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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Saturday, July 21, 2018
by Lizzie Swann
Faculty of English
University of Cambridge

As a scholar of the former, with a growing interest in the latter, this is a question I’ve asked myself a few times over the past year or so. On the one hand, most of my days are spent reading, thinking, and writing about topics that are likely to seem highly esoteric to most people outside of my discipline, and probably to some within it, too.  In the past month, for example, I’ve been working on an essay about early scientific experiments into what were called ‘self-shining’ substances (such as phosphorus), and how these experiments informed metaphors of light in contemporary poetry. On the other hand, as part of the British Academy Early Career Network on Critical University Studies, under the dynamic, astute, and generous leadership of Alison Wood at the University of Cambridge, I have begun, slowly, to familiarize myself with the administrative and financial processes, and political policies and ideologies, which underpin universities in the twenty-first century.

For the most part, I’ve been inclined to see these two sets of interests as absolutely distinct. Renaissance culture is a long-standing fascination, nourished by brilliant teachers, mentors, and colleagues. Critical University Studies is a more recent pursuit, prompted by a desire to know more about how the institutions in which I expect to spend my professional life actually function, about what kind of conditions of work I might expect, and about the different kinds of role I might take on. It also came from a desire to understand how higher education is perceived outside the academy itself, and how I might best justify the work that I do to people who are suspicious of it – people like the taxi driver who, after asking what I do for a living, asked in belligerent tones, ‘what’s the point of that, then?’

Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve been mistaken in seeing my research on Renaissance literature and history on the one hand, and my interest in Critical University Studies on the other, as separable and distinct – and whether this error, if that’s what it is, reflects a broader fallacy within Critical University Studies itself. In particular, it seems to me that CUS has tended to focus on broad social, economic, political, and institutional forces at the expense of sustained engagement with the passions and preoccupations that drive the research and teaching of particular individuals. Another way to put this is to say that it treats ‘the university’ as an institutional entity that is separable from the specifics of the work that takes place there. CUS seems to presume that an individual’s conditions of work have little or no bearing on the content of that work. So whether you’re working in a permanent position, or a short-term, teaching-intensive fellowship, may have a bearing on whether or not you manage to finish and publish that article on (say) the dissemination of Romanesque architecture in early medieval Europe, or the psychology of high-altitude climbers – but it will have little bearing on the content or argument of that article.

To me, this seems implausible: surely an individual’s conditions of work, and their feelings and thoughts about those conditions, will influence the kind of research they do, and therefore the kinds of knowledge they produce? In my own case, I’m sure that my current position as an ECR on an interdisciplinary collaborative project in the humanities has influenced, consciously or unconsciously, the work I do. Much of my current research, for instance, focuses on identifying points of contact, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between the different modes of knowing that we have come to associate with ‘the humanities’ and ‘the sciences’. My interest in this topic is, inevitably, driven by lots of different factors – but not least amongst them, I think, is that it provides a way to reflect, indirectly, on the hierarchical disciplinary structure of the twenty-first century university, and on my place (as someone who works in the ‘soft’ humanities rather than the ‘hard’ sciences) within that structure. In other words: I wonder if my desire to understand the historical commonalities between the humanities and the sciences is driven, in part, by an ancillary desire to recuperate some status for the humanities today, in a period when their value and worth can seem uncertain? This is, of course, a personal example, but I think there’s a broader question here about how the entity of the twenty-first century university – the subject of Critical University Studies – shapes the kinds of knowledge we pursue and produce within the parameters of our specific disciplines.

Another, less personal example, for instance, might be the pan-disciplinary surge of interest in materiality within the humanities and social sciences across the course of the last couple of decades. At risk of sweeping generalization, this material turn has been characterized by its affinities with a whole range of theoretical and critical ‘isms’ – most obviously constructivism, feminism, Marxism, and posthumanism – and consequently by its investment in breaking down subject / object binaries. To take just one somewhat arbitrary example from my own field: Will Fisher has argued for the fluidity of sexual and gender identities in the early modern period by exploring how clothing and prosthetic objects were used to ‘stage’ such identities.1 Here, sexual identity is not an irreducible psychic core, but a contingent material construct.

What relation might this kind of research, and the ‘material turn’ more generally, bear to broader social, political, and economic shifts over the course of the last few decades – most pertinently here, the much-decried neo-liberalisation of the university? An article by the literary critic David Hawkes points towards an answer here. For Hawkes, ‘the material turn’ is riven by an internal contradiction. The ‘insistence on the “materiality” of the human subject’ that is so characteristic of the material turn, Hawkes argues, ‘chimes perfectly with market ideology.’2 Despite this, however, ‘most materialist critics… still consider themselves, in some indefinable sense, of the political Left’ – and hence obliged to resist market ideology. As a result, new materialist critics:
…find themselves torn between their politics and their epistemology. On the one hand they claim that… the subject is an object, that it is material. On the other, they usually declare at least a nominal opposition to the economic system whose most conspicuous ideological effects are, precisely, the objectification of the subject and the subjectification of objects.3
In other words: despite its radical, emancipatory, leftist-ish rhetoric, the ‘material turn’ actually engages in precisely the kind of commodity fetishism that characterises neoliberalism, collapsing the social and spiritual into the material and economic.

This is not the place to discuss in detail whether Hawkes is right or wrong (I do feel compelled to note briefly that, although I find his broad argument ingenious and cogent, I think it unfairly flattens the nuances of some of the individual works he discusses). It’s also worth noting that Hawkes elides the question of agency: the materialism of cultural studies ‘chimes’ with the market ideology of capitalism, but it’s not clear which party banged the gong. Are materialist critics to blame for their espousal of the very ideologies they are politically committed to resist (as Hawkes implies when he takes them to task), or are they, too, the tragic victims of a market ideology which, like a twenty-first century Midas, inexorably translates everything it touches – including literature departments – into the terms of economic value?

Personally, I’d be reluctant to remove individual agency entirely from the equation: scholars’ intellectual and theoretical passions and preoccupations are never purely a consequence of broader forces. For a start, people’s choices of research topics and arguments are undoubtedly driven by very personal factors, too – by life events, by instinctive affinities and interests, by emotion and curiosity. In any case, though, Hawkes’ article is a timely reminder that the question of how specific research projects and intellectual trends relate to the social, political, and economic conditions of their production demands much more consideration that it’s yet received, either within the specific disciplines themselves, or within Critical University Studies.

The flipside of this, of course, is that in thinking more closely about how broad socio-economic forces within the university shape the knowledge that is produced there, we might also come to see how research in a range of disciplines can have significant implications for our understanding of the purpose and functioning of the contemporary university. Christopher Newfield’s work provides one exemplar here. In his book Unmaking the Public University, Newfield has traced links between the prominence of Foucault in literary cultural studies, and the market decline of related disciplines. In attributing change to systems rather than individuals or groups, Newfield suggests, an American (mis)reading of Foucault supported a culture of political apathy within literary cultural studies, whereby attempts to intervene in and shape the market were seem as naïve or futile.4

This kind of syncretic thinking, however, is still relatively rare – and some of the onus for developing it should come not just from scholars who identify as Critical University Studies specialists, but also from those with a more traditional disciplinary identity. So perhaps part of the task of CUS is to encourage people working within traditional disciplinary parameters to reflect more on the relationship between the content of their work and the conditions of that work. To hypothesize: a firmly historical project on the development of more accurate ways of measuring time in the wake of the industrial revolution, and the consequences of this for workforces, for example, clearly has the potential to cast new light on the ethos of competitive overwork that characterises twenty-first century academia.

In other cases, we might use our research specialities in order to better theorize Critical University Studies itself. Recently, I’ve been pondering an issue that’s recurred a few times in our discussions within the British Academy Early Career Network on CUS – namely, the paradoxical position of Critical University Studies as a field which critiques the very institutions it also inhabits and, in part, helps to constitute.  This paradoxical position was, for instance, very much in evidence when Alison, as leader of the network, had to the reschedule a planned workshop due to the University and College Union strikes over pensions in February and March this year. In this case, withdrawing our labour for the university entailed deferring our critique of the university. With the strikers, scholars who work in the field of Critical University Studies are often fuelled by political outrage, and are deeply invested in activism – we are critical. But on the other, we’re trying to perform this transformative work from within and with the support of, universities as they currently are, with all their flaws – the very universities that our lives and livelihoods are so bound up on. So in a way, it can feel like we’re chipping away at the ground beneath our feet, or trying to see through the walls of a building that surrounds us.

How might we better understand, or perhaps even dissolve, this apparent conflict? Perhaps one way to do this is to think of it as a product of what the historians of science Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have identified as the post-Romantic valorization of objectivity, which takes a subject’s involvement in the object of knowledge as a barrier to, rather than enabling condition of knowledge.5 Understanding – through the work of scholars such as Daston and Galison – the ways in which our categories of knowledge are themselves contingent historical constructs might then help us see our entanglement in the institutions that we want to critique not as a drawback, but as an opportunity.

To summarize: the two questions I’ve asked in this blog, then, are this. Firstly, how do the specific, substantive intellectual concerns of particular disciplines and works of scholarship reflect, contest, or contribute to the political and economic conditions that shape them? And secondly, conversely, how might specific, substantive research projects, within a range of disciplines and on a range of topics, help to shape and recreate both Critical University Studies, and the institutions that it is concerned with?

I don’t, of course, have definitive answers to these questions – but I hope they’ll be productive for discussion!


1 Will Fisher, Materializing Gender in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
2 David Hawkes, ‘Materialism and Reification in Renaissance Studies,’ Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 4.2 (2004), 115.
3 Hawkes, ‘Materialism and Reification,’ 117.
4 Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Harvard University Press, 2011), Chapter 9.
5 Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007).

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tuesday, July 3, 2018
By Elin Danielsen Huckerby 
University of Cambridge

In January of this year, a new UK based Researcher Network for Critical University Studies held its inaugural workshop at Cambridge's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Convened by Dr Alison Wood, the network aims to develop researchers' capacity in the field of CUS, to work to better understand how universities can serve the public good, and how to enact changes that will enable that service. 

The project arose from a recognition that expertise in this field is needed more than ever as universities, their environments, and their commitments become more complex – and as those complexities demand explicit pragmatic visions of what universities are and do. It also comes from a recognition of the fact that engaging in CUS, as a relatively new, cross-disciplinary and trans-sector field, poses challenges for early career scholars--that getting funding, and building visibility and viability can be particularly difficult.

In the past six months we have had the privilege of working with Professor Helen Small (Oxford), Professor David Berry (Sussex), Professor John Wood (ATTRACT, Emeritus Imperial), and Professor Chris Newfield, whom you know, who recently joined us for a two-day workshop and a public symposium on Academic Citizenship (20th-22nd of June).
How do you go about making (and making space for) a new academic field? The support of Cambridge’s CRASSH and of the British Academy cannot be overstated. Nor can the value of Alison Wood’s steady leadership and mindful attention to outcomes and actions. But simply bringing people together around even a loosely defined shared purpose can make an important difference. Everyone has been sharing their expertise, actively seeking the expertise of others, and worked to create new expertise. Through small group or roundtable debates, visualisations, brainstorming sessions, and paper-feedback discussions, we have covered much ground since January. 

Many of the themes that have emerged will be familiar to followers of this blog: Criticality itself, the balance between deconstructing and reconstructing, and the very idea of "the University.” We also asked the questions of what our object of research and critique is.  Is it the university itself? The forces shaping it? The discourses about it? Themes like representation, equality, diversity, within CUS and within higher education (HE) – themes of outsiders, insiders, boundary definitions and exclusionary powers. We weighed considerations of policy, of organizational pragmatism, and the limits of both; the civic value of universities, and related concepts of inheritance, curation and preservation; and universities as significant spatial forces, geographical, architectural, social, intellectual. They are spaces for awakening, disruption, dissent, and conformity. 

Other of our topics might be less obvious, like thinking through whether we could, in fact, do without such an institution entirely. And some issues have been large but vital: wisdom, truth, usefulness, and the challenges of developing accounts of these that will work to help us better understand what universities do, and how they are fit for purpose.”  Again and again our network has returned to the people involved in universities– to students, faculty, administrators, managers, and to their positions, jobs, hierarchies, security and precarity. We have asked "who is the university?" and: who are "we" in this discussion of CUS?

Throughout our deliberations, we have been acutely aware of the tension arising from being part of the institution we want to examine critically.  Such self-reflexivity has distinct drawbacks and issues, but it can also be an advantage, and connecting researchers working in a number of institutions brings an (auto)ethnographic and experiential knowledge to bear, as well as first-hand knowledge of the internal workings of various institutional forms. We have also worried about what happens when you institutionalise a critical field, while simultaneously drawing inspiration from related network/discipline/movement models like Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Feminist Theory. 

The greatest need for us at this stage has become the need for a language and shared vocabulary, particularly for cultivating research beyond direct higher education scholarship. We have been asking: What is the social and cultural mission of the university, and of the humanities? What is a useful vocabulary for engaging with this? We might need, say, a taxonomy of contemporary University types, but also a way of talking that might articulate a more compelling vision of the University to those outside academia. And while our discussions have covered a range of topics and problems, the matter of what to do has continually been a part of them. How can we affect change? How can we slowly and steadily, with deliberation and care, construct a research field that supports such efforts? How can we make sure our results shape those efforts? How can we influence policymakers? Our own institutions? What will our first practical steps be? The issue that has dominated our exchanges this June has been where do we go from here?
* * *
I am new to this world: to academia; to the world of funding bodies, grants, fees; to research, to teaching, to being one of those who are the university. But while I’m our group’s most junior member, I can claim some experience outside academia: I came to this after a degree in computer science and years in the corporate IT world. I speak managerial fluently. 

When I left my job to do an MA in comparative literature, one of the questions my colleagues repeatedly put to me was why I would stop doing something useful to do such a useless thing? As I am Norwegian, and Norway’s higher education is publicly funded, this query was often followed by: and why should we pay for it? There and then my interest in the questions at the core of CUS was kindled. While I yet lack expertise in these matters, perhaps what I can offer is a couple of thoughts from the perspective of a newcomer.
 "Being an academic" is to many to adopt an identity where work and passion, personality and research interests, hours on and off the clock, cannot be kept apart. During our June workshop, Feng Su talked to us about his work on the idea of a scholar teacher: The scholar teacher places the student’s learning at the heart of their scholarship activities, and sees the transformation of students into competent and constructive citizens as a primary goal for higher education. Implicit is a shift from an individualistic "star researcher" self to a less self-centred sense of academic identity, one more expansive and relational. But what happens when we become scholar-teacher-activists, not just intent on shaping individuals within the boundaries of an institution, but intent on redrawing its lines? 

This last construction would make most of my former colleagues baulk. We might want to point to exemplary models like CLS or we might emphasise that even theoretical physicists are situated, human-language using subjects – but I doubt this would carry much weight. Outside of academia and its immediate circles of conversation (and often, also, inside), researchers are supposed to be as "objective" as possible: Provide data, discuss, possibly indicate a use. But actively work to ensure one side wins?
Perhaps this looks particularly suspect in a fellesskapssamfunn, a collectively minded society like Norway, where free higher ed is seen as a public good alongside free healthcare. Since everyone contributes to its funding through taxation, everyone gets to have an opinion. And it is great that all of us can feel a sense of ownership of our universities.  However - if you then "take sides" on a matter that is, also and inherently, a political issue, you might be suspected of no longer being a proper representative; not merely a biased scientist, but a partial public official.

Regardless of cultural context, we might have to worry about how we might come across as less "rational", less objective, and thus, to some, less trustworthy, than the camp that says "market forces are a force of nature, and we're only making observations." While we were gathered in Cambridge, the Norwegian Conservative/populist-neoliberal coalition government appointed a committee for the evaluation of new governance models for our universities, particularly what they call "The Enterprise Model" (foretaksmodellen). Adopting this model would separate universities from the state and reconstruct them as distinct, independent legal entities. This is being done under the (familiar) guise of supposedly ensuring greater academic freedom. Academics and unions have been outspoken against it, which led the minister for HE, Iselin Nybø, to say that she was "disappointed" in the immediate univocal reaction from academia – that she expected "more room for debate" and "more from this sector in particular." The minister was asking for academics to be less opinionated, or at least aim for "neutral" middle-ground. She lamented how "irrelevant" notions, like the prospect of this move leading to the introduction of tuition fees down the lane, or the idea that it was ideologically motivated, kept being dragged into the discussion of this one, separate, merely managerial-technical issue. Many of my former colleagues and non-academic acquaintances saw her as the voice of reason. 

Actively and visibly taking a stand will be used against us.  But "neutrality" always plays into the hands of whichever forces are pushing most strongly – and makes the stronger position stronger. Silence lets dominating voices continue to speak, and merely “offering information” lets others make the decisions. Creating a pretence of "objectivity" is not an option.
Getting people to stop using one vocabulary and start using another, to leave an old set of ideas behind and begin to realise new, is, as Richard Rorty often pointed out, not a matter of offering arguments against the vocabulary we want to replace, but of making the vocabulary we favor look more attractive. His recommended method was to "redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until we have created a pattern of linguistic behaviour which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behaviour" (Contingency, irony, and solidarity, xvi). In our June workshop, Chris urged us to use big words, to dare to articulate a vision, a bold purpose for the University – even if now, compared to sensible suggestions formulated in our current familiar (managerial) vocabulary, it might sound utopian, slightly embarrassing, and certainly opinionated. This should include advocating the right scholars, experts in their fields, have to have strong, informed and justified opinions – also for researchers in University Studies, and also on matters of policy. And it seems to me to me to be exactly what we need to do next.