Student as Producer (1)

See an introduction to this series of notes here.

1a. Neary, Mike (2008) Student as producer – risk, responsibility and rich learning environments in higher education. Articles from the Learning and Teaching Conference 2008. Eds: Joyce Barlow, Gail Louw, Mark Price. University of Brighton Press. Centre for Learning and Teaching

1b. Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In: The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Eds. Bell, Neary, Stevenson. Continuum, London, pp. 192-210. 1

This book chapter (and keynote from the same period) lays out the rationale for Student as Producer. It draws on the work of a number of other scholars of higher education who, despite the apparent success of modern universities, have identified an ‘apartheid’ between student and teacher (Brew); the intensification and regularisation of academic labour (De Angelis and Harvie; Nelson and Watt); and the reconfiguration of the student as a consumer (Boden and Epstein), who is increasingly under-employed, unemployed and indebted (Bonefeld; Warmington). The chapter reviews the changing ‘nature and purpose’ of the modern university and draws parallels with the ideas of Wilhelm Humbolt in the early 19th century and more recent work by Robbins in the 1960s, and Boyer in the 1990s, who to different degrees argued for the reconfiguration of teaching and research and in doing so, a reconfiguration in the relationship between teacher and student. In particular, Humbolt argued that lectures should be dropped in favour of seminars, that students should be encouraged to think speculatively in close contact with their tutors with an emphasis on Socratic dialogue, flexible curricula and the inclusion of students in research groups.

Similarly, in a keynote talk from 2008, Neary refers to a formative Student as Producer project called the Reinvention Centre. He describes this as an attempt “to re-create the notion of an inclusive academic community where learners, teachers and reserchers are all seen as scholars in common pursuit of knowledge.” (Neary 2008: 8) For Humbolt, this was a political project intended to guarantee academic freedom and the separation of the university from the regulation of the state. In doing so, a ‘Culture State’ would be established by a cultured population able to think and act as autonomous citizens.

The middle section of the chapter discusses the work of Walter Benjamin, who wrote an essay titled ‘Author as Producer’, from which ‘Student as Producer’ was conceived. Neary discusses this essay and an earlier work titled ‘Life of Students’ and from these develops the main theoretical argument for his own project. Like Humbolt, Benjamin argued against the lecture format and to a large extent seminars, too, arguing that “it makes little difference whether the speakers are teachers or students.” (Benjamin 1915: 42) In a key passage for Neary, Benjamin states that:

“The organisation of the university has ceased to be grounded in the productivity of its students, as its founders envisaged. They thought of student as teachers and learners at the same time; as teachers because productivity implies complete autonomy, with their minds fixed on science instead of the instructors’ personality.” (Benjamin 1915: 42)

In his later essay, ‘Author as Producer’, Benjamin was concerned with the relationship between author and their readers and how to actively intervene in “the living context of social relations” so as to create progressive social transformation:

“[For]… the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production … His work will never be merely work on products but always, at the same time, work on the means of production. In other words his products must have, over and above their character as works, an organising function.” (Benjamin 1934: 777)

For both Benjamin and Neary, that ‘organising function’ is the

“social relation of capitalist production, defined through the logic of waged labour and private property. For Benjamin, the imperatives of capitalist production had led to the horrors of Bolshevism and Fascism. Therefore, any alternative form of the organising principle must be antithetical to these extreme types of political systems and be set up on the basis of democracy, collectivism, respective for legitimate authority, mutuality and social justice.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 133)

Neary highlights how for Benjamin, this organising principle would involve the reader (i.e. the ‘consumer’) in the process of production so that they are not only “the producers of artistic content, but collaborators of their own social world; the subjects rather than the objects of history.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 133-4) Benjamin argued that

“What matters is the exemplary character of production, which is able, first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus at their disposal. And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers – that is, readers or spectators, into collaborators.” (Benjamin 1934: 777)

In his keynote written around the same time as the book chapter, Neary argues that

“it is possible to apply Benjamin’s thinking to the context of the contemporary university by applying it to the dichotomous relationship between teaching and research, as embodied in the student and the teacher; and, using Benjamin’s formulation, to reinvent the relationship between teacher and student, so that the student is not simply consuming knowledge that is transmitted to them but becomes actively engaged in the production of knowledge with academic content and value.” (2008: 8)

How is this achieved in the context of a modern university?

“By providing more research and research-like experiences as an integral part of the undergraduate experience. In doing this students can become productive collaborators in the research culture of the departments of their universities. This is particularly important in a context within which students have been forced into the position of consumers in a service culture that many academics regard as antithetical to the academic project of the university.” (Neary 2008: 9)

This was said in the context of a keynote speech at a learning and teaching conference. In its postscript, Neary refers to the wider context in which Student as Producer is being developed as a response to i.e. the global ecological crisis and the related worldwide financial crisis. He refers to the work of David Orr to appeal for a more holistic, anti-disciplinary experience of the academic project; one which encourages students and teachers to see things in their entirety.

“My point, like David Orr, is that we need to fundamentally rethink the nature of academic enquiry. As academics working in universities, we can start by looking at ways in which we engage with the world, and, in particular, how we engage with our students. By taking more progressive risks with our teaching and learning, and by treating students as responsible members of our academic community we might be able to create not just richer learning environments, but also to invent new approaches to some of the very real emergencies that are confronting both the university and society as a whole.” (Neary 2008: 12)

In the book chapter, Neary argues that the ‘organising function’ of the modern university is “the law of market economics, redefined in the contemporary period as the neo-liberal university.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 134) He then asks, “what kind of alternative organising principles might be invented as progressive alternatives.” (ibid)

The last section of the chapter points towards such alternatives, drawing on Marx’s idea of the ‘general intellect’ and its reformulation by later Marxist writers as ‘mass intellectuality’. The point in this section is to identify in his notebooks, how Marx saw the development of knowledge become objectified as fixed capital (i.e. automated machinery, transportation, communication networks) such that “general social knowledge becomes a direct form of production.” (Marx 1993: 706) The form of labour (i.e. ‘general intellect’) that produces such knowledge

“is increasingly a social, co-operative endeavour. As we come to realise this, the organising principles on which capitalist production is based, wage labour and private ownership, become increasingly irrelevant.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 135)

Drawing on the work of Dyer-Witheford (1999), we argue that in fact, the ‘general intellect’ has not become ‘general’ at all but, rather, “structured and hierarchical. Knowledge remains contained, under control and restricted to the privileged under the logic of the information society and the knowledge economy.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 135) In the university, as Noble has argued, attempts are continuously made to attempt a “systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital, and, hence, intellectual property.” (Noble 1998)

The notion of ‘mass intellectuality’ is proposed as a more current reformulation of Marx’s ‘general intellect’.

“This is the social body of knowledge, modes of communication and co-operation and even ethical preoccupations which both supports and transgresses the operation of a high-tech economy. It is knowledge created by and contained within the university, but is the ‘general social knowledge’ embodied by and increasingly available to all of us. The quintessential expression of this general social knowledge or ‘mass intellect’ is, Dyer-Witheford argues, the Internet.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 135-6)

Dyer-Witheford points to ‘hacking’ as the original creative source of the Internet and

“despite all the admitted banalities and exclusivities of Internet practice, one at moments glimpses in its global exchanges what seems like the formation of a polycentric, communicatively-connected, collective intelligence.” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 498)

We then argue that the most recent expression of ‘mass intellectuality’ is the emergence of the Free Culture movement which has grown out of hacker culture within the university context (cf. Winn 2013) and used traditional property law (e.g. copyright) in a subversive way so as to guarantee a type of ‘common ownership’ of  knowledge and its derivative products. We argue that

“the Free Culture movement, based upon collaboratively producing intellectual and creative works under Creative Commons style licenses, therefore resits the restrictive control of traditional forms of legal protection designed to support the notion of ‘intellectual property’ and the ‘permissive’ economic model by which capital trades in such questionable assets. (Lessig 2004) This enables both students and academics to do more than restructure curricula and pedagogy, but to challenge the very organising principles upon which academic knowledge is currently being transmitted and produced. In this way, the student can truly be seen as a producer of knowledge.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 136-7)

We conclude:

“Through these efforts, the organizing principle is being redressed creating a teaching, learning and research environment which promotes the values of openness and creativity, engenders equity among academics and students and thereby offers an opportunity to reconstruct the student as producer and academic as collaborator. In an environment where knowledge is free, the roles of the educator and the institution necessarily change. The educator is no longer a delivery vehicle and the institution becomes a landscape for the production and construction of a mass intellect in commons.” (Neary and Winn 2009: 138)

This book chapter was the foundational (and most highly cited) rationale and theorisation of Student as Producer. It points towards a number of key themes that Neary goes on to critique and develop in later articles and which I want to draw out in my consideration of the ‘co-operative university’:

  • The political origins and formulation of Student as Producer as a negative critique of capitalist social relations
  • The collaborative relationship between teacher and student, which leads to the conversion of consumers/students into producers/teachers
  • The emphasis, not only on the qualitative nature of the product, but also the process and means of production as the ‘organising function’ of social relations that are antithetical to the organising principles of capitalist social relations (i.e. private property and waged labour)
  • The evidence, as seen in the development and uses of the Internet (i.e. hacking and the Free Culture movement), of the productive capacity of social, co-operative labour to directly challenge waged labour and private property
  • The potential for a new form of social knowledge (i.e. mass intellectuality) to produce new organisational forms

In the conclusion of this book chapter, we said that

“further attention needs to be paid to the framework by which the student as producer contributes towards mass intellectuality. This requires academics and students to do more than simply redesign their curricula, but go further and redesign the organising principle (i.e. private property and waged labour), through which academic knowledge is currently produced.”

In my consideration of the worker co-operative as a suitable organisational form for a university, I am attempting to elaborate such a ‘framework’. A problem with this early book chapter, which Neary addressed more recently, is that we were too optimistic in pointing to the Internet as an expression of an emancipatory form of ‘mass intellectuality’ and we neglected to apply a negative critique to the seductiveness of Dyer-Witheford’s identification of the “formation of a polycentric, communicatively-connected, collective intelligence.” Neither mass intellectuality nor the Internet, as “its quintessential expression” provides the political basis for an organisational form for the social production of knowledge which challenges capital. It can, of course, inspire and enable new institutional forms, but it is not itself such a form. As I have noted before, “the logic of the Internet is administration by protocol.” Galloway was correct to argue that “Protocol is a type of controlling logic that operates outside institutional, governmental, and corporate power; although it has important ties to all three.” (Galloway, 2004: 122)

Along similar lines, Neary later develops his work on Student as Producer in favour of bureaucracy over the participatory culture of social networks, influenced in part by Kreiss, Finn and Turner’s paper on The Limits of Peer Production. In that article, drawing on Max Weber and Paul du Gay, they “challenge the consensus around peer production and argue that the form is not bringing about the idealized society many consensus scholars suggest.” (244) I will return to this later when discussing Neary’s more recent work. The point here is that Marx’s ‘general intellect’ and later Marxist’s ‘mass intellectuality’ are not amoral nor post-political categories but rather they depend on the development of an ‘organising function’ and a ‘framework’ through which they can be expressed and protected. For Neary, one such framework is Student as Producer and in our more recent work through the Social Science Centre, its complementary institutional expression points towards the worker co-operative. It is necessarily a transitional organisational form, but still one in which the concept and theory of Student as Producer can be more fully realised as an experiment in human emancipation and the discovery of a new form of social wealth.

In future notes, I will continue to look at Neary’s more recent work in light of how it might help us think about the relevance and usefulness (or not) of the worker co-operative form for higher education, a form which might help constitute a framework where the student becomes ‘the subject of history rather than the object’ and through which ‘humanity becomes the project rather than the resource’.

“We acknowledge the cooperative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers… We recommend to the working men to embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.” (Marx, 1866)

  1. This book chapter generously names me as co-author. My actual input was confined to the last section on the ‘General Intellect’ and the Conclusion, both of which we worked on together.

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