Between the discourse of ‘resilience’ and death by committee – Reclaiming collective spaces for academic resistance

Calling all early-career academics, mid-career researchers and teachers, postgraduate students, and academic activists to join us for a day of dialogue and zine-making.

The motivation for this generative one-day event (4th of May at Newcastle University) comes from an observation of two parallel phenomena.

The first is the explosion in critiques of the neoliberal university, which are accompanied by a comparative dearth of sustained resistance or structural change from within academia. Commentators have identified several factors that serve to uphold the status quo and dis-incentivise active dissent: the ‘gamification’ of research and the circularity of critique within a ‘publish or perish’ logic, precarious and competitive labour conditions both inside and outside of the academy (Bacevic, 2017), aggressive audit cultures, the transformation of students into consumers, and an increasing curtailing of opposition using legal instruments. We add to this the complexity of university structures, resulting in ideas intended to bring parity being regulated, diluted, and having to face the prospect of slow death by committee.

The second observation is the proliferation of discourses around ‘resilience’, a concept increasingly evident in a wide range of strategies, policies and programmes. Terms such as resilience, ambition, aspiration and adaptability place the onus on individuals, organisations and communities to become abler to confront external pressures, tending to valorise exemplars who ‘beat the odds’. There is scant acknowledgement of structural inequalities in these accounts; to confront how the decks are stacked in the first instance, thus serving to reproduce the social relations that sustain the status quo.

Discourses of ‘resilience’ are mirrored in academia (Webster and Rivers, 2017), observable in a ‘self-help’ industry targeted in particular at aspiring academics in the early stages of their working lives. ‘Resilience’ implies that individual academics, particularly ‘early careers’, bear the burden for their own successes and failures. Such discourse constructs a façade of meritocracy, overlooking the injustices of a job market increasingly built on precarious labour. ‘Resilience’ thus offers little by way of collective responses to pervasive structural inequalities, such as the large pay gap between faculty and senior management, the feminisation of casualised academic labour, and the lack of diversity in UK higher education institutions.

This event is premised on the idea that there are everyday collective spaces to be carved out or reclaimed, located between the individual and the institution. We will seek to springboard from identifying the conditions and effects of neoliberal academia into a consideration of the resources and approaches academics collectively possess on hand to effect change.

Drawing on examples of recent resistance, such as Newcastle University’s successful pushback against a proposed outcomes-based performance management programme (Morrish and The Analogue University Writing Collective, 2017), Aberdeen University’s Reclaiming our University campaign (2017), workplace solidarity at SOAS (Unison, 2017) and alternative modes of publishing (e.g. SocArXiv Open Archive of the Social Sciences), we will seek to radically imagine what academics can creatively, practically or ordinarily do together to enact collective and intersectional resistance, revitalise collegial governance mechanisms, and effect structural changes from the ground up.

We anticipate a collaborative workbook/zine of actions and tools arising out the day’s thinking and making, co-authored by all event participants. This living document, which will be publically accessible, will provide imaginative strategies to confront dominant discourses on academic employability and careers, and birth alternative means to engage with work.

For booking and a full programme go HERE.




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