Against Oblivion: Producing Pasts in Precarious Times

Today, History Australia has published a forum entitled “Doing History in Urgent Times”, guest edited by Yves Rees and Ben Huf (Yves has written for this blog before, most recently here). This forum was meant to be accompanied by a roundtable discussion at the Australian Historical Association’s 2020 conference, but that has been cancelled on account of the covid-19 pandemic. Michelle Arrow, one of History Australia’s editors, has organised an alternative: a series of blog posts responding to the forum. You can read the forum here—it is free for the next month—and the AHA ECR blog is very proud to host the first response by two ECRs affiliated with the University of Melbourne: Shan Windscript and Jimmy Yan.

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Shan Windscript, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in modern Chinese cultural and political history.

As we reflect on the state of academic precarity in the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of graduate and early career historians within the university remains increasingly tenuous. In Australia, as elsewhere, universities are rolling out COVID austerity measures, using the pandemic as the latest pretext for cuts to wages, conditions, and research positions. Precarious staff and graduate students, having long been the invisible backbone of the university, now face protracted unemployment. Our prospects for securing even casual contracts, let alone entering academia, are rapidly fading. Many of us have, in our double life as sessional tutors, now taught the last classes of our careers. Not everyone will make it to the end.

There has never been a more urgent time for historians to reckon with precarity in the neoliberal university. Yves Rees and Ben Huf’s newly-published article in History Australia, “Training Historians in Urgent Times,” offers a timely intervention on the possibilities for challenging academic precarity at the level of postgraduate history pedagogy. Drawing on Nicholas Bourriard’s relational aesthetics, Rees and Huf argue for the making of “micro-utopian” spaces as a means to “prefigure better academic worlds in the here and now” (21). Built around the principles of “inclusivity, collegiality, interdisciplinary and public mindedness,” these prefigurative micro-utopias can, as Rees and Huf argue, provide localised, everyday spaces of refuge from the effects of pervasive precarity. And within these temporary structures of care, new cultural narratives can emerge as new “historical storytellers” are cultivated and nurtured (7).

As precarious historians nearing the end of our PhD candidatures, we welcome Rees and Huf’s article. Yet these viral times have thrown up new questions about the capacity for prefigurative spaces to generate the collective political power needed for challenging a university sector reliant on precarity. In this response, we argue for the possibility of “solidarity in precarity” grounded in a contestation of power from the bottom up.

Multiple precarities 

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Jimmy Yan, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–23.

PhD students who begin their candidatures with aspirations of entering academia sooner or later become “experts of precarity”. Most, and particularly those without stipends, spend the next few years struggling below the poverty line while trying to satisfy pressures for “timely completion.” To survive financially while continuing their research, they rely on periodic income from casual and fixed-term employment, taking whatever they can to pay their bills. Within the university sector, this often means shouldering mountains of unpaid labour hidden beneath an ostensibly attractive hourly rate. And such harsh conditions are further compounded for graduate researchers who experience discrimination, bullying, and sexual harassment in a sector well-known for its toxic workplace culture.

If, as Judith Butler holds, precarity is a condition constituted within a proximity to vulnerability, academic precarity particularly affects groups already made vulnerable on multiple other levels (Butler, 2009, p. 25). For women and racialised people, migrants, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people, staying in academia means facing not only economic insecurity but also the day-to-day emotional, social, and physical challenges engendered by interconnected systems of violence. Tellingly, many Australian universities offer no Indigenous history courses.

At some point, usually in the dark hours before mental breakdown, many graduate students invariably confront the twin questions of “Why can’t I finish my thesis?” and “Why am I still poor”? This persistent anxiety over a future that may never come, a condition decades in the making, is now the norm. While some senior staff have characterised precarity as a baptism of fire, any ECR can testify that this condition in no sense disappears at the PhD finishing line.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated every facet of postgraduate precarity. As universities prioritise budgetary restraint, many students have suffered through the crisis without adequate support. At the University of Melbourne, postgraduate students have repeatedly been told to keep up with deadlines or restructure their research plans in the absence of universal extensions. International graduate students are particularly vulnerable after having been told by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to “go home.” Many have, without access to the government’s coronavirus relief packages, been left in financial and housing limbo. Australian universities have offered them little more than good wishes.

Yet, in the face of a persistent onslaught over decades against the democratic university, an alternative future feels increasingly unimaginable. Precarity, as the dominant condition of our time, collides with a sense of political fatalism and temporal contraction. As Enzo Traverso poignantly argues, the twenty-first century is a melancholic world of ruins where “concrete utopias of collective emancipation” have all but collapsed (2016: 7). It is now, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the neoliberal university.

Against this backdrop, Rees and Huf’s proposal for “building and participating in micro-utopias” as a pedagogical challenge to precarity represents a timely attempt to enact “the possibility of the world being otherwise” in the everyday’s “here and now” (20). Yet, as personal, professional, and disciplinary futures rapidly disappear alongside the contraction of history departments, the possibilities for such micro-utopias are themselves increasingly precarious.

Urgent history blog entry image 100763941_103551768052751_9087632202509844480_oAgonistic worldmaking

The neoliberal university is not insurmountable, and precarious subjects are not passive victims. As managements everywhere prepare to impose austerity, there has been an upsurge in grassroots activism led by insecure workers and students against cuts to jobs and conditions worldwide. Many salaried and precarious academics, including in Australia, have responded to the crisis by organising mutual aid programs for vulnerable colleagues.

More conventional forms of collective power and organising, including grassroots unionism, remain effective avenues for contesting precarity. By bringing precarious university staff together, union meetings provide spaces to speak openly about conditions, to vent concerns, and to articulate new forms of solidarity. At the University of Melbourne, the NTEU Casual and Sessional Staff Network, formed in 2018 and led by rank-and-file union members, has mobilised hundreds of casual workers and graduate students around campaigns for pay and conditions. Far from powerless and atomised, casuals have shown that small victories, such as over marking back-pay for tutors, are entirely attainable. Similar networks have mushroomed across the country, despite and against appeals by the NTEU national leadership to trade away jobs and working conditions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Postgraduate students, all but forgotten by their universities during the pandemic, have also found a sense of power in their shared precarity. At the University of Melbourne, PhD students, many of whom are also casualised workers, have been working closely with student and staff unions to fight for 6-month universal extensions. Their open letter has received over 600 (and counting) signatures, including from 80 supervisors, sparking similar campaign initiatives at other campuses across the country.

Solidarities forged ‘within’ precarity can facilitate the dissolution of supposed divisions between graduate students, casual academics and ongoing university staff. Although such solidarities are by no means automatic, the conditions of casual staff and the workloads of ongoing staff are far from counterposed. Staff at RMIT, the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne have recently passed “solidarity pledges” against the re-allocation of work from casuals to already overworked permanent staff. And casuals, graduate students, fixed-term staff, stood-down workers, and permanent staff spearheaded a successful “Vote No” campaign that defeated the University Vice Chancellor’s proposed variation of Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

This revival of grassroots organising has brought together and consolidated an assemblage of precarious subjects ready to fight. Our prospects for arresting the downward spiral of the neoliberal university are tied to forms of collective power engendered not in spite of, but because of, our precarity. If Rees and Huf propose a praxis of prefigurative worldmaking, the realisation of these post-neoliberal futures is contingent upon taking back the university “from below” through a contestation of power. Perhaps what we need is agonistic worldmaking.

Conclusion: Precarious Utopias

Utopia is, as Thomas More envisaged, a non-existent place constituted within a lack in the present. Perhaps we are, within our precarious subject-positions, speaking from a location of non-being. There is, as it stands, no “tomorrow.”

As producers of the past in a precarious present, we need to (re)politicize the future as a horizon of collective possibility. Our predicament calls not for a retreat from “the political,” but for a continued de-naturalisation of given historical categories. As statues fall and sea levels rise, we have a responsibility to foreground narratives systematically excluded from the neoliberal university and its narrowing intellectual boundaries. We have already seen that the shrinking of the humanities threatens to close off the possibility for the emergence of these urgent critical historiographies.

What might new histories in these precarious and insurgent times look like? Perhaps our historical narratives themselves will become more precarious. Histories of fractured subjectivities and difference are as crucial at this moment as the more conventional concerns of identity and belonging.

Our utopias lie not within any optimism for the institution as it exists, but within a contestation of its terms. A challenge to insecure work and casualisation through new forms of collective power is well within the realms of possibility. Such contestations may allow us to generate transformative visions of postgraduate history training from within the ruins of the corporate university.

References

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, London: Verso, 2009

Traverso, Enzo. Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

Rees, Yves and Ben Huf, ‘Training Historians in Urgent Times’, History Australia 17:2 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1080/14490854.2020.1758578

We would like to thank Max Kaiser for reading through a draft of this blog post and providing helpful feedback .

Shan Windscript is a final-stage PhD candidate in History at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis examines unpublished personal diaries written in the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) – a period marked by widespread violence and popular political activism. Her research interests lie in modern Chinese cultural and political history, in particular the relationship between personal writing, revolutionary subject formation, and state formation. Her most recent article was published in January 2020 in Modern China, titled, “How to Write a Diary in Mao’s New China: Guidebooks in the Crafting of Socialist Subjectivities.”

Jimmy Yan is a PhD candidate in History researching the transnational and imperial dimensions of the Irish revolutionary period of 1916–1923. His thesis examines the cultural translation of ‘Ireland’, radical political networks, and settler-colonial imaginaries in Australia during and after the Great War. His research has appeared in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, Labour History, and on the Irish public broadcaster RTE’s ‘Century Ireland’ page. Last year, he was the Seymour Summer Scholar at the National Library of Australia.

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