Universities, goodness and plague

On Thursday evening, Barbara Grant and Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand), Rikke Toft Nørgård (Aarhus University, Denmark) and I hosted the first webinar in the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University series.

It was called Surviving the years of plague – Two feminist academics review Raewyn Connell’s The good university: What universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. (There is a video of the presentation available at the end of this post).

In late 2019, Barbara and I agreed to write a collaborative review of Raewyn Connell’s The Good University (following an invitation from Sean). Our plan was to converse slowly via email because we were already experiencing plagues (persistent afflictions causing worry and distress) in the form of university restructuring. We didn’t anticipate how dramatically covid would interrupt our work and home lives and reduce our capacity for scholarly work. Our conversation became intermittent, stretching from November 2019 into the present. We found that living with these plagues cast the possibility of the good university into profound uncertainty. Connell’s The Good University became a point of return — a companion text — for two feminist academics during plague times.

In the webinar we shared an edited version of what has become an epistolary review essay (not yet published) that proceeded slowly, and showed on the ground ‘what [some] universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change,’ as Connell’s subtitle has it. We were delighted to be joined by participants from Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Belgium, Denmark, England, Ireland, Malaysia, Scotland and South Africa!

In the slides, you can see our starting point: an overview of Connell’s The Good University.

We read an excerpt from our email conversation (below is further edited for brevity):

Barbara, 27 November 2019

In these final pages, Connell makes her call to prefigurative politics, urging the reader to begin to realise the good university ‘here and now, with whatever resources are at hand’ (pp. 189–190), and beginning at any scale: a single course, a new programme or centre within an existing institution, or a new container such as a movement or an organisation. Her criteria for the good university are that it be ‘democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable’ (p. 171). When I first read this, I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why.

Agnes 12 February 2021

We were attempting, I think, to write a review that was ‘a weave of collective labour’ (Connell, 2019, p. 171) in which we positioned ourselves as feminist academics within and against the politics of the contemporary university. I have been thinking about how and why we choose to stay in the university system, as Connell has done. When we started writing, it was impossible to imagine the context in which our thinking about goodness and the university would emerge.

I have grappled with the injunction to begin to realise the good university on a small scale here and now. I am left with a feeling of heaviness, more distant from the good university than ever before.

I left this gloomy sentence and took the dog for a walk through the casuarina forest near my home. I returned feeling better. The university, good and bad, contains work and people that nourish me. Like Connell, I have been buoyed by my work as a unionist, even if we sometimes fall short of our ideals. Many of the ideas that Connell writes about have stayed with me — universities as privilege machines, the value of professional (administrative) staff, rekindling the soul of the university, the histories of activism and the emphasis on working collectively.

Barbara 18 January 2022

My feelings as we so slowly wrote the book review: I felt weird performance anxiety quite often and a bit of shame about being so slow and also wondering what was happening with you — I guess I’m being reminded of the always/already intersubjectivity of writing/creating.

We then gave an overview of our writing process using the work of Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick to describe how our interrupted reading moved towards hope.

In Giving an account of oneself, Judith Butler notices how we are ‘divided, ungrounded, or incoherent from the start’ (2001, p. 22), which poses difficulties for telling any story in a straight line. Writing during a plague, time and self are even more fragmented than usual. Distractions abound. We wrote ‘interrupted’, ‘arriv[ing] in each other’s inbox, amidst the bursting emails, promising and reminding, and apologising for redrafts not-yet-completed, work deferred and returned to’ (Breeze & Taylor, 2020, p. xi).

Throughout the text, we have kept the interruptions that Sean Sturm provided as the editor of the article. These challenging questions offer a prompt to the reader to reflect on the ways in which scholarly texts are always interruptible, provisional and fragmentary. 

Sean wrote: Do you want to keep the entries verbatim as a principle of ‘slow review’ or are you open to writerly revision? Note that my comments assume that you want editorial comment to ‘deepen’ (problematise/extend) the analysis, which might go against the mixed register of email, where ‘deeper’ thoughts might remain provisional or fragmentary. Ignore them, if so!

As interlocutor in the webinar, Sean teased out our ideas about the ‘good’ university and asked challenging questions about feminism, complicity, affect and interruption, and these handwritten notes give an insight into the line of questioning:

One of the participants, Juliane Höhle (PhD candidate at Ghent University, Belgium) created this wonderful graphic recording of the webinar and shared it on Twitter:

Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague
Drawing of the seminar with text boxes and little illustrations. Above the drawing the heading: PaTHES Webinar Series: Slow Academia 08.09.2022. Underneath the drawing the line: Webinar 1: Surviving the years of the plague

The dialogue was enriched by questions and contributions from participants. Reasons for joining the session included:

  • It feels like the first time seeing reflected how I feel versus the ‘back to normal’ university discourse seemingly everywhere else!
  • I came to this theme because of experiencing chaos and acceleration and work intensification but also barbarization during the pandemic.
  • I was attracted by the keywords plague, feminist perspectives and slow academia.
  • I am feeling very disillusioned and burnt out by being in HE and dominant approaches to scholarship. Need to find new, fresh energy.

Rikke Toft Nørgård facilitated collaborative small group discussions which covered wide-ranging and complex ideas. She asked: What lingers? What incites? What inspires? What continues?

Ideas for further thinking included: Reclaiming as a collective the language and narratives of sustainability, creativity and goodness; promote ideas of the university that encompass the undercommons of the university — students, teachers, support staff, chance meetings, informal learning, random encounters, personal chat (and not only managerial structure and neoliberal incentives); and think more about ways of sharing the privilege of slowness.

New writing from participants in the session is now on my to read list:

Boehme, C. (2022) Arts and Academia: The Role of the Arts in Civic Universities. Great Debates in Higher Education. Emerald Publishing Limited. Available to read in full here.

Barnett, R., Bengtsen, S. & Nørgård, R. T. (2022). Culture and the University: Education, Ecology, Design. Bloomsbury.

You can watch a video of the presentation (42 minutes):

I am looking forward to the next webinar in the series! ‘Wandering and wondering in the university’ with Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) and Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark) will be on September 29th. Find out more on the PaTHES website.

Voices from the living past

“I think that a mother owes this to her children: to keep in contact with the rest of the world.”

This is the comment of a woman university student that was aired on Australian television in January 1961. My father shared the re-released recording from the ABC program A Woman’s Place. Questions include: Do the two lives of working and caring for children go together? Should women get the same money for doing the same job? Do you expect to find prejudice against the career woman? Could a woman be head of a large organisation?

The answers of the students vary — it wouldn’t be good television if everyone agreed — but their realisation of the challenge of “two lives” is evident. (One thing that has changed, at least to my ears, is the Australian accent, itelf a topic on RetroFocus with responses to Do Australian have a bad accent? in 1961 and 2019).

In another snippet of 1960s television from ABC’s RetroFocus, Australian passersby respond to a (male) university professor’s claim that housewives lead a dull life. One woman replies: “I don’t think it is dull at all … [They] invariably enjoy their game of tennis, bowls or golf.” More than one man suggests there’s a bit of “fun and games on the side.” In response to the question, “Never considered going to work?” an elderly woman replies, “Good heavens no!”

A few years after this aired, when my university was new, an article entitled ‘The Mums of Macquarie’ appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly on 19 July, 1967. The article read:

More than 150 married women have gone back to study at the new Macquarie University … taking up courses that had been interrupted by family life … There has been many a resignation from neighboring tennis groups and lunch clubs, a Girl Guide captain has abandoned knots and hikes and returned to books, and it is not uncommon to see women with grocery shopping on one arm balancing a basket of books and papers on the other.

The magazine included this image of children at a lecture:

One of my favourite book bloggers, Whispering Gums, recently posted her reflections as a 1970s feminist, and commented about attending Macquarie University:

I chose to go to a new, progressive university (Macquarie) … in my experience women were treated well, there. It had no baggage of “traditions” that the older male-dominated universities had, and its academics seemed invested in creating something new. I think that made a difference. Macquarie’s motto is Chaucer’s “and gladly teche” (from the lines “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”). I always thought it a bit strange that the motto focused on “teaching” more than “learning” but now I think it’s inspired, because it reminds the academics that “teaching” is where it all starts.

Whispering Gums finishes her post in a way that is apt here, by quoting Germaine Greer: things have changed, but not enough.

For a bit more on the history of learning and teaching at Macquarie, I recommend listening to this audio recording by my colleague Karina Luzia (the transcript is available here).

I have already blogged about the article Vanessa Fredericks and I co-authored, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years. We highlighted a Burns, Scott and Cooney (1993) article called Higher education of single and married mothers, also focussed on Macquarie students. They wrote:

As university teachers, we are well aware that many of [our] students are single and married mothers, who face the particular problem of integrating study demands with family responsibilities and often, with the demands of paid work as well. The present study was triggered by the experience of the first author in teaching a third year unit, in the course of which I became aware of the life crises being endured by two single mothers, one a sole Parent Pensioner, the other self-employed. As well as financial and child care difficulties, both had health problems, one had an adolescent son in trouble with the police, the other had major responsibility for a seriously ill parent, and both were in litigation with apparently vindictive ex-husbands. Students other than mothers do not usually suffer from this kind of constellation of problems (p. 189).

You can read the full article (open source) here, but for the purposes of tracing the voices of university student mothers, I will highlight the voice of one participant:

Well I have three children. I felt I owed it to them whilst attending college to still give them the same amount of attention and support in both their sport and education areas and maintaining the home. And I was very determined I would never be late for an assignment. And I never was, not one day late. But it was a great strain. I got by on four hours sleep at night some nights. For a long period there five hours was a luxury. I never started to study until the children had had some quality time, which meant I wouldn’t open a book to rewrite lecture notes (and I always wrote every lecture again when I got home, so I’d understand it) so it was probably ten o’clock at night when I started, sometimes midnight … I got very tired. Quite cranky, actually.

For the voices of contemporary student parents, I recommend the work of Marie-Pierre Moreau in which students discuss a lack of time and money, and the challenges of balancing family, study and housekeeping. Tired and cranky. That’s something that hasn’t changed!

So long 2021

Thank goodness we have reached the end of 2021! I am taking a longer break than usual and looking forward to no Zoom meetings for a month.

The greatest accomplishment of the year was getting through 105+ days of lockdown and simultaneous schooling and working from home. The week that school returned on campus, I tweeted: I cannot overstate how much better my working week has been with my children back at school. I have managed complex tasks requiring concentration and uninterrupted thinking. Still catching up but the seven things on my list marked urgent are almost finished.

Despite the interruptions, there is much collective work to be proud of and I am fortunate to be part of an accomplished team (pictured below on Zoom). We made a fun video to celebrate the highlights of the year. These included: a Beginning to Teach professional development program, Spotlight on Practice interviews, iLearn (learning management system) drop-in clinic, Bite-sized Learning and Teaching podcast, supporting 23000 online exam sittings in second semester, and facilitating Zoom for Teaching workshops.

I am also proud of: the work of the Teaching and Leadership community of practice (I presented these slides summarising the CoP at the Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) conference), co-leading the Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching MOOC with Marina Harvey, and publishing an autoethnographic journal article on parenting and promotion in Life Writing.

Outside of work, the pandemic made the world feel small. Walking in our local area helped.

A special shout-out to my father who facilitated weekly Zoom lessons for his grandchildren, individually crafted according to their interests: time, water, chess, The Great Depression, maps, left-handedness, food, money, computers, building a house, book publishing, inventions, family history, electricity, and colonisation among other topics.

Finally, no yearly wrap up would be complete without sharing some of my favourite books of the year: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (a novel about a Ghanian American PhD candidate’s family), Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days (a novel about a pregnant teenage Korean Australian detained by her mother), Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (fictionalised account of gay Vietnamese American son writing to his mother), Sara Foster’s The Hush (dystopian fertility fiction), Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird (an Australian Aboriginal YA mystery novel by award winning Wuilli Wuilli author), and Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (oral history of Russian women in WW2).

So long 2021!

Edited to add: in my rush to farewell 2021, I forgot to share the news that the Slow Academic will have a new look next year thank you to the talented Fidel Fernando. I commissioned him to redesign the blog after the success of his artworks for the Over a Cuppa reflection series this year. Sadly he is leaving my team for a great opportunity at another university, but said farewell with this lovely image: