Dissertation Abstracts

Academic practice: Digitizing, relating, existing

Author: Decuypere, Mathias , mathias.decuypere@ppw.kuleuven.be
Department: Laboratory for Education and Society
University: University of Leuven, Belgium
Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Maarten Simons
Year of completion: 2015
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Digitization , University , Academics , Sociomaterial studies
Areas of Research: Education , Science and Technology , Theory


The current condition of the university is subject of profound debate. The main research interest of this dissertation is to come to a more profound understanding of the university today, with a special focus on what the role of digital actors is in contemporary academic practices. In doing so, the university is approached through concrete daily academic activities in which both social (academics, students, …) and material (computers, paper, …) actors are situated.

In order to investigate the university likewise, this dissertation adopts a research approach that is largely inspired by two theoretical vantage points: a sociomaterial and a sociotopological approach. The combination of these approaches will enable to analyze academic practices through the relations between actors present in these practices, instead of solely focusing on (the experiences or interpretations of) these actors as such.

Four empirical studies were conducted. The first two studies are focusing on the composition of academic practices by interviewing professors about their previous working day. Based on these interviews, this composition was scrutinized by deploying network visualizations as a central means of analysis and that present how (and which) multifarious actors are related to each other, in order for academic practice to be able to function. These networks, which bridge qualitative and quantitative methods, constitute the focal points of analysis in order to come to an understanding of academic practices, and this by analyzing the relations between social, material and digital actors present in these practices.

The two other studies originate from an ethnographic research stay conducted at two research centers. One study specifically focuses on the role of the digital in contemporary academic practices, and more particularly on the prototypical device that is associated with the digital, that is, the screen. This study analyzes the operations performed by the screen, and more particularly, what comes to the fore when analyzing the screen as an active actor rather than as a merely transmitting or displaying medium. In doing so, this study makes clear how academic practice is shaped through the screen; what needs to be put in place in order for this screen to be able to operate; the different roles that screens perform; and finally how the screen might be in tune, or rather precisely out of sync, with the human actors present in different practices.

The fourth and last study poses the question as to whether there is something specific about what we often unreflexively denote as ‘academic’. In order to come to an answer to this question, we adopt the notion of ‘mode of existence’ and scrutinize whether or not there are typical ways to exist as an academic. The notion of ‘existing’ is more particularly tied to the notion of ‘attachment’. On the basis of four different types of attachments, we argue that the typical way of existing as an academic nowadays consists of what we designate as ‘distancing in action’, i.e. a continuous mobilizing of what is not present and a continuous searching for slowing things down.