Universities as utopias

My presentation at the recent HERDSA conference was entitled Peer review of teaching: A showcase of messy practice. My co-author Rod Lane and I are redeveloping it as a book chapter, in which we will share our learning about the risks and complexities of ‘insider research’ (or researching practices within one’s own institution). Presenting about an imperfect and unfinished project, rather than a retrospective narrative of excellence, was a conscious choice. It seemed well received by the audience:

In the powerpoint to accompany the presentation, I compared our optimistic vision for peer review of teaching with the artist’s impressions of current building works on campus. Both occupy an imaginary landscape.

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I contrasted these images—and by association our dreams for peer review of teaching—with some current photos of the campus as a work in progress. I shared some of my own photos of the campus, along with some taken by students:

Ideas about the university to come and the imaginary space it occupies have been rattling around my head as I walk the changing campus.

There are associations with the keynotes from Barbara Grant and Ronald Barnett at HERDSA. In several of his books, Ronald Barnett has written about the ‘ecological university’ as a feasible utopia. (These slides from one of his presentations provides a useful summary of his ideas about the ecological university and its possibilities.) In her keynote, Barbara Grant spoke of the-future-which-is-now, quoting Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina on hope: “The future is now. And I’m not crying, so maybe it’s good.”

Loose ideas, as yet only tenuously connected: whose utopia is it anyway? Barnett’s university as feasible utopia might be Pussy Riot’s dystopia. A note to self, with increasing urgency: I need to read Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, in its entirety not just the introduction.

Also in mind: what I have been reading. Dystopian fertility fiction again, since I’ve had my fill of comfort lit. For those with similar tastes, I recommend for their strange imaginings: Siobhan Adcock’s The Completionist, Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka (a mixed genre of dystopian society, work memos, and lesbian romance), Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks and Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun. Look at how these gorgeous covers are nailing the dystopian fertility genre!

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Vampires or zombies

Having finished Playing Beattie Bow (1980) and  Anne of Green Gables (1908), my daughter and I are now reading Natalie Bobbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1976), an American novel the explores the idea of immortality. Reading two American books in a row was unintentional, but enjoyable for the conversational idiosyncracies such as starting every sentence with ‘Well now…’

Next on our reading list is Victor Kelleher’s young adult dystopian novel Taronga (1986). Best to start dystopian fiction young, I think. For even younger children, I suggest the picture books The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard, and Sonya Hartnett’s The Boy and the Toy.

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This is an extract of a conversation in Tuck Everlasting between immortal Tuck and ten year old mortal Winnie:

“Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?” said Tuck, his voice low. “Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together … Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping … The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is
“Stuck. That’s what us Tucks are, Winnie. Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel anymore … But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born … Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are … it don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got.”

Growing, moving and changing has been on my mind lately. My daughter is on the cusp of young adulthood, my son on the cusp of starting school, and we, their parents, are on the cusp of middle age. It’s heavy work, as Tuck says, but it’s a good feeling, mostly, being a part of the wheel.

As a teenager inclined toward a gothic sensibility and aesthetic, I used to want to live forever. This was fanned by what was I reading at the timeCamilla (1796), The Vampyre (1819), Dracula (1897),  Interview with a Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Tapestry (1980). In my final year of school, I wrote a personal interest project entitled ‘The Fangs of Feminism’, and even commissioned a friend of a friend to take photographs of me in a cape.

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Truth be told, as a middle-aged academic mother, I now feel a greater affinity with zombies. I am not the first to make a link between zombies and the lived experience of the neoliberal academy. At the 2012 Academic Identities conference in Auckland, Peter Wood gave a paper entitled Audit identity: Or, how the PBRF turned me into an ambitious zombie. The Performance Based Research Fund is the New Zealand government’s research excellence initiative, which Wood described as a ‘viral bite’ for the ways in which audit culture has infected the everyday practice of academic work and redefined academic identities. To quote an archived article from The Australian, academic zombies in Australia can be similarly identified by their “affectless references to DEST points, citation indices, ERA rankings, ARC applications, esteem factors, FoR codes, AUQA reviews and the like.”

Describing academics as zombies seems to be contagious. In Whackademia, Richard Hil (2012) refered to the “zombification of academic life in which scholars shuffle dolefully around campuses” in compliance with neoliberalism. And in Australia Universities’ Review, Suzanne Ryan (2012) suggested that academic zombification is a form of adaptation to “governance; audit; workload; workforce; and an acquiescent leadership.” My favourite in the academic zombies genre is the edited collection Zombies in the academy: Living death in higher education which examines the synthesis between academic life and living death.

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I no longer want immortality.

Almost every year—this is not a digression—my family visits the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. This year marks its tenth anniversary, and it is already in the calendar for September. There are usually around 30 sculptures, and there is truly something for everyone, a mix of the joyful, macabre, and curious. A couple of years ago, there is was a sculpture of a time meter (Buying Time by Graeme Pattison). Modelled on a parking meter, it allowed the user to purchase time. I was not tempted. Immortality was inviting as a teenager because I was only beginning to live.

Now, half-way around the wheel, more or less, I don’t want more time. I want to use the unknowably finite time I have better. At work, that means spending less of my energy chasing metrics that make me feel deficient, and more time on work that matters in the company of colleagues.

Uncertainty

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It is hard to write this week. The words come sluggishly and feel awkward. Nonetheless I have several writing tasks to complete—a module for a teaching development online course, a workshop on academic integrity—and dozens of works in progress. At the top of the list is a plan for two new research projects and a close-but-not-yet finished article. There is an uncharacteristic heaviness to my feelings about writing which makes these tasks onerous.

I recently read Nikki Gemmel’s memoir After following her mother’s death by suicide. Of the time before her mother’s death, she writes:

My mother [Elayn’s] despair seeped into my life; it was the harrower of my peace. This at a time I was struggling to keep everything on an even keel: four children aged four to fifteen, plus work, plus husband, plus household. It was a fraught time of failing at everything; of nothing having my full attention; of boxes-to-be-ticked completed in harried snatches and then every night around 3am I’d be harangued awake from a fitful sleep with the swamping of it all, too much in the head, too much…

‘You never stop,’ my father, Bob, said in horror once, from the perspective of a different, slower life. I know we have to develop defence mechanisms. The ability to pause, recognise the gifts of stillness, recalibrate. But they feel like essential life skills I don’t have.

After:

I’m not good at being alive right now. I’m not sure I can be pieced together in any way that resembles a former self. My brain is not working properly, it feels like I’ve had an axe blow through the head that will never completely heal. What is needed, a holiday from uncertainty. Instead, there is brittleness. Snappiness. With everything. As I walk the days, pick up kids, shop for groceries, drive. Nervy, jumpy, a collision in my head of too much. I cannot do gatherings, crowds, am abandoning commitments, forgetting to return emails and calls … I’ve lost my writing confidence, it no longer sings; the sentences won’t come; the brain will not grind into gear.

This grappling with subjectivity, the uncertainty and ‘too muchness’ of it all feels familiar. In the past few months, we have spent a lot of time waiting: for my daughter’s seizures to end (the longest has been fifteen minutes, an eternity), waiting in hospital, waiting for medications to work, waiting for tests to reveal something, waiting for things to get back to normal (by which I mean the way things were before). It hasn’t been a good week. I considered writing a post about something (anything) else but it felt contrived, and made writing more difficult.

In the past, I have prided myself on my high tolerance for uncertainty. It’s a valuable skill, especially for sessional and early career academics and those experiencing workplace change. Now, my tolerance  is tested to its limits. We do not know what the future will hold and we are not in control right now. I have an urge to write it out, even though the words are hard to find.

I have just started Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space on how successful academics write. The title is the opposite of how I feel right now, but I love her suggestions for changing writing habits: reflecting, reading about writing, and experimenting with time, space and style. While writing is difficult, reading offers joy and solace.

New to my reading pile this week is Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (doubtless the subject of future posts). I am looking forward to sinking into this. For non-academic reading, I have joined a young adult book club for adults only. Our next discussion is dystopian fiction, which is close to my heart and allows me to dwell in uncertainty. I have just finished Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, am halfway through Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and have The Book of Joan, The Book of Dust and Future Home of the Living God to choose from next.

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Complicity

Like many of you, no doubt, I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale. The first episode includes a scene of (what Atwood called) particicution (combining the words “participation” and “execution”) where the handmaids kill an alleged rapist with their bare hands. I struggled to fall asleep afterwards for thinking about brutality and complicity. So, ever the academic, I read a journal article on complicity and resistance in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s novel ends with the transcript of a speech by Professor Pieixoto at a Gileadean studies conference in 2195. Stillman and Johnson (1994) describe it thus:

Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge University gives a paper on Offred’s tale to an audience that applauds frequently, asks no questions, and raises no objections to his (quite objectionable) interpretation. Neither Pieixoto nor his audience feel with others: they are not open to others, to the experiences of others, to the possible validity and meaning of the reports, concerns, and interests of others…

The conferees, like many academics, do not act—or rather, their only actions are their words. Their word play may satisfy them, give them a sense of identity, and ensure their self-created superiority and power of interpretation over Offred and her tale. But as they gain that identity and superiority—through Pieixoto’s words, the chair’s acquiescence in them, and the audience’s laughter and applause—they make themselves complicit in sexism, thoughtlessness and lack of feeling for Gilead’s victims and a lack of concern to avoid another Gilead (Stillman & Johnson, 1994, p 82).

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I’ve been thinking about complicity and academia this week. My daughter continues to be in and out of hospital, having frequent (but fewer and shorter) seizures. She requires constant supervision. We haven’t spent this much time together since she was a newborn! I have been getting some work done—thanks to the care of grandparents, the use of fringe time and understanding colleagues. I am focussing on achieving one task per day.

Last week, I submitted a book chapter for the forthcoming collection Lived Experiences of Women in Academia edited by Alison L. Black and Susanne Garvis. Ali Black was aware of the context in which I was writing—indeed, as you read in my last post, I wrote about my daughter in the chapter. In her email reply she wrote (and I quote with permission):

I feel so torn that you are sending me your chapter amongst all of this, and suddenly feel part of the deadening academic machine that causes us to juggle work amongst such precious things as our children and their health and lives.

I am thankful to Ali for her thoughtfulness and feeling.

Last week also saw the publication of a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on Activism and the Academy I co-edited with Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles. (Take that Stillman and Johnson’s (1994) with your jarring statement that “academics do not act” and denigration of the power of words!). In future posts, I will highlight other papers, but for thinking about complicity in the deadening academic machine I recommend reading Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm’s The University as an Infinite Game:

In the university, as in life, there are two kinds of games. One is the infinite game, the purpose of which is to keep the game in play and invite others in; the other is finite games, in which the purpose is to win (Carse, 1986; Harré, in press). The infinite game is a symbol of our potential as people living together to be open and inclusive, and to promote the life, and growth, that helps us flourish as individuals and communities. This game imagines a world in which our heartfelt, personal response to life, our deep listening to others (especially those who don’t fit in), and our careful observations and thought about the social, natural and physical world come together to create and recreate our institutions.

We are readily complicit in the finite games of academia. I have touched on these ideas in previous posts about quantified academia and the academic machine. As Harré and colleagues put it, we are “non-innocent … compromised” players. There is hope. I love the picture the authors paint of the gently activist possibilities enabled by focussing on the infinite game. Let’s play.