Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education, a review

When I was a doctoral student early in the millennium, I remember a lot of talk among my colleagues about “lines.” In the academic context, “lines” refer to additions to one’s CV in the form of presentations and publications. Lines were presumed to be good things. The accumulation of such lines would, the story went, result in a competitive CV that held high hopes of getting a tenure-track position once the PhD credential was freshly in hand. We also spoke of “top tier journals” as though such venues for publication held the keys to our future careers. What I did not know at the time was that my colleagues and I were unwittingly being absorbed into a culture of auditing, a normative discourse of performance based on metrics of a certain kind, perhaps as “bean counting” but not limited to it. There is certainly a lot of that in the academy, particularly evident as one goes up for promotion. Of course, being eligible for promotion connotes being lucky enough to have a position in which promotion is possible in the first place, which excludes the growing legions of adjunct instructors who are not offered job security or benefits. For the privileged in tenure-track or tenured appointments, the accumulation of lines must often be presented in raw numbers, as though the amount, rather than the content, constitutes accomplishment. But bean counting is only the beginning, as the contributors collectively argue in the 2018 collection, Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education, edited by Marc Spooner and James McNinch.

Audit culture, what Michelle Fine refers to as “punitive accountability” (p. 68), is the thread that stitches together the 13 chapters and the foreword, preface, introduction, and afterword. The book is a result of the 2015 symposium that preceded it. Held in Regina, Saskatchewan, and called Public engagement and the politics of evidence in the age of neoliberalism and audit culture (thankfully shortened to the “Regina Gathering”), the symposium asked compelling questions about what counts as scholarship, according to whom, and by what standards. Spooner and McNinch are clear in their introduction that the book is meant to speak to all of us who are invested in postsecondary university education and research, and alienated from, or at least concerned about, managerialism, accountability, academic freedom, hegemonic knowledge systems, methodological limitations, and continued regimes of colonization under what gets counted as legitimate knowledge. “The good news”, they indicate, “is: you are not alone” (p. xxiv; emphasis in original). The bad news, as one might expect, is that the academy is under continued pressure to conform under the ideologically-driven domination of neoliberalism. “The traditional university is under siege,” Christopher Meyers asserts in the first sentence of his chapter (p. 234). All of the contributors would argue that, in effect, the academy has been taken from us and it is time to rescue it from siege and ongoing crisis.

The crisis is difficult to address because, as Spooner and McNinch point out, increased managerialism is normatively framed as apolitical, as though it is void of ideological motivation. The chapters included in this collection are impressive because they tackle what many might validate as “just doing business” – “business” being an operative word – or as “the way things are,” as though university culture shifts beyond anyone’s ability to guide it. Framed within the broader geopolitics of American economic and cultural protectionism, and in the context of a resurgence of expressed White supremacy and White nationalism, the state of universities as being in crisis seems to follow lockstep with a world in crisis under capitalism run amok, as Zeus Leonardo points out in his foreword. Universities struggle, on the one hand, to value diversity and legitimate truths and knowledge from outside the usual colonial contexts. On the other hand, they struggle to reinvent themselves as keystones to economic benefit and enterprise to broader society. Public universities are beholden to the governments that fund them and are under pressure to legitimate themselves in the face of budget tyrannies. Thus, such things as “rebranding exercises” and “communications strategies” are all the rage. The pressure to demonstrate, for example, post-graduate employment rates across programs is real and constant, so much so that the University of Regina promises to students that “within six months of graduation you will obtain career related employment or receive an additional year of university FREE!”

An impressive roster of influential academics, what Kevin Kumashiro calls an “all-star collection of scholars” in his back-cover endorsement, are featured in Dissident Knowledge. Patti Lather, Noam Chomsky, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Norman Denzin, and Peter McLaren (who offers the afterword) are among them. Including the work of such scholars might be a good strategy for attracting attention to the message of resistance, but it might also harken back to arguments and perspectives that are all-too familiar with academics of a certain generation, namely mine. Some of the material, particularly McLaren’s, feels like I have read it all before, despite being presented with a fresh coat of paint. However, familiarity may be a necessary by-product; the issues raised by these scholars are pernicious in their normativity. Normative practices and cultural norms take years, decades, or more to evolve and take hold. Who, then, notices the gradual creep of managerialism and audit culture and their effects on higher education? Clearly, all of these scholars do, even the ones who have been writing about the effects of neoliberalism on universities for decades.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book, aside from being an attempt to light a fire under our collective posteriors against managerialism and audit culture in academia, is the connection made by Indigenous contributors that neoliberalism is fundamentally about settler colonialism. Sandy Grande argues that settler colonialism is “amplified by neoliberalism” (p. 170), meaning a focus on individual liberty within an unfettered marketplace, the so-called “knowledge economy.” But the point is made most clearly by Eve Tuck. In her chapter entitled, Biting the university that feeds us, she writes, “Extensive trust in the free market, goals towards no public expenditures, intense focus on the individual, distaste for collective action, workforce-flexible, few state regulations, high tolerance for unemployment and blaming individuals for their oppression: all this can be directly linked to the settler colonial restructuring of our societies” (p. 150). She adds that there have been small gains in numbers of faculty of colour from the neoliberalization of universities, not because of warm and fuzzy drives for diversity and inclusion, but because of a culture of distrust and surveillance that comes with neoliberalization. Tuck’s argument is that, although diversity might seem politically astute and an attempt to correct, at least on the surface, generations of continued white privilege, it enables universities to more closely scrutinize scholars of colour. Perhaps as “an arm of the settler state,” as Grande describes it, the academy cannot be otherwise, despite such surface appearances. If the academy is an arm of the settler state, can there be hope to, as Spooner and McNinch put it, challenge “the colonial, corporate, and managerial university in all its iterations” (p. xxx)?

More specific to university-based research, Marie Battiste points out that Indigenous learners continue to be alienated from and within university cultures that privilege Western forms of knowledge, the results of which are, according to Budd Hall, “continuing cultural genocides, linguicides, and epistemicides” (p. 85), all the while exploiting Indigenous societies and stealing knowledge in exercises of objectification framed as research. Even the rhetorical and policy processes of “Indigenizing” universities is held suspect. What might appear to be a benevolent attempt to right the wrongs and work toward respect and inclusion is, according to Battiste, a discourse that operates to build market share and enhance competitiveness (given that Indigenous peoples are the fastest-growing demographic in Canada and universities can capitalize on growing numbers of Indigenous learners). She puts it clearly: “Indigenization of the universities is about affirming Eurocentric superiority” (p. 127).

Linda Tuhiwai Smith offers a condemnation of audit culture and so-called “impact factors” based on “normative assumptions and metrics and the kind of impact being valued” (p. 28). What gets lost in the turn towards auditing mechanisms, probably never noticed in the first place, is how Indigenous research has always been about impact, even if considered beyond the parameters of normative metrics. According to Tuhiwai Smith, certain research gets legitimized and valued through administrative practices of colonialism; other research does not, or at least, not as readily.

Dissident Knowledge is not solely about pointing the accusing finger at administration. In no less than three instances on the cover, spine, and back cover, readers are presented with the image of a rotting apple core. Not a rotting whole apple, but a core, suggesting that the apple has been eaten. Those of us who have been able to eat the apple, especially those who are white and tenured, as Grande points out, contribute to settler colonialism in the form of individualized accumulation and accompanying processes of auditing within the academy. The clarion call of Spooner and McNinch is made more specific by Grande who suggests that a refusal of the university means, among other things, stepping away from self-promotion and the ”cycle of individualized inducements” (p. 183). This includes self-congratulatory posts on social media that, in minute ways, continue to contribute to the neoliberal notion that achievement is purely by individual effort, will, and talent. I don’t see that happening though I understand the larger implications that Grande highlights.

No one in the volume offers quick fixes to the crisis of neoliberalism of the academy. There are no easily-digestible bulleted lists of things that should be done. Nothing is simplified. The problems highlighted in Dissident Knowledge might not even be easily recognized by many as problems, in the first place. A turn towards audit culture and its oppressions would tend to be less of a concern among those who are less affected by it, relative to others. This is precisely why processes of normalization are so powerful. They offer rhetorical, rosy soundbites about accountability, legitimacy, and responsiveness that disguise neoliberal logics and perpetuate settler colonialism through the academy. Part of Spooner’s and McNinch’s appeal is for us, especially the privileged and protected, to think deeply about the issues raised in the volume, even if for the first time.

But thinking is not enough. Many of the contributors offer ideas for long-term strategies of collective resistance and refusal to reclaim the academy from administrative policies and practices that are guided by neoliberal idolatry of the marketplace. Yet, so many of us do not even recognize the siege in the first place, which is why Dissenting Knowledge is a powerful resource to learn about the larger ideological mechanisms in which the academy now finds itself enmeshed. Dissident Knowledge in Higher Education builds strongly from the work of the Regina Gathering to, as Spooner and McNinch put it, “reclaim and reimagine the academy” (p.xxii). It’s certainly a tall order but no less a crucial one.

Gerald Walton is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University.