Timescapes and Anticipatory Practices in the Contemporary (Pandemic) Academy

Susan L. Robertson


University structures, processes and practices are typically characterised as glacial in their pace of change. Yet Covid19 has radically changed all this. In many parts of the world badly affected by the ongoing challenges and effects of the global pandemic, the socio-temporal dynamics of life within the academy have been profoundly ruptured. Within days university buildings closed, dorms closed, the streets emptied, we recalibrated social space, and generated a new lexicon to describe this new state of affairs.  Lock-down, social distancing, shielding, and life in the 2-metre society, were the immediate measures and reactions to the spread of a virus that has caused whole industries to grind to a halt.  The future now appeared, not as a space of relative certainty, but one where our taken-for-granted temporal horizons no longer hold.

Yet, how can we be certain about the future, when by definition the future cannot be known?  This is not to say we don’t try and anticipate the future. We do, and over the course of the past six months of lockdown, we’ve seen an array of anticipatory practices on show in the university. Universities have reasserted their visions of a commitment to excellence, there has been intensive scenario-planning around likely futures, whilst risk assessments have been deployed to pre-empt the effects of a particular future arriving.

But anticipatory practices are not innocent. They are political. And if the future in modern societies is now understood as open, it is also open to colonisation. As argues Adams: “From a pre-destined realm of unique individuals and groups, the future was transmuted into an abstract, empty and quantifiable entity available for free unrestricted use and exploitation” (2010: 365).  Yet oddly enough, social theorists have paid less attention to the social and political nature of time future, aside from assumptions that time past and time present might somehow shape what might now follow. 

Over the past two decades there has been growing engagement with ‘time’ by social and political theorists as a corrective to the spatial turn and as a means of widening our temporal lens to take account of the past, present and the future. This mean that rather than recognize time “as a side element to social life” (Atkinson, 2019: 951), we need to ask about the nature of the epistemic gains when we weave time into our explanatory accounts of human beings, the socio-temporal relations between them, and relationships between time and social power. This includes thinking through the ways in which spheres of social life, including higher education and the pandemic academy, are shaped by a particular set of temporal dynamics, practices and logics.

These temporal dynamics are increasingly shaped by the inclusion of higher education in the further development of global education markets, global competition and the development of knowledge economies, the threat of security and terrorism, the rise of populist politics, and austerity (Robertson, 2020), and now the global pandemic. Covid19, and its rapid spread around the globe is a product of precisely these politics; dense cities and highly mobile populations. Time, space and sociality are woven together giving shape to complex processes and practices: 

…our hopes, plans and fears take us into the future, and we move into this domain with great agility: we make choices. We weigh up risks and chances. We calculate the likelihood of success. Thus, futures are created continuously across the world, every second of the day. They are produced by the full range of social institutions: politics, law and the economy, science, medicine and technology, education and religion (Adam, 2008: 5).

However, studying the future and its power to shape the present is not simple, not least because the future, by definition, has not yet arrived. Adam and Groves (2007) argue there are three forms of knowledge about the future: (i) as an extension of the present – a characteristic of traditional societies; (ii) as a continuation of the past – to be understood through scientific techniques such as correlation and calculation, and (iii) as a means of mapping possible, probable or preferred, futures in a non-deterministic way. The latter two are broadly shaped by theories of modernity, where the future is empty, open and unpredictable, and needs to be tamed.

Sociologists Tavory and Eliasoph (2013) have also set out a theory of anticipation to study how futures are coordinated and identify three different modes: (i) protentions which are the moment by moment anticipations; (ii) actors’ trajectories through time, which proceed in more or less predictable ways, and (iii) plans and temporal landscapes which are the overarching temporal orientations which guide actions, such as large planning endeavours, sequencing, a calendar of events, and so on.

If protentions are the necessary anticipations learned in the process of socialisation to enable social actors to engage with each other (e.g. turn taking in conversations; what side of the footpath we should walk on), an actor’s trajectory through time will also be the product of expectations (about who we should be/come). Trajectories are shaped by assumptions within culture and identity projects at the level of family, community and nation. Who should go to university, and where? And, for the moment, do I go this year, or wait until the whole global pandemic blows over. These assumptions both re/produce social selves, groups, and societies, including their different statuses, and access to resources. They are also constitutive of identities – the learner, the student, the graduate, the teacher, and so on. Plans and temporal landscapes are the means which guide actions, and the object of governing.  A range of anticipatory strategies and devices guide actions through ‘the way things happen’, in an institution like a university. Calendars guide a sequence of classes, meetings, or an academic year. Large ideational projects, such as modernization, come with assumptions about the future and how it will come about. At the level of individual or social groups, developing or improving oneself especially through learning means being modern. 

Yet all of these temporal horizons – the moment to moment, actor’s trajectories and large temporal landscapes have not only been ruptured, fractured and collapsed, but there is a cloud of uncertainty constantly present. 

Several things are particularly striking regarding anticipation in the contemporary academy. Our probabilistic calculations using risk analysis tools can be shown to be false friends. After all, whose risk registers had Covid on it?  There is now a dance between delivering certainty in a context of greater threats as the various institutions – home, schools, universities, services – become increasingly inter-dependent, which in turn heighten the threats arising from disturbances elsewhere. Any amount of mitigation of risk as a pre-emptive measure offers the risk-holder a false sense of certainty about the future.

The second, is that the future for the academy has been colonised by a neoliberal imagination that is materialised in artifacts, is embodied in expectations about the future (graduate premium) and in anticipatory governing practices that appear neutral and objective, but which are profoundly political. Living in a state or preparedness for what might go wrong (affect), especially in conditions of precarity, generates its own pathologies and effects. The third is the scientisation of the future as an area of academic expertise. Over the past thirty years, economic modellers, futurists, risk managers and entrepreneurs now claim specialist expertise about the future, and what is to be done. The question to be asked here is how do they legitimate themselves in the face of futures that fail to materialise, or when our expectations of futures promised are unequally shared?


Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash

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