Mural para la promoción de la transparencia en una escuela pública de La Ceiba (Honduras). David Puig
Public School in La Ceiba, Honduras. Photo by David Puig

 

“Universities are what Foucault [1986] called heterotopias -spaces where a better future can be represented. (Heterotopia is the nice word for “not the real world”). One might be to take the heterotopia of the university as a desirable model for an equitable society rather than a laughable site of cloistered privilege.”

-Toby Miller (2012: 118)

 

I first read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) in Spanish, as an English literature undergraduate student in Mexico City. It was at the university library that I stumbled upon it. I left the blue Oxford Anthology of English Literature volume II to one side and started reading.

I now own a second-hand copy of the 1996 English edition, published by Penguin Education in paperback. The back cover reads:

In this landmark account, first published over twenty years ago, Paulo Freire argues that the ignorance and lethargy of the poor are the direct result of the whole situation of economic, social and political domination. By beint kept in a situation in which is practically impossible to achieve critical awareness and response the disadvantaged are kept ‘submerged’. In some countries, the oppressors use the system of education to maintain this ‘culture of silence’, while in others the advance of technology has condemned  many people, particularly the less well off, to a rigid comformity. […]”

This blurb, written in the early 1990s for a book first published in 1970, refers to some of the key issues that sum up both the background and the consequences of the situation I’d like to briefly address today:

  • ignorance and lethargy of the disadvantaged
  • a situation of economic and social domination
  • practical impossibility of achieving critical awareness and response
  • the disadvantaged are kept submerged
  • the system of education as a means to maintain a ‘culture of silence’
  • the advance of technology condemining many to a rigid comformity

The issues above are still pretty much in full effect today, not only at the most basic levels of education or in developing countries, but in Higher Education and around the globe, including what we call ‘developed countries’ of the Global North. The huge disparities with scholarly systems both foster and perpetuate a system that seems to resist more tranformative, equitable change. This is perhaps best exemplified by the challenges faced by scholarly associations as key components of how Higher Education operates.

I have been an on-and-off member of academic email listservs and professional and scholarly associations for more than 20 years now. I still remember clearly the first time I ‘surfed’ the World Wide Web, and the first time, before that, that I sent an email. I remember the excitement of feeling empowered- for me and to many others, the Internet and the World Wide Web represented the possibility of doing things yourself in a more efficient and more global manner. For those of us who developed a political identity aided by punk and other subcultures, Doing It Yourself was an ethos that seemed naturally amplified by the Web. If you had made and posted (mailed out) fanzines before the Internet, message boards, listservs and blogging were a dream made true.

It wasn’t only the feasibility of nearly-immediate global communication, the Web was not merely a new channel, but an invitation to do things differently. In science and research, Open Access was a logical consequence to the freedom that online publishing could mean– what seemed like a more direct access to the means of scholarly publishing was an invitation to not only publish scholarly content differently (i.e., disseminate it differently), but to do research differently.

That initial enthusiasm was somewhat naïve. We hadn’t counted with how disruptive new technologies would be to previous ways of being and doing, and particularly to established ways to maintain privilege and make money. It soon became clear that projects could not rely only on volunteer labour, and that there was sheer inequality embedded in platforms that relied on user generated content- some provided the work for free, others, often almost invisibly, profitted from it. Working for free -or for a delayed financial reward, as an investment- is a privilege, one whose foundations lie in many others who are disadvantaged.

This leads me to scholarly associations. One of their biggest challenges lies in the structural inequality that academia is made of. Individuals may have an interest in common, but this does not mean they share the same context, and this includes both privileges and disadvantages. Scholarly societies, like academic journals, have been often brilliant examples of academic self-organisation, but this self-organisation has traditionally relied on volunteer labour.

This free or volunteer scholarly labour (many times of the much-dreaded administrative-but-essential type) takes time in real time and place, and what is at stake for each individual can be significantly different. Differences in seniority within scholarly groups also mean that not everyone is equally empowered to participate in the same ways. So it’s not only a question of who can afford the time and space to volunteer work for scholarly associations (for example doing peer review, or as an acting officer within the association’s struture), but of who is encouraged and empowered enough to participate actively and critically, in order to contribute to the association’s growth. Structural differences re: who has power and who doesn’t determines who participates in which ways, who remains merely ‘submerged’, as numbers to justify and metricate others’ power, and do create and postergate cultures of fear and silence.

It is difficult and time consuming to implement, but in any organisation that aspires to call itself ‘fair’ members should have a voice and that voice should be not only heard but recognised and addressed transparently and respectfully. When associations charge a membership fee, whether we like it or not the stakes are higher:  there has to be not only the right for members to voice concerns, but for them to ask questions and to expect transparency and accountability from those leading or taking key decisions on behalf of stakeholders.

Often, members pay their fees at great personal expense, and deserve to contribute to (and yes, even disagree with) any decision-making that affects the association, even if they are not part of committees. In the context of widely spread precarious labour in academia, paying a fee is perhaps one of the most essential ways of contributing to an association, and a paying member’s feedback should be taken seriously and respectfully.

The way in which it’s done will vary depending on the size of the organisations, but some issues in which paying members of organisations should be transparently informed of and consulted about in a timely manner (that is, when there’s still time to change anything) include, but are not limited to:

  • Wording and application of bylaws
  • All financial matters, how and when funds are allocated for what; who receives how much when and what for
  • Partnerships with other organisations
  • Conference matters, from CFPs drafting to practical matters of location, registration costs, keynote speakers, etc.
  • Scholarly communication strategies, including choice of publishers, journals, dissemination models, licensing, pricing, social media policies, etc.

All the important decisions cannot be taken while the majority is busy doing other work. And sometimes everyone is so busy that there’s no time to even engage after decisions are taken. It is easier to just go with the flow because engagement takes time and energy, both highly valuable resources that have been systemically made scarce. Toby Miller explained how in academia it is workers with minimal agency what “permits the top to exist.” Their labour, Miller argued, “comprises the conditions of possibility for research academia to flourish: almost invisible, casualized employees allow the institutions where they work to be concrete” (Miller 2015). This is indeed also the case for scholarly or professional associations.

Scholarly associations often depend on members coming forward and making themselves available to perform specific duties, but we must never forget that being able to participate ‘actively’ in one of those roles requires from specific preconditions. To be able to participate in a role is a privilege, and it is also an honour, and a responsibility. Because playing an active role in an association can be a poisoned chalice, not everyone is willing to come forward and participate more directly as part of committees. But there are more complex reasons why  fewer colleagues volunteer to participate in leading organisational structures. Sometimes it is a question of honest lack of time, sometimes it’s lack of experience, sometimes it’s fear, sometimes there is a glass ceiling.

In a democracy, a key duty as citizens is to observe the law and vote for our representatives. It is not acceptable for someone in government to respond to citizen feedback with a “you should have run for councilor/representative/governor/president!”. In a scholarly association, we need to understand that some members will not be able to participate as, say, treasurers but still be able to keep an eye on the finances by asking questions and expecting responses from those in charge, particularly (but not only) if those in charge were elected by the membership.

If there is not a lot of active participation from the membership in terms of helping shape an organisation’s scholarly culture, policies, practices, we must look into the reasons for this perceived passivity, and try to foster more engagement through strategies that recognise the diversity of the membership’s contexts. The lack of more active engagement in procedural matters cannot be an excuse for opaque decision-making and the concentration of authority in a limited group.

It is an embarrassment that bullying keeps on being a mode of engagement in Higher Education (Devlin and Marsh 2018). Bullying becomes structural both because and when there are cultures of silence, and when those in power are effectively unaccountable. Bullying thrives when authority is unaccountable and when decision-making takes place behind closed doors. The diversity of ages, roles and levels of seniority in Higher Education does not have to be an excuse to keep those who are more disadvantaged or junior for different reasons to remain ‘submerged’ and to tacitly force them to accept a ‘rigid comformity’ that only benefits those already in power and authority. We need to start by acknowledging the importance of conducting ourselves transparently and with accountability. This means not ignoring critical feedback from colleagues, no matter how junior, and this includes truly acknowledging issues and sincerely addressing them honestly and as directly and publicly as possible.

I belong to a generation that grew up reacting against political corruption, censorship and dictatorial policies. The concentration of privilege in a happy few who insist on remaining unaccountable by strictly discretional, opaque decision-making should be undesirable to all of us today as it was then. Why would we accept in scholarly circles what we do not accept in politics?

Long gone should be the days (did they ever really exist as such?) in which it was acceptable to quietly sit back and let others steer the ship. Everyone on board has a role to play, and everyone should have a right to voice concerns respectfully– for this there should be appropriate, transparent guidelines and channels. If we aspire to work towards a fairer academia, we need to work harder at learning to listen to feedback, and to address it accordingly.

This has been said again and again (if you’ve been listening), but we still need o learn to interrogate our own privilege, and the cost that privilege has, and who is currently paying that cost. If you are in a position of power within an scholarly association, and a member asks you a question publicly, do not ignore it: do not take personal offense and address the question publicly. It’s the least we can do. We can only achieve critical self-awareness if we don’t close ourselves to questions. We need other, newer ways of being scholarly.

Toby Miller’s vision for the university of an heterotopia as a model for an equitable society requires the transparency and openness we expect from other organsiations today. Sadly, as we continue seeing on various fronts (perhaps most poignantly in a case like this), transparency and publicness are not yet enough to elicit true accountability. But it’s a start.

It’s 2018, but there is evidence that situations denounced by the likes of Freire in the early 1970s still take place today.  Many will find all this about a different way of doing things laughable, impractical and unrealistic. But it seems doable to many of us; at least trying is the ethical thing to do. All of us who work in education -this includes me too- must avoid at all cost becoming those oppressors that we read about as bright-eyed young students once upon a time.

 

References

Foucault, M. 1986. “Of Other Spaces.” Diacritics 16 (1): 22-27. DOI: 10.2307/464648. https://www.jstor.org/stable/464648.

Miller, T. 2012. Blow Up The Humanities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Miller, T. 2015. “Humanities bottom to top: The cognitariat and publishing.” Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy, 5. Available open access from Loughborough University’s Institutional Repository: https://dspace.lboro.ac.uk/2134/23241.

Freire, P. 1996. [1970]. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin.

Devlin, H. and Marsh, S. 2018. “Hundreds of academics at top UK universities accused of bullying”. Friday 28 September 2018. The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/sep/28/academics-uk-universities-accused-bullying-students-colleagues. [Accessed 9 October 2018].