Under certain circumstances wholesale re-framing through paradigm shift or more limited reorientation through a new turn can take place. The history of culture as a focus of academic study is a case in point. Anthropology, for example, gained from more acute awareness of position, replacing a tendency to judge with the possibility of more collaborative and mutually informed perspectives. However, culture is also present in academia as practice. This is perhaps most visible when moments of disruption reveal the cultural architecture of the academy under the accumulated accretion of ‘what we do’. A case in point is the digital practice turn, an outcome of the corona virus epidemic. As a critical response, this paper challenges cultural aspects of the digital practice turn with the aim of (re)instating culture as a visible and thus contestable element in the academy. Several examples are used across policy, practice and relationships.
Kuhn’s (2012) notion of paradigm shift has received much attention. According to Bird (2018), Kuhn takes phenomena to be not fixed but changeable. As a result, a paradigm shift ‘can lead, via the theory-dependence of observation, to a difference in one’s experiences of things and thus to a change in one’s phenomenal world’ (para 6.4). In other words, how we think affects how we see. Originally developed from physical science, the idea of paradigmatic reframing has been applied widely. Examples include describing a change in focus from treatment to prevention in dentistry (Garcia & Sohn, 2012); discussing time in religious history (Schutte, 1989); and challenging anthropocentric sociological thinking (Jermier, 2008). While these applications may not all be paradigmatic shifts in Kuhn’s sense, standing on the shoulders of giants, researchers can, sometimes, see a whole new vista that redefines the world. However, to know where to look we need to know where we stand.
Warnings from academic history about comparative practice in which cultural positioning, although present, was invisible are not hard to find. Consider Malinowski’s unapologetic 1929 title, The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia or Mead’s (1928) early research in Samoa. This was about the Pacific but was not of the Pacific, conducted through ‘scientific dissociation’ (Devine, 2013, p. 61) to conceal researcher positionality and deny Pacific relationality. Mead’s (1928) work about dusky maidens formed part of a Western discourse about the Other (Schmidt, 2003). One would hope that Paulston (1999) is right that a paradigm change, or at least a reflexive turn, is secure in comparative education under post-modernism. If so, we benefit from an ‘ontological shift from an essentialist view of one fixed reality… to an antiessentialist view where reality constructs are seen to resist closure and where multiple and diverse truth claims become part of a continuous agonistic, or contested, struggle’ (p. 440). So much for the constructs that theorise comparative research. How far has reflexivity permeated our day-to-day practice?
The digital practice turn
On-line teaching is normal practice for some, including our Pacific regional university, the University of the South Pacific. However, the social and economic conditions consequent on Covid-19 have created a sudden shift in practice that is most obvious in pedagogy, but extends to policy, practice and the relationships inherent in all aspects of academic life. We call this development the digital practice turn to refer to the on-line nature of what we now do on a daily basis. As a turn, this is not a choice or a blended scenario as previously, but an enforced and sudden new world order, an unavoidable reality. The question we ask concerns whether or not a fundamental shift of productive potential can harness this disruption by extending reflexivity to practice as well as theorisation.
Reflecting on practice
By now many of us will be well-versed in communication tools such as Zoom, Hangouts, Chat and Skype as a means of teaching and staying in academic contact generally. Many writers such as Hutton and Fosdick (2011) refer to the online world in which these tools operate as the digital space. However, these communication tools can be understood as connecting through technology two (or more) spaces separated by social and physical distance. A reflexive question to ask as we try to appreciate the potential and implications of the digital practice turn concerns the nature of these spaces. Some people use programme functions to mask their background with a favourite photo or stock landscape, a beach for example. This conditions the way their space appears, adding fantasy and rejecting actuality in their space. Others indicate their space to be primarily physical by appearing in pyjamas or other similar garb. They think of themselves at home when at work and indicate this in a way they might never do at the office, no matter how comfortable they feel there.
Reading space culturally
For some people, space is more than physical because the world is more than material. The vā, for instance, is a concept from Oceania that understands relationships through a spatial metaphor. As an example, Ka'ili (2005) writes of socio-spatial ties that operate across time and space, linking the spiritual, social and physical aspects of existence. Tongans in Hawai’i care for various vā by gifting, connecting, and fulfilling obligations. Like all others, this conceptualisation of space is cultural. Koya (2012) asks if we are digitizing the vā, questioning how cultural understandings shape the way we operate in the online world. Using Facebook as an example, she shows how conversations belonging in one relational space raise issues when visible in the digital space (Koya, 2017) because access is more universal. These issues attest to the relational nature of digital space despite its virtual character.
Gegeo (2001) explains the difference between space and place in the Kware’ae epistemology of Malaita, Solomon Islands. Space is where a Kware’ae person is. Place is the root to which s/he is always tied. In this way, if a Kware’ae appears on Zoom in a particular space, the viewer is regarding a person who is, in a sense, also in their place. Digitalisation does not change this. The fixedness of indigeneity despite movement may seem obvious until migratory studies enters the frame, carrying issues of identity and belonging making viable the question, ‘Will the real Samoans please stand up?’(Macpherson, 1999).
Communication is cultural
One aspect that can contribute to Samoan identity is fluency in the Samoan Language of Respect (Lesā, 2009) which includes appropriateness in posture, physical distance and eye contact. However, Zoom’s blog explains: ‘There are some age-old guidelines that comprise good meeting etiquette — being on time, maintaining eye contact, paying attention — and applying those same principles to our video meetings can go a long way toward a productive … environment’ (Montgomery, 2019). Is the way we move to a digital space becoming part of an enforced migration that leads not to lost but muffled (Tuagalu, 2008) cultural understandings, encouraged by the un-reflexive acultural way that we describe, operate and advocate for digital activity in the academy?
Research as culture
Turning from communication to policy, many universities and similar institutions are revisiting their operations under new conditions. The digital practice turn means that research will look different. There are suggestions of increased local involvement in international research (Roche & Tarpey, 2020). Although collaboration can continue through digital means, decision making may move ‘closer to home’. As travellers are restricted to screen-based visits, the old reliance on visiting experts and their funding will be replaced by a new academic reliance on local people, not only as the hands but as a larger part of the brain of research activities. Reflexive academics will need to negotiate cultural aspects of trust as a feature of this new world.
Perhaps under a new realisation of the interconnectedness of the world and the inefficiency of competition when the ‘global-ness’ of problems we face has become more evident, there is an opportunity to re-think what Orford (2020) calls ‘the hyper-competitive and entrepreneurial world of the modern university’ as an effective way to pursue useful knowledge. The digital practice turn, a result of being cut off from physical networks organised on habitual, handed-down norms, brings the possibility spending time connecting more globally. This will require revisiting cut-throat competition as a cultural principle and the deliberate development of relationships based on collaborative values. In this way, the good of humanity and not of our university can become paramount. This may sound like a dream at a systems level, but individuals can pursue it as their reality.
Of course, the digital world has long had an impact on academia. Pre-covid, ‘the electronic academic text…[could] be theorised as a disruptive technology in terms of its power to displace and become the incumbent media’ (Peters et al., 2016, p. 1407). Consequent on digitalisation, ‘the market share of the five largest research publishing houses reached 50% in 2006, rising, thanks to mergers and acquisitions, from 30% in 1996 and only 20% in 1973’ (p. 1403). Arguably, academic culture such as PBRF (as in New Zealand), a performance-based management system that rests on entrepreneurial values (Curtis & Matthewman, 2005), is shaped by the interests and practices of these bodies. However, the visibility of digital practice generally as part of the focus of the digital practice turn could be an opportunity to revisit the academic architecture of what we have come to value and reward. For example, we could recognise that the digital space has borders: some people live their lives largely beyond its reach. In an Oceanic context, largely unrecognised by academic culture, impact involves the successful re-distribution or return of relevant academic knowledges to small islands and rural villages through affordable printed books. Local digital production of books has lowered costs, but at the price of the value placed by academic culture on international publication.
[Re]instating culture as a reflexive challenge
Among all these possibilities, on the back of the digital practice turn some cultural shift is happening. Under the title Working Remote, the Tertiary Education Union of Aotearoa New Zealand has issued principles that explicitly prioritise well-being, kindness and a holistic appreciation of staff. The principles also re-frame success and space: ‘You are not “Working from home”, you are “At your home during a crisis trying to work”’. Communicated to university administrations (M. Gilchrist, personal communication, 20th April 2020), this thinking embodies a culture of valuing people and relationships in context. Such values do not preclude people being productive, but serve first to honour their sanctity. The advent of these ‘new’ principles signals the tacit presence of other cultural expectations in academia.
Along with friends, family and colleagues, we recognise the pain and loss caused by the Covid 19 pandemic and the disruption to people’s everyday life it has caused. We acknowledge with grief the long term personal, economic and political damage involved. However, we also look with hope to a better future. The digital practice turn, enforced change in the time of Covid-19, could be a simple rejigging of the academic world through on-line tools. But every disruption is pregnant with possibilities. If, through surfacing the cultural architecture of academia we re-theorise - asking ‘why’ as well as ‘how’, we have an opportunity to change the phenomenal world of the academy.
A reflexive critique of the place of accreted culture as ‘what we do’ in academic practice has much potential. This use of the pause inherent in disruption might, for example, reveal the potential of re-thinking concepts such as space; nuance the way we understand and respond to communication; sensitise us to the role of culture in human behaviour and thought; help us re-think research relationships; support a re-conceptualisation of impact; and provide a ground for recognising multiplicity. If we use the present times to recognise the limitations of where we have been standing by (re)instating the visibility of culture as practice, we can take an agonistic approach to what has been hidden under the dust and deliberately pursue a more holistic, inclusive and relational vista. This has the potential to maximise the advent of the digital practice turn. Opportunity as much as continuity is the challenge of the present disruption to the academy.
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Dr. Kabini Sanga
Dr. Martyn Reynolds
Victoria University of Wellington