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.


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.

Distractions, interruptions

Since I cannot tell the story in a straight line, and I lose my thread, and I start again, and I forget something crucial, and it is hard to think about how to weave it in, and I start thinking, thinking, there must be some conceptual thread that will provide a narrative here, some lost link, some possibility of chronology … (Butler, 2001, 35).

So writes Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. It is difficult to write—to think—otherwise now. Here in Sydney, Australia, we are having school holidays in lockdown as covid cases creep inexorably upwards. Work is one long Zoom meeting. I find myself in the same patterns as March 2020: retreating, counting, waking, fretting, waiting. Trying to write, I am ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (Butler, 2001, 22). I experience myself and time as fragmentary. Distractions abound.

Television. Not something I spend a lot of time with, but the whole family has enjoyed the third season of Lego Masters (I’m team Sarah and Fleur—those zombie cheerleaders, that dream art house). My vote for favourite show of the year, however, is Creamerie from Aotearoa/New Zealand, set in a near future dystopia in which men have been wiped out by a virus. Dark and funny.

Food. We had a ‘healthy’ versus unhealthy brownie taste challenge. I think these black bean brownies are the winners, but they were eaten too quickly to be sure. We will have to try again.

Walks. I am listening to audio books while walking the dog, including 14 hours of The Unwomanly Face of War, Russian oral history of women’s experiences during the second world war. The casuarina forest near our home is my favourite place.

Books. I am reading more 2am books (vacuous and predictable at any other time of day, genre fiction makes night waking enjoyable). At other times, I am enjoying:

Games. My son has invented a giant board game called Misery. You become the piece, rolling a die and landing on paper spread out on the floor. Many of them are labelled ‘Misery’ and you choose a card that describes a miserable thing that will happen to you (such as having to eat porridge without honey). There are some ‘Luck’ cards as well but, as the name of the game suggests, misery abounds. On a more jolly note, we are looking forward to the free online activities the State Library of New South Wales has scheduled for the holidays, including Secret codes, ciphers and more.

I am always interruptible. I thought I had borrowed this phrase from Sarah Knott’s (2019) Mother: An Unconventional History, but rereading the book I cannot locate it. She writes a sensory account of caring for infants in the past that is based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The author had her first child while researching and writing the book, and a chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, night-time arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: ‘8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up’ (Knott, 2019, 90).

Butler (2001, 34) wonders about the interruptions of texts, and whether we prefer the ‘seamlessness of the story’ and the illusion of a ‘coherent autobiographer’ who reveals the ‘truth of the person’, but concludes: ‘It may be that stories have to be interrupted, and that for interruption to take place, a story has to be underway.’

Always interruptible. I’ve found that reference. It is Lisa Baraitser’s (1989) Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption.  She writes in anecdotal fragments, leaving ‘small, unintegrated and perhaps undigestible nuggets of maternal writing within the more formal academic reflections, as well as using them to interrupt myself.’ She wants to interrupt herself, as much as possible, to ‘throw myself off the subject—especially my own tendency to be drawn back towards the relative safety of theory’ (13). Afterbirth, tantrums, tears, not enough hands: all in the text in its raw form, in between reading theory from Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, Julia Kristeva, Jessica Benjamin and Judith Butler.

The safety of theory. It’s an interesting idea—retreating to the comfort of other people’s words—and the implied risk of writing the self. “I start thinking, thinking…”

Deferred time

Image: Untitled (Clock), Stuart Ringholt, 2014

My colleagues Lilia Mantai, Vanessa Fredericks and I have a new paper published: Deferred time in the neoliberal university: experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics. It appears in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education on the timescapes of teaching, with several articles that I have added to my to-read list! (Free copies of our paper are currently available here; once these expire, if you do not have access via an institutional library, you can request a pre-print via Researchgate).

It was written before the outbreak of COVID-19 (although we snuck in a mention during the final review stage), but our argument about the experience of time, uncertainty and anxiety is prescient. (This paper has been a long time coming: Lilia and I took a reading retreat towards the end of 2016; I presented an early version at the Academic Identities Conference in 2018; and Lilia, Vanessa and I spent a day writing together and eating vegan food in October last year. Take heart if you are writing something slowly!)

The article brings together two studies: interviews with 64 PhD candidates from two Australian universities on their doctoral experience and researcher identity development; and a survey of 522 self-defining ECAs from three Australian universities on factors impacting work experience and career trajectories. We analyse these data using Ylijoki and Mäntylä’s (2003) ‘Conflicting Time Perspectives in Academic Work’:

Scheduled time refers to the accelerating pace of work, timeless time to transcending time through immersion in work, contracted time to short-term employment with limited future prospects and finally, personal time to one’s temporality and the role of work in it.

Theorising with Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1994), we emphasise the experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics as political subjects in the neoliberal university, and add a category of deferred time.

In Enduring Time, Lisa Baraitser (2017) describes deferred or suspended time as marked by “modes of waiting, staying, delaying, enduring, persisting, repeating, maintaining, preserving and remaining – that produce the experience of time not passing.”

Here is how our research participants describe it:

In the immediate future, I am trying to secure a permanent position and/or postdoctoral position. In the longer term, I am hoping to remain in academia … I am not ruling out a career outside academia. The longer it takes for me to secure an academic position, the more I will explore other options (though this is difficult).

Quite frankly it is impossible to make [career] plans … I have become some kind of Universal Academic that can be called in at short notice to teach: Mathematics, Statistics, Finance, Business, Marketing, Engineering, Media Studies, and lately even Music Theory. This situation is clearly absurd, and I know I am not alone.

My greatest desire at this point is to secure permanent employment and no longer be on ‘6 month’ or 1 year’ contracts (as I have been for the last two and half years). The instability of my current situation is quite stressful (I have no idea if I’ll still have a job in 6 months) and doesn’t allow me, or my family, to make any plans into the future.

I would like to get an ongoing teaching and research position in a university … I recognise that I am likely to work in a number of casual and short-term contract positions before that becomes a reality (if ever). As I have a family to support, I am aware that I might have to face the possibility of abandoning my plans and take work in another area or even a different sector.

Following Derrida’s line of argument, as political subjects of the neoliberal university, whose temporality is externally driven, doctoral candidates and early career academics are in a deferred state of waiting for the ‘messianic promise’ of secure academic careers and balanced working conditions. The dominant affect of deferred time, which contaminates the experience of scheduled, contracted, timeless and personal time, is anxiety.

We ended our paper on a hopeful note: PhD candidate and early career participants are active agents in managing the temporalities of academic work, defending their personal time and planning potential futures within and beyond academe. (If this is you, as a starting point I recommend Inger Mewburn’s work on post-PhD futures and ImaginePhD).