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Autumn Term/ 10 September Graduation

Published onJul 09, 2019
Autumn Term/ 10 September Graduation

The author reading an excerpt from this chapter, Graduation.

For those steeped in academic time, the year’s end is in September not December. In my college this coincides with the graduation ceremonies that seem always to be blessed with the last days of bright summer weather. They are the culmination of what is for many students the fullest, most formative and intense years of their life. A period packed with experiences that will be defining. ‘I can’t believe how fast it’s gone’, is a common refrain that captures both the student’s sense of accelerated time but also a period of rapid intellectual growth. At the exam board we call it ‘exit velocity’ – that is, students whose marks have increased dramatically in their final year. On graduation day even the most down at heart professor can’t help but be reminded of how much distance – intellectually and personally – each student has travelled. The evidence is paraded in front of us as we hear their names read out loud and watch them each in turn take the stage to receive symbolically their degree. There is something vitalizing, for students and faculty alike, about the grandeur of graduation; it’s the New Year’s Eve of the academic calendar.

It is a good moment to take stock, make resolutions and re-imagine what the university might be. Elaine Showalter comments in her book Faculty Towers: ‘In the University there are two stories – those of the faculty and those of the students.’ She argues that on most campuses in the UK and the US students are happy and satisfied, sometimes ‘deliriously so’ as she puts it. The achievements of graduation day would appear to support this, despite the burden of student debt and uncertain employment prospects.

It is also a moment to apprehend how much an institution like Goldsmiths has changed. As they are read aloud from the ceremonial platform the names of the graduands echo connections to almost every corner of the world. The ‘multicultural drift’, which has accompanied both the internationalization of the university and widening access to higher education, to my mind is progress, albeit uneven in terms of inclusiveness and compromised by new borders. The scrutiny of overseas students by the Home Office casts a shadow over the internationalism of today’s university, where overseas students are treated as itinerant cash cows passing through UK higher education or, worse, mistrusted potential terrorists.

The impact of the contraction of places as a result of public sector cuts threatens to slow the drift to a more inclusive university. Regardless, the university is valuable now because it provides a place to encounter and live with differences and think beyond national horizons. This rarely produces clashes between immutable cultural blocks – although it can sometimes – but more routinely it involves exploring perspectives that shift, histories that are debates and cultures animated through the interplay between the legacy of the past and their emergent new forms in the present. While campus life is still haunted by racism, increasingly it strikes me that what is on display on graduation day is a vital and productive diversity. Bill Readings refers to it as a ‘community of dissensus’ where disagreement or a lack of consensus is productive because it drives us to think harder about the key issues and problems of our time.

Higher education is valuable because it enables students to learn to live in a world saturated with information. We are bombarded with data, words and images which transforms not only what counts as knowledge but also the reality of our own existence. Susan Sontag noted that those who witnessed firsthand the World Trade Center bombings on 11 September 2001 described what they saw as ‘unreal’ and ‘like a movie’, while those of us around the globe who watched the devastation in real time on our television screens experienced it as a hyper-reality. Seeing the towers fall in New York seemed less real than the distant view on TV. The university is a place to prepare students for a life in such a society, to learn how information mediates the way we understand ourselves and our place in the world. It is where we learn how to judge between fabricated realities and distinguish them from our most intimate and profound personal commitments.

What then of ‘The Faculty’, Elaine Showalter’s second campus story in Faculty Towers? Using the academic novel as a kind of social barometer, Showalter argues that the mood among staff stands in stark contrast to that of students. The scholarly idyll captured in C.P. Snow’s The Masters is replaced with a joyless atmosphere of rivalry, pettiness, malevolence, anxiety and status obsession. Today’s academic novels might not correspond to how life is on campus but they do convey, in exaggerated form, elements of the faculty imagination. ‘Vocation has become employment; critics have become superstars; scholars have become technicians’, summarizes Showalter. There is also a sense of being beleaguered by the changing priorities and systems that aim to audit scholarly value. The pressure to publish, the confidence-withering hierarchies of what is deemed ‘cutting edge’ or academically worthy all contribute to a kind of extreme vocational anxiety. I would add silencing, timidity and conservatism to Showalter’s list of faculty pathos and downheartedness.

In a modest way this diary is an attempt to point to alternative choices and add other tales. If graduation is the university’s New Year’s Eve then it is an apt moment to reflect on the version of academic life we aspire to and hope for. ‘New Year is the annual festivity marking the resurrection of hopes’, writes Bauman. For him this includes a ‘meta-hope’, or what he calls the ‘mother of all hopes’. On New Year’s Eve there is the promise that our hopes will not be dashed. Bauman says this is summed up in the feeling that: ‘This time it will end differently, this time our hopes will be made flesh and brought to life . . .’

As tenured bystanders we feel the vicarious sense of rejuvenation from simply being at the annual festivity of graduation. It is a moment to insist that another kind of university is possible and to resolve to act in a way to make it so. Apocalyptic portrayals of the demise of the university as a place to think are cold comfort for they offer few clues as to how one might act as an academic writer and teacher.

Ros Gill has argued that the neoliberal university, with its individualization of performance and value, results in a peculiarly toxic environment that is suffered secretly and silently. ‘Neoliberalism found fertile ground in academics whose predispositions to ‘‘work hard’’ and ‘‘do well’’ meshed perfectly with its demands for autonomous, self- motivating, responsibilized subjects’, she argues. Here worthy characteristics like scholarly dedication and the ambition to do good work merge seamlessly with neoliberal imperatives based on egotism and selfishness. The overwhelming experience of ‘fast academia’ is pressure, self-exploitation (which can mean putting off or sacrificing the personal fulfilment of having children, particularly for women), vituperative meanness and toxic shame. Our most deeply held values of engaged work, careful thought and creativity become cruel promises because the conditions to realize them are no longer possible. If the university is in ruins, as Bill Readings has suggested, how is it possible to carry on with an intellectual vocation?

The quick pessimistic answer is to say it isn’t possible: the forms of auditing, professionalization and managerialism have dealt the university a fatal blow. I think we have to find a way to resist these shifts, loosen the grip of self-regulation and act differently. Reading back through these pages I realize my own answers are hidden in the detail of each of the entries. What do these moral tales add up to, what kind of academic vocation is advocated in them? Before ending I want to try and formulate an answer through proposing a series of key principles. The first of these is to slow thinking down – be it theoretical or practical – and to value the time it takes. It entails the cultivation of the capacity for judicious speech and crafted attentiveness.

The overwhelming bureaucratic impulse to speed up academic production, and make academics into tacticians preoccupied with the game of professional standing results in a concern with short-term gains. As a result the books and articles we write are destined to have a short shelf life. To combat this I think it is important to try and resist the temptation to think too fast and write too much, too quickly. It doesn’t mean encouraging PhD students to languish for decades without completing their PhDs, or sitting on manuscripts that will never be read. A balance needs to be struck between the progression of a piece of research or a book and taking time to think and write, so that what we produce has a lasting quality.

Secondly, we need to take risks in order to expand not only what can be thought but also what counts as academic writing and communication. It means also aspiring to be a communicator of ideas not just on campus or within the pages of academic journals but in a wide variety of public and educational arenas. Thirdly, we need to see that what we do is not just a job but an intellectual vocation or craft. Specialization and professionalization institutionalizes narrowness and results paradoxically in anti-intellectualism. Being a slave to specialism is self-confinement: ‘I can only talk about ‘‘my own area of expertise’’.’ It promotes individualism in that we academics become conservative with our time and shut ourselves away in our offices or become campus absentees. Perhaps lessening the hold of the imperious specialist on the university might result in cutting academic vanity and self-importance down to size. The last and most important principle is to value teaching and to see the university primarily as a place of learning.

It is absurd in a way that we have arrived at a point where such an argument is even necessary. A university without students is a contradiction in terms. One of the privileges of being an academic is that we have the power to frame what happens in the classroom and the intellectual values we communicate as we perform this role. The investments and care taken in the context of teaching – from the first-year introductory lecture or a PhD supervision session – involve developing both an ethics of thinking and what Max Weber called ‘the tools and training for thought’. Teaching a course creates a community of thought and a space for dialogue and reflection. Here students struggle to understand not only the ‘learning outcomes’ but where they are in the mix of history and the world around them and how to form their own judgments in a society saturated with information.

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