Universities, goodness and plague

On Thursday evening, Barbara Grant and Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand), Rikke Toft Nørgård (Aarhus University, Denmark) and I hosted the first webinar in the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University series.

It was called Surviving the years of plague – Two feminist academics review Raewyn Connell’s The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. (There is a video of the presentation available at the end of this post).

In late 2019, Barbara and I agreed to write a collaborative review of Raewyn Connell’s The Good University (following an invitation from Sean). Our plan was to converse slowly via email because we were already experiencing plagues (persistent afflictions causing worry and distress) in the form of university restructuring. We didn’t anticipate how dramatically covid would interrupt our work and home lives and reduce our capacity for scholarly work. Our conversation became intermittent, stretching from November 2019 into the present. We found that living with these plagues cast the possibility of the good university into profound uncertainty. Connell’s The Good University became a point of return — a companion text — for two feminist academics during plague times.

In the webinar we shared an edited version of what has become an epistolary review essay (not yet published) that proceeded slowly, and showed on the ground ‘what [some] universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change,’ as Connell’s subtitle has it. We were delighted to be joined by participants from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, England, Ireland, Malaysia, Scotland and South Africa!

In the slides, you can see our starting point: an overview of Connell’s The Good University.

We read an excerpt from our email conversation (below is further edited for brevity):

Barbara, 27 November 2019

In these final pages, Connell makes her call to prefigurative politics, urging the reader to begin to realise the good university ‘here and now, with whatever resources are at hand’ (pp. 189–190), and beginning at any scale: a single course, a new programme or centre within an existing institution, or a new container such as a movement or an organisation. Her criteria for the good university are that it be ‘democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable’ (p. 171). When I first read this, I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why.

Agnes 12 February 2021

We were attempting, I think, to write a review that was ‘a weave of collective labour’ (Connell, 2019, p. 171) in which we positioned ourselves as feminist academics within and against the politics of the contemporary university. I have been thinking about how and why we choose to stay in the university system, as Connell has done. When we started writing, it was impossible to imagine the context in which our thinking about goodness and the university would emerge.

I have grappled with the injunction to begin to realise the good university on a small scale here and now. I am left with a feeling of heaviness, more distant from the good university than ever before.

I left this gloomy sentence and took the dog for a walk through the casuarina forest near my home. I returned feeling better. The university, good and bad, contains work and people that nourish me. Like Connell, I have been buoyed by my work as a unionist, even if we sometimes fall short of our ideals. Many of the ideas that Connell writes about have stayed with me — universities as privilege machines, the value of professional (administrative) staff, rekindling the soul of the university, the histories of activism and the emphasis on working collectively.

Barbara 18 January 2022

My feelings as we so slowly wrote the book review: I felt weird performance anxiety quite often and a bit of shame about being so slow and also wondering what was happening with you — I guess I’m being reminded of the always/already intersubjectivity of writing/creating.

We then gave an overview of our writing process using the work of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe how our interrupted reading moved towards hope.

In Giving an account of oneself, Judith Butler notices how we are ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (2001, p. 22), which poses difficulties for telling any story in a straight line. Writing during a plague, time and self are even more fragmented than usual. Distractions abound. We wrote ‘interrupted’, ‘arriv[ing] in each other’s inbox, amidst the bursting emails, promising and reminding, and apologising for redrafts not-yet-completed, work deferred and returned to’ (Breeze & Taylor, 2020, p. xi).

Throughout the text, we have kept the interruptions that Sean Sturm provided as the editor of the article. These challenging questions offer a prompt to the reader to reflect on the ways in which scholarly texts are always interruptible, provisional and fragmentary. 

Sean wrote: Do you want to keep the entries verbatim as a principle of ‘slow review’ or are you open to writerly revision? Note that my comments assume that you want editorial comment to ‘deepen’ (problematise/extend) the analysis, which might go against the mixed register of email, where ‘deeper’ thoughts might remain provisional or fragmentary. Ignore them, if so!

As interlocutor in the webinar, Sean teased out our ideas about the ‘good’ university and asked challenging questions about feminism, complicity, affect and interruption, and these handwritten notes give an insight into the line of questioning:

One of the participants, Juliane Höhle (PhD candidate at Ghent University, Belgium) created this wonderful graphic recording of the webinar and shared it on Twitter:

Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague
Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague

The dialogue was enriched by questions and contributions from participants. Reasons for joining the session included:

  • It feels like the first time seeing reflected how I feel versus the ‘back to normal’ university discourse seemingly everywhere else!
  • I came to this theme because of experiencing chaos and acceleration and work intensification but also barbarization during the pandemic.
  • I was attracted by the keywords plague, feminist perspectives and slow academia.
  • I am feeling very disillusioned and burnt out by being in HE and dominant approaches to scholarship. Need to find new, fresh energy.

Rikke Toft Nørgård facilitated collaborative small group discussions which covered wide-ranging and complex ideas. She asked: What lingers? What incites? What inspires? What continues?

Ideas for further thinking included: Reclaiming as a collective the language and narratives of sustainability, creativity and goodness; promote ideas of the university that encompass the undercommons of the university — students, teachers, support staff, chance meetings, informal learning, random encounters, personal chat (and not only managerial structure and neoliberal incentives); and think more about ways of sharing the privilege of slowness.

New writing from participants in the session is now on my to read list:

Boehme, C. (2022) Arts and Academia: The Role of the Arts in Civic Universities. Great Debates in Higher Education. Emerald Publishing Limited. Available to read in full here.

Barnett, R., Bengtsen, S. & Nørgård, R. T. (2022). Culture and the University: Education, Ecology, Design. Bloomsbury.

You can watch a video of the presentation (42 minutes):

I am looking forward to the next webinar in the series! ‘Wandering and wondering in the university’ with Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) and Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark) will be on September 29th. Find out more on the PaTHES website.

Slow academia – a collaborative webinar series

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education (PaTHES) webinar series, and hope you can join this wonderful group of scholars!

Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University

Chaired by Rikke Toft Nørgård, Aarhus University (Denmark)

Featuring: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

More information including abstracts, biographies and further reading.

Webinar 1

Surviving the years of plague – Two feminist academics review Raewyn Connell’s The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change

Date: Thursday 8th September

Time: 10.30-12.00pm CEST (DK time), 8.30-10.00pm (NZ), 6.30-8.00 (Sydney), 9.30-11.00am (London)

Speakers: Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University, Australia) & Barbara Grant (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) with Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand)

Registration before Monday 5th September

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/Uf28ctYJdTfjyFdV7

Webinar 2

Wandering and wondering in the university

Date: Thursday 29th September

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 5.00-6.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) & Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark)

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/UeLawEecPQLayNoG9

Webinar 3

Generosity and presence in the university: Working for change

Date: Friday 7th October

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 6.00-7.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Maha Bali (The American University in Cairo) and Alison Phipps (University of Glasgow, UK)

Registration before Tuesday 4th October

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/foRVKpYs1oZiiMn88

Conclusive Roundtable – TBA

Date and time to be advised.

Panellists: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

Visit the PaTHES website.

Dark academia

I enjoy reading dark academia — and have previously shared some of 2am reads in that category: Never Saw Me Coming (psychopaths on campus), Plain Bad Heroines (queer gothic on campus), The Love Hypothesis (scientific romance on campus) or Legendborn (magical fantasy on campus). Dark academia is often described (like steampunk) in terms of its aesthetic qualities, but it is also a literary genre. Well-known examples include A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Donna Tartt’sThe Secret History.

There is crossover here with boarding school books and campus novels. Whispering Gums has a great post on Australian campus fiction, sharing a quote from author Diana Reid (Love and Virtue) on the dramatic interest inherent in “a cast of characters who are all young and vulnerable, trying on new ideas and identities … in a confined space.”

I recently read some great (confined space) distractions: A Deadly Education (no teachers, lots of murderous monsters), They Never Learn (murderous teachers), The Society for Soulless Girls (murderous teachers), For Your Own Good (murderous teachers) and Truly Devious (you guessed it). I have many more in this vein waiting to be read (several with ‘violent’ in the title). I call these 2am books because their page turnability makes middle-aged hormonal night waking much more enjoyable.

At other times, I read literary (but still occasionally murderous) matter: My Dark Vanessa, Vladimir, Transcendent Kingdom and Love and Virtue. These are more challenging reads, and prompt discussions of the complexities of belief, grief, abuse, affluence, power and privilege. They make great companion reads to enrich my 2am books. I recommend this brief but thoughtful article on ‘sexy’ privilege in dark academia.

Here’s a wonderful collection of dark academia playlists by a Haitian-American student, ideal for reading, writing, studying and being moody in gloomy weather on campus.

For me, the appeal of dark academia lies in taking the familiar (campuses, classes, assignments, graduations, committees, students and academics) and rendering it strange, magical or dangerous. Like gothic literature, dark academia is concerned with the soul of individuals and institutions. At the risk of sounding too much like the genre, the soul is more poetic than pragmatic, intimate and unknowable, a boundary or a borderline in constant contestation (sacred/ profane, divine/ damned). Dark academia celebrates and pokes fun at the elitism, rituals and rules of academia: esoteric readings, secret societies, and hierarchy and competitiveness. The genre is also, conversely, layered with nostalgia for campus buildings, libraries and lecture theatres, and archaic and complex theory, philosophy and poetry.

There is more to think through here: ideas about academics, students and campuses; our nostalgia, more pressing since pandemic lockdowns, for an immersive vision of the university; ideas of knowledge and learning that infect us; and challenging (or reinforcing) power and privilege through fiction. A good place to start is the scholarly work of Emily F. Henderson and Pauline J. Reynolds on fictitious representations of academic conferences: hierarchical, decadent and conflict prone and reinforcing gender inequalities.