Doing (Critical) Animal Studies in the Neoliberal Academy.

We write this as senior, tenured women academics who acknowledge that our position in the academy is relatively privileged, at least compared to our colleagues on short term, even hourly contracts. In our recent review of The Chair (Netflix, 2021) we argued that working as an academic in the modern university is more ‘difficult, complex and brutal’ than was depicted. Rather than believing that such a production would accurately mirror the experiences we observe in Australia, we sought to use this review to highlight some of the brutalities taking place in our worlds. Below we outline why they are of particular concern to us as animal studies scholars.

Metrics, Managerialism and Research

In our review of The Chair we argued that the academy “has become a place where managerialist and PR concerns trump academic ones, where academics are encouraged, if not coerced, to publish in journals that allow universities to claim world rankings, irrespective of whether they’re reaching the right audience.”

We have watched – with dismay – the creeping managerialism in the sector. We’ve been subjected to arbitrary decisions made and enforced by administrators and senior management teams who have had little to do with teaching or research in their careers; professional managers in other words. Well do we remember meeting a new Head of a research centre who replied “I manage, I don’t do” to our query about their role.

All of these decisions are based on economic concerns, no matter how they may be packaged to imply consideration of teaching, learning, and research. Take, for example, the constant pressure to publish in highly ranked journals. Senior management teams push this so that University websites can claim the University is in the “top 1 or 2% of university’s worldwide”.

On a day to day basis this means unrelenting coercion to publish in journals that are highly ranked by one system or another, irrespective of the fact the rankings are heavily swayed towards the natural sciences, and that the frameworks used in such ranking exercises, and then adopted by university administrators, do little to reflect the arts, humanities and social sciences – the fields most (critical) animal studies scholars call home. It means making decisions to publish in places that won’t always reach the right audience, or it means softening your stance – particularly if you are an animal advocate – to get papers through peer review. It also means smaller and newer journals – that are often more critically oriented and willing to publish more controversial work – can’t get off the ground as university administrators ‘strongly urge’ against academics submitting to them.

There’s similar pressure to bring in grants, particularly from large funding bodies, and in some cases only from large funding bodies. The overheads (usually around 25% oncosts) the university charges are a motivator here, as are the ‘bragging rights’ that fit nicely into the managerial-PR machine. This has been problematic for us as animal studies scholars on several levels. There are few grant opportunities for those of us wanting to take a critical approach to the (mis)use of animals in our communities; those that do exist often want a ‘mainstream’ focus and this leads to tough decisions. Do you put in for grants you know you won’t get, but that hold true to your scholarship, or, do you bury the more critical aspects of your work and apply for funding for projects that won’t let you near it? We’ve often found a middle ground – softening the critical aspects in the application and letting it emerge in the data collection. But it isn’t easy and it often doesn’t sit well.

Getting large grants and towing the good neoliberal academic citizen line are linked to promotion too. For some of us (especially women and other members of ‘minority’ groups) the price of cheerful compliance, money ‘winning’ and the pressure to take on more managerial roles is too high to pay. Refusing to constantly chase promotion can feel liberating in a world where principles are so regularly tested but again, comes at a cost. This cost is personal (limited career progression) and political (limits our opportunities to advocate for change within the system).

Bums on seats v. education for the public good

We also noted in our review that large courses are now the norm, and that students increasingly take on the role of customer-reviewer through the evaluations of courses and lecturers the University asks them to do each year. This is the direct result of the sector’s push for more income from teaching and it takes place in a sector that is increasingly focussed solely on vocational disciplines, because of government concentration on ‘industry ready graduates’ and the like.

It makes getting animal studies courses on the books difficult, in spite of the great interest that so many students show for such courses. Animal studies courses are rarely vocational in the paid-career-sense, certainly not those that are more critical and advocacy based. No surprise then, that we are seeing a growth in Anthrozoology courses, that can be vocational. And these courses rarely lend themselves to critical animal studies, often claiming to be ‘ideologically neutral’—which is a staggering claim given there is so much human brutality towards animals, whether in the name of ‘industry’, entertainment, jobs, human health, taste and/or tradition.

Large courses of 700+ are not unusual in higher education today and our job security and advancement rest partly on positive student evaluations of them. This leads to pressure to offer ‘instagrammable experiences’ rather than discuss pressing issues seriously, reshaping our jobs towards ‘infotainment’. There’s little to no acknowledgment that being ‘popular’ is harder when the course content is very contentious. Large courses greatly limit, if not preclude the kind of trust-based relationships that allow room in the classroom for critical discussions. Yet these relationships are the foundation of good teaching, especially when raising controversial issues.

We’ve experienced students writing to our line managers in outrage at how our discussions of farming, or meat-eating, offended them. Line managers who also make decisions about promotion and job security. Teaching controversial issues to those who frame ideas that challenge their world views as offensive is hard enough. Doing it when the system you work in penalises you for complaints raised is near impossible. All of this is further exacerbated by decisions to record all of our teaching – often framed as giving students choice, especially during the current pandemic – but in reality institutionalised well before then as universities seek to expand their markets online.

Complicity and Beyond

Are we complicit in these neoliberalised structures and processes in higher education? Yes. None of us employed by universities live outside the system, and no matter how hard we might try we are complicit in some respects, whether it is through ‘allowing’ our workforces to be casualised when we know the effects it has on workers; whether it is ‘moving on’ from justice issues that still burn but no longer have ‘traction with management’; or whether it is avoiding controversial issues in the classroom because we cannot face the potential backlash from students, our performance managers, and in some instance, discipline from our Registrars or Vice Chancellors.

Yet, our complicity is a question of degree. Some, if not many of us have been involved in student and staff union campaigns for decades, as well as protests for animal rights, women’s rights, #BLM and others that arouse emotional opposition. Fighting to protect what we have gained from our predecessors’ struggles has been a big part of the work but also extending university access to formerly excluded groups, and raising confronting questions about domination, power, coercion and justice.

One response from our review of The Chair rhetorically asked why we would stay in higher education if it is so awful. It was an interesting question, reminiscent of the ‘love it or leave [the country]’ bumper stickers of the past, suggesting that if you don’t happily swallow the destruction of a system under the guise of ‘innovative transformation’, you must jump ship. Never mind that so much of society has undergone similar ‘transformations’ and are hardly receptive to critical analyses of any depth. Never mind the decade long higher education study to become a scholar, or that you are good at teaching, research and running programs. The answer is simple and one implied (and enacted) by senior management across the board: Don’t like it? Get out.

Well we won’t simply ‘get out’ and make it even easier to gut an education system that we hold dear. On the contrary, we find ourselves increasingly emboldened to do even more to fight to protect universities so they/we have the space, freedom and resources to provide genuine, dialogical, critical education that does not just help people get jobs but open their minds and hearts to new, more emancipatory ways of living.

If you want to read more from us on the impact of the neoliberalisation on animal studies scholarship, see our book – Neoliberalization, Universities and the Public Academic: Species, Gender and Class in the Production of Knowledge.

Authors: Nik Taylor and Heather Fraser

Artwork: Heather Fraser

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