The last post for the humanities?

LP readers might recall my posts earlier in the year on the push to abolish the humanities at QUT. Last Thursday, the School of Humanities and Human Services held, as its final function, a seminar called “The Last Post” to reflect on the current position of the Arts in Australian universities. I went along, and I wrote this article for the Higher Ed section of The Australian about it.

QUT Gardens Point campus

QUT’s Gardens Point campus, George Street, Brisbane.

Posted in education, politics, sociology
21 comments on “The last post for the humanities?
  1. fred says:

    Its funny, but I don’t remember ever ear-bashing my daughter over the issue of the enormous value of students learning ‘Humanities’ as compared to the lesser desirability of Maths and Science [both of which I taught along the way of my career].
    Basically I used to argue that learning about life, politics and citizenry and so on was a necessary pre-requisite to having a democracy and would enable better informed decisions about the value of Maths, Science and whatever else pollies and their mates come up with from time to time.
    But there we both were listening to Kevin’s campaign launch and he started going on about Maths and Science etc.
    So she leans over and covers my ears with her hands and says “Just ignore this bit dad”.
    Maybe I did ear bash her once or twice.

  2. Paulus says:

    Your point about the dominance of managerialism and productivity is spot on. Julia Gillard re-affirmed this on Monday: “while my portfolios can be a mouthful, I’ll be happy to be referred to simply as ‘the Minister for Productivity’.”

    I am curious about one thing in your article. Could you expand a little on “the role of disciplines and disciplinary collegiality as a path to the future”?

  3. mbahnisch says:

    Sure, Paulus. The article was edited down a tad for space, so I didn’t quite get to argue the points as fully as I’d liked. There are two related issues here – first the need for people to overcome the “as long as I’m left alone to carry on with my personal research interests” attitude which allows the divide and conquer strategy to work. So a bit of solidarity with those who share your broad field of study – there’s heaps of basically pretty irrelevant factionalism in many academic areas. And secondly, disciplines as a whole need to think harder, as I’m suggesting, about how their work can have a public impact that transcends the “tick the boxes” metrics of the Research Quality Framework, and in some instances, work around it – ie with the tendency to claim that only British or American journals and publishers are “top tier” – and most reject Australian focused work.

    There’s a lot of good stuff in the Considine paper I quoted from. Here’s the link:

  4. dj says:

    Excellent points, Mark. The factionalism and the need to seek allies beyond the University and the corporate sector were two of the things that struck me most when I was a History PhD student in the late 90s. The lack of solidarity/collegiality within departments and the petty individualism is/was something that is highly disappointing. At the time I thought this perception may have just been a result of the particular department I was working in and my own mental state at the time but on reflection it is fairly obvious that this was not the case.

  5. mbahnisch says:

    I think it’s pretty common, dj, and I’ve worked in four universities and more than one faculty in two of them over the past ten years. It’s way worse in some places than others, but it’s pretty much universal.

  6. kimberella says:

    Nice piece, Mark. It accurately pings the backward looking stance that too many acas have about a putative golden age – when that “age” and its “collegiality” was often riven by intellectual wars and in some instances intellectual bullying.

    It surely isn’t too much to ask of acas that they broaden the focus from micro-areas of research and start thinking past theory wars which have run out of steam and more about what sorts of contributions research and theory can now make to understanding and progressing our lived reality.

  7. “The article was edited down a tad for space, so I didn’t quite get to argue the points as fully as I’d liked”

    So you continuously promote yourself with News Limited, ‘Crikey!’, LP and so on, but you accept that what gets published is not your full argument (in other words pruned to acceptability) and you wonder that some people hesitate to blindly accept your arguments.

    Good luck with the new paradigm and hoping you are properly remunerated for your role in dismantling the old one.

    Nice intellectual dishonesty (big words up to you).


  8. mbahnisch says:

    Intellectual dishonesty? I’m more than happy to have my work edited, and I think the argument is sufficient in and of itself – of course, I’m also happy to expand on it in comments. Nor do I want people to “blindly accept (my) arguments”. Obviously the whole point of blogging is that I’m happy to be accountable for what I write and to respond to suggestions, criticisms, and take them on board. If you have any to make, apart from ad hominem take downs, I will respond with pleasure.

  9. Nabakov says:

    “the role of disciplines and disciplinary collegiality as a path to the future”?

    I reckon that now that Professor Dick Wettenhall’s about to step down from running the Bio21 Institute, he should write a book/start a blog about how he created a whole new model for running a collegiate, multidisciplinary research body that found productive shared room for starry-eyed academics, hard-nosed engineers, hard-charging venture capitalists and idealistic researchers. Admittedly it was dealing in the hard sciences but I’m not not alone in thinking he has come up with a new a paradigm of how you co-locate a bunch of very bright people working in different teams for different goals and get them to play well together. And he didn’t fall for CP Snow’s snow job either in doing so.

  10. Helen says:

    I went to a valedictory lecture the other night which was given by my old History professor.

    The lecture drew parallels between the Chartist movement in nineteenth-century Britain and the anti-apartheid movement leading to the Freedom Charter in Twentieth century South Africa – two of his areas of expertise.

    These two areas of study have been axed as part of the university of Melbourne’s cost-cutting drive before they implement their US-style Melbourne Model of three-year generalist degrees with postgrad degrees to follow.

    Two things – and I didn’t take notes so the adjectives I use are approximate only – but he drew a lot of applause from the audience when he said that the university was sinking into smug mediocrity, and the loudest applause was when he made a scornful aside about the fatuous and meaningless marketing slogan which has taken over the university, “Dream Large”.

    Talking with a friend later, he said it was a bit of a shock to encounter that crass marketing-speak in the university after having been bombarded with it in the business world.

  11. Captain Oats says:

    “It surely isn’t too much to ask of acas that they broaden the focus from micro-areas of research and start thinking past theory wars which have run out of steam and more about what sorts of contributions research and theory can now make to understanding and progressing our lived reality.”

    Ah, nothing beats the sense of comfort and self-importance provided by cliches and stereotypes. If only I weren’t so bogged down in my micro-area of research, launching another irrelevant strike in the theory wars and failing to take notice of “the real world”, then I, too, might enjoy insouciantly tossing about a few puffed-up, hackneyed “critiques” of whomever takes my fancy. I’m sure there’s an easy jibe or two to be made about bloggers, for example.

  12. Deconstruct away, Captain! 😉

  13. Klaus K says:

    So which is it: a lack of solidarity or an unquestioning solidarity? I’ve had both accusations levelled at me in the last six months on numerous occasions, and I really haven’t seen too much of either in my current department, so I’m struggling to take a position on this.

    If I were to hazard anything it would be that the expectation of collegiality is a very effective way of effacing the marked material differences between academic positions. I find it hard to sympathise with permanent staff who oversee the withering away of enrolments and dying departments, while I am expected to publish and teach furiously with no expectation of any kind of permanency or even a living wage. Perhaps this critique of factionalism finds it’s limits in the material basis upon which an increasing amount of academic work is being done.

    Also, what Captain Oats said.

  14. mbahnisch says:

    Which bit of what he said? The jibe bit?

    As to solidarity, part of what I’m getting at is the infighting that goes on within disciplines or fields – my regression equations are better than your qualitative research therefore you’re not a real x-ologist, or your theoretical position is teh evil therefore I’m going to make sure that appointments and rewards go to those who agree with me (who also happen to be my buddies)… And then, yes, there’s the lack of what we might call vertical solidarity that can occur between those who have permanent positions and those of us who are still labouring in the trenches waiting for the reward that’s always on the receding horizon. Casualisation is another big way that management gains power through fragmenting the workforce and creating interests that aren’t obviously complementary.

  15. Paulus says:

    Sadly, however, Mark, casualisation provides a drip-feed of money to people who would otherwise never have a chance of surviving in academe.

    If you abolished casualisation tomorrow, and put the money into permanent Level A positions, you’d get a handful of new permanents who would thank you dearly, and a majority of post-grads who, after the scholarship ran out, would be busking in the mall.

    I’m not sure if there’s any solution apart from more money (which is most unlikely to be forthcoming). I do wish, however, that many of the elder statesmen of the departments, in their 50s and 60s, who have paid off their home and are living very comfortably, would consider early retirement!

  16. Anthony says:

    Collegiality within departments and schools is always going to be fraught: its presence or absence so much depends on personalities, institutional histories (Schools get carved up, ‘restructured’, shifted from faculty to faculty etc) and the material divisions in workload and tenure that Klaus refers to. But I think Mark was right to stress collegiality within disciplines (that is, across Schools and institutions) – or that is what I thought he was getting at.

    In my field – labour law – I do a lot of research with academics from other institutions, help support a specialist journal and so on. My colleagues are found not only within other Law Schools, but also spread into business and management schools. But we collaborate in all sorts of ways because we feel it is important to advance the discipline and we try and support each other because we all think we’re involved in an important discipline.

    And you’re right, Mark, this does sit oddly with the managerial focus on the institution. What matters to my employer is not the sort of disciplinary, cross-institutional collegial activity I just mentioned, so much as where my institution sits relative to those other institutions in terms of rankings, grant income, RHD completions etc.

  17. mbahnisch says:

    That’s right, Anthony, and the incentives from both institutions and DEST (or whatever they’re now called) are to downplay this sort of activity – for instance workload models and research funding don’t reward refereeing articles for journals and conferences, writing book reviews, etc, and all the things that go into the reproduction of disciplinary collegiality.

  18. Klaus K says:

    I thought Captain Oats was directing that at a comment from kimberella further up the thread. I do agree with your points, Mark, but they are obscured for me by other concerns, which may indeed have been engineered by management, but nevertheless have a certain immediacy.

    As I see it, Paulus, the universities are having it both ways: they need the expertise of casual teaching staff, and their publications, but they don’t want to pay for them. The drip-feed thesis is the wrong way around: it is unpaid and underpaid labour that allows the universities to survive within the current arrangements. Switch to Level As and it won’t be just post-grads who’ll be cast out, the system will grind to a halt, which it should because it’s unsustainable without dodgy labour practices. The political fall-out would be far-reaching, and Australia would then be expected to put it’s money where it’s mouth is with respect to tertiary education.

  19. mbahnisch says:

    Yes, sorry, Klaus, you’re right. I must have been a bit touchy about the bloggers jibe after an earlier comment on this thread.

    On the casualisation thing, about 10 years ago the IRC made a determination called the HECE award – CE stands for continuity of employment. Back then, the common practice was that there were very very few continuing positions offered – almost everyone at Level B as well as Level A was offered contracts – in the most egregious cases, 5 month ones to cover a semester and marking then nothing for the hols before another 5 month full time contract. And I knew one Level B – who’s now a Professor – who’d had I think 4 one year contracts in a row. The HECE award prohibited this practice except where a certain number of preconditions apply – basically to cover leave or where the funding for the position is for a specific period of time (ie a grant or teaching relief from a grant). A lot of the people who were on contracts were converted to being continuing staff, but it also provided yet more incentives for casualisation and dried up the full time contracts that did constitute a foot in the full time door, and arguably compensated people much more fairly than doing the same amount of work on a casual basis – including course coordination, supervising tutors, etc, which is now common.

  20. Klaus K says:

    “for instance workload models and research funding don’t reward refereeing articles for journals and conferences, writing book reviews, etc, and all the things that go into the reproduction of disciplinary collegiality.”

    Better recognition of book reviews and conference papers might also help to value the work of post-grads and ECRs, who don’t necessarily have time to work up many full-length journal articles while working on a thesis, but who could produce reviews and review essays as a secondary product of thesis work.

    Indeed, lest I sound too one-sided, unrecognised labour on the part of tenured and permanent academics is a major issue, especially the ‘labour of collegiality’ of the kind you are referring to, and it is plain to see the extra work that some senior academics do on this front. This does have direct and material benefits for post-grads and ECRs. Recognition of these kinds of things needs to go hand in hand with greater efficiency on other fronts: the administrative burden on senior researchers is inefficient, if you think about the hourly rate being paid compared to that of an administrator.

  21. mbahnisch says:

    Yep, and mentoring students and junior academics is also unrecognised outside the supervision framework.

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