Work, Sleep, Communicate at the 24/7 University

On retiring from the University of Warwick last month, Professor of Economics Mark Harrison blogged about the various mistakes we academics make, as a reflection on his forty years in Higher Education. It’s well worth a read, based on a rich wealth of experience. One of the mistakes stood out: that we see commitment to learning as being 24/7. Reflecting on the contradiction of having sites of learning – libraries, etc. – open 24 hours a day, despite the expectation that students also attend lectures and seminars at 9am, Harrison writes:

“We should stop for a minute and reflect on why the rest of the world has a routine called ‘working hours’ and a ‘working week’. By existing, this routine solves a coordination problem. Everyone must work, relax, and sleep. All of these activities go better in themselves, and are better balanced with each other, if we all work at the same time, have fun at the same time, and turn out the light at the same time! If university is a preparation for the adult world, we should encourage our students in an adult routine. Being open for business 24/7, even for educational business, is just a bad idea”.

I couldn’t agree more with the argument that a 24/7 university is a bad idea. On the one hand, far more important than any concern for preparing students for the world of work, it is bad for students’ health – medical, emotional and social. There’s a good reason that sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture: not only does it lead to helplessness and compliance, but later, pychosis, neurological damage and, ultimately, death. In a Higher Education setting, of course, we’re not looking at these sorts of extremes, but it’s fair to say that not getting enough sleep is bad for your mental health and is hardly conducive to the mental demands of studying at this level. And allowing education to colonise all the hours of the day is bad for students’ emotional health. We’re social creatures. We need leisure time. Periods at the end of a day of study need to be protected. Once we allow leisure time to become flexible we lose a valuable balance between work and rest. It becomes all too easy to extend work time into time that should be given over to social activities. A student who can organise their study into normal working hours is likely to be well-rested, socially fulfilled and happy. This is something those of us who work in Higher Education ought to encourage, and the 24/7 model – which is likely of more value as a recruitment tool in glossy brochures, as universities compete with each other for students, than it is of any practical value – is sending out the wrong message.

On the other hand, cultivating a 24/7 ethos amongst students is bad for those of us who work in universities too. Academics receive emails at all hours of the day, and whilst most of these can be left till work hours, some, especially around assessment hand-ins, are time-sensitive to the extent that this might not be possible. We receive emails at weekends and on public holidays. Anecdotally, a former colleague of mine once received an email on Boxing Day – about an assessment due in the week before the Easter holidays. As educators, our instinct is to help and many of us respond out of hours – this is really a matter for individuals to decide upon. But the principle to be defended is that, as well as the need for academics to enjoy leisure time such that they are rested for work the next day, we are workers who have sold our time, like any other; it is overly demanding to expect that we give some of it away for free – however instrumental that may sound.

Students need to be encouraged to do their studying, prepare their assignments and so on, within normal working hours. However, it is increasingly unlikely that doing so is preparatory for the world of business. Jonathan Crary, in his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, argues that global capitalism has moved beyond clock time, with its geographical limitations, forcing populations into a “duration without breaks”, a sort of globalized time that means that production is constant. The divide between work and leisure is increasingly eroded, as ever more of us take our work home with us or engage in leisure activities that are productive as well as consumptive, as with social networking and its valuable flows of information. All that remains is sleep, anti-productive sleep that capital can extract no value from. Crary describes sleep as “an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism”. It’s no wonder, he remarks, that less and less time is being given over to it.

Communications technologies play a big part in this squeezing of social time and the rise of the insomniac subject. Franco Berardi, in The Soul at Work, writes: “The mobile phone makes possible the connection between the needs of semio-capital and the mobilization of the living labor of cyber-space. The ringtone of the mobile phone calls the workers to reconnect their abstract time to the reticular flows”. That is, the ring tone is equivalent to the foreman’s siren, shaking us from our leisure and demanding that we punch back in, at any time, to the networks of information that sustain so much productivity in what Jodi Dean calls Communicative Capitalism.

The idea of keeping business hours looks increasingly outdated. Flexible work is today’s business mantra and it’s sold to workers as a form of freedom and autonomy. It’s nothing of the sort. Flexibilization is consonant with a general deregulation in the economy that robs workers of security. All the power is in the hands of the employer, with zero hours contracts a notorious example of the asymmetry of flexibility for many. Networked communications again play their part here. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk offers an example of how the Internet feeds into precarious flexibilization. Mechanical Turk is a marketplace for Human Intelligence Tasks: discrete work tasks that can be completed online but that require human input. One example would be identifying text in photographs, something only a human can presently do – witness the CAPTCHA tests that check that you’re not an algorithm. The website is marketed as providing “businesses and developers access to an on-demand, scalable” and “24/7 workforce” whilst workers “select from thousands of tasks and work whenever it’s convenient”. What is being offered, then, is a network for units of fragmented, just in time labour. No need to house workers in an office space, no need to limit one’s operation to a given locality – and no need to retain anyone on a salary. This is any time, anywhere labour – and it’s a frankly terrifying business model.

It’s unlikely, then, that encouraging students to keep business hours at universities is good practice for preparing them for the temporalities of work in Communicative Capitalism, especially if the Mechanical Turk model becomes more widespread. Instead, let’s celebrate it as a form of resistance against the deleterious affects of forms of labour that disrupt the work-leisure divide, lay siege to our restorative sleep, and that lay the trap of precariousness hidden under the banner of flexibility. When the clock hits five, after a day of study and learning, let’s all protest – emails off and down the pub.

David Hill

Image Source: BBC


3 thoughts on “Work, Sleep, Communicate at the 24/7 University

  1. Well said, David! I would suggest that (not) responding after (work) hours should not be left for individuals to decide. It should be a policy for an organisation/department that extends to all its members/employees. In France there is already a wave of organisations that have adopted a policy of not responding to emails after work hours. I think this is a good example.



  2. I think you’re probably right. One argument in favour of leaving this to the individual would be that academics, beyond their timetables, are largely in control of the hours they work.

    This is a dangerous argument, though. This kind of flexibility looks like we have autonomy over our time but really it just situates us in what Gilles Deleuze called a Control Society. The foreman disappears and workers have to manage their own time without a bureacratic structure behind them. It’s very easy, when we have to internalise control – to be our own foreman – for work time to spiral out of control. The rigidity of “the work day” offers security.

    A broader point to make is that the kind of work we do escapes measurement. One hour of our working day might not be comparable to another, and it’s rarely possible to contain cognitive labour in discrete units of time. How do you stop thinking about something? How do you measure the value of an idea? Basically, remuneration for our time is divorced from units of labour. Anything we can do to impose an artificial structure on work time is probably desirable.

    It can’t be wholely successful. If you have an idea about something you’re working on after pint number three, or in a Eureka! moment in the middle of the night, then you’re working – and probably need to follow it up. Likewise, it’s difficult to leave the office and simply stop thinking about student matters – especially if this involves concern.

    It’s probably not possible any more to point to business hours and say “that’s what I’m paid for”. But anything we can do – such as policies around email – is likely going to be helpful.



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