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The University-Without-Content: or why para-academia needs you.

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The University-Without-Content: or why para-academia needs you.

By Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers

“The university in ruins” (1). “The university without condition” (2). “The university in dissent” (3). This triptych of critiques remap the institution, infrastructure, and ideology of the university over the past two decades from the point of view of a troubling or fracturing of content. It is in ruins, dissenting and dissented, or, quite simply, content that is not-yet-here. For some, then, it appears that the university (as an idea or ideal) has refused itself, and any content – whether knowledge production, market reproduction, or bodily conduction – is somehow only felt in the negative, as its own refusal.

Our formulation the university-without-content embraces these critiques and embodies our dissatisfaction – our discontent – with the institution of the university as it is felt, as it takes place, now.

Without Content. Two words which move to many meanings. Does it mean the university as a hollowed-out space? Or the university as discontented space? Does it mean the institution without its flashy market-driven façade, where slick sellable content is uploaded by slow hands and sometimes slower servers? Or, is it the university discontented by its own content – the big bucks research, the underpaid, unpaid, overpaid, overworked staff, or the students-as-consumers (a phrase which forgets students and consumers alike remain human and messy and discontented) who are at “the heart of the system” (4). Without content means, as words often do, all of these things and almost certainly more.

The phrase university-without-content recognises that the institution has become content with cynicism. It refuses that content. Because cynicism is not just a dissatisfaction (a discontentment) with the status quo, it is its guarantor. As bell hooks – a very discontented (para)academic – has written, “profound cynicism is at the core of dominator culture wherever it prevails in the world” (5). Cynicism normalises and refuses to allow the possibility of things being different than they are now. Cynicism is the refusal of education as a practice of learning different things in different ways – let alone education as a practice of freedom. We refuse that cynical content, just as the university has been seen to refuse itself.

In that refusal – that intellectual, emotional, political, physical discontent – we don’t get stuck. In coming to the limits of our knowledge, including the limits of what we thought we knew or felt about the university, we open up ways of knowing, possibilities of teaching, learning, research, and being, that call into question why those limits have been in place so long, why they are so limited.

The university-without-content is not a cynical phrase, then, but an actively critical one. It exposes that all too often the institution is felt as a place where only particular kinds of content are allowed: the content without discontent. Content that is fast, succinct, competitive, straight, normalised. ‘Unique, quality content that will attract and engage customers on multiple channels’…

As long as marketing budgets are privileged over education and research, our universities will only ever be full of glitzy and stylish content. Such exclusive care for appearances means this content will never be substantial, let alone offer anything challenging. It indicates clearly that the contemporary university is content to be sold. Within this context a striking irony is at play: the very product universities are supposed to be selling to its customers – education – is compromised. Compromised because front-line service delivery is provided by tired, confused, exploited, insecure, and increasingly discontented staff members, whose talents as teachers and researchers are often ignored by institutions who refuse to give them secure contracts, rights, and responsibilities. The institution, it seems, is often very content with monetising assets at the expense of the assets themselves.

Rather than being content with the cynicism that we could all too easily accept as just the way it is, we want something else. We want to come back to the place where education can be recognised as a vocation “rooted in hopefulness” (6). We want to work without cynicism, without-content.

This is the domain of the para-academic, and the cynical and frustrated and frustrating experiences of the contemporary neoliberal university inform many of the contributions in the forthcoming collection, The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for Making-Learning-Thinking-Acting, that will be published as an open-access download and in print through grassroots publishing label HammerOn Press from the 15th September 2014. The book, which includes contributors from self-identified para-academics living in the US, UK, South Africa, Germany, Australia and Ireland, highlights the growing discontent within higher education internationally, but also demonstrates how individuals, groups and collectives are engaged in multiple forms of creative and critical resistance.

The Para-Academic Handbook works potentially as a collective coming to terms by the editors, contributors, and you, the wider readership. It presents a coming to terms with the emergent languages available to speak and configure our discontents. To come to terms with the institution without slipping into cynical, calcified, complacency, and without forgetting that hope itself can all too often be deployed against activating change now.

The book evolved out of series of conversations and walks between the editors who felt disappointed by the current state of knowledge production within universities. As critical theorists bent toward poetic thought, the university has always presented certain restrictions on how we can practice, express, and explore ideas. For a time we were, indeed (more or less) content to contribute to the institution as a way for us to help shape the wider project of knowledge making in which we remain passionately attached. Such compromises became harder to bear, however, when spaces for learning, thinking, making, and acting became increasingly stifling or closed down. We became discontented by the proliferation of labour and knowledge practices which sometimes seemed specifically designed to strip the human (and, indeed, the humanities) of all the messy, complex, content which made things interesting. And all the content which enables the quality of learning excellence which universities are supposed to deliver.

It is not that we hate the university. Both of us, in very different ways, remain determinedly committed to the practice of higher education. We remain committed to learning, thinking and acting from these necessarily transformational processes. No, as Eileen Joy has argued, we do what we do with, and for, “the love of the institution” (7). Even if the institution doesn’t always love us back.

We mobilise, then, for the love of the institution – a love without-content for its current operations – the kind of love which is very urgent, very needed, and very now. Working with this hope resituates us, and others, in the places with/in and with/out the university where we can make, learn, think, act, and teach discontentedly. And, in so doing, it asks of all those who are the content of the university to think about the labour and knowledge practices being carried out, to consider how time is being used or abused, where resources (both fiscal and human) are being allocated, to ask questions and think about where you are and why. It asks us all to be a little more discontented and a lot less cynical about what a university is, and could be.

The university-without-content is an ambivalent space. It recognises the cynical tendency to be content with the unthinking submission to the will of capital that, in turn, saturate its activities. It recognises that it is easier, safer even, to be content with the institution rather than challenge and hope for other ways of engaging with its knowledges, politics, and economies. The seductiveness of neoliberal doublespeak means that being content to ‘play the game’ (whose rules are they anyway?!), protects no one. There is no winner to take it all. At its worst, this cynical contentment with the status quo, the reliance on “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardised codes of expression and conduct” (8) risks resulting in what Hannah Arendt has warned us to be the end-point, the ultimate catastrophe, of an all too slick institutional life: the engendering of a collectively regulated yet “curious, quite authentic inability to think”.

We should never forget then, that the university-without-content is a very dangerous place. But it is not the only place. And moving in its content – its meanings – is its own disruption, its own discontentedness. Emerging from such devastation, where and how can the activities of making-learning-creating-acting occur? Our personal experiences, and many of the contributions in The Para-Academic Handbook tell us this is not an easy question to answer. It is, nevertheless, a struggle that is both necessary and most certainly possible.

1) Readings, Bill (1996) The University in Ruins, Harvard University Press.
2) Derrida, Jacques (2002) in Without Alibi, Stanford University Press.
3) Rolfe, Gary (2013) The University in Dissent, Routledge.
4) Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills (2011)
5) hooks, bell (2003: 11) Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, Routledge.
6) hooks (2003: xiv).
7) Joy, Eileen (2014) “A Time for Radical Hope” in Chiasma 1.1
8) Arendt, Hannah (1971) “Thinking and Moral Considerations” in Social Research 38.3:

  1. This reminds me of Zizek’s notion of ‘Kynicism’, I think he calls it and which he takes to be characteristic of our entire culture but, as far as universities are concerned, try Mats Alvesson ‘The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education and Work Organization’, Oxford University Press 2013, £25 (reviewed for SRHE News last year):

    Mats Alvesson is a Swedish Professor of Organization Studies who writes with sociological intent but in a line of cultural studies going back to Veblen and, above all, to Daniel Boorstin’s 1961 ‘The Image’, to diagnose the ills of overconsumption in a society in which ‘wealth… presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”’. Their consumption no longer satisfies needs but signals advantage, their possession becoming ‘positional’. This leads to ‘zero-sum games’ in which there can be only one winner and consequently many ‘empty’ claims to ‘grandiosity’.

    ‘The so-called knowledge society, the most popular and most grandiose label for contemporary post-industrial society’ is such a rebranding, masking its opposite – ‘functional stupidity’, defined as ‘a socially supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning, and justification’. Characteristically of big business and of businessified education, such ‘illusion tricks’ typify ‘world class’ institutions following managers who imitate each other in their claims to ‘excellence’ but whose ‘leadership’ is itself another example of vacant grandiloquence: Warwick Business School proudly listing itself alongside Coca-Cola, FedEx and Pampers as ‘one of the strongest consumer and business brands in the country’!

    So, as education becomes ‘a sorting machine’ keeping everyone in their place, its claims to individual salvation/ ‘transforming lives’ and ‘increasing social mobility’ (always upward when the reality for most is down) become ever more evangelistic. Pedagogic promises pander to the ‘strange mixture of fantasy and craving’ characteristic of narcissism and insecurity, not only of individuals but groups whose professional projects are associated with inflated job titles and exaggerated career expectations in increasingly McDonaldized employment. Such ‘educational fundamentalism marginalizes those who are not adapted to the school system’, while ‘formal, certified knowledge, particularly associated with academic education… is more often an illusion trick than a real qualification’ since ‘a lot of education has very modest effects on learning’ when ‘never before have so many studied for so long and learnt so little’.

    ‘Promising higher education for half the population… and proclaiming that this is essential in a knowledge-intensive society, kindles fantasies and ambitions which, in most instances, are unlikely to be fulfilled’, at best warehousing students with a focus on consumer satisfaction ‘making students happy rather than teaching them’. The obvious remedy implies a Great Reversal to a minority academic HE of the sort Gove and Willetts are trying to impose. Unlike opposition claims to be able to educate our way out of recession, this could be made to work, though ignoring the majority who fail and are made to feel they are failures is a recipe for more riots. It also promises an end to emptiness, or at least to leave only academic emptiness in the form of regurgitative examinations which function as proxies for more or less expensively acquired cultural capital.

    Alvesson briefly recalls ‘Keynes’s calculation that if we had devoted the productivity increases of the previous half-century or so to shorter working hours rather than consumption, a full working week would be only 15 hours’ but he does not deal with ‘the ecological disasters coming from economic growth and post-affluent consumption’ because ‘they are well known’. They will also surely soon extinguish the post-affluence in which the consumption of commodities has taken on the dimensions of a global cargo cult. In this context, Alvesson’s ‘critical examination of dominant institutions and broadly shared assumptions to point out how they constrain our ability and willingness to think through social issues and personal choices in order to arrive at conclusions grounded in reflective reasoning and sensitive ethical considerations’ may not seem much but is at least still possible in diminishing parts of higher education and is worth defending.

    600 words

    Patrick Ainley is editor with Martin Allen of Education beyond the Coalition from


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