The stark contrast between the kindness experienced in Bali and the manic, hurried pace of the her own academic workplace environment prompted Claire Aitchison to examine the contemporary ‘enterprise university’. The pressure to publish and burdens to achieve competitive advantage crowd out a collective culture that values kindness and collaboration. If left unchecked this will have adverse consequences for the continuing production of knowledge in universities.

I’ve been to Bali. I’d always eschewed the possibility, so corrupted was my view of the place by images of ‘ugly Australians’ and other badly behaved tourists. But, intrigued by the work of some doctoral researchers and a couple of enthusiastic friends, I took the plunge. We spent time in a little village in the mountains. It was an extraordinary and beautiful experience in so many ways – but here I want to talk about kindness.

Kindness in Bali seems to be a national pastime. I was blown away by the numerous, daily acts of kindness. We were the recipients of so many kindnesses arising from concerns for our welfare, health, enjoyment, comfort and so on; it was almost unnerving. We were invited into people’s homes, to ceremonies at the village temple, we were offered food; the list goes on. Each morning and evening someone came to our house to lay out beautifully constructed offerings to protect us, and the home. It seemed extraordinary that this woman would care so much for the welfare of strangers, but by virtue of coming to the village, we were welcomed into their sphere of kindness, it would seem, without question.

Prior to arriving in Bali, I, like my colleagues, had been working at a manic pace in an environment where kindness, well, frankly, simply rarely features. The contrast could not have been stronger, and it made me ponder on what’s happening to our university workplaces. How could village life be so rich in kindness and care, and our lives at work so lacking by comparison?

Theorising on neoliberal education and the enterprise university presents a convincing account of how the contemporary neoliberal subject (that is, us) is constructed in opposition to kindness. See for example, the Special Edition of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (Volume 20, No. 3, 2007). What counts in the global enterprise university is competitive advantage, so often made visible through self-promotion for personal advancement. Davies and Bansel speak about how, as neoliberal subjects, our everyday practices are corrupted and corrupting.

As our work as academics, administrators and research student supervisors becomes increasingly pressurised, making space for kindness takes time and effort that could be considered unproductive, even foolish, in the face of the relentless drive for job security and productivity – which, by the way, is mostly counted in the form of written, published outputs. The pressure to publish.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how hard it must be for those students who come from places where collective advantage is valued above individual pursuit. How hard it must be to reconcile those values in a context where doing kindness can be seen as a weakness, and where independent scholarship is promoted above collaboration. This clash of cultures can become acute within the student supervisor relationship and particularly in interactions around doctoral writing where differing expectations and ways of knowing surface. Anita Devos and Margaret Somerville explore some of these tensions in their article ‘What constitutes doctoral knowledge?: Exploring issues of power and subjectivity in doctoral examination’.  I know of others who write in this area including Michael Singh with colleagues from China, and Catherine Manathunga and Barbara Grant and colleagues.

There are many more; if you can alert us to other references, here’s your chance to help us build awareness and extend current prescriptions for doctoral practice.

This article was first published on the Doctoral Writing blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the author

Dr Claire Aitchison works under the Pro Vice Chancellor Research at the University of Western Sydney, where she supports writing development for higher degree research (HDR) students and their supervisors through a suite of courses and programs. 

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