Academics resist culture of sheer 'carelessness'

University life is still underpinned by caring values, despite market pressures. Rebecca Attwood writes

June 24, 2010

Academics have shown remarkable resilience in resisting a culture of "carelessness" in higher education, a conference has heard.

Sue Clegg, head of the Centre for Research into Higher Education at Leeds Metropolitan University, told the Academic Identities for the 21st Century conference at the University of Strathclyde last week that academics had resisted "internalising" the values of carelessness.

The carelessness of higher education had its origins in the classical Cartesian view that scholarly work is separate from emotional feeling and thought, according to Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at University College Dublin.

She argues in a recent paper, Carelessness: A Hidden Doxa of Higher Education, that the idealised and successful academic worker is "care-less", without ties or responsibilities limiting their capacity to work, leaving them available to labour 24 hours a day.

She adds that scholarly work has "highly gendered outcomes" because women are more likely to have caring responsibilities.

"Those who are well known academically are disproportionately people who are carefree, namely men," Professor Lynch writes.

However, in a keynote lecture, titled "Academic Identities - Who Cares?", Professor Clegg said that the value academics placed on their students and knowledge, and the intrinsic value of scholarly work, still underpinned academic life.

"It is these values that form the basis of the struggles over academic identity and the ways academic identities are mobilised in resisting and subverting some of the worst aspects of performativity," she said.

Professor Clegg added that the pressures on academics mitigated against kindness and care in pedagogical relationships.

Meanwhile, where the role of care in higher education had been recognised, it was subject to the charge of "therapeutisation".

"It is almost as if care is not a suitable topic for investigation," she said.

However, most academics who cared about their subject and their students tacitly knew that it had positive effects. When students felt respected and cared for, they were driven to succeed academically.

"What is really odd is why we don't talk about this and why Cartesian dualisms continue to hold such a grip on the imagination so that even to talk about kindness or care in higher education is seen as transgressive," Professor Clegg said.

However, academics continued to care about their students, knowledge and the future of higher education, "despite all". This resilience of academic values was "quite remarkable".

She said that scholars were adept at "re-inscribing" their values into everyday practices.

"Thinking in terms of identity poses some interesting questions because the extent to which higher education remains successful might in part be attributed to the ways in which its subjects escape being 'made over' and the way academics in turn 'make over' the new rhetorics they constantly confront," said Professor Clegg.

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