on the University as anxiety machine

I would be your king

But you want to be free

Confusion and art

I’m nothing but heart

(as we stumble to the shore… as we walk into the night …. this before can’t say it anymore…)

Low. 2011. Nothing but Heart.

We think we know what the narrative is. But over time it fractures and cracks and dies and is reborn. As we fracture and crack and die and are reborn.

Inside this world, inside our history, inside this capitalism we fracture and crack under the stress of it all. The toxic stress of being for economic growth. Of being for an entrepreneurial life. Of giving away our labour. Of alienating our labour. Of giving away ourselves. Of alienating ourselves. We willingly give it up. This is the new normal. We willingly give up our very selves so that they can accumulate value. We accede to their dominance so that we can survive and breathe and have hope. Hope in the face of the reality that our fracture and our cracking are driven by their hegemony and their economic growth.

The power of their narrative of economic growth, which subsumes our labour, and that is visited upon the University. Their common sense. Their intellectual rigour. The new normal.

As Jehu argues:

The sale of labor power has the effect of scrubbing all the concrete manifestations of labor from our consciousness.

We are scrubbed clean of our humanity, and this is done systemically:

It does this by validating the reduction of our capacities to just another commodity in the market.

This is all we are. A reduction. Scrubbed of the potential of what our lives might be. Marketised. Abstracted from reality. Made contingent on the production of value. And as we have witnessed in countless testimonies the University is increasingly a space inside which this scrubbing, this abstraction, this contingency, plays out psychologically. So that our desire to be something other than an entrepreneur is disciplined. So that we witness:

For many, like myself, like those closest to me, anxiety and depression are not technical terms but personal experiences.

And we witness:

Too many casual academics find themselves barely surviving as they are suspended in a state of near constant poverty.

And we witness:

The evidence of our anxiety is not exactly hidden – it’s scattered across social media and in discussions within session-by-session teacher networks, that universities mostly don’t see. More and more stories are emerging in these networks about the hardships of poverty, and families under immense stress.

And we witness:

Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide,

This is insidious. This latter-day higher education. This University as anxiety machine. This University as means for the production of anxiety. This University that forces us to internalise the creation of value and the extraction of value and the accumulation of value. This University that is recalibrated for value as we seek to resist in the name of teaching and learning and becoming and emancipation and us. The anxiety of the future collapsed onto the present; trumping the present; devaluing the present. The University not as a place where students can find themselves, but where they can create themselves. This is the University that demands we overcome our present imperfections; our present lack of impact; our present lack of student satisfaction; our present lack of staffing efficiency.

Future perfect trumps our present tense. Our present made tense.

As Giroux argues in Border Crossings, we might seek redress through the politicisation of our relationships inside the University, and by reflecting on the politics of pedagogic power.

Gramsci points to the complex ways [through hegemonic control] in which consent is organised as part of an active pedagogical process on the terrain of everyday life. In Gramsci’s view such a process must work and rework the cultural an ideological terrain of subordinate groups in order to legitimate the interests an authority of the ruling bloc. (p. 163)

What this maps onto is a project for

the construction of an educational practice that expands human capacities in order to enable people to intervene in the formation of their own subjectivities and to be able to exercise power in the interest of transforming the ideological and material conditions of domination into social practices that promote social empowerment and demonstrate possibilities. (p. 166)

What we might therefore do as educators is rethink how our pedagogic practices reveal and reinforce the hegemonic and objective material conditions of capitalist society. We might rethink how those practices enable teachers and students to define new relations of power that are against privilege. Such rethinking demands new relations of power inside the classroom that are against the taking and accumulation of power. Such rethinking demands democratic and participatory alternatives through which the curriculum and the relationships that shape it and the assessments that validate it are negotiated.

This is the dissolution of the University as a means for the domination/hegemony of a particular world view or a specific class. This is the dissolution of the University as a coercive space that is re-forged inside-and-against student-debt and impact and research excellence and analytics and employability and entrepreneurship. This is the dissolution of the University as the civil society of tenured professors versus casualised precariat. This is the dissolution of the consensus that reshapes the civil society of higher education in the interests of capital through the ideology of student-as-consumer. This is the dissolution of a higher education that is for materialism and value.

This is for the production of a University rooted in solidarity and co-operation. This is for the production of a University that is active and critical and popular.

The purpose of popular education is to enable those who are marginalized to become more fully human.  I see it as essential to facilitate not only action, but also critical refection on the consequences of action as an essential element of educational practice.  It contributes not only to learning, but to what Paulo Freire call the act of knowing. (Carlos Cortez Ruiz, p. 6.)

As Gramsci noted in 1916 this turns into “a problem of rights and of power”. This is the meaning of education as culture, and it is the relationship between political and civil society played out in the curriculum. In the prison notebooks (p. 330) Gramsci goes on to state that in whatever context, the problem of rights and power is a deeply conflicted, political process:

The average worker has a practical activity but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his activity in and understanding of the world; indeed, his theoretical consciousness can be “historically” in conflict with his activity. In other words, he will have two theoretical consciousnesses: one that is implicit in his activity and that really unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the world and a superficial, “explicit” one that he has inherited from the past. The practical-theoretical position, in this case, cannot help becoming “political”—that is, a question of “hegemony.”

Inside the University, our confronting this as a political pedagogic process is, as Mike Neary argues, potentially revolutionary. At issue is the possibility that we might frame a curriculum that:

is driven by a lack of faith in the inevitability of progressive transformation, based on a negative rather than a positive critique of the social relations of capitalist society… the future is not the result of naturally upturning economic cycles, nor the structural contradictions of capitalism, but is made by the possibility and necessity of progressive social transformation through practical action, i.e., class struggle… the logic of revolution is not based on the call to some lofty liberal principle, e.g. social justice, or the empowerment of the powerless, but the more practical imperatives driven by the avoidance of disaster beyond human imagination.

Here it is worth highlighting Neary’s focus on Vygotsky’s belief in the revolutionary nature of teaching, where it emerges from inside the student as a social being. As Neary notes, teaching becomes radical where the social context of the curriculum is arranged by the teacher so that the student teaches themselves:

‘Education should be structured so that it is not the student that is educated, but that the student educates himself’ or, in other words, ‘…the real secret of education lies in not teaching’ (Vygotsky, 1926).

This is therefore beyond the impact of the teacher. This is beyond the student’s adaptation to the given teaching environment. This is for the creation of a person able to create and organise her own life as a pedagogic project. As Vygotsky notes in Shorter Logic this depends upon the ability to become concrete; to become for ourselves; to be.

… the man, in himself, is the child. And what the child has to do is to rise out of this abstract and undeveloped ‘in-himself’ and become ‘for himself’ what he is at first only ‘in-himself’ – a free and reasonable being.

And I am left wondering how to reconcile the University as an anxiety machine with the idea that the teacher might be revolutionary where s/he gives herself up to the process of arranging a practical, political pedagogy. This is revolutionary in the sense that bell hooks argued for an education that was more real, rooted in vivid, personal struggle against alienation and estrangement. This is the internalisation of the pedagogic process as a form of emancipation inside the student; and the restructuring of the student’s world based on the radical organisation of the classroom; and the student’s challenging of the prefigured world of the teacher in her everyday life and her every day actions; and the student’s on-going struggle to overcome the prefigured world of our political and civil society. This is the student’s struggle to be heard.

This is the same emancipatory process that Gramsci highlighted through his focus on critical awareness, the role of organic intellectuals who emerged through everyday life, and on the place of ‘common sense’ in maintaining hegemonic positions of power through civil society. However, it is also the same emancipatory process that underscores the therapeutic relationship. In therapy, Martha Crawford reminds us that the client/therapist relationship is potentially revolutionary in its identification and acceptance of limitations and past injuries as they are replicated and represented in present actions and thoughts and hopes, in order that these identifications and fractures might enable the self to be healed. For Crawford the deepest therapies change both client and therapist because they work from inside the client as social being.

We might also argue that the deepest pedagogic encounters change both student and teacher because they work from inside the client as social being. This is a relationship based upon identification and empathy, upon humane values of love, upon what we are willing to share and to bear co-operatively. This is the revolutionary, emancipatory space for teaching that is threatened inside the University as anxiety machine: what are we willing to share and to bear co-operatively? In the face of the iron law of competition and of value; in the face of the projection of the entrepreneurial self onto the curriculum and its relationships; in the face of the hegemony of efficiency and impact and satisfaction and growth; what are we willing to share and to bear co-operatively?

This is revolutionary teaching as a mirror that enables the student/teacher to overcome her being “trapped, lost, hypnotized by images of our own projected soul.” This is teaching as therapy inside the anxiety machine. This is teaching and learning as the ability to reflect; as the act of reflection; as the act of looking into one’s soul; this is our looking in the mirror inside the anxiety machine. The power of this is not to be understated. The threat of this is not to be understated because says Crawford:

Mirrors reveal to us what cannot be shown to anyone else, what we do not know, and perhaps don’t want to know about ourselves at all.

Perhaps the revolutionary teacher always asks what we are willing to share and to bear co-operatively?


Henry Giroux writes that:

The transformation of higher education into a an adjunct of corporate control conjures up the image of a sorcerer’s apprentice, of an institution that has become delusional in its infatuation with neoliberal ideology, values and modes of instrumental pedagogy. Universities now claim that they are providing a service and in doing so not only demean any substantive notion of governance, research and teaching, but also abstract education from any sense of civic responsibility. 

And we are caught and made fraught as our labour is stripped bare and alienated from us. As the corporate control of the University restructures our pedagogic agency into student satisfaction and consumption; as the corporate control of the University restructures our public scholarship into impact metrics and knowledge transfer; as the corporate control of the University restructures our solidarity into performance management; as the corporate control of the University attempts to restructure our souls, which have to cope with the dissonance of it all; as the corporate control of the University attempts to restructure our selves as we introject their performance management against our critical identity.

And Josh Freedman writes that this stress, this anxiety, this dissonance, is amplified though excessive University borrowing:

in the long-term, public and private nonprofit schools alike will find it even more difficult to provide a quality education to a wide array of the population. And in a battle between students, faculty, and creditors, the creditors right now have the upper hand – which calls into question the core of the future of American higher education.

And Eric Grollman writes about radical battle fatigue and survival:

Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academiaEveryday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival.  Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus.  By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars.  Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus.  Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival.  And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.

no chance of escape
now self-employed
concerned (but powerless)
an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism)
fitter, healthier and more productive
like a pig
in a cage
on antibiotics.

Radiohead. 1997. Fitter Happier.