Esther was pleased. The second year of running her ethnography unit was going well. True, a 9 am start was less than desirable and a number of students always arrived late, bleary-eyed and sleepy. Overall though the students were engaged, the mixture of fieldwork, readings and discussion was progressing smoothly and the challenges around ethics and informed consent, solved. On top of that her students were less scared and frightened of asking for oral informed consent and had actual fieldwork data with often vivid and engaging accounts of life in Brennan. The one thing that niggled at her was the unit assessment: over 4500 words of ethnographically-inspired text. It just seemed very old school, even a bit boring and dull. Ethnographies were changing: Last week Esther’s students had read an ethnography with harrowing black and white photos of homeless drug addicts. The photos had been so much more powerful than much of the writing. There was also the growing recognition that we lead deeply sensory and aural lives, which should also be accounted for. Esther had made her students stand in a circle outside with their eyes closed, listening. They were forming a human microphone with each student hearing something slightly different than the others. The other students that walked passed them giggling, thought they were part of some site specific performance and started taking photographs. Most of Esther’s students were deeply mortified by the entire experience and as a result thought that paying attention to aurality was over-rated. Esther mentioned performance and dance ethnography and asked if any of her students wanted to ‘perform’ their ethnography? This suggestion was greeted with total silence. So far no students had actually dared to submit a poem as their ethnography, or a video or even just their fieldwork photos. Esther thought that was a bit of a shame. She did think it should be possible for students to engage in the many possibilities of what an ethnography could be, without simply reproducing more conventional text. It seemed the willingness to explore more creative and alternative modes of expression caused panic and stress, rather than interest and delight.
This wasn’t just a problem in her ethnography unit; one of Esther’s feminist colleagues Mabel kept trying to turn her classes into spaces of ‘transgressive learning.’ Her efforts to encourage students to lead the debates rather than sit passively and receive ‘knowledge’ from the lecturer had not been met enthusiasm. Esther had passed one of Mabel’s classes sitting outside on the grass in the sunshine. There didn’t seem to be much transgressing going on, unless you counted making daisy chains and repeated calls for Mabel to explain how and why Luce Irigaray thought plants had feelings. It looked like a lot of fun to Esther, but Mabel felt it wasn’t quite radical or transgressive enough. Some of the students complained that they weren’t getting ‘value for money’ as Mabel kept encouraging them to question her as well as each other. ‘The terrible effects of neoliberalism’ Mabel had sighed. Esther rather thought it was the terrible effects of too little sleep, not having done the reading and students wanting Mabel to tell them exactly what they should write in their essays. But then maybe that was also neoliberalism. Esther’s colleagues used that word a lot to explain everything ranging from inept timetabling to precarious contracts and the gender pay gap. Neoliberalism, it seemed, was in danger of meaning everything and nothing.
To be fair to the students though, it wasn’t just them that resisted the small attempts Mabel and Esther made to transgress and transform their learning. Only last week Libby and Rachel had come to Esther full of their fieldwork challenges in Wolf Alley and Esther had suggested they write collaboratively together. This suggestion, much to Esther’s amazement, was greeted willingly. Even Rachel who normally bore a look of perpetual somnolence, had seemed mildly interested. Two days later, Libby had arrived at Esther’s office again, clutching a rough draft of their writing. Were they on the right track? Unequivocally yes! Libby left radiant. And then Esther stupidly thought she should inform the Higher-Ups. Why she had thought this she still didn’t rightly know. Maybe the drama of the ethics issues from last year were still lingering, or because she wasn’t a permanent staff member and her contracted months vanishing like sand, or just general, stupid naivety. Whatever the reason, by the time the email had been sent Esther knew she had made a mistake. It was always better to ask for forgiveness than approval. She had forgotten that for the length of time it took her to compose the email and hit send.
Of course it caused panic. Though why collaborative writing, so loved and lauded by academics the world over should cause such panic was puzzling. Regardless, the stern instructions from above were not to let the collaboration happen: there would be problems with marking, other students might feel left-out, other students might complain. Which was the real issue Esther realised, the threat of the dissatisfied student and the power they might wield to damn Brennan in the looming National Student Survey: Brennan’s ranking might fall, then the pro-VC for Education would get involved and want to know what they had done wrong? And it could all be blamed on Esther who offered collaborative writing and thought only of creativity and transgression in ethnographic writing and not important things like League Tables and University Status.
So Esther donned her symbolic boxing gloves and went into the ring. Not for the principle of the thing or even for ideas about transgressive learning, but for Libby and Rachel who were writing together and excited about what they were doing. Genuinely, glowingly excited. She didn’t tell Libby and Rachel to stop writing, but instead offered collaborative writing to the rest of the class. All of whom, unsurprisingly, declined the offer. Instead she told the Higher-Ups that she had already given her consent and that the students were happily writing. She stressed how happy they were, those Brennan students who were so rarely, visibly and verbally happy. Backs against the student-happiness wall, Esther was given approval. But only for this year academic year. If she wanted to do this again she would need to fill in a unit change form. It was a victory of sorts and all Esther had really hoped for. Libby and Rachel submitted their collaboration never knowing the backstage battle fought on their behalf. It was excellent. Student feedback on the unit was consistently positive, gushing even. There was not a single student complaint.
At the end of November Esther duly filled in the unit change form and by January received an email informing her that her proposed changes to the assessment had been denied. By March the ethnography unit was pulled as third year option, though plenty of students had written emails asking why it wasn’t running. In May, Esther was offered another 12 month teaching-only contract. They wanted her to teach every unit under the sun, even units where Esther had zero knowledge or expertise. The only unit they didn’t want her to teach was ethnography. Esther declined the offer and by the end of June had left Brennan. Another casualty of the endlessly rotating teaching wheel afflicting Higher Education. Increasingly Esther recognised, there was something to this neoliberal university stuff after all.