The Temporality of the Post-Pandemic University and the Contours of Democracy

Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas & Ben Whitburn

This contribution may seem somewhat Orwellian, but please bear with us. Our intent is to work the ruins, as we will explain. Interested in the temporal schism caused to institutions of higher education as a consequence of the SARS COV-II global pandemic, we want to push towards democratic affordances that remain in our attempts to maintain education, and thereby knowledge exchange and development, on the course of inclusiveness. We think with Hannah Arendt to examine the contours of democracy as they are intensified in the ruins of the post-pandemic university whose bureaucratic procedures have been turned up a notch, threatening to exclude those who are unable to comply. It is, as Arendt observes:

In a fully developed bureaucracy, there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant

We are also captivated by thinking how time itself is a construct that mediates how inclusive education is made possible in practice across the sectors. As we experience things at the current moment, these three things – bureaucracy, technology and temporality – are material tensions that could easily overturn how higher education contributes (rather than transacts in)  knowledge in the development of democracies.

Where we live and work – Victoria, Australia – 2020 sees the pandemic university in dark times. We have swarmed towards a mundane normal, where through widespread lockdowns, curfews and human rights breaches (either real or perceived) there has been a shift in our collective sensibilities. We seemingly turn from a history of community action and collective good to notions of individualism, promulgating selfish intent that reflect dystopic times. In our own backyards we have seen this play out through a return to single-use culture, restricted movement, curfews, panic buying, job losses coupled with unprecedented digital mediation—all of which serve to expose the disparities and inequalities that our social structures have recently been built upon.

Hope for genuine democratic emancipation has eroded because of the global pandemic, alongside the destruction of human bonds and the institutionalisation of bureaucracy in education linked to increased reliance on technology. Although it must be said that the privilege of social distancing, of hand washing, and of a sanitised present are the purview of the affluent, those who can afford to remove themselves from the fray have done so and then sit in judgment. Whilst we don’t deny this is a challenging moment in time, temporal engagements with democracy are relative and must always be understood as such.

2020 has seen University Academics inhabiting a temporal holding pattern, Arendt’s “not yet”. The amber of the present in which we find ourselves highlights social and economic disparities. Like Arendt, we are interested in the relationship between people and institutions filtering sociotechnical systems which have come to mobilise the COVID-19 world. We wonder how the digital academic inhabiting the digital university is cast as a foot soldier in inhuman times. We are interested here in the application, not correlation. At a time when democracy wears a mask and voices are muffled and unable to speak effectively, the policies of special interest groups and right-wing ideologues are given prominence, seizing upon a crack in the armour to take up ground and assert their authority.

Nevertheless, education is political and the university a battleground. It is an ideological and moral struggle over a yet unrealised democratic future, and the role of academics has never been more important. When universities reproduce obedience, which sacrifices civic values at the altar of commercial power this leads to the worst kinds of populism and weakened academe. We need to move beyond Education as a commodity, in recognition that the university was once a place of ideas. As Giroux notes [t]here “is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis will test the limits of democracy worldwide”, and thus we need to remember that  “capitalism and democracy are not the same thing”.

When all is said and done, how can we ensure not to lose commitment to our values? Arendt offers us the power of thoughtlessness from the Eichmann Trial. Eichmann, a key figure in the operationalisation of the Holocaust, is understood by Arendt as a desk murderer. Arendt’s controversial text presents us with a man who has done unspeakable acts, and in his own defence was simply following orders, guilty of obedience. He obeyed the systems and structures in which he found himself. Powerless to this end, Eichman exemplifies tyranny without being a tyrant. Let’s be clear, none of us are Eichmanns’, nor are we aiming for his comparison. Eichmann was dissociated from what he was doing, the banality of evil.

We draw from this well, and take this notion seriously in relation to the temporal: in academia, our time is increasingly overtaken with the mundane, everyday tasks, tasks which distract us from the bigger picture. As democracy increasingly bureaucratizes time, our work loses both meaning and substance. We no longer have answers; we have inaction. We don’t affect change through what Arendt understood as political action; we conduct empirical work and seek to sell it as generalizable in published papers, ignoring the “mutable fact” that evidence is made.

In this environment education is only for some and inclusion is an add-on, or  afterthought, if we have time.  Academic jobs become replaceable when to an outsider there is little difference artificial intelligence and a experienced teacher. Our time, has been accounted for and the scales don’t measure up. These modes reflect on one end of the spectrum inaction and moral cowardice toward a bureaucratic chain and at the other a form of organised forgetting in which policy and self-preservation may obscure the “banality of evil” and stop us from thinking about what we are doing.

To end, and inspired by Arendt, we offer a provocation followed with a brief consideration in response: What democratic future do we imagine our academics might inspire, both in their own actions and those of their students?

Exposing and resisting ideologies of surveillance, invasions of personal privacy and inhibitions on social justice will only be overcome through solidarity and engagement. We need to transpose the dialogue from externalised Monster and bring it closer to home. Let’s adopt for ourselves, as well as our students, an acknowledgement, as van Kessel suggests, “evil as ordinary, and ourselves as part of harmful systems” and thus necessarily disposed in our roles as prepared to act against hate, instead of thoughtlessly going about our daily lives. That which is externalised is made imperceptible.

Perhaps by doing this, by making the monster personal, we may appreciate our (in)actions as both part of the problem and part of the solution. The effect(s) of COVID-19 in higher education have necessarily taken a temporal toll on academics and students. Yet, these temporal breaks foreground that compliance to the bureaucracies of time over lived experience is not inclusive.

Photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas, PhD (SFHEA) is a Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy and Curriculum at Deakin University and the Course Director of the Masters of Teaching. Matthew’s research explores time, power, human rights and technology. He tweets @whoseprivacy

Ben Whitburn PhD is Senior Lecturer of Inclusive Education at Deakin University and the Course Director of the Master of Specialist Inclusive Education. Dr Whitburn’s research interests are aligned with critical disability studies and inclusive education. He tweets @BenWhitburn.

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