Semester has ended, the grades are parked, and tomorrow we’re off to the 5th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Sydney. The conference is titled Academic life in the measured university: pleasures, paradoxes and politics, and we’ve been invited to join a lunchtime panel discussion on academic activism.
Sundi Richards, who is part of a group convening an international networked conversation on digital citizenship this month, asks this useful question:
Should we all be activists? I remember when I went to college in 1995, like many others, I searched for a cause. I was searching for something to care about. I had this image of college as the place where you become active and responsible, but at the same time I was figuring out who I was.
She proposes that in this world, with so much suddenly thrown into the air, activism in higher education becomes a messy, provisional way of trying to maintain practices of kindness, care and attention to one another. She asks us to remember that we have a responsibility to inform care in the wider world:
How can we move away from “I’m entitled to my opinion” to a different way of thinking that allows a conversation that doesn’t come with that feeling of a loss of power? How can we allow people to find those things to care about and make part of themselves, but then also feel a connection to something outside of themselves that isn’t just that group who has the same opinion? How do we help inform care and the seeming tornado of emotion that seems to be forming in pockets and growing steadily?
How can we inform care in the world we research, and among the communities we work in as university teachers, if we can’t care for our own workplace or for our colleagues? What happens if casualisation of the working lives of others becomes the standard that we walk past, and the standard we accept?
We’re thinking about this as we keep watch on the ways in which the measures, practices and good proportions of contingent employment in Australian universities are being figured out on the run, while casualisation itself is covered up whenever our universities represent themselves in the national political conversation. For sure our sector is a powerhouse of innovation, but we need to be much more candid about how universities get this done—by aggressively cost-cutting on the staffing costs of teaching, administration and research.
Australian universities could not function without their casual staff. This is not an ancillary workforce, or a temporary measure to manage some kind of hiccup in demand; it’s not a reasonable or proportionate response to the need to stay flexible. This is our everyday business model, that enables institutions to pay top dollar for research talent in order to hustle up the rankings, while covering the rest with cheap, on-demand labour.
The thing is, noticing this doesn’t make us activists.
CASA is an activist site but I have never really thought of myself as an activist. I’m not sure I am. Are we activists if we point to an issue and say ‘This is not right’ and we ask ‘Can this be fixed?’ and ‘How?’
if we ask questions and research possible solutions with others?
if we (are willing to, wanting to) have sometimes-difficult conversations regarding the holes (chasms) in knowledge, equity, or justice?
if we want to be thoughtful colleagues, who respect others’ effort and work, as well as our own?
if we want to do a good job and do good work?
if we want to be supported in doing a good job and good work, much as others, who are doing exactly the same kind of jobs and work, but on a slightly more secure base, are supported?
if we are critical friends, drawing attention to things that are good and things that can be improved?
if we want to work towards fostering learning, our own and that of others?
if we are regularly involved with others in co-creating safe space, hospitable places for all who work here – no matter our actual status within an organisation?
if we want to discuss what seems to be one of the last forms of structural discrimination in the academy with regard to equitable access and support – employment status?
if we see what is right in front of our eyes, and we say so?
if we care?
Am I an activist? Honestly thought I was just doing what I was raised to do in and through be-ing at university – turning a scholarly, professional, critical, ethical, collaborative, collegial eye towards a social problem and possible solutions.
I thought I was being an academic.
But something is changing. Something is making everyday actions of reflection and criticism into practices that require a bit of nerve.
University marketing and HR departments are becoming increasingly attentive to an idea of the proper in public talk, in the doubled sense of propriety and property. This view proposes that as employees we belong to our brands; it appropriates what we thought was appropriate to us as scholars, researchers and teachers, and redefines this as the new proper—an etiquette of silence, of brand compliance, that amounts to a kind of survival strategy.
In the battle of the global education brands, the space for critical thought about how universities should be staffed is shrinking. Social media policies are rapidly being redrafted to focus on staff who might be bringing universities into disrepute on Twitter, Facebook and, presumably, in blogs like ours. There’s no space at all in this discussion to ask if universities are bringing themselves into disrepute in their increasing willingness to track and treat all public criticism as hostile and improper.
And so the simple practice of caring about fairness in employment, and wellbeing at work, is being redefined as activist.
But the alternative isn’t apathy; those who might have had the luxury of an apathetic or entirely self-interested engagement with higher education are rapidly disappearing. What’s left is a culture of fatigue and anxiety, something like all the stages of grief happening at once—including acceptance.
So, activism it is.
Warm thanks to Agnes Bosanquet and the conference organisers for making this space for us to meet and talk together about how our activism can continue to inform our care.
Karina & Kate