Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?
Kimberly Mair, University of Lethbridge
While participatory pedagogies and inverted classrooms contest the norms and forms authority that operate in the conventional classroom and attempt to respond creatively to the challenge that Web 2.0 presents to higher education, they may also reinforce the requisite affect and rhythms of production that are characteristic of flexible labor. Drawing upon observations from a course on digital culture delivered in an inverted and participatory classroom, this article discusses the effectiveness of experiential, decentered, and collaborative classroom environments for meeting the demands of early twenty-first century higher education but examines contradictions inherent to these critical pedagogies. This paper argues that the intensive labor and constant affect-based interactions that participatory pedagogies demand may inadvertently undermine their critical force by enacting forms of neoliberal governance. The discussion concludes with provisional thoughts about how to navigate these contradictions by building a critique of the pedagogy into the course structure.
Critical pedagogies that emphasize performative and participatory activity are effective in breaking down and contesting the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom that otherwise tend toward passive absorption and recall on demand. The move away from both older banking (Freire  1997, 61) and newer information exchange models in education is even more urgent when we take seriously that “knowledge and information in their exchangeable form are easily accessible on the internet and Wikipedia,” an observation that prompted Groot, Pape, and Vilvang (2015) to ask: “What, then, is the singular project of higher education that stands out from a mass of knowledge traders?” (1). For them, that project would entail the generation of “movements of thought,” in which “it is not a stable piece of information that moves from point A to point B” (1), but one that engages directly the problem of “how to make different modes of thought resonate, how to think with another thinking” (2).
In preparation for a third-year undergraduate course entitled Digital Culture and Society, I attempted to shape its curriculum into a metaphorical platform for experiential engagements that would disrupt conventional assumptions of the economy of knowledge in the classroom by positioning the students as collaborative knowledge producers who each bring plural knowledges into the space for reworking, rather than as receivers of ostensibly crystallized, knowledge. Since I gave the course a thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0, I wanted its form to make operative the social processes of concern in the course, such as shifts in communicative practice and values, the withdrawal of the singular author or originator of knowledge claims, and so forth. Making such processes operative indeed made space for “movements of thought” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1). I noted how easily the values of critical pedagogies, such as those central to the inversion of classrooms, synthesized with the unique concerns of the course topic of digital culture, as these are in many ways consistent with the emergent norms of Web 2.0 culture and its “central cultural logic” of sharing (Shifman 2014, 19). Yet, over the duration of the course, I became aware of inherent contradictions in the participatory and performative potential of inverted pedagogies.
Concerns have been raised about inverted models, particularly in the context of fiscal pressures on education that may emphasize technology as a solution to increased demands with fewer resources, while de-emphasizing the value of immediate engagement with instructors. As Harden (2015) has observed, however, the critical focus of inverted models does provide “means for educators to resist that outcome” (378). Perhaps this danger pivots on where the imperative to invert classrooms emerges, with the institution or with the educator, and whether it is administratively or conceptually driven. But, my immediate concerns depart from the possible administrative exploitation of what are meant to be critical learning models that, done well, are usually more, not less, labor intensive. That these learning models are more labor intensive, not only for faculty but for students as well, is my point of departure. With the learning strategies and forms that my course implemented, student labor was both extensive and sometimes invisible as work. I argue that, as much as these forms rework and disrupt conventional classroom practices, they may inadvertently contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for entrenching flexible labor arrangements. Following this, I will conclude with a brief preliminary reflection upon how I have attempted to activate this critique as part of the content in a subsequent offering of this course. Before developing my critique, I will situate my discussion in the course’s pedagogical underpinnings.
Participatory and Web 2.0 Cultures as Content and Pedagogy
The course’s thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0 culture followed Henry Jenkins’ work in both of its streams: fandom studies and participatory classrooms. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, et al (2013) advocate the “participatory classroom,” which acknowledges the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise (188–189). Distributed expertise anticipates that each participant has knowledge and experiences to contribute. It favors course designs that enable and encourage the active mobilization of each participant’s expertise in both learning and teaching, although the latter often occurs through informal mentorship—a central value of some fandoms  and one that is consistent with the positive popular discourse of so-called Web 2.0 culture generally.
The respective characteristics of Web 2.0 culture and participatory culture overlap but are distinct (Hadas 2009, 1.2). Web 2.0 culture denotes the practices that emerge from the platform infrastructure of the Internet that provides sites to be filled with users’ content and generates sharing and interactivity that the read-only websites of Web 1.0 were not equipped to support. The ideological promise of Web 2.0 culture, however, recasts consumers as participants and creators and, therefore, it elides the distinction between producers and consumers (Hadas 2009; Jenkins  2013). More significantly, the discourses that surround Web 2.0 culture suggest a democratic communicative sphere by emphasizing its ostensible decentralization. Tim O’Reilly, who acknowledged the “interactivity, flexibility, and participation” (Coleman 2013, 207) of platform-based applications on the Internet by proposing the name Web 2.0, stresses its potential to foster “collective intelligence” (Hadas 2009). Web 2.0 also purportedly has the capacity to endow the speculative “noosphere” of the fused global mind (Manivannan 2012) with a “perfect memory” (Mayer-Schönberger quoted in Manivannan 2012). Tensions reside here due to the broad signifying force that the name Web 2.0 has taken on in a “constant conflation” of technologies and practices that “obscures the sociology and history of some digital projects” (Coleman 2013, 208). While the appeal to the supposed decentralization of Web 2.0 is often challenged (Mayorga 2014; Shifman 2014; Lanier 2011), Coleman asserts the distinction between “corporate-owned, proprietary platforms” and free software development or collective projects (208). So, while the promise and potential of so-called Web 2.0 cannot reside above critique, Coleman reminds us to give attention to which efforts and technologies we mean and how they operate “ethically, politically, and economically” (209) when we use this term.
The concept of participatory culture, however, speaks to long-time fandom practices, involving both affective and critical reading (Jenkins  2013, 277–278); the production of “borderlands” between texts and everyday life (3); cultural activism; aesthetic production that blurs the creator-consumer distinction; and the making of alternative communities (278–282). It long precedes the advent of digital platform infrastructures, but its characteristics overlap with the creative, non-hierarchical promise of the Web 2.0 culture of sharing. Jenkins and Kelley, et al (2013) outline the characteristics of a participatory culture as follows: “low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”; mutual “support for creating and sharing”; “informal mentorship”; members’ belief that their contributions are significant; members’ feelings of social connection that extend to contributions made by members of the group (8).
In several respects, contemporary understandings and practices of participatory culture, now extending to more anonymous and ephemeral digital communities, rely upon the technological infrastructures of Web 2.0. Paul J. Booth’s (2012) study of video mash-ups forwards that today’s remix culture relies heavily on the use and re-working of different texts and genres to produce cultural “rupture” (5.4). In the context of the digital sphere and its reconfigurations of communication, participatory culture promises to re-work cultural logics and social arrangements, giving the impression of control to participants who make up networked communities. This control, however, is highly dependent upon the digital spaces in which activities occur. Financial and digital capitals, as well as membership in new social arrangements, are unevenly distributed (Mayorga 2014).
Having made this distinction between these overlapping concepts, I will elaborate how they inform and mirror my pedagogical assumptions in the design of this course. Like digital spaces and networks, classrooms are marked by uneven distributions of various capitals, and while a participatory course design does not level this terrain, it does make interventions into models of teaching that appeal to the image of a knowledge economy. As with Freire’s critical use of the word “banking” to describe one-directional teaching strategies, a course that is designed to participate in the knowledge economy assumes its material in terms of units possessed by teachers or books, consumed by students, and then exchanged for credit in examinations and assignments. A course that approximates a participatory culture emphasizes experiential learning by having students engage directly in the processes relevant to the course topic rather than primarily consume course materials that explain them. By focusing on processes, knowledge is then understood as ways of thinking and making rather than information or facts that are today readily available, and even debated, without classrooms of higher learning.
In this course, students’ experiences were supposed to be much like those in Web 2.0, as students ‘shared’ their ideas and took control of their activities through the collaborative production of their term projects. Groups were also to approximate participatory culture by fulfilling the characteristics outlined above. Although I assigned scholarly literatures, the experience of working in this way was intended to be a central ‘text’ of the course by which emergent social arrangements, communicative practices, and values in digital culture could be felt and negotiated rather than merely read about. Finally, this pedagogical approach assumes that learning is not an interior process but happens through active meetings among thinkers, objects, and environments. Having elaborated the critical pedagogical assumptions that draw from inverted models as well as from the scholarship on participatory classrooms and distributed expertise (Jenkins and Kelley et al., 2013) that guided the development of this course, I will provide some details about it before moving on to my critical observations about the contradictions presented with this approach in terms of its inadvertent complicity in preparing students for neoliberalism’s flexible labor arrangements.
The Participatory Course and Fan-Fic as Scholarly Activity
I responded to the official course title of Digital Culture and Society with a thematic of participatory culture, using scholarly readings to emphasize the following in the content: oscillations between materialization and dematerialization (Hayles 2012); new modes of communication; emergent norms and values; and new forms of subjectivity that are tension-ridden between, on the one hand, Barry Wellman’s concept of “networked individualism,” concerned with self-branding and production of social connectivity and communion, which is often used to describe contemporary social production (Shifman 2014, 30, 33–34), and, on the other hand, the economy of unreality that David Auerbach observes on 4chan message boards, which minimizes identity, trading subjects for knowledges and experiences (Manivannan 2012). In the course’s formal organization, I primarily used an inverted, or ‘flipped’, classroom model. I did minimal lecturing each week. Lectures focused on the most challenging aspects of theoretical matter in scholarly literature, and students were required to engage with learning materials and do preliminary work outside of class. Given its thematic, the course was participatory in its content and form. Mirroring the conceptual content of the course, students engaged directly in creative fan culture production in collaborative groups online outside of class time and face-to-face in the classroom over a period of three months.
Fandom production that values free space to create resonates with the ways in which communication ideally occurs in Web 2.0. The perceived gap between students’ routine communication practices and the scholarly conventions expected in the academy has perhaps never been greater. Instructors can build upon the ways that students communicate, and students can also be positioned to see how their communicative practices implicitly cross into scholarly conventions. I suggest that fandom practices, such as fan-fic, offer a productive meeting ground. Fandom strategies displace the authority of primary texts and offer creative license to students making their own texts using informal types of citation through intertextuality. More crucially, fandom strategies encourage active reading and re-writing practices that extend or question, fill in gaps, and posit cultural critiques of dominant narratives (Jenkins  2013). I used fan-fic prompts from the second class meeting on to unsettle classroom routines, initiate collaborative work, develop relationships, and explore assigned texts.
The novel S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) provided a common point of departure for the collaborative projects. S is an example of an ergodic novel because it requires unusual and laborious reading practices. It was particularly relevant to the course because it demands reading practices that mimic and amplify the non-linear experience of reading online, while calling for supplemental searching that crosses into other media external to the book to meet its intertextual knowledge requirements. Yet S also exaggerates the sensorial experiences of reading a material, hardcover book. The book is heavy, difficult to handle, and its specifically placed interleaved objects will fall out if the reader is not careful with every movement. The pages are artificially aged and seem to have been treated with the subtle scent of old books. Its content is broadly concerned with communication technologies and reading as authorship.
The students’ ongoing task was to work intertextually between scholarly literature, the novel, and their experiences of participatory culture in various modes. Many of their assignments, including the central collaborative project, demanded that they relinquish attachments to individual ownership and authorship of their production. In a limited sense, their contributions were ideally anonymous, as on 4chan, but not quite, obviously. I gave no specifications about what the final products should be. In terms of content, they were simply instructed to respond to S., while drawing from the conceptual materials in weekly academic readings. Evaluation was process-based and focused on groups’ routine practice of the principles of a participatory culture, as observed on their discussion and planning blogs and in participatory group time, for which they had between fifty and one hundred minutes per week over the term.
In addition to the attempt to subvert conventional authority emanating from the instructor and from assigned texts by animating participation in active knowledge production and contestation, the submitted assignments were creative, and relied upon popular cultural texts as well as on experiences. One aspect of Henry Giroux’s notion of border pedagogy as a “counter-text” (1991, 52) to traditional forms of pedagogical authority involves the treatment of official texts and popular cultural texts—not as the conduits for knowledge transmission, but as objects of study in themselves. Border pedagogy also enables students to “create their own texts” (54) under “conditions that allow students to write, speak, and listen in a language in which meaning becomes multi-accentual, dispersed, and resists permanent closure” (52).
The participatory modes operating within and outside of the classroom produced a high-level of solidarity among the students, and fostered intense friendships among many of them. Of the six groups, social connectivity was indeed achieved in all but one group that organized their activity with a means-ends logic. Having individual work from the students in the course from which to draw comparisons, the scholarly and creative quality of the works produced were, in most cases, higher than what would have been produced by individuals, as they were marked with the different strengths and interests of each group’s various members, which had dialogical mobility within the strongest groups over the duration of the term.
Despite the successes of the course, it became evident to me that the participatory modes of learning embedded into the course design presented inherent contradictions. While the pedagogical practices associated with distributed expertise and participatory collaboration break down the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom, they also appear to contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for immaterial and flexible labor arrangements. I observed that these strategies encourage practices that are consistent with the policy and human resource buzzwords of “creativity,” “participation,” and “community” that art historian Claire Bishop notes have been borrowed from 1960s discourses and deployed in service of self-sufficiency in the so-called “new economy” (2012, 14).
Do Participatory Classrooms Produce Post-Fordist Laborers?
Alexander R. Galloway has argued that, in post-Fordist arrangements, we can no longer distinguish between leisure and labor activities. Drawing upon Galloway’s observation, as well as Tim O’Reilly’s uncritical concept of “algorithmic regulation,” which denotes a process by which algorithmic adjustments respond to immediate data that evaluate whether algorithmic outcomes are aligned with preferred ones, Steve Holmes (2014) addressed the practice of bitcoin mining as a “hybrid game-like” environment that directly “participate[s] in structures of knowledge/power” that appropriate not only game play, but also browsing activities, social media posting, blogging, and so many of the routine activities that many of us do in daily life. He shows how these leisure activities are submitted to the surveillance of algorithms and become acts of immaterial labor that convert “play into [someone else’s] profit”. Holmes’s aim is to extend critiques that focus on game play that simulates other environments to show that “global communications networks have converted all of space and time to gamespace” and produce a sort of “algorithmic subjectivity” that responds to neoliberal demands both economically and at the level of conscious desires. It is a surveilled and regulated subjectivity, but it gives the appearance of individual agency. While we learn from Holmes that the mining of crypto-currencies brings into sharper focus the relationship between leisure and labor—a relationship which is more subtle in the context of browsing on Google Books, being engaged in what Mayorga (2014) describes as the “playful labor of participation in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms,” or even in gaming where informal markets flourish—this presents an intractable contradiction to the subversive potentials of new modes of communication in digital space, as well as to the emergent values that are associated with these modes.
These participatory and inverted pedagogical tactics also creatively blur the lines between leisure and labor for students. While this animates the class and the course material, it also normalizes patterns of self-exploitive labor (Bishop 2012, 236) for the precariat of the new economy. Related to this, the participatory principles of social connectivity and mutual valuing of contributions make affect, an integral aspect of what mobilizes the emergent flexible immaterial laborer, central to the student experience. When the collaborative groups achieved strong social connectivity, something that could only be accomplished through sustained attention to the building of relationships, their work sometimes appeared less like work and perhaps felt like mere play or social activity. Sometimes, their work took the form of care and mutual support, as a couple of students encountered personal life challenges and sorrows over the course of the term, which seemed to become part of the groups’ interactions. Given that the participatory form of the work was so relationship-based, personal grief could not be tidily externalized, as it is in most conventional classrooms. At the same time, the digitized, inverted learning arrangement that supported these participatory collaborative projects could, in fragmentary and undifferentiated time-space, intrude upon the most precious aspects of whatever could be said to be left of personal time or existence in always unanticipated moments. As Italian Autonomist scholars have been warning, work time in post-Fordist arrangements is increasingly separated from the physical laborer: “When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights” (Berardi 2009, 192). But, while time is separated from the physical laborer, work is not. The present structure of labor, Marazzi (2008) observes, is one that aims “to fuse work and worker, to put to work the entire lives of workers,” including or especially their “emotions, feelings, their after-work lives” (50), under the relentless demand for the worker “to respond to unforeseen and unforeseeable situations, emergent situations, those situations which make any sort of planning impracticable, assigning a central role to occasionality” (51).
I saw students attempting to respond to the paradox presented by the simultaneous separation of time and fusing of work. It was common for students to log on to group blogs well into the night to produce complex contributions and detailed, personalized, and affirmative responses to other contributions that had accumulated over the day. This was, after all, what I had hoped for, but I did not anticipate the ways and extent to which it would draw students into the temporal rhythms and the hijacking of care that is characteristic of the new shape of labor. Alternative pedagogical models are indeed grounded in critical perspectives, but the practical effects of their forms may support kinds of learning and practice contrary to the critical spirit of such models.
Bishop (2012) observes similar political ambiguities in the rise of post-studio participatory art since the 1990s. Some of the observations that Bishop makes about participatory art resonate with the kinds of pedagogy I am describing. She notes that both contemporary participatory artistic and curatorial production re-work conventional ways in which artistic production and consumption have been conceived; involve “post-objects,” which are situational, process-based, and conceptual; and disrupt the positions of artist and spectator to make all positions into those of participation (2).
Participatory and creative pedagogies can make similar interventions into knowledge formations. First, participatory classrooms overturn the expert model of knowledge production that assumes only an elite few possess knowledge to be imparted to others (Jenkins and Kelley, et al 2013). Second, these pedagogies involve process-based collaborations that are assumed to translate into flexible skills and knowledges that extend beyond the classroom context, rather than conventional pedagogies that focus on completed assignment-objects. Third, in some ways, they flatten and disrupt the positions of instructor and students and make them all participants (with the significant exceptions of course design and evaluation).
On the surface, these interventions into the dynamics of one-directional models seem positive, but Bishop argues that artistic practices are increasingly blurring with those of formal social institutions under the demands of the current neoliberal political context of fiscal austerity, privatization, and individualism. She considers how public arts funding criteria, coupled with the receding of social institutions, has meant that art is increasingly evaluated and publicly supported in terms of its achievement of a desired “social task” previously pursued by social services agencies, education departments, and so forth, rather than by its achievement of formal aesthetic properties. One of her concerns about the assumption that artistic production ought to fulfill social tasks is that it relies upon “‘post-political’ consensus” (277) to legitimate art. Bishop remarks that:
this is a story that runs in parallel with the rocky fate of democracy itself, a term to which participation has always been wedded: from a demand for acknowledgement, to representation, to the consensual consumption of one’s own image – be this a work of art, Facebook, Flickr, or reality TV. (277)
Similarly, participatory pedagogies and their collaborative assignments may rely upon a student-driven consensus that hastily resolves contradictions (Marlow 2012), erases dissent, and produces difficult contributions as refuse rather than as potential generations of “movements of thought” that provoke us “to think with another thinking” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1-2).
Activating Critique within the Course Structure
Having acknowledged the unwitting complicity of this course design with the regulation of “good” neoliberal subjects, the outstanding task is to discover how to turn that complicity into an object of critical interrogation, without losing the animating potentials of alternative learning practices. This is one of the ubiquitous tensions that university workplaces present to instructors: how to assert a boundary between work and life while still activating your care in your work. For instructors, one way of activating care (but not necessarily boundaries) is to experiment with learning models, but when that experimentation seems to support the most exploitative aspects of contemporary work conditions in the structure of student learning, this calls for further intervention. A possible route for navigating this contradiction would be to retain the form of the course but to activate the critique within its content—it is after all inherent to the topic of digital culture—to prompt engagement with the ways in which the course has enacted forms of neoliberal governance and normalizes flexible rhythms of labor.
In a more recent iteration of this course, I incorporated this critique by assigning texts that underline the connections between digital leisure and flexible labor to show how activities in the course participated in the simulation of neoliberalism that Holmes discusses. For instance, since collaborative groups communicated outside of class time using a free blog platform that featured advertising space, which would be populated if their sites attracted enough visitors, they were prompted to consider how their posts to each other could make profit for other organizations. Further, not only did groups use texting and social media to keep in touch between meetings, several incorporated Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram into their final projects. All of these forms of communication, whether used instrumentally or aesthetically, provided opportunities to examine the production of value and leisure-labor blur, as well as the de-differentiation of labor and subjectivity in new flexible forms of production.
Relative to the students in the first version of the course, for whom I initiated the critique only in the closing reflections at the end of the term, students in the second version, for whom this critique was part of their curriculum, seemed unmoved by it. The first class was reflective about the critique; the second class seemed to ask: So what? Many of the latter stressed the convenience of working in groups using plural digital platforms, even when their communications and work unpredictably crossed well into the evenings and weekends. It is unclear what contributed to the difference in the responses, other than that, in general, the first class was more diversely digitally immersed and thus more attuned and invested in the implications than the second one. While student life is generally marked by fragmented time, the force of the critique relies upon students to imagine their indefinite futures structured by this de-differentiation between labor and affective subjectivity. Yet, this de-differentiation may be pervasive enough that it now appears neutral. If so, this neoliberal commonsense poses a unique challenge to animating this critique.
If flexible forms of teaching and learning respond to the demands of early twenty-first-century education by engaging emergent modes of communication and production, they also enact the “friendly” relations of power of those modes, which are affect-based and threaten to exploit students’ social bonds or to coerce students into performing bonds that they may not feel. Perhaps this critique of the pedagogy could be forceful if it were initially displaced from the students’ immediate experiences by putting the fictional novel and fan-fic writing exercises to use. Since the critique is also relevant to the protagonists in the novel S, it could be explored creatively through collective writing exercises that respond to key moments in the narrative. In a follow-up reflective exercise, students could be prompted to examine the similar structure of their own activities in the course. While it may seem counter-intuitive to build in a critique of pedagogy as it is delivered, it offers a rare experiential opportunity to examine contemporary neoliberal conditions that seem natural and convenient.
This work would not exist without the highly engaged students of the Digital Culture course. I wish to thank the University of Lethbridge Teaching Centre, especially Victoria Holec and Bernie Wirzba of the Learning Environment Evaluation Project. Finally, I am grateful to the editors and reviewers for constructive suggestions and feedback.
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 Hadas has challenged the simple conflation of participatory culture and fandom by acknowledging multiple logics in fandoms. Notably, Hadas has observed a discourse of “organized-community” that appeals to “the rhetoric of private enterprise and stresses the importance of norms and standards” that stands in contrast to a discourse of “free-space” that calls for constructive and supportive contexts for production and mentorship (1.2).
 The second offering of this course included exploration of the similarities and differences between these strategies and academic conventions.
About the Author
Kimberly Mair is Associate Professor of Sociology and a Teaching Fellow (2016-17) at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. Her research is concerned with the aesthetics of communication and social theory. Her book Guerrilla Aesthetics: Art, Memory, and the West German Urban Guerrilla was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.