[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Killing academic creativity
palexander at uj.ac.za
Tue Jan 29 17:16:28 GMT 2008
This use of Foucault becomes a long-winded way of moaning and doing nothing. Time to mobilise! Left academics in Gauteng have established a Higher Education Crisis Committee, and are building for a national workshop on 15 March in Jo'burg. The aim is to involve students, non-academic staff, education experts, trade unionsists and others, as well as academics, and we are already beginning to have some success. If you'd like to get involved, write to Kezia at the address in the CC line.
From: debate-bounces at debate.kabissa.org on behalf of MFleshman at aol.com
Sent: Tue 1/29/2008 7:21 AM
To: debate at debate.kabissa.org
Subject: Re: [DEBATE] : (Fwd) Killing academic creativity
O pity the poor oppressed professor workers.
In a message dated 1/28/2008 11:51:52 PM Eastern Standard Time,
pbond at mail.ngo.za writes:
Bert Olivier (Nelson Mandela Univ)
University audits: A panoptical theatre of the absurd?
With virtually all my colleagues shaking in their boots, so to speak, in
the face of an impending double audit at our university this year - one
internal, in preparation for the other, external one, later in the year
- and my own instinctive as well as not-so-instinctive (philosophically
informed) response being one of immediate suspicion, it is time to
reflect on this bogeyman of South African universities.
In his book Discipline and Punish, the French philosopher Michel
Foucault gave us a genealogy of modes of punishment, contrasting the
punitive practices of the pre-modern era with those of the modern. While
the pre-modern was characterised by blood, gore and spectacle (through
drawing and quartering, for instance - recall William Wallace's
execution in Braveheart), to scare off would-be offenders by example,
the modern form of discipline has turned out to be far more effective,
by insidiously inculcating in people a kind of internalised discipline,
by means of which they ultimately learn to discipline themselves.
One of the most effective means of doing so has been various
"panoptical" practices, a name that derives from the "ideal" prison -
the Panopticon - imagined by Jeremy Bentham in the 19th century, where
prisoners' cells would be arranged in circular form, with a central
tower from which wardens would have optical access to each cell, and
every prisoner would know it. Understandably, the awareness of such
constant surveillance on the part of prisoners would have the effect, on
pain of severe penalties, to behave in a "disciplined" fashion.
It is easy to recall fictional counterparts to this panoptical procedure
- the Sharon Stone thriller Sliver comes to mind, where a New York
high-rise apartment block turns out to be the electronic surveillance
counterpart of Bentham's Panopticon, with similar "disciplinary"
purposes in mind. Or think of The Net, with Sandra Bullock, as a
reminder of the postmodern panoptical surveillance techniques that
virtually control our official identities.
But panopticism, as Foucault calls it, is not restricted to fiction; it
is very real, and all around us. Every time you slow down instinctively
when the lights of an oncoming car flash, to avoid being speed-trapped,
you are succumbing to panopticism. For academics like myself, one of its
most invidious manifestations is the much-dreaded university audit. And
I stress "like myself" because I love teaching and doing research (that
is, reading, thinking and writing, with a view to publishing in academic
journals, which I do regularly) - something which cannot be said of all
For many of them, it is just a job, a way of earning a living, and for
such "academics" the dreaded audit is just another administrative schlep
The vast majority of academics don't read philosophy or an equivalent
critical discipline (such as literary or psychoanalytic theory), of
course, so they lack the critical means to reflect on and judge
panoptical practices such as audits in an informed manner.
But are audits really panoptical practices intent on disciplining the
people who have to submit to them? Yes. Think of it this way: academics
have two fundamental functions, namely teaching and research, and if
they are worth anything as academics, they will teach on the basis of
their research (while teaching often has a reciprocal cross-fertilising
effect on research as well), otherwise their teaching becomes arbitrary.
Of course, a minimal amount of administration always accompanies one's
teaching at undergraduate as well as postgraduate level, such as writing
course outlines, marking, calculating percentages, getting student
feedback and so on; that's par for the course, and one readily accepts
it as the mostly boring stuff you have to do to be able to indulge
yourself with the really exciting stuff, like sharing the wonderful
thoughts of Gilles Deleuze or Julia Kristeva with your students.
But the advent of "audits" has created this third "thing", the QA
(quality assurance) file, or box, which would still be OK if it only
contained the (to my mind minimalist) course outlines and so forth that
one routinely writes and distributes among students (the real energy
being reserved for the important, difficult, but exciting work). But
this is not sufficient: the QA department - the university counterpart
of SAQA - has to justify its existence somehow, and therefore a
suffocating avalanche of forms to be completed descends on academics.
I need not go into the detail - it probably differs in the minutiae from
university to university - but what these measures all have in common is
that they consist of some form of panoptical commentary (by lecturers)
on the two fundamental functions that we have, namely teaching and
research - it is neither of these, nor does it relate directly to one's
teaching as a necessary way of keeping records, and so on. It is a form
of window-dressing, of self-aggrandisement (or at least the opportunity
to engage in it), of irrelevant, time- and energy-consuming description
of what it is one is supposed to do as academics, but can no longer do
because of the colonisation, if not invasion, of one's precious time by
these truly panoptical practices.
Why panoptical? Because they do not enhance teaching and research one
iota. All they achieve is to "discipline" academics by ordering them to
fall in the same line by conflating standards and standardisation. In
fact, they systematically undermine the work that academics are supposed
to be doing by turning them into glorified clerks. I know what
supporters of university audits would retort, however, in the
unmistakable discourse of bureaucracy: "Audits are a way of assuring
quality teaching and research at universities." Yawn ... wrong. For
quality to be maintained - or better, improved - lecturers should be
encouraged not to fill in forms endlessly and mindlessly, thus wasting
precious energy, but to do everything possible to get to know their
disciplines and students better.
In fact, the only proper quality "audit" (although a new word would be
necessary to describe this) would be for representatives of SAQA to come
and sit in our lectures, unannounced, at unpredictable times, and see
the way we teach and read our research. I, for one, would welcome that -
perhaps they would learn something valuable in the process.
But I'll bet they would be in for a shock - students often share with me
their frustration with lecturers who simply read from prescribed
textbooks in class, or insist on verbatim reproduction of passages from
such books in tests, instead of opening things up for debate in class,
encouraging student participation and so on. The same so-called
lecturers, however, may come across as very impressive if they complete
the required audit forms with the same pedantic but irrelevant
fastidiousness - they would be very good at window-dressing.
Although some may argue that the practice of university audits is
well-intentioned (I have my doubts - it smacks too much of an attempt at
exercising optimal control over universities on the part of government),
its overall effect is therefore detrimental to university practice,
which should be aimed (as I have argued before) at the cultivation of
critical thinking abilities on the part of students by lecturing staff
whose primary functions are acknowledged as being teaching and research,
instead of submitting to stultifying bureaucratic measures.
And incidentally, while (as stated earlier) no lecturer could function
properly without a minimum amount of administration of his or her
lecturing and research practice, there is a fundamental difference
between administration and bureaucracy.
At universities, administrative networks are supposed to serve the core
functions of the university, namely teaching and research, instead of
Bureaucracy is what happens if administration occupies the position of
raison d'être, the be-all and end-all, of the university, where
lecturing staff are coerced, panoptically, into serving the monstrous
bureaucratic machine, in Kafkaesque fashion, ultimately relinquishing
their own intellectual and scientific function. It happens when the tail
starts wagging the dog. This is a perversion of what universities should be.
The large number of resignations at South African universities in recent
years attests to the unbearable pressure that increased bureaucratic
rule has brought - and I don't say this speculatively; many colleagues
who have resigned or retired early have explicitly referred to
bureaucracy as a cardinal reason for leaving.
Hence, it should be abundantly clear to so-called "authorities" --
so-called, because, with the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, I
agree that the only ground for accepting authority is superior
knowledge, and I see scant signs of superior knowledge on the part of
Besides, in the process of bureaucratising our lives, they reveal their
lamentable lack of historical knowledge - does one have to remind anyone
who claims to be "educated" that it was Stalin's rigid bureaucratic
regime that nearly destroyed Russia?
Bureaucracy kills creativity, healthy dissent and debate, inventiveness
and the true spirit of democracy. And if dumped on universities like a
cloud of sleep-inducing gas, no one should be surprised if truly
creative teaching and research eventually fade or even disappear. I hope
the "authorities" come to their senses; unless they do, we can forget
about ever becoming one of the leading nations in the world.
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