Lost in thought

I love those moments while reading when the mind drifts, when the reader’s thoughts flow towards other ideas and become untethered from the text.

In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), French literary theorist Roland Barthes writes of the experience of reading: “[A text] produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else.” He refers to drifting, when the reader is “driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves” but chooses to “remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)” (1975, p 18).

These inner reveries of drifting and returning to the text reveal something of the self. In this post, the drift of thoughts I had while reading Raewyn Connell’s The Good University are also revealing of what Barbara Grant calls my ‘tiny university’, one of a thousand possible versions of the university held individually and collectively.

In The Good University, Connell writes about the lies universities tell themselves. At least, that was how I remembered a section of the book. That’s the direction the drift had taken me. On rereading, the text was different. Recollecting the renowned 88 year old jacaranda tree in the quadrangle of the University of Sydney (a tree with its own wikipedia entry), Connell writes:

Around 2013 [the university’s corporate advertising] featured a tutorial or discussion group of students, sitting in a semi-circle on the grass in front to the jacaranda tree in full bloom, talking earnestly together in the bright Sydney sunshine. Marvellous image!

But the picture was lying to us. No class or discussion group is allowed to convene on the quadrangle lawn. It is therefore redundant to observe that jacarandas in Sydney bloom mainly in November, after tutorials are over. The tree died in 2016.

This is a small example, which I noticed because I was fond of that tree. The point is, this kind of falsification has become routine. Every managerial university now puts out a cloud of imagery, text and sound intended to misrepresent the way the way things really are.

File:Jacaranda carpet, Sydney University.jpg

Image source.

I  considered the lies universities tell in advertisements to be one version of a thousand tiny universities (some admittedly less tiny than others). I connected these marketised visions of the university with artists’ representations of buildings under construction, the utopian visions that occupy an imaginary landscape of a university and the people within it:


Image source.

For Connell, the marketing reads as falsehood or deception. I was thinking imaginary. In my tiny university, I was holding the utopian image alongside a counter-image. The jacaranda tree is simultaneously alive and dead. The campus hub will be better than before, after it is worse than before:


Image source.

Image source.

I started thinking about our complicity with the stories universities tell. And I think Connell captures that with her comment ‘Marvellous image!’ In the final chapter, Connell offers the following criteria for a good university: democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable. Interestingly, these values are espoused by institutions around the world: social justice, academic integrity, innovation, shared governance, equity, student engagement, scholarship, and building better futures.

There is a tangle of thoughts here: where is the truth? Who is telling lies? Can goodness be used for bad? Or vice versa?

My son has recently watched the three original Star Wars movies, and is very taken with Darth Vader’s redemption. We are having lengthy conversations about Darth Vader’s goodness.  He’s for, I’m against. Before I can think too long about what my stance on Darth Vader suggests for universities, the drift has taken me into different waters.

If you keep reading Roland Barthes, he writes this about drift: “Drifting occurs whenever social language, the sociolect, fails me … Thus another name for drifting would be the Intractable—or perhaps, even: Stupidity” (1975, p 19).

Reading friends

I spent last week in the bushland setting of the Melbourne campus of La Trobe University in the company of the Academic Identities project team, writing, thinking, reading, talking, eating and walking. Taking a break from an ‘in-your-head’ morning, we walked around the 30 hectare wildlife sanctuary on campus (images © Film Victoria):


While at La Trobe, I also enjoyed Shut Up and Write for its productive sociability. (And thank you to the fellow writer who described Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 24-hour, real time immersion in cinematic time-keeping. This New York Times article is as close as I got, but it is currently showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne).

Colleagues and I read together—I love hearing why others value a particular piece of writing, and often enjoy it more through their eyes. I added the following to my reading list:

The notion of the ‘placeful’ university offers a tantalising counterpoint to the university as non-place. The authors describe it as ‘a university that invites and promotes openness, dialogue, democracy, mutual integration, care and joint responsibility’. (I think of it as a university filled with trees like the images of La Trobe above).

As well as articles that push ahead our thinking about academic identities, I’ve set my own reading task. I enjoyed the company of these people and their ways of thinking, so I plan to immerse myself in their scholarship. (I’m hopeful that this will be seen as a compliment). I previously blogged about thoughtful citations, now some intentional reading. These may not be the readings the authors would have me choose from their lengthy publication lists, but the following sparked my curiosity:

James Burford (2017) Not writing, and giving ‘zero-f**ks’ about it: queer(y)ing doctoral ‘failure’ (journal article)

Jeanette Fyffe (2018) Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable: a narrative account of becoming an academic developer (journal article)

Barbara Grant (2019) Wrestling with Career: An Autoethnographic Tale of a Cracked Academic Self (book chapter)

Cally Guerin (2013) Rhizomatic research cultures, writing groups and academic researcher identities (journal article)

Frances Kelly (2018) The lecturer’s new clothes: An academic life, in textiles (book chapter)

Catherine Manathunga (2016) Rendering the paradoxes and pleasures of academic life: using images, poetry and drama to speak back to the measured university (co-authored journal article)

Tai Peseta (2016) A socially just curriculum reform agenda (co-authored journal article)

Machi Sato (2011) Academic inbreeding: exploring its characteristics and rationale in Japanese universities using a qualitative perspective (co-authored journal article)

Jan Smith (2016) Identity Work in the Contemporary University: Exploring an Uneasy Profession (co-edited book)

Apologies for the paywalled links here. Where possible, access the readings through an institutional library, via Unpaywall, ask a colleague, or contact a friendly author.

I’m also reading in the company of others in the Idea of the University reading group (This week we start Raewyn Connell’s The Good University which we will be reading over a few weeks). Outside work, I’ll be hearing Sulari Gentill talk about writing, and my young adult book club is discussing ‘books we read at school’. (My picks are Tuck Everlasting and Bridge to Terabithia. So different from what I remember reading thirty years ago!) I am looking forward to a week of bookish conversations.

Living academia

Chubb, Watermeyer and Wakeling’s evocatively titled article Fear and Loathing in the Academy describes an aspect of university life that will be familiar to many. With a lively turn of phrase, they explore emotional responses to the research impact agenda in the UK and Australia:

The emotional state of academic labour … [is] frequently portrayed through ‘crisis’ accounts whereby academic identity is at risk of a kind of existential unravelling … In the face of intensifying demands, the ability to distil a ‘true’ sense of academic identity is increasingly difficult – obscured by heightened emotionalism, particularly of fear and dread … When asked to discuss impact, academics expressed emotions ranging from ambivalence and apathy – nervousness and vulnerability – to excitement, love, hate and distrust …

One comment on academics’ emotional investment in their work gave me pause: “To be an academic is to live academia.”

Much has happened in the last fortnight—I have accepted a new role as Associate Dean (Quality) in my Faculty and, putting work in perspective, there has been death and illness in our extended family. Today is the last day of autumn school holidays. The kids and I are mooching and intend to stay in our pyjamas for too long. In between Lego, reading, building a sofa fort, watching Minecraft videos, catching up with friends, housekeeping and cups of tea, I will be doing some work—replying to emails, editing a book chapter, blogging. These tasks are part of the hum of the day, neither urgent nor onerous, but their completion will be a gift to my future self when I need to focus on more pressing things.

I suspect my day would look quite different if I lived academia. I (mostly) enjoy academic work, the university is (mostly) a place that suits me and being scholarly is a part of my everyday life. Chubb at al. prompted me to reflect on my privilege and complicity, and provided an interesting way of thinking about resistance:

For some, existence in the neoliberal academy is less problematic and more easily negotiated … Some academics exhibit either conformist or flexible behaviours in response to the intensification of new managerialism in higher education. ‘Flexians’ are those perhaps most pragmatic and able to moderate their emotional investment in being an academic. Others might construe this as inauthenticity and a preference for playing the game; it might equally be a form of covert transgression.

I actively resist “living academia” as this blog attests. The highlight of the school holidays—which included an exhibition on mammoths, a magic show at the local library, a visit to Cockatoo Island for Biennale, and a number 5 cake covered in decorative bugs—was the ordinary magic of a bushwalk. This is living.