confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Month: February, 2016

Disquieting Invisibility

morning shefI wake to a beautiful morning over this city and ponder on how marvelous is such simple beauty.  Below me stretches out a city that was for so long the context of struggles to make myself visible as an academic, to manage my conduct in such a way that I was recognisably an academic whose performances could align with my institution’s strategic interests and demands of academic normativity – what we sometimes call ‘career’.

For much of my time here, though, beauty was not a word I could use to describe what it meant to perform in relation to academic normativity.  Such dawns as pictured above were absent from my vision.  Instead I experienced a growing existential dislocation, an intense sense of distance from any notion of authenticity.  This was not all the fault of academia.  Certainly not.  But none of us, NONE OF US, are simply and wholly just academics.  We are PEOPLE.  And it is this lack of respect for us as human, as people with lives, loves, passions, hopes and desires that often characterises working life.  The decisions I made to organise my life in relation to academic normativity, while in many ways quite distinct and different from many of my colleagues, was also not so unusual.  Lives stretched out across locations; absences from family life; issues not spoken about – are these not also common to many academic lives?

At this moment this lack of humanity in much academic life presents itself starkly to me today.  It is four years (February 14th 2012) since I collapsed into mental crisis and distress.  It is quite miraculous that I have been able to see but one more morning, let alone many.  And it is such a coincidence that I should mark this anniversary in the city and the institution that formed the backdrop to my crisis.

I met with a colleague here, who I did not know at the time, who asked me how the institution responded to my crisis.  I reported, truthfully, that it was very supportive.  And it was.  I was given all the time I needed, and informed clearly of what needed to be done at different stages.  I did make reference to a kind of institutional invisibility though.  I didn’t expand on it them but wish to do so now.

In a very strong way it is as if I had never worked here and had never experienced such distress.  It is as if what I experienced was purely personal and was not what Barbara Jago calls ‘academic depression‘.  How does this invisibility manifest itself?  None of the people who were closest to me in my professional life here have ever actively sought to inquire into how I am. I find this quite odd.  Two, and only two, people do.  But they were not people who I was most involved with professionally.  These two people have responded with simple and powerful humanity.  I often wonder why those others are silent.  What prevents them from acting humanely?  How have I become so invisible to them?  How is it possible for such astounding silence when many of them know I am here this week?

Many people who face mental distress and anguish experience such invisibility.  It is not just that it is less noticeable compared to physical disability.  Age old discomfort with the mad carries on in our ‘modern’ times, as if our distress carries some stain of evil, or is a mark of personal weakness.  We appear to carry a social stigma, best responded to with avoidance, distance, INVISIBILITY.


Research Selectivity and the Destruction of Authentic Scholarship? The View from the (semi) Periphery


Below is the text of a proposal to the European Educational Research conference in Dublin this year.  It outlines some research under development with colleagues in Poland looking at the way research evaluation frameworks are re-shaping academic practice and the nature of what is knowledge in higher education.  Far more than being mechanisms for assessing the quality of academic research outputs, we argue that these are means by which knowledge itself is being changed but without making that an explicit object of policy.  Most disturbing of all is the way academics themselves are complicit in this.  It makes us wonder if many academics, and academic managers in particular have given up on higher education as a public good.



Research selectivity, such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, is becoming a feature of higher education systems worldwide (see; Hazelkorn 2011) and often associated with the rise of neoliberal modes of governance (Henkel 2000; Marginson 2000). Higher education is therefore conceptualised by governments in ways that make the return on public investment amenable to calculation, comparison, and programmatic intervention. Through a range of policy instruments, specifically the introduction of market-like activities, academics’ daily practice is caught up between ‘actions at a distance’ and internal management techniques (see Miller & Rose 2008). For instance, ‘quality’ of scholarly activity is assessed against regular audits, such as the REF; core funding differentiates between prestige disciplines such as STEM as against the social sciences and humanities and places an emphasis on market-like behaviours and how institutions market themselves and read their markets. These translate professional decisions into methods of comparison through league tables, and in so doing make those decisions amenable to control at a distance. Internally this is matched by management techniques to align individual practice and sensibilities to those of institutional strategic objectives, which are largely framed by these ‘actions at a distance’ (see also Ball 2012). These include systems of performance management that usually involve annual reviews of performance emphasising research activity and output, and the setting of targets. ‘Research’ in this context is often reconfigured as ‘grant capture’ and publication in ‘high impact’ journals. Consequently, one powerful critique of such selectivity has focused on challenges to academic identity (Billot 2010; Davies 2005; Harley 2001; Harris 2005).

However, such critiques often arise from what can be called the centres of higher education. Drawing heuristically on Wallerstein’s (e.g. 1982 & 2013) World-System Theory we ask what this experience of research selectivity and neoliberal governmentality looks like in semi-peripheral systems of European higher education. For instance, Irish higher education reform occurs in the context of public spending being overseen by the European Union, European Bank, and the World Bank following Ireland’s economic collapse in 2008 (e.g. HEA 2013). Similarly, Poland is seeking to reform its higher education system within a context of post-Communist transition, the adoption of neoliberal political rationalities, and the intensification of research selectivity in higher education (Kweik 2012). While Ireland and Poland benefit form being part of the European Union, both are politically and economically peripheral. There is also a linguistic aspect where non-English speakers are required to publish in English-language journals. Therefore, how does this structural location impact on how policy discourses, instruments, and management techniques are mobilised? For the purposes of our pilot project we also wanted to inquire into how this manifested in the context of semi-peripheral disciplines, especially the humanities. The legitimacy of the humanities has been increasingly questioned as higher education is more closely aligned with national economic objectives. For instance in Japan an education minister asked its national universities to either close down their humanities and social science faculties or reorganise them to be vocationally oriented. Adapting Wacquant’s (Wacquant, et. Al. 2014) concept of territorial stigmatisation we ask in what ways semi-peripheral systems are governed through regional and global systems of surveillance and measurement; how internal selectivity is arranged at both national and institutional level (e.g. how are the humanities dealt with); and how are different categories of academic managed in relation to research selectivity.


Methodology, Methods, Research Instruments or Sources Used
The paper reports on the pilot study for this project, which aims to clarify the research problematic, scope, and questions.  The lead author’s home institution was selected as the site for the empirical work, with the Polish academics taking the lead in conducting the interviews.  This was undertaken as itself an ethnographic inquiry into the paradox of the proposed research – that of critically examining research selectivity as part of neoliberal political rationality (which includes the problematic place of non-high status English as a medium of academic exchange) whilst also seeking to publish in ‘high impact’ English language outputs and use English as a medium for cross-country collaboration.  This (auto)ethnographic aspect will be part of the broad mix of approaches taken in the larger study.  Therefore the proposed research has a strong reflexive mode. The discipline of humanities was chosen because a) the problematic place it currently has in higher education, and b) the particular challenges faced by the humanities in Irish universities.  Specifically, Irish Studies and German Studies were selected.  This was partly opportunistic due to established links between these areas and the lead author.  These were selected because they also provided an opportunity to explore linguistic capital as a dimension of the field of study (see Outcomes below). Irish Studies enabled the exploration of the structural location of a European minority language (we selected scholars who wrote through the medium of Irish).  German Studies enabled an examination of the structural location of a major European language within both a semi-peripheral system of higher education and a semi-peripheral discipline. The pilot project involved 7 semi-structured interviews with full-time members of academic staff on permanent contracts (Irish Studies = 3; German Studies = 2; plus two colleagues with expertise in the field of internationalisation in higher education).  The current paper focuses primarily on the 5 interviews with Irish Studies and German Studies. It is proposed that a grounded theory approach will be utilised as a basic analytical approach for the whole project.  For the purposes of this paper an initial inductive approach is taken.  The larger project will use a mix of methods.


Although institutional practices of internal research selectivity are systemic in nature, all academics interviewed discussed how they relied upon personal strategies to negotiate the various management techniques. All spoke about the general concern within their fields and the wider discipline but that there had been no collective or solidaristic space to mobilise these concerns as public and systemic issues.

Such strategies included reorienting effort to write in English language journals as well as in Irish or German, to seek a ‘balance’ of outputs.  This was a subtractive strategy as it meant less was written in their preferred language.  It was suggested that the emphasis on research articles as the institutionally privileged output changed the nature of disciplinary knowledge development and exchange. Specifically it challenged the way a body of work was captured in the production of monographs in the humanities. This was see as being driven by institutional concern with metrics and not with authentic scholarship.

Participants stressed that writing in English was a reduced form of scholarship that did not allow them to fully articulate meaning.  Performance against institutionally defined criteria bore no relation to the objective of knowledge production and exchange in knowledge communities.  Rather than being additive research selectivity was being experienced as subtractive and diminishing.

Ball, S. J. (2012) Performativity, Commodification and Commitment: An I-Spy Guide to the Neoliberal University, British Journal of Educational Studies,  60(1):17-28.
Billot, J. (2010) The imagined and the real: identifying the tensions for academic identity, Higher Education Research & Development, 29(6):709-721.
Davies, B (2005): The (im)possibility of intellectual work in neoliberal
regimes, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(1):1-14.
Harley, S. (2002) The impact of research selectivity on academic work and identity in UK universities. Studies in Higher Education, 27(2):187–205.
Harris, S. (2005) Rethinking academic identities in neo-liberal times, Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4):421-433.
Henkel, M. (2000) Academic identities and policy change in higher education, London: Jessica Kingsley.
Marginson, S. (2000) Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22(1):1–12.
Miller, P. & Rose, N. (2008) Governing the Present: Administering Economic, Social and Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity Press
HEA (2013) Towards a Performance evaluation framework: Profiling irish Higher education a report by the higher education authority. Dublin: HEA.
Wallerstein, I, et. al. (1982) World-Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, Beverley Hills: Sage.
Wallerstein I, et. al. (2013) Uncertain Worlds: World-Systems Analysis in Changing Times, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hazelkorn, E. (2011) Ranking and the Reshaping of Higher Education: The battle for world-class excellence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wacquant, L. et al. (2014) Territorial Stigmatisation in Action, Environment and Planning A, 46:1270–1280.
Kwiek, M. (2012) Changing higher education policies: From the deinstitutionalization to the reinstitutionalization of the research mission in Polish universities, Science and Public Policy 39:641-654.


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