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.

Uses and abuses of slow

I am a bit behind on blogging the slow academia season of Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) virtual social meets. Covid has hit our household and I am working reduced hours while we are in isolation. So far we are feeling ok, but today seems a bit tougher than previous days. I hope to be well enough to lead the next PaTHES session on Monday night with a focus on theorising place.

The first session started with a guided discussion on the uses and abuses of slow in academia. You can access the powerpoint slides below.

I am starting each session with a prompt to slow down. This time a poem about fast academia from the beginning of a journal article on COVID-19 and Indigenous resilience co-authored by an international Indigenous team. It’s difficult to read poetry quickly. I recommend reading the full article, which ends with a more hopeful poem.

The resilient Pacific PhD candidate job description: COVID-19

Must know how to
go hard and go fast
go hard or go home

Must know how to navigate
time constraints
extra caring duty constraints
cramped space constraints
vulnerable elderly parents constraints
intermittent internet constraints
on-line learning ‘instant teacher support’ for your kids’ dramas constraints
job income insecurity how you gonna pay your mortgage and bills constraints
bank statement requests to prove you’re struggling constraints

Must know how to navigate
missed time-lines
missed dead-lines
new frown-lines
fear filled head-lines
uncertain brow-lines

Must know how to
go hard and go fast
go hard or go home

I am including the full citation as this challenges conventional academic citation practice by including Indigenous rather than institutional affiliations.

Zaine Akuhata-Huntington (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Tūhoe, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa), Shannon Foster (D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper), Ashlea Gillon (Ngāti Awa), Mamaeroa Merito (Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Whakaeu, Ngāti Awa), Lisa Oliver (Gomeroi Nation), Nohorua Parata (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāti Kahungunu, Rongowhakaata), Yvonne Ualesi (Mulivai Safata, Pu’apu’a, Savalalo Samoa, Fakaofo Tokelau, Ovalau Fiji) & Sereana Naepi (Natasiri). (2020). COVID-19 and Indigenous resilience. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(7),1377-1383.

I set the scene for a slow discussion inspired by Michelle Boulous Walker’s (2017) descriptor of slow reading: attentive, open-ended, ambiguous, contradictory, uncertain, imaginative, experimental, curious, questioning, incomplete, learning, appreciative, attentive listening, inconclusive, respectful, generous, meandering, reflective, meditative, patient, ethical, speculative, unknowing … And welcomed interruptions, noting my high tolerance honed over noisy extended family dinners during which everyone talks at the same time. Here’s an image of some of Ma’s delicious food at a recent lunch:

These are the quotes I choose to stimulate discussion during the session:

“Personal narratives of academic exclusions, marginalisations, and persistence abound … It is not for a lack of evidence that the pace of change in higher education is so slow. Feminist academics encounter a sense of déjà vu, that ‘we’ already know about the un-feminist character of the university, from lived experience as well as from peer reviewed research … Feminists repeat themselves because we are often ignored” (Breeze & Taylor, 2020).

“To become a feminist is to stay a student … I wanted to make a slow argument, to go over old ground, and to take my time … I have been in academia for over twenty years, and I am relatively at home … I am aware that not all feminists are at home in the academy, and that the language of feminist theory can be alienating … I aim to keep my words as close to the world as I can, by trying to show how feminist theory is what we do when we live our lives in a feminist way” (Ahmed, 2017).

“I am a professor. Say it again. Say it slowly. I am a professor. I enjoy it and marvel at it. The strangeness, the aloofness, the otherness of the term in relation to me and my work but not anymore. It seems such a strange destination to arrive at because of the career journey I have taken” (Potter, 2019).

“… separating those whose time [is] ‘precious’ (wage earners, the educated classes, the able-bodied) from those whose time [can] be squandered or [has] little value… Power operates to structure and condition different populations’ lack of time … There is a heterogenous and uneven response to speeded up time … What proliferates is a multiplicity of contradictory temporalities.”

Baraitser gives some examples of how power structures time: the busy work required for welfare benefits, women working double shifts especially those in care chains from the global north to global south, zero hours contract workers, enforced flexible ‘on call’ labour.

“If you make a complaint, you are often left waiting You are waiting but you are also reminding, prompting, sending enquiries … You can encounter resistance in the slowness of an uptake Exhaustionbecomes a management technique: you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them tired” (Ahmed, 2021).

“Complaint activism involves the willingness to make use of complaints procedures even though you know “the process is broken” and you are likely to enter “a painful repetitive cycle” … Even going through an exhausting of processes can have creative potential. Yes, we can be in a state of exhaustion because of that process. But complaints, even formal ones, slow and tedious ones, long and drawn out, can be creative” (Ahmed, 2021).

The discussion brought together various ideas: the silences and violences of the university, being at home in academia, continuing to learn, enjoying the comfort of theory, the challenge to keep theory close to the world, claiming a title such as professor or academic or writer, meandering career stories, theorising subjectivity, multiple and changeable selves, making and unmaking ourselves, slow as an institutional strategy to break people down,  the collegiality of activism in academia.

In the next post will report on the second session, where we discussed theorising the self.

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.