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.

Slow academia – a collaborative webinar series

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education (PaTHES) webinar series, and hope you can join this wonderful group of scholars!

Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University

Chaired by Rikke Toft Nørgård, Aarhus University (Denmark)

Featuring: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

More information including abstracts, biographies and further reading.

Webinar 1

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

Date: Thursday 8th September

Time: 10.30-12.00pm CEST (DK time), 8.30-10.00pm (NZ), 6.30-8.00 (Sydney), 9.30-11.00am (London)

Speakers: Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University, Australia) & Barbara Grant (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) with Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand)

Registration before Monday 5th September

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/Uf28ctYJdTfjyFdV7

Webinar 2

Wandering and wondering in the university

Date: Thursday 29th September

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 5.00-6.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) & Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark)

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/UeLawEecPQLayNoG9

Webinar 3

Generosity and presence in the university: Working for change

Date: Friday 7th October

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 6.00-7.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Maha Bali (The American University in Cairo) and Alison Phipps (University of Glasgow, UK)

Registration before Tuesday 4th October

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/foRVKpYs1oZiiMn88

Conclusive Roundtable – TBA

Date and time to be advised.

Panellists: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

Visit the PaTHES website.

Uses and abuses of slow

I am a bit behind on blogging the slow academia season of Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) virtual social meets. Covid has hit our household and I am working reduced hours while we are in isolation. So far we are feeling ok, but today seems a bit tougher than previous days. I hope to be well enough to lead the next PaTHES session on Monday night with a focus on theorising place.

The first session started with a guided discussion on the uses and abuses of slow in academia. You can access the powerpoint slides below.

I am starting each session with a prompt to slow down. This time a poem about fast academia from the beginning of a journal article on COVID-19 and Indigenous resilience co-authored by an international Indigenous team. It’s difficult to read poetry quickly. I recommend reading the full article, which ends with a more hopeful poem.

The resilient Pacific PhD candidate job description: COVID-19

Must know how to
go hard and go fast
go hard or go home

Must know how to navigate
time constraints
extra caring duty constraints
cramped space constraints
vulnerable elderly parents constraints
intermittent internet constraints
on-line learning ‘instant teacher support’ for your kids’ dramas constraints
job income insecurity how you gonna pay your mortgage and bills constraints
bank statement requests to prove you’re struggling constraints

Must know how to navigate
missed time-lines
missed dead-lines
new frown-lines
fear filled head-lines
uncertain brow-lines

Must know how to
go hard and go fast
go hard or go home

I am including the full citation as this challenges conventional academic citation practice by including Indigenous rather than institutional affiliations.

Zaine Akuhata-Huntington (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūhoe, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa), Shannon Foster (D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper), Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa), Mamaeroa Merito (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaeu, Ngāti Awa), Lisa Oliver (Gomeroi Nation), Nohorua Parata (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongowhakaata), Yvonne Ualesi (Mulivai Safata, Pu’apu’a, Savalalo Samoa, Fakaofo Tokelau, Ovalau Fiji) & Sereana Naepi (Natasiri). (2020). COVID-19 and Indigenous resilience. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(7),1377-1383.

I set the scene for a slow discussion inspired by Michelle Boulous Walker’s (2017) descriptor of slow reading: attentive, open-ended, ambiguous, contradictory, uncertain, imaginative, experimental, curious, questioning, incomplete, learning, appreciative, attentive listening, inconclusive, respectful, generous, meandering, reflective, meditative, patient, ethical, speculative, unknowing … And welcomed interruptions, noting my high tolerance honed over noisy extended family dinners during which everyone talks at the same time. Here’s an image of some of Ma’s delicious food at a recent lunch:

These are the quotes I choose to stimulate discussion during the session:

“Personal narratives of academic exclusions, marginalisations, and persistence abound … It is not for a lack of evidence that the pace of change in higher education is so slow. Feminist academics encounter a sense of déjà vu, that ‘we’ already know about the un-feminist character of the university, from lived experience as well as from peer reviewed research … Feminists repeat themselves because we are often ignored” (Breeze & Taylor, 2020).

“To become a feminist is to stay a student … I wanted to make a slow argument, to go over old ground, and to take my time … I have been in academia for over twenty years, and I am relatively at home … I am aware that not all feminists are at home in the academy, and that the language of feminist theory can be alienating … I aim to keep my words as close to the world as I can, by trying to show how feminist theory is what we do when we live our lives in a feminist way” (Ahmed, 2017).

“I am a professor. Say it again. Say it slowly. I am a professor. I enjoy it and marvel at it. The strangeness, the aloofness, the otherness of the term in relation to me and my work but not anymore. It seems such a strange destination to arrive at because of the career journey I have taken” (Potter, 2019).

“… separating those whose time [is] ‘precious’ (wage earners, the educated classes, the able-bodied) from those whose time [can] be squandered or [has] little value… Power operates to structure and condition different populations’ lack of time … There is a heterogenous and uneven response to speeded up time … What proliferates is a multiplicity of contradictory temporalities.”

Baraitser gives some examples of how power structures time: the busy work required for welfare benefits, women working double shifts especially those in care chains from the global north to global south, zero hours contract workers, enforced flexible ‘on call’ labour.

“If you make a complaint, you are often left waiting You are waiting but you are also reminding, prompting, sending enquiries … You can encounter resistance in the slowness of an uptake Exhaustionbecomes a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them tired” (Ahmed, 2021).

“Complaint activism involves the willingness to make use of complaints procedures even though you know “the process is broken” and you are likely to enter “a painful repetitive cycle” … Even going through an exhausting of processes can have creative potential. Yes, we can be in a state of exhaustion because of that process. But complaints, even formal ones, slow and tedious ones, long and drawn out, can be creative” (Ahmed, 2021).

The discussion brought together various ideas: the silences and violences of the university, being at home in academia, continuing to learn, enjoying the comfort of theory, the challenge to keep theory close to the world, claiming a title such as professor or academic or writer, meandering career stories, theorising subjectivity, multiple and changeable selves, making and unmaking ourselves, slow as an institutional strategy to break people down,  the collegiality of activism in academia.

In the next post will report on the second session, where we discussed theorising the self.