In Semester 1 of 2020 I tutored a first-year course in Asian and Pacific Studies. I had taken that same course myself 10 years earlier, as a wide-eyed 19-year-old, naïve and well intentioned, with very little awareness of what it meant to learn about – or with – other people. I’d expected my students in 2020 to replicate my clumsy curiosity, but I had underestimated what a generational shift brings. Raised on the Internet and with piercing consciousness of how the old ways of running our world have failed us, the generation of undergraduates entering universities now are something different. I find myself moved by their kindness and compassion, political engagement, and unapologetic search for better ways to learn and live.
In their warm but rigorous conversations in tutorials, I learn from them about how universities could and should be. From their emails seeking feedback I can see how much they want to learn and improve. From their kind words of gratitude, I’m reminded that at its core the ANU can really be a community, not a business.
I also learn from other casual staff, who have campaigned and worked for years on issues of unfair working arrangements in our universities. These people are talented and passionate – they could earn much more money elsewhere, but choose to stay in universities, because they care about research and teaching. They spend their precious spare time working for free to try to make those universities better.
I mention these groups because the ANU is at a critical juncture right now. With staff facing a vote to amend their enterprise agreement, and with universities nation-wide losing money due to the pandemic, we’re in survival mode. But I think that in a place of deep uncertainty and distress, something revolutionary can happen.
Here is what I want: I want to work for a university that adopts the best values and characteristics of those undergraduates and casual staff. I want to belong to a community founded on respect, inclusion, and empathy. I want dignity for workers. I want us to “pay the rent” to the people whose land the settler colonial state stole, on which our campus sits. I want us to find creative ways to be useful to our world without relying on the calcified hierarchies of academic mastery. I want us to be better. I believe we can be.
Why now? With a recession looming, it might seem like the wrong time to be hopeful. We know that we’re all going to be challenged over the next few years, and many (rightly!) argue that universities shouldn’t see themselves as more deserving than any other sector. But I’m fuelled by a sense that people all over the world are saying that in this strange and awful year, we’re not accepting a return to the status quo, because ‘normal’ was never free of violence, oppression and inequality. If the pandemic is making our economies and systems shake and crumble, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild them in a way that serves all of us.
My research in Pacific Studies affirms this. There are academics out there building scholarly communities that centre social justice, abstain from espousing illusions of ivory tower expertise which further disempower already marginalised communities, and that trust the diverse and deep knowledge that their students already have. There are fundamental connections between how we research and teach, and how we relate to each other within the university. If we’re to change workplace relations, we need to reckon with those dynamics of knowing – how power and knowledge is held and withheld. This isn’t esoteric academic stuff. It’s real. It’s lived by us every day, and if there’s a community of people who can reveal and articulate those connections, it’s us.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to work with undergraduates again, given the state of the sector. I’m working through this as a process of grief – how do I make sense of this loss and find meaning in it? I don’t have the answers, and maybe like other forms of loss, I just need to learn how to gently carry it with me forever. At the same time, the more I confront this, the more I’m hopeful for us. From loss and destruction can come seeds of growth. Our fight for a better institution is only just beginning. I can’t wait for a lifetime of reimagining and rebuilding. I truly believe we can do it.
Bianca Hennessy is a PhD candidate and casual tutor at the ANU College of Asia and Pacific.