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An Interview with Thomas Docherty: Part Two

Kristin Grogan

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Thomas Docherty is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. He is an outspoken critic of the corporatisation and marketisation of Higher Education. His book For the University was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest book, Universities at War (Sage, 2014) written while Professor Docherty was suspended from his post at Warwick University, is a polemical study of the present crisis of higher education and a critique of authoritarianism within the University. Professor Docherty has written widely on English and comparative literature from the Renaissance to now. His books include Reading (Absent) Character (Oxford University Press, 1983); Criticism and Modernity (Oxford University Press, 1999); Aesthetic Democracy (Stanford University Press, 2006); and Confessions: The Philosophy of Transparency (Bloomsbury, 2012). Thomas Docherty took his MA in English and French at Glasgow before reading for a DPhil in Oxford.

This is the second and final instalment of a two-part interview with Professor Docherty. The first part can be found here.

Many universities are now turning to online methods of knowledge distribution—certain American institutions are producing online courses that other universities can purchase. On the one hand, online education feels suspicious, because it can so easily be used as a method of reducing teaching and academic staff and cutting costs. But at the same time it feels like it has real democratic potential. Can you envisage a way of using online education not for corporate cost cutting, but for the genuine edification of students?

Online work can, in principle, be useful. However, I don’t regard it as a contribution to the democratization of education. Democracy needs more than the widespread availability of information or data: it needs purposeful engagement between individuals. It is like the difference between arithmetic and geometry: arithmetic works by agglomerating and adding individuals; geometry works by realizing that individuals are themselves products of existing and changing relations among individual points in space. More than that, geometry works as a play of forces, and not just a tyranny of numbers and majorities. It is the same with democracy, I think. One of the great things about democracy is that it does not realize final solutions to problems or issues; rather, it simply establishes merely temporary and piecemeal workings out whereby we can agree to work in concert to change our overall shapes, while retaining all sorts of tensions and intrinsic force. But it is the change that is so important: the openness to mutability, to seeing the world differently, that matters most of all in this.

Democracy does not solve things; rather, it ‘keeps the conversation going’ as Rorty used to say of pragmatism. The difficulty with the online world in higher education is that it reduces knowledge (which involves doubt, argument, debate and the sharing of social forces) to data (a mere listing of ‘facts’, but ‘facts’ that are stripped of their valence as interpreted facts, facts from only one point of view). Knowledge needs face-to-face real-time engagements.

It is related to the widening participation agenda. WP looks good – and I’m a product of it (so it was there some forty years ago, when I was a beginning student in Glasgow). I’m the first-in-family to remain in education beyond the age of fifteen; I come from Easterhouse, a part of Glasgow that is renowned world-wide for its under privileged status. WP says that it is a great thing that, coming from such a background, I get to go to University and even become a professor. In reply, I point out that I was not just the first in family to go to University, I was also the only child from my peer primary school class (of forty pupils) to continue beyond fifteen: am I supposed to forget them, their lives and predicaments, as I pat myself on the back for my luck? WP – like online work – allows for token gestures through the unquestioned and supposed value of ‘access’; it fails to address the real and serious issues of social and political and cultural engagement with each other, the structural disenfranchisements that have debates our claims to being a democratic culture and society.

If the current course of cuts and attacks to the humanities continues, what might the humanities at British universities look like in the near (and distant) future?

We will probably survive, but not in our present shape. We will be rolled into ‘schools’ or ‘colleges,’ the better to ensure that we lose departmental and disciplinary solidarity and strength. We will also probably be required to demonstrate our ‘utility’ to an existing economy of built-in inequality more and more. The more worrying thing is the pincer movement, in which on one side schoolchildren are encouraged to see us as luxury goods and to prefer STEM, and on the other side a lack of research funding will in due course deprive us of faculty to do the actual work, for when there are no PhDs being funded and no one doing the research, there will be no one left to do the teaching. (That’s also why Teach Higher sees its ‘opportunity’.)

What would it take for the trajectory we are on now to be stopped, and reversed? Are there any feasible solutions? Could such a thing conceivably happen in Britain, especially in the wake of the election?

I think it’s a mistake to ‘reverse’ things. There is no going back. It has taken many years – decades – to get to where we are; and it may take long to get things onto a better future. In the election, people voted for greater austerity. In the economic structures that I outlined earlier, higher education itself is a luxury, so we will probably see things getting worse. The official response to that will be higher fees, I think. However, there is also massive resistance to that trajectory. It is interesting that many of the places that did not vote for greater austerity are University towns and cities; and recent polling in Times Higher showed a great majority for a different political outcome. The university can and should become a place for the exploration of a different society. It is incumbent on us to build a broad force. I think of it as a ‘movement for democratic education’, and plan to try to work with others to get such a movement going.

There is a growing culture of anxiety, anger, and fear among graduate students and early career researchers in the arts. This is combined with what Lauren Berlant termed “cruel optimism,” and which Marina Warner discussed in her recent article in The London Review of Books. “Cruel optimism” afflicts scholars who believe fiercely in the value of what they are doing, and thus expose themselves to exploitation by a ruthless hierarchical authority. We would love to hear any advice of words of wisdom that you might have for students and early career researchers, about to embark on careers in academia.

The future for early career or entrants to the profession is nowhere near as bright as it was when I myself started; and even I had to leave and go abroad to find work. I was most certainly not a ‘college man’ in Oxford. Yet I did leave, and not only survived but also established a happy career, first in Ireland and then in the UK. I’m also tempted to cite Jimmy Reid, the great trade unionist who led the work-in in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1972 and who went onto become Rector in Glasgow University. In his great Rectorial Address, he argued that we should reject the values of what he called ‘the rat race.’ He told the students that they should ‘Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.’

There will always be those who opportunistically sell their soul to climb the pole. Stop them: expose them, expose the nature of what they do, examine the principles that govern the greasy pole, and the ethics of those who would slither up it.

I’m reluctant to advise people to risk their careers. However, and at the same time, if you’re not willing to risk everything for the work of teaching, then don’t enter the profession at all.

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Professor Docherty will speak at the Oxford English Graduate Conference on Value on Friday, June 5. More information can be found here.

Kristin Grogan is reading for a DPhil in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labour and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.