Universities as places

The third session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia focussed on theorising place. You can access the slides below.

When this session ran, I was isolating with covid along with my family (we all tested positive in quick succession). Being unable to leave the house changed my sense of place, so I started by locating myself in my neighbourhood with a virtual dog walk.

Our discussion looked at various theorisings of place: Augé’s (1995) non-places (transient, interchangeable, without distinctiveness, where people are anonymised) and Nørgård and Bengtsen’s (2016) call for the ‘placeful’ university:

“Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa. The university space/place is a particular form of invitation that supports and promotes particular beings and becomings in education while stifling and preventing others.”

We discussed Foucault’s (1984) heterotopias (counter-sites that are special or transformative in some way, that mirror the university but challenge its conventions). I have previously posted in my experience of heterotopias in higher education. We finished the session with a discussion of sensory noticings and minglings, in which Barbara Grant (who is chairing the discussions) shared her research experience:

“When I think of myself as a human sensorium, a picture of Star Wars’ R2D2 snaps into my mind’s eye … [As an academic woman interviewing academic women, researching with mingled bodies] is so much more relevant … Taking account of familiarities and minglings speaks to me of the difficulties I have had with being anything like that ever-vigilant, noticing, sensing, critical research machine of my fantasies. Instead I have struggled with feelings of sleep-walking: the sounds, the smells, the colours, the shapes of the rooms, the layout of departments, the taste of coffee and scrambled eggs – the echo and imitate and ghost one another.”

A highlight of this session was the further reading suggested by participants:

This week, I am looking forward to celebrating National Reconciliation Week (‘Be brave, make change’) at my university on Dharug Country with a Smoking Ceremony, truth telling discussion and art and performance.

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.

A poem for staying still

I read this poem many years ago, lost it for a long time, and am thankful to have found it again here.

Among Women, Marie Ponsot (1972)

What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
My small grandmother
Bought from every peddler
Less for the ribbons and lace
Than for their scent
Of sleep where you will,
Walk out when you want, choose
Your bread and your company.

She warned me, “Have nothing to lose.”

She looked fragile but had
High blood, runner’s ankles,
Could endure, endure.
She loved her rooted garden, her
Grand children, her once
Wild once young man.
Women wander
As best they can.
Portrait of Marie Ponsot in her kitchen in the morning. Queens, New York. April 23, 1988. (Photo by Michel Delsol/Getty Images).