On Academic Freedom

The suspended USS strike in UK HEIs has thrown up some interesting debates around the idea of academic freedom, a principle not very strongly institutionalised in British Universities (See https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017).

For example, my own institution, just by way of example you understand, has an academic freedom protocol which is structured around the idea that academic freedom is a ‘right’ that is conditional on certain ‘responsibilities’. Of course, academic freedom is NOT dependent on exercising responsibility at all – anyone who links rights and responsibilities together in this way doesn’t understand the concept of rights. Academic freedom is not a special right that accrues to certain types of people (academics). It’s a principle that arises from the constitutive relation between the idea of a University as an institution committed to free, open ended inquiry AND the fact that this type of inquiry does, indeed, need to be institutionalised in organisational form. That’s an idea you can trace way back, to Kant and others.

The principle of academic freedom is not the same as the right of free speech, which classically arise from threats from the state [& NOT unruly student protesters with post-it notes]. But like any notion of freedom, it is a relational concept. And the primary source of the un-freedom to which principles of academic freedom are meant to act as protection is the University itself. That is, academic freedom is a response to the ever present possibility that the organisation of the diverse set of practices by which Universities have to be funded, managed, and sustained as institutions capable of supporting their primary purpose (supporting free, open ended inquiry) might come to actually impinge upon and undermine the very conditions of possibility of free, open ended inquiry.

I’m not being melodramatic, just pointing out what the genealogy of the idea of academic freedom shows us.

If you think of academic freedom in this way, then you can begin to see how all sorts of recent events in UK HEIs might represent at least serious threats to academic freedom, if not its actually realised diminution. Take, again just by way of example you understand, what appears to be a rather widespread practice of Universities monitoring and trying to regulate the social media activity of academic staff members. This habit, shall we call it, is one effect of Universities importing models of corporate ‘messaging’ into their internal and external communications strategies, allied to wider changes to personnel management and University strategising. The primary imperative of University communications strategies, these days, is to promote and protect the ‘brand’ and reputation of a given University in relation to that of its ‘competitors‘ (yes, that really is how other Universities are described in this world). If you look at academics’ social media activity from the perspective of a standard model of corporate communications – and look upon academics as simply employees – then this activity is viewed either (in a good light) as contributing positively to the brand, or (in a bad light) as potentially threatening the reputation of the University. Because from this perspective, ‘The University’ has taken on a life of its own separate and distinct from the activities of its members, now seen as mere employees.

What seems difficult for HEI management systems to acknowledge is the validity of using social media as a medium for the expression of criticism of the ordinary features of University practices, that is, as an expression of a basic aspect of the life of a University as a self-governing community of scholars. Here we have, then, a perfect example of that constitutive paradox from whence the principle of academic freedom arises – a practice meant to enhance the capacity of the University to function properly ends up threatening to undermine the integrity of free, open ended inquiry. Of course, one might wonder why it never occurs to anyone that gaining a reputation for heavy-handed surveillance of ordinary intellectual debate is not necessarily the kind of brand identity a University would want to be associated with.

Just saying.

Here Comes Love for Ever

I had a conversation the other day with my colleague Sean Carter on the subject of the apparent lack of songs about University life (we were on strike, so whether talking about this absence quite counted as a work-related conversation remains a little unclear). I think we agreed that there is no equivalent of the campus novel in pop – no identifiable genre of the ‘campus pop song‘. Anyway, provoked by that conversation, here’s a stab at a playlist to keep up spirits on [the way to] the picket line next week to support the UCU’s campaign against plans to gut the pensions of University staff. I realise that this reflects the tastes of a man of a certain vintage (but that’s OK – after all, I’m on strike to protect my PENSION). And in my defence, remember that most pop songs are about falling in love and/or broken hearts, and that most pop songs which are not about those things aren’t very good.

Songs to help energise and maintain mobilisation:

Which Side Are You On

Fight the Power

Standing in the Way of Control

Something Better Change

I Won’t Back Down

Not Ready to Make Nice

Weird People

 

Songs to remind you about the causes and stakes of this particular dispute:

Respect

Liar, Liar

Communication Breakdown

Save It For Later

Career Opportunities

Birth, School, Work, Death

Heads Will Roll

Us V Them

 

Songs to help you keep things in perspective (that is, to help us all remember why Universities matter, as well as why there is more to life than an education and that all sorts of things can be educational):

Why Theory?

The One on the Right is on the Left

Closer to Fine

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Lazy

There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards

Waking Up

Resist Psychic Death

 

 

 

Best Films 2017

The Best New Film I saw this year was Get Out, which was so scary I had to go back and see it again a couple of days later. This was pretty much the only grown-up movie I saw at the cinema this year, apart from Dunkirk, which was what it was, proper cinema for sure. There are lots of films I didn’t see but wanted too…. I did see The Breakfast Club on the big screen for the first time ever, which was odd, because it’s the first time I ever watched this movie (I have watched it a lot) without pausing and/or rewinding, and and both La La Land and The Last Jedi, but those last two in the company of a 10-year old, so not sure they count as grown-up.

The Best thing I watched on Netflix was Shimmer Lake, not least because I didn’t even realise it was going to be backwards (oops, gave it away, but not really). I started Wormwood, but haven’t finished that yet. West of Memphis is a bit old now, but was still great, and sad, and now I understand Lucinda Williams’ song a bit better (and there’s an interesting side-story going on about celebrity activism). Stranger Things was fun. I also caught up on some Hollywood oldies, including Johnny Guitar (I have a bit of a thing for Sterling Hayden), Sorry Wrong Number (Barbara Stanwyck doing 120% frantic), Double Indemnity (actually, you can catch up on pretty much the whole of Stanwyck’s Noir career on Netflix), and It Happened One Night (which I didn’t quite realise was what it was until I realised what it was).

The Best Old Film I watched was Laura, which is now just my favourite film ever. I was genuinely knocked sideways by the ‘twist’ in the middle – it took me about 10 minutes to settle back down and realise what was really going on (I can’t tell if you if you don’t know, because you need to not know before watching it). I watched lots of old films this year, the sort of old films that one is led to by the odd conjuncture of binge-listening to Karina Longworth in the car on the way to work and having read too much of the ‘lighter’ Stanley Cavell on Hollywood comedies and melodramas. The Best newish-old film I watched again was a tie between Desperately Seeking Susan and Something Wild (“Yeah. I’m a rebel. I am! I just channelled my rebellion into the mainstream” – since first watching this movie as an undergraduate in 1987, I have tried my very hardest to live my own life by that principle).

The Best Kids Film was Captain Underpants. This is now up there with Frozen and Box Trolls in my all time Best-movies-I-saw-with-my-children-which-I-wouldn’t-have-watched-otherwise Top 3.

Last, but not least, the Best Documentary Series I watched this year (a bit late again) was definitely Little Lunch. I learnt so much from watching this, again, and again, and again.

 

10 Things I Miss About Commuting

Since moving from Swindon to Exeter at the end of August, I have filled the car up with petrol only 4 times – rather than the at least three times a week I was used to. That must be good. I am finding it a bit odd to find myself living in the same place as I work in, and I am trying my best to stop thinking it’s really exciting to be able to go into the office at the weekend. I am adjusting to the novel possibility of bumping into one’s colleagues in the supermarket (and of having to dodge one’s students while there too). I am spending more time working in my office, but I also find it difficult to work in silence, and I am aware that you can’t really sit in your office at work with the door open playing Bremen Nacht cranked up to 11 (not, I guess, without upsetting everyone else along the corridor), so I am refining my music tastes, learning to listen softly to Thelonius Monk or Glenn Gould (that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of both jazz and classical music).

Amongst these new experiences of a more sedentary lifestyle, there are some things I am finding myself missing about my 2+-hour home-work and 2+hour work-home roundtrips. Mainly, I miss the people who used to accompany me to and from work during the working week:

1). I miss Karina Longworth, who’s You Must Remember This is just the best podcast ever.

2). I miss Courtney Barnett, and Taylor Swift, and Lucinda Williams, and Britt Daniels and all sorts of other people too, who one got to know by listening to whole albums in the car, all the way through from start to finish, as well as those friends one is more ambivalent about but who you only see once a year or so, like Supertramp or Psychedelic Furs, and who are good to listen to every so often, surely.

3). I miss Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz and the anguished liberalism of Slate’s Political Gabfest.

4). I miss the surprise of meeting old friends, depending on which playlist you happen to choose to put on as you speed down the motorway – could be Tangerine Kitty or Beyoncé or Kristin Hersh.

5). I miss David Remnick and The New Yorker’s Radio Hour.

6). I miss Eddie Mair and others on Radio 4’s PM programme.

7). I miss David Runciman and the Talking Politics podcast.

8). I miss Alec Baldwin and his friends.

9). I miss Adam Buxton (but not as much as I miss Adam and Joe on the radio).

10). And I miss those rare occasions when someone would be there with me in my car reading their own books out loud just to me – Barack Obama reading Dreams of my Father, Donna Tartt reading The Little Friend, and, back in the days of OU-audio on cassettes, Quentin Skinner explaining early modern political thought to me, just to me.