Care in the virtual community

It was the recent article on the paying-members-only university common room that made me think about the importance of belonging to an academic community. This particular story drew our attention to the fact that some academics, primarily casualized staff and graduate students, might be excluded from these spaces.

It appears that in a number of universities, senior common rooms have been ‘re-purposed’ by the space-utilisation team. At best, there may be ‘breakout areas’ with a kettle and a microwave. This solution is greenwashed by the estates team who will have saved a few micro-joules of heating and lighting, while at the same time keeping the CCTV and swipe-card barriers going (right, The Plashing Vole?).  But, in the jargon of university managers, are these spaces ‘fit for purpose’?

For one thing, the breakout areas tend to be the provenance of just one faculty or school housed within a building. There is often no central social space, and few social occasions to draw faculty together. So it is far less likely that there’s going to be a happy coincidence like the one that brought together an Anglo Saxon scholar and a microbiologist . The former knew of potions and remedies contained in the ancient Leechbook and she wondered whether they would work today as antibacterial agents. The latter decided to give it a go, and as a result, we have one new weapon against MRSA.

If we ever needed a defence of humanities and sciences co-mingling in universities, this is the example. But more than that, it points to the necessity of nurturing the fortuitous cross-fertilisation of intellects which really drives innovative research. Universities should be less like factories, and more like hangouts where clever people can talk to each other and ignite ideas. For this to happen we need space and – buzzword of the moment – a sense of belonging. Every university needs common spaces, but also head spaces – in other words, free, unstructured time. If I may commit heresy in an age of workload dashboards and management by metrics, we need to build aimlessness into a university.

Instead what we are likely to get are multi-occupancy offices and hot-desking spaces. The Plashing Vole on Twitter has talked about the impossibility of doing any real academic work when there are 15 people in an office. As I am thinking this through, I realise I’m echoing many of the same points made by him in this excellent piece from April 2016.

And so more and more people stay home to work without interruption, or without surveillance. This is not a helpful way to create ‘belonging’. But even if real academic community has been dissolved, academics still form a rather distinctive community of practice – shared lore and values, social practices and a joint enterprise. University leaders say they want the former, while being less enchanted by the prospect of the latter. At the same time as they say they want to break down silos and cross disciplines, they neglect to cultivate the spaces where those connections can be forged. In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain. Universities keep us marching along, forming and reforming in response to multiple restructurings, reviews and revalidations. There is a reason the word ‘tradition’ is rarely uttered in UK universities, except in the most elite. We are all newly precarious and we are not supposed to look for permanence.

When the university becomes a forbidding space, we head to what Thomas Docherty has called the Clandestine University. In the five years since his 2011 piece, the virtual academy has emerged as the place where academics go looking for stimulating and receptive imagined communities. In a recent Skype call with Music for Deckchairs  we marvelled at having found each other – and all the other Twitterers and bloggers who sustain us with affirmation, retweets and feedback, and introduce us to new compadres. This is academe sans frontieres, in effect, the new common room where we can recover some of the elation of academic discussion with people we would love to have as colleagues. We can write something and know it will not be blighted with a grade of 1*-4*. The casualized academic or the early career researcher who finds research leave foreclosed without a prior 3* publication can receive encouragement for their writing. The retiree uninvited from the weekly seminars can still find like-minded seekers of knowledge. We can roam, daydream, offend and reoffend and learn from those experiences. But it is the conversations we have, as I am having now, picking up themes from those other bloggers I’m so delighted I ran into. Those stunning writers discovered so unexpectedly when bouncing around the Twittersphere. Like Emily. And I am so grateful for their care and generous words when the kind of joyless academia which is expressed in brutalist concrete, offers only:

Research evaluation frameworks, sabbaticals, promotion criteria, appraisals, funding applications, the class structures of academia, the tacit division of work between Genius and Menial: all conspire to encourage the division of the Achiever sheep from the Nurturing goats. [The Plashing Vole]

The Plashing Vole says he is thankful for his immediate colleagues, and so am I. I have been supported, nay indulged, by a wonderful group of friendly, brilliant and accomplished scholars. I hope I have reciprocated their kindness – maybe so, since one dear man called me The Mother of the House recently. But I also want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone out there who has followed me, interacted in some way or just clicked on that weird red heart. You really keep me going. The Plashing Vole is right, together, we are so close to Utopia.



Grove, Jack. 2016. Members only staff room splits opinion. Times Higher. April 28th.


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