In January of this year, a new UK based Researcher Network for Critical University Studies held its inaugural workshop at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). Convened by Dr Alison Wood, the network aims to develop researchers’ capacity in the field of CUS, to work to better understand how universities can serve the public good, and how to enact changes that will enable that service.

The project arose from a recognition that expertise in this field is needed more than ever as universities, their environments, and their commitments become more complex – and as those complexities demand explicit pragmatic visions of what universities are and do. It also comes from a recognition of the fact that engaging in CUS, as a relatively new, cross-disciplinary and trans-sector field, poses challenges for early career scholars – that getting funding, and building visibility and viability can be particularly difficult.

In the past six months we have had the privilege of working with Professor Helen Small (Oxford), Professor David Berry (Sussex), Professor John Wood (ATTRACT, Emeritus Imperial), and Professor Chris Newfield (University of California at Santa Barbara), who recently joined us for a two-day workshop and a public symposium on Academic Citizenship (20 – 22 June).

How do you go about making (and making space for) a new academic field? The support of Cambridge’s CRASSH and of the British Academy cannot be overstated. Nor can the value of Alison Wood’s steady leadership and mindful attention to outcomes and actions. But simply bringing people together around even a loosely defined shared purpose can make an important difference. Everyone has been sharing their expertise, actively seeking the expertise of others, and worked to create new expertise. Through small group or roundtable debates, visualisations, brainstorming sessions, and paper-feedback discussions, we have covered much ground since January.

Many of the themes that have emerged will be familiar to followers of Remaking the University: Criticality itself, the balance between deconstructing and reconstructing, and the very idea of ‘the University.’ We also asked the questions of what our object of research and critique is. Is it the university itself? The forces shaping it? The discourses about it? Themes like representation, equality, diversity, within CUS and within higher education (HE) – themes of outsiders, insiders, boundary definitions and exclusionary powers. We weighed considerations of policy, of organizational pragmatism, and the limits of both; the civic value of universities, and related concepts of inheritance, curation and preservation; and universities as significant spatial forces, geographical, architectural, social, intellectual. They are spaces for awakening, disruption, dissent, and conformity.

Other of our topics might be less obvious, like thinking through whether we could, in fact, do without such an institution entirely. And some issues have been large but vital: wisdom, truth, usefulness, and the challenges of developing accounts of these that will work to help us better understand what universities do, and how they are ‘fit for purpose.’ Again and again our network has returned to the people involved in universities – to students, faculty, administrators, managers, and to their positions, jobs, hierarchies, security and precarity. We have asked ‘who is the university?’ and: who are ‘we’ in this discussion of CUS?

Throughout our deliberations, we have been acutely aware of the tension arising from being part of the institution we want to examine critically. Such self-reflexivity has distinct drawbacks and issues, but it can also be an advantage, and connecting researchers working in a number of institutions brings an (auto)ethnographic and experiential knowledge to bear, as well as first-hand knowledge of the internal workings of various institutional forms. We have also worried about what happens when you institutionalise a critical field, while simultaneously drawing inspiration from related network/discipline/movement models like Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Feminist Theory.

The greatest need for us at this stage has become the need for a language and shared vocabulary, particularly for cultivating research beyond direct higher education scholarship. We have been asking: What is the social and cultural mission of the university, and of the humanities? What is a useful vocabulary for engaging with this? We might need, say, a taxonomy of contemporary University types, but also a way of talking that might articulate a more compelling vision of the University to those outside academia. And while our discussions have covered a range of topics and problems, the matter of what to do has continually been a part of them. How can we affect change? How can we slowly and steadily, with deliberation and care, construct a research field that supports such efforts? How can we make sure our results shape those efforts? How can we influence policymakers? Our own institutions? What will our first practical steps be? The issue that has dominated our exchanges this June has been where do we go from here?

I am new to this world: to academia; to the world of funding bodies, grants, fees; to research, to teaching, to being one of those who are the university. But while I’m our group’s most junior member, I can claim some experience outside academia: I came to this after a degree in computer science and years in the corporate IT world. I speak managerial fluently.

When I left my job to do an MA in comparative literature, one of the questions my colleagues repeatedly put to me was why I would stop doing something useful to do such a useless thing? As I am Norwegian, and Norway’s higher education is publicly funded, this query was often followed by: and why should we pay for it? There and then my interest in the questions at the core of CUS was kindled. While I yet lack expertise in these matters, perhaps what I can offer is a couple of thoughts from the perspective of a newcomer.

‘Being an academic’ is to many to adopt an identity where work and passion, personality and research interests, hours on and off the clock, cannot be kept apart. During our June workshop, Frank Su talked to us about his work on the idea of a scholar teacher: The scholar teacher places the student’s learning at the heart of their scholarship activities, and sees the transformation of students into competent and constructive citizens as a primary goal for higher education. Implicit is a shift from an individualistic ‘star researcher’ self to a less self-centred sense of academic identity, one more expansive and relational. But what happens when we become scholar-teacher-activists, not just intent on shaping individuals within the boundaries of an institution, but intent on redrawing its lines?

This last construction would make most of my former colleagues baulk. We might want to point to exemplary models like CLS or we might emphasise that even theoretical physicists are situated, human-language using subjects – but I doubt this would carry much weight. Outside of academia and its immediate circles of conversation (and often, also, inside), researchers are supposed to be as ‘objective’ as possible: Provide data, discuss, possibly indicate a use. But actively work to ensure one side wins?

Perhaps this looks particularly suspect in a fellesskapssamfunn, a collectively minded society like Norway, where free higher ed is seen as a public good alongside free healthcare. Since everyone contributes to its funding through taxation, everyone gets to have an opinion. And it is great that all of us can feel a sense of ownership of our universities. However – if you then ‘take sides’ on a matter that is, also and inherently, a political issue, you might be suspected of no longer being a proper representative; not merely a biased scientist, but a partial public official.

Regardless of cultural context, we might have to worry about how we might come across as less ‘rational’, less objective, and thus, to some, less trustworthy, than the camp that says ‘market forces are a force of nature, and we’re only making observations.’ While we were gathered in Cambridge, the Norwegian Conservative/populist-neoliberal coalition government appointed a committee for the evaluation of new governance models for our universities, particularly what they call ‘The Enterprise Model’ (foretaksmodellen). Adopting this model would separate universities from the state and reconstruct them as distinct, independent legal entities. This is being done under the (familiar) guise of supposedly ensuring greater academic freedom. Academics and unions have been outspoken against it, which led the minister for HE, Iselin Nybø, to say that she was ‘disappointed’ in the immediate univocal reaction from academia – that she expected ‘more room for debate’ and ‘more from this sector in particular.’ The minister was asking for academics to be less opinionated, or at least aim for ‘neutral’ middle-ground. She lamented how ‘irrelevant’ notions, like the prospect of this move leading to the introduction of tuition fees down the lane, or the idea that it was ideologically motivated, kept being dragged into the discussion of this one, separate, merely managerial-technical issue. Many of my former colleagues and non-academic acquaintances saw her as the voice of reason.

Actively and visibly taking a stand will be used against us. But ‘neutrality’ always plays into the hands of whichever forces are pushing most strongly – and makes the stronger position stronger. Silence lets dominating voices continue to speak, and merely ‘offering information’ lets others make the decisions. Creating a pretence of ‘objectivity’ is not an option.

Getting people to stop using one vocabulary and start using another, to leave an old set of ideas behind and begin to realise new, is, as Richard Rorty often pointed out, not a matter of offering arguments against the vocabulary we want to replace, but of making the vocabulary we favor look more attractive. His recommended method was to ‘redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until we have created a pattern of linguistic behaviour which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behaviour’ (Contingency, irony, and solidarity, xvi). In our June workshop, Chris urged us to use big words, to dare to articulate a vision, a bold purpose for the University – even if now, compared to sensible suggestions formulated in our current familiar (managerial) vocabulary, it might sound utopian, slightly embarrassing, and certainly opinionated. This should include advocating the right scholars, experts in their fields, have to have strong, informed and justified opinions – also for researchers in University Studies, and also on matters of policy. And it seems to me to be exactly what we need to do next.

  • This post was first published on Remaking the University, a blog by Christopher Newfield, Professor of Literature and American Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara.



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