In January we embarked on a new collaborative writing project. The brief: To compile a collection of individual responses to one stimulus piece with a view to starting a great conversation! We wrote independently without discussing our thoughts and are publishing them here as a series of posts.
The stimulus piece is: “Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development program” Higher Education Research & Development, 39:1, 81-98, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1666803.
In the spirit of challenging practices of ‘traditional linear writing’ and ‘dominant authorial voicing’ (p.81), let me begin by sharing two random things which have jolted my thinking since I started my response to this piece (hereafter referred to as the ‘Love acts article’):
First, a painted silo which I saw recently on rural Victoria’s Silo Art Trail.
Second, the ‘Hot Priest’ speech from the final episode of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag.
More on them in a while. So, the stage for the Love acts article is my world. It’s a world of personal development programmes, communities of practice, research and awards/promotions schemes. It’s a world where genuine teaching ‘excellence’ meets ‘soulless neoliberal performativity’ driven by an ‘obsession with quantification and measurement’ (p. 86). And the play which is performed in the article – the story of a straightforward professional development programme (forgive me!) – is a classic tale of love, compassion and hope (nod to you, PWB!). The takeaway message is that we – academic developers – have a crucial role to play in a long-awaited revolution against neoliberal values. We can and should make the spaces for love to act, to allow academic identities and emotions to be explored. If the actors in our play are academic staff, we bring the best out of them. Simultaneously we are scriptwriters, directors, stage hands, understudies, audience members…
The article certainly feels, then, like a call to arms; it’s message is not new, but the way it is presented gives it a strength of voice (and standing ovation to the authors, reviewers and editors for pushing the boundaries!). But for me, there is a stone left unturned, a speech missing from the script.
It is best illustrated through a simple example, I think. I regularly run staff development workshops on student satisfaction surveys. It is never long before someone starts to challenge the validity, design and purposes of the surveys and I find myself in verdant agreement. I talk about how destructive they can be and how abhorrent it is that staff are judged on them. We share stories of extreme hurt, relief and joy – exposing the awfulness of the ‘love’ which is expressed and experienced. And then, with a swoosh of my neoliberal cape, I declare that surveys are engrained in university culture and can be effectively used for reward and recognition. I dread the day when someone calls me out for internal inconsistency!
There are definitely times, then, when the whole business of making the spaces for love feels insane, stressful and unsafe. We draw strength from our community (the authors allude to this), but where do we get the authority and confidence to create and orchestrate these spaces – how do we deal with feelings of hypocrisy and self-contradiction as we go about our work? Are we leaders and love-makers or just fraudsters, imposters or illusionists flitting between multiple personalities and donning different costumes? What is the ‘love act’ that we need to keep us on track?
I guess, this article is exactly the kind of ‘love act’ we need. And, referring back to the ‘Hot Priest’ soliloquy, our real power lies in the fact that we build spaces for hope. And we never do it alone. All the awfulness of love can unfold in these spaces and empower us to lead change.
And the silo? Nothing says neoliberalism more than the loud tirade from university managers against academics ‘working in silos’. But clearly silos can be useful, beautiful places…you just have to get close and look. Find the hope.
‘Hot Priest’ speech, Fleabag Series 2, Episode 12