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The University and Micro-Dynamics of Institutional Life - image.jpg

The University and micro-dynamics of institutional life

Fifty years on from the legendary protests of 1968, and the student occupations which sought radically to contest the nature of the university, we are holding a conference to extend the questions of this moment into today’s context by exploring of the institution of the University. 

The University and micro-dynamics of institutional life

Friday 14 December, 10.30-17.30
Colchester Campus, North Teaching Centre, room 1.03, University of Essex

We would like to welcome you to a conference at the University of Essex this December 14th, on The University and Micro-Dynamics of Institutional Life. The event will be keynoted by Jennifer Doyle (UCR), who will be sharing her new research on the place of the institution in contemporary feminist and anti-racist performance work. Jennifer Doyle is the author of books including Campus Sex, Campus Security (2015) and Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013). 

Registration is free, and lunch is provided.

You can find the details below. All welcome!


10.15 – 10.45: Registration and Coffee

10.45 – 11.00: Welcome

11.00 – 12.10: Panel 1: Historical Approaches to the University

+ The University and the Public Sphere: An interpretive framework for a history of the New Universities at Sussex & Essex

Many publications in relation to the current critical debate on the place of the university within society refer to the public university or have used the terms public sphere, public, democracy, importance to an informed public, or citizenship, as well as evoking liberal enlightenment themes within university education. Indeed some have turned to previous historical moments of the university and directly referred to the public universities of the 1960s. My current, early stage PhD Research project, University as Public Sphere: New pedagogies and architecture at the University of Sussex and University of Essex, 1960 – 1975, is foregrounded in this current critical debate. It will engage and inform this debate by investigating these institutions as public spheres, formed by the pedagogical structures, the spatial architectural elements and how they were used and contested by staff and students, which in turn, will provide critical analysis of how the universities shaped political actors for wider civil society. In this paper I would like to present the methodological and critical historical approaches I am developing and deploying in this project. I will introduce why this project proceeds from the position of public sphere theory, as developed by Habermas, Negt and Kluge, and Arendt and how it contributes to the understanding of the university as part of a plural public sphere of action, debate and contestation. Further I shall contextualise this public sphere approach within the British post-war debates on citizenship and democracy. Finally I will pose how examining the universities in this project as public spheres requires critical engagement with the university as a whole space; looking at its architectural space, pedagogy and actors. From it being conceived by founders and architects, to how it is lived in by staff and students, to how it is perceived. Basis for this critical approach will come generally from Lefebvre’s triad – representations of space, spaces of representation and spatial practices – as well as other critical theory approaches.

Jack O’Connor is a part-time History PhD student in the School of History, Art History and Philosophy at the University of Sussex. He has a BA and MA in Contemporary History from the University of Sussex. His project is a critical historical investigation, which engages with the University as a whole; looking at its architectural space, pedagogy and actors. From how it was conceived and perceived by founders and architects, to how it was lived in by staff and students.

+ Historical polymaths and the obstruction to ‘indisciplinary’ research in present-day academia

‘Interdisciplinary’ is a key concept for present-day academia. It is attached to individual pieces of research, journal titles and descriptions, and used to justify the foundation of new university departments to cater to its needs. It is also increasingly cited as a requirement for funding. However, it is not clear how far these developments go towards dismantling disciplinary boundaries and producing genuinely unconstrained research.This paper offers some insight on the matter through comparison with historical figures who might now refer to as polymaths. Focussing on the Victorian period, instructive for being a time of transition to the more specialised environment of the 20th century, the discussion centres on a set of historical social practices that made it possible for men and women to produce work across a wide range of subjects. The paper argues that one of the crucial factors was independent means: these people already had inherited wealth, or earned their money through a profession that left time and leisure to explore other fields. With the income for professionalised academics entirely tied to their research, the current academic climate could not be further from that position. Independent means are increasingly necessary to enter academia at all, let alone to pursue unusual work within it, especially as funding structures both within and without universities are all still highly disciplinary, making it difficult to find a home for work which genuinely crosses boundaries. One result of this economic reality is that the word ‘interdisciplinary’ is becoming increasingly warped. Researchers are now more likely to argue that their existing discipline is inherently ‘interdisciplinary’ in order to gain the status associated with the term, straying far from what was intended when the word was created. The paper concludes by suggesting some practical mechanisms by which more genuinely interdisciplinary research might be generated.

Bruno Bower studied at Oriel College, Oxford, Birmingham Conservatoire, and King’s College London, and completed his PhD at the Royal College Music in 2016 with a thesis on the programme notes for the Crystal Palace Saturday Concerts. He has written on Gilbert and Sullivan for The Cambridge Companion to Operetta, and has produced critical editions of music by Peter Gellhorn and Norman O’Neill, published by RCM Editions. He is currently lecturing on first and third year modules at Brunel University, and giving tutorial supervisions at Cambridge University on first- and second-year analysis and 19th-century history.

+ Dorothy Sayers, in the smoking room, with the mirror: Queer Detection in Women’s Criticism of Women’s University Fiction

In a review of Dorothy Sayers’s 1935 detective novel set a women’s college, Gaudy Night, Q.D. Leavis voices age-old anxieties about segregated feminine communities: ‘What is to be said for the female smoking room that has set its approval on Miss Sayers?’ Leavis claims that Sayers’s epigraphs and novelist protagonist are an embarrassing ‘give-away’ of her literary education. But they are also possibly a different kind of exposé. Lilian Faderman claims that by 1921 a collegiate fictional setting was an established code for queer relationships precisely because they therefore appeared to be only an environmentally induced phase.

Leavis downplays her review as ‘incidental observations’ and her subject matter as only ‘incidentally affect[ing] to’ tackle a social issue: ‘whether academic life produces abnormality in women’. But, as Eve Sedgwick’s term ‘nonce taxonomies’ conveys, temporary and contingent semantic specificity is precisely how queer coding works. Gaudy Night’s narrator declares too that, especially for a detective, ‘[t]here are incidents in one’s life, which, through some haphazard coincidence of time and mood, acquire symbolic value’.

In this paper I consider ‘The Case of Miss Dorothy Sayers’ (1937) as a Sedgwickian ‘paranoid’ reading of feminine educational communities: reflexive, mimetic, exposing what is already apparent but never provable. Leavis suggests that Sayers needs a ‘specialist’ or ‘psychologist’, but her critical language is similarly diagnostic; arguably as literal as the novel is learned. As the first woman to complete a PhD in Literature at the first women’s college, Leavis’s hostility towards other women literary graduates seems suspiciously ungenerous. Yet, Virginia Woolf claims in Three Guineas (1938) that entering the professions would crucially give women the freedom to be critical, to kill the ‘angel in the house’. At this inaugural moment for both women and literary studies within the university, is the women’s college a queer household in which criticism is finally permitted? Is Leavis’s criticism an indication that learning to ‘read’ innuendo and between the lines of literature is not that dissimilar?

Natalie Wright is a PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research looks at gender in academic literary studies' formative methods, values, and intellectual labours in the UK through the criticism and life-writing of four early women scholars: Q. D. Leavis, Muriel Bradbrook, Edith Morley, and Caroline Spurgeon.

12.10 – 12.25: Break

12.25 – 13.30: Panel 2: The University and the Unconscious

+ Sexual Politics as Pedagogy: Ronell, Reitman and the ‘Proper Objects’ of Feminism and Queer Theory

Clare Hemmings writes that ‘In the sexual division of theoretical labor, queer theorists and not feminist theorists still appear to be having all the fun’ (2016: 84). This paper will draw on the 2018 Title IX case filed by Nimrod Reitman against comparative literature Professor Avital Ronell to examine the implications of the suturing of sexuality to fun characteristic of queer politics, exploring what happens when this perspective on the subversive character of desire is extended into pedagogical practice. The paper will examine the way in which disciplinary boundaries between feminism and queer studies have been redrawn in response to Reitman’s allegations of harassment and abuse against his former adviser. Whereas leading queer theorists have emphasised ‘coded intimacy’ and the subversive pedagogical practice of playing with erotic transference as it pertains to teacher-student relationships, feminists have focused on adjudicating on the question of power. Is gender always a signifier of power? Do power imbalances necessarily render certain intimacies impossible? The paper will argue that this case highlights an impasse in recent thinking on sexuality reflective of a longer history of post-sex wars theorising where one is either pro or anti-sex, emphasising the liberating potential of desire or the constraining particulars of power. These dualism's attaching themselves to queer and feminist thought respectively. It will argue that early second wave engagements with sexual politics by, among others, Ellen Willis, provide a framework through which we can recognise the ambivalence of both power and desire as they pertain to the Reitman-Ronell case. This in turn has implications for the way in which we think the proper objects of feminism and queer theory, and who, when it comes to sexual politics, gets to have all the fun.

Emily Cousens is in the final year of her PhD in Philosophy which explores Feminism and The Politics of Vulnerability. Her thesis explores the way in which thinking about vulnerability informs discourses of sexual violence. She is the Founder of The Free School of Critical Feminisms, an annual, intimate week-long summer course in which students, activists and academics come together to explore a range of questions pertinent to feminism outside of the imperatives of institutionalised academia. Emily teaches on the Women’s Studies Masters at The University of Oxford, is an Associate Lecturer in the politics department at Oxford Brookes and a Guest Teacher at The London School of Economics.

+ A Thing about Meetings

At a time when traditional institutions – including universities – are supposedly dissolving into networked supply chains and outsourced service packages, face-to-face meetings play a significant role in our (dis)investments in organizational life. In cultures saturated with mediated communication, face-to-face meetings assume new social functions, meanings and values that have been hitherto neglected within academic study, while meetings in the academy – from departmental committees to large-scale international conferences – are typically both idealized and abjected as spaces which both rouse and frustrate hopes for forms of semi-public togetherness, intellectual adventure and political solidarity. We have something of a thing about meetings and so our presentation takes the form of a dialogic meditation on the meeting itself, specifically the ways in which it braids conscious and unconscious dynamics in the making and unmaking of everyday institutional life, in the university and elsewhere. Departing from Roland Barthes’ late lecture series, How to Live to Together, we elaborate a related question/statement: how to work together. Along the way, we enquire into the meeting as a thing, in all the various significations of that word: a special kind of object; the active void (das Ding) at the heart of the Freudian-Lacanian schema of desire; þing, the root word in many Germanic languages for ‘assembly’ or ‘parliament’. In the face of a recent upturn in empirical investigations of the meeting whose findings so often turn meetings into something much less enervating (both agitating and debilitating) than they actually are, we offer a poetics of the meeting as a thing, a derisory yet sublime object of desire.

Simon Bayly is a writer, teacher, performance-maker and Reader in the Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Roehampton, London. His publications include a philosophy of theatricality, A Pathognomy of Performance (2011), and recent articles and book chapters on vibration and modernist vocal imaginary, waste and gratuitous expenditure, the project, the meeting and the protest camp as key figurations of contemporary work, sociality and politics. He and Johanna Linsley are currently engaged in a project entitled Acts of Assembly that is exploring the meeting as a psychosocial genre that is both idealized and abjected in a range of contemporary corporate, artistic and political contexts.

Johanna Linsley is an artist, researcher and producer of performance with interests in contemporary performance and Live Art; documentation of performance; sound, listening and the voice; queer domesticity; and modes of assembly. She has published research in Contemporary Theatre Review, Performance Research and Cultural Geographies. Her work in performance, both solo and with the London-based performance collective I'm With You, has been presented throughout the UK and the USA, and in Brussels, Copenhagen, Zagreb, Bogotà and elsewhere, at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Hayward Gallery (London), the Barbican Centre (London), the Wellcome Collection (London), and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London). She is a founding partner of UnionDocs, a centre for documentary arts in Brooklyn, New York. She was a postdoctoral research associate on the Wellcome Trust-funded project Challenging Archives, and research assistant on the AHRC-funded project Performing Documents, both at the University of Bristol.

13.30 – 14.30: Lunch

14.30 – 16.00: Panel 3: Phenomenological Approaches to the University

+ Everyday Life in the Accelerated Academy: a Rhythmanalytical Perspective

Starting from Henri Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of rhythm as philosophical orientation and experimental methodology for cultural-historical research, this paper explores and critiques the rhythmic orientations and fluctuations that characterise everyday life in the contemporary university. It embraces and foregrounds the experiential by recounting ‘a (typical) day in the life of’ staff and students in a post-92, West Midlands institution. The pilot project unveiled tensions and contradictions inscribed in the fabric of the quotidian by shedding light on its rhythmic dispositions and disruptions. The rhythms of teaching and learning occurring across the university’s main sites were captured through a novel combination of research methods: excerpts of audio-visually recorded walking interviews, combined with time-lapse photography recording campus life and classroom/lab/studio teaching sessions, are here presented and examined to test the strengths and limits of Rhythmanalysis as an experimental methodology. Key findings highlight promising methodological and theoretical implications. Methodologically, the teacher & learner’s spatial, temporal and affective experiences are reframed to translate the rich complexity of these articulations in their simultaneity, materiality and nuance. Theoretically, the paper examines two claims, concerning the complexity of spatio-temporal experiences in the accelerated academy. First, it considers zones of spatio-temporal ‘suspension’ as strategic and existential devices through which academics reconfigure islands of eurythmia within increasingly ‘toxic’ academic scapes. Second, it addresses the relationship between university, rhythm and future, arguing that a lot more can be achieved if we unveil the anticipatory potential inherent to rhythm and frame education as a form of suspension from the dominant time-economies and, concomitantly, as an incubator for possible, rather than probable futures (Poli, 2014). Finally, it encourages a political and pedagogical reading of Rhythmanalysis, one that promotes spatio-temporal re-appropriations as forms of internal critique necessary to alter the social and institutional conventions that presently enable the chronic pathologies (arrhythmias) of the contemporary, accelerated academy.

Fadia Dakka is Research Fellow (Education) and Deputy Director of the Centre for the Study of Culture and Practice in Education (CSPACE), at Birmingham City University. Her research is broadly concerned with a critique of the contemporary, corporate university, with an emphasis on institutional competition/competitiveness, national mobilization strategies and institutional adaptive response to competition and intense commodification. Her current research explores ideas of university crisis, conjunctural shift, and alternative futures, from a cultural-historical perspective. Looking at the interplay between social acceleration, rhythm and affect within the academy, it addresses questions such as: how does the culture of speed affect institutional diversity, individual creativity and, more generally, the quality and meaning of academic labour? Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis frames the reflection philosophically, while providing an experimental method to capture the everyday life of contemporary universities through a spatio-temporal and affective analysis of teaching and learning.

+ Who Is Sussex? Belonging and Repression in the 2013 Sussex University Occupation

In Spring 2013 a campaign against the outsourcing of campus staff at the University of Sussex led to a student occupation that was by turns militantly confrontational, tactically innovative and politically creative. Over eight weeks, “Occupy Sussex” forged a new political imaginary inside and against the neoliberal university that, while ultimately unsuccessful in preventing the privatisation of campus services, offers important insights into the theory and practice of student and worker resistance today. Through a reading of texts and visual material produced in and around the occupation—both how the occupiers represented themselves and how they were depicted by university management—this paper examines the ways the occupation engaged with questions of who the university is and who the university ought to be, with reference to three questions. First, how did the occupiers deploy ideas of friendship, solidarity and community (the latter understood both as something already immanent to the campus and as something produced in and through the occupation) in opposition to the logic of neoliberalism? Second, what were the effects of the university management’s persistent characterisation of protesters as “outside agitators,” which went hand in hand with accusations of violence? Finally, how did occupiers respond to the threat of the recuperation or normalisation of the occupation, or its subsumption into a toothless “tradition of protest” that pays lip service to the oppositional movements of the past while denying their legitimacy in the present? I argue that these interrelated preoccupations not only constituted the core of the Sussex occupation, but also form a vital yet unexamined terrain of contestation in the university today. As such, the emergent theorisation of movements and campaigns in institutions can be a fertile site for critical university studies’ project of analysing the shifting dynamics of power and resistance within the university.

Frankie Hines is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Westminster. His research is on contemporary American anarchist literature and deals with the relation of social movements’ knowledge-production to the production of social theory in the academy. He received his BA in American Studies in 2015 and MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Culture and Thought in 2017, both from the University of Sussex.

+ Bureaucracy, Vulnerability, and the Mythologising of the Student Body

This paper seeks to address the ways in which the academic institution, through the language of ‘the student body’ presents itself as having been subjected to violence when violence takes place in or around it. The flattening of individual students into one homogeneous group produces a mythologised vision of the university as singular and subjective, and allows complaint or allegation to be discursively twisted into violence in itself. This violence is in the association of sexual abuse or police intimidation with the institution – the ‘blame’ for this often lies with the victim. Looking at Emma Sulkowicz’s ‘Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)’ at Columbia University and the ‘Farthing Five’ case at the University of Sussex, I map out how language of the body is used for economic gain and protection of the neoliberal institution. The ‘student body’ works as a proxy for covering up institutional power dynamics and simultaneously as a means of dismissing any criticism of that proxy. I then turn to Sara Ahmed’s writing on the nature of diversity work and complaint, through which I examine which bodies are subsumed into the discursive production of ‘a student body’ and which are made unruly outliers. The paper sketches out situations of ‘student bodies’ in conflict with ‘the student body’, wherein the individual becomes diluted into – or representative of – the greater institution when convenient, and expelled into the role of ‘attacker’ when not. At the centre of this struggle is the difficulty of extricating what it means to be a student at all, let alone one with a body.

Kat Sinclair is a PhD student in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, researching the co-constitutive relationship between science-fiction and gender. She is also a poet and runs queer feminist performance events in Brighton with the Devil’s Dyke Network.

This paper offers a rhetorical analysis of the trope of sensitivity in debates over sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sex discrimination in the university. In the United States, judicial and administrative interpretations of Title IX (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education) have been the subject of controversy for several years: student activists and advocates see themselves as critiquing the operation of sexual power in educational institutions, but their critics argue that students are simply too sensitive, warning that sensitivity threatens both the constitutionally protected due process rights of the accused as well as the less formalized doctrine of academic freedom (Kipnis). As keynote speaker Jennifer Doyle has argued, "Title IX is the administrative structure through which the university knows what exposure feels like, what vulnerability is." I contend that sensitivity, which names a vulnerability or exposedness in language, could be the basis for a more 'sensitive rhetoric,' one that complicates our understanding of consent and voluntarity as well as institutional and sexual power. I argue that critics who accuse student activists of being too sensitive are overlooking the force of institutional structures that often the critics themselves occupy and accrue benefits from. Following Sara Ahmed, I analyze public conversations about "problem students" (including student activists) as a form of public debate over the university's norms and values. Criticizing students for failing to uphold these norms and values is also a way of calling for their reinforcement, and of missing what students themselves have to say about the harm university culture can do. By introducing a rhetorical approach to the field of critical university studies, I aim to show how critiques of sensitivity disavow the power of language to injure, wound, or harm. As a discipline, rhetoric can help scholars understand both the affective and ideological circuits that connect institutional power to everyday life.

Kendall Gerdes is an assistant professor of Technical Communication and Rhetoric in the Department of English at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as Director of the department’s Media Lab. Her research focuses on the contributions rhetorical theory can make to both ethics and everyday life. Her current project, Sensitive Rhetorics: Academic Freedom and Campus Activism, argues that the power of language to wound or do harm is part of a larger vulnerability to being affected in language, or a “sensitive rhetoric,” that is the basis for ethical and rhetorical relations. Dr. Gerdes is a co-editor of the forthcoming collection Reinventing (with) Theory in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, and her work has been published in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Philosophy & Rhetoric, Composition Forum, and more.

16.00 – 16.15: Break

16.15 – 17.15: Keynote Presentation

+ Host Institution: Transversal Performance Work

This lecture draws from especially Félix Guattari's work to consider the place of the institution in work by artists Autumn Knight, Rafa Esparza and EJ Hill. In their work we confront ourselves as a group; we sense the presence of the institution as structure that might foster a sense of place and/or enact forms of displacement. We conjure the institution as a figure which tells us what we can and can't do. Following especially Autumn Knight's lead, I test out the applicability of the language of institutional psychoanalysis and group dynamics to consider contemporary feminist and anti-racist work unfolding in and around the museum and the university.

Jennifer Doyle is the author of Campus Sex/Campus Security (2015), Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013) and Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectic of Desire (2006). She is professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. She guest curated the performance series “Tip of Her Tongue” for The Broad Museum, guest curated Nao Bustamante: Soldadera for the Vincent Price Museum in East Los Angeles. She was the 2013-2014 Fulbright Distinguished Chair at the center for Transnational Research in Art Identity and Nation at the University of the Arts, London and is the recipient of an Arts Writers Grant (both in support of a forthcoming book on art and sport).

17.15 – 17.30: Closing Address

17.30: Drinks

The call for papers is now closed


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