Digital work and the ethic of care

These have been difficult times and I think that given the situation, teachers and communicators in general should expect to need to repeat the same thing more than in normal circumstances, when more people are more likely to be better rested and focused. But to actually spend time repeating the same thing, as I have been doing, is not sustainable and I am burning out. Yet every time I think about how to mechanize or systematize ‘help’, I realize that the non-personal is already a move away from an ethic of care.
To what extent does caring, in such cases, become a matter of doing what needs to be done for the other, in a functional, routinized, and minimalistic way, as opposed to actually experiencing feelings of engrossment and solicitude? Can such behaviour actually be regarded as a manifestation of an ethic of care?1
The above quote about how functional, routinized and minimalistic gestures towards others threatens the flow and mutual feeling among people comes from a paper in Phenomenology and Practice 1, recommended to me by the great Felicity Healey-Benson. It is helping me with the theory behind the book I am writing, specifically the following question:
What is the point of philolosophy or philology in the digital age?
The answer the article provides is in the focus (or even meditation) on safeguarding spaces for care, while acknowledging all the forces seeking to break its living, working links and connections.
This is a challenge for information history, where information is understood to include knowledge. The attempt to connect and classify knowledge is ancient – found, for example, in παιδεία, where the ideal members of the state were educated not just in the liberal arts and sciences, but physical arts and character building, e.g. in the ideal of καλὸς κἀγαθός, ideal personal conduct. I choose this example because we can see that in the past, it was possible to think of a system (for education) that involved so many aspects of human conduct.
Given that we inhabit what Peter Drucker popularized as the “knowledge age”, and to build on the visions of Vannever Bush and Douglas Engelbart with respect to the augmentative human potential of digital technology, we should be able to support and promote more forms of human knowledge and experience – not less – than in the days of ancient Greece.
The problem is not the technology. Technology is a tool – and thinkers like Bernard Stiegler and Michel Serres have effectively shown us that the writing screen or codex of code have been with us since the days of cave paintings and written documents.
So what is the problem? To return to the Practice and Phenomenology paper:
The integration of technology in higher education is increasingly driven by corporate models and goals, including economies of scale, what is the vocative call of the learning management systems that are developed to help meet these goals? At what point might even that ethical ideal break down beneath the burdens of demanding students and troublesome technology? 1
So what can I do? How can I, as a teacher, for example, design a system within this system that is at once sustainable and a manifestation of the ethic of care?
I. Can beginnings manage and distribute expectations?
I will try beginning with an ἀπολογία, or defense of part of the course (or system) work ethic, from the get-go. I can begin a semester by explaining my human limitations, and explaining what kinds of email questions will get delayed and automaticized responses pointing to explanations on the site. Then, I can try to build a class community of mutual help. A percentage of the grade can go to more receptive students who help other students understand the answers to these questions on a shared forum, in a more personalized manner.
The tension between design and the personal touch is tricky:
If attention to a student’s needs are deferred, only a single student is affected, but if the issues attending the online course are not resolved promptly—if inappropriate discussion posts are not removed, if work-arounds are not found to deal with technological glitches—then general chaos may ensue. 1
II. Can we “Reawake the lived quality in a fuller manner” 1 – in segments?
I will try to focus on certain segments of the course that will be more hands-on. I will not grade all weekly work, but pick two at random to respond to, to be discussed in the questions section of the shared forum. Then, I will review this discussion monthly, in a monthly video chat.
Video chats and video lectures – at the current time – have decidedly not proven to be the most effective way to use the digital tool in teaching; podcasts have fared better. Therefore, I am restructuring the teaching to try to motivate attendance during fewer video meetings. We shall see.
But boundaries are needed – somewhere! – in order to safeguard my own energized engagement in group digital work.
The 24/7 demands for care that are imposed upon the online instructor create a tension between her instincts to assist and attend to her students’ needs and the imperatives of self-care. The online teacher is therefore involved in an ongoing process of negotiating, for herself, exactly what care in an online course entails. Must it go hand-in-hand with exhaustion and even burnout? 1
III. Can collective responsibility be conveyed through design?
Teachers or workplace communicators cannot just design a system and check out; also, the brunt of design needs to happen “backstage” – before the class/professional interaction takes place.
It has long been established in networked learning that a Kurt Lewin-style cyclical action research approach works well, with iterative improvement to course/work design. The system is important, but as much as the system promotes reflectivity and responsibility on the part of participants, it must promote the same in the teacher/ workplace communicator.
Spaces for meta-critique of all involved can be built in, through what is known as the participatory syllabus or through collaborative concepts, like Kevin Kelly’s hive mind.
But the design will never be done and always imperfect – let it be said.
As teachers spend hours in the routinized labour of checking emails, reading discussion posts, and adjusting the parameters of the learning environment, do the faceless students and the burdensome technology somehow become enmeshed, so that the instructor’s sense of care and responsibility for the students is displaced into care and responsibility for the system? 1

I wrote above that designing for an ethic of care will always be imperfect and never finished. How can we contend with this problem? To draw on another paper 2 recommended by Felicity, the answer is precisely in how human science differs from quantitative research. Understanding this helps us deal with the uncomfortable truth that generalizations deny a focus on the uniqueness of human experience. A phenemonological approach (which informs the approach in this post) is not an exercise in problem-solving but an investigation:
phenomena manifesting in terms of “mystery” require an approach that stresses original questioning, or “meaning questions,” which are unique in that they cannot be categorically solved, they can’t be done away with. Such questions ground and direct what is called “inquiry” – they never close down. Always remain open to some extend, they may lead us down paths which close off, they may end in what the Greeks termed aporia, or a place where are research comes to a halt.2

1. ^ a b c d e f g Rose, E. & Adams, C. (2014). “Will I ever connect with the students?”: Online Teaching and the Pedagogy of Care, Phenomenology & Practice 7 (2), 5-16.
2. ^ a b Magrini, J. (2002). Phenomenology for Educators: Max van Manen and "Human Science" Research", Philosophy Scholarship Paper 32.

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