Dad, sociologist, green local councillor and drummer from Malta

Monday, December 05, 2016

The self-reflexive university

Times of Malta 5 December 2016
Last Tuesday, a symposium organised at the University of Malta discussed the ‘Post-Humanist University’.  At the risk of over simplifying the concept of post-humanism, I will try to explain its meaning.
It basically challenges the liberal idea of the human as an autonomous coherent individual who is in control through his choices. Instead the human being is conceptualised as being immersed within social contexts and relations.
Applied to the university context, some suggest that the latter are increasingly becoming bureaucratic factories of knowledge that measure output through business-like models.
During the symposium, Ivan Callus provoked the audience by asking whether autonomous ‘scholars’ are being transformed into ‘researchers’ who are subjected to structural requirements.
Here the researcher would need to justify his existence by continuously publishing peer-reviewed papers in reputable scholarly journals, especially those with high scholarly impact.
In turn, such journals may favour certain conventions over others, leaving little space for more creative approaches.
The researcher would also need to attract funding so as not to be considered a burden on taxpayers. Universities in countries such as Britain and the United States are increasingly adopting this model.
Paul Clough suggested that such processes can usurp precious time required for scholars to think and reflect. Quantity takes over at the expense of quality.
A more optimistic interpretation of the post-humanist university suggests that it may be operating in a context of new opportunities that were previously unavailable. For example, information technology can be an empowering tool which connects scholarly communities with other social fora.
Rather than having universities made up of specialists in silos, there may be cross-fertilisation of knowledge and increased social outreach. For example, literature and theatre can often express feelings which are difficult to express otherwise. Isn’t it great when the joys of such disciplines are shared with different communities within academia, the digital world and society at large?
Dogmas, methods and practices which may no longer be relevant need to be questioned and challenged
In this sense, James Corby suggested that the university may become a more accessible ‘multiversity’, thus breaking the barriers between ‘town and gown’.
Such arguments may sound abstract, but I believe that such provocations are vital for any self-respecting scholar.
Universities need to constantly update themselves by adapting to social change and by championing the production of knowledge and research.
Universities should also find a comfortable mix between their autonomy and their accountability to other stakeholders, including funders.  For different stakeholders, universities serve different purposes. For some, universities are champions of free thinking, for others universities need to produce employable workers.
I think that both perspectives are relevant in their own ways. They can also be reconciled. In a runaway world of constant change, being reflective, flexible and systematic in one’s way of thinking is a vital tool in our everyday opportunities, challenges and risks. Such skills are learned at university and can improve students’ employment potential.
I also believe that measurement of academics’ performance is very important to maintain standards, but this needn’t be reduced simply to hours of lecturing and publication of papers, important as they are. Other scholarly contributions such as social outreach could be given more consideration than is the case at present.
The measurement of academics’ performance should also be accompanied by more equitable employment conditions, especially in view of the growing global divide between full-time established academics and part-time researchers.
I think that the major contribution of the debate on the post-humanist university was that it provided an opportunity for self-reflection on the university experience today.
Such debates should really proliferate within the various university structures and disciplines. Dogmas, methods and practices which may no longer be relevant need to be questioned and challenged.
The continuous professional development of academics across the board and the introduction of novel techniques should be encouraged.
The debate also strengthened my view that different disciplines can and should learn from each other. To give one example, the sciences are essential for discoveries in the ‘real’ world. But the same sciences need the humanities to reflect on human principles, experiences and values ranging from ethics to inequality.
Philosophy, sociology, literary criticism are examples of reflective disciplines in this regard. And such disciplines are precisely debating concepts such as the post-humanist university.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Can we still dream of Europe?

(appears as 'Any dreams of Europe?' in Times of Malta 28 November 2016)
Picture by Max Henkell
As if the European Union is not experiencing its own share of crises, Donald Trump’s election as US President is underlining existential questions which have been troubling the European soul in these past recent years.
If Trump stays true to his word on foreign policy and globalisation, the EU has no choice but to alter its transatlantic view, which has been in place since World War II.
Let us keep in mind that Trump has raised questions on Nato’s role in Eastern Europe, has expressed sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin and does not seem much concerned about the catastrophe in Syria.
If Trump does not keep to his word on foreign policy, it is only because he seems to be unpredictable, for better or for worse. We can only wait and see.
Within the EU itself, the spectre of Trump seems to be haunting many electoral campaigns. On December 4, Austria might elect its first far-right President, Norbert Hofer, and on the same day Italy’s Matteo Renzi risks political demise if his proposed constitutional referendum is beaten. His main political adversaries include a mix of populists and far right demagogues, mainly Beppe Grillo of the 5-Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord.
In the near future, Denmark may experience snap elections, to the benefit of the far right People’s Party, and, on March 15, the controversial Geert Wilders may end up kingmaker in the Dutch general election.
The best is yet to come in France and Germany. Marine Le Pen seems increasingly likely to win the first round of French presidential elections next April and might only be kept off power if a grand coalition of other political parties keep her out. Then again, the likely winner, namely the Republican Party, will likely do its utmost to attract voters from Le Pen’s National Front.
Germany will have its general elections on August 27, and once again, the populist right may achieve a historic result through the Alternative for Germany Party. It is highly unlikely that they will be in some governing coalition though and some see Angela Merkel’s decision to contest for the fourth time as a blessing. The more progressive social democrats and greens have less support than Merkel’s Christian Democrats but as things stand at least one of them might well end up in some form of governing coalition.
Do we really want Europe to break apart, to move in a direction of competing nationalisms and populist divisiveness?
Could Merkel be the last (wo)man standing to defend the European dream? Surely, the EU, and Merkel herself, have made their fair share of mistakes in recent years but do we really want Europe to break apart, to move in a direction of competing nationalisms and populist divisiveness?
Let us keep in mind that the EU has made various achievements, including peace within its borders, progressive extension of rights and liberties, as well as relatively high investment in social security compared with other blocs around the world.
There were times when the EU has also worked with the US and also with other blocs from a position of strength and this includes areas such as climate change, competition policy and privacy.
Those forces who believe in the European dream and in realistic reform should move away from defensive defeatism. This includes a broad range of parties from different sides and colours within the political spectrum, which believe in dialogic democracy and who resist the absolutist and populist nationalism of both extremes.
Unless those who believe in the European dream are assertive and speak an evidence-based language, which is closer to people’s aspirations, everyday life, hopes and fears, the language game will keep being won by the populists who bank on simple solutions that are often not backed up by evidence.
In this regard, a political case for Europe should be expressed in concrete terms, and not in abstract language with limited appeal.
The EU should also move away from rigid policymaking and instead decide to adopt more flexibility within shared EU-wide goals. A positive example in this regard concerns the EU climate goals, where different countries have different goals within the general EU framework.