2015 ESRI SEMINAR SERIES BEGINS with philosopher Robert Pfaller, and a lively discussion about higher education futures.

Yesterday, Robert Pflaller, Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Art and Industrial Design in Linz, Austria, gave the 2015 ESRI Seminar Series inaugural lecture to an at-room-capacity audience of researchers, lectures and students in MMU’s new Birley

Housed at Birley, ESRI is home to eclectic research/ers, and world-leading social and education research. Curated by Stephanie Daza and Alexandre Pais, the 2015 seminar series aims to engage scholars, practitioners, and artists in provocative conversations about education as a process that permeates all dimensions of human activity, rather than merely as compulsory and formal schooling. Guests will put their own scholarly agenda, project, practice, or questions in conversation with education. By working the gaps among disciplines, we seek to provoke insights beyond disciplinary boundaries.

In the first lecture, Professor Pfaller argued that a right-wing neoliberal, postmodernity has resulted in a bureaucratic higher education of repressive apparatuses (e.g. permanent assessment, evaluation and control). By co-opting and reapprorpriating “the left,” he suggested that the 1990s (Bologna) reforms have undone the university, as an exemplary space of freedom of thought, as well as movements for increased access and equity in the 1960s-70s. In the process, he argued, a new form of “little” student-subject has emerged. “Weak and in need of projection,” instead of a capable and agentic subject, this student must be kept safe from the dangers of a creative and challenging education. According to Pfaller, who drew on Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, the infantilisation of the student means that large numbers of students in today’s HE institutions are actually being uneducated, especially through evaluation systems that reinforce hierarchies and cater to student (as customer/consumer) needs to be comfortable and unprovoked. Pfaller posits that neoliberal privateers capitalized on left and postmodern ideologies and ‘under the pretext of opening the universities to the “uneducated”, the agents of the university reforms have accomplished the neoliberal aim: excluding the masses from higher education, by providing them with cheap drill and meaningless certificates.’

The Q&A developed around how we got here and where we can go. The central theme of the discussion asked: what has happened, is happening, and will happen next in the vacuum left by the loss of “big narratives” and “emancipated citizens”? As Professor Harry Torrance, ESRI Director, noted, the lecture resonates with the challenge for higher education of how legitimacy and authority is being (and will be) produced and sustained in the 21st Century. The discussion pondered why/how the above vacuum is being filled with neoliberal procedural bureaucracy and not more vitality? What is the responsibility and “response ability” of postmodernity? Or, as Professor Maggie MacLure, noted, might we also wonder about Bruno Latour’s idea that we’ve never been modern in the first place and that the focus on critique keeps the gaze on the past and not the future, as if there was such a “golden age”. MacLure also reminded us that student subjects are not fixed, but often more agentic than imagined. Dr. Geoff Bright, ESRI, provided examples in his reflection of HE over the past 40-50 years, noting that universities in the 1960s-70s were privileged spaces and that empirical ethnographic research shows how reforms, changes, and resistance cannot be merely generalized. The discussion continued over dinner at local café Kim by the Sea, where Professor Pfaller continued to listen patiently and entertain questions generously, as he had all week during his Manchester visit.

Of note, Professor Pfaller’s visit to Manchester was made possible through the joint effort of ESRI MMU and Critical Global Politics at the University of Manchester, where he gave a different, but equally provocative, lecture Tuesday on The Unbearable Enjoyment of the Other: Postmodern Sensibility and the Politics of Anxiety. Founding member of the Viennese psychoanalytic research group “stuzzicadenti”, Robert Pfaller was awarded “The Missing Link” prize in 2007 for connecting psychoanalysis with other scientific disciplines in the German edition of his book The Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners , which is now available in English (“Die Illusionen der anderen. Ueber das Lustprinzip in der Kultur. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 2002). He is the author of seven additional books.

The seminars are held in 4.65 Birley at 4PM; the schedule follows:

Sverker Lundin – Ambivalence towards mathematics as a driving force behind mathematics education (11 February)

Alfie Bown – TBA (25 February)

Ansgar Allen – Prospects for the educated nihilist: Cynicism, suicide and failure (11 March)

Sarah McNicol – The muddled and the mundane: life story through comics (1 April)

Paola Valero and Kenneth Mølbjerg Jørgensen – TBA (29 April)

Rodrigo Constanzo – DF Score: Improv Pedagogy (13 May)

Judy Wu – Digital Narratives and Oral Histories: Tools for Pedagogy and Knowledge Production (3 June) 

David Menendez – Employability in Education Studies: A student-lecturer collaborative enquiry (10 June) 

Cheryl Matias – “Land of the free and the home of the modern racist”: Race, Whiteness, and the Emotional Death of American “Freedom” (Monday 22 June)

Stephanie Daza and Alexandre Pais

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