A reminder to play

Two seemingly unconnected things: My six year old son has taken to referring to himself as his thirteen year old sister’s imaginary friend. (I find myself half believing him). And a couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of Higher Education Scholars.

I have previously posted about these events (The spirit of research, Yarning circle, Thoughtful citations, Staying in place), a roughly tri-annual gathering of Sydney-based researchers in higher education. The most recent session was hosted by Vanessa Fredericks, Lilia Mantai and Elaine Huber at the University of Sydney. The theme was Mind the Gap: Contemplating power, privilege and pedagogy:

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the ways higher education (teaching and research and academia as a whole) might be restricted by oppressive pedagogies. We consider what value we might add to higher education if we dared to free our minds and bodies from colonial, neoliberal, Western and masculine ideas … We begin by positioning ourselves as being-in-the-academy. We reflect on our positions and acknowledge that the space which we occupy, speak and write from is a privileged space. We open the introspective space to think more broadly about research and the University – itself a product of colonialism, and a space which is influenced by neoliberal practices and policies. We invite you to slow down and be ‘lazy’ (Shahjahan, 2015), to engage in ‘tactics of resistance’ (Shahjahan, 2015, p. 489). We consider the ways in which slowing down and re-embodying our approach to research and pedagogy, can lead to a practice of being-in-the-academy that is ethical
and responds to the other.

The organisers provided a thoughtful reading list, including:

Throughout the day, we talked, we listened, we thought and we played. We introduced ourselves and found commonalities through a web of connections:

Image

We had loosely structured, wide-ranging discussions about our bodies in relation to research, teaching and leadership. We breathed. We listened to music, drew, played with play-doh and lego:

Image

Image Image

Why such frivolous, unscholarly behaviour?

Jane Gallop in Anecdotal Theory (2002), refers to playfulness in a research context as “an attempt to theorise from a different place” and to speculate around ideas that have a tendency to “disable thought”.

Here is the connection with my my son’s imaginary selfhood and our playfulness as scholars: both offer ways of reflecting on our subjectivities and positionalities.

Play occupies a liminal space that invites a suspension of disbelief and relishes possibility and transformation. When playing, we suspend disbelief; we create unreal or quasi-real spaces; we tend towards extravagance and exaggeration; we move away from seriousness to nonsense and foolishness; and we value emotional responses (Bulkeley 1999, p 62).

Slowing down as scholars, taking time to play, allows us to ask ‘what if?’ and to imagine what might be possible.  We can recreate the space of the university and our places in it.

In thinking about playfulness, I revisited the work of Johan Huizinga (1950):

A play-community … tends to become permanent even after the game is over… The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

I am already looking ahead to future gathering of these folks, and have been inspired by the work of Tamson Pietsch, Where I stand, on recrafting academic biographies and research narratives.

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…

Thoughtful citations

Following Making shiFt happen and a meeting of the Higher education scholars last week, I have been thinking about my practices as a higher education researcher, and the ways in which I can evidence my values. Citation practices are one example.

In Living A Feminist Life (2017), Sara Ahmed is explicit about the politics of citation:

In this book, I adopt a strict citation policy: I do not cite any white men. By white men I am referring to an institution … My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were told to follow. In this book, I cite feminists of color who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness …

I read further on citation practices: a call for “conscientious engagement” as a means of resisting “unethical hierarchies of knowledge” production (Mott and Cockayne, 2017) and an invitation to “a collaborative and potentially intimate and caring practice” for citing trans scholars (Thieme and Saunders, 2018).

In my field, there’s Hart and Metcalfe’s (2010) “Whose Web of Knowledge™ is it Anyway?: Citing feminist research in the field of higher education”. The focus is slightly different: who cites feminist research in higher education? The authors note that Tight’s (2008) analysis of higher education researchers shows “no women … on his list of the 24 most cited higher education authors”. Hart and Metcalfe analyse citations for six feminist journal articles in American higher education journals in the 1990s, finding a greater number of citations from outside the discipline than from within. They conclude:

We wonder if the methods employed by some feminist scholars (auto-ethnography or personal narrative) preclude their publication in “top tier” journals, which give preference to positivist and empirical research? And, what is the influence of feminist work in higher education on students, administrators, and policy makers?… We call for additional research to help us understand who identifies with (and reads and cites) feminist scholars in the field of higher education. As higher education scholars, we are encouraged that work from our field is appreciated in other contexts, but where is the feminist community in higher education?

I read these works after I experimented with thoughtful citation in a recent book chapter, “Academic Writing from the Depths: An autoethnographic and organisational account” in Academic Writing and Identity Constructions edited by Louise Thomas and Anne Reinertsen. (I haven’t yet received my copy, but I am looking forward to reading the other chapters).

I cite women more than men in the chapter—of the 36 references, 10 are by male authors and include works co-authored with women. This may be a methodological influence (autoethnography, guided by the work of French feminist Hélène Cixous on writing), but given the focus of the book, I felt able to experiment with the conventions of academic writing. Here’s an extract:

I adopt a method of ‘thinking through writing’ or ‘writing along the way’—“writing that is intended to sort out what we think, why, and what the implications of a line of thought might be” (Thomson & Kamler, 2010, p. 149). My methodology finds inspiration in the feminist politics of Black, Crimmins and Henderson’s (2017) memory work and the experimental bricolage of Handsforth and Taylor (2016). These collaborative texts demonstrate models for writing differently as a means of navigating academia …

I want to cite another book I read while writing this chapter: Lipton and MacKinlay’s (2017) We Only Talk Feminist Here. Its influence on this chapter is subtle, but crucial. This type of reading alongside academic writing, where a text is not directly cited, is usually not acknowledged. But as part of the process of writing about writing, the impact of intertexts has weight. Lipton and MacKinlay’s (2017) work “tell[s] a different story about the neoliberal university”  from multiple feminist perspectives (p vii). It is a text that demands multiple readings, and I am letting its ideas resonate while I continue to write.

While reading about feminist citation practices, I came across a Citation Practices Challenge that challenges our lack of thought (“Over time, our citation practices become repetitive; we cite the same people we cited as newcomers to a conversation”). I have set myself the challenge of citing feminist, Aboriginal Australians and Asian writers.

This starts with reading—I welcome recommendations for academic texts—and applies to fiction as well. I plan to read the Stella Prize longlist again this year, although I note the panel wished for “more representations of otherness and diversity from publishers; narratives from outside Australia, from and featuring women of colour, LGBTQIA stories, Indigenous stories, more subversion, more difference.” (Whispering Gums has a thoughtful post about this comment).

40229412  39666190

 

 

Looking forward

The great thing about my work is that it includes what I most enjoy—reading, speaking, writing and listening. I am back in the office (part-time during January so I can settle the kids into new schools and new routines) and starting to fill my calendar for the year. My colleague Mitch Parsell (who blogs at The conflict of the faculties, a title taken from an essay by Kant) has been articulating his 2019 priorities via Twitter, and included this KonMari-inspired one:

I must confess that I have not read The life-changing magic of tidying up, nor watched Marie Kondo’s netflix series, but the housekeeping rituals that spark joy are appealing (or at least the vision of an ideal home is attractive, even as the privilege of curating your laundry in a beige non-place gives pause).

I have written about housekeeping and academia on this blog, as well as the pleasure of work on many occasions. Finding what ‘sparks joy’ has other names in academic contexts: MacLure’s potential for wonder in qualitative research, Barnett’s poetic and utopian universities, and (closer to home) Honan, Henderson and Loch on moments of pleasure.

As I wrote last year, I am not one for resolutions, but I am looking forward to many things in February that I anticipate will spark joy, including:

  • joining the Idea of the University reading group

This is a fortnightly online discussion hosted by Jeanette Fyffe who has written about it in ‘Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’ (2018) and, with Tai Peseta and Fiona Salisbury, in Interrogating the “Idea of the University” Through the Pleasures of Reading Together (2019). Each week a different reading is under discussion, and previous authors have included Raewyn Connell, Martin Nakata, Barbara Grant, Ronald Barnett and Ruth Barcan among others. The organisers describe the reading group as “aim[ing] to resuscitate the pleasures involved in university colleagues reading together”.

  • meeting with Higher Education scholars

In previous posts (Yarning circle and The spirit of research) I have described this informal cross-university network of higher education scholars. Unfortunately I missed October’s meeting on ‘Making place in higher education research’, although I still plan to complete the homework by reading Barbara Grant’s chapter “Going to see”: An academic woman researching her own kind in Lived experiences of women in academia: Metaphors, manifestos and memoir and blogging my response.

  • participating in Making shiFt happen

Organised by Ali Black and Rachael Dwyer, Making shiFt happen is “a 36-hour, Zoom-powered, innovative, non-traditional, transdisciplinary virtual exchange and (un)conference for female academics around the globe. A place for conversation, care, contribution, connection, collaboration, creativity, community and change”. Themes include Contemplative beginnings, Building caring communities, lived experiences of women in academia and reimagining academia). It runs from February 5 to February 6 across multiple timezones. Registration is open now and is only AU$50 for research students and sessional academics ($150 for full-time academics).

  • writing with the Academic Identities conference research team

Following the wonderful Peaceful University conference in Hiroshima last year, the Academic identities project teams are meeting over four days in Melbourne. We plan to collaborate on journal articles based on our presentations at the conference (Jamie Burford gave a detailed summary of these papers at Conference Inference).

These are just the special events scheduled for February. I also plan to enjoy everyday tasks of meeting with colleagues, developing curricula, planning and writing. Writing this list, however, has reminded me that I will need to practice slow academia.

Even so, my (reading) life does not look much like Marie Kondo’s:

Rather this, which encapsulates another Japanese concept, tsundoku or unread books piling up: