Love acts … in Higher Education … Valentine’s Day 2020

What does it mean to carry out acts of love in 2020 Higher Education in the post-Brexit UK? This blogpost – which you can tell from its opening sentence already has too many ideas in it to be an effective use of the medium – is a response to an invitation from the Lacunae team in Australia. Catriona, Jenni, Jennie and Natasha (only one of whom I know in person) ask for reflections on a 2020 piece in Higher Education Research and Development. The piece is entitled ‘Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development program’.

Here is my response to their Valentine’s Day invitation.

Love isn’t a word commonly associated with Higher Education. In my own life, I think of love as a private, family matter (encompassing biological family, close friends who are socially and emotionally equivalent to family, and pets*); and as a matter of a faith-based understanding which I struggle to express in rational thought, much less words, but remains a real and very different way of knowing for me. That latter, in particular, experiences (and strives, but always fails, to express) love as boundless and unrestrained. By contrast, work contexts and relationships have nothing to do with love: they are about professional boundaries and expectations.

But the 13 authors of this paper define love as ‘enactments of caring passionately’, and that’s an idea that does resonate with my blended approach to work and life. The authors further suggest that love acts are a form of revolutionary praxis. And they embody the notion of revolution in the paper itself. Rather than a standard linear textual account, they offer a rhizomatic and multi-textual approach, including images (provided by Banksy) as well as text, including a whole section using metaphors. I was excited about this, because metaphor (and narrative) is central to our Health Governance after Brexit project. What there isn’t, though, is a section about the method of using metaphors in this paper (or in any other research project that reports on human emotions through the language used to express responses to an event or phenomenon). That is disappointing.  (At this point, I hope you will not judge me harshly for wondering how on earth this paper got through peer review.)

I confess I’m not naturally drawn to revolution as a change-mode. If things need to change (and it would be hard to find anyone in contemporary UK Higher Education who doesn’t think that things need to change, though there’s plenty of disagreement about how), I’m more inclined to suggest evidence-led incremental, evolutionary change, not the violent and painful disruptions associated with revolutions. But I am drawn to the idea, central to the paper, that ‘a love for and of teaching’ can provide a mode of being that is resistant to much that debases and sucks the joy out of contemporary Higher Education. I would suggest, though, that a better formulation is a love for and of learning – for it is the collective striving to extend the boundaries of human knowledge that endows universities with the beguiling promise that draws me back, again and again, to give of myself, despite the inevitable pains of rejection and the frustrations of misunderstandings. As I’ve written elsewhere, learning with, from, and alongside students is one of the greatest pleasures of my job.

I thought the paper, for all its opening promise, was actually distinctly light on examples of ‘enactments of caring passionately’. There are allusions to the courage that it takes to do this, and to the temporal and emotional costs; to care as an interpersonal encounter, involving (physical) presence; and to relationships between love acts and leadership/change agency.**  But much of the content of the paper reports on the experiences of a group of scholars in whom their university has invested the opportunity to participate in a development programme for teaching scholars.

So here, in no particular order, and without naming names, are a few of many ‘enactments of caring passionately’ that I have observed or experienced recently.

  • An email: ‘it was a sad moment to read your editorial correction of the number of EU Member States’;
  • Feedback on a student essay: ‘If you are to achieve your potential, next time, you should …’;
  • The acts of the secret baker who regularly leaves free home-bakes in the Multi-faith Chaplaincy in Sheffield University;
  • All the steps that led to a student’s summer research, co-produced with me and a small charity, being chosen to be showcased in an event in Parliament;
  • A private message by text: ‘I noticed X … hope you are not spending all weekend marking?’;
  • A phone call: ‘I had five minutes, so I thought I would check in and see how you are doing’;
  • A hug from a retired colleague, on meeting up for the first time in a while;
  • Many invitations to continue to be present – to teach, to research – in universities in EU Member States, including my current trip to Amsterdam’s Centre for EU Law and Governance.

The bottom line take-home message of the paper is that the participants in the programme on which the paper reports loved ‘access to a community of scholars who really care about teaching’ (p 92). Meh. That’s exactly what I would expect: nothing new or challenging there. I think that the promise of universities is not that some scholars ‘really care about teaching’, and (implicitly, or sometimes explicitly) others ‘really care about research’. The promise of universities is that those two things are not in separate boxes. They are blended. And that makes me think that every time I insist on that blending, every time I fight the institutional structures that want to put them in separate silos, every time I say ‘I am a scholar who cares passionately about both and I do not see them as entirely distinct‘ (and I know many scholars who agree); every time – that is a love enactment. To insist on that conviction, despite the contemporary attempts to divide and measure separately those things, is to love the very thing that universities have always embodied.

*Ok, specifically, the current and previous desk cats, see the pictures at the top.

**Not a phrase that I like much, but their phrase, p 85.

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