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!)

maradon 333/Shutterstock.com

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.

Gathering online

My blogging has been sluggish during a time of relentlessly bad news about job losses across the Australian higher education workforce (my customary solace of reading has been hard too). I wanted to look back on what has been collegial and nourishing during the last few months at work. As I started making a list, I realised that there was a common thread: online gatherings. With face-to-face meetings restricted, academics generously opened up events for free registrations. I have participated in several: Missing Conferences, Higher Education Scholars, Whisperfest, Council of Australasian Leaders of Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) Conference, and the History of University Life seminar series. (For those who are wondering how I found invitations, most were advertised via Twitter. Also note these were held in Australian Eastern Standard Time. I missed a lot of fantastic sounding international events).

This post is dedicated to the meta-conference Missing Conferences: Academic gatherings in a time of limited mobility which has shaped a lot of thinking about online conferences this year.

James Burford, co-founder of the wonderful Conference Inference blog (blogging the world of academic conferences), organised this Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) sponsored gathering back in September. I neglected to post about it at the time. Looking back at my Passion Planner diary (not a paid endorsement, just a tool I have found helpful for lightly journaling through a tumultuous year), my retreat from blogging makes sense: in September, I co-facilitated an intensive teaching development program, evaluated institutional teaching awards, had two creative writing assessment tasks due, celebrated four birthdays in our extended family, and took time off for school holidays.

The focus of Missing Conferences was asking questions about academic conferences in 2020:

The first question that we consider is whether conferences have gone missing at all? Is it possible that the routine work of face-to-face conferences has been distributed across new platforms for gathering academics and disseminating knowledge? What affordances do these new forms of gathering promise? What are their limits?

The second question we consider is this: conferences may be missing, but are we missing conferences? How do we feel as we erase plans from the calendar, cancel tickets and ask for refunds? When conferences go missing do we miss our geographically distant friends and colleagues? And when face-to-face conferences are missing what else are scholars missing out on?

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International presenters included (with links to relevant blog posts on Conference Inference):

  • Judith Mair – Conferences: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
  • Agnes Bosanquet and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Embodiment
  • Tai Peseta and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Keynotes
  • Omolabake Fakunle – The Impacts of Doctoral Students Missing Conferences
  • Emily Henderson – Care and Missing Conferences

The hashtag #MissingConferences captured some of the stimulating discussion:

Catherine Manathunga and I presented work in progress as part of a cultural history of the Academic Identities Conference.

Our research draws upon visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Fitzgerald & May, 2016; Jütte, 2005; Grosvenor, 2012; Classen, 2012; Reinarz, 2014; Smith, 2004 and 2007; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017). These methodologies allow us to explore the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of attending the Academic Identities Conference series that has been running for 10 years. Using these techniques of cultural history (Burke, 2008; Marwick, 2006; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Rubin, 2002), this research project gathered oral histories from conference convenors, keynote speakers, delegates and PhD students and a range of visual and tangible artefacts such as conference programs and abstracts, photographs, twitter feeds and other memorabilia in an attempt to capture an intimate history of the embodied experience of travelling to conferences in England, Scotland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Japan. We have explored the themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience as they played out in the data we collected on each of the International Academic Identities Conferences from 2008 to 2018.

You can see our slides here:

Missing Conferences affirmed the value of scholarly gatherings, but also showcased the affordances of attending virtually (and how much we all enjoy sharing our working lives with pets).

Next post will recap the recent Higher Education Scholars gathering on Doing things with theory.

Virtual scholarship

A couple of weeks ago—is time slippery for you now too?—I participated in a virtual Higher Education Scholars meet-up.

Regular readers will know that this is a frequent gathering of (until now) predominantly Sydney-based academics, doctoral candidates and professional staff interested in research in higher education. I have posted about our previous meetings, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. You can read more about the mob here.

This session was themed Keeping our researcher identities alive and our research community connected. The description of the day read:

Remember to choose yourself: your researcher self, your researcher identity, your flailing research project, the bit of writing you have left to the side for too long, and to bring that part of you to a conversation … [This] is a chance to resuscitate it: pick it up, dust it off, remember its merits, to present it, to get feedback, and to take the next step with it.

It was our first online meeting, ably hosted in a team effort, which brought with it the benefit of participants from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and one stalwart from the National University of Ireland, Galway (well done on staying awake, Jan!)

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We read:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

I joined a discussion on the Ashwin piece, which poses a challenge to higher education scholars to produce theoretical work. His analysis of higher education journal articles published in 2008 showed that in the majority of articles, theory was implicit rather than explicit.

He prescribes a way of “making the development of theory through empirical research more common in higher education journal articles.” In a nutshell: be explicit about theory, conceptualise your research and analyse your data using different theoretical lenses, and do more mixed methods research.

We had interesting discussions—both positive and negative—about these ideas.

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In the works in progress session, I relished the opportunity to present my work with Catherine Manuthunga on Conferences in the flesh: a multi-sensory cultural history. 

Debate about whether physical conference attendance is necessary or desirable predates COVID-19. Noting the importance of equitable access, conferences serve a multitude of purposes. Conferences may offer retreat from ordinary workdays and domestic routines. Collectively gathering in a specific geographical location, and experiencing diverse cultures, climates and cuisines, opens up opportunities for place-based learning and enriches academic relationships.

Only recently have conferences been recognised in higher education research (Henderson, 2015). This paper gathers literature dispersed across fields including geography (Derudder and Lui, 2016), psychology (Carpay, 2001), sociology (Dubrow et al., 2018) and education (e.g. Hart, 1984; Skelton, 1997; Walford, 2011). It also explores visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Jütte, 2005; Smith, 2007; Grosvenor, 2012; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017).

We analyse empirical data from a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference (2008-2018), including interviews with thirty-two conference organisers, keynote speakers and participants attuned to sensory details: the sights, tastes, sounds, touch and smell of the conference experience. Following cultural history techniques (Burke, 2008; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Marwick, 2006; Rubin, 2002), transcripts were analysed for themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience.

The focus of our discussion is place, a layered location that is temporal, spatial, political and personal (Lippard, 1997). Multisensory, embodied, place-based conferences enable academic relationality to flourish, and innovative and transcultural knowledge to be produced. Our rich data set offers a specific and intimate history of a particular conference community through the lived experience of academic identities scholars. This provides insights into the institutional and sectoral contexts in which participants work, and universities as places that are both physical and imagined sites for the expression of values, highlighting what Phipps (2007) calls the sensory work of the university as a body of scholars.

For those who are interested, here are my two slides: HEScholars

The discussion focussed on these questions: This research began before COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Is there value in work on embodied, place-based, sensory academic conferences right now? How can we ensure this is a thoughtful and constructive piece of work, while remaining true to data collected in a different time? It was affirming to receive feedback from scholars who recognised place-based, sensory, affective, embodied research as more important than ever.