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.

Gathering online

My blogging has been sluggish during a time of relentlessly bad news about job losses across the Australian higher education workforce (my customary solace of reading has been hard too). I wanted to look back on what has been collegial and nourishing during the last few months at work. As I started making a list, I realised that there was a common thread: online gatherings. With face-to-face meetings restricted, academics generously opened up events for free registrations. I have participated in several: Missing Conferences, Higher Education Scholars, Whisperfest, Council of Australasian Leaders of Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) Conference, and the History of University Life seminar series. (For those who are wondering how I found invitations, most were advertised via Twitter. Also note these were held in Australian Eastern Standard Time. I missed a lot of fantastic sounding international events).

This post is dedicated to the meta-conference Missing Conferences: Academic gatherings in a time of limited mobility which has shaped a lot of thinking about online conferences this year.

James Burford, co-founder of the wonderful Conference Inference blog (blogging the world of academic conferences), organised this Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) sponsored gathering back in September. I neglected to post about it at the time. Looking back at my Passion Planner diary (not a paid endorsement, just a tool I have found helpful for lightly journaling through a tumultuous year), my retreat from blogging makes sense: in September, I co-facilitated an intensive teaching development program, evaluated institutional teaching awards, had two creative writing assessment tasks due, celebrated four birthdays in our extended family, and took time off for school holidays.

The focus of Missing Conferences was asking questions about academic conferences in 2020:

The first question that we consider is whether conferences have gone missing at all? Is it possible that the routine work of face-to-face conferences has been distributed across new platforms for gathering academics and disseminating knowledge? What affordances do these new forms of gathering promise? What are their limits?

The second question we consider is this: conferences may be missing, but are we missing conferences? How do we feel as we erase plans from the calendar, cancel tickets and ask for refunds? When conferences go missing do we miss our geographically distant friends and colleagues? And when face-to-face conferences are missing what else are scholars missing out on?


International presenters included (with links to relevant blog posts on Conference Inference):

  • Judith Mair – Conferences: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
  • Agnes Bosanquet and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Embodiment
  • Tai Peseta and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Keynotes
  • Omolabake Fakunle – The Impacts of Doctoral Students Missing Conferences
  • Emily Henderson – Care and Missing Conferences

The hashtag #MissingConferences captured some of the stimulating discussion:

Catherine Manathunga and I presented work in progress as part of a cultural history of the Academic Identities Conference.

Our research draws upon visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Fitzgerald & May, 2016; Jütte, 2005; Grosvenor, 2012; Classen, 2012; Reinarz, 2014; Smith, 2004 and 2007; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017). These methodologies allow us to explore the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of attending the Academic Identities Conference series that has been running for 10 years. Using these techniques of cultural history (Burke, 2008; Marwick, 2006; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Rubin, 2002), this research project gathered oral histories from conference convenors, keynote speakers, delegates and PhD students and a range of visual and tangible artefacts such as conference programs and abstracts, photographs, twitter feeds and other memorabilia in an attempt to capture an intimate history of the embodied experience of travelling to conferences in England, Scotland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Japan. We have explored the themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience as they played out in the data we collected on each of the International Academic Identities Conferences from 2008 to 2018.

You can see our slides here:

Missing Conferences affirmed the value of scholarly gatherings, but also showcased the affordances of attending virtually (and how much we all enjoy sharing our working lives with pets).

Next post will recap the recent Higher Education Scholars gathering on Doing things with theory.

Notes while reading

I sometimes keep a notebook of ‘notes while reading’. This was crucial during my PhD, but has become an occasional rather than disciplined practice. At any time, what I am reading shapes my thinking. Regular readers of this blog will know that in most posts I share excerpts from journal articles and academic books. I also frequently post on the books I am reading outside of work; for example: memoirs on mortality, dystopian fiction, a year in books and reading about time.

I find one of the joys of reading is the way in which the mind makes connections between disparate texts: a page-turning novel by Mira Grant about scientists searching for killer mermaids had me thinking about the ethics of research funding. Another example: Susan Carter’s (2020) Academic Identity and the Place of Stories: The personal in the professional starts with the wonderful analogy of a “fruitcake imaginary”:

To defuse how risky and ambitious [the] introduction of stories into an academic argument felt, I joked that this would be “one fruitcake of a book” …. The fruitcake imaginary is an extended metaphor that tries to span the intellectual richness of academia and kitchen-table homeliness of a family recipe, with a whiff of quirkiness from working across these zones. There’s the literature and framework of academic thinking, rich with accumulations of research, and flavoured by theory. Game theory is here, and, with it, a penchant towards play as a deliberate method. Stories from life persistently wind through academicity to textually enact the interconnections between extramural life and academic career. Life experience is valued. A fruitcake is an inclusive cake. It is solid by merit of all that goes into it.

There was a connection for me with the novel Gillian Polack’s The Year of the Fruitcake, in which a mind-wiped gender-switching alien anthropologist inhabits the body of a perimenopausal woman on Earth.

Here is a crop of readings that are currently stretching my thinking. The list spans academic articles in higher education, academic books, and fiction reads, and I am presenting this selection intertextually.

Reading about sharing food and ideas

I enjoyed Alison Phipps and Ronald Barnett’s (2007) article Academic Hospitality:

It takes material form in the hosting of academics giving papers. It takes epistemological form in the welcome of new ideas. It takes linguistic form in the translation of academic work into other languages, and it takes touristic form through the welcome and generosity with which academic visitors are received.

The article speculates on the giving and receiving of hospitality in academic life, who is welcomed or otherwise, rules and ceremonies and the roles of hosts and guests. It refer to a dependence on travel and crossing borders, but I read this at a time in which academic hospitality during COVID-19—changes to how we welcome and celebrate students and colleagues, limitations on travel and border closures, restrictions on shared meals and informal gatherings, and the opening up of virtual spaces.

I gobbled up two young adult books recently that focus on shared food and (sometimes dangerous) ideas: Elizabeth Acevedo With the Fire on High, about a black teen mother who is a magical cook (including sensory recipes), and Asphyxia’s Future Girl, which tells the story of a deaf teen artist in dystopian near-future Melbourne challenging food shortages (including artworks and info-graphics).

Reading about identity and emotion

The title ‘The emotional knots of academicity: a collective biography of academic subjectivities and spaces” put this article by five women (Jennifer Charteris, Susanne Gannon, Eve Mayes, Adele Nye and Lauren Stephenson) on my must-read list. What kept me reading (and thinking) were the interconnections of academic identity, higher education spaces and affect revealed in three narratives. These were written in a collective biography workshop, “where participants constructed accounts of the physical, social, material and imaginative dimensions of subjectivities in the ‘academic-city’ of higher education spaces.”

In the first story, a casual academic travels to unpaid meetings in the hope of a job, comparing “thirsty Australian landscape of meadows and scrawny looking sheep” to the “verdant pastoral belt of … home.” In the second, an academic is schooled in the hierarchy of office locations and parking spaces, and in the third story a PhD candidate finds a feminist community in a “fiery women’s cottage”.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is on my list of favourite reads for this year. For a story about mental illness and the end of a marriage, narrated by a sometimes unlikeable character, this book is strangely hopeful: “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change, usually on their own.” Another of my favourites, which resonated for ideas about community and disconnection is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.

Reading about bodies and refusal

This autoethnography from two (Ab)original academic women, Lauren Tynan and Michelle Bishop, is an unconventional and powerful piece of writing. It offers a collaborative account of working for their communities within the systems and structures of whiteness:

Refusal is empowering – it’s about learning to say ‘no’. Not in an arrogant way, but learning to see exploitation, and learning to avoid it. Sometimes saying no feels like a mistake; a missed ‘opportunity’. But who ultimately benefits from my continual acquiescence? I check myself, learn
to trust my gut and listen to the messages from Country and our Old People.

There were many corollaries with my recent reading: on hierarchical systems and power, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; on remembering and refusal, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police; and on rising to the challenge of writing against white conventions, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.

And happy NAIDOC week! Books are a great way to reflect on the theme “Always Was, Always Will Be”. We have enjoyed these kids books (via a school subscription to Storybox Library):

Tell me: what have been your favourite books this difficult year? And do you have any higher education articles to recommend that share the themes of community, connection, identity and power?