Dr Fadia Dakka, a postdoctoral researcher in CSPACE, reflects on her experience at the 2017 Society for Research into Higher Education Annual Conference, and challenges our perceptions of how we think about ‘university futures’.
The dust may have well settled on last December’s Society for Research into Higher Education’s Annual Conference (SRHE2017), yet some of its most inspiring messages still resonate in a polyphony of intellectual voices at their finest. As it should be.
Professor Susan Wright (Educational Anthropology) inaugurated the conference proceedings with a thought provoking keynote that effectively set the tone of the event: ‘knowledge ecology or economy’? – she asked, urgently calling for new ways of ‘imaginizing’ and organising the university. After reviewing some thirty years of unyielding critique of neoliberal higher education between England and Denmark, while unwittingly offering the audience a much revered glance at one’s lifetime intellectual and professional endeavour, she articulated her compelling call to arms: time is ripe for action. And for a substantial shift to occur in the way we presently think about university futures, we need to start from the semantic and semiotic aspects of it. Wright suggested a change in root metaphors, calling biology and anthropology to the university’s rescue. Let us imagine waking up from a fever dream to discover (with much relief!) that neoliberalism, academic capitalism, and the knowledge economy had never risen to become the culturally hegemonic, all-encompassing narratives and sole horizons for thinking and action that we have painfully grown accustomed to. Instead, we live in an interactive knowledge ecology, characterised by a ‘sympoiesis of holobionts’: a collective organisation populated by assemblages of diverse species, forming harmonious ecologic units. Let us linger on the metaphor… and shape the contours of the new ontological and epistemological premises of the university as a ‘holobiont’. Sue Wright sees it as a ‘space for dissension’, that progresses through a ‘generous willingness to disagree’ and through ‘thinking with care’. A space, place and time to ‘lead an examined life with troubling questions’.
I left the plenary enthused, intellectually challenged and positively ‘troubled’, trying to connect what I had just heard with a deliberately provoking revival of Wittgenstein’s famous quote: the limits of my language are the limits of my world.
As the conference progressed, aided by glamorous evening drinks and – proportionally to the amount drunk – what one believed were the absolutely brilliant accompanying conversations with random delegates, I felt that I had sufficiently rehearsed my upcoming presentation on the rhythms of emancipatory higher education. While reflecting on the ways in which time, space and affect interweave to continually create and recreate the modalities and materialities of our existence within the university, Penny Burke’s paper (Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, Newcastle, Australia) – ‘Investment in Time & Space in HE’ – shed light on another crucial yet under-researched point: time & space (rhythms) in academia are increasingly and worryingly individualised, decontextualized and disembodied. This means that those who do not conform to hegemonic values and practices of space & time are constructed as problematic and lacking capabilities. In other words, not only are these timescapes far from being neutral – indeed they are multiple, embodied, gendered and racialized; but spaces too (architecture and technology as cases in point), structure the student and teacher’s experience by making certain forms of practice possible while excluding others. Burke’s stringent critique enlightened me on the necessity of making the politics of rhythms in academia both explicit and radical, by pointing toward a new conceptualisation of time-space in relation to equity and belonging.
As the conference finally drew to a close, my reflections on the past-future-present of the university seemed to come full circle, too, while I was silently engaging with Sue Wright’s ultimate provocation: “There’s no such thing as the individual. Humans are more bacteria than they are human genes.” This should be a starting point for thinking the future University as a sympoiesis (co-creation): the university of the commons.
Alongside this powerful vision for a re-energized and democratized Anthropocene, I begin to wonder whether the journey toward ‘the centre of the maze’, for a hypothetical university of the future, should not simply be an inward gaze: the aesthetic of absence that historically characterized the myth of the ‘ivory tower’ could be recovered as a space of separation and incubation. As Masschlein and Simons (2017) remind us, the Greek philosophical and historical conceptualization of schole can be simultaneously defined as study, free time, rest, delay, discussion, lecture, or school building. In creating a suspension from the dominant (time-space) economies that have produced it, the university can and should reclaim the freedom to ‘suspend’ hegemonic time-space and allow becoming. In connecting past and future to our everyday, I therefore suggest a new ‘tense’ for higher education: the future perfect.
Dr Fadia Dakka is a post-doc researcher at CSPACE. Her research interests interface between political/economic/ cultural transformations of the contemporary university, university futures and the rhythms of emancipatory (higher) education.