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.

Slow academia – a collaborative webinar series

I’m looking forward to the upcoming Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education (PaTHES) webinar series, and hope you can join this wonderful group of scholars!

Slow Academia – Wonder, Wandering, Generosity & Presence in the University

Chaired by Rikke Toft Nørgård, Aarhus University (Denmark)

Featuring: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

More information including abstracts, biographies and further reading.

Webinar 1

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

Date: Thursday 8th September

Time: 10.30-12.00pm CEST (DK time), 8.30-10.00pm (NZ), 6.30-8.00 (Sydney), 9.30-11.00am (London)

Speakers: Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University, Australia) & Barbara Grant (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) with Sean Sturm (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand)

Registration before Monday 5th September

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/Uf28ctYJdTfjyFdV7

Webinar 2

Wandering and wondering in the university

Date: Thursday 29th September

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 5.00-6.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Frances Kelly (University of Auckland/Waipapa Taumata Rau, Aotearoa New Zealand) & Finn Thorbjørn Hansen (University of Aalborg, Denmark)

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/UeLawEecPQLayNoG9

Webinar 3

Generosity and presence in the university: Working for change

Date: Friday 7th October

Time: 9.00-10.30am CEST (DK time), 8.00-9.30pm (NZ), 6.00-7.30pm (Sydney), 8.00-9.30am (London)

Speakers: Maha Bali (The American University in Cairo) and Alison Phipps (University of Glasgow, UK)

Registration before Tuesday 4th October

Sign up here at least 3 days prior: https://forms.gle/foRVKpYs1oZiiMn88

Conclusive Roundtable – TBA

Date and time to be advised.

Panellists: Maha Bali, Agnes Bosanquet, Barbara Grant, Finn Thorbjørn Hansen, Fran Kelly, Alison Phipps & Sean Sturm with Rikke Toft Nørgård

Visit the PaTHES website.

Feminist scholarship

When I was a child, my mother gave me a collection of “non sexist children’s literature” picture books published in the 1970s by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative. My favourites were written by Adela Turin and illustrated by Nella Bosnia. In Sugarpink Rose, girl elephants are kept in an enclosure and have beautiful pink skin from eating flowers and avoiding mud, except poor Annabelle who remains stubbornly grey. In Arthur and Clementine, a husband tortoise buys his wife everything she wants and piles it on her back until she is unable to move.

It seems my feminist credentials were established early. I was thinking about these pink elephants as Vanessa Fredericks and I were undertaking a review of feminist scholarship published in Higher Education Research and Development over the last forty years. Our article, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years has recently been published in a special issue that celebrates HERD’s 40 year anniversary.

Reading 40 years worth of articles was surprisingly enjoyable — having Vanessa as a co-researcher certainly helped — and happily feminist scholarship is not quite as rare as pink elephants. In its 40-year history, HERD has published 1,472 articles in total. Our analysis identified 52 articles as feminist. We coded titles, keywords and abstracts using Acker and Wagner’s (2019) definition:

In general terms, feminist research is thought to put women and gender at the centre of analysis; to deconstruct unequal power relations (not limited to gender); to work towards the improvement of women’s lives; to value participant voices; to emphasise care and collectivity and de-emphasize hierarchy; and to acknowledge the situational nature of knowledge and the importance of researcher positionality and reflexivity (p 70).

We highlight some gems, including Briony Lipton’s (2017) ‘Measures of success’ which uses Berlant’s theorisation of ‘cruel optimism’, when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing, to examine how ‘our attachment to gender equity and diversity policies as tools for improving the representation of women may be detrimental’ (p 487). Another notable work of theorisation is Emily Henderson’s (2015) article on academic conferences, which undertakes a Butlerian analysis of an autobiographical experience of naming and misgendering at a conference.

Special issues have proved fruitful for feminist research, especially Ō tātou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous Voices in Higher Education (2021), Queering the academy (2015) and Leading the academy (2014). Well worth reading (or re-reading).

Our conclusion is that there remains significant work to be done in conducting, publishing, citing and evaluating feminist scholarship in higher education.

As a starting point, we encourage higher education scholars to consider keywords and citations in your writing. In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Ahmed is explicit about the politics of citation as feminist memory. Explore the scholarly contributions of queer, non-binary, Indigenous and global south higher education researchers. And promote diversity in scholarly publishing among authors and editorial boards. This can start with your responses as a reviewer.

I’ll end with a quote from Sugarpink Rose: “Annabelle scampered out of the garden enclosure, took off her booties and collar and pretty pink bow, and went to play in the tall grass, amidst trees full of delicious fruit, and in the mud puddles.”

It feels wrong to end a post with muddy puddles, given the widespread flooding across the east coast of Australia. And my heart is with the Ukraine. I hope readers are keeping safe.