Discomfort

This post expands on ideas from a book chapter on academic writing I have recently drafted. I was interested in thinking about where and how we write, the performance of being an academic writer and the imaginary spaces of the university. (At least) two ideas inspired this line of thought: Grant and Knowles (2000) call for academic women to explore the ‘imaginative spaces’ they inhabit as writers, and Barnett’s (2013) lament that “the imaginary landscape of the idea of higher education is rather empty at the present time” (p 13). I wondered (tautologically): how is this emptiness visible in our selves, on our campuses and in our writing?

I’ve worked, and walked, in this university for seventeen years. Before that, I was a student here. I know these grounds well. And yet they are constantly changing. Walking the campus is not always a comfortable experience. Right now the university is being unmade and remade around me. If the imaginary renderings of the artist’s impressions are anything to go by, there will be a lot to love in the new campus—but it is a difficult space to occupy until then.

 

 

 

Dozens of sixty-year-old lemon-scented gum trees in the central courtyard have been cut down. There is keen sense of loss on campus that is not acknowledged in jovial announcements about the university’s love of green space and plans for replanting. The Campus Hub has been replaced with a pile of rubble topped by bulldozers. Several buildings retain their concrete skeletons but have been hollowed out.

Even though it is well known to me, there are times this place feels far from homely.

Sometimes, like now, it is because the campus landscape is changing rapidly. Other times the changes are within myself. As a doctoral candidate and early career academic, I felt a fluctuating sense of belongingness to a discipline. I have experienced bodily discomfort trying to find places to breastfeed or avoiding stairs when recovering from surgery. The most dramatic experience of disruption and displacement was the closure of the academic development unit where I worked two years ago and consequent staff redundancies. (A recommend reading that ties together the ideas in this post: Manathunga’s (2007) “Unhomely academic developer identities”).

I am conscious that the unhomeliness (to use Bhabha’s term from his work on migrant workers) of this space has greater resonance because of the history of displacing the traditional owners of this land. Walking the campus, I am reminded of Padmore’s (2009)  “Telling Home Stories”, in which she writes as an English-born Australian who learns about the traumascape or ‘trauma trails’ of the country for Aboriginal people, marked by massacres and the separation of families. She is simultaneously at home and unsettled: “The places I’ve come to know as homely are also sites of sorrow, horror or displacement. The conflicting experiences are often ignored when we are comfortably settled in everyday spaces” (p 267). At meetings and at the bottom of emails, we acknowledge the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug people, but rarely do we let these acknowledgements discomfort us.

I am practicing the unpleasant feeling of sitting with discomfort in all sorts of ways, rather than ignoring the present to imagine a better future.

Doomed

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This post was prompted by a sentence in Berg and Seeber’s (2016) The Slow Professor manifesto:

The language of crisis dominates the literature on the corporate university, urging us to act before it is too late.

Yes, apocalyptic visions are alive and well in writing about universities and academics. Students (especially doctoral candidates), staff (especially academic aspirants and casuals) and the community are suffering. Disciplines, institutions, research, teaching and curriculum are imperiled. The language of  crisis is sensationalist, full of hyperbole, replete with implied threats and proclamations for profound and urgent or impending and irreversible change in higher education. (This doesn’t necessarily mean there is no crisis).

I started to write this post by revisiting some of the examples I have come across over the last ten years. I linked to a lot of crisis stories in an old (and not very pretty) blog between 2008 and 2010: The crisis is here, So Few Jobs, The Big Lie, Don’t go to grad school, Academia is not a smart choice, Academic workforce needs revolution, Academics are miserable, Academic jobs are unicorns.

Since then a lot has happened to fuel our fears of impending doom. And, as some more recent stories reveal, it gets worse for academics, and writing better or being more productive won’t fix things (although they probably won’t make things worse).

I am not immune. In fact, my research is full of crises, from graduate attributes statements:

Our students will enter a globalising world of major environmental change and resource constraints, of scientific and technological advance and ethical challenge, of continuing political instability and possible international conflicts, of unlimited creativity and increasing social surveillance.

the promise of technology:

In ‘Back to the Future’, Bridges writes that individual learners will be situated within a … ‘multi‐layered, multimedia, multi‐dimensional learning environment’ in which they have the power to create their own learning. Bridges refers to the ‘anarchic’ potential of web‐based learning [for] radical upheaval and transformation … Universities [will] no longer [be] in control of higher education curriculum, the construction of knowledge or the awarding of degrees. Barnes and Tynan similarly refer to the ‘revolutionary promise’ of technologies and the need to radically and urgently rethink learning and teaching and the university itself before ‘a generation of opportunities is lost’.

the experiences of aspiring and early career academics:

When asked about career plans, participants articulate considerable uncertainty and indecision about their future in academia … The workforce has changed significantly over the last decades and is now dominated by casual employment … ECAs in this study had difficulty envisaging, let alone navigating, career paths through academia … Responses to the question asking participants to ‘provide a brief statement outlining career plans’ were non sequiturs: ‘I am doomed. Don’t know what’s gonna happen. Scary’ …  The affective language utilised makes casualisation palpable: miserable, embittered, shattered, suffering, isolated, worn out, swamped, stressed and dissatisfied.

As this recent article in Inside HigherEd puts it, claims that higher education is in crisis are nothing new. But I feel hopeful. Perhaps not quite as hopeful as Berg and Seeber:

We are more optimistic, believing that resistance is alive and well … By taking the time for reflection and dialogue, the Slow Professor takes back the intellectual life of the university.

(I’m imagining sloths starting a revolution).

I’ve been thinking about our responses to the ongoing crises of higher education as I edit the Australian Universities’ Review special issue on Activism and the Academy. I am enjoying this work. It is full of hope. At the risk of making academia sound (even more) like a battle between good and evil, wonderful things are happening. Ideals are being upheld. Academic activists are the ivory tower’s unicorns, with the power to heal sickness and make poisoned water potable.

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