Thinking together

I am a bit behind recapping the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia. I am blaming covid fog — it is no joke — on everything I have left undone, half-done or poorly done, but it does seem to be improving. The fourth session focussed on intersubjectivity, or how we theorise our connections with others and how we think together. We were a group of people from several places — Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, South Africa, England and more — who had not met as a group previously. You can access the slides below.

We started slowly with an active listening activity (based on this Reflection for Learning Circle video). Listening is always a challenge for me (I hope I am getting better) and I think often of Maggie Nelson’s comment in her memoir The Argonauts about talking too much and redirecting student discussion as a teacher: “I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.Barbara Grant, who chaired these sessions, shared a story of putting aside her reading (Stephanie Dowrick’s In the Company of Rilke, which sounds fabulous) to enjoy the physicality of being in place. She described the weather, the birds, and the quiet of a New Zealand morning immersed in nature, sensation and thought.

The discussion continued to meander through ideas from previous sessions on slow, self and place: the ”sensory mingling” of research, multiple accounts of the self, and encounters on university campuses. We followed the idea of the self as constituted socially — thinking with Merleau-Ponty (1968) about subjectivity as the threshold or fold between the other, the world and the self. In The Visible and the Invisble, he wrote:

“We must accustom ourselves to understand that ‘thought’ is not an invisible contact of self with self, that it lives outside of this intimacy with oneself … It is the invisible hinge upon which my life and the life of the others turn to rock into one another, the inner framework of intersubjectivity.”

We talked about collaborating with colleagues and collaborating with students. Book and article recommendations were exchanged, and my to-be-read (or re-read) collection grows ever larger. These readings were highlighted:

  • Feldt, J. E., & Petersen, E. B. (2021). Studying as Experimentation: Habits and Obstacles in the Ecology of the University. Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education, 3(3), 55-67. [13].
  • Gill (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In (Eds.) Ryan-Flood & Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, pp 228-244. London: Routledge.
  • Grant, B. M. (2010). Improvising together: The play of dialogue in humanities supervision. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(3), 271–288.
  • Henderson, L., Black, A., Garvis, S. (eds) (Re)birthing the Feminine in Academe. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  • Kelly, F. (2020) ‘Hurry up please, it’s time!’ A psychogeography of a decommissioned university campus, Teaching in Higher Education, 25(6), 722-735.
  • Kern, L., Hawkins, R., Al-Hindi, K. F., & Moss, P. (2014). A collective biography of joy in academic practice. Social & Cultural Geography, 15(7), 834–851.
  • Lynch (2010) Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 54-67.
  • Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: a feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.

There were many book recommendations spanning diverse disciplines and eras. All contributed to a rich conversation about our relationships with others.

Emily Ogden’s On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays (I have not yet read it) stimulated conversation. This interview with Ogden is rich and thought-provoking. She is asked: How did you organise the essays in the book? And answers:

“With great difficulty. I would have liked the reader to read all the chapters simultaneously. But I knew it began with an antithesis between minnows and whales, ended with Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), and told — among other stories — the story of my children’s birth in between. So, I started with a few fixed points and went from there. In the composition, many of the essays posed a question that a subsequent essay would then try to answer. So, I tried to keep some of those in their composition order … The most important notion about the genre of the essay, for me, was … the idea that an essay should send the reader back to their own thoughts. I wanted to prompt thought, not solve problems.”

In our discussion, we considered what we ask of students’ essays, and speculated about writing and reading essays to prompt thought, and what grading and feedback might look like.

We wrapped up with a discussion of collegiality in academia, challenged by Giedre Kligyte & Simon Barrie’s (2014) article in which they discuss collegiality as a governance and decision-making structure, allegiance to disciplinary knowledge communities and/or a behavioural norm:

“The idea of collegiality is tinged with nostalgia for the idealised harmonious past, where, it is imagined, academics had the time and opportunities to engage in significant research, excite and inspire bright young minds through teaching, participate in and contribute to institutional and disciplinary academic communities, think, reflect and, generally, do self-determined meaningful work … This idealised imaginary is contrasted with the well-documented confusion, isolation, anger and dismay that many academics feel when experiencing competing demands in universities today.”

We didn’t linger with the bad feelings for too long. As one participant summed it up: “We’re exploring a certain form of being together that’s not merely the ‘Being-with’ (Mitsein) in Heidegger — which is neutral and almost like an environment or furniture (but it’s people) — so I sense a joy and kindness in the being-together.” As Rilke put it, “Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”

Universities as places

The third session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia focussed on theorising place. You can access the slides below.

When this session ran, I was isolating with covid along with my family (we all tested positive in quick succession). Being unable to leave the house changed my sense of place, so I started by locating myself in my neighbourhood with a virtual dog walk.

Our discussion looked at various theorisings of place: Augé’s (1995) non-places (transient, interchangeable, without distinctiveness, where people are anonymised) and Nørgård and Bengtsen’s (2016) call for the ‘placeful’ university:

“Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa. The university space/place is a particular form of invitation that supports and promotes particular beings and becomings in education while stifling and preventing others.”

We discussed Foucault’s (1984) heterotopias (counter-sites that are special or transformative in some way, that mirror the university but challenge its conventions). I have previously posted in my experience of heterotopias in higher education. We finished the session with a discussion of sensory noticings and minglings, in which Barbara Grant (who is chairing the discussions) shared her research experience:

“When I think of myself as a human sensorium, a picture of Star Wars’ R2D2 snaps into my mind’s eye … [As an academic woman interviewing academic women, researching with mingled bodies] is so much more relevant … Taking account of familiarities and minglings speaks to me of the difficulties I have had with being anything like that ever-vigilant, noticing, sensing, critical research machine of my fantasies. Instead I have struggled with feelings of sleep-walking: the sounds, the smells, the colours, the shapes of the rooms, the layout of departments, the taste of coffee and scrambled eggs – the echo and imitate and ghost one another.”

A highlight of this session was the further reading suggested by participants:

This week, I am looking forward to celebrating National Reconciliation Week (‘Be brave, make change’) at my university on Dharug Country with a Smoking Ceremony, truth telling discussion and art and performance.

Stories of the self

The second session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia focussed on theorising the self. You can access the slides below.

I started by recapping the first session with a succinct summary of our discussion: start theorising by reading. Two books (covers pictured below) were recommended by participants, and these are now on my reading list.

Each session, I am using a different strategy to prompt a slow start. This time, an autobiographical story that I have told, and retold, multiple times in an attempt to grapple with its meaning. It’s an event that has shaped who I am and how I move through the world: my daughter’s birth and subsequent diagnosis with epilepsy. Most recently, I wrote about this, along with theories of writing and creative non-fiction, and my academic promotion application in an article entitled Details optional: An account of academic promotion relative to opportunity.

I have a previous blog post summarising the article, which responds to Judith Butler’s (2001) ‘Giving an Account of Oneself’. Butler writes:

“If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognisable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life, but this narrative will be disoriented by what is not mine, or what is not mine alone. And I will, to some degree, have to make myself substitutable in order to make myself recognisable. The narrative authority of the ‘I’ must give way to the perspective and temporality of a set of norms that context the singularity of my story.”

I invited participants in the PaTHES seminar to give an account of themselves by sharing their university stories. I find Tamson Pietsch’s call to rewrite academic biographies a useful prompt to think about the familial, historical and political processes that shape our university stories. As always, these university stories offer fascinating insights into our meandering lives and multiple and changeable selves.

Our discussion of storytelling moved to bell hook’s (1994)Teaching to Transgress and Susan Carter’s (2020)The Place of Stories. These works prompted us to consider how we describe school and university experiences, the games we played as children, and the lessons our early learning taught us. I have previously blogged about these ideas: memories of learning and storytelling.

Finally, I provoked a discussion on how the norms of academia construct us, and how we are complicit in contructing these norms, starting with this statement from my article:

In seeking to have recognition conferred by the Promotions Committee, I am both subject to the norms of academia and ‘the agency of its use’ (Butler 2001, 22). I am simultaneously constructed by and constructing the norms of academia, the social conditions under which the fragmentary, multiple ‘I’ emerges …

Discussions in these sessions are associational, open-ended, questioning and tentative. It’s important that we are able to think aloud and share ideas that are not yet developed. Participants talked about academia as a calling, staying in academia, changing institutions from within, and complicity with neoliberalism. The discussion referenced to ideas from Karl Marx, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hartmut Rosa, Judith Butler, bell hooks and Sara Ahmed.

It’s such a pleasure to talk theory together! In the third session, we spoke about theorising place. A summary post is coming soon.