Monday, 31 December 2012

Professing in the Present

Stephen Knight

This is a new piece written for a discussion lunch for professors in the School of Culture and Communications at Melbourne University. We had a view over the whole city from the tenth floor, but then the building belongs to the lawyers. The Head of School had asked me to introduce discussion of the role of professors now.

I retired just over a year ago. I think of it as re very tired. In the highly-mobile traditions of our family we moved again, back to Melbourne, which has been very welcoming. I think of myself having entered a fifth university phase.

Thinking about the phases generates some thoughts about where we are, as against where we have been. The five phases are these. At first, Oxford around 1960 as a student. Then I moved far away, to Sydney for a long time as a lecturer. Then in the mid-eighties to Melbourne as professor and head. Then back to Britain, first to run a `new university’ department at De Montfort and then to the academically excellent but drastically under-organised department at Cardiff. And now, what ? Back to Melbourne, a little fiddling around. Five phases, Perhaps five acts ?

But they hardly seem to belong to the same play, the phases and their contexts have been so different, the variations so extreme. I feel that helpful in describing, even understanding, the variations is Max Weber’s description of universities. He was thinking of the German model, but was also aware how the Americans had remodelled it. He saw the crucial structural mix as the collegial and the charismatic. The collegial being academics working together, along with students, undergraduates and postgraduates. The charismatic element was leadership by experts, shaping and developing the subjects, and also having a role in the public arena. The mix was crucial. He also saw that mix as operating in the best families and the best states.
So, using those terms, I would characterise where I have been this way. Oxford was at first a fine definition that you can as a university be neither collegial nor charismatic. One tutor was little engaged: I vividly recall reading an essay on Shelley while he was on the phone discussing his weekend cricket team. The other defined uncharismatic being a miserable man who was expert in fifteenth-century English pronunciation. He was promoted to a chair and immediately dropped us. But he was replaced  by the young John Burrow. At our first meeting he gave each of the three of us a piece of paper. It had the names of authors and books on it. You might call it a reading list. We had never seen one. My Canadian buddy Phil turned over and said Holy Shit there’s more on the other side. People like John and Del Kolve were both collegial and charismatic, but I feel they were few, and worked separately, with no linking structure.

Sydney was totally opposite. High-level collegial, with structural linking -- people sharing courses, meetings, debates, the lot, and a serious broad commitment to teaching. And some brilliantly charismatic and generous leaders like, in my case, George Russell, Bernie Martin, Bill Maidment. There were also serious external links through the city’s intellectual life, through the WEA, and also the force of new thinking, political and intellectual, these were the days of Barthes, Foucault, Macherey, Althusser, Lacan. We really went for it. I’m not sure we found it.

Phase three at Melbourne was also highly collegial and highly charismatic in a somewhat more orderly way. Quite a few people were both, like Ken Ruthven, Stuart Macintyre, Peter Steele, Marian Adams, our excellent Dean. But those higher echelons of activity, now including me, were facing anti-collegial supercharisma in the very major changes of the Dawkins era. Weber didn’t account for the notion of the central funders presenting instructions in return for paying the bill. But the collegial-charismatic mix held together in face of those pressures at that time.

It was I think the attraction of a lower-trajectory form of collegiality that led me to move to De Montfort, formerly Leicester Poly, in 1992. I enjoyed my years in what we called Raymond Williams University, with students who often had low self-esteem but considerable talent, and a lot of young, bright and seriously committed staff, charismatics of the future. When we moved to Cardiff, mostly for our children’s education, the experience was largely continuous, but Cardiff also had ready-made charismatics like Terry Hawkes, Kate Belsey and Chris Norris, and also a strong collegial team to interact with them – but no organisation: my job was to provide the organisation. That led me into higher collegiality, national subject assessment, first of teaching in the mid 1990s and then of research, the hand of government revealing itself. We thought we should collegially mediate government’s clumsy desires to minimise their malignity.

So after that, back here, back to the heartland of  the designer cafe latte. Where are we now with collegial and charismatic ? Charismatic has been institutionalised with  laureate professorships, future fellowships  and so on, and I think consciously separated from the collegial body. That appears to me a science model that we have been induced to follow. The collegial seems seriously weakened, notably in the Melbourne model which tends to take undergraduates out of  the full collegial environment. Even though the types of course now offered to undergraduates are technically collegial in that they have groups of people delivering them, I think they may be only quasi-collegial. The old single-lecturer courses were in fact quasi-charismatic operations at the collegial level, including by established charismatic people, often with considerable effect.
There is also the other quasi-collegial activity of administration and meetings. Many of these are content-free and merely deal with unit handling. You can waste a lot of time waiting for a real collegial issue to emerge. There is also considerable pressure on the academic to relate to the external world, not it seems primarily through processes like the old outreach education or charismatic presence, but often just through PR and business linkage. That engagement is a quasi-process in itself and we will see more in off-campus engagement as Research Impact looms. Will engagement become a successful marriage I wonder ?

It does seem to me that a lot of the plans and demands being made here by deans and heads of schools are attempts to reconstitute the best effects of the collegial-charismatic mix of the past – like engaging people in collaboration, like linking the star performers to the future star students, like mentoring, and centres for this and that or everything. Centres seem a way of structuring in collegiality among charismatics. It can work: it might also contradict anti-collegial pro-charismatic funding structures. Cardiff ironists invented a Centre for Shaun the Sheep Shtudies. For woolly thinking.

The very difficult task as I see it for professors now is to continue to realise their roles in the charismatic mode without that process completely severing them from collegial activities, including with undergraduates. Weber did not predict our world where the universities are immersed in both the economy and the governmental para-economic command system. But I suggest Weber’s understanding of how universities can work at a high and multiply productive level  may help us respond to our current situation as quasi-charismatic quasi-colleagues in what is not yet I hope the quasi-university.

In discussion several  people pointed out there are quite a few regulations at university level holding back collegial activity like work-load models and research achievement requirements. It may be time for a campaign for more and better teaching to be credited. It was also suggested that the currently growing enrolments for Masters courses are in part generated because good students feel on finishing as undergraduates that they would like more collegial activities. It was agreed that the arrival of `Research Impact’ assessment in Australia will vary the situation, possibly for the better, but also possibly in a fetishised way, serving  industry and commerce primarily.

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