This post expands on ideas from a book chapter on academic writing I have recently drafted. I was interested in thinking about where and how we write, the performance of being an academic writer and the imaginary spaces of the university. (At least) two ideas inspired this line of thought: Grant and Knowles (2000) call for academic women to explore the ‘imaginative spaces’ they inhabit as writers, and Barnett’s (2013) lament that “the imaginary landscape of the idea of higher education is rather empty at the present time” (p 13). I wondered (tautologically): how is this emptiness visible in our selves, on our campuses and in our writing?
I’ve worked, and walked, in this university for seventeen years. Before that, I was a student here. I know these grounds well. And yet they are constantly changing. Walking the campus is not always a comfortable experience. Right now the university is being unmade and remade around me. If the imaginary renderings of the artist’s impressions are anything to go by, there will be a lot to love in the new campus—but it is a difficult space to occupy until then.
Dozens of sixty-year-old lemon-scented gum trees in the central courtyard have been cut down. There is keen sense of loss on campus that is not acknowledged in jovial announcements about the university’s love of green space and plans for replanting. The Campus Hub has been replaced with a pile of rubble topped by bulldozers. Several buildings retain their concrete skeletons but have been hollowed out.
Even though it is well known to me, there are times this place feels far from homely.
Sometimes, like now, it is because the campus landscape is changing rapidly. Other times the changes are within myself. As a doctoral candidate and early career academic, I felt a fluctuating sense of belongingness to a discipline. I have experienced bodily discomfort trying to find places to breastfeed or avoiding stairs when recovering from surgery. The most dramatic experience of disruption and displacement was the closure of the academic development unit where I worked two years ago and consequent staff redundancies. (A recommend reading that ties together the ideas in this post: Manathunga’s (2007) “Unhomely academic developer identities”).
I am conscious that the unhomeliness (to use Bhabha’s term from his work on migrant workers) of this space has greater resonance because of the history of displacing the traditional owners of this land. Walking the campus, I am reminded of Padmore’s (2009) “Telling Home Stories”, in which she writes as an English-born Australian who learns about the traumascape or ‘trauma trails’ of the country for Aboriginal people, marked by massacres and the separation of families. She is simultaneously at home and unsettled: “The places I’ve come to know as homely are also sites of sorrow, horror or displacement. The conflicting experiences are often ignored when we are comfortably settled in everyday spaces” (p 267). At meetings and at the bottom of emails, we acknowledge the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug people, but rarely do we let these acknowledgements discomfort us.
I am practicing the unpleasant feeling of sitting with discomfort in all sorts of ways, rather than ignoring the present to imagine a better future.