For this session we discussed “Producing anxiety in the neoliberal university”, a paper by Lawrence D. Berg, Edward H. Huijbens and Henrik Gutzon Larsen which was published in The Canadian Geographer/Le géographe canadien in 2016.
This discussion was particularly interesting as we had a broad sweep of people attending – both in terms of age and job security – all the way from first year PhD to retired lecturer. This was also a particularly engaging session as, sadly, the paper resonated with everyone present.
Key Points of Discussion
- We began by tackling the question ‘so what?’ Partly this is a question of timing (we have known this process of neoliberalisation within the academy has been going on for years now) but also one of politics (is this just a reiteration of the university “bubble”, of attending to ourselves when we should be looking outwards?). As the conversation developed, we forgave the paper on both fronts – its importance is beyond doubt, both on a personal level, but also in terms of much broader questions around the production of “valuable” knowledge.
- We discussed Marina Warner’s letter to the LRB about quitting academia, and in particular her emphasis on our complicity with this process, often driven by the myth of academia; a romantic notion of the academic as an individual, where that which we are constantly striving for (knowledge) is, by definition, always unobtainable.
- One colleague who works on international labour organising pointed out that the emphasis on health/anxiety/stress as a strategic point is in line with union campaigns in other sectors, where the desire for more radical ideals (equality, control, democracy) has been overshadowed by base-levels campaigns for decency/survival. “Health” in this sense can (for now) function as a unifying discourse, but it also runs the risk of being, and remaining, essentially individual. It is difficult to organise around questions of mental health, for example, when the condition is so routinely treated as and perceived as an individual ailment.
- We discussed the threat to academic freedom – what happens to ideas that aren’t immediately useful when all knowledge production is vetted through a filter of “relevance”/”impact” etc.?
- “Increasingly everything we do is productised” declared one senior attendee, and we are in a situation where “knowledge for the sake of the pursuit of knowledge” is undervalued.
- In particular we focussed on the question of the trickle-down effect to students, partly through teaching, and partly through debt. We felt this was a significant oversight of the paper, as it remains largely focussed on the staff. Students increasingly demand more for their money (debt), but at the same time the classification of knowledge in economistic terms can begin to change what we teach and how we teach it. In this sense, if the university is becoming neoliberal, are we helping to produce a new generation of neoliberal subjects through our teaching?
- We discussed the impact of new technologies like lecture recording, which seem to link new methods of marketing courses (as available in perpetuity, decoupled from the classroom) but also feeding back into job precarity (where we create the conditions for endless replication of our teaching). One member was keen to point out that the technology of lecture recording isn’t inherently problematic, but it is how it is used and who has control over it that matters (in many ways echoing Marx’s Fragment on Machines…).
- “Once you put enough pressure on people they stop striving for excellence and start striving for survival.”
- Can this paper – and these discussions – help to unite us? The division of the academic workforce through (obligatory) bureaucratic positions means we are often at each others’ throats (as individuals) rather than attempting to change or target a bigger problem – which is, admittedly, very difficult to pin down in a strategic sense. How do we go about changing this?
- Are academics effectively being proletarianised? If the University was once a privileged and secure place to be employed, but we are increasingly alienated from the production of knowledge and measured in a series of economised ways, how can we overcome the often dramatic divisions (in pay, in job security, in prestige, in institutional reputation, in teaching loads, in research income, in age) between us, and reignite a sense of solidarity? At the same time, this remains a privileged arena (and, due to the cost of education, is in many ways becoming more so): we should not be reassured by our own sense of righteous suffering in the face of much broader shifts in the way society is organised.
- What are we now teaching for? One colleague pointed out that at Edinburgh we enjoy the luxury of freedom in terms of what we teach, and the courses in our Geography programme reflect this. But we should not take this for granted.