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.

Heterotopias in higher education

The wonderful thing about calling myself the slow academic is that it gives me permission to publish a post that has been a long time coming. I started this post after a November 2020 gathering of the Higher Education Scholars Network, a loose collaboration of Sydney-based higher education researchers that went online during the pandemic and opened to a wider audience.

Last year, Karina Luzia, Vanessa Fredericks, Tai Peseta and I organised a session called ‘Doing things with theory in higher education research’. Participants joined ‘Team Butler’ or ‘Team Foucault’ and read two texts. We noted that these are challenging theoretical works to think with, so the session was intended to explore the limits of our understanding, and collectively think through our unknowingness and the uses of theory in higher education research. You can read my PowerPoint presentation that gives an overview of working with theory (apologies, more text-heavy than I would like!)

maradon 333/Shutterstock.com

Team Butler:

In the chosen primary text, Judith Butler argues that sex and gender are performative. The gendered self, and subjectivity more broadly, is an illusion, a stylization of the body, a regulatory fiction, a strategy for survival, reinforced through repetitive practices. In the secondary text, Emily Henderson analyses academic conferences using Butler’s (1997) work on naming and vulnerability to language.

Team Foucault:

In the chosen primary text, Michel Foucault conceptualises subjectivity through power relations (to be self-aware and to be subject to) and resistance. He offers a useful list of five considerations for analysing power relations. In the secondary text, Farzaneh Haghighi uses Foucault’s concepts of heterotopia and the will to know to examine university lecture theatres.

You can read the questions that guided our discussions on the website.

In the second half of the event, our international participants presented their higher education research (including work in progress) that uses theory in interesting ways. You can read the abstracts here.

Heterotopias:

The idea of heterotopias in universities lingered long after the discussions ended. I return to the concept as we look forward to campus after months of lockdown and working from home. Think of heterotopias like this: Do you have events or places at your university that are a bit different/ special/ transforming/ strange in some way? Do you participate in or create social or learning spaces like that? That mirror the university but at the same time challenge its conventions? That invite you to think otherwise or to dwell in your own “tiny university”? You might call them universities within universities.

Michel Foucault described these spaces thus:

First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places — places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society — which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.

For those who want to dive into the theory, the archived website Heterotopian Studies is a fantastic resource.

An excellent example of a university heterotopia was presented by the Jindaola Team: Jade Kennedy, Lisa Thomas, Alisa Percy, Janine Delahunty and Catherine Moyle. In their words:

Jindaola is a grants program led by an Aboriginal Local Knowledge Holder that takes invited interdisciplinary teams on an 18 month journey to experience an Aboriginal way towards reconciling Aboriginal and disciplinary/ western knowledges on Country. Jindaola can be understood as a kind of heterotopia because it attends to the university’s policy imperative to embed cultural content into curricula in the ‘wrong’ way … Jindaola [operates] as a counter-site within the western academy, creating and holding space in a sustained way for participants to experience intersecting and incompatible ways of being, doing, knowing and relating (ie. juxtaposing the colonial, transactional and performative regime of western approaches to curriculum development with an Aboriginal way of coming to know) …

Read more about Jindaola on the website and in their 2021 article ‘Holding space for an Aboriginal approach towards Curriculum Reconciliation in an Australian university‘.

Conferences can be another heterotopia as many posts on the blog Conference Inference attest. The periodic gathering of Higher Education Scholars has become its own heterotopia, a space where we think differently about ideas of the university and higher education research. The tweets of the event give an insight:

I look forward to more gatherings of the Higher Education Scholars (online for now) which I have blogged about before: Virtual scholarship, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. And I can’t wait for the opportunities that returning to campuses offers to enjoy tiny heterotopias.

Distractions, interruptions

Since I cannot tell the story in a straight line, and I lose my thread, and I start again, and I forget something crucial, and it is hard to think about how to weave it in, and I start thinking, thinking, there must be some conceptual thread that will provide a narrative here, some lost link, some possibility of chronology … (Butler, 2001, 35).

So writes Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. It is difficult to write—to think—otherwise now. Here in Sydney, Australia, we are having school holidays in lockdown as covid cases creep inexorably upwards. Work is one long Zoom meeting. I find myself in the same patterns as March 2020: retreating, counting, waking, fretting, waiting. Trying to write, I am ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (Butler, 2001, 22). I experience myself and time as fragmentary. Distractions abound.

Television. Not something I spend a lot of time with, but the whole family has enjoyed the third season of Lego Masters (I’m team Sarah and Fleur—those zombie cheerleaders, that dream art house). My vote for favourite show of the year, however, is Creamerie from Aotearoa/New Zealand, set in a near future dystopia in which men have been wiped out by a virus. Dark and funny.

Food. We had a ‘healthy’ versus unhealthy brownie taste challenge. I think these black bean brownies are the winners, but they were eaten too quickly to be sure. We will have to try again.

Walks. I am listening to audio books while walking the dog, including 14 hours of The Unwomanly Face of War, Russian oral history of women’s experiences during the second world war. The casuarina forest near our home is my favourite place.

Books. I am reading more 2am books (vacuous and predictable at any other time of day, genre fiction makes night waking enjoyable). At other times, I am enjoying:

Games. My son has invented a giant board game called Misery. You become the piece, rolling a die and landing on paper spread out on the floor. Many of them are labelled ‘Misery’ and you choose a card that describes a miserable thing that will happen to you (such as having to eat porridge without honey). There are some ‘Luck’ cards as well but, as the name of the game suggests, misery abounds. On a more jolly note, we are looking forward to the free online activities the State Library of New South Wales has scheduled for the holidays, including Secret codes, ciphers and more.

I am always interruptible. I thought I had borrowed this phrase from Sarah Knott’s (2019) Mother: An Unconventional History, but rereading the book I cannot locate it. She writes a sensory account of caring for infants in the past that is based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The author had her first child while researching and writing the book, and a chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, night-time arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: ‘8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up’ (Knott, 2019, 90).

Butler (2001, 34) wonders about the interruptions of texts, and whether we prefer the ‘seamlessness of the story’ and the illusion of a ‘coherent autobiographer’ who reveals the ‘truth of the person’, but concludes: ‘It may be that stories have to be interrupted, and that for interruption to take place, a story has to be underway.’

Always interruptible. I’ve found that reference. It is Lisa Baraitser’s (1989) Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption.  She writes in anecdotal fragments, leaving ‘small, unintegrated and perhaps undigestible nuggets of maternal writing within the more formal academic reflections, as well as using them to interrupt myself.’ She wants to interrupt herself, as much as possible, to ‘throw myself off the subject—especially my own tendency to be drawn back towards the relative safety of theory’ (13). Afterbirth, tantrums, tears, not enough hands: all in the text in its raw form, in between reading theory from Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, Julia Kristeva, Jessica Benjamin and Judith Butler.

The safety of theory. It’s an interesting idea—retreating to the comfort of other people’s words—and the implied risk of writing the self. “I start thinking, thinking…”