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The University-Without-Content: or why para-academia needs you.

Mér, 06/08/2014 - 07:41

By Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers

“The university in ruins” (1). “The university without condition” (2). “The university in dissent” (3). This triptych of critiques remap the institution, infrastructure, and ideology of the university over the past two decades from the point of view of a troubling or fracturing of content. It is in ruins, dissenting and dissented, or, quite simply, content that is not-yet-here. For some, then, it appears that the university (as an idea or ideal) has refused itself, and any content – whether knowledge production, market reproduction, or bodily conduction – is somehow only felt in the negative, as its own refusal.

Our formulation the university-without-content embraces these critiques and embodies our dissatisfaction – our discontent – with the institution of the university as it is felt, as it takes place, now.

Without Content. Two words which move to many meanings. Does it mean the university as a hollowed-out space? Or the university as discontented space? Does it mean the institution without its flashy market-driven façade, where slick sellable content is uploaded by slow hands and sometimes slower servers? Or, is it the university discontented by its own content – the big bucks research, the underpaid, unpaid, overpaid, overworked staff, or the students-as-consumers (a phrase which forgets students and consumers alike remain human and messy and discontented) who are at “the heart of the system” (4). Without content means, as words often do, all of these things and almost certainly more.

The phrase university-without-content recognises that the institution has become content with cynicism. It refuses that content. Because cynicism is not just a dissatisfaction (a discontentment) with the status quo, it is its guarantor. As bell hooks – a very discontented (para)academic – has written, “profound cynicism is at the core of dominator culture wherever it prevails in the world” (5). Cynicism normalises and refuses to allow the possibility of things being different than they are now. Cynicism is the refusal of education as a practice of learning different things in different ways – let alone education as a practice of freedom. We refuse that cynical content, just as the university has been seen to refuse itself.

In that refusal – that intellectual, emotional, political, physical discontent – we don’t get stuck. In coming to the limits of our knowledge, including the limits of what we thought we knew or felt about the university, we open up ways of knowing, possibilities of teaching, learning, research, and being, that call into question why those limits have been in place so long, why they are so limited.

The university-without-content is not a cynical phrase, then, but an actively critical one. It exposes that all too often the institution is felt as a place where only particular kinds of content are allowed: the content without discontent. Content that is fast, succinct, competitive, straight, normalised. ‘Unique, quality content that will attract and engage customers on multiple channels’…

As long as marketing budgets are privileged over education and research, our universities will only ever be full of glitzy and stylish content. Such exclusive care for appearances means this content will never be substantial, let alone offer anything challenging. It indicates clearly that the contemporary university is content to be sold. Within this context a striking irony is at play: the very product universities are supposed to be selling to its customers – education – is compromised. Compromised because front-line service delivery is provided by tired, confused, exploited, insecure, and increasingly discontented staff members, whose talents as teachers and researchers are often ignored by institutions who refuse to give them secure contracts, rights, and responsibilities. The institution, it seems, is often very content with monetising assets at the expense of the assets themselves.

Rather than being content with the cynicism that we could all too easily accept as just the way it is, we want something else. We want to come back to the place where education can be recognised as a vocation “rooted in hopefulness” (6). We want to work without cynicism, without-content.

This is the domain of the para-academic, and the cynical and frustrated and frustrating experiences of the contemporary neoliberal university inform many of the contributions in the forthcoming collection, The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for Making-Learning-Thinking-Acting, that will be published as an open-access download and in print through grassroots publishing label HammerOn Press from the 15th September 2014. The book, which includes contributors from self-identified para-academics living in the US, UK, South Africa, Germany, Australia and Ireland, highlights the growing discontent within higher education internationally, but also demonstrates how individuals, groups and collectives are engaged in multiple forms of creative and critical resistance.

The Para-Academic Handbook works potentially as a collective coming to terms by the editors, contributors, and you, the wider readership. It presents a coming to terms with the emergent languages available to speak and configure our discontents. To come to terms with the institution without slipping into cynical, calcified, complacency, and without forgetting that hope itself can all too often be deployed against activating change now.

The book evolved out of series of conversations and walks between the editors who felt disappointed by the current state of knowledge production within universities. As critical theorists bent toward poetic thought, the university has always presented certain restrictions on how we can practice, express, and explore ideas. For a time we were, indeed (more or less) content to contribute to the institution as a way for us to help shape the wider project of knowledge making in which we remain passionately attached. Such compromises became harder to bear, however, when spaces for learning, thinking, making, and acting became increasingly stifling or closed down. We became discontented by the proliferation of labour and knowledge practices which sometimes seemed specifically designed to strip the human (and, indeed, the humanities) of all the messy, complex, content which made things interesting. And all the content which enables the quality of learning excellence which universities are supposed to deliver.

It is not that we hate the university. Both of us, in very different ways, remain determinedly committed to the practice of higher education. We remain committed to learning, thinking and acting from these necessarily transformational processes. No, as Eileen Joy has argued, we do what we do with, and for, “the love of the institution” (7). Even if the institution doesn’t always love us back.

We mobilise, then, for the love of the institution – a love without-content for its current operations – the kind of love which is very urgent, very needed, and very now. Working with this hope resituates us, and others, in the places with/in and with/out the university where we can make, learn, think, act, and teach discontentedly. And, in so doing, it asks of all those who are the content of the university to think about the labour and knowledge practices being carried out, to consider how time is being used or abused, where resources (both fiscal and human) are being allocated, to ask questions and think about where you are and why. It asks us all to be a little more discontented and a lot less cynical about what a university is, and could be.

The university-without-content is an ambivalent space. It recognises the cynical tendency to be content with the unthinking submission to the will of capital that, in turn, saturate its activities. It recognises that it is easier, safer even, to be content with the institution rather than challenge and hope for other ways of engaging with its knowledges, politics, and economies. The seductiveness of neoliberal doublespeak means that being content to ‘play the game’ (whose rules are they anyway?!), protects no one. There is no winner to take it all. At its worst, this cynical contentment with the status quo, the reliance on “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardised codes of expression and conduct” (8) risks resulting in what Hannah Arendt has warned us to be the end-point, the ultimate catastrophe, of an all too slick institutional life: the engendering of a collectively regulated yet “curious, quite authentic inability to think”.

We should never forget then, that the university-without-content is a very dangerous place. But it is not the only place. And moving in its content – its meanings – is its own disruption, its own discontentedness. Emerging from such devastation, where and how can the activities of making-learning-creating-acting occur? Our personal experiences, and many of the contributions in The Para-Academic Handbook tell us this is not an easy question to answer. It is, nevertheless, a struggle that is both necessary and most certainly possible.

1) Readings, Bill (1996) The University in Ruins, Harvard University Press.
2) Derrida, Jacques (2002) in Without Alibi, Stanford University Press.
3) Rolfe, Gary (2013) The University in Dissent, Routledge.
4) Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills (2011)
5) hooks, bell (2003: 11) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, Routledge.
6) hooks (2003: xiv).
7) Joy, Eileen (2014) “A Time for Radical Hope” in Chiasma 1.1
8) Arendt, Hannah (1971) “Thinking and Moral Considerations” in Social Research 38.3:

Categorías: Universidade

Academic Freedom and the Corporate University

Ven, 04/07/2014 - 14:42

In a recent blog, David Browne, Senior Associate on the Employment Team for SGH Martineau, Legal firm with clients in Higher Education argued that universities face the problem that ‘high performing’ academics can damage their ‘university’s brand’ by their ‘outspoken opinions or general insubordination’.

[Readers searching for the blog will discover that it has been changed and clarified, without providing an explanation of what was at issue – the original blog is no longer available - UPDATE 15.21 - we have screenshots of the original blog here and here!]

The blog drew an analogy with the Suarez biting incident, but seemed to show an ignorance about ‘value’ both in football and in the academy. A partner at the same firm and head of education, Smita Jamdar, joined the debate on Twitter, to suggest that the blog was intended as metaphorical exploration of ‘what happens when people stray outside the freedoms permitted by their respective positions’.

What is at issue is precisely what is permitted by virtue of academic position and how that is being been re-interpreted in the new managerial regimes now governing universities. As Adam Hedgecoe suggested in another tweet, academic freedom is specified in the Education Reform Act 1988, Section 202 (2). The clause, setting out the role of a new body of University Commissioners, is quite specific: “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions

The relevant test is within the ‘law’, not within the managerial definition of ‘brand protection’. It is significant, but also worrying, that Smita Jamdar left the twitter exchange with the comment that we will ‘just have to agree to differ’. The relevant clause does not permit her interpretation and seems quite specifically to require that academic staff’s freedom of expression should be protected against the actions of employers. Her colleague, David Browne, subsequently changed his blog to allow that ‘lawful exercise of academic freedom does not amount to misconduct’.

Notwithstanding, the original version of the blog and the trope of ‘damaging the brand interest’ remains. This is, of course part of the new marketised regime of higher education where reputation, rank orders and market position are all-consuming concerns of senior managers. As I have argued elsewhere, Vice Chancellors have been very keen to argue for the autonomy of universities. ‘Autonomy’ is a powerful signifier in the academic community, it is also a shifting one. For scholars, autonomy stands for the academic vocation and academic freedom. However, for today’s university leaders, it usually stands for something else: the right to manage their university in a higher education market.

This isn’t the vision of autonomy previously embedded in collegiate organisation or in the idea of academic vocation. However, as soon as ‘brand’ trumps the commitment to knowledge and its critical engagements, the very idea of a university is at issue. In this context, it is not merely that academics have a right to speak out, they have a duty to do so, since what is at stake is so crucial.

In a powerful essay on the embroilment of LSE in the scandal of Libyan money, Craig Calhoun, subsequently to become Director of LSE, argued that the problem was that universities had become corporations just like any other. But the point was that they weren’t like any other and had an academic mission associated with public values. The problem is that senior managers no longer think it necessary to express those values.

Academic freedom is precisely what is necessary to protect the corporate university from the very threats to its integrity that derive from market freedom. It is not simply that universities should tolerate outspoken academics. The present situation requires them.

Categorías: Universidade

Students call for learning to be free

Xov, 03/07/2014 - 09:28

Students support the call for a national student demonstration on 19 November calling for learning to be free. This demonstration is planned as part of an autumn of protests and direct action in coalition with trade unions and workers. See letter in The Guardian.

Categorías: Universidade

Open Letter re Thai Coup and Intellectual Freedom

Dom, 08/06/2014 - 17:19

Published in The Guardian on 10/6/14

To: General Prayuth Chan-ocha, leader of the coup in Thailand
From: UK academics and university staff and students

We note the military coup d’état in Thailand (22 May 2014) – the 13th since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. We stand with those protesters who are calling for a return to constitutional rule by a civilian government.

As academics and university staff and students, we also wish to express particular concern at the surveillance, harassment, and round-up of academics and students calling for democracy and the reinstatement of civilian rule. Academics and students who have been critics of the lèse-majesté law have been summonsed and we understand that some have gone into hiding as a result. We join with all others who have also called upon the Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army to immediately release politicians, activists, journalists, academics and others who have been harassed and imprisoned following the military summons to stop making any political criticism or comment. We condemn the move ordering universities to monitor the political activities of staff and students on campuses, and are also concerned that some universities have issued orders to their staff and students to refrain from making any political comment in the public sphere.

We support and admire the courage of university staff and students who continue to gather at Thammasat University and other protest sites. Intellectual freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental tenets of a democratic society and functioning university system alike and we urge their restoration.

Professor Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Warwick
Professor John Holmwood, University of Nottingham
Professor Les Back, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Ipek Demir, University of Leicester
Dr Kirsten Forkert, Birmingham City University
Dr Robbie Shilliam, Queen Mary University of London
Dr Lee Jones, Queen Mary University of London
Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick
Dr John Narayan, University of Warwick
Dr Madhumita Lahiri, University of Warwick
Dr Peo Hansen, Linköping University
Dr Daniel Orrells, University of Warwick
Professor Luke Martell, University of Sussex
Professor Andrew Sayer, Lancaster University
Dr Malcolm MacLean, University of Gloucestershire
Emeritus Professor Gavin Edwards, University of South Wales
Professor Raphael Salkie, University of Brighton
Dr Nessa Cronin, National University of Ireland, Galway
Professor Jonathan S. Davies, De Montfort University
Dr Jo Ingold, University of Leeds
Professor William Outhwaite, University of Newcastle
Lauren Tooker, University of Warwick
Professor Larry Ray, University of Kent
Dr Justin Cruickshank, University of Birmingham
Professor Robert Fine, University of Warwick
Dr Rosa Vasilaki, University of Bristol
Dr Carole Jones, University of Edinburgh
Bernard Sufrin (Emeritus Fellow, Worcester College) University of Oxford
Professor Nickie Charles, University of Warwick
Dr Luke Yates, University of Manchester
Claire Blencowe, University of Warwick
Professor Patrick Ainley, University of Greenwich
Dr Kevin McSorley, University of Portsmouth
Gabriel Newfield (retired Pro-Director), University of Hertfordshire
Professor Mick Carpenter, University of Warwick
Dr Andrea Hajek, University of Glasgow
Lisa Tilley, University of Warwick
Dr Nicola Pratt, University of Warwick
Dr J. Sanchez Taylor, University of Leicester
Dr David Featherstone, University of Glasgow
Dr Angela Last, University of Glasgow
Dr Bryn Jones, University of Bath
Simon Dawes (independent scholar)
Prof Chris Jones, Liverpool John Moores University
Dr Vivienne Jackson
Chrysi Papaioannou, University of Leeds
Lee Mackinnon, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Goldie Osuri, University of Warwick
Dr Geoff Williams, University College London
Dr Hannah Jones, University of Warwick

Categorías: Universidade

Open Letter from Hundreds of Canadian Academics

Mar, 20/05/2014 - 13:00

Open Letter to Board of Governors of the University of Saskatchewan from Hundreds of Canadian Academics, May 19, 2014

A letter initiated by professors at the University of Alberta has, within 24 hours, and on a holiday weekend, obtained almost 850 signatures from academics across Canada. More signatures continue to come in. For updates, see here.

The letter’s signatories, coming from more than 15 different universities, are deeply concerned about the anti-democratic trends in university governance that are accompanying austerity measures in post-secondary institutions across the country. The recent events at the University of Saskatchewan reveal a form of governance that is hierarchical, disciplinary, and detached from the priorities of instructors, students, and support staff.

The reversal on May 15th of the decision to fire Professor Robert Buckingham, Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan, from his position as a tenured professor is a necessary step, but does not resolve all of the problems which led to the decision in the first place and that are causing deep malaise among professors, staff and students.

The signatories of the open letter to the Chair of the Board of Governors at the U of S, Susan Milburn, wish to draw attention to the governance approach which led to Professor Buckingham’s dismissal and which discourages open, informed, collective decision-making. While the gasket has blown in spectacular style at the University of Saskatchewan, frustration with executive-style (rather than collegial) governance is brewing at campus everywhere in Canada.

The letter was sent by email on May 19th 2014 to Ms. Susan Milburn, Chair of the Board of Governors of the University of Saskatchewan, with the request that she make its contents available to all members of the Board. It was copied to the Secretary of the Board, Ms. Elizabeth Williamson. We have not yet had confirmation of receipt of the letter from the Chair of the Board.

Laurie Adkin, Associate Professor, University of Alberta
Carolyn Sale, Associate Professor, University of Alberta
on behalf of the signatories

Categorías: Universidade

From financial deficit to democratic deficit: the privatisation of higher education

Lun, 21/04/2014 - 15:48

In England and in Ireland one of the consequences of the politics of austerity is the privatisation of higher education and its marketisation as a commodity. Fintan O’Toole, literary editor of the Irish Times, sets out the ‘Culture Shock’ that this involves. As he writes, higher education “is not a consumer product but a social, economic and democratic imperative.” As in England, so in Ireland, the policies are self-defeating in terms of their aim to reduce the cost of higher education, but the consequences for democracy and political culture will be much more serious.

Categorías: Universidade