“Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University”
Professor Maggie O’Neill, Department of Sociology, University of York
I was delighted to accept an invitation by Prof. Linda Connolly to speak at a seminar with colleagues in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute.
My talk took place after an excellent roundtable on the impact of Brexit and the social and political challenges facing Ireland following the UK general election. This left me feeling deeply saddened, given the analysis of experts from the disciplines of politics, law, policy and sociology, and not least because of the impact on academia in the UK.
The motivation for my paper was a concern about the deepening anxiety in the British University sector caused by the shifts in funding, purpose, audit culture (metrics), increasing social acceleration, performance management and the impact upon the wellbeing of staff (especially post-doctoral and early career researchers) in this changing landscape.
My talk explored Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University by drawing upon earlier work, a special issue on The Slow University for the Journal ‘Forum for Qualitative Research’ (co-edited with Heather Mendick, Luke Martel and Ruth Muller ) and Isabel Menzies Lyth’s classic text on the function of social systems as a defence against anxiety (1959). I argued that the success and well-being of the university and our experience in it, is intimately connected to techniques to contain anxiety.
The scope of the problem
The landscape and focus of this analysis is the marketization, new public management and neoliberalism embedded in the sector constituted by the introduction and subsequent increase in tuition fees for students (many leaving University with an average debt of £50,000) and the removal of government funding (see Holmwood 2013). The creeping managerial hierarchies and market based performance indicators have shifted the focus away from the importance of Higher Education as a space for democratic citizenship and the importance of equal access to higher education, towards a business model that helps to create a clientelist culture were learning is ‘propelled’ and a pilot teaching excellence audit called the teaching excellence framework (TEF) in addition to the research excellence framework (REF ) has fostered an unhealthy, competitive, marketing and marketised approach by Universities, especially by some of those gaining gold (rather than silver or bronze) for the quality of their ‘teaching excellence’.
Taking a psycho-social approach, I suggested possibilities for being slowly radical to confront and work with anxiety materially, discursively and symbolically, by addressing issues of governance and well-being by ‘un-managing’ the academy and providing opportunities for more dialogue and spaciousness. I also argued that there is a need for further, systematic research using critical, participatory, biographical and performative methodologies.
I suggested that applying the concept of slow to the university, in the context of increasing marketization, managerialism and performance management, might enable academics and managers to focus upon our experiences of work, time and well-being, the increasing pace and tempo of academic life and the very meaning of the university in current times.
There are, importantly, organised and individual resistances to this changing landscape in the University Sector in the UK in the shape of the campaigns for the defence of the public university, the council for the defence of the British University, blogs and spaces such as the New Academic blog by Nadine Muller where people can share their concerns, experiences and anxieties and a women’s academic network
Resisting the Accelerated Academy: Pace, Space and a Slow University?
In 2013 following conversations with colleagues about the many resistances to the speeding up we experienced across the sector, we organised two inter-disciplinary seminars on the idea of the Slow University, supported by the Institute for Advanced Studies at Durham University. Academics Heather Mendick, Ruth Muller and Luke Martel spoke at the seminars alongside sound artist Chris Watson, Slow movement guru Carl Honore and poet Matthew Griffiths.
Searching for research and dialogue on this I found Geir Bethelsen’s World Institute of Slowness; Brian Treanor’s (Loyola Marymount University in LA) Slow University: A Manifesto; an article by Jeremy Hunsinger ‘Against Speed Cosmopolitanism’ promoting the Slow Science manifesto; Elizabeth Yeoman and John Hoben’s work on ‘Corporate Ethos Reshaping University Culture’ arguing for a return to the university as a self-regulating democratic learning community.
Ros Gill’s chapter, Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia was instrumental in highlighting the extent of the ‘hidden injuries’ and Filip Vostal’s research asks what is the antidote to the will to accelerate? Vostal suggests that there is a path between a conservative, regressive ethic of slow and being a ‘productivity ninja’. Vostal advocates scholarly time, autonomy and resisting the university corporate culture and management rationality.
Later still, I found the work by Berg and Seeber on ‘The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy.’
Richard Collier, Ruth Muller and Andrew Sparkes have all written about health and well-being in relation to the experience of academics from postdoctoral researchers to senior academic staff; that academics are subject to increased social and psychological risk and stress-related illness. Indeed recent research by Ruth Barcan highlights the ‘conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation-relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy’ and ‘can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit’. An important question to ask is: how is the pace of academic life interpreted and received at the level of feelings’?
Raymond Williams (1977:132) defines “structures of feeling” as “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations. We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically, affective elements of consciousness and relationships.” Jenny Bourne-Taylor (1997, n.p.) defines “structures of feeling” as “a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation … as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible part of our activities”.
How are the shifts in structures of feeling experienced?
In response to the special edition of FQS on the Slow University a colleague wrote the following, that express, to a degree, how structures of feeling are experienced:
It meant a lot to me affectively to read about anxiety and well-being at the personal level in universities, and had more impact than just say headline figures of Union surveys of stress at work; identifying the mechanisms of that stress and the effect on the working environment, especially relationships with colleagues, was very valuable for me, and I agree that more ‘micro’ studies would be revealing.
I was very struck by the words of Gill that ‘we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves.’ I feel this applies particularly to academics who see themselves as intellectuals/practitioners with a wider purpose/field of reference than just universities and individual careers.
On the one hand this is a great motivating strength and bulwark against being overwhelmed by the ‘fast’ university. But on the other hand, that blurring of occupation and personal identity can leave one very vulnerable to being undermined at work, at risk of being unfairly labelled as not being a team player for university fiscal objectives, for struggling to separate work from life time so that unhappiness at work seeps into life time, for unease about the ethics and efficacy of some university recruitment practices and cost of education to students.
I recognised the phenomenon of layers of the university feeling they had to respond to new initiatives and be shown to be doing something even when there was collectively little faith in the efficacy of such initiatives or not enough time to get them right before the next set of initiatives
I recognised that often anxieties are at the level of ‘phantasies’, and feel this is heightened and perpetuated by lack of face to face contact between colleagues, and/or overuse of email and hierarchical feeding back of decisions that are now rendered as (yet more) new procedures to follow.
I identified with how some academics obviously since your 2014 article the TEF has come on the scene as well as the REF (or whatever it will become) as disciplining mechanism.
What can be done?
In the talk I suggested, drawing upon ‘Unmanaging: opening up the organisation to its own unspoken knowledge’ by Teodore Taptiklis (2008), a book I was introduced to by John Pritchard and John Shotter’s book reviews, that we need slow down the pace of change and acceleration and work with colleagues in management, education and HE specialists towards ‘unmanaging’ the University, engage with the growing body of work on the accelerated academy, metrics, audit, the impact of increasing neoliberalism, and address anxiety and well-being in the sector – as a matter of urgency.
In ‘Education after Auschwitz’ Adorno (2005:198) stated that “education must take seriously an idea in no way unfamiliar to philosophy: that anxiety must not be repressed. When anxiety is not repressed, when one permits oneself to have, in fact, all the anxiety that this warrants, then precisely by doing that, much of the destructive effects of unconsciousness and displaced anxiety will probably disappear”.
This will necessitate a research strategy and radical democratic manifesto to open and keep open spaces for dialogue, research and interventions using critical theoretical, feminist, biographical, participatory, longitudinal & micro social/psycho-social research working across thee sector and conducting comparative research too.
It is important to not only understand the issues involved but also to challenge and change them.
About the author:
Professor Maggie O’Neill joined the Department of Sociology at the University of York in April 2016 as Chair in Sociology/Criminology and has held posts at Durham University (Professor in Criminology, Principal of Ustinov College, Co-Director of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexuality and Council for Academics at Risk (CARA) Academic Champion) Loughborough University, Staffordshire University and Nottingham Trent University.
A former editor of Sociology the flagship Journal of the BSA and former Chair of the ESA Research Network on Biographical perspectives on European Societies Professor O’Neill co- founded the Race Crime and Justice Network in the North East with Gary Craig and Bankole Cole and the Sex Work Research Hub (now based at York) with Rosie Campbell. She currently Chairs the Sex Work Research Hub with Prof Teela Sanders and Rosie Campbell OBE. She was swarded a Beacon of Human Dignity award, Columbia University, Human Dignity and Humiliation Global Network December 2012.
She is currently undertaking:
~Leverhulme Trust Research fellowship, Methods on the Move: experiencing and imagining borders, risk & belonging See:https://walkingborders.com/
~ESRC/NCRM research project Participatory Action Research (PAR): Participatory Theatre and Walking Methods’ Potential for Co-producing knowledge with Dr Umut Erel (PI) and Prof Tracey Reynolds (Co-I)
~KTP/AHRC research project with Prof Nicole Westmarland (PI) and Open Clasp Theatre, Newcastle Policing Domestic Abuse: using theatre based methods to train police in aspects of coercion and control February 2015- September 2016
Sex Work Research Hub