A bunch of decolonising stuff

I’m pleased to be contributing to a Decolonising Critical Thought Workshop on 5 May. My position statement is given below.

Through my own practice as research and evaluation lead for the Decolonising De Montfort University (DDMU) project, I am drawn to your question on: What are the risks of institutionalisation, co-optation, etc. and how can they be avoided?, and a related question: what is the purpose of the University in an age of intersecting crises?

DDMU attempts to make sense of EDI work (e.g. Race Equality Charter), in terms of more radical movements. This brings the University into relation with individual and communal issues of whiteness, double and false consciousness, and behavioural code switching. Inside formal structures, built upon cultures and practices with historical and material legitimacy, engaging with such issues is challenging. The tendency is for formal accreditation, managed through established methodologies, risk management practices and data reporting.

I am interested in how we might open-out discussions that situate the communal articulation of the institution against the development of authentic relationships as a movement of dignity. This connects to post- and anti-colonialism, making visible subaltern or subordinate identities, black power and indigeneity, and critical race or anti-racist studies, alongside critiques of education, including critical university studies and the abolition of the University. At the intersection of critical for and decolonising, I am interested in thinking through whether another University is possible, or even desirable.


In other news, I have a co-authored paper forthcoming in a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education,  on Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis. Our paper is a critical analysis of the work of DDMU, in relation to the structures, cultures and practices of universities. The abstract and structure are given below.

Hall, R., Ansley, L., Connolly, P., Loonat, S., Patel, K., and Whitham, B. (2021). Struggling for the anti-racist university: learning from an institution-wide response to curriculum decolonisation. Teaching in Higher Education, Special Issue, Possibilities and complexities of decolonising higher education: critical perspectives on praxis. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2021.1911987 and https://dora.dmu.ac.uk/handle/2086/20773

Abstract: Increasingly, institutions are amplifying work on race equality, in order to engage with movements for Black lives and decolonising. This brings universities into relations with individual and communal issues of whiteness, white fragility and privilege, double and false consciousness, and behavioural code switching. Inside formal structures, built upon cultures and practices that have historical and material legitimacy, engaging with such issues is challenging. The tendency is to engage in formal accreditation, managed through engagement with established methodologies, risk management practices and data reporting. However, this article argues that the dominant articulation of the institution, which has its own inertia, which reinforces whiteness and dissipates radical energy, needs to be re-addressed in projects of decolonising. This situates the communal work of the institution against the development of authentic relationships as a movement of dignity.

Keywords: Black Lives Matter; critical race; decolonising; institutional change; whiteness; university

Structure: Introduction: an intersecting critique; Decolonising DMU: a critique of the University; Cultures of whiteness; Structures of dissipation; Practices of inertia; Decolonising the idea and practice of the University.


With Raj Gill and Sol Gamsu, I am working on A paper for a special issue of higher education, entitled Higher Education in the Eye of the COVID-19 Storm. Our paper has the working title:

‘Whiteness is a moral choice’: The idea of the University at the intersection of crises.

The proposed abstract is below.

Since the acceleration of a commodified higher education environment in England under the Coalition and successive Conservative governments, funding, regulation and governance of universities has become a contested terrain. Such contestation reveals a rupture in the very idea of the University, which makes clear the contingencies underpinning both the student-as-consumer in a deregulated market, and a renewed, fetishized, public university. These symbolic ideas of the institution have been cracked by the everyday realities of a confluence of crises.

Beyond existential crises like climate forcing, specific ruptures have led to a fundamental questioning of social institutions, cultures and practices. In particular, the conjuncture of Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matters have exposed the limitations of dominant and alternative imaginaries of higher education, which tend to be framed by whiteness. At a time when university workers were already engaged in industrial action over #fourfights, this conjuncture highlighted deep, intersectional injustices at the centre of these institutions, in spite of institutional engagement with standardised forms of accreditation, like Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter. Struggles against structural inequalities erupted at the intersection of: first, differential workload, casualisation and pay; second, the marginalisation of black communities and communities of colour, in social outcomes through Covid-19; and third, the ongoing brutalisation of black communities and communities of colour, when they address state institutions.

Working through documentary and policy analyses, this paper articulates the ways in which these injustices are imminent to the idea of the University. This questions how this allegedly liberal institution is reproduced through whiteness as a site of othering. As a process of separation, divorce, alienation and estrangement between people, othering pivots around whiteness as a moral choice. As a result, this paper describes how the idea of the University has been explicitly revealed through this conjuncture as a means of distorting the subjectivities of all those who labour inside it, for inhuman ends. In critiquing, for instance, the Department for Education’s recent Restructuring Regime, this argument highlights the ideological positioning of economic value, productivity and surplus as mirrors that make certain bodies, cultures and practices visible and reinforces structural inequalities. Yet, in an age of crisis, this ideological positioning is in conflict with new social movements pushing to break the mirrors of whiteness and look for alternative pathways. Here, we question whether the University is able to move beyond the reproduction of structural inequality, in order to contribute to the abolition of the present state of things?


The Hopeless University

It looks likely that my next monograph, The hopeless university: intellectual work at the end of the end of history will be out with MayFly Books in early May.

There is a synopsis here.

There is a podcast here.

I presented some ideas, with a recording and Q&A here.

There is a published article here.

There is music by Rae Elbow and the Magic Beans here. NB a wonderful, full album in partnership with Rae Elbow will be released with the book. It’s a multimedia sensation.

Endorsements

In defining his position as a Marxist, Raymond Williams wrote that the most formidable task of all is to show the connections between “the formations of feeling and relationship which are our immediate resources in any struggle”. In Hopeless University Richard Hall takes up this task seriously. He helps us to understand how the current “university-as-is” relies on the universalization of anxiety and the spread of alienation. They are means through which it sustains its reign during the very last of its days, literally, at the end of the End of History. Moving from hopeless hierarchies, elitists privileges, widespread pathologies of the capitalist academic workplaces to ineffective positivist methodologies that lay at the core of the contemporary university, Hall criticizes the widespread culture of self-harm, imposed precarity, senseless competition, to address the contradictory essence of the hopeless institutions. We are dwelling in this contradiction. It makes our days unbearable; it makes us dire and dull; it prevents us from breaking the vicious circle of hope and despair. However, we know all too well that hope is no plan for liberation from this condition. Hall suggests that to escape it, we need to find the strength in what we have and who we are – in our daily practices of solidarity and mutuality, in our acts of self-care and kindness. By these means, we can finally face the call to starting the exodus from the tight walls of our “sausage factories”. The Hopeless University is the first and necessary step on this long path.

Krystian Szadkowski, Institute of Philosophy, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.

In The Hopeless University Richard Hall builds on his previous book The Alienated Academic as he argues against the University in its current form. While already exploring hopelessness and the corresponding Weltschmerz academics feel towards their place of work in his previous works, he delves deeper into the idea of refusing what the University has become; an anxiety machine responsible for its workers’ ill-health, PhD students’ anxiety and depression and even academics’ and students’ suicides, for the sake of producing labour power and capital. Not only does the book reflect on the circumstances of those involved, it also situates the University within the socio-economic and socio-environmental crises that are currently taking place on a global scale. In doing so, Hall includes a critique of the University’s response to events such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting its incompetence to offer solutions and position itself as anything but an anti-human project that puts profit before people. Casual workers have become more casualised, those with caring responsibilities are left to carry the burden, and work life further intrudes into private life through increased workloads that are to be done from home, resulting in a constant connection to the institution. Hall reiterates the non-neutrality of the University and its complicity in the reproduction of inequality and inequity, as those in precarious position are further exploited when they are gendered, racialised, disabled and/or queer. Thus, he does not treat these groups as an afterthought, despite him not facing the same challenges, making this book a good reminder for those who occupy “safe” positions within the academy to remember their privileges and continue to challenge their institutions on behalf of those who might not have the same degree of freedom. Towards the end of the book, Hall calls for the abolition of the University as we know it, for steps to be taken that are impossible in the hopeless institutions that currently exist. His critical analysis throughout the book leads Hall to conclude that only when the forces and relations of production are dismantled, another University, one that fosters community and promotes solidarity not just within the elitist walls of the institutions but also outside by joining working class organisation, can be possible, if at all.

Svenja Helmes, PhD student at the University of Sheffield and co-author of Life for the Academic in the Neoliberal University.

At the end of The End of History, we urgently need brave voices to tell us that, no matter how fervently we might hope, we must confront the stark truth that everything may well not turn out all right; to confront ourselves in and of this truth; and to begin the necessary process of grieving this truth. Richard’s forensic deconstruction of the capitalist university, and the senses of hopelessness and helplessness it generates, leaves us unable to deny this truth any longer. Yet, it is Richard’s unflinching commitment to a dialectical materialism that enables him to reveal how the transformative power of truth takes seed when we finally and fully allow it into our hearts. It is in this heart-centred dialogical process of reintegration within and reconnection without that he locates not just the healing power of sharing our stories, but the first stirrings of a movement. It is a movement of negation of the Hopeless University’s own negation of our difference and denial of our being; a movement of the deepest, most essential yearning for our personal and collective authentic becoming; and, therefore, a movement with the capacity to imagine, explore, and organically establish modes, cultures, and even institutional forms of knowing that can birth a new system of social metabolism beyond capital’s tyrannical reign.

Each page of this wonderful book is filled with vulnerability, courage, wisdom, and, above all, love. Richard combines all four of these qualities in his refusal to offer any strategic blueprint for an alternative post-capitalist university and in his invitation to us to sit – to sit with ourselves and with each other, with our wounds and our pain, to sit with the bewildering but beautiful entangled messiness of our lives and our world, and to sit attentive at last to a present that can integrate and be fertilised by a past in order to conceive a new dawn yearning to be born.

Joel Lazarus, University of Bath.


Building engagement with decolonising inside the pandemic university

During De Montfort University’s Learning and Teaching Festival on the Challenge of Change  I’m taking part in an online panel about Building engagement with decolonising inside the pandemic university.

Date: 25/03/2021 (12:00-13:00)
To register please click here. For further information please email eventsoffice@dmu.ac.uk
Bookings will close 1 hour prior to the start of the event. Registrants will receive a link to join the online talk 24hrs before the event, via their provided email address. This event is open to all.

Abstract

The pandemic has disrupted the flows of learning and teaching across higher education, with impacts on the experience and well-being of both students and staff. At the same time, other layers of intersectional, intercommunal and intergenerational marginalisation are being reinforced. The nature of staff and student engagement both with each other and the University is being challenged. Yet, institutions are also working to transform their structures, cultures and practices in relation to critical issues like racial, social and environmental justice. One such transformation is in relation to decolonising. In this panel session, members of the team who are working on Decolonising DMU will discuss the idea and impact of the project, and how it has been affected by the pandemic. At its core the project is working to build the anti-racist University, and the panel will map out the opportunities and challenges of this for staff and students.

new article: The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the End of the End of History

Over at Postdigital Science and Education, I have a new article out:

The Hopeless University: Intellectual Work at the End of the End of History

The abstract is appended below.

The University is being explicitly restructured for the production, circulation and accumulation of value, materialised in the form of rents and surpluses on operating activities. The pace of restructuring is affected by the interplay between financial crisis and Covid-19, through which the public value of the University is continually questioned. In this conjuncture of crises that affect the body of the institution and the bodies of its labourers, the desires of Capital trump human needs. The structural adjustment of sectoral and institutional structures as forms, cultures as pathologies, and activities as methodologies enacts scarring. However, the visibility of scars has led to a reawakening of politics inside and beyond the University. The idea that History had ended because there is no alternative to capitalism or its political horizon, is in question. Instead, the political content of the University has reasserted itself at the end of The End of History. In this article, the idea that the University at The End of History has become a hopeless space, unable both to fulfil the desires of those who labour within it for a good life and to contribute solutions to socio-economic and socio-environmental ruptures, is developed dialectically. This enables us to consider the potential for reimagining intellectual work as a movement of sensuous human activity in the world, rather than being commodified for value.


Decolonising DMU

I direct the evaluation for the Decolonising DMU Project.

With Kaushika Patel and Chris Hall (no relation), I am presenting on the project at the Advance HE Learning and Teaching Conference next week. If you have registered for the conference there will be a recording (.mp4) available. However, the slides are here.

You may also be interested in the project’s draft working position on building the anti-racist university, with which I was heavily involved. This connects to our research question: how does decolonising (its symbolism and reality) impact the idea of the university?

We are also presenting on Building the anti-racist University at a forthcoming event at the University of Bradford. The movement is (hopefully) growing.

Afterword

At Bradford I spoke about white privilege, and my own role in a process of decolonising. I argued following.

  1. Gurnam Singh spoke about white allyship Requiring an openness to building sustainable, democratic partnerships. I echoed this, in terms of horizontal forms of democracy, and building from below is a movement of dignity.
  2. I pointed back to a statement that Gurnam had made at the Radical DMU conference last year. He asked, how is it that in the most liberal institutions in the land in 2019, we are having to ask what it means to build the anti-racist University, or to decolonise? In fact, he forces us to ask whether these institutions can ever be described as liberal, and, if they can, whether that is a badge of dishonour that furthers particular forms of privilege.
  3. I argued the importance of challenging how structures/forms, cultures/pathologies, and activities/methodologies inside institutions, mirror governance, regulation and funding of the sector. The UK Conservative Government’s new Restructuring Regime for institutions in financial difficulty, reinforces the hegemony of the market and of human capital in dehumanising educational experiences.We have to find ways of refusing these pathological methodologies simply reinforce the power of people with no caring responsibilities, who over-perform, and who represent white, male, able power.
  4. In particular, we need to do this because University is implicated in a series of global crises, through the networks inside which it operates, its pathological search for surplus, its reinforcement of the performance ideals of the global North. It symbolises particular forms of life. It does not enable us to address climate forcing, a collapse in the nitrogen cycle, austerity governance, global poverty, whatever, unless those modes of addressing can be mediated through the commodity, the market, private property and money.
  5. Therefore, decolonising is a challenge to myself and my white, male privilege, just as it is a challenge to the very idea of the University grounded in the status and power are people who look like me. The voices that got us into this mess are not the voices I wish to centre as we build dialogue and look for potential routes towards another world or set of worlds.
  6. I see the process of decolonising not as the description of a utopia, rather as an attempt to situate this institution as a transitional moment, centring care, hope and dignity beyond the market, and focused upon equality rather than liberal tropes of equality of opportunity. It centres dialogue and reflection, and it grounds the University in its communities and its place.
  7. Peace be with you.

enough is enough

I am tired. In my heart and in my bones. I have been trying to sit with George Floyd, and to understand how to be in this world. It has felt beyond important to contact my black peers, colleagues and friends, and my peers, colleagues and friends of colour, to offer them what I can. I am constantly trying to acknowledge my privilege as a white, male professor, and that role’s reproduction of whiteness, and to find ways to redistribute that privilege. Being deliberate in reaching out felt like one strand of this.

Earlier in the week I had been ripped by Musa Okwonga’s testimony of his experiences of the police and the State as a teenager, and the subsequent, ongoing denial of his identity and expertise. He articulated how specific, racist forms of difference were imprinted and imposed upon him at an early age from without. He articulated how, even though he had written the critically acclaimed book on football in 2007, he was rarely asked to speak about football tactics, cultural history. Rather as a black man, he was forced constantly to re-articulate his and society’s position on race.

This constant, emotional labour made me feel exhausted, exasperated, frustrated, angry, tearful. A constant, emotional labour, which denies or detracts from the ability to grieve the murder of yet another black man or woman at the hands of the State and its institutions. The constant, emotional labour required to struggle against whiteness as it demands the generation of a double consciousness. And the part that had me in tears was when Musa made me internalise the reality that those struggles I have had with chronic anxiety and depression, two breakdowns, managing the death of my mother, chronic family illness, and on and on, were managed without the additional layers of navigation, compromise, fear, denial demanded of those with black skins. As he noted, he cannot leave his black skin at the door.

I am tired. But it feels as nothing compared to the exhaustion of this constant, emotional labour. Of a life that has to be justified against the power and privilege of others over and over.

Beyond Musa’s careful and considered and emotional and humane response, a second moment of tearful clarity came when Mark replied to my contact, specifically in response to the idea that I was trying to sit with George. He wrote, ‘Please tell him I am breathing.’ Fucking hell. I am in tears every time I read that. And I am reminded that Akwugo Emejulu writes of the eruption and exhaustion of protest that:

This is a gathering of the ghosts of our past, present and future. They assemble to watch us and wonder when and how this will end. We scream, we shout and we march because we are haunted by those we could not save and by the terrifying knowledge that these violent deaths at the hands of the state – or those who know they have the full support of the state – could happen to any of us. They couldn’t breathe because existing while Black is a threat to the everyday order of things – to the mundane organisation of American society that demands Black people’s subjugation.

‘Please tell him I am breathing.’ A gathering of ghosts. Sitting with me as I question, what have we become? What do we allow? How are we complicit? How, as Musa writes elsewhere, do I help others ‘not to be those who point at injustice and then stand by.’

And Mark wanted me to ‘Tell [George] that he has moved me closer to so many people including you. Tell him he has made me realise I need to have more uncomfortable conversations.’ And I think, how do I help to build upon the hope that centres upon Mark’s lived experience that he is still breathing? Building hope. This is our truth.


Rik replied to my contact and sent me this reminder from Stephen Garner.

The power talked of here is of unchecked and untrammelled authority to exert its will; the power to invent and change the rules and transgress them with impunity; and the power to define the ‘Other’, and to kill him or her with impunity. The arbitrary imposition of life and death is one end of the spectrum of power relations that whiteness enacts, across the parts of the world where white people are preponderant in positions of power. From Ida Wells’s anti-lynching crusade, through Malcolm X’s comment that ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock: that rock landed on us’, to Carmichael and Hamilton’s pioneering and striking claims about the way structural racism functions as a compound of class and ‘race’ (1967), the recurrent theme is of African-Americans developing an ethnographic gaze of which the subject is the way power is wielded by White America and how it impacts painfully on them.

Steve Garner. 2007. Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge, p. 14.

I see that I have access to some of that power wielded through white privilege, and that this potentially impacts painfully on others made marginal. I have long contended that my work inside the University is to abolish that power and that privilege, and to abolish the idea of the University as it enables and is enabled by that power and that privilege. Increasingly I see that the structures or forms of the University, the cultures that act as pathologies grounded in white privilege, and the activities that reproduce whiteness methodologically, are unable to deal with the conjuncture of crises. That they simply re-enact separation, divorce, exhaustion, exploitation, expropriation.

The voices that have been enabled over and over and over at the political economic core of our world, and which have brought us to the brink environmentally and socially, are not the voices that I wish to listen to in the search for another world. Instead, I need to do all I can to centre the voices of those made marginal, and the identities of those exploited, expropriated, extracted and exchanged. This is the only way I can see for us to push beyond the reproduction of exploitation, expropriation, extraction and exchange as the basis for our alienating existence. This feels like the struggle of our lives. I wonder if this is the real movement that will abolish the present state of things.


I have to consider this in the context of my own work, in particular in my institution’s engagement with decolonising. Elsewhere, Akwugo has noted, ‘To decolonise is to imagine that another university is possible.’ I am trying to relate the idea of the University, to its realities in its structures, cultures and activities, through conversation with particular experiences of black staff and students, and students and staff of colour. How do we bring the symbolism of the institution into conversation with how we imagine it, and our lived experiences of it, in order to be better?

I have written a working position for this:

In response to this, Decolonising DMU is an insistent movement towards a pluralist experience of the University, so that each individual and her communities feel more at home there. It works against the reality that some staff and students feel that they are not able to fit in, because they are alienated by institutions that are structured by whiteness and white privilege. We wish to elevate and bring to the front alternative experiences, stories, narratives and relationships, such that those who engage with the University do not have to give up their own identities and subjectivities. Our work refuses the idea that some should have to develop a double consciousness (or the daily reality of having to reconcile one’s own identity and heritage with the judgement of a dominant, Eurocentric identity), in order to survive in the institution.

This is a process of transformation or venturing beyond, which links strategy and action. It has a focus upon generating new knowledge about the University, its governance, internal regulation, management and organisation, technologies and information flows, and its relationships. In broad terms, the idea of Decolonising DMU challenges exploitation and dispossession, silencing, othering and marginalisation.

In this moment, my ghosts tell me that this is my real movement. And in that, I have to consider, as Oli Mould clearly and publicly articulates, what I can do as a white, male academic, to be better.

As the Particles for Justice collective note in their call for a #strike4blacklives, this involves a willingness to:

acknowledge the ways in which the effects of anti-Black racism are compounded for people who are also, for example, women, trans, non-binary, queer, Indigenous to the lands occupied by the United States and Canada, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, disabled, and/or undocumented. We demand justice, reform, and accountability now.

And so I have to reflect and refuse the ways in which my practice reinforces pathological white privilege, whitewash and whiteness.

  • How does my research, teaching, administration, mentoring, widen the spaces and times in which black students and staff, and staff and students of colour can tell out their souls?
  • How do I contribute to the struggle for authenticity and legitimacy beyond whiteness, in institutional committees, trade union committees, governing bodies, institutional strategy, trade union campaigns, academic workloads?
  • How do I struggle for the rights of others, and their equality? What does this mean for me, in terms of student and staff attainment, advancement, personal development, workload?
  • How do I struggle against the monitoring and profiling of certain communities, and the measuring of everyone by a colonial and patriarchal yardstick?
  • How do I struggle against privileged forms of knowledge, and for multiple and interconnected ways of knowing, being and doing?
  • How do I struggle against experiences of microaggressions, harassment, hostility and hate crime that differentially impact mental and physical health? How do I fight for services for those who need them, inside and outside the University?

My work has to commit to deconstructing my practice and the alienating structures/forms, cultures/pathologies, and activities/methodologies that it enables. I have to centre the lived experience of those occupying subaltern positions, or those traditionally occupying second- order or subordinated status. I have to demand empathy from myself with the experiences of those made marginal or silenced. I have to do this work. Me, not those we have othered.

I have to be accountable for these statements. We who have benefited must be held to account for these statements.

I am tired. But it feels as nothing compared to the exhaustion of this constant, emotional labour.

This is my personal reckoning. A reckoning is coming.

And I will bear this tiredness because I refuse to be complicit in the reproduction of another’s toxic exhaustion.

Enough is enough.