Uberfication, Branding, and Competition

For this week’s reading in my graduate seminar on the history of higher education, I asked the students to read Gary Hall’s new book, The Uberfication of the University (2016). It’s sort and it’s thought provoking especially if read alongside work’s like Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) or Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them (2017). I’ll admit that the latter has informed my reading of Hall’s work, but even without it, The Uberfication of the University represents a subtle and intriguing take on the role of neoliberal ideas in influencing how universities function.

For Hall, the ride-sharing company Uber is emblematic of late capitalism, and his book looks at the impact of certain trends on the way in which the university functions both now and might function, in the future. Uberfication does not just refer to the hiring of low-cost, temporary, adjunct faculty and practices that allow universities to scale up or ramp down faculty across campus to serve student demands while keeping costs low. Uberficiation describes a larger trend in capitalism that promotes the creation of free-lance, microentreprenuers for whom the surveillance society of late capitalism has enforced a kind of the self-subjectification. This is largely done through the ubiquitous collection of data which has shaped our behaviors through the reinforcement of certain economically productive forms of self-discipline. As Hall notes, building on Foucault, the practices associated with surveillance society are normalized through eduction with has become designed to produce data that allows third parties (university administrators, for example) to assess learning as well as monitor student engagement, faculty performance, and educational efficiency. These practices tend to locate the educational process not at the level of the university, department, or curriculum, but at the level of individual performance. Smart faculty (like smart students) learn to “game” the system in various ways which are largely the intended consequences of the system from the start. The concept of uberfication, then, is as much about the use of data to shape individual behavior as it is the development of a permanently contingent workforce (although this is certainly parti of Hall’s critique).  

As a very simple local example from my institutions, we were recently threatened that instructors whose classes did not make enrollments consistently would be reviewed poorly in their annual reviews exposing them to the possibility of termination. While this outcome seems rather unlikely, the threat itself demonstrates the kind of shift that Hall identified. The use of data – in this case the rather coarse measure of enrollment numbers – to shape individual behaviors. It is difficult to blame individuals in this situation from shaping their courses to fit whatever expectations students (and administrators) have.

Hall’s book speaks to three regular themes in my musings on higher education: the development of personal (or institutional) billboards and brands, the use of data, and competition.

One of the key things that Hall connects to uberfication is the development of personal faculty brands (and I’d suggest, by extension, collective and university branding). Of course, I am familiar with the self branding and self promotion. My blog represents a particular crass example of this and the concept of branding extends to include The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and my brief foray into podcasts, for example. While one could argue (and I have) that these are as much about promoting what I do as promoting myself, it is hard to escape the reality that data – page views, download numbers, even citations – represent a crucial measure for assessing the popularity of my particular view of the world and its wider relevance. I’m beyond checking my stats daily and fussing about why one post or another is more popular, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t generally aware of my own performance as a blogger and the performance of my press, for example. (As I was writing this, I posted to a Facebook page a link to my blog. Always. Be. Closing.)

In some ways, this desire to promote one’s own work extends to the level of the university as well. Recently, on our campus, there has been a spate of “billboard building” which doesn’t really involve the construction of literal billboards, but the desire to aggregate, name, and promote certain features of campus life allows for more granular and targeted monitoring of performance and message. It tends to be superficial, of course, just as personal brands tend to be, and have little to do with the creation of actual value or scholarship or even work at the university. It has everything to do with the promoting the institution as a brand.  

The second key feature of uberfication that I’ve been interested in is the use of data. Years ago, a buddy of mine, Mick Beltz wrote a short piece on the way in which online teaching (and I’d extend this to any number of active teaching classroom environments) promotes a vision of teaching consistent with the Foucauldian panopticon. I then riffed a bit on this in an article that was rejected everywhere I sent it. Our ability to monitor students while they work and learn has created a new level of data that allows a conscientious teacher to evaluate and shape learning as a process.

The same kinds of data, of course, can also shape how we as faculty teach and how our programs are funded on campus. For example, at my university, we are contractually obligated to use a piece of student retention called “Starfish” which allows the university to track students carefully through their careers, but also requires faculty to generate data about students (and in turn condition faculty to see engaging with students as a data producing endeavor). In other words, software like Starfish uses and generates data that supports student retention by mimicking, in some way, the rather more data resistant experience of faculty actually engaging with their students in a genuine and unstructured way.

(Part of this is a long tail, I’d argue, of professionalization that encourages faculty to see what we do as contractual structured engagements with particular kinds of work. As a result, unstructured work like a hallway conversation with a student or reading and thinking about a book fits awkwardly into standards articulated within in contracts.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that professionalization has been a boon to academia by creating a level playing field of expectations for job-applicants, faculty, and students. On the other hand, as we continue to seek fairness in consistently structured data points, we are also moving away from the personal connections that make education (and I’d argue academia) a rewarding place.)    

Hall does not shy away from observing that the core feature of uberfication is the role that competition plays in the the monetization of self. I’ve thought a good bit about how the “marketplace of idea” between and within college campuses has led to increasingly extravagant billboards and increasingly impoverished factories. Uber, itself, is largely a billboard (at best) that collects data (and monetizes it) to position itself more prominently (to collect more data and money). Uber has very little investment in the actual rides that are “shared.”

As competition becomes more and more of hallmark of higher education, Hall argues that the quest for data, assessment, billboard making, has fundamentally undermined the viability of higher education. Through time, higher education has changed from a densely integrated and personal experience where students and faculty work closely together to create education to an assembly line of requirements and, now, to a uberfied service that compiles and responds to data in an effort to promote the efficiency of their product. I share Hall’s fear that the uberfication of higher education cares too little of the wellbeing of its students and its workers and too much for demonstrable efficiencies that easily promote its mission to stakeholders and funders. 

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