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.


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.

Use your senses

This is the 9th post in Over a cuppa, a series which offers prompts to reflect on learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. I have set myself the challenge of keeping these posts to 300 or so words. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

Today’s reflection prompt is: consider the five senses in your teaching.

This morning, I joined colleagues for breakfast and a campus walk guided by the work of an interdisciplinary research team Go Slow for a Mo. As a living lab for evaluating the benefits of spending time in nature, our campus offers an invaluable resource for staff and students. Over the coming months, we will be sharing ways to incorporate this Stress Regulator Trail in your teaching and research practices. I still have grass on my feet and birdsong in my ears.

Last year, I attended two virtual seminars on Learning Through COVID that focussed on embodiment and experiential learning: Why we need our body to learn and work and Rethinking embodied learning. Via Zoom, the presenters prompted participants to use their whole bodies during the sessions (take a look at the pre-readings and videos via the links above).

Over the last couple of years, I have been working on a project that takes a sensory and place-based look at the higher education conference experience. We are drawing on the methods of cultural history research to analyse the experience of conference participation and the themes of place, sociality, embodiment and sensory experience. This led me to pick up Chatterjee and Hannan’s (2015) edited collection Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education which discusses the pedagogies of artefacts, artworks, materials and matter.

On Friday, I will be teaching a seminar on the evolution of higher education, and want to engage students across the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains (based on Bloom’s taxonomy for learning and revised by Anderson and Krathwohl). How are you being attentive to the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch of learning experiences?

Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. A. (2001). Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Chatterjee, H. J. and Hannan, L. (2015) (eds.) Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education. London and New York: Routledge.

What’s nourishing you right now?

This is a short post. Blog writing has been slow. It’s not that there are no words — I have 56 draft posts in all stages of nearly-done to mostly-undone. Perhaps words are insufficient right now.

So, what’s nourishing you? What helps? What keeps you feeling alive? I have previously posted about holding on to holiday feelings, but we are now well and truly back at work and school. The homework has started.

Here are some things that are working for me:

  • A return of students to campus. Here in Australia, there is very little community transmission of COVID-19, and we haven’t seen this many students in one place since the final semester of 2019. Students change the energy of a campus. It is uplifting.
  • Co-leading the MOOC Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching with Marina Harvey. It is still open for enrolments, and has had participants from 106 countries around the world. I am particularly enjoying discussions on planning to teach and icebreaker activities.
  • Meeting colleagues on campus for face-to-face meetings and coffee. (With the opening of a new central hub, we have new places to try!) And, people, it is wonderful to see you fully embodied.
  • Taking a walk every day. Here are some photographs my son and I took of different barks on the way to school. Yes, we walk past many trees!

If it is not bark, I ask again: what is nourishing you right now?