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!)

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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.

Heterotopias:

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.

Lockdown

In Sydney, we are in our fourth or fifth week of lockdown with covid numbers rising and (at least) another four weeks of working and schooling from home ahead. There’s a dullness to our days. Between Zoom meetings and supervising schoolwork, I started to write a list of the things that are getting us through the coming weeks and putting smiles on our faces.

Lego: the star of school STEM activities such as building a flagpole, a tool for family challenges (spinning tops, towers), and a treat brought by the postie. We are enjoying catching up on past seasons of Lego Masters, which has prompted conversations about feedback and bias.

Chocolate: the combination of licorice and dark chocolate is delish and the ratio of the Darrell Lea block is just right. Other food indulgences include condiments, take away, new recipes (this week includes caramel semifreddo, mulligatawny, Korean chicken and risotto) and snack experiments such as black bean brownies.

Watching the Olympics: we have a local community connection to Dominic Clarke, who represented Australia in trampolining. We cheered when he got through to the finals, and cried when he was unable to finish his routine. It was a tough competition. His smile was wonderful to see. After qualifying for the final he said: “I’m over the moon… It’s the best performance I’ve put up all year and it literally just came down to me having fun on the floor!”

Comfort reading: quirky and light reads, choosing from the to-be-read pile, browsing the little street library, reading the same books and talking about them, listening to audiobooks or videos of picture books. Here are a few of our recent favourites:

Spring-like weather: for gardening while listening to music (Double J, the radio station described as”older than Triple J”, just celebrated 40 years of Sonic Youth, the sound of my teen years), walking the dog, opening the windows, hanging out washing, doing a garden scavenger hunt, playing ping pong on the outdoor table at the park. And the chooks are laying again!

Creativity: my creativity has taken a dive, and I have withdrawn from my creative writing course for the semester, but this provides an excuse to showcase my teen’s artwork for music created by a schoolfriend:

Novelty: when so much remains the same, we are craving new experiences any way we can get them. As well as food and books, we are trying new television shows (Lost in Oz, The Tailings, Cleverman, Ms Represented, Starstruck), an online escape room with colleagues (here is a free version from the Sydney Opera House), a creative kids box from the State Library, new games (Greed), rainbow bubble bath, a scented candle and fresh flowers.

What about you? I would love to hear what works for you (or has helped in the past if lockdowns are behind you).

Things I miss

During the most difficult times in my life, I have noticed that one way people show empathy is by sharing something dreadful that they, or someone close to them, has experienced. There’s a camaraderie in suffering, which can be both comforting and suffocating.

Back in 2012, I had an ectopic pregnancy, after several years of secondary infertility. There were complications during the surgery to remove my right fallopian tube which resulted in chronic pain, and further surgeries to implant a neurostimulator. When people heard this, a common response was to tell me stories of mishaps during surgery or traumatic pregnancy loss. This has happened during other painful times in my life, too close to the bone to recount here. At times, I felt like a repository for bad news.

I say this to contextualise the lightness of this post at a time of collective trauma on a large scale: nearly 160,000 deaths in the United States alone, and decimated communities around the world (I recommend the BBC World Service podcast The Documentary for international coverage of the pandemic). Closer to home, we have over 12 thousand cases in Victoria, Australia (more than half active), and a hard lockdown that exacerbates vulnerability and disadvantage.

The things I miss are small, but perhaps my list may resonate with your experiences of life during a pandemic.

Walking the campus

Last week, with the Idea of the University reading group, I read Frances Kelly’s haunting piece Hurry up please, it’s time!’ A psychogeography of a decommissioned university campus.” Fran takes an “attentive walk” through a soon-to-be decommisioned university campus. There is a palpable sense of mourning, but Fran’s attention to the details of place are inspiring:

Although I had walked the same paths before, this time I walked with intention and attention, taking photographs and making notes of objects and places and the effects of processes of time—stairs that once lead to a building now demolished; an enormous pile of tree clippings;flowering bulbs; a view toward a dormant volcano …

Walking is a time for and mode of thinking for me, which is why psychogeography resonates as research methodology. A limitation is that it does take time, which can be in short supply for the contemporary researcher, or the busy parent, carer or student juggling multiple responsibilities.‘I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour’, writes Solnit. ‘If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness’ (Solnit2014, 10). Walking with deliberate attention as methodology reduces speed further–requiring pauses to observe, note and reflect on phenomena.

At the moment, we are working on campus part-time, but most of my meetings are online. I miss walking between meetings, noticing the change of season as spring approaches. The birds seem wilder with fewer people around.

Bumping into people

With all of my interactions scheduled, and mostly mediated through a screen, I miss impromptu embodied conversations. Having moved into a new role, I rarely see people I caught up with regularly six months ago. I miss you!

Interrupting and being interrupted

I mentioned my love of interruptions in a previous post. Polite turn-taking is far more important during Zoom. I miss hearing people talking over the top of one another, or finishing each other’s sentences without awkward pauses. I am reminded of this quote from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

Novelty

There is a certain sameness to our days now. I am sure this is felt more intensely by those unable to leave their homes. I miss everyday novelty. I am attempting to satisfy my cravings by trying new condiments, planning virtual escape room games with colleagues and family, and picking up books from the local street library. This morning’s haul included Vivian Pham’s The Coconut Children and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

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What are you missing?

ETA I wrote this post then watched the horrific news from Beirut. My heart is with you, and the Lebanese community outside Beirut.