Friday, 5 February 2016

Stand up, but refuse to be counted

It's been quite a week. First teaching week of the year so I've covered the entire origins of the Renaissance in one class and the emergence of individualism in another ('deep', according to one hopefully thrilled student).

Highlight of the week was a visiting lecture by Prof Thomas Docherty of Warwick University. He's written multiple essential books on literature and literary theory, but he's also developed a line of inquiry into the nature of modern higher education and what he sees as the contemporary academic's complicity with unethical educational structures and even illegal modes of accounting. He also has a personal interest: having become a thorn in the side of Warwick University's management (that place has been at the forefront of grasping neoliberalism since its foundation) he found himself suspended for a year on trumped up charges of subversion, including 'inappropriate sighing' and 'ironic' body language before winning the case at a cost of an enormous amount of money and damage to his health.

Thomas's presentation examined the gap which has developed between the educator's ethical responsibility to humanity and students/colleagues in particular, and the newish discourse of accountability which he feels has replaced the former. Starting with a discussion of the Accountant of Auschwitz's disavowal of moral responsibility and drawing on Arendt and the work of John McMurray, Docherty called for a visceral, spontaneous engagement with the world rather than the cold and distancing practice of accounting (which includes 'outcomes', NSS satisfaction rates and the whole panoply of data which he sees as replacing true responsiveness). Action, he says, is replaced by linguistic evasiveness. HE, he feels, has become a part of the neoliberal machine which atomises society into competing individuals by encouraging them to behave as profit-seeking units. Academics aren't 'desk murderers' as Arendt put it, but the neoliberal university puts us in a similar structural position to the Accountant: able to repudiate our moral or ethical responsibility to our fellows and exhorted to focus on the same qualities which assisted the death camps: the prioritisation of efficiency, management and output. As Thomas was a pains to stress, he's not likening academia to the death camps, but he is saying that our infinitely more mundane settings promote the same forms of complicity in dehumanising relations. At this institution the Personnel department became Human Resources, a sinister move that horrifies me still but maybe I've read too many semiotics books. Wait until they rename it OfSoylent.

Essentially Thomas's argument is that HEI's have become self-perpetuating bureaucracies (not the good sense of bureaucracy in which systems provide equality of access rather than corruption and privilege) in which the removal of inconvenient individuals is seen as a necessity. See, for example, the American university head who ordered his staff to get rid of students by putting a (metaphorical) 'Glock to their heads' (he also described them as 'bunnies' who should be 'drowned') to preserve the institution's funding stream.

It's become a matter of distancing by discourse. The language of management which has infected education insulates the individual from the effects of their decisions. I know of a secondary school which has a photograph wall of every student next to their predicted GCSE grades, which are for some of them 5 years away: the practice encourages the reduction of a complex human to an achievable outcome. The same school, by the way, used to give hungry pupils breakfast. Now breakfast is restricted to those deemed to be on track to achieving their predictions. Docherty's point is that whether it's a university, hospital, school or social services department, accounting has replaced the much messier, complex, difficult and more important priority of being ethically responsible (to the individual student/patient/client but also to wider society). The dominance of economic accountability, he says, is a form of corruption in the technical and moral senses – one of his examples was the TRAC scheme for determining the unit value of academics' time, which explicitly and deliberately discounts any work done above the notional contracted hours, thus undercounting our labour by as much as 60%. Tough on us, you might say, but it's a wider problem: at a time when lawyers are scandalously over-billing for work on an hourly rate, we're allowing governments to claim that education is cheap and should be cheaper (though not for the children of the rich and powerful: Oxford and Cambridge get extra money for their special methods).

The big question about all this is what your average academic can do. Thomas was singled out because he's fearless, and because punishing prominent people encourages everyone else to shut up. However, many institutions, particularly the famous ones, are rapidly casualising their workforce. Young people are on temporary contracts and expected to be 'shovel-ready' in the terrible jargon of industry: a book out before they start their first jobs, no holiday pay or pension contributions, no space in which to become good teachers and researchers. Thomas says we should start saying 'no' (shades of Bartleby the scrivener), but the wider context of neoliberal capitalism means that an ethical stance is a vote for unemployment. The student loan company, your children and the mortgage company are apparently reluctant to take principled refusals to collaborate with injustice in lieu of payment or breakfast.

One audience member offered a strong challenge to Docherty's discourse. The refusal to engage in the kind of metrics swamping academics is as nothing compared to the daily lives of millions of fellow citizens, or of academics being locked up or murdered across the world. Closer to home, refusing to address employability, for instance, is a betrayal of students from widening participation institutions such as mine, who lack the capital – and social capital – taken for granted by elite institutions' intakes. In our case, providing students with this kind of thing is an act of social justice and counselling refusal is, he said, 'bourgeois seminar anarchism…good philosophy but bad socialism'. Docherty took this well: the rhetoric of widening participation is, he said, an accounting form of what should be an ethics of responsibility, because it perpetuates the fiction that individual failings in the student can be remedied by individual training in how to conform to the demands of the market. He also described the 'student experience' (a common phrase round here) as a concept designed to prevent students having experiences. I can understand this: there's remarkably little room for spontaneity and friction on campus these days. Under the guise of customer management we've managed to convey the impression that decent coffee and meeting deadlines are far better than demonstrating against or challenging authority – the transformation of Students' Unions into de facto arms of the marketing department is a sinister disgrace. This is the challenge: within institutions which have developed a panoply of policies, mission statements and procedures to look ethical, how is the average citizen meant to develop a truly ethical – and therefore uncomfortable – position, as another member of the audience asked. We have a simulation of ethics which suits everybody on a daily basis, but should scare the hell out of us.

Lots to address there, and I haven't thought it all through myself fully, but I do regard the demands of 'employers' with some suspicion. They're always demanding 'skills' but don't really seem to know what they mean (and experience Docherty had when he challenged an employer-body spokesperson). I suspect that what they often mean is obedience and conformity of thought, whereas what I want from a graduating student is critical independence and new ways of thinking: a challenge to orthodoxy rather than resignation. At the same time, my students are through no fault of their own struggling against a culture that views them en masse as too provincial, common, brown and primitive to deserve consideration on their considerable merits and every time one of them gets a well-paid job I see it as a victory however much I'd rather they storm the barricades and create a new Eden. I'm a middle-class child of privilege, so it's very easy, some might say, to ask them to deny themselves my privileges and act on my principles.

So ended one of the most stimulating public lectures we've had in a while - challenging material and robust challenges from the floor. Plenty more coming up: watch @plashingvole for more details.

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