The living dead are everywhere – from zombie apocalypse thrillers to “zomcoms”, with some even starring in Jane Austen adaptations.
Now the shambling hordes of the undead have invaded academia thanks to the debut of a “zombie performance pedagogy group” at a UK academic conference.
The gruesome antics at Advance HE’s annual teaching and learning conference, which took place in Birmingham from 3 to 5 July, are the brainchild of Stella Jones-Devitt, head of student evaluation and research at Sheffield Hallam University, who believes zombies are a useful way to explain the uncritical acceptance of managerial-led policies in higher education.
In her session on 4 July, Ms Jones-Devitt, assisted by academics from Sheffield Hallam, Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Chester, was scheduled to present the descent of a fictional scholar – Dr Jolliest Vendettas – into academic “zombiedom” over the course of 28 days as she seeks to gain a teaching excellence framework gold award for her institution.
Her gradual transformation was set to be illustrated with tweets from the infected academic before a personal appearance from the now-undead scholar.
“Many people feel we are in quite a dystopian place in higher education,” said Ms Jones-Devitt, who added that she was inspired to pursue her zombie critique against “sameness” in higher education by the films of George A. Romero, who directed the 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead.
“His films have been reclaimed as commentaries on social justice, and I was interested in how processes might make people, in this case, staff and students, ‘zombie-like’,” she continued, noting that zombies are characterised by their “unthinking urge to consume”.
Ms Jones-Devitt believed that certain models of teaching proved not to work are also zombie-like as they “refuse to die and keep coming back”, while “zombie leadership” can see institutions progress in a near-catatonic state because they do not encourage innovation.
The transformation of Dr Vendettas into a jargon-babbling zombie was designed to show how creative academics can lose their sense of self under a barrage of managerial edicts, said Ms Jones-Devitt, who added that she wanted to illustrate scholars’ right to “pursue work with unpredictable outcomes”.
“We are not being hypercritical of colleagues who are very creative, but warning about a direction of travel,” she added, observing that “if we continue on this trajectory we will lose a lot of good people”.
The tragic story of Dr Vendettas will continue on Twitter over the next 28 weeks, although there are plans to apply the zombie critique more widely, said Ms Jones-Devitt.
“We are considering the creation of a Zombie Excellence Framework – with blood, sputum and gore awards, instead of bronze, silver and gold – as we think zombie studies relates very well to higher education.”