Which university? Which self?

Barbara Grant’s keynote from HERDSA has been haunting me. It was a pleasure to listen to, and has rewarded slow consideration. Entitled A Thousand Tiny Universities, Barbara challenged the audience to think about ourselves, our universities, hope and the future. In writing this post, I am relying on memory, my sketchy notes and some brief comments on Twitter. Rather than an exact record of what she said, it is as much, if not more, about what her keynote allowed me to think.

The title of her lecture was taken from Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) A Thousand Plateaus and Grosz’s (1993) feminist response A Thousand Tiny Sexes. At the risk of performing an institutionalised reading that closes down complexity, Deleuze and Guattari ask their readers to reorient their thinking from structured, hierarchical, centralised thought (they call this aboresence) to horizontal, random, multiple (rhizomatic) thinking. Barbara’s line of argument about our relationship with the university was similiar.

Barbara started with the bad feelings invoked when working in a university where staff are being made redundant: sadness, anger, and guilt. She has previously written  about her troublesome identity as an academic developer in a similar way:

For example, in claiming myself as an ‘academic developer’, I almost immediately begin to experience both a kind of inner dissatisfaction with the limits of what that identity offers me and, over time, the myriad ways in which that identity is perceived by others as either fraudulently academic, or baselessly know‐it‐all, or servilely a tool of managerialism … If I am going to refashion myself as an academic developer, and in the peculiar time of mourning it seems possible to do this in a way that it has not before, what kind of self do I want that to be?

Some of the tweets offer a glimpse of the layers of Barbara’s keynote:

What kind of self do you want to be in the university? Barbara shared two portraits of herself at work: one in her office, red lipstick, radiating pleasure, with a glimpse of a certificate for an excellent first sentence in the background.

images 2  images

She contrasted this image with disturbing context of higher education: withdrawal of public funding, shifting costs to students, audit culture, a growing precariat workforce. In the second photo, she is writing with her dog in her arms. Less outwardly happy, the latter represents the greater joy. “An academic woman in her right place” says Barbara. She is a counter-story to the self as “servile tool of managerialism”.

Ultimately, Barbara’s keynote was hopeful. She called on us to locate ourselves in our institutions, to find counter-stories, to inhabit universities in different ways, to open up the nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices. We each become a tiny university. She asked the audience: what does your tiny university look like?

Starting with self portraits, my favourite are those taken unawares, where I am caught in the act of talking or writing. The self that is represented in these images is entirely relational, in communication with an unseen audience.

HERDSA photo dmevz0ru8aabcpd

I have written a great deal on this blog about my experience of the university—sometimes uncomfortable, oftentimes collegial and occasionally joyful. This blog gives space to my tiny university, one among thousands or more.

3 thoughts on “Which university? Which self?

  1. Pingback: Thinking and forgetting | The Slow Academic

  2. Pingback: Lost in thought | The Slow Academic

  3. Pingback: Heterotopias in higher education | The Slow Academic

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