Radical Cities

Newly available, a double issue of the political theory and activist magazine engagéeon the theme of Radical Cities, containing a series of pieces connecting theories of more-or-less radical democracy with reflections on city-based, urban-themed political issues and movements, with contributors and examples drawn from across Europe.

The issue contains, amongst many other things, a re-versioned paper by me, ‘What Do Cities Have To Do With Democracy?’. I just received a pile of hard copies of the journal, so if you ask nicely I might send you one.

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.

Thought for the Week

“Nothing we do can be defended absolutely and finally. But only by reference to something else that is not questioned. I.e. no reason can be given why you should act (or should have acted) like this, except that by doing so you bring about such and such a situation, which again has to be an aim you accept.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value [1931]

The Means and Ends of Higher Education (Take 2)

Here is the revised version of the original post I wrote in the middle of the strike earlier this week exploring the theme of ‘the means and ends of higher education’, published as part of the online archiving of strike material at the Journal of Cultural Economy.

Just Doing Our Jobs

A colleague asked me today, in all seriousness and genuine anxiety, whether being involved in writing an open letter addressed to the senior leadership of our University, outlining a list of concerns about management structure and governance revealed by the handling of the pensions strike, risked staff members being accused of bringing the University into disrepute.

I wonder? There is quite tough opposition to even get into the Top 3 for THIS week:

There’s been this:

And this:

And this:

I’m not sure we are the problem. We’re just doing our jobs – as social scientists and humanities scholars and scientists – by helping people to reflect meaningfully on the attachments they have to the worlds they inhabit.

The Crisis of Legitimation in Higher Education

I wrote this blog less than half way through the UCU/USS strike, as an attempt to say out loud to myself how I was likely to feel when I went back to work in light of what had already emerged about the background to the dispute. Rather than write another one for today, the first day back for me and my colleagues here at Exeter (though still on Action Short of a Strike), I thought I’d just re-post it, with an invitation to imagine that it’s all now written in capital letters – because none of this seems LESS true now.

Pop Theory

You can tell that University administration has become dysfunctional when it becomes normal for everyone to refer to senior managers from the VC downwards by their first names. After all, properly functional, responsible bureaucracies are supposed to be anonymous and depersonalised – yet Universities in the UK increasingly organise themselves internally as if the effective operations and achievements of the whole institution can be accounted for by the forms of authority projected through the charisma of their ‘leaders’ (This is a just warped expression of a more basic and much cherished principle of University governance, whereby Vice-Chancellors are selected from ‘the ranks’ as it were, moving from practicing academics to senior management positions). Of course, the relationships that really matter in Universities are those structured by conventions of pastoral care between students and teachers, and by respect between professionals, not those structured by weirdly personified hierarchies of cascading “strategy”. In…

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1. Narrative of a Strike

A really long read – but well worth it… Narrative of a Strike, in 5 or more parts….

narrative of a strike

Writing the history of contemporary events is a perilous enterprise. For those living through a rapidly-changing historical sequence, like the current Universities strike, events themselves can recede into a blur. What is happening in our Universities has been astonishing and moving, exhausting and energising; it risks leaving many bewildered at the sheer pace of changes.

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Sad Beautiful Tragic

A couple of weeks ago, LEGOVC (the real one, or the real pretend one, it’s difficult to tell) asked me whether there were any songs by a certain someone that spoke to the cause for which University staff in the UK have recently been striking (we go back to work next week, wiser and with our eyes wide open, while maintaining Action Short of a Strike). LEGOVC (the pretend one, who is plastic) has helped us learn in the last few weeks that it’s always good to laugh with other people and at yourself. And, now I think about it, I don’t think a plastic figure can pretend, which might mean that it’s real, but only real plastic.

Here’s a first go at a list. I’m afraid it’s the titles that might most resonate, but if you listen carefully, and depending on quite how you have experienced the strike action, one or two of them might have a deeper ring of truth for you too. And if not, well, they’re still all great pop.

  1. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
  2. Hey Stephen
  3. Tell Me Why
  4. Blank Space
  5. Bad Blood
  6. I Knew You Were Trouble
  7. We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together
  8. Shake It Off
  9. Never Grow Up
  10. Everything Has Changed

 

10 Things I’ve Learnt From Being on Strike

1). Don’t underestimate students. And not only the occupying ones (but ‘wow’ to them, too).

2). My University stole my money. So did the one’s I used to work for. And they were happy that I hadn’t noticed.

3). Twitter IS a space for intellectual analysis.

4). To listen. And to be careful what you say “Yes” to.

5). If you say out loud that the University you work at has an “institutionalised culture of bullying”, everybody nods AND shrugs at the same time and it feels normal. But also that the shrugging might be about to stop.

6). That a “liability” is not the same as a “risk”. And that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either.

7). “I think we need to call into question the basic assumptions of your analysis” CAN work.

8). That the Dinosaur Cafe is awesome, the Devon and Exeter Institute is a hidden treasure, the WEA really are lovely, and that Billy Bragg can still excite. And to get carried away.

9). Snow days in the middle of industrial action are heaven sent.

10). People bring different things to a mobilisation: knitting, cakes, crochet, placards, nerdy skills, sociable skills, organisational skills, bells, sunglasses, insider knowledge, incisive analysis, babies, dogs [not cats], Canadians, plastic building bricks (apparently), layers, obscure Latin quotes that don’t piss people off, anger, relief, and irony, hugs, Duncan, playlists, retweets, cynicism, sacrifice, coffee.

11). That what my Head of Department says is right: “We’re Good at What We Do”. All of us.