May 2018


Professor Sharon Todd, Department of Education, Maynooth University

The idea of the slow university, as Maggie O’Neill depicts it, challenges us to rethink not only the structure of the university (its governance, funding, and regulations) but also its very purpose as a public institution and our own lives as academics within it.

For the past three decades, critics of neo-liberalism have challenged the cultures of managerialism and marketisation that have assailed our lives within universities. They have shown how neo-liberalism simultaneously exerts its privatising influence from the ‘outside’ and, in true Foucauldian fashion, shapes academic selves from within. That is, our sense of our own value and worth has increasingly followed a frantic, individualistic logic of performativity. Who we are increasingly becomes lost in what we are, defined in terms of measurable outputs and deliverables, which we then proclaim – indeed advertise – through a host of web sites and social media. Our academic ‘selves’ become entwined with the rate at which we can produce. How often do I hear colleagues confess that they are ‘slow’ writers; or that they require time to draft and redraft a paper, as if this is some shameful, dirty secret? What kinds of academic environments are we complicit in when we apologise for having to take our time and think?

The acceleration of our academic lives, however, is not merely a by-product of neo-liberal structures, but also of the demands made upon us by the proliferation of information technology and digital culture. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, in And: Phenomenology of the End, notes a disjoint between the time of information flow and lived time. We suffer from chronopathologies, such as panic, depression and anxiety (so common amongst academics and students), because the time we live as human organisms, with our physical, emotional and cultural rhythms, can never match the constant and instantaneous flow of information that continually demands our attention. It is not merely that we feel we can’t keep up; rather, the disjuncture actually produces a contraction in lived time, where our experiences of thinking, reflection, rumination and elaboration are diminished. That is, we cannot keep up (neither physically nor emotionally), and the demands to do so drain our capacities to the point of exhaustion. As Berardi sees it, our sensibility itself becomes imperilled, along with our very ability to extract pleasure and meaning from our experience.

How do we ensure that pleasure and meaning are part of our lives in academia? It seems to me what is required is indeed a slowing down in order to revalue our very experience of university: to be able, as sensate bodies, to experience the rhythm of lived time which is required for thought and attention. The very purpose of the university has never been about extending or communicating information, but about engaging in relationships of understanding, which require idea generation alongside attention to the ideas of others. This is both its public responsibility and its personal commitment to students and academics alike. For this, we need time to think, to inquire, to question and to elaborate, as is proper to who we are, as sensate beings. Reframing the university in lived time means building ways of life that are not ciphered through endless individual demands and pursuits. Instead, it means taking seriously the educational task of the university as one that enables the flourishing of sensibility, understanding and thought. The slow university, in short, is simply a university that is fulfilling its purpose.

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Dr Mary Murphy, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University

Maggie O’Neill’s seminar input ‘Anxiety and Work in the Accelerated Academy’ in MUSSI in late June 2017 and her (and other) arguments for a slow university are compelling and welcome. In an era where the university is relatively isolated, when expert knowledge is distained and where the neoliberal clamour for a small state dominates, it is hard to make tactical or strategic space for such arguments. The work of Maggie and others and qualitative research capturing and theorising the structure of feeling and highlighting the real pyscho- social impact of the accelerated university on academics lives is vital to such arguments.

It is important, as Maggie and others do, to locate such analysis as widely as possible and to situate the university in academic capitalism. We have in common with other public sector workers, educators and knowledge economy workers that our workplace, like all places of work, is increasingly subject to stresses associated with social acceleration of this turbo charged capitalist political economy. Algorithmic power, technological innovation and an accelerated speed of change dominate the pace of our lives as workers and as citizens. As O’Neill argues extreme busyness means acute time scarcity which means stress and anxiety in working life. This impacts on the quality of our academic work with students exposed to ‘factory universities’ rather than inducted into what Edwards called a ‘social science of love’.

In engaging with such debates, those working in Irish third level institutions should also be careful of our points of reference. Ireland is not the US nor the UK, and while we are culturally close to both countries, and are exposed to marketization, managerialism and performance management, Ireland has not (yet) formally adopted such extreme forms of research or teaching assessments and ranking. As academics we need to be careful not to get caught in the slip stream of the truly awful angst the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework causes amongst our British colleagues. We should be aware of and promote other (better) European academic practices.

While the practice of ranking trickles across the Irish sea, Irish third level institutions have has different engagement with implementing targets and publication quotas. Even in the context of strong structural pressures, Maynooth University still has capacity to both carve a unique path and also influence Irish policy. As academics we still have agency, and it is ironic that some academic predispositions (more dominant in some disciplines than others) use such agency to argue for and construct competitive frames of ranking. My experience straddling politics, sociology and social policy is that ranking mechanisms have featured more within and across Irish political science departments. Gender mediates this orientation to competition and gender also mediates the experience of such forms of academic capitalism. We know only too well that universities are gendered institutions and targets, and that ranking and league tables impact differentially depending on life, care and career cycles.

All of this impacts on political sociology and the potential role of public intellectuals, the urgent need to publish means we are less likely to research and write about what we think is important. The tendency towards myopic or abbreviated thinking limits our ability to contribute in meaningful ways to making sense of this world we live in and, as public sociologists, to enhance democratic deliberation. Lack of time and mental space for quality thinking, and the speed of the working day means less opportunity for collective deliberation and responses. The university undervalues societal contributions, new social media creates its own momentum of speed, and many academics find themselves withdrawing from a public sphere that wants little more than soundbites, the pressure of care in our lives mean women are more likely to withdraw.

Maggie talks of meaningful strategies for resistance and how such strategies need to be enacted collectively and imaginatively. While resistance is possible, it requires leadership particularly from those of us who are tenured and further on in our careers. Trade unions are still relevant, Grummel and Lynch note how Irish primary and secondary level teaching unions have successfully resisted at least some new public management practices in schools. We see examples elsewhere of the ‘right to unplug’, France for example has regulated against use of work emails from 9pm to 6am. A collective unplugging could create mental space and opportunity for a culture and ethic of care. As academics we can control what are acceptable forms of peer review communication and pull back from aggressive forms of feedback that leave colleagues with what Gill calls ‘hidden injuries’. University administrators need to re-evaluate what they value and what they count, and find innovative ways to measure and value care. While information technology offers multiple efficiencies, it comes at a price, incurring a loss of face-time and quality interpersonal communication without which a culture of care is difficult to nurture.

Research suggests new forms of work are creating more stressed working lives in many sectors, where the issue is not just the speed of work but also the capacity to have control over the pace of work in what were relatively autonomous careers. The metaphorical concept of a slow university is very useful in formulating our analysis, however as a sound bite it may be of limited tactical use in building allies or winning public support for the cause. The challenge is not to fetishise the university as experiencing more or specific pressure, it is more broadly about reimagining how work is and might be organised in an era of artificial intelligence and big data.

Professor Gerry Kearns, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

In The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Knopf, 1972), Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb described how poor people internalized the judgment that they had failed, were ‘losers’ in the gutter-speak of Donald Trump. It is important to understand how social context shapes aspirations and self-esteem. A book like Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor (University of Toronto Press, 2016) can serve as a self-help manual helping us recognize how the neoliberal university diminishes us and cultivates a sense of inadequacy that will never be retired. In ‘The Slow University: Work, Time and Well-Being’ (Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 15:3 (2014), Art. 14), Maggie O’Neill identifies the anxiety that is fostered among academics by the corporate culture within which university staff are judged and found always wanting. In her seminar at MUSSI, Maggie gave us ways to name and resist this new subjugation.

Our own feelings are important data as we try to understand what is done to us. So, how does the audit culture in universities make me feel? In Ireland, the tone of politicians and commentators when they call for evaluation to be extended suggests two things to me–they dislike public provision tout court, and, secondly, they don’t appreciate scholarship.

A Public Ethos

First, then, the universities are targeted alike with the rest of the public sector. Particularly in Ireland, and especially from Fine Gael but also from Fianna Fáil, there is a hostility towards public provision that takes ideology almost to the point of mania. Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (Dublin: History Press, 2011) gives some of the background to this but for anyone coming to Ireland from abroad, as I did after living in GB and the US, the contempt that the political class shows towards public sector is overwhelming. It is almost as if it would be unfair competition for a state agency to provide anything that private enterprise could venture even if the state agency were able to do so at lesser cost and with greater benefit. So the first form of resistance we need to develop is a pride in the public nature of our work. We should invite commentary and review on this aspect of our universities.

We need point out that Irish universities educate a good share of the populace to a decent standard at a modest fee – the comparison with student debt in US and UK is striking, the standards of instruction indicated by modest attrition rate and decent international placement of graduates etc. We need to point out that university folk are prominent in public debate in Ireland to an extent that is striking in comparison to Britain, certainly to the United States and depressingly so with respect to parts of Eastern Europe. While we may bemoan the sliver of academia that is recycled through TV and radio studios, the healthy reading public in Ireland is fed by academic works that address matters of public interest in a fashion that almost matches the middle-brow culture in France. We need to remark that international business is drawn to Ireland not only by the low rate of corporate taxation but also by the quality of the skills in the workforce and much of this speak to a training and research culture fostered in universities.

And why is the public character of our universities important in this regard? First, because private institutions accept no such obligations to serve a broad swathe of the student class–notwithstanding the endowment funded scholarships for a few of the less wealthy, privately funded universities are businesses that serve the needs of the rich, validating their education with expensive prestige. Only public universities accept a broad responsibility to serve equality of opportunity, and while they should do more in this regard only public institutions can be brought to accept that they should redress those hidden injuries of class that mark the poor and ethnic minorities as ‘losers’ long before leaving cert. It is evident to me that the public obligations of universities need to grow rather than to be allowed wither.

Second, it is evident that who pays the piper calls the tune. Some of the most shrill voices for homophobic and patriarchal regulation in the United States are ‘experts’ funded and promoted by evangelical-Christian universities (all of them private institutions). Likewise, many ‘expert’ lobbyists come from think-tanks funded by the interests they serve. Allowing private companies to own medical research means that drugs are unaffordable. Allowing private interests to commission the bulk of the research in any one area means that they can simply choose not to publish findings they find sits ill with their private benefit. When it comes to producing critical knowledge of general benefit, the public principle is an important one that even needs extending rather than diminishing.

Planning for the employment needs in a changing economy needs two things that private institutions do very poorly. First, it needs a long-term perspective when the horizon for a business might be no more than the annual declaration of profit or at most the period over which a loan might be amortized or an improved business readied for re-sale. Second, the private sector will not take a general view resulting perhaps in over-provision where there is a short-term need, or where the high-salary and high-fee opportunities appear to be, resulting in under-provision of training for lower-wage but vital professions.

I am not saying that all public universities at all times provide the very best in educational access, in independent critical thinking about society, and in preparing a workforce with the flexible skills needed for a changing economy, but I am saying that these are essentially public goods and that private institutions would only serve them inadvertently if at all. I am also saying that the public ethos of universities should include pride in serving these ends.

Scholarship

The audit culture wants to operationalize scholarship into oblivion. Scholarship can only be judged and not weighed. The audit culture resists this claim insisting that two publications are always better than one, other things being equal. Scholarship doubts that they ever are. The audit culture believes that only what can be counted should be allowed to count. Scholarship thinks otherwise, relying upon qualitative judgments. The audit culture suspects that everyone who is not pressured to produce more will be idle. Scholarship trusts academic ambition to spur intellectual creativity. The audit culture can only think within a bourgeois capitalist calculus. It gave us ideas like lesser eligibility, the undeserving poor, and thus the workhouse for the indigent or unemployed.

Scholarship, at least in the fields I know best, is more anarchic. In fact, some of the best writing about how universities should function has come from anarchist thinkers such as Paul Goodman whose The Community of Scholars (New York: Random House, 1962) still inspires. In other words, academics can evaluate the work of colleagues, and can self-organise for conferences, teaching, and publication. Stefan Collini has recently asked that we be ready with answers to the question: What are Universities for? (Penguin, 2012). I would begin with scholarship, making new knowledge, offering critical reflection on existing knowledge and interpretations. I would then go on to say that this is a very good context in which to educate people. I would begin my defence of university teaching with an insistence upon the independence of the university from direct external control, much as John Henry Newman did when he defended a secular university in The Idea of a University (1852). We could talk then about the synergy between independent thought and education. Is it possible to impart the ability to read and think critically if you are unfitted to occupy the intellectual frontier of a discipline? Maybe, but there must surely be a limit to the ability to teach what you cannot fully understand. Only those making new knowledge in a field fully understand its limits; or at least so it has seemed to me.

Does the sort of independence that I have described as essential to scholarship require public institutions? Perhaps not. Can it be achieved in public institutions? I think so, and I think academics should submit to this sort of judgment.

Finally, I believe that if the public ethos were encouraged, then, we might even get more scholarship that volunteers itself to have a public purpose, more teaching that avows a public purpose. The audit culture breeds academic productivity that accepts direction from the corporations that own the journals, the corporations that invite research-partners at public expense but for private gain. The audit culture spawns anxiety, reduces reflection, rewards mindless repetition.

Private vice does not make public virtue.

A seminar held in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute explored how dialogues within and beyond the Higher Education sector are converging around the need for a socio-cultural shift towards slowing down the pace of work, life and consumption, improving well-being and providing counter narratives to processes of globalisation and the ‘Gridlock’ that Hale, Held and Young (2013) write about. In a seminar series initiated at Durham University and a series of blogs, colleagues and Professor Maggie O’Neill addressed the potential of the concept of the SLOW University for their experiences of work, life, time, well-being and the very meaning of the University in current times. The motivation for organising the seminars emerged from dialogue with colleagues, biographical experiences and resistance to the speeding up of Higher Education, the impact of the audit culture and ‘marketisation’; as well as growing pressures, for some, in relation to developing a work/life balance in the context of metrics, audit, efficiency, increased competition, demand management of research grant generation and the importance of hitting performance targets for career development and promotion. The gendered dimensions of these issues have been central to these discussions.

Discussants at the Maynooth seminar included:

Chair: Professor Linda Connolly, Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute

Professor Sharon Todd, Department of Education, Maynooth University, Dr Mary Murphy, Department of Sociology/Politics, Maynooth University and Professor Gerry Kearns, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

A blog by each participant will be posted each day this week.

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I

“Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University”

Professor Maggie O’Neill, Department of Sociology, University of York

I was delighted to accept an invitation by Prof. Linda Connolly to speak at a seminar with colleagues in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute.

My talk took place after an excellent roundtable on the impact of Brexit and the social and political challenges facing Ireland following the UK general election. This left me feeling deeply saddened, given the analysis of experts from the disciplines of politics, law, policy and sociology, and not least because of the impact on academia in the UK.

Introduction

The motivation for my paper was a concern about the deepening anxiety in the British University sector caused by the shifts in funding, purpose, audit culture (metrics), increasing social acceleration, performance management and the impact upon the wellbeing of staff (especially post-doctoral and early career researchers) in this changing landscape.

My talk explored Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University by drawing upon earlier work, a special issue on The Slow University for the Journal ‘Forum for Qualitative Research’ (co-edited with Heather Mendick, Luke Martel and Ruth Muller ) and Isabel Menzies Lyth’s classic text on the function of social systems as a defence against anxiety (1959). I argued that the success and well-being of the university and our experience in it, is intimately connected to techniques to contain anxiety.

The scope of the problem

The landscape and focus of this analysis is the marketization, new public management and neoliberalism embedded in the sector constituted by the introduction and subsequent increase in tuition fees for students (many leaving University with an average debt of £50,000) and the removal of government funding (see Holmwood 2013). The creeping managerial hierarchies and market based performance indicators have shifted the focus away from the importance of Higher Education as a space for democratic citizenship and the importance of equal access to higher education, towards a business model that helps to create a clientelist culture were learning is ‘propelled’ and a pilot teaching excellence audit called the teaching excellence framework (TEF) in addition to the research excellence framework (REF ) has fostered an unhealthy, competitive, marketing and marketised approach by Universities, especially by some of those gaining gold (rather than silver or bronze) for the quality of their ‘teaching excellence’.

Taking a psycho-social approach, I suggested possibilities for being slowly radical to confront and work with anxiety materially, discursively and symbolically, by addressing issues of governance and well-being by ‘un-managing’ the academy and providing opportunities for more dialogue and spaciousness. I also argued that there is a need for further, systematic research using critical, participatory, biographical and performative methodologies.

I suggested that applying the concept of slow to the university, in the context of increasing marketization, managerialism and performance management, might enable academics and managers to focus upon our experiences of work, time and well-being, the increasing pace and tempo of academic life and the very meaning of the university in current times.

There are, importantly, organised and individual resistances to this changing landscape in the University Sector in the UK in the shape of the campaigns for the defence of the public university, the council for the defence of the British University, blogs and spaces such as the New Academic blog by Nadine Muller where people can share their concerns, experiences and anxieties and a women’s academic network

Resisting the Accelerated Academy: Pace, Space and a Slow University?

In 2013 following conversations with colleagues about the many resistances to the speeding up we experienced across the sector, we organised two inter-disciplinary seminars on the idea of the Slow University, supported by the Institute for Advanced Studies at Durham University. Academics Heather Mendick, Ruth Muller and Luke Martel spoke at the seminars alongside sound artist Chris Watson, Slow movement guru Carl Honore and poet Matthew Griffiths.

Searching for research and dialogue on this I found Geir Bethelsen’s World Institute of Slowness; Brian Treanor’s (Loyola Marymount University in LA) Slow University: A Manifesto; an article by Jeremy Hunsinger ‘Against Speed Cosmopolitanism’ promoting the Slow Science manifesto; Elizabeth Yeoman and John Hoben’s work on ‘Corporate Ethos Reshaping University Culture’ arguing for a return to the university as a self-regulating democratic learning community.

Ros Gill’s chapter, Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia was instrumental in highlighting the extent of the ‘hidden injuries’ and Filip Vostal’s research asks what is the antidote to the will to accelerate? Vostal suggests that there is a path between a conservative, regressive ethic of slow and being a ‘productivity ninja’. Vostal advocates scholarly time, autonomy and resisting the university corporate culture and management rationality.

Later still, I found the work by Berg and Seeber on ‘The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy.’

Richard Collier, Ruth Muller and Andrew Sparkes have all written about health and well-being in relation to the experience of academics from postdoctoral researchers to senior academic staff; that academics are subject to increased social and psychological risk and stress-related illness. Indeed recent research by Ruth Barcan highlights the ‘conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation-relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy’ and ‘can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit’. An important question to ask is: how is the pace of academic life interpreted and received at the level of feelings’?

Raymond Williams (1977:132) defines “structures of feeling” as “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations. We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically, affective elements of consciousness and relationships.” Jenny Bourne-Taylor (1997, n.p.) defines “structures of feeling” as “a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation … as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible part of our activities”.

How are the shifts in structures of feeling experienced?

In response to the special edition of FQS on the Slow University a colleague wrote the following, that express, to a degree, how structures of feeling are experienced:

It meant a lot to me affectively to read about anxiety and well-being at the personal level in universities, and had more impact than just say headline figures of Union surveys of stress at work; identifying the mechanisms of that stress and the effect on the working environment, especially relationships with colleagues, was very valuable for me, and I agree that more ‘micro’ studies would be revealing.

I was very struck by the words of Gill that ‘we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves.’ I feel this applies particularly to academics who see themselves as intellectuals/practitioners with a wider purpose/field of reference than just universities and individual careers.

On the one hand this is a great motivating strength and bulwark against being overwhelmed by the ‘fast’ university. But on the other hand, that blurring of occupation and personal identity can leave one very vulnerable to being undermined at work, at risk of being unfairly labelled as not being a team player for university fiscal objectives, for struggling to separate work from life time so that unhappiness at work seeps into life time, for unease about the ethics and efficacy of some university recruitment practices and cost of education to students.

I recognised the phenomenon of layers of the university feeling they had to respond to new initiatives and be shown to be doing something even when there was collectively little faith in the efficacy of such initiatives or not enough time to get them right before the next set of initiatives

I recognised that often anxieties are at the level of ‘phantasies’, and feel this is heightened and perpetuated by lack of face to face contact between colleagues, and/or overuse of email and hierarchical feeding back of decisions that are now rendered as (yet more) new procedures to follow.

I identified with how some academics obviously since your 2014 article the TEF has come on the scene as well as the REF (or whatever it will become) as disciplining mechanism.

What can be done?

In the talk I suggested, drawing upon ‘Unmanaging: opening up the organisation to its own unspoken knowledge’ by Teodore Taptiklis (2008), a book I was introduced to by John Pritchard and John Shotter’s book reviews, that we need slow down the pace of change and acceleration and work with colleagues in management, education and HE specialists towards ‘unmanaging’ the University, engage with the growing body of work on the accelerated academy, metrics, audit, the impact of increasing neoliberalism, and address anxiety and well-being in the sector – as a matter of urgency.

In ‘Education after Auschwitz’ Adorno (2005:198) stated that “education must take seriously an idea in no way unfamiliar to philosophy: that anxiety must not be repressed. When anxiety is not repressed, when one permits oneself to have, in fact, all the anxiety that this warrants, then precisely by doing that, much of the destructive effects of unconsciousness and displaced anxiety will probably disappear”.

This will necessitate a research strategy and radical democratic manifesto to open and keep open spaces for dialogue, research and interventions using critical theoretical, feminist, biographical, participatory, longitudinal & micro social/psycho-social research working across thee sector and conducting comparative research too.

It is important to not only understand the issues involved but also to challenge and change them.

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About the author:

Professor Maggie O’Neill joined the Department of Sociology at the University of York in April 2016 as Chair in Sociology/Criminology and has held posts at Durham University (Professor in Criminology, Principal of Ustinov College, Co-Director of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexuality and Council for Academics at Risk (CARA) Academic Champion) Loughborough University, Staffordshire University and Nottingham Trent University.

A former editor of Sociology the flagship Journal of the BSA and former Chair of the ESA Research Network on Biographical perspectives on European Societies Professor O’Neill co- founded the Race Crime and Justice Network in the North East with Gary Craig and Bankole Cole and the Sex Work Research Hub (now based at York) with Rosie Campbell. She currently Chairs the Sex Work Research Hub with Prof Teela Sanders and Rosie Campbell OBE. She was swarded a Beacon of Human Dignity award, Columbia University, Human Dignity and Humiliation Global Network December 2012.

She is currently undertaking:

~Leverhulme Trust Research fellowship, Methods on the Move: experiencing and imagining borders, risk & belonging See:https://walkingborders.com/

~ESRC/NCRM research project Participatory Action Research (PAR): Participatory Theatre and Walking Methods’ Potential for Co-producing knowledge with Dr Umut Erel (PI) and Prof Tracey Reynolds (Co-I)

~KTP/AHRC research project with Prof Nicole Westmarland (PI) and Open Clasp Theatre, Newcastle Policing Domestic Abuse: using theatre based methods to train police in aspects of coercion and control February 2015- September 2016

https://www.york.ac.uk/sociology/our-staff/academic/maggie-oneill/

http://walkingborders.com/

https://www.york.ac.uk/sociology/research/current-research/swrh/

Sex Work Research Hub

https://www.york.ac.uk/social-science/research/crimnet/

http://ghostsofourfuture.com/