Universities, goodness and plague

On Thursday evening, Barbara Grant and Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand), Rikke Toft Nørgård (Aarhus University, Denmark) and I hosted the first webinar in the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University series.

It was called Surviving the years of plague – Two feminist academics review Raewyn Connell’s The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. (There is a video of the presentation available at the end of this post).

In late 2019, Barbara and I agreed to write a collaborative review of Raewyn Connell’s The Good University (following an invitation from Sean). Our plan was to converse slowly via email because we were already experiencing plagues (persistent afflictions causing worry and distress) in the form of university restructuring. We didn’t anticipate how dramatically covid would interrupt our work and home lives and reduce our capacity for scholarly work. Our conversation became intermittent, stretching from November 2019 into the present. We found that living with these plagues cast the possibility of the good university into profound uncertainty. Connell’s The Good University became a point of return — a companion text — for two feminist academics during plague times.

In the webinar we shared an edited version of what has become an epistolary review essay (not yet published) that proceeded slowly, and showed on the ground ‘what [some] universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change,’ as Connell’s subtitle has it. We were delighted to be joined by participants from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, England, Ireland, Malaysia, Scotland and South Africa!

In the slides, you can see our starting point: an overview of Connell’s The Good University.

We read an excerpt from our email conversation (below is further edited for brevity):

Barbara, 27 November 2019

In these final pages, Connell makes her call to prefigurative politics, urging the reader to begin to realise the good university ‘here and now, with whatever resources are at hand’ (pp. 189–190), and beginning at any scale: a single course, a new programme or centre within an existing institution, or a new container such as a movement or an organisation. Her criteria for the good university are that it be ‘democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable’ (p. 171). When I first read this, I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why.

Agnes 12 February 2021

We were attempting, I think, to write a review that was ‘a weave of collective labour’ (Connell, 2019, p. 171) in which we positioned ourselves as feminist academics within and against the politics of the contemporary university. I have been thinking about how and why we choose to stay in the university system, as Connell has done. When we started writing, it was impossible to imagine the context in which our thinking about goodness and the university would emerge.

I have grappled with the injunction to begin to realise the good university on a small scale here and now. I am left with a feeling of heaviness, more distant from the good university than ever before.

I left this gloomy sentence and took the dog for a walk through the casuarina forest near my home. I returned feeling better. The university, good and bad, contains work and people that nourish me. Like Connell, I have been buoyed by my work as a unionist, even if we sometimes fall short of our ideals. Many of the ideas that Connell writes about have stayed with me — universities as privilege machines, the value of professional (administrative) staff, rekindling the soul of the university, the histories of activism and the emphasis on working collectively.

Barbara 18 January 2022

My feelings as we so slowly wrote the book review: I felt weird performance anxiety quite often and a bit of shame about being so slow and also wondering what was happening with you — I guess I’m being reminded of the always/already intersubjectivity of writing/creating.

We then gave an overview of our writing process using the work of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe how our interrupted reading moved towards hope.

In Giving an account of oneself, Judith Butler notices how we are ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (2001, p. 22), which poses difficulties for telling any story in a straight line. Writing during a plague, time and self are even more fragmented than usual. Distractions abound. We wrote ‘interrupted’, ‘arriv[ing] in each other’s inbox, amidst the bursting emails, promising and reminding, and apologising for redrafts not-yet-completed, work deferred and returned to’ (Breeze & Taylor, 2020, p. xi).

Throughout the text, we have kept the interruptions that Sean Sturm provided as the editor of the article. These challenging questions offer a prompt to the reader to reflect on the ways in which scholarly texts are always interruptible, provisional and fragmentary. 

Sean wrote: Do you want to keep the entries verbatim as a principle of ‘slow review’ or are you open to writerly revision? Note that my comments assume that you want editorial comment to ‘deepen’ (problematise/extend) the analysis, which might go against the mixed register of email, where ‘deeper’ thoughts might remain provisional or fragmentary. Ignore them, if so!

As interlocutor in the webinar, Sean teased out our ideas about the ‘good’ university and asked challenging questions about feminism, complicity, affect and interruption, and these handwritten notes give an insight into the line of questioning:

One of the participants, Juliane Höhle (PhD candidate at Ghent University, Belgium) created this wonderful graphic recording of the webinar and shared it on Twitter:

Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague
Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague

The dialogue was enriched by questions and contributions from participants. Reasons for joining the session included:

  • It feels like the first time seeing reflected how I feel versus the ‘back to normal’ university discourse seemingly everywhere else!
  • I came to this theme because of experiencing chaos and acceleration and work intensification but also barbarization during the pandemic.
  • I was attracted by the keywords plague, feminist perspectives and slow academia.
  • I am feeling very disillusioned and burnt out by being in HE and dominant approaches to scholarship. Need to find new, fresh energy.

Rikke Toft Nørgård facilitated collaborative small group discussions which covered wide-ranging and complex ideas. She asked: What lingers? What incites? What inspires? What continues?

Ideas for further thinking included: Reclaiming as a collective the language and narratives of sustainability, creativity and goodness; promote ideas of the university that encompass the undercommons of the university — students, teachers, support staff, chance meetings, informal learning, random encounters, personal chat (and not only managerial structure and neoliberal incentives); and think more about ways of sharing the privilege of slowness.

New writing from participants in the session is now on my to read list:

Boehme, C. (2022) Arts and Academia: The Role of the Arts in Civic Universities. Great Debates in Higher Education. Emerald Publishing Limited. Available to read in full here.

Barnett, R., Bengtsen, S. & Nørgård, R. T. (2022). Culture and the University: Education, Ecology, Design. Bloomsbury.

You can watch a video of the presentation (42 minutes):

I am looking forward to the next webinar in the series! ‘Wandering and wondering in the university’ with Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) and Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark) will be on September 29th. Find out more on the PaTHES website.

One thought on “Universities, goodness and plague

  1. Pingback: Surviving the years of plague: A feminist analysis of The Good University – Graphic Recordings for a Sustainable Transformation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s