Universities as utopias

My presentation at the recent HERDSA conference was entitled Peer review of teaching: A showcase of messy practice. My co-author Rod Lane and I are redeveloping it as a book chapter, in which we will share our learning about the risks and complexities of ‘insider research’ (or researching practices within one’s own institution). Presenting about an imperfect and unfinished project, rather than a retrospective narrative of excellence, was a conscious choice. It seemed well received by the audience:

In the powerpoint to accompany the presentation, I compared our optimistic vision for peer review of teaching with the artist’s impressions of current building works on campus. Both occupy an imaginary landscape.



I contrasted these images—and by association our dreams for peer review of teaching—with some current photos of the campus as a work in progress. I shared some of my own photos of the campus, along with some taken by students for Grapeshot magazine:

Ideas about the university to come and the imaginary space it occupies have been rattling around my head as I walk the changing campus.

There are associations with the keynotes from Barbara Grant and Ronald Barnett at HERDSA. In several of his books, Ronald Barnett has written about the ‘ecological university’ as a feasible utopia. (These slides from one of his presentations provides a useful summary of his ideas about the ecological university and its possibilities.) In her keynote, Barbara Grant spoke of the-future-which-is-now, quoting Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina on hope: “The future is now. And I’m not crying, so maybe it’s good.”

Loose ideas, as yet only tenuously connected: whose utopia is it anyway? Barnett’s university as feasible utopia might be Pussy Riot’s dystopia. A note to self, with increasing urgency: I need to read Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, in its entirety not just the introduction.

Also in mind: what I have been reading. Dystopian fertility fiction again, since I’ve had my fill of comfort lit. For those with similar tastes, I recommend for their strange imaginings: Siobhan Adcock’s The Completionist, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (a mixed genre of dystopian society, work memos, and lesbian romance), Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks and Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun. Look at how these gorgeous covers are nailing the dystopian fertility genre!

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7 thoughts on “Universities as utopias

  1. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #Becomingeducational It’s still hotter than hot here in the UK…

    But we thought that you would like this post on problematising the messy business of teaching – and the increasingly messy business of the peer observation of teaching.

    What we do is messy. If we dare to be experimental with our practice – we may not always succeed; we may not always get the outcomes that we desire.

    And yet there is a constant pressure to be perfect.

    And yet, as engaged professionals, we want to experiemnt, develop, improve, change… and thus we will get things wrong from time to time.

    This is a passionate and timely reminder.

    Best wishes,
    Sandra & Tom


  2. Pingback: Two years on | The Slow Academic

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