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Survival in the University in the Anglozone. Interview with Thomas Docherty.

Since the early days, Culture Bites has always had an interest in the institution of the University. I asked a few questions to Prof. Thomas Docherty. Here are his answers.

Research Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick and there is a bit of history there for you to look into, his research interests include English and Comparative Literature (French, Italian and German philosophy). He is interested in the relations between philosophy and literature. He has written extensively about the contemporary constitution of the university with a focus on the Anglo world, mostly U.K.

Author of 17 books, his latest one is titled "Political English," a study of rhetoric, politics and the constitution of Englishness, approached comparatively with other languages. His forthcoming book is titled Politics of Realism. He is assembling a new one with several essays on academic freedom, focusing on "cultures of prohibition and of resistance," provisionally titled Conditions of Democracy. Do check out his work and read if after seeing what he has to say below.

His institutional profile:

Most significant aspects in your professional trajectory.

Luck; sometimes very good luck. There have been several happy coincidences between what an institution thought it might need at a specific moment and my fitting to that need at the same time.

Most significant aspects in your current institution (you may include others, experiences, aspects, institutions).

General survival.

What were the crucial university issues (pre-Trump / pre-Brexit / pre-covid)? And how are these issues passing through the parenthesis?

Prior to 2016, the sector had already been undergoing a long period of systemic change, the key vector of which was marketisation combined with a business-oriented managerialist philosophy. Research and teaching were no longer to be ‘done’ but to’ be managed’; and they were to be managed in line with a consumerist ideology deriving from market fundamentalist economics. ‘Management’ thus drove us into thinking of research and teaching as being themselves governed by capital: profit - financial profit – became central to the thinking of university management. By the time of 2012, when student debt was already an issue, this ideology was then inserted into all aspects of higher education: it became construed as a means of securing personal financial gain or advantage, as opposed to serving public needs or people; and all activity because governed by a bureaucratic managerialism that served to flatten any an d all distinctions in terms of our daily activity. The flattening was brought about by reducing all activity to number, by translating qualities into quantities. Worst of all, the key ‘quantity’ in this is financial, and it is measured in how much the sector works to extend and deepen social and financial inequalities: “‘my’ graduates are good, and we know this because they earn more than ‘yours’; and they certainly earn more than the people who didn’t go to university at all.” Thus did we aggravate the very issues of inequality that inevitably and inexorably led to the positions around Brexit, Trump, and associated right-wing populisms.

What are the crucial intellectual debate/s? One concrete example. The environment: ecology is more important than economy.

The University system, fit for purpose? And what is the purpose?

This is a huge question: it asks ‘what are universities for?’ Many book have been written on that. My view, in extreme brevity: the university system – as opposed to the institutions themselves – must be something that works to the benefit of the larger social and political ecology of which it is a part. The bigger question – and the one that makes the specific issue of the university system so difficult – is whether that larger social and political ecology is itself ‘fit’ for the purposes of sustaining biological existence and, beyond that simple sustenance, improving biological and biopolitical conditions.

Labour relations at the university setting.

It is well known that a good deal – and in some places a clear majority – of the teaching that we now do is done by people on precarious contracts. This is immoral. It works, however, to encourage the worker’s and the student’s compliance with the senior managers, on whose determinations our future rests.

Your discipline: what is going on?

Too much…

The future projection of the university sector.

This can go in various different directions. There will almost certainly be a severe doubling-down on the various false prospectuses that have caused all sorts of problems: a deepening of marketisation; a worsening of labour conditions for faculty and students; further and deeper assaults upon academic freedom and upon intellectual activity more generally. At the same time, I hope that the other routes also become more available: the rise of a critical voice against the obvious failings of the existing system and that, by exposing those failures, a creaking system might re-consider its priorities (and persuade governments and polities to re-think likewise).

The university in the Anglosphere vis-à-vis other settings.

This is both a historical question and a political one. Historically, ‘the university’ has been many different types of institution, from those ninth- century places in the middle east and north Africa through th some European institutions of the medieval period, on into the ‘Germanic’ research institution in the late nineteenth century, and to the mass and massive institutions that we now see elsewhere. These other settings, however, although offering historically distinct and distinctive kinds of institution, are increasingly shaped by the global power of market fundamentalism, to the point where their distinctiveness is being jeopardised.

“Foreignness” inside the largely supremacist and xenophobic Anglosphere, but you may disagree with the adjectives: what about it?

I will speak of the UK here. The UK – and most especially the English component of it – is notoriously bad at learning or having respect for foreign languages. There is a long history, dating at least as far back as the King James Bible, that insists that the English language is intrinsically sacred: even some radicals, like John Milton, took the view that ‘when God speaks, he speaks first to his Englishmen’. In recent times, this attitude was re-done by Churchill and his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and then – scandalously – by Enoch Powell, who repeatedly argued in the midst of many intrinsically racist speeches that English is ‘the language for telling the truth in’. The result of this pervasive ideology in the UK is not only that people are suspicious of non-English speakers, but suspicious of all kinds of ‘foreignness’ – and the suspicion is based on the idea that it is only English that has access to truth, then only ‘the English’ who have access to truth. This, of course, is deeply ironic in the age of Trump (over 18,000 published lies listed to date during his Presidency) and Johnson (seemingly pathologically incapable of speaking the truth).

“Spanish” (or even “Hispanic” or “Latin/o” inside English-speaking settings, what else to say besides an indifferent, even hostile environment? What difference do the “languages” make here? Sisyphean task? Low-wage work, lower-middle-class “foreign subjects” doing what type of work for what purpose, exactly?

Many non-UK citizens are multi-lingual. That is a good thing. Many UK citizens are also multi-lingual – but these tend to come from migrant backgrounds, as opposed to those who would self-describe as indigenous English/British. We could all benefit from realising that every national language, every ‘mother-tongue’, is hybrid. This is an internationalisation that would counter the negative effects of political globalisation.

Tell me a good piece of writing you read recently.

Philippe Sands, two books: East-West Street, and The Ratline.

Anything else you may wish to add.

I think I’ve probably had my say in the three books I made on this topic: For the University; Universities at War; The New treason of the Intellectuals. And – as I seem now to be advertising my own work – in respect of the language issues, my Political English. Thanks for the questions; and I hope my responses are useful.

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