A comrade retires

This post is adapted from a speech I gave for my close colleague Cathy Rytmeister at her National Tertiary Education Union farewell. If you have worked with the NTEU in any capacity, then I expect you know Cathy. If you have taken parental leave from an Australian university, then you have benefitted from her advocacy. It was honour to give a speech to celebrate Cathy’s work for the NTEU and her retirement from Macquarie University, where she has worked to improve working conditions for over thirty years.

Cathy Rytmeister on a bicycle with NTEU flag

I have known Cathy for a long time. I encountered her at Macquarie University over twenty years ago soon after I started work as a research assistant at the then Centre for Professional Development. Cathy had recently moved from teaching and researching in statistics to academic development.

We were in the tea room — the Centre was well known for its generous morning teas. So much so, that as a casual staff member,  I asked whether I should omit the time from my timesheet. The director of the centre, Stephen Marshall, and my manager, Lyn Hammett, said no. Morning tea was the most important part of the working day. It was an opportunity for conceptualising research, developing teaching capabilities, and building relationships. We also laughed a great deal and ate a lot of cake.

So, twenty odd years ago, we were in the tea room of a cottage on campus that has since been knocked down. (Cathy asked if I had any photos of the cottage last week, and I said yes, before realising the only ones I had were of the bulldozer demolishing it.) This morning tea — a vast spread of cakes, biscuits and tea in front of us — I was sitting next to Cathy Rytmeister. Staring at my profile, she said ‘I know you’ and asked whether I had attended lessons at a local art centre with my brothers in the 1980s. I had.

Cathy had been my art teacher as a child. Here I am:

a sepia-tinted photograph of a child with paint-covered clothes

Cathy then asked whether I was a member of the NTEU. I was, and said my father had told me it was important to join the union. ‘I knew I liked your parents’, she declared.

There are so many ways in which I could describe Cathy — authentic, humorous, spontaneous, loyal, ‘not entirely whinge-free’ as her partner Roy has said. But I shall pick just three words and share some examples of how she has contributed to the NTEU and inspired me and others: integrity, generosity and passion.

First, her integrity

Cathy speaks truth to power, and has described her role as being “the little voice that annoys”. Like me, Cathy grew up pro-union, and her strong sense of social justice was honed in her childhood. Workplaces, notably the post office, and universities have played an important role in radicalising Cathy — she describes her time as a student at the Institute of Technology (now UTS) as a “hotbed of radicals” and a turbulent time that gave her a taste for campaigning, strikes and picket lines.  Studying maths at Macquarie and being a Student Rep in Academic Senate prompted a lifelong interest in academic governance and leadership, and the politics of higher education. She was active in the students’ political movements and worked with members of the Macquarie University Staff Association (MUSA), a branch of the Federated Australian University Staff Association (FAUSA) – a predecessor of the NTEU (thank you to Nikki Balnave for those details.)

Cathy has a long history with the NTEU, starting as a casual staff member at Macquarie in 1989, and joining the union as soon as she could as an academic a few years later. She has been active at all levels of the union, as a member of Branch Committee, NSW Division, National Councillor, Education Committee member, Women’s Action Committee, state Assistant Secretary, Bargaining Committee member over several rounds, Macquarie Branch Vice President (for both academics and general staff) and six years as Branch President. She has participated in four rounds of Enterprise Bargaining. It may have been faster to list the positions she has not held! A highlight of her union work is successfully campaigning for paid parental leave – and, like many, I and my children thank her for this.

We can celebrate Cathy’s successes, and recognise there is still plenty of work for us to do. Everyone here will be familiar with Cathy’s integrity and principles in the ongoing struggle — let me check my notes from conversations with her — against rampant individualism, unrestrained commercialisation and passive complicity with the neoliberal agenda.

Second word: her generosity

I am sure you have all been recipients of Cathy’s generosity. It has had a powerful influence on my professional and personal life — I can’t disconnect the two because there’s an intimacy to working with Cathy. We’ve been through challenges — multiple rounds of change management, parental leave, break-ups, illness, the deaths of colleagues and friends — and celebrations of birthdays, degrees, jobs and family. Cathy and I have worked closely in the NTEU, in politics for The Greens, and as co-teachers, co-authors, researchers and committee members. I have interviewed her several times for different projects — her knowledge keeps on giving — and she has not let me forget putting [snort] into one of the transcripts.

Cathy nourishes people — sometimes with food (pancakes in the tearoom), sometimes with hard liquor, or by knitting socks and baby blankets. (This photo, over sixteen years ago, shows her exquisite knitting.)

a baby in a snuggle bed with a green knitted blanket

She supports and celebrates people — in song (her farewell songs are legendary, including Knock knock knocking on Kevin’s door for Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Kevin Jameson), with advice, and by sharing quality time.  Cathy feels deeply and her emotions are big. It’s a wonder that someone so sensitive can be so tough at the same time. We’re lucky that Cathy feels the world the way she does, and that she is generous with her vulnerabilities. Cathy is generous by disagreeing with people and challenging them. Her relationships, including with those she disagrees with, are enriched by her generosity.

She is also generous with her opinions. You won’t leave a meeting wondering what Cathy really thinks about something or someone. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, what would Cathy say? A discussion with Cathy, or witnessing her in enterprise bargaining or on academic governance committees, leaves you in no doubt about her principles: equity, transparency, fairness, solidarity and activism.

Cathy shows that the revolution begins with care. Warm feet, a full belly and a song.

But don’t let being comfortable fool you. Cathy will challenge you. ‘Your warm feet feel good in those knitted socks, don’t they, your belly is full with the food I cooked, your ears are full of song, but what’s good for your world? What’s good for your neighbour? What’s good for the society as a whole? What’s good for people you never see? How will you pay the debt of your privilege, and share what you have?’

Finally, her passion.

Cathy is passionate about higher education. She is passionate about activism and politics within and beyond the university. Quality learning and teaching, education as a public good, effective leadership, the student experience, staff rights and conditions…

And she is passionate about life outside of work. Singing in two activist choirs, travelling, caring for her grandkids, loving Roy. That is inspiring. Let it be an example to you that your life at work does not define you. Cathy is leaving Macquarie, but she has songs to write, gigs to perform, socks to knit, campaigns to join, and a rich and loving circle of family and friends. May you have the same.

I have talked about Cathy’s generosity, her love and care. Part of her passion is also anger. Many of you will have seen Cathy being the ‘crankiest woman in the room’. She reminds us that anger is necessary and valuable. I am looking forward to the publication of her email drafts folder so we can finally see all the messages that were deemed too saucy to send after the heat of the moment had cooled!

Cathy’s integrity, generosity and passion come together in her work for the NTEU, and her life’s work.

Her office offers something of an archive as she cleans it out and uncovers gems of her history at Macquarie and with the NTEU. Treasures will include: bawdy and possibly defamatory song lyrics that she has written, a facsimile of an olive branch sent to former Vice-Chancellor Di Yerbury, learning and teaching awards, and union t-shirts and posters, including those inviting former Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz to come to the party.

A toast to Cathy. To what she has given us, to what she leaves us and to what comes next. Thank you comrade.

Universities, goodness and plague

On Thursday evening, Barbara Grant and Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand), Rikke Toft Nørgård (Aarhus University, Denmark) and I hosted the first webinar in the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University series.

It was called Surviving the years of plague – Two feminist academics review Raewyn Connell’s The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. (There is a video of the presentation available at the end of this post).

In late 2019, Barbara and I agreed to write a collaborative review of Raewyn Connell’s The Good University (following an invitation from Sean). Our plan was to converse slowly via email because we were already experiencing plagues (persistent afflictions causing worry and distress) in the form of university restructuring. We didn’t anticipate how dramatically covid would interrupt our work and home lives and reduce our capacity for scholarly work. Our conversation became intermittent, stretching from November 2019 into the present. We found that living with these plagues cast the possibility of the good university into profound uncertainty. Connell’s The Good University became a point of return — a companion text — for two feminist academics during plague times.

In the webinar we shared an edited version of what has become an epistolary review essay (not yet published) that proceeded slowly, and showed on the ground ‘what [some] universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change,’ as Connell’s subtitle has it. We were delighted to be joined by participants from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, England, Ireland, Malaysia, Scotland and South Africa!

In the slides, you can see our starting point: an overview of Connell’s The Good University.

We read an excerpt from our email conversation (below is further edited for brevity):

Barbara, 27 November 2019

In these final pages, Connell makes her call to prefigurative politics, urging the reader to begin to realise the good university ‘here and now, with whatever resources are at hand’ (pp. 189–190), and beginning at any scale: a single course, a new programme or centre within an existing institution, or a new container such as a movement or an organisation. Her criteria for the good university are that it be ‘democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable’ (p. 171). When I first read this, I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why.

Agnes 12 February 2021

We were attempting, I think, to write a review that was ‘a weave of collective labour’ (Connell, 2019, p. 171) in which we positioned ourselves as feminist academics within and against the politics of the contemporary university. I have been thinking about how and why we choose to stay in the university system, as Connell has done. When we started writing, it was impossible to imagine the context in which our thinking about goodness and the university would emerge.

I have grappled with the injunction to begin to realise the good university on a small scale here and now. I am left with a feeling of heaviness, more distant from the good university than ever before.

I left this gloomy sentence and took the dog for a walk through the casuarina forest near my home. I returned feeling better. The university, good and bad, contains work and people that nourish me. Like Connell, I have been buoyed by my work as a unionist, even if we sometimes fall short of our ideals. Many of the ideas that Connell writes about have stayed with me — universities as privilege machines, the value of professional (administrative) staff, rekindling the soul of the university, the histories of activism and the emphasis on working collectively.

Barbara 18 January 2022

My feelings as we so slowly wrote the book review: I felt weird performance anxiety quite often and a bit of shame about being so slow and also wondering what was happening with you — I guess I’m being reminded of the always/already intersubjectivity of writing/creating.

We then gave an overview of our writing process using the work of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe how our interrupted reading moved towards hope.

In Giving an account of oneself, Judith Butler notices how we are ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (2001, p. 22), which poses difficulties for telling any story in a straight line. Writing during a plague, time and self are even more fragmented than usual. Distractions abound. We wrote ‘interrupted’, ‘arriv[ing] in each other’s inbox, amidst the bursting emails, promising and reminding, and apologising for redrafts not-yet-completed, work deferred and returned to’ (Breeze & Taylor, 2020, p. xi).

Throughout the text, we have kept the interruptions that Sean Sturm provided as the editor of the article. These challenging questions offer a prompt to the reader to reflect on the ways in which scholarly texts are always interruptible, provisional and fragmentary. 

Sean wrote: Do you want to keep the entries verbatim as a principle of ‘slow review’ or are you open to writerly revision? Note that my comments assume that you want editorial comment to ‘deepen’ (problematise/extend) the analysis, which might go against the mixed register of email, where ‘deeper’ thoughts might remain provisional or fragmentary. Ignore them, if so!

As interlocutor in the webinar, Sean teased out our ideas about the ‘good’ university and asked challenging questions about feminism, complicity, affect and interruption, and these handwritten notes give an insight into the line of questioning:

One of the participants, Juliane Höhle (PhD candidate at Ghent University, Belgium) created this wonderful graphic recording of the webinar and shared it on Twitter:

Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague
Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague

The dialogue was enriched by questions and contributions from participants. Reasons for joining the session included:

  • It feels like the first time seeing reflected how I feel versus the ‘back to normal’ university discourse seemingly everywhere else!
  • I came to this theme because of experiencing chaos and acceleration and work intensification but also barbarization during the pandemic.
  • I was attracted by the keywords plague, feminist perspectives and slow academia.
  • I am feeling very disillusioned and burnt out by being in HE and dominant approaches to scholarship. Need to find new, fresh energy.

Rikke Toft Nørgård facilitated collaborative small group discussions which covered wide-ranging and complex ideas. She asked: What lingers? What incites? What inspires? What continues?

Ideas for further thinking included: Reclaiming as a collective the language and narratives of sustainability, creativity and goodness; promote ideas of the university that encompass the undercommons of the university — students, teachers, support staff, chance meetings, informal learning, random encounters, personal chat (and not only managerial structure and neoliberal incentives); and think more about ways of sharing the privilege of slowness.

New writing from participants in the session is now on my to read list:

Boehme, C. (2022) Arts and Academia: The Role of the Arts in Civic Universities. Great Debates in Higher Education. Emerald Publishing Limited. Available to read in full here.

Barnett, R., Bengtsen, S. & Nørgård, R. T. (2022). Culture and the University: Education, Ecology, Design. Bloomsbury.

You can watch a video of the presentation (42 minutes):

I am looking forward to the next webinar in the series! ‘Wandering and wondering in the university’ with Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) and Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark) will be on September 29th. Find out more on the PaTHES website.

Slow academia – a collaborative webinar series

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education (PaTHES) webinar series, and hope you can join this wonderful group of scholars!

Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University

Chaired by Rikke Toft Nørgård, Aarhus University (Denmark)

Featuring: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

More information including abstracts, biographies and further reading.

Webinar 1

Surviving the years of plague – Two feminist academics review Raewyn Connell’s The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change

Date: Thursday 8th September

Time: 10.30-12.00pm CEST (DK time), 8.30-10.00pm (NZ), 6.30-8.00 (Sydney), 9.30-11.00am (London)

Speakers: Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University, Australia) & Barbara Grant (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) with Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand)

Registration before Monday 5th September

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/Uf28ctYJdTfjyFdV7

Webinar 2

Wandering and wondering in the university

Date: Thursday 29th September

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 5.00-6.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) & Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark)

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/UeLawEecPQLayNoG9

Webinar 3

Generosity and presence in the university: Working for change

Date: Friday 7th October

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 6.00-7.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Maha Bali (The American University in Cairo) and Alison Phipps (University of Glasgow, UK)

Registration before Tuesday 4th October

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/foRVKpYs1oZiiMn88

Conclusive Roundtable – TBA

Date and time to be advised.

Panellists: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

Visit the PaTHES website.