Radical self care

It has been quiet on the blog front. During a busy time at work and in life, not posting has been an act of self-preservation and radical self care:

black-and-white stencil of Audre Lorde speaking, with quote above in black text

Here are two extracts from Mindfulness in the Academy that explain what I mean (with thanks to the editors for sharing their work with me).

From Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough in a chapter entitled ‘Mindfully Living and Working in the Academy’:

Selfcare in the higher education context is often a dirty word; that is something we don’t talk about, it is something extra, often dropped in the fast-paced nature of work requirements (Berg & Seeber, 2016).

From Monica Taylor and Emily J. Klein’s chapter ‘Tending to Ourselves, Tending to Each
Other: Nurturing Feminist Friendships to Manage Academic Lives’:

We embrace the feminist ethic of care drawing from the work of Lorde (1988) and Ahmed (2014) and have adopted “self-care as warfare” as our mantra … Caring for ourselves, each other, and our colleagues and students is a politically disruptive activity within an academy which devalues such practices (Mountz et al. 2015). We understand that our own self care is part of the work of caring for others.

And a note to mindfulness skeptics, who hate the way in which self-care is co-opted by neoliberalism, I hear you. More on what self-care has looked like for me in a future post. In the meantime, look after yourself.

Thinking with neoliberalism

I have several books on my wish list at the moment (even as my to-be-read pile grows ever higher): Time and Space in the Neoliberal University, Resisiting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume 1 and Volume 2, and Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times.

Time and Space in the Neoliberal University Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume I Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume II

The term neoliberalism appears more or less everywhere in university circles, but is often ill-defined or contradictory. It is a theoretical concept that seems good to think with, even if we are not sure what we are thinking about. It would have tripped me up as a doctoral candidate and early career academic. I remember attending my first conferences, and not knowing what people were talking about, especially when they named theorists or ‘isms’. My early notebooks are full of misspellings with ‘Read this!!!’ or ‘???’ or  ‘Important!’ noted with increasing urgency.

This article in The Guardian (Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world) is a useful starting point for neoliberal neophytes:

It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity … What if we reconceive all of society as a kind of market?

This gives an insight into how the economic ideals of neoliberalism have meshed so well with higher education, which in the last three decades has been dominated by globalisation, massification and marketisation. Here’s how my colleague Cathy Rytmeister and I break this down in The Politics of Australian Higher Education teaching module:

Massification refers to the global phenomenon of increasing participation in higher education. Australian higher education is now a mass participation system (30-50 per cent of the school-leaver age cohort enrolled in higher education), and may move into high participation status (>50 per cent enrolled) in the near future (Marginson, 2015).

On its own, massification should lead to greater demand for academic staff and opportunities for continuing employment. But at the same time, governments have systematically withdrawn per-student public funding from universities, substituting secure base funding with contestable funding reliant on market-like competitive mechanisms. This marketisation reorients higher education towards competitive markets on local, national, regional and global scales. It is largely the result of public policy underpinned by an assumption that market or quasi-market mechanisms are effective tools for the efficient regulation of higher education (Meek, 2000).

Simultaneously, the increased global mobility of information, finance and people, and the formalisation of regional trading blocs, removal of trade barriers and establishment of a range of free trade agreements have impacted higher education. These aspects of globalisation have enabled the establishment of global, national and local markets in higher education, and provided an opportunity to supplement domestic funding with full-fee-paying international students (Marginson, 2004).

The work of universities both upholds and questions the values of neoliberalism. I am interested in reading more about this simultaneous complicity and resistance, and the ideas these books have in common: academic activism, changes to scholarly work, the quantification of academia, entrenched inequalities in universities, and uncertain educational futures.

Now back to work in my role as handmaiden to neoliberalism so that I can save up to buy these books…

Thinking and forgetting

I have had a few forgetting incidents in the last couple of weeks: a word (artifact, thanks to Kylie who reminded me twice), names (sorry Adwar!) and scheduling mistakes. Perhaps it is the heat (it’s scorching in Sydney right now, with a forecast of 38ºC in my suburb today), age (the oldest I’ve ever been), holiday mode or cognitive overload.

In a discussion about superpowers on a family bushwalk, although tempted by flight and shape-shifting, I picked ‘remembering everything I’ve ever learned’. (We were then allowed a bonus superpower: I can also turn into a bird!)

So much forgetting! In the interests of remembering, here are some ideas previously blogged that I want to revisit. For the theory buffs, this is an example of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thinking: non-hierarchical, random, multiple, interconnected, breaking apart and reforming in different places and directions.

Tseen Khoo’s reflections on not going for promotion and Barbara Grant’s keynote at HERDSA last year (in which she described stepping back from positional leadership)  have been rattling around my mind. When is it worth taking on leadership roles? Are gendered factors at work here? Can a drive to effect change be sustained? What are the interconnections between leadership and activism—both affordances and limitations?

In my co-authored paper with Cathy Rytmeister on academic activists, our eponymous Rosie exhorted her colleagues to be brave. It is worth re-quoting her words, which continue to give pause:

Be brave. Be brave Sometimes speaking out is your best defence. Passivity allows you to be pushed around … Get as involved as you can and don’t give up hope. Spend time with people who you feel believe the same things as you do, because that’s affirming and strengthening, but balance that with spending time talking to people who don’t, because that grounds you in reality … Keep people around you who will challenge you. If you move into a position of power, if you have any power, own that power …

In a recent discussion, colleagues and I talked about the importance of being constructively disagreeable (something like virtuous naughtiness, I think). One of the problems of leadership (and this, perhaps especially, includes good leadership) is that those in charge are rarely interrupted. Musing out loud, thought bubbles, flights of fancy, anecdotes—take note of who is allowed to do these things in meetings you attend.

Take particular note if that person is you! I am reminded of Maggie Nelson’s comments in The Argonauts:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

A rhizome: How can leaders resist the high of talking in any direction they want? How can they let go of that deep pleasure and listen more? How is constructive disagreement made possible?

Another rhizome: Keep people around you who will challenge you. I often wish I could hire a heckler to make challenging comments and ask difficult questions at events and meetings.  Less often, I want to be that heckler.

Still more: Be brave, especially when you are a ‘woman who makes a fuss’ (as Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm describe in The university as infinite game). To read: Women Who Make a Fuss (2014). The blurb reads:

Virginia Woolf, to whom university admittance had been forbidden, watched the universities open their doors. Though she was happy that her sisters could study in university libraries, she cautioned women against joining the procession of educated men and being co-opted into protecting a “civilization” with values alien to women. Now, as Woolf’s disloyal (unfaithful) daughters, who have professional positions in Belgian universities, Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, along with a collective of women scholars in Belgium and France, question their academic careers and reexamine the place of women and their role in thinking, both inside and outside the university. They urge women to heed Woolf’s cry—Think We Must—and to always make a fuss about injustice, cruelty, and arrogance.

These rhizomes are ideas I am looking forward to hearing discussed at Making ShiFt Happen next week, a 36-hour virtual conference for academic women. (Note that the conference follows AdaCamp and Geek Feminism in seeing women as an inclusive term, and  trans-women, genderqueer women, and non-binary people are welcome). My session, with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope, focusses on slow tiny acts of resistance (STARS).

I’m certain that at the beginning of this post there were other ideas I wanted to remember, other rhizomes whose trajectories I wished to follow; but for now, I will sit with partial remembering. I will enjoy a few days leave, and from next week, will discover what it feels like when a slow academic starts working full-time.

ETA: Jamie Burford has recommended the following reading

Sounds good: “Judith Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.” The sample now on my Kindle.