Towards a political theory of time in higher education

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My colleagues, Agnes Bosanquet, Lilia Mantai and I had a paper published in Teaching in Higher Education earlier this year, and this blog post has been on the top of my to-do list for months. Here we are in December, and I am wondering where the time has gone. Like many others, I have totally lost track of time this year.

The work that led to this article was completed slowly. It was written before the outbreak of COVID-19 (although we managed to sneak in a mention during the final review stage), but our argument about the experience of time, uncertainty and anxiety is prescient.

The idea for this paper began during a meeting between Lilia and Agnes, where they talked about the volume of time-talk amongst PhDs and early career academics (ECAs), and how it was in constant tension with leisure, pleasure and pressure. Lilia shared her early notes with me:

“For PhD candidates, time is an adjustable, stretchable and a precious commodity. Time is money, you can waste it, buy it, lose it, run out of it, make the best of it, share, borrow, give, take, make more of it, – but overall stories of time are mostly about saving time and using it wisely.”

When my co-authors were looking for a theory to help structure and orient the findings, Agnes remembered a conference paper I had presented on precarious work and the promise of neoliberal academia which used Derrida’s concept of time to explore the conditions of anxiety experienced by sessional staff.

Our article brings together two studies: interviews with 64 PhD candidates from two Australian universities on their doctoral experience and researcher identity development; and a survey of 522 self-defining ECAs from three Australian universities on factors impacting work experience and career trajectories. We analyse these data using Ylijoki and Mäntylä’s (2003)‘Conflicting Time Perspectives in Academic Work’:

“Scheduled time refers to the accelerating pace of work, timeless time to transcending time through immersion in work, contracted time to short-term employment with limited future prospects and finally, personal time to one’s temporality and the role of work in it.”

Theorising with Derrida’s ‘Specters of Marx’ (1994), we emphasise the experiences of doctoral candidates and early career academics as political subjects in the neoliberal university, and add a category of deferred time. In ‘Enduring Time’, Lisa Baraitser (2017) describes deferred or suspended time as marked by “modes of waiting, staying, delaying, enduring, persisting, repeating, maintaining, preserving and remaining – that produce the experience of time not passing.” As we come towards the close of 2020, the experience of deferred time might feel familiar. The uncertain future of the academic work is more relevant than ever.

Following Derrida’s line of argument, as political subjects of the neoliberal university, whose temporality is externally driven, our analysis reveals that doctoral candidates and early career academics are in a deferred state of waiting for the ‘messianic promise’ of secure academic careers and balanced working conditions. The dominant affect of deferred time, which contaminates the experience of scheduled, contracted, timeless and personal time, is anxiety.

In our article, we positioned ourselves as researchers by referring to our contaminated time:

“We come to this study as early to mid-career academics whose everyday experience of time, like our participants, is interruptible and contaminated by multi-layered tasks and conflicting demands.”

Our argument is that emerging academics experience anxiety-inducing deferred time, waiting for academic careers and working conditions that are yet to come.

We ended our paper on a hopeful note: PhD candidates and early career participants are active agents in managing the temporalities of academic work, defending their personal time and planning potential futures within and beyond academe.

It is harder to end this year on a hopeful note. There is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for higher education. Time will tell.

Vanessa Fredericks (Australian Catholic University), Agnes Bosanquet (Macquarie University) and Lilia Mantai (The University of Sydney)

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