Reading and wondering

This week colleagues and I submitted a journal article. Collectively and individually, we did a lot of reading.  The following papers will prove important for future writing, but they didn’t make it into the list of citations this time. The process of writing together sent the paper in new directions.

I was inspired by educational historian Catherine Manathunga‘s approach to close critical reading or textual analysis of qualitative data, which she shared with the research team for the Academic Identities Conference cultural history project. She suggests thinking about ‘noticings’ while reading—what jumps out at you, resonates, irritates, or jars? What surprises, delights, repulses, angers you while reading? Why?

This follows Maggie MacLure’s thinking on the untapped potential for wonder in qualitative research:

This potentiality can be felt on occasions where something—perhaps a comment in an interview, a fragment of a field note, an anecdote, an object, or a strange facial expression—seems to reach out from the inert corpus (corpse) of the data, to grasp us. These moments confound the industrious, mechanical search for meanings, patterns, codes, or themes; but at the same time, they exert a kind of fascination, and have a capacity to animate further thought. On other occasions I have called this intensity that seems to emanate from data, a “glow”. But here, I want to think of it again as wonder … Wonder is not necessarily a safe, comforting, or uncomplicatedly positive affect. It shades into curiosity, horror, fascination, disgust, and monstrosity. And the particular hue or tenor that it will assume is never entirely within our control.

While I love applying this to qualitative data, it also resonates while reading. Here are some noticings and wonderings from two papers.

  • Lynch (2010) Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education

Is there a culture of carelessness at universities? Certainly, I think universities are marked by undercare but there is something (disturbingly comforting) about how non-specific that seems. With undercare, we are all raised by wolves. Carelessness, by comparison, feels personal. It’s directed towards others.

The paper starts with audit culture. The “unrelenting measurement of performance”. This changes the institution and changes the self, infects ones personal life “with a reflexive surveillance of the self.” The result? Inauthenticity, alienation, compliance, futility.

Lynch shows that carelessness is gendered. Individualism is care-less. Free time = work time. The ideal academic is unencumbered by care. Even self-care is incidental, a last resort when performance is negatively impacted. This recent article called it self-helpification. (Damn, it’s paywalled).

“A care-less academic culture sends out a strong message also to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars as to who is and who is not an appropriate candidate for academic life.” We fall for the myth of the ideal academic. We don’t nurture orchids. We don’t resist.

  • Gill (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neoliberal academia

This chapter starts with a conversation. Stressed, drowning, work piling up, 16 hour days, always late, not sleeping. Fed up, rejected, crying, useless. “This fragment of conversation … speaks of many things: exhaustion, stress, overload, insomnia, anxiety, shame, aggression, hurt, guilt and feelings of out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure within the contemporary academy.” Bad feelings, all.

The voices are heart-rending. Precarious employment. Fast academia. Emotional labour. Rejection and failure. It’s a poisonous mix. What about this section entitled ‘Pleasure’? It’s only a paragraph long. It ends with the words “making things worse.”

Where are the promised “small-scale micro-negotiations of power in the academy”? It seems we are all too tired.


Still more to notice and wonder about (some of which you can see in the image above). For now, bedtime stories; with the 5 year old, we are reading (and re-reading) Mr Men and Little Miss stories. Their names are a list of the affects of higher education: rush, busy, worry, calamity, trouble. And the character profiles on the Mr Men website  read like a curriculum vitae of an academic superhero and his side-kick: “Mr Busy: diligent, on-the-go, engaged”; “Little Miss Busy: occupied, bustling, multi-tasker.”

3 thoughts on “Reading and wondering

  1. Pingback: Naughty | The Slow Academic

  2. Pingback: A year of books and questions | The Slow Academic

  3. Pingback: Looking forward | The Slow Academic

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