Accessions: Researching, Designing Higher Education

My piece ‘Accessions: Researching, Designing Higher Education’ in Gender and Education (23:6) reports on the experiences, effects and (dis)engagements in working alongside designers – as part of a research-design team – to foster a more ‘public sociology’. These are questions, conceptual and methodological, that I have been interested in for some time: this piece, as with other work, asks who becomes the proper subject for (non)academic attention? Questions are raised about the place of a ‘public sociology’ as part of a ‘city publics’ and ‘engaged university’ where understanding local disseminations and disparities is important in considering where different users, interviewees and indeed researchers are coming from. It asks where are we coming from? Why does this matter and how can this be operationalised as a politicised practice (rather than personalized, individualized pain); Where are we going as the direction of Higher Education stalls and changes? When we ‘travel’ in academia do we only credentialise ourselves, becoming more distant from the very audiences, users, and publics which enable our mobility? ‘Accessions’ alludes to academic hierarchies, elitism and ‘becoming’ in and out of the university setting, and continues a concern reflected in a forthcoming Sociological Research Online piece: ‘Placing Research: ‘City Publics’ and the ‘Public Sociologist’ (2011, with Michelle Addison) and a current European Societies piece ‘International and Widening Participation Students’ Experience of Higher Education, UK’ (2011, with Tracy Scurry).

In these writings I have been inspired by the work of sociologists such as Diane Reay and Bev Skeggs, in putting forth a critical perspective on issues of ‘participation’, ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘internationalisation’, where regulations and measures may be resisted and disrupted. I ask, who counts? Who gets to count: are the measures of academic impact always bound to social normativities and inequalities, where the esteemed, impactful academic gets promoted before the yet-to-achieve early career colleague who finds herself jumping more and more rising hurdles….? Who gets to ‘arrive’ in academia, in time and in place? Sara Ahmed comments on this in a forthcoming edited collection (Educational Diversity: The Subject of Difference and Different Subjects, 2012), which includes commentaries from those across the career stage: does the impactful academic have to re-arrange, perform and present certain embodied identities – marked by class, gender, sexuality and race – to get to inhabit, move and ‘be’ in academia. Sarah Evan’s work has also been inspiring in developing my own thoughts, conveyed in ‘Accessions’, where in ‘Becoming Someone’ examining class and gender through higher education, Sarah discusses the spatial, emotive and material barriers in extending into space, where the ‘local’ is often viewed as too limited for the modern, internationally orientated mobile (and middle-class) subject.

Accessions’ asks questions on how these educational inequalities might be challenged within and potentially beyond the specific locale of one university campus. This research-design project hoped to enable a different way of accessing and being in university, an attempt to write achievements and impacts alongside ‘failure’. In the article – and in the project as a whole – questions had to be asked about who, as well as what, the end research-design exhibition was for: issues of participation, diversity, immanence, apprehension – as well as transgression – were integral to the project. The ‘opening night’ was attended by select invitees and introduced by the Pro-Vice Chancellor. It was also visited by local schools, where pupils had previously not been on campus: Accessions became a focal point, an invitation and a refusal, as different participants (dis)engaged with university elitism. I would be interested to receive thoughts on these matters, especially in the context of educational cut-backs

Yvette Taylor, (London South Bank University)


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