Books,  conference,  digital scholarship,  higher ed

Liminal spaces, folklore and networks

At OER19 Kate Bowles’s keynote set me thinking, as she always does. She made the point that if we value things we should recognise them, so for example valuing ethical behaviour by institutions is encouraged by tables such as the Times Higher’s recent one linked to sustainable development goals. This chimed with recent thoughts on the invisibility of certain forms of academic labour. We don’t value much of the work that is done in social media, ephemeral spaces, networks, etc because we don’t recognise it in the same way as, say, books and articles.

Straight after Kate’s talk was a session by David White in which he was encouraging us to consider what would be the drivers to get people to adopt open methods of practice. And one such driver would of course, be to count them, in the way we count everything else (TEF, REF, h-index, etc).

And this leads to a dilemma. In a distinctly neo-liberal (I know, I went there) environment, if you want the sort of labour that many people do (often women, or people on precarious contracts or early career researchers) then you have to surface it and make it count. It would be nice if we could trust HEIs not to exploit hidden labour, but we can’t. But, we also know how that ‘counting’ gets used to create the anxiety and pressure in the system, and that just reinforces the whole game.

It would also pretty much kill the whole point and appeal of alternative outputs for academics. Imagine if producing X number of blog posts, acquiring a certain number of Twitter followers or achieving a requisite number of views were linked explicitly to promotion, or financial reward. It would be a gamified mess that makes the citation chasing metrics seem positively dignified. And as nearly always turns out to be the case, any formalisation of the system would benefit existing power structures, and not the people we might hope it would.

Talking to Dave after his session, he mentioned the notion of liminality as a way of thinking about this. Blogs and social media are a liminal space – that is a space that is inbetween others, a threshold. Stairwells, hallways are examples in architecture. Liminality is often concerned with transition – moving from one state to another, eg this paper suggests blogs are a means of student teachers moving to becoming experienced teachers.

In mythology however, liminal spaces aren’t necessarily about an individual becoming something else, that is there is no desired end state after the transition. Instead they are revered as spaces that operate at the threshold of worlds – the betweeness itself is valued. For instance, in the Welsh folktale of the Mabinogion, liminal spaces are those that connect to the otherworld. In the First Branch Pwyll sits on a mound that “whosoever sits upon it cannot go thence, without either receiving wounds or blows, or else seeing a wonder.” He sees, and meets the mythical Rhiannon who will become his wife as a result.

So my vague combination of all these things is that rather than surrender online networks to the machine – but while still recognising that they require real labour to be made effective – we seek to establish ‘liminal spaces’ within our institutions and work loads. That is, there is work which is recognised as valuable (as the mound is prized), but that we do not require to excavate it and examine it too closely. How this works exactly I remain unsure, many universities still have some notion of ‘research time’ so perhaps it is about allowing this work to be recognised as a valuable component of that, without then micro-managing it. But I concede it’s a dangerous game, sometimes the transitions in liminal spaces are not always welcome ones after all.


  • Mark Curcher

    Hi Martin
    I like most of your posts but this one really resonated with me and has send me down various ‘rabbit holes’ of reading and thinking about this in the context in which I work.
    Thank you for this.

    • mweller

      Thanks Mark – must admit that when I read your opening line of “I like most of your posts but this one” I thought it was going to end with “was really rubbish” 🙂

  • Leo Havemann

    This is very interesting Martin. I’ve been working with a group who are interested in how the theory of threshold concepts/practices applies to open practices and educator identity, and one of the key elements of threshold theory that we think applies to this is liminality. Will read the blogging as liminal article with interest.

    • mweller

      That sounds very interesting Leo – I don’t have much more insight beyond what I’ve put here, so I’d love to hear what comes out of your group.

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