Working with impossibility

6 April 2021

This text is a part of a travelling conversation

Today, talking with a dear friend and close collaborator, we were discussing how the hell to work and what it means to try to work as an academic when faced with the all encompassing shitshow that is our current planetary situation – not just the pandemic, but the sheer unholy mess that is our economic, ecological, spiritually impoverished condition. Just having the conversation helped get me out of a funk I’d been in all week. Lakin is right, encounter matters. Above all, for me, conversation matters. Conversation is a place for crying and for laughter, for testing ideas, for human connection, for articulating and working out what on earth it is you think you think. Conversation is also the place where something new can emerge alongside relations of care, of love, of friendship. And conversation is precisely what we don’t usually have time for in universities. We are all talk – and god this pandemic has made that apparent, words words words, meetings meetings meetings – but no conversation.

At the moment sustainable academic culture is an impossibility. Academic culture is not sustainable – at all. It depends on resource extraction to the point of exhaustion; on the sustained exploitation of people, in particular young people; on the elision of ideas with wealth, education with human capital, knowledge with ‘intellectual property’. And those who resist this with a call for return to the good old days are equally tied up in defending prestige, status, salaries – a different form of extraction, equally unsustainable. It is not even sustainable in its own financialised terms – UK universities are facing a £3-4bn loss of income next year because they depend on flying international students around the world to sell them degrees at prices inflated three times above local students costs. There have been job losses – youngest and women hit hardest (there is no Titanic chivalry here) – anyone on temporary contracts, those on short term contracts, have gone. And the plan now is to move it all online. This is not sustainable, it is not even baseline ethical.

So let’s unpick what the deeper desire is under this question. What is my desire in sitting down and trying to answer it?

So – I think what I am longing for is for cultural practices and institutions that harbour and defend curiosity about the world, integrity and honesty in witnessing what is happening, exploration of divergent views and experiences, careful and thoughtful reflection about how we should act, the ability to learn quickly as we go, and the opportunity to interrogate and work out who you are becoming. This – to me – is the work of a lifetime and the work of society.

Photo from canva.com

In other words, this sort of ‘culture’ is a world I want to live in, not just an institution. So what I think I want to work towards right now is not the rescue of the university, or of academic cultures as we have them, but towards the seeding of a much wider set of cultural practices that defend these values strongly. The analogy is with the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – if you have not seen this, I recommend it – when she finally realises that her power is not to keep fighting vampires and killing demons, but to give all young women the power to do it*. Our job is not to rescue the university, but to create conditions for thoughtful cultures to grow.

So perhaps if our desire is for sustainable academic cultures – then it starts with a refusal – a refusal to accept the university as the exclusive place in which these practices of inquiry and integrity can take place. We have antecedents in this refusal – the trades union movement was an educational movement, the civil rights movement was an educational movement, the co-operative movement was an educational movement. This was an education in thinking, not indoctrination, in unlearning not acquisition of set truths, of critique and interrogation not rote acceptance. These movements worked through universities and schools and colleges, but not for them, they drew on insights from universities and schools but contributed to the wider movement, they understood how to harness the power of disciplinary knowledge but did not think that that was all that circumscribed the world or the only game to play. These movements were, first and foremost, located in the worlds and struggles and matters of concern of the people. And this is where a truly sustainable academic culture must be based. We may then decide to use universities for what they can offer to nurture this, but our service and our allegiances are elsewhere.

Keri Facer, written in April 2020, published here in April 2021

A response to this will be published next week on Tuesday the 13th of April:

Week 15: Weaving, guts and darkness, Sanna Barrineau

*Buffy final Episode: https://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Chosen_(Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer)

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