Wednesday, May 09, 2012

About Time

My 43rd birthday arrives, and finds me in a somewhat introspective mood.

I've spent most of the last four years juggling projects. Far too many projects, with not enough of them reaching a satisfactory conclusion. A lot of stuff that previously I thought was at the centre of my work has been pushed out to the edges. It's been a strange time - up until around 2006/7, my work felt much more coherent, with a trajectory built up from more than a decade of solid, well supported collaborations with great colleagues in east London that brought together lots of my interests, and culminated in some decent publications and a reasonably coherent professional narrative. The last few years, particularly since 2008, have felt a lot more fragmented and fractious.

I've always had a magpie-like approach to disciplines and lacked the personal 'discipline' to do anything in massive depth - I have preferred breadth and connectivity to the microscopic focus on the particular that many academics settle for. That makes me useful for organisations that want people who are able to work 'between' and 'across' disciplines, which has become a bit of a speciality for me.

So I've been working on strategy, planning and collaboration in the School of Creative and Cultural Industries at UWS, which is now beginning to bear some fruit; the new Ayr campus offers massive opportunities and we've also refurbished some rooms in Paisley to bring together researchers in spaces that try to promote collaboration. We're also pushing forward with projects and collaborations in Glasgow, through Film City, the CCA and GI, and in Ayr, with the refurbishment of the Gaiety Theatre, and have been successful in beginning to get some funding for projects through our Skillset Media Academy. We've been working on very many fronts at once to try to create a networked academic infrastructure that promotes pathways into meaningful work for students and also levers the power and resources of the university in support of regeneration and social/economic development. 

We've established some research centres - in particular Creative Futures and our Creative Practice/Research Group, which are trying to draw together a disparate group of colleagues to work in support of this agenda, and pull out common threads for discussion and action. A lot of this kind of work, rooted in an awareness of the potential of the university as a public service provider and a catalyst for change, is about relationship building - but, as so often happens, individuals get caught in the gaps and inconsistencies between the rhetoric and the reality, where the rhetoric often runs far ahead of the reality and where a sense of trust, confidence and the capacity to make things happen needs a lot of development. In a sense, as Bourdieu wrote, we have to mediate between the spotlit 'front room' and the back rooms of change-making:  "among the tasks of a politics of morality [is] to work incessantly toward unveiling hidden differences between official theory and actual progress, between the limelight and the backrooms of political life."

If creativity is about agency - the capacity to make and do - then we need to build a climate which enables people to understand 'the art of the possible', which designs in opportunities for growth, and which, given that we are "publicly funded and publicly accountable" (the mantra of obsessive accountants everywhere) still meets regulatory requirements. We need creative systems, generative systems, not just bureaucratic systems. It's not simply systems-versus-creativity; there are no magic formulae; but we know a creative climate and a creative organisation when we experience one - we build the culture as we go. Systems AND creativity not either-or.

Within all this maelstrom of change I've been very excited by working with @UWScreative doctoral researchers - great people like Ben Parry, Jennifer Jones, Chris Dooks, Alison Bell and Gail Sneddon, and I have many good colleagues who successfully navigate between the academic and artistic domains. There is loads of potential for UWS to support cultural practice-as-research which also has societal impact (a kind of holy grail in current higher education jargon...) But it's also a struggle to have this kind of work understood, especially when there's a constant, nagging, focus on the empty buzzwords of 'entrepreneurship, employability, enhancement' etc. Thus requiring yet more translation, explanation, and mediation to try to build an academic agenda that is critical, reflective and actually generates work with significance. It's exhausting for everyone. There are far too many 'empty signifiers' to contend with, and not enough time for the thinking/doing that would actually generate new insights. 

The point is that achieving change - something, for example, that the dreadful, self-obsessed, lacklustre UK government has no conception of  - is far less about constantly banging on about outputs, performance or 'difficult choices' and much more about lived values and qualities. Working in the porous and pressurised postmodern university necessitates constant mediation between the tyrannies of planning grids, learning outcomes charts, metrics etc and the messy and turbulent world of everyday social interaction. However, planning grids, no matter how demanding they might be, can't lock down sociality - it's in the conversations and the encounters that people learn - so the question needs to be - what kinds of conversations do our systems promote? Are the conversations good enough? Are we doing enough to facilitate good conversations? In education, and organisations more generally - rather than constantly exhorting people to 'perform', perhaps we should spend more time thinking about whether we've got the conditions right that enable them to perform?  Climate, circumstances, context. "Quality" resides in the quality of interaction between members of the community, not in abstract measures of value. 

Money (that useful symbolic token which enables the purchase of time) remains scarce and seems likely to be so into the future. And I'm pretty exhausted with all this negotiation, particularly while my personal circumstances continue to be far more precarious than I would like. In such circumstances, the smart use of time is essential - we shouldn't be wasting money on ineffective meetings or pointless procedures. The question leaders should be asking is - what will it cost us NOT to change? (Of course, it suits √©lites just fine to maintain the status quo, but that's another story).

A few mantras that I keep repeating:

- saying or writing something is not the same as doing something: just because you've written something needs to happen doesn't mean it will happen
- we need to avoid 'fantasy management' where we paper over cracks and don't address issues
- and I'm back to 'hacking the organisation' as a founding metaphor for making things happen.

I have continued to be preoccupied with

-  questions of culture and value, in particular how cultural participation 'works'
-  network pedagogies and ways of fostering collaborative learning architectures
-  how to make good use of increasingly scarce time and resources

We can't go on, we must go on, we go on.