We need (to be) poets

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to hear Ronald Barnett, emeritus professor of higher education, talk at the University of Sydney. Based on his trilogy of books, he spoke about the university as a feasible utopia in an age of supercomplexity. One of his comments has stayed with me and I have pondered it, on occasion, ever since. ‘We need to be poets’ he said.

Being a University book cover  Imagining the University book cover  ‘Understanding the University’

In each of these books, Barnett talks about the imaginative and poetic task of thinking about universities. In Being a University (2011), academics are poets:

The researcher thinking about tomorrow’s experiment; the scholar planning a book; the course leader engaged in designing a course: these academics live in their own created zones of time and space. These academics are academic poets, imaginatively bringing into being new worlds (p 79).

In Imagining the University (2013), he explains why we need poetry:

There is a thinness in our contemporary thinking about the university … The imaginary landscape of the idea of higher education is rather empty at the present time. That is to say, the general ideas in broad circulation, and through which we might carry a tacit understanding of the university, are impoverished or inadequate (p 13) …

The poetry of the university being sought here would enable new ideas and new metaphors of the university fully to be realised (p 32).

In Understanding the University (2016), he shows poetry at work in the university:

The university holds within itself, often hidden from view, subtlety, delight, extensions of human being, wonder and even mystery. These may be fleeting moments, and cast into shadows by dark interests, but they are there, obdurately persisting against the university’s malevolent presences. Such a situation is dauntingly difficult to capture in conventional prose. Poets may legitimately be called for (p 131).

Much of the scholarship in higher education is dominated by particular research perspectives and agendas; relies on narrow range of methodologies; and is presented in critically, theoretically and textually similar ways. Playful and speculative poetic writing  offers a way out of the boundaries of conventional or traditional scholarship. Poetry can capture the affective, intimate and inspiring aspects of teaching, learning and research. It may also offer a chance to write outside of (or against) defined output metrics.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard (1964) writes that the measure of poetry is its reverberations:

In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own.  The reverberations bring about a change of being.  It is as though the poet’s being were our being … To put it more simply, this is an impression that all poetry-lovers know well: the poem possesses us entirely (p xviii).

There are examples of poetry about universities and academic work: PhD haiku in a recent Thesis Whisperer post, and this new book of poems and analysis about how higher education feels (this is in my to-read pile, so likely to be the subject of a future post). There is also writing that is simultaneously scholarly and poetic. One of my favourite examples is Alison Phipps’ (2007) paper The Sound of Higher Education:

Our world in modern languages is an altered world and it is more than my hunch that this is the same for other areas of higher education and its research. I know this to be the case if the disciplines are those, as in my own institution, which go on a journey with students in such a way as to show that other worlds are possible: History of Art, Classics, Archaeology, Languages, Anthropology.

And the sounds of this altered world are those, primarily, of grief:

We’ve a little time before the meeting begins. I don’t know my colleague well, but she looks tired, we all do these days, and I ask how she is. She begins to tell me she is fine, but her eyes fill with tears and the real story breaks through. She can’t do this any more. They have increased her hours, closed down her most successful course, taken away her dignity, told her that the language she speaks with such love and inspiration, is worthless here. And the room is full of the sound of weeping.

In the face of the grief, and it is palpable and often overwhelming to those of us who listen to it regularly and who are part of its tears too, we witness the constant selective deafness of management systems and higher education research which closes its ears to this sound in pursuit of capacity, strength, safeguarding.

This reverberates. Poetry offers consolation and hope.

4 thoughts on “We need (to be) poets

  1. Pingback: Souls and universities | The Slow Academic

  2. Pingback: Universities as utopias | The Slow Academic

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