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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2001

The Over-Extended Academic in the Global Corporate Economy

Heather Menzies with Janice Newson
Some core values of academics' vocation are under siege these days, with online learning deliverable any place and any time from private universities and virtual branches of brand-name institutions.

Yet most academics seem strangely quiescent. They seem unable to articulate the contradictions in how the debate is currently being framed, unable to redefine the discussion in terms that resonate with their own professional values. That learning is about learning relationships, for example. It's not about the learner in isolation, as easily served in total isolation behind a screen that conveys only typewritten words, without the look in the eye, the shared shrugs, smiles and raised eyebrows from which trust, rapport and mutual commitment emerge.

Why are academics so seemingly unengaged? One reason is that many are run off their feet. Their time is occupied, often by others' demands upon it. They're over-extended. They can't even slow down enough to be in touch with themselves, and get their bearings on what's important to them in the culture of public education, so they can tell it like it is and do something about it.

My first clue was that none of my academic friends had time to get together for lunch anymore, unless it was about some shared work objective with a pressing time deadline. At a small dinner party I noticed that one colleague had to keep lying down, enervated by chronic fatigue syndrome. Another hardly ate a thing other than the peeled fruits and vegetables she'd brought in a zip lock bag, the result of an auto-immune disorder or allergies that had come on recently.

Then there were comments in snatched hallway or telephone conversations. From one: "We're losing our memory. Even between the parking lot and the office you forget things." From another: "My internal intellectual life has become so boring. I have no time to read. I'm totally overwhelmed (with work as acting department chair)."

These details fit the pattern of what's been happening as work in general is being reorganized around the demands of the global corporate economy. The demands are for faster turnover, higher productivity, lower costs and 24-hour accessibility in the name of a specious abstraction called global competitiveness.

In turn, these demands are brought into the centre of our daily existence through online digital networks, as these become the new context for living, working, doing research and taking care of business. The demands are built into the digital medium. They are embedded in this new social environment, and they condition us, even "subject" us to external control in the sense that Foucault meant in his two-sided understanding of that word.

Global digital networks can therefore usefully be understood as both the medium of corporate globalization and its message -- in other words, its functional environment. As McLuhan put it in his classic Understanding Media, "the message of any medium is in the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs." In my earlier work, I concentrated on scale and the structures of globalizing communication systems. I've described what I see as an emergent pattern of virtual and merged corporations working the increasingly globalized digital networks as an integrated management-information system for purchasing, producing, marketing and distributing any number of services and products under their brand-name logos, while contracting out the attendant work through a networked contingent workforce, and micromanaging everything through computerized performance measures and review.

More recently, I have focussed on time. Not just the fast forwarding of time through the speed-of-light pace made possible by online communication, and the conditioning (even addictive) effects of that. But, equally important, the erosion of shared time and a pace of living attuned to our embodied existence -- plus the deconditioning or desensitizing that this entails.

Buzzwords abound: time-compressed, time-crunched, multi-tasking madness. The upshot is longer and longer work weeks, overwork and stress. The Heart and Stroke Foundation reports that more than four in 10 Canadians, 30 years old and older, either "often" or "almost always" feel "overwhelmed" by stress, with work-related stress the most common cause.

The Canada Health Monitor notes that Canadians are three times more likely to complain of health problems arising from stress than other work-related problems, with work pace being the most common source of this stress.

A British-American survey found that workload and deadlines combine as the number one cause of stress in the workplace.

A Health Canada study co-authored by Carleton colleague Linda Duxbury documented rising levels of work-family conflicts. People are taking shorter holidays or none at all. They're working evenings and weekends trying to keep up, and feeling anxious that they're not: not ready for the meeting, for the class, not up to speed, not fully in the know.

The cost can be measured in more than increased blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks. A range of domino links is suspected between overwork stress and escalating levels of insomnia, short-changed sleep and chronic fatigue. In turn, some research is suggesting further links to the pernicious debilities of memory loss, attention deficit, diminished learning capacity, weakened immune systems and depression.

These warrant attention as illnesses in themselves. But to me they're also symptoms of something larger: something toxic in our increasingly online social environment. Here, time has been so disengaged from the body and living relationships, so transformed into multiple present moments propelled at nanosecond speed through the digital metabolism of global networks that unless we're critically aware of its conditioning effects, this digital pace can get to us all.

As we click on to receive them, these asynchronous present moments stacked up in e-mail, listservs, online seminars and chat groups, we can over-extend ourselves, going faster and faster just to keep up. We quickly get used to it. But at what cost, if in the process we lose touch with ourselves and what really matters in life?

It's the double-edged nature of technology which McLuhan described as simultaneously extending and amputating human faculties and senses. We could be extending and fast forwarding ourselves so much that we're leaving the sentient body behind, amputating or anesthetizing our sensibilities. We could be numbing ourselves, even dumbing down.

Previously, I've looked at the micro-world of call centres where tele-workers are enclosed in a fully programmed cybernetic environment that controls both the content of work and its pace. I've described these systems in Foucault's terms, as "micro-capillaries of power and control" that subject workers to a servo-mechanism machine-part identity so stressful that many burn out and quit after their first pay cheque.

I'd never thought of applying the same analysis to myself, as a self-employed professional choosing to use technology as a tool and assuming myself to be the subject totally in control. Yet I see now how I've been complicit in speeding up my pace of living as I internalize the lickety- split tempo of digital information processing even as I use online communication to ease the pressures on my time. I see how a quick-click pace is becoming the norm in the social environment at large, and that this is a social issue that we must address.

We need to do research on ourselves. Just how many hours a week are we actually working, not just on campus but catching up on e-mail and e-committee work at home in the evenings and on weekends? (In what seems to be the only study of its kind, the Association of University Teachers in the U.K. found that the average work week for academics had risen to 59 hours by the mid 1990s, with women clocking an average of 64.5 hours a week.).

If our hours are increasing, what are the reasons for this? And, is it possible that online communication is both a solution to the pressures posed by cutbacks and a source of increasing pressure in itself? And what are the effects, not just on our mental and physical health, but on our ability to think for ourselves, to know our own minds, and to act based on what we think is important, defining our own agenda for on- and off-line learning?

As Barbara Adam, sociologist at the University of Cardiff in Wales, and co-founder of the journal Time and Society, put it in an Ideas program I did last year on CBC Radio: "The speed-up that we are asked now to operate in, I think our nervous system itself operates at that speed, but not our consciousness; not our thinking ... It also means that we no longer have any buffer zones here, to start reflecting on what's going on, because reflection is a much slower process. It doesn't happen in the space of nanoseconds."

The question is not, are we for or against online learning, but what is the place of online communication in the context of engaged learning relationships extending over a meaningful period of time? As long as people are particular, that is, have their own particular identities, democratic public education must be grounded in particular learning communities and attuned to the time frames, continuities and pace of shared learning experience. Finding the appropriate role of online communication, and virtual learning institutions to extend, supplement and enhance this is the debate we need to have, when we can find the time to have it.

Meanwhile, it's worth remembering the core message of the medium that McLuhan most embraced as an academic. Though his celebrity status caused the University of Toronto to offer him a large lecture hall for his classes, McLuhan soon returned to the more intimate space of the Coach House. Echoing his one-time mentor Harold Innis and Innis' "plea for time" through engaged dialogue as a core medium of university education, McLuhan espoused the small seminar format.

Through puns and witty repartee, he engaged his students' attention, inciting them to participate in the learning process, because to him, getting students to think for themselves was what mattered in a university education.

Stressed Out?

Heather Menzies and Janice Newson have prepared a questionnaire about academic work hours and the effects of working in an increasingly online university environment, probing everything from health to social relationships to the capacity to think creatively and to be centreed in one's own sense of values and priorities. The questionnaire is designed for multiple choice answers. It aims to be simultaneously thoughtful and easy to complete.

If you feel as they do that this issue is important, and if you could commit a bit of time to championing its distribution among some of your colleagues, please contact one or other of them immediately by email at or

They hope to have some results available for discussion at the Social Sciences and Humanities Congress in the spring.

Heather Menzies is a writer, an adjunct professor at Carleton University, and author of seven books, including the 1996 best seller Whose Brave New World?

Janice Newson is an associate professor of sociology at York University, the author of several articles and book chapters on the corporatization of universities, and co-editor of the 1998 book, Universities and Globalization.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of CAUT.