The Tinkerbell effect

I wrote this for Times Higher Education last week:

We all know the ideal. A university is not just another medium-sized corporation; it is a community of scholars, striving towards the common goals of learning and enlightenment. And we all know the many ways an actual university falls short of that ideal. Collegiality can evaporate in the heat of the job, with its daily irritations and power plays. The modern university, the American educator Clark Kerr once wrote, is just “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking”.

The managerialist ethos that pervades today’s universities doesn’t help. This ethos reduces human relationships to the incentivising logic and contractual obligations of a market. The problem isn’t the people – managers themselves can be well meaning and principled – but the system. Ultimately, managerialism does not believe in community, only in self-interested individuals completing tasks because they have been offered carrots or threatened with sticks. By dividing us up into cost centres, the managerialist university tries to isolate the ways in which the different parts contribute to the whole. Poorly performing areas, or those seen as a drain on resources, are put on the naughty step, or worse.

In this context, the rhetoric of the university as a community can feel like little more than message discipline, smoothing over dissent and critical thought. The language of corporate togetherness rings hollow at a time of casualisation, redundancies and unmanageable workloads.

Still, we keep believing. Collegiality responds to the Tinkerbell effect: the collective act of believing in it, sometimes in spite of the evidence, brings it into being. In the middle of this semester, we had a fire drill. When the alarm goes off, it opens up the building, decanting its dispersed human occupants on to the tarmac and lawn outside. The invisible life of the university is made visible. We stood coatless and shivering in the autumn air, huddled in little groups. I saw students I had only ever seen on Zoom, colleagues appointed since lockdown who I had never seen before, and others I had not seen for over a year, reassuringly unchanged. And I was reminded how much of a community is made by this mere fact of contiguity: passing each other in corridors, popping into offices, queueing up for the microwave.

These acts form part of what Katherine May calls “the ticking mechanics of the world, the incremental wealth of small gestures”, which “weaves the wider fabric that binds us”. As a shy and socially passive person, I rarely take the initiative in interactions, so I need these accidental encounters. I didn’t quite notice, while I was just trying to get through it, how much a year and a half of living online had messed with my head. I had to get well again before I knew how sick I was. After so many months of virtual working, these micro-expressions of the value of community feel like glugging down bottled hope.

Community is not some warm, bland, mushy thing. It is how complicated human beings learn to live alongside other complicated human beings – people who want desperately to be good but who are also self-absorbed, insecure, frustrated and afraid. Community is only ever a work in progress, rife with bugs and glitches. It is hard work.

That becomes particularly apparent at Christmas, as we try to find it in us to show peace and goodwill to people we find irritating and exhausting. The writer Loudon Wainwright, Jr called Christmas “the annual crisis of love”. A university is a permanent crisis of love. But crises are what we struggle through because it’s worth getting to the other side – and because a university is a community or it’s nothing.

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