Imagining the pandemic portal to epistemic justice

Priya Rajasekar

When the writer, Arundati Roy, enticed us through eloquent prose on the opportunities thrown open by the pandemic portal, academics of colour, like me, could barely resist the temptation to suspend our ingrained and justified scepticism. Not long after, barely had the ink on Roy’s piece dried before the tragic killing of George Floyd created another rupture that seemed to propel us closer to this promised portal. 

Aided by a posthuman virus that in Roy’s words ‘mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance’ and brought ‘the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt,’ thousands around the world found the time and inspiration to march for racial justice. Academics, in turn, flooded social media with open access ideas and resources that could help decolonise any curriculum, even as the same posthuman virus showed up stark socio-economic inequalities through disproportionate BAME deaths from COVID-19. 

But come September, as tired teachers slog through sixteen-hour shifts in preparation for a Fall of keeping unrealistic promises made by neoliberal universities to their student customers, decolonisation and epistemic justice are expendable curricular elements. Instead, the many beta version platform universities with their roving and measuring eyes, bear a closer resemblance to Hall’s eerily accurate predictions on the Uberification of the University. 

Added to urgent home office decorations that academics on precarious contracts can ill-afford and digital skills tutorials begged off bored teenagers, Hall’s point on academic microentrepreneurship now encompasses Yoga and therapy to counter acute stress and anxiety. Students, likewise, scramble to conceal and overcome socio-economic inequalities, including lack of space and digital poverty that they had hitherto managed to conceal in the relative anonymity offered by the university classroom. Many others continue to wager a lonely battle against anxiety and depression as the bleak prospect of future unemployment looms. 

But universities inevitably sucked into the vortex are struggling to retain their hold on the spinning ouroboros of capitalism amidst the growing possibility that international students,  who beat a disorderly retreat as borders shuttered on short notice, may choose to not return. Normally demanding less, even whilst paying multiple times the resident student fee, and representing around a fifth of student body, the possibility of thinning queues of visa-seeking students outside European and American consulates is imminent.

The journey to this point of mounting a challenge, however, may take a little longer and may need to pass through the dystopian tunnels of Google University and Facebook school with their black boxes of datafication. If the Western version of  microentrepreneurship involves the academic perched precariously on the hamster wheel of TEF, REF and other metrics, his or her Global South counterpart might deal with a precarity in ways that include extreme teaching, such as from tree tops and even selling fritters as jobs dry out. 

Hope springs on the other side of the pandemic portal to which Roy beckons us, urging us to travel light and ready to imagine and fight for another world.  As students settle down to hailing a course one day and a cab the other on their mobile phones, the reason to respond to the coloniality that props up the many facets of Western capitalism, including the neoliberal university, becomes feebler.

After all, as the provenance of an Ivy League or Russell group degree is eclipsed by the homogenising platform that sells mini courses and credits hampers under the same logo, there is no real reason to take on huge debt burdens for the privilege of a Western education. The anti-immigrant stance of right wing populist regimes, meanwhile, is unhelpful. 

There is reason to hope that the decades of ignoring calls for decolonisation and epistemic justice may be behind us as education of the kind that Santos, Mbembe, Smith and Kendi speak of finds growing relevance for the studying or working digital nomad traversing through China, Singapore or Argentina. Learning from Indigenous epistemologies, perhaps, may leave around enough trees even if they were to teach from. After all, what is to stop the academic on a sixteen-hour-shift, while battling anxiety and insomnia dreaming about a Utopian pluriverse of possibilities?

Photo by Raychan on Unsplash

Priya Rajasekar researches on the geopolitics of knowledge and teaches journalism at Coventry University

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