‘I’ll just buy a fake plant’. On plasticity of selves, precariousness and resistance in the neoliberal academia

‘I’ll just buy a fake plant’. This is what I said to my colleague yesterday during our lunch break. ‘I cannot commit to anything living in my office, I would never be there enough to water it’.

I was given a very cute and cosy office by my Department. It is so bright, it has a lot of furniture, I even had to have some of it removed because it was too much. Probably three-quarters of my books are digital now, I thought I would have preferred having a small coffee table and a couple of chairs to enjoy some more relaxed chats as well in that lovely space (it is not thaaaat big, but enough to have a very tiny coffee corner). I started bringing lots of knick-knacks, I hung three posters I got in a small shop in Margate. One says ‘cultivate resilience’, the second one liberates genders from colours and the third one is a series of suggestions on how to begin practising de-growth. Every time I lock the door, I think how comforting it is to have your own space. Next week I will bring some plants. Fake plants. To make it also greener and even more welcoming. Fake so I do not have to worry too much about them if I cannot go there for a couple of weeks or so.

I live two and half hours from my university. I was hired through a one-year post-doctoral research contract as a Research Fellow, in the middle of the pandemic, and I decided not to move there because in a socially distanced world, and for a migrant like myself, being asked to move again and leave the small reassuring network of people I created here it is too much. Especially if my contract is not permanent. I research how to enact better inclusive education through technologies learning from the experiences of the pandemic. I love my project, I am able to express myself and feel free to act and talk politically against the colonial, racist, ableist repetitions of oppression that the pandemic crisis re-enabled in education globally. And my contract has been renewed for another two years, to conduct another project. My mentor and principal investigator is supportive and knowledgeable, my department is welcoming. I should be happy, and I should enjoy the moment, and instead, I struggle.

The pandemic has exacerbated the condition of post-docs in neoliberal universities. Our mental health has deteriorated as a result of the uncertainty brought by cuts on funding, feelings of isolation, and precarity. After years of relentlessly working towards dismantling social relations and turning them into commodities (you are introduced to people or you establish connections because they produce academic returns), the pandemic also disrupted that sense of collegiality that animated departments. In this global university, I barely see my current colleagues, and I saw all my doctoral colleagues and friends dispersing around the world. Some of them went to their countries of origin, others moved to other cities where they found other jobs.

Once you finish your doctoral journey and you decide that you want to stay in academia you enter a limbo, you are not an academic, but you are not a student either, you are told that is a necessary step to become academic, to learn the codes. Bourdieu would call them habituses, and he would also say that learning them is an exhausting endeavour especially if your social, cultural, and economic capital have not been forged by a wealthy family background accustomed to academic knowledge and practices. Which obviously wasn’t my case. You are told that you need to win grants, bring money to the university. In the last interview I failed for a lectureship position I was also told that I did not convey enough strongly how I would establish myself as a leader in my field. Until inequities in education are not defeated, I would never be a leader in my field, which is social justice in education. One thing that Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote relentlessly stays with me. Expectations are a product of the Western, Eurocentric conception of time, which expands the future infinitely and places hope in a future that discards the present. The presence of expectations is made of anxiety and of preoccupations not to fulfil them, relentlessly chasing that ‘higher’ recognition, that speakability as subjects of academia and that livability of permanent contracts – to feel safe in making that difference.

“Until inequities in education are not defeated, I would never be a leader in my field, which is social justice in education”

The ontological precarity post-doctoral research fellows experience is real. We are relentlessly asked to demonstrate who we are – what we are – where we are going – how we can be trusted – why we as individuals make the difference – why they should take us as permanent members of staff. And if you are a person of colour, that identify as disabled, a woman, like myself, at the intersection of these categories, or generally not conforming to the norms of academia, the difficulties multiple exponentially. Peck and Theodore in a famous paper could not say it better. Neoliberalism is ‘in here’ and ‘out there’, in the global and in the local, in shaping our academic curriculum and in our souls. In the technocratisation, and marketisation, of our selves and of our narrations.

Today I am here owing my narration and to make my own ‘impact’ to contribute to the fight for a just university and to re-collectivise the risk to be stronger together. My colleagues are on the picket line and holding a rally and teach-outs in a timid late autumn sun. My train ticket was too expensive to be exchanged and I could not join them. Because I live 2.5 hours away from my institution. As so many other post-docs that find themselves between lives, and cities.

Today this little blurb is about the happiness of having a job that gives me the space to have a voice when trying to make education more inclusive and socially just, but also the bitterness of being hanged, being distanced, being wrapped by swirls of anxiety for my present, for my future, and for the present and future of my colleagues, because eventually, the system is us.

Please support UCU and join the strike in support of the “Four Fights”: Equality – to stop gender pay gap, race pay gap, disabled staff pay gap; excessive Workload which is the cause of depression and emotional draining and longer working hours; Casualisation and the abuse of short term contracts that do not allow for developing that sense of belonging and community that we all need to survive and change the world for the better; Pay and Pensions. For a university full of green and living plants.

Francesca @fraperuzzo is a post-doctoral researcher that believes in utopias and the power of activism and solidarity to make other forms of academia and education thinkable, speakable and doable.