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.

Theorising slow academia

Here’s a (slow) wrap up post on the final and sixth session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia. You can access the slides below.

The slides recap the previous sessions: theorising self, place, relationships, time and institutions (the links are to summary posts). But it was predominantly a discussion session, with participants contributing their insights from the series. I asked:

  • What have you continued to think about?
  • What ideas jumped out at you, resonated, or jarred? What ideas surprised, delighted, repulsed you?
  • What reading would you like to do?
  • What will you take with you?

I am delighted to share an image created by Maria Jakubik that encapsulates our discussions. It is wonderful to see how she has perceived and organised our thinking. (I have a number of Maria’s articles on my to-be-read list, and look forward to sharing her ideas in future posts).

We spoke about slow discussions about theory as a way of explaining or making sense/meanings/patterns/narratives out of things we experience and observe. Thinking about the university in this way had us speculating about fantasies of the university; combining fast and slow work; writing creatively and collaboratively, retreating from work in order to write; the desire to recreate monastic spaces in secular cultures; university values (espoused, enacted and experienced); normative talk about goodness; conversational leadership; and relationality as a core value.

In the conversation, I shared a lesson that has stayed with me about recognising others’ bids for connection. That is, responding when someone is seeking affirmation, recognition or attention from you. With my children, this has often meant conversations about Pokémon cards or other topics I know or care little about — but the pleasure lies in the ongoing work of relating.

During the session, a question was asked about the work of theorising and how it differs from working with theory. This is something I have been mulling over, and I will write about it in a future post. Here is some reading to get you started:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Eagleton, T. (1989). The significance of theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Hage, G. (2016). Towards an ethics of the theoretical encounter. Anthropological Theory, 16(2-3), 221–226.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

There was a lot recommended reading from the sessions — rich with possibility for future blog posts.

Thank you to those who joined the sessions and helped to stretch our thinking.

Finally, a big thank you to Barbara Grant for chairing the discussions at a time that was not friendly for Aotearoa New Zealand. We are collaborating on a webinar series for PaTHES that extends the discussions on slow academia with presentations from some of our favourite scholars. Stay tuned for more details!

Speculating on time

In the fifth session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia, we discussed time. You can access the slides below. I’ve included a note at the beginning of the slides because I had to recreate them after the session. I somehow lost or overwrote the original file and, even with IT help, was unable to recover it. This was one example of several scary incidents after covid. I misunderstood ‘brain fog’ to mean you felt foggy. I feel fine. Losing a PPT presentation was one example, being unable to count the place settings at my dining table was another. No awareness at the time, and no doubt other examples. I’m triple vaxxed. I am hoping that I am on the mend.

This session was presented during National Reconciliation Week (with the theme for 2022 ‘Be brave, make change’). Each session started with an acknowledgement that I was on the unceded country of the Wallumattagal Clan of the Dharug nation. For a session focussed on time, with an international audience in mind, I linked to Common Ground on the Dreaming and ‘everywhen’.

A way in for me to think about these notions of time has been speculative fiction by Indigenous Australian authors. Pictured are some of my favourites over the last few years:

Author Ambelin Kwaymullina writes:

“The ideas which populate speculative fiction books — notions of time travel, astral projection, speaking the languages of animals or trees — are part of Indigenous cultures. One of the aspects of my own novels that is regularly interpreted as being pure fantasy, that of an ancient creation spirit who sung the world into being, is for me simply part of my reality.”

Our slow start was to listen to a meditative ticking clock for a minute and think about time:

We then shifted our discussion to universities, academia and time: conflicting time, uneven time, measured time, interrupted time, deferred time and student time. Here are some of the quotes that prompted discussion:

“Scheduled time refers to the accelerating pace of work, timeless time to transcending time through immersion in work, contracted time to short-term employment with limited future prospects and finally, personal time to one’s temporality and the role of work in it.“

Ylijoki & Mäntylä, 2003

“… 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, 2017

“Amid deadlines, fear of survival, and accountability measures, time becomes an important tool for perpetuating neoliberal subjectivity. As hyper extensions of colonial time, neoliberal logics operate to measure, splice, and commodify time in ways that is affectively experienced by individuals navigating the academy.”

Shahjahan, 2015

For an excellent literature review on time in academic contexts, and a thought-provoking discussion to consider student time, I recommend Bengtsen, Sarauw & Filippakou’s (2021) chapter ‘In Search of Student Time: Student Temporality and the Future University‘ in the collection The University Becoming: Perspectives from Philosophy and Social Theory. The authors ask: “The Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge to the universities’ organisation in time and space, but do we actually want to return to the functional and linear temporality that characterised the pre-pandemic university?”

Other recommended reading included:

Our discussion of time spanned Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory; using productivity strategies such as pomodoro; St Augustine’s notion of past, present and future in the mind; the 2021 filmThe Lost Daughter; and flow. One participant said: “I find academic time to be a mostly unhappy thing unless I’ve corralled it with pomodoros. I either feel desperate and anxious, or strangely slack, like a rubber band that’s been stretched for too long.” At the end of the discussion, we returned to the notion of everywhen, and the interconnections of past, present, and future.

Finally, we were exhorted to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I must say the 1,267,069 word count is daunting. Perhaps future me might have world enough and time (to quote Andrew Marvell or Doctor Who).