, which establish incommensurable degrees of worth among women and men" by "presenting the resulting inequalities between them as ineluctable necessities born of the talent, effort, and desire of individuals".

The process by which the academy selected its members, Bourdieu argued, constituted a kind of "social alchemy" that transmuted "a historically arbitrary social order rooted in the materiality of economic and political power" into "what displays every outward appearance of an aristocracy of intelligence".

Because a key credential for shaping an academic career is the attainment of tenure, the "deviant trajectories" taken by contract lecturers challenged that aristocracy. In this way, lecturers became powerful sources of change and "major tributaries to the 'new social movements' that have flourished in the age of universal academic competition".

As a result, a split verging on civil war developed between the tenured professoriate and the contract lecturers, who saw the academy entirely differently. The former "remained attached to the traditional definition of their discipline and the social foundations of its existence"; the latter, the members of the new avant-garde, "managed to find in the resources inherent in membership of a prestigious discipline the means necessary to operate a successful reconversion".

Referring to the intellectuals who were products of the academy and yet, as "mere" lecturers, were largely outside its sphere of power, Bourdieu wrote: "In their relation with the philosophical high priests of the Sorbonne, they appear like religious heretics, or, in other words, rather like freelance intellectuals installed within the university system itself, or at least, to venture a Derridean pun, encamped on the margins or in the marginalia of an academic empire threatened on all sides by barbarian invasions."

Bourdieu argued that the most interesting French minds at the crux of May 1968 were the "deviant" contract lecturers who were "more or less totally deprived of, or liberated from, the powers and privileges but also the tasks and the responsibilities of the ordinary professor". Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others were critically relevant to the political and cultural moment even though they were disenfranchised within the academy.

Bourdieu wrote: "I need only mention the astonishment of a certain young American visitor, at the beginning of the Seventies, to whom I had to explain that all his intellectual heroes, like Althusser, Barthes, Deleuze, Derrida and Foucault, not to mention the minor prophets of the moment, held marginal positions in the university system which often disqualified them from officially directing research."

Four decades on, consider the prospect that online lecturers are the new barbarians at the institutional gates. Lecturers seeking academic employment who want to work in their scholarly field come up against a brick (probably ivy-covered) wall that they perceive they cannot scale having once left its bounds, degree in hand.

But the experience of the intellectual heroes of Bourdieu's US visitor shows that, in a revolutionary moment, it is possible to graduate from the epicentre of the academic world, circle around the institution, and come back in from another direction.

Teaching online fosters the discipline of writing fluently in a way that is not available in any other academic environment. Online lecturers have the essential luxury of work that is as portable as a laptop computer. This makes it affordable to undertake independent research without relying on department travel grants and sabbaticals. A contract affiliation with a university provides an academic email address for correspondence. This is the only credential, beyond their doctorate, that lecturers need in order to pass through the virtual as well as the wrought-iron gates of the academy and recommend themselves to prospective colleagues, conference organisers and publishers.

The story of May 1968, as told by Bourdieu, can stand as an instruction manual for academics facing the horror of lecturing without prospect of tenure - which turns out not to be a horror at all if it is undertaken in an online environment. An online contract lecturer can in fact have a fully fledged and successful scholarly life.

Surprisingly, lecturers teaching online courses also offer the means for the academy to revivify itself, but not in the way that the academy presently imagines (that is, because online lecturers come cheap). Online lecturers with good minds offer a quality of scholarly independence that the university needs if it is to keep its degree programmes relevant in a digitally connected world.

It is in the academy's interest to hire lecturers with solid degrees. Here are graduates of good universities who understand the academy intimately and have proven their qualifications to be members of the ordo. These qualities make them attractive on a contract basis and, if the university cannot commit to supporting their careers as scholars, it can give them the freedom from departmental responsibilities that allows them to develop, undistracted, good courses and make significant contributions to their fields.

When lecturers undertake research that produces successful conference paper submissions, or they have chapters, articles or monographs accepted for publication, their university of record benefits considerably by its association with them.

Bourdieu asks: "What is entailed by the fact of belonging to the academic field, that site of permanent rivalry for the truth of the social world and of the academic world itself, and by the fact of occupying a determined position within it?"

Recalling that lecturers, the products of elite French schools, were bound together in May 1968 by radicalism that they found via media exposition of politics and protest, online lecturers can now similarly seize what is politically and socially relevant, teach it and have a flourishing intellectual life.

As noted by Kristin Ross, professor of comparative literature at New York University, in the years immediately following les événements, "seemingly unlimited intellectual projects and original venues for the exchange of ideas came into being - new journals and experimentation in publishing - all in some way concerned with establishing a duration to the events or with displacing political energy into other, related investigations".

One of the salient legacies of May 1968 was the emergence of slogans that told the world what that cultural moment was all about: L'imagination prend le pouvoir! (Imagination takes power!) Prenez vos désirs pour la réalité! (Take your desires for reality!) Revolutionary principles are now emerging among online lecturers. Among them:

• Remember why you set out to get the degree in the first place

• Remember how much you love the discipline of it, the hunt-and-seek of intellectual reward

• Remember how ardently you wanted to come to understand systems, and to contribute to them or help them to develop

• Remember, in the best sense, what it means to be an acolyte

• Don't even entertain the notion that your own work is any less than first tier

• Don't believe the propaganda that if you're not climbing the career ladder at an institution with brand-name recognition, all is lost

• Teach courses as if the prospect of tenure does depend on it

• As an online lecturer, you have the intellectual freedom to think only of the work and of contexts in which you can apply it

• Don't be disturbed by hearing, "that's not the way it's done".

Of course it isn't the way it's done - this is Bourdieu's whole point. And remember the May 1968 slogan, Le patron a besoin de toi, tu n'as pas besoin de lui (the boss needs you, you don't need him).


Teaching online allows Jo McCafferty to have two careers.

She juggles her role as distance-learning lead lecturer in the School of Engineering at Aberdeen-based Robert Gordon University with being a musician. Playing regular gigs, recording albums and even touring are all perfectly possible when work is portable - all she needs is her mobile phone or a laptop.

The school offers five online master's courses in engineering. McCafferty, who lives in nearby Cammachmore, is responsible for the pastoral care of all these students (about 500) and also teaches several online modules.

The courses are designed to allow engineers to combine work with part-time master's courses. The programmes are flexible, running for between three and a half and five years.

Although the majority of students are based in Aberdeen, where oil and gas are major industries, others come from locations as far-flung as Nigeria, Angola and the South China Sea, and are often, for work reasons, offshore.

It means that McCafferty rarely meets her students face to face. Communication is predominantly text-based. However, this does not seem strange to her; she has only ever taught online.

"Because I am also a musician, I spend a lot of time online myself hunting for things and chatting in forums, so I find it quite a natural thing to do."

A large part of her job is about making sure that students are engaged with the course and helping them find ways to fit study into their busy lives. Having studied for a master's online herself, she knows it is not easy.

"Online students will bail out a lot more quickly if you don't spend time getting to know them and contacting them regularly.

"Students need regular contact and support. Before they even start the course you need them to realise how difficult it is going to be. When you come home after a hard day's work, you've got the tea on, the kids to feed and put to bed, and friends saying 'come out for a drink', it is very easy to switch the computer off and not come back to study."

McCafferty makes a point of getting to know the students personally.

"When I contact students, it is not 'Dear student, you haven't been seen online for a while.' It is more 'Dear Jim, how's the baby - is she walking yet?' It works. The students remember you as someone to come and talk to.

"I feel you get to know your students a lot better online. You can be more open. They can't see my face; they don't feel nervous in front of me."

Online learning "gets a bad rap" from people who say it is not "real" learning, says McCafferty, but she strongly disagrees. On the contrary, tools such as asynchronous online forums are a good way of fostering critical thinking and autonomous study, and the school's online students are just as successful academically as those who are studying full time.

On her last music tour in England, McCafferty used the time spent travelling on trains to work. She says that one danger of working online is that it is sometimes difficult to know when to stop.

"I have found myself at 3 o'clock in the morning answering emails," she laughs.

A highlight is meeting the students who attend the graduation ceremony.

"It is a special time for me. I finally get to see what they look like and I get to clap extra loud for my students."

One student got a surprise when she finally got to meet McCafferty.

"She had assumed I was a man for a whole year, which I couldn't quite fathom. I had a picture up online as well so I'm a little bit worried! Maybe I should get a better picture."


Online learning is very much on the British government's agenda.

In 2008, the Labour government announced a goal to make UK higher education the first choice across the world for online distance learning.

Last year, it set up the Online Learning Task Force, made up of experts from higher education and big business including Microsoft, Apple and Pearson, which will make recommendations on how the UK can increase its market share. Although there has since been a change of power, the new coalition government is just as keen, says task force chair Dame Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library.

The largest single UK venture into the area was the UK e-University, disbanded in 2003. However, since then, patterns of internet use have changed significantly.

Currently, according to a report commissioned for the task force, Study of UK Online Learning, there are more than 2,600 online and distance-learning courses at higher education level on offer in the UK. The study, by the department for continuing education at the University of Oxford, found 952 courses from The Open University, 1,530 courses offered by another 113 higher education and further education institutions, and 175 courses run in partnership with 17 commercial groups. Most provision is at postgraduate level and focuses on continuing professional development, with students often fitting their learning around their working week.

The public-private link-ups are predominantly in business education, and sometimes these partnerships can create political tensions. Some academics view them as "watering down" higher education qualifications, the study found. But others viewed the model as a way of widening access to higher education. Commercial providers were seen to bring in marketing expertise and, with a strong commercial motivation to prevent students from dropping out, have tended to put a strong focus on student support.

One interviewee at a private provider told the researchers about its bank of student support advisers, who are mostly young graduates: "Whether by phone, by text, by Skype, by email, they're in touch with these students all the time. As soon as their engagement is dipping a bit, they're in touch with them. It's like having a mother."

On the flip side, the private partners, which often provide most of the resources and support for courses, benefit from links to a "traditional" university.

But policymakers and university leaders looking to save cash may be disappointed. Interviewees said high-quality online distance learning was not cheap to develop or deliver. Regular contact with students, feedback and assessment and low student-tutor ratios were essential if students were to complete their course. The report argues that "the expectation of contact and activity means that it is not possible to easily scale up academic online distance learning in an 'industrial' manner".

Essentially, the study argues, online distance learning requires a very different teaching approach. In particular, it requires academics who may be used to waiting for students to approach them to instead actively engage their students.

One concern among academic staff is that students on online courses often have unreasonable expectations that tutors will be available around the clock.

Ultimately, however, the researchers conclude that many of the potential barriers to the expansion of online distance learning have become much less significant with time.

Universities plan to expand their provision and the authors of the study believe that, with the right support, the UK will be "in a strong position to sustain its excellence and grow its market share".


University of Essex

The majority of online distance learning at the University of Essex is delivered in partnership with Kaplan Open Learning, a for-profit provider based in the US.

Kaplan offers foundation degrees in business, marketing, financial services and criminal justice, as well as a "top-up" option that gives students the chance to obtain honours degrees in these areas.

Essex acts as the awarding body. It also approves the tutors and sits on the exam board. However, Kaplan creates and delivers the courses, following a set of service agreements.

Student support advisers are predominantly young graduates who are on hand to provide advice. A student whose level of activity drops below a certain point is contacted by phone or email.

The university admits that there were some tensions among staff when the partnership was first set up, but clAIMS that the quality of the partnership has allayed initial fears.

Kaplan hopes to gain degree-awarding powers but it does not regard this as the essential ingredient when it comes to expansion.

The Open University

The UK's best-known distance learning provider, The Open University, works on a vast scale, with a network of around 7,100 tutors and 250,000 students.

It prefers to call its provision "supported open learning", reflecting the fact that all students receive support from a tutor or online forum. Students also have contact with student advisers, access to study facilities in their own region, and contact with other students.

Course materials range from online teaching materials to CDs, DVDs and textbooks.

At undergraduate level, the OU offers more than 600 university-level courses in about 60 subjects. Many have optional tutorials or daily schools held around the UK. Tutors stay in touch online or over the phone.

The university was set up in 1971 with what was, at the time, a radical "open" admissions policy.

The OU has a well-known and long-standing partnership with the BBC. Late-night television programmes were used for many years to support students. The OU now provides materials to students online and in DVD format so its programmes, such as the BBC Two series Coast, are less focused on individual courses, instead aiming to attract a wider prime-time audience.

In 2010, the OU held 26 degree ceremonies in 17 locations including Dublin, Manchester, Glasgow and Versailles.

Former OU tutors include former prime minister Gordon Brown, MP Glenda Jackson and broadcaster Anna Ford.


The main tenets for establishing a solid online course are:

• Make the course site attractive at the outset by keeping its visual presentation as simple as possible.

• Resist the incursion of fancy graphics and type moving on the screen - it is important to foster students' interest in the course with the quality of the materials, not the eye candy.

• Sustain a high level of engagement throughout the course by having provocative conversations. This is the main advantage of online learning: each contribution to threaded discussion is thoughtfully composed, so it is much more considered than just thinking out loud.

Working with disembodied minds allows for an unfettered flow of ideas because students are not blocked by information about the appearance, age or accent of their fellow course members.

The online platform is as dynamic as a campus seminar, but more structured, because as course weeks progress, the written exchange of ideas online creates a record of the intellectual territory students have covered in the company of others.

• Online resources specific to each discipline in the humanities and social sciences are very rich. Supplementary online materials can be inserted easily into instructor or student discussion posts. In this way, participants encounter resources on an as-needed basis to support the ideas presented by the lecturer and their fellow course members.

• That said, good online teaching emphasises rather than abandons a print-based learning culture by leaning on the model of the printed text as far as possible, rather than on the broadcast media model. Screen notwithstanding, the independent aspect of learning online replicates book learning and not television viewing.

Used properly, online education is not meant to be a conduit for audio files and Flash graphics. Formal course texts are irreplaceable, since all meaningful learning and scholarship in higher education is text-based and the careful thought that has gone into producing peer-reviewed scholarship cannot be supplanted.

• Lastly, the online course environment puts the lecturer in a secure position to have the student learn by letting the student lead.

Italian educator Maria Montessori observed nearly a century ago that learning is predicated on arousing interest by engaging the student's "whole personality" in a stimulating classroom environment.

The way to achieve this, Montessori argued, is to remove the teacher as the focus of the class and instead make the teacher "the keeper of the environment" who observes and intervenes from the periphery.

The student is challenged to work both independently and also collegially with fellow course members, and because the teacher is not the dominant presence in the classroom, the students become more aware of their role in shaping and taking responsibility for their own learning.

"Letting students lead" is a method that works well in online liberal arts or social science disciplines because the course content lends itself to discursive analysis.

Indeed, collaborative group discussion is how we arrive at conclusions if not consensus. In this way, the online environment gives students the opportunity to explore an academic discipline as it is practised among scholars.

Rebecca Attwood

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