The Pedagogy of Precarity: Laboring to Learn in the New Economy
The relationship between learning and labor has long been a topic of concern for sociologists of education. In this dissertation, I conduct an ethnography of open learning in the United States following the 2008 economic crisis and argue that a new style of learning is emerging amidst changes in the labor market. I call that new style of learning the pedagogy of precarity and emphasize that it challenges credentialism (Collins, 1979), or how U.S. society confers status, jobs, and life chances according to one’s accumulation of academic qualifications. This study is the first sociological ethnography of open learning conducted from the vantage point of learners (Ito et al, 2009) and offers a perspective of how mostly digitally mediated learning practices are utilized within the growing precarity of the new economy. In this dissertation, I show how a sample of open learners sought a different way to connect their learning to their labor when neither felt valuable after the 2008 crisis and subsequent recession. Engaging literatures in the sociology of education, economic sociology, and cultural sociology, this dissertation expands upon the concept of the precariat (Standing, 2011; Gill and Pratt, 2008) in order to explain how “entrepreneurial vagueness” emerges from lived experiences of precariousness. Entrepreneurial vagueness works to buffer subjective status aspirations amidst dwindling objective life chances in the new economy (Bourdieu, 1984a; Sennett, 1998; 2006). In my study, precarity becomes pedagogized (Bernstein, 1996; 2001) and participants “labor to learn” rather than learn to labor. The pedagogy of precarity relies upon autodidactic communalism (Pearce, 1996), a model for learning that puts the burden of self-education on the individual and the community that she can access by successfully adopting a “habitus of trainability” (Bourdieu, 1984a; Bernstein, 1996; 2001). This burden is hard work, but is also described as enjoyable and life giving. The pedagogy of precarity instilled quasi-dignity as participants learned to embody the habitus of trainability. The habitus of trainability entailed developing a taste for usefulness, a taste for craftsmanship, and a taste for association. However, these tastes are not separate from a taste for risk (Neff, 2012; McMillan Cottom, 2017), and thus the pedagogy of precarity lacks sustainability. The findings are relevant to other studies of institutional challenge through peer-to-peer connection as well as work regarding the future of higher education in the new economy.