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 But at the same time, governments have systematically withdrawn per-student public funding from universities, substituting secure base funding with contestable funding reliant on market-like competitive mechanisms.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…

Slow academia: a panel discussion

This week I listened to the recording of a Slow Academia panel I participated in earlier this year. It was organised by Demelza Marlin for higher degree research students and early career academics, and I was on a panel alongside Andrew Dunstall, an academic from Philosophy “who surfs casual contracts from semester to semester and tries to write research articles in his spare time”, and sociologist Michelle Jamieson, who is currently HDR Learning Advisor in Arts.

Our talking points included the following challenging questions:

What does slow academia offer beyond a darn good critique of the corporate logic of the modern university? Does the vocabulary of slowness offer us a way to re-value forms of academic labour that are currently under-valued (spending time with students, cultivating scholarly communities, spending time in thought)? What is at stake for HDRs, ECRs and casual staff in going against the grain and opting to produce less? Is that what slowness is ultimately about? How do you incorporate it into your working routines?

Here is a link to the 90 minute recording and Demelza’s slides are available separately: An introduction to slow academia.

Listening to an audio recording isn’t my favourite way to experience something I’ve missed (in this recording questions from the audience are especially difficult to hear, and there are some quiet gaps), so here are some of the highlights.

From Demelza Marlin:

  • Demelza described “time sickness” or “time poverty” in academia, a culture of speed, quantified academia, productivity and time management, anxiety, and fragmented time
  • Because the audience was predominantly higher degree research students, Demelza spent some time talking about the push towards “fast PhDs”. At its extreme, there is an organisation that promises to “support” you to complete a PhD in 3 months!
  • Demelza describes time management strategies in relation to Max Weber’s work: “idleness is a sin, leisure is important only in that it restores you for the working day”. “We are invited to think in utilitarian terms about our leisure as well as our work”
  • She shared this gem of university marketing “Never stand still” and, tongue in cheek, encouraged us to try never standing still and see what that experience feels like

From Michelle Jamieson:

  • As an academic learning advisor for research candidates in Arts, Michelle sees students under pressure to complete a PhD in three years: distracted, pulled in multiple directions, loss of wellbeing, less pleasure in research
  • Tries to achieve time at work that does not feel pressured or measured by not focusing on productivity, but on enjoying what she is doing
  • Michelle is running a workshop series on mindfulness for researchers, including regular meditations (I am keen to attend some of these sessions, so I hope they continue next year).

From Andrew Dunstall:

  • No allegiance to any slow movement, “I am just slow”
  • Asks: What has to change in institutions to ensure a future generation of researchers and to ensure high quality research and teaching?
  • Maintain your body if you want to be an effective researcher: be active, eat well
  • Identify your own expectations and beliefs that put pressure on (e.g. as a PhD candidate thinking “I want my articles to become classics that are read in 100 years” is too ambitious).

From me:

  • Being a slow academic is a consequence of my experiences as a PhD candidate with a sick baby; that  was my pressure cooker
  • Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education
  • I recommended ImaginePhD, an online career planning tool for humanities and social sciences

From 50 minutes on, we had questions from the audience, which covered:

  • daydreaming, reflexive freedom and timeless time
  • the need for students to have time to make mistakes and experience failure
  • writing and research practices and the motivation of stress and deadlines (I recommended Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space)
  • academic activism, the importance of union membership, and leadership roles
  • the opportunities and limitations of working part-time
  • non-linear conceptions of time (e.g. I Aboriginal experiences of time circles, eternity now).

Lots of food for thought! For the time being, here’s Demelza’s summing up of slow academia using Seeber and Berg’s The Slow Professor:

Slowness is not just a critique, it also offers an alternative, a different model for academia … The slow movement advocates a shift in our practice and our public discourse and our relationship to work. This gives meaning to thinking about scholarship as community (not competition), to periods of rest, and understanding that research [has] rhythms that include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive. It allows us to shift from worrying about the annual report to thinking about what is sustainable in the long haul.

Celebrating bluestockings

This week is Bluestocking Week, organised by the National Tertiary Education Union to celebrate women’s achievements in education. You can read more about it here. ‘Bluestocking’ was originally a derogatory term to describe intellectual or literary woman, as Jeannie Rea writes:

The term originates from the latter part of the 18th century as women started organising literary societies in their homes and began campaigning for women’s access to university and more generally for women’s rights to equality in work, under the law and access into the parliaments. Many of the English middle and upper class leaders of the suffragist and suffragette movements started out in or were influenced by these literary societies, as were some of the male supporters of women’s rights. Indeed the term ‘blue stocking’ is often attributed to a male member of the circle who arrived at meetings in his everyday worsted wool blue stockings rather than white silk ones usually worn by men when meeting with men. This was taken up as distinguishing the women’s initiative.

This year’s theme is ‘Bluestocking women change the rules’, which followed nicely from July’s NAIDOC Week’s celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with the theme ‘Because of her we can!’ (Recommended reading: here are some deadly women).

I was fortunate enough to celebrate at a University of New South Wales lunchtime talk. I actually started writing my presentation a year ago, when I was scheduled to talk at UNSW’s 2017 Bluestocking event. It was a year ago that my daughter’s epilepsy worsened and she had the first of many hospitalisations. I spoke about care and undercare in the academy from my own experience and my research. In light of the theme on rule-changing, I also talked about slow academia, activism in the academy and virtuous naughtiness. I recommended reading Rosalind Gill’s Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia, Kathleen Lynch’s Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education, and Alison Mountz and colleagues’ For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University.

It was a privilege to hear from Zora Simic, feminist scholar extraordinaire, who presented a global historical perspective on feminist activism. She shared examples from Aboriginal women activists in Australia, and took us on a whirlwind tour of Canada, Poland, Latin America, Ireland and South Korea. This was a wonderful, all too brief, learning opportunity. Zora also wished Madonna happy 60th birthday. You can see some of Zora’s slides on this Twitter thread.

Happy Bluestocking week to all rule-changers! Bluestocking, an online journal of women’s history, looks like a great place to learn more.

Immortality (of a sort)

Last week I submitted a teaching module on the Politics of Higher Education (co-authored with Cathy Rytmeister) for peer review. All going well, it should be part of a MOOC (massive open online course, for those outside higher education) next year. [Update: you can find Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching here. Enrolments are open to all and it is free of charge]. This is a predominantly Australian module that explores how history informs the future and takes a big picture look at the political, economic, social and cultural factors that have shaped the Australian higher education system as we know it today.

Working on the module gave me the opportunity to reread a wonderful historic collection, Select Documents in Australian History 1851-1900 (Clark, 1969), pictured below in my new reading nook at home.

 

Education is just one small section of the book, but is a great resource for thinking about the aims and purposes of a university. The collection includes a newspaper report of a speech by Charles Wentworth to the Legislative Council of NSW on 4 October 1849 proposing the establishment of Australia’s first university, the University of Sydney. It reads:

[Wentworth] hoped the institution they now contemplated would afford a sphere of instruction, not for that colony alone, but for the whole family of man. That it would be the fountain of knowledge at whose spring all might drink, be they Christian, Mahomedan, Jew, or Heathen. That its gates would be open to all whether they were disciples of Moses, of Jesus, of Bramin, of Mahomed, or Vishnu, or of Buddha …

He believed [the establishment of the university] would be the crowning act of the deeds of the [Legislative] Council … So long as this institution should exist they would not be forgotten—so long as it flourished their memory would not decay. He looked upon this measure as more important than all that they had heretofore done in that House. They had passed laws, but those laws might be altered—might, in the change of fleeting circumstances, be swept away; but this measure—this, which was to enlighten the mind—to refine the understanding and to elevate the soul of their fellow-men—this, of all their acts, alone contained the germ of immortality (pp 697-698).

SydneyThe University of Sydney, circa 1863-1865. From the collections of the State Library of NSW.

Also included in the collection is an excerpt from the 1904 Final Report of the Royal Commission on the University of Melbourne (Clark 1969) which describes the function of a university:

In a country like this, where there are no leisured classes, and where everyone has to make his living, a University can only be truly national by association with the life’s work of the people. It is too commonly supposed the object of a University is to train students to obtain degrees. Although this is doubtless an important function, yet, its chief object is to educate—that is, to fully develop the faculties of the students, and to extend the bounds of knowledge … In fact, a student should be able to get the best instruction and education in all branches of knowledge and, what is more important, actual training in the methods of research, so as to be able himself to add to the existing stock of knowledge (pp 698-699).

I love these glimpses into the hopes for the universities of the future. They are simultaneously egalitarian (open to all religions) and blinkered (for men only). They make great claims for knowledge, and appeal to pomposity (sadly, the Legislative Council can’t claim to be immortalised in our memory).

As an aside, it’s also enjoyable to take a look at the historical documents surrounding individual institutions. My own university, for example, was described on its establishment as ‘Australia’s most radical and unconventional university’ yet it carries the name of a staunch conservative governor (Mansfield and Hutchison, 1992). The university has a wonderful online archive relating to his life and work but, arguably, our institutional memory is more patchy. I did come across this interesting, but seemingly not recently updated, blog on the radical history of the university. It’s well worth a read for those interested in student activism, alongside Rebecca Dolhinow’s paper in Australian Universities’ Review on Activism on the Corporate Campus.

How much has really changed since these documents were written in 1849 and 1904? We are still focussed on the life’s work of the people, but we call it employability. We train students, including undergraduates, in research methods. We may not claim to enlighten the souls of our students but, by another name, we seek to transform them through our teaching. Plus ça change.