Earlier this year, the final results of the – to my knowledge, first – National Senior Management Survey were published. It considered four areas:
- General employee satisfaction with university management;
- The effect of senior management on staff well-being;
- The effect of senior management on students;
- The effect of senior management on staff dignity.
If you work in the contemporary hyperindustrial university – organised primarily around the en masse production of marketable knowledge (“research”) and marketable graduates (“students”) – the results are not at all surprising.
Dissatisfied with contemporary management structures and feeling undervalued and disrespected by corporatised organisational practices, university workers today are increasingly subject to new types of disempowering modes of governance.
Welcome to the hyperindustrial university. If you are a new PhD student, it is necessary to consider how you might cope in this environment and carve out a liveable space that can protect you from the anxiety, depression, and burnout (to name only some examples) which are its all-too common effects.
If you are teaching, it is important to consider your role in the transmission of these same effects to your students, who also live in this hyperindustrial epoch and (it is not a huge assumption) desire economic security and a liveable, non-precarious existence.
Your space and time is limited, and your power minimal: what difference can really be made teaching seminars and marking essays?
The claim I would wish to make here is that your position and practice as a teacher in the university is never a neutral practice. As Richard Shaull notes, in his introduction to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. (1972: 14)
In other words, the claim here is that your teaching practices always embody a certain positionality in the hyperindustrial university; that they always, to some extent, communicate to your students ways of thinking and being in the world; that they always involve hierarchies (institutional, epistemological, etc.).
Freire’s famous elucidation of the banking concept of pedagogy is of note here, a model of education which positions students as meek absorbers of the knowledge that you, the teacher, narrate and transmit:
Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse still, it turns them into ‘containers’, into receptacles to be filled by the teachers. The more completely he fills the receptacles, the better a teacher he is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are. (1975: 45)
This picture is worth complexifying a little.
As a seminar leader, you will almost certainly not have designed the module, set the readings, or decided upon the assignment structure. Nor will those who have done so, usually, have any meaningful agency as to the university’s structure and aims.
All you know is that you have to “transmit” some “key skills” (Analytical thinking! Teamwork! Self-reflexivity! Communication skills!) and “learning outcomes.”
Your job, therefore, will often be to meekly transmit this material to equally meek students, in the university’s assembly line of hyperproduction.
In the coming years, the focus on this aspect is set to become even more intensely political with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, a metrically governed league system ranking teaching practices across UK universities.
This will mean, of course, more governance, oversight, and metrification of teaching practices. These are already prominent in quantified surveys students take towards the end of modules, the National Student Survey, and so forth (Heaney and Mackenzie, 2017).
None of this is, of course, necessary nor desirable. Your pedagogy constitutes a set of choices you embody in your practice: a set of choices and practices which embody how you are coping, but which also impact how your students will cope, in the hyperindustrial university.
It is of course not for me to offer a “how-to” on critical pedagogy in the contemporary university. It is still something I am imperfectly trying to work out myself.
The central point is that the seminar room can be a transformative and empowering space. It is possible to think with your students about the politics of the university, about the politics of why you are all in a room together.
Your seminar rooms can be open, playful, and critical. None of us are condemned to meekness. In short, you really don’t know what difference could be made in the seminar room.
Here are four questions which, in my opinion, could function as initial starting points for developing your own pedagogical approach and developing your own way of coping in the hyperindustrial university:
- What might the politics and philosophy of my pedagogy be?
- What challenges do students face that I can support them with? Is it possible to use what limited agency I have to help create empowering environments?
- Can my pedagogy help to subvert the logics of division, competition, rivalry, and meekness which the hyperindustrial university promotes, even in a minor way?
- What is the limit of time I can spend on teaching in order to ensure that my pedagogical practice is sustainable and doesn’t deleteriously impact my mental and physical health, as well as my other priorities?
Conor Heaney is a PhD Candidate in Social & Political Thought at the University of Kent, Canterbury. His PhD focuses on the relationship between contemporary capitalism and mental health with the work of Félix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, and Bernard Stiegler. He teaches modules on Political Thought. His website is http://www.conor-heaney.com.
Interested in reading more, check out:
Heaney, Conor, ‘What is the University today?’, Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 13 (2), 2015, 287-314
Heaney, Conor, and Mackenzie, Hollie, ‘The Teaching Excellence Framework: Perpetual Pedagogical Control in Postwelfare Capitalism’, Compass: A Journal of Learning and Teaching, 10 (2), 2017
Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. by Myra Bergman Ramos (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975)
, ‘The Academic, Ethics and Power’, Engaging Foucault: Volume I, ed. by by Adriana Zaharijevic, Igor Cvejić and Mark Losoncz (Belgrade: Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, 2016), pp. 185-201