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.

Details optional

Academic promotion is based on merit relative to opportunity. On the academic promotion application form at my university, there is a section entitled ‘Relevant Personal Circumstances’. There is space to tick a box labelled ‘Consideration needs to be given to personal circumstances/ career interruptions’ and a text box that can be completed with ‘details (optional)’ …

I have an article in the lastest issue of Life Writing entitled Details optional: An account of academic promotion relative to opportunity which writes between the lines of my recent academic promotion application. I describe eight years as a part-time academic, including a life-threatening birth, a child with epilepsy, secondary infertility, an ectopic pregnancy, an implanted neurostimulator, and a miracle baby. Details optional came together from three sources: my lived experience of parenting; theories of writing and creative non-fiction; and my academic promotion application. The special issue editor Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle and the two anonymous reviewers were excellent. It is delicate work to provide critical and constructive feedback on intimate writing.

Parenting

In the aftermath of my daughter’s birth fourteen years ago, I became a completely different person. I was unrecognisable to myself. I had nothing in common with the woman I had been before. Not one thought, not one way of moving through the world, not a remnant of myself remained.

The best advice I have received for parenting teenagers (“I surrender”) came in the form of a song by Deborah Conway, recommended by Andie Fox. Conway writes:

No one dies in our song “Serpent’s Tooth” but all these decades later and now as a parent of three daughters, that magnificent quote “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” rings bells of recognition and deepest empathy … Becoming a parent was a kind of alchemy for my deepest being, it exposed the tenderest layers of feeling I had no idea I could have, the deep wells of worry and the tidal waves of love that have no equal … And then comes the teenage years. Lear’s daughters are most likely teenagers, it is certainly a portrait of the kind of carnality that chimes with the teenage experience … [T]he hurt is so much more intense when the stranger before you is your own flesh and blood …

In a creative writing assignment last year, we had a prompt similar to Conway’s stranger of your own flesh and blood. From Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations (1895), I chose ‘enmity of kin’ which refers to ‘hatred of one who should be loved’ and the ‘savage hate’ of close family bonds. I was thinking of the mother/daughter relationship and how keenly children identify parental flaws. I wrote this micro-fiction:

When Ellie, the youngest, moved out for the first time, her mother decided to tackle the cupboards. The musty smell was spreading. Garbage bags at the ready, she opened the doors. Clothes, clean and dirty, intermingled with papers, cords, rubbish, discarded toys, broken parts and half-finished projects. She sighed. Holding a broken music stand, she imagined redecorating to create a music room. Never mind she didn’t play an instrument. Here was the patchwork quilt she started when the kids were young. Perhaps a sewing room? The thought was thrilling.

Later that afternoon, her musings turned to anger. A plate of unrecognisable food scraps, a spilt bottle of nail polish. She hadn’t even reached the top shelf. Why call it an empty nest? Years of shit, she muttered as she angry-cleaned. Caught at the edge of a wire basket, she found a note in violent purple pen.

It was titled ‘Things I hate about my mother’:

The way she makes everything worse

Sooooooo many stupid rules

How she says the same things over and over and over and over

Her telephone voice: ‘Helloooooooo’

Always sighing

Never buys icecream

NO INTERESTS apart from cleaning.

Writing

Parts of Details Optional were written for another unit on creative non-fiction, which involved reflecting on the craft of writing, memory work, research and ethics. To write the article, I listened to first year cognitive science lectures and read the set text. I reread my daughter’s medical documents and checked my calendar and sporadic writings over the last fourteen years. I practiced ‘imagistic endurance’ described in Miller and Paola’s (2019) Tell It Slant as ‘re-inhabiting’ and remaining in the moment of a memory. I thought about the ethics of life writing. I read the article to my daughter, who agreed that the writing is not really about her; I talk mostly about myself. Thinking about narrative voice, I chose to write in fragments. I changed tenses. It seemed fitting: I am always interruptible. Much was written at the kitchen table, snatched between quotidian tasks.

I framed the article around Judith Butler’s (2001) essay Giving an Account of Oneself , in which she shows that the question ‘What have I done?’ can only be answered by first asking: ‘Who is this ‘I’ who is under an obligation to give an account of itself and to act in certain ways?’ ’ It is impossible, she argues, to give an account of the self without accounting for the social conditions under which the ‘I’ emerges. This allowed me to think critically about the ‘I’ who writes selectively to meet the standards of academic promotion, the conditions of the university under which that ‘I’ emerges, and the fragmented ‘I’ whose lived experience exceeds the narrative confines of academic biographical texts (even when they invite details of personal circumstances).

Academic promotion

In my academic biography and promotion application, I am measured in words and numbers. I have no corporeality. I summarise myself in dot points. I divide myself into headings.

I have been a teaching-focussed academic since my first (fixed term) appointment in 2010. I worked part-time from 2010 to 2018. In the ‘details optional’ text box, this is the only information I provided. Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle (2020) illustrates a similar contestation in a professorial application, with her life story of pregnancies, illness, and her mother’s death described as “obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship”. I am similarly complicit in a process that erases the complexity of the self ‘relative to opportunity’ into two lines specific to academic work

Some of the text of my promotion application is included in the article, including a list of my key strengths: an ability to build and maintain trusted relationships; a willingness to learn and challenge myself and others; an acumen for developing the leadership qualities of others; an ability to manage myself and others effectively during change and uncertainty; and a strength for identifying big picture perspectives and making complex, emotive problems clear and actionable.

I end the article with three paragraphs that acknowledge the many people who supported (and continue to support) my writing, my academic work and my parenting.

Would you like to read the full article? If you don’t have access to an institutional subscription to the journal Life Writing, you will find a free copy here. This is limited to 50 copies; once the link expires you can request an author copy via Researchgate.

What’s your university story?

This is the 6th post in a regular feature Over a cuppa: prompts to reflect on learning and teaching to prompt you to reflect on your learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

Did you start an undergraduate degree straight from school, complete in minimum time and go on to further study? Or was your pathway more rocky? If so, you’re in good company. Your classroom has students who are first in family, underachieved at school, have had interrupted education, manage learning difficulties, are studying part-time, and a myriad of other factors that make up a university story. Your story shapes your implicit understandings, and questioning these is Schön’s (1983) definition of reflection.

Another way of framing this question comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: what is your educational capital? Rowlands (2018) defines it as the “various inherited and acquired resources that students bring to bear upon their education” (p 1824). Are you aware of a gap between your education capital and that of your students, or between students in your classroom?

I have previously shared this checklist on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh (1989) which focuses on race, but can be adapted for class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, age, employment, indeed any social, cultural or symbolic capital.

Here are some of those statements applied to privilege in the university:

  • I will be given curricular materials written by and representing people like me
  • I feel welcome in this institution/ discipline/ department/ classroom
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps professionally
  • My chief worries at university do not concern others’ attitude towards me
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations/ groups/ teams I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

Take some time to reflect on your responses, your university story and your educational capital. Enjoy your cuppa!

Rowlands, J. (2018) Deepening understandings of Bourdieu’s academic and intellectual capital through a study of academic voice within academic governance. Studies in Higher Education, 43(11), 1823-1836.

Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.