What is Pause Button?

Bart Simon, Director Milieux Institute | November 24th, 2016

We are called upon now, more than ever, to engage diverse publics with our scholarship. This is not simply a neoliberal boondoggle or a call to make ourselves accountable, but a renewal of the vocation for public engagement, dialog and critique. A renewal of the idea of the public university and of the desire to be public.

At the core of this renewed desire is the need to speak and to be heard. To communicate, not for the sake of our academic disciplines (for which we require specialized languages), but for the sake of dialog across disciplines and engagement beyond disciplines.

But, the conditions of academic work have not changed much despite this renewed desire to communicate. Instead, we are forever driven inward to cultivate disciplinary knowledge and power as best we can. Some of us break with this and aspire to be public intellectuals by burning time speaking with others, writing for/with others, and engaging with others, but most will have to be satisfied to pursue a hidden passion; to be occasional essayists, blogging diarists, tweeting ironists, and Facebook pundits.

Academic public communication in its samizdat mode is a proliferation of forms, ideas, channels, and voices that are all but divorced from the setting of the university proper. The university is left with nothing but PR because the scholars, artists, and scientists that want to speak do so elsewhere.

Pause Button is an experiment that aspires to reclaim public scholarship as a core function of the university. It works through our desire and need to collectively speak and be heard, as well as to listen.

Pause Button is an experiment in creating something more than just another communication platform, something that breaks free from being just another blog and has the potential to evolve beyond its current platform. This experiment develops in three parts: content coherence, student opportunity, and signal boost.

Content Coherence – We think about technology and culture in Canada eh.

Have you ever noticed how the vast majority of public writing about technology in Canada (digital or otherwise) happens in the business pages of newspaper and magazines? While arguably at the core of our contemporary social experience, there is almost no critical engagement with technology as culture. Compare, if you like, technology writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, or Atlantic magazine in the US, or even Wired. Canada has Spark on CBC radio but that’s about it.

And so we aspire to produce high quality writing about technology and culture in our Canadian and our Montreal context. As our springboard we will use the work, issues, relationships, and networks of the 200+ members of the Milieux Institute at Concordia. Our work at the Institute will aspire to be communicated via Pause Button, not as public relations or accountability, but as a matter of developing the skill of good public writing that adds value and meaning for readers beyond our workplace. Pause Button should be of Canada, it should be Montreal-esque and it should be tied to the people and spaces of the Milieux Institute.

Student Opportunity – Toward Hybrid Careers, Public Scholars and Graduate Sustainability

There are very few people who still believe that there are enough “pure” academic jobs for all the PhD holders that seek them and it is better to retool our expectations now than to wait for governments and administrations to retool them for us.

Those of us who are here (in tenured positions) can create new spaces and pathways for our students without waiting on managerial logics to dictate what those will be. With this in mind, we recognize that for many students, writing is a skill and a passion and this should be cultivated in the spirit of public communication. Pragmatically (or cynically), this can be about employability outside of the university, but the fact is that there is a vast shortage of expert and qualified public writers on the social and cultural context and impact of technology. Journalists don’t cut it. e need writers who live and breathe technology and culture, who dwell in it, and can move from a discussion of highly technical specifications to social and cultural theory to aesthetics to economics all in one go.

These are our graduate students. Aspiring writers or not, they are trained to shuttle back and forth between concrete material practice and critical cultural analysis. They are already hybrid. Pause Button shall be a public outlet for the experience of this hybridity. At the same time, we will endeavour to pay our writers appreciable freelance rates and help them build portfolios, establish networks and push their work into high profile venues. For students, public writing should not be a hobby but should become part of the imagination of an ideal career for a scholar. We welcome all partners and collaborators who would help us in this endeavour.

Signal Boost – It will not do to Speak to Ourselves

All of this enterprising writing is pointless if there is no appreciable readership, no audience, no engagement. The idea here is not pander for Facebook likes and followers so much as to care about our writing enough that we work to cultivate an audience. Academics are notoriously bad at this because in our disciplines we can take our audiences for granted (indeed we often don’t even need audiences and engagement with anyone other than our peers is seldom encouraged).

Public writing is different by definition and so we need to explore pathways for boosting our signal and circulating our content in ever growing networks. We shall play with form and content, social media and metrics in ways that most scholars would never be caught dead doing. All this to be able to engage diverse publics with our work. And when our crafted content leaves our Pause Button platform for more potent and influential venues then we will know we have accomplished something towards reclaiming public engagement in the university.