Cruel optimism in #highered

This powerful essay by Maria Warner in the LRB echoes what I was trying to say yesterday about the perils of passion:

A university is a place where ideas are meant to be freely explored, where independence of thought and the Western ideals of democratic liberty are enshrined. Yet at the same time as we congratulate ourselves on our freedom of expression, we have a situation in which a lecturer cannot speak her mind, universities bring in the police to deal with campus protests, and graduate students cannot write publicly about what is happening (one of my students was told by management to take down the questions she raised on Facebook). Gagging orders may not even be necessary. Silence issues from different causes: from fear, insecurity, precarious social conditions and shame. It is the shame of the battered wife that allows her husband to count on her silence. I recognise, for example, the compunction in the words of Rosalind Gill in her fine article ‘Breaking the Silence: The Hidden Injuries of the Neo-Liberal University’.​5 She nearly didn’t write the piece, she says, because she felt that ‘pointing to some of the “injuries” of British academic life had a somewhat obscene quality to it given our enormous privileges relative to most people in most of the world’. She felt ashamed to be complaining about conditions at work because she was in it ‘for the satisfaction, not the money’. The managers count on that feeling – in others, not themselves. Gill recognises that the very sense of specialness that still attaches to the idea of being a teacher or a professor – especially for women, after our late acceptance into the profession and our erratic and precarious progress within it – has stood in our way; or rather, it predisposes us to be agreeable. ‘We therefore need,’ she writes, ‘urgently to think about how some of the pleasures of academic work (or at least a deep love for the “myth” of what we thought being an intellectual would be like …) bind us more tightly into a neoliberal regime.’

Gill is describing an instance of what the American scholar Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’. People open themselves to exploitation when the sense of self-worth that derives from doing something they believe in comes up against a hierarchical authority that is secretive, arbitrary and ruthless. Cruel optimism afflicts the colleague who agrees to yet another change of policy in the hope that it will be the last one. The cruel optimism that motivates the colleagues who undertake examining for the REF has grown out of a long, deeply held belief in the value of knowledge and the wish to pass it on – from one person to another, from one generation to the next. Yet university life has depended on this willingness of colleagues to undertake all manner of tasks above and beyond the ordinary job, reading one another’s work, writing recommendations, making nominations, translating, assessing and examining and sitting on councils and external bodies, developing analyses and plans, arranging for this and that conference or lecture or seminar series, without every moment and every act being quantified and calculated. Not everything that is valuable can be measured. But I am talking as if the chief sufferers from cruel optimism are teachers. This is of course not the case; students are above all the victims. The new managers want to pack ’em in and pile ’em high – and then neglect their interests by maltreating their teachers.

2 responses to “Cruel optimism in #highered”

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