Friday, 6 March 2009

Richard Johnson: Gender Insurgency and Neo-Liberal Reform: The Academy Twice Transformed?

A report on a paper by Richard Johnson delivered at the University of Birmingham 6th March 2009 in the series: 'Gender and Sexuality: The Discursive Limits of "Equality" in Higher Education'

This talk marked a kind of ironic homecoming for Richard Johnson, as he taught at the University of Birmingham, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies from 1974 to 1993. CCCS was, unfathomably, closed in 1991 and a new Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology formed. It, too, was closed by the University in 2002, in the wake of rumours that this was revenge for the centre’s oppositional stance to the University’s administration. At this point Richard left Birmingham, and at Nottingham Trent many of us were privileged to enjoy his generosity of time and spirit, until his retirement.

Richard argued that neoliberalism didn’t just start in 1975, but we are now seeing an intensification of its embrace. While noting Karl Polyani’s view that economies are embedded in cultures, Richard made the point that these dominant models never wholly expunge other trajectories. The fact that neoliberalism is not all-encompassing is what makes it possible to critique the structures which attempt to govern and regulate us in the academy. Furthermore, as much as these other perspectives exist alongside the dominant ones, there remains the possibility of a looking back to a previous existence and perhaps a re-installation of that ethos.

Richard’s talk took a biographical turn as he reflected on the phases and transitions across his own academic career. This began in Cambridge in a collegial, but gender and class-segregated setting. At Birmingham there was less segregation of class, and slowly there appeared more women colleagues as feminists fought their way into academic space and legitimacy. Alliances with the 1968 student movement resulted in a greater democratization of the university and of power relations between staff and students.

The neoliberal phase began with Richard’s move to NTU, more or less in concert with the accession to power of New Labour. He reports finding many echoes at NTU of the Blairite interventionist impulse to over-regulate, inspect, audit and punish those who do not comply. However, despite this he was delighted to find that cultural studies at NTU was not a marginalised project. It was well embedded in the academy and successful in research. Ironically, he found, much of the exciting collaborative work fell away under RAE pressures to perform individually. In his view, the decision to buy in experienced researchers (such as himself) resulted in a reproduction of patriarchy, a teaching/ research divide and a gender hierarchy.

Richard left us with a call to subvert the neoliberal governmentality he saw at NTU and more generally in the ‘new’ and ‘old’ universities. He offered two strategies: a return to collective work, activism and the formation of ‘little networks’ (let’s hope this blog is a start!); also a revitalised demand for democracy in universities, with real representation on key decision-making bodies.

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