The ‘Structure of Feeling’ of the USS Strike

By Craig Haslop and Rosalynd Southern

We are both already so proud of the achievements of the Universities College Union (UCU) and our colleagues – academic and support staff standing side by side with students – striking against the move by UUK to slash our pensions by over 50%. Through this action, we have already brought UUK back to the table for full talks through ACAS and they have made some movement through an albeit rejected proposal. But we have also been struck by the range and depth of feelings we have experienced during the strike so far, so much so that we wanted to write and reflect on those feelings here. The experience of stepping out of a very busy academic workload and working together with colleagues from across the university and students to fight for a common goal has disrupted our everyday routine and exposed a drip, drip, ‘nudge’ process, where bit by bit the system of education is being commodified.

In the cold light of day, as we talk to colleagues on the pickets and we have some time away from teaching, research and admin roles, many of the conversations have been reflections on the true extent of the ‘affect’ of commodifying HE education. The fight against the move to throw our pensions to the altar of hyper-capitalism that is the stock market, is not only emblematic of how far we have come in the marketisation of education (and as this author highlights the USS is also emblematic of one of the last collective aspects of the UK education system now under attack), but is also emerging as a defining moment. The moment when academics, support staff and students across the UK say enough is enough; we need to resist to ensure that we stand up for the kind of education system we want.

We have felt immense feelings of pride, admiration and camaraderie as we witnessed students from our own department and many others using their creative and writing skills to develop relevant, funny and engaging campaign leaflets, roaming across the campus in bitterly cold weather to bring food and hot drinks to the pickets, standing with us on the pickets or going even further and occupying the University of Liverpool Vice Chancellor’s office. In this dispute, most students have been with us, or have shown their support, highlighting that they see through the rhetoric of the market – the affordability of the pension scheme and the need to subject it to the stock market – that is being used to reduce our rights as workers.

As part of the strike, the veil of the current university system has been momentarily lifted, and it has revealed that many of us don’t even have time to stop and reflect on how we feel about our current jobs, work pressures or the creeping process of marketisation that has been taking place over the last twenty or so years. We have spoken to colleagues about what they think about their research, their job role and the changing culture of education in England. As we chatted, we have experienced another set of feelings about colleagues and academic culture. We have been reminded that, despite changes to a system that is commodifying education and increasingly pitting academics against each other in an academic marketplace, we wanted to be academics because we want to share and develop ideas that can help develop and change society. We have been reminded of the joy of the academic community, the common interest in learning and improving our understanding of the world and the way we approach it that binds us together.

These feelings stood in stark contrast to the feelings we had only one week before of managed frustration that had to be pushed down to get through a very busy workload and to keep delivering the education that we all believe in, despite the difficult circumstances. It was partly through this shift in daily routine and temporary change in institutional arrangements, that we were able to consider how the repetition and demands of everyday life, can hide a set of deeper feelings.

These feelings have not all been entirely positive. Speaking to other colleagues, there is also to some extent guilt over complicity in building the situation we now find ourselves in. As academics we care so much about our work that we are perhaps more willing to accept a punishing working schedule than people in other sectors. We ourselves fought our way through the low pay and precarity that is increasingly the norm in academia and often feel ‘lucky’ to have a secure academic job. We very rarely push back against what is essentially the wide spread exploitation of passion and goodwill endemic in the sector. Many academics tweeted their stories of having a full weekend for the first time in a long time and about how wonderful it felt.

Again, there was joy in reading these stories, but also a great deal of sadness that it took an industrial dispute to be able to have an actual weekend free from work and free from guilt. Going forward, the strikes have certainly opened up conversations about how easily we as a sector give up what is a basic right in many other industries and why. There appears to have been very little goodwill back from the body which manages us, and we believe once this is all over, we could well see a little more push back against having our good will used against us.

There have also been several conversations about the high level of mental health problems in HE, for both students and staff. Many academics said they hadn’t realised quite how overworked, anxious, stressed and burnt out they felt until they had withdrawn their labour for a few days and been able to assess their feelings. There is a much broader conversation to be had about this than can be covered here. However, this again gave rise to complicated feelings. On the one hand glad that these issues could finally be acknowledge and addressed for those suffering, but on the other dismayed that it should take the biggest industrial dispute seen in HE for people to have enough headspace to realise it.

These reflections on the feelings that we have experienced during the strike and the sudden shift we noticed in those feelings from before the strike to during the strike reminded us of Raymond Williams’ proposition to understand a period or a cultural moment in terms of its ‘structure of feeling’. Williams’ work is in no doubt a pre-cursor to, and informs some aspects of, the recent turn in the humanities to the study of ‘affect’. ‘Structure of feeling’ refers to Williams attempt to understand some of the less obvious qualities of a period, a sense of being or cultural milieu that people experience as part of living or working in a culture at a particular time. In his words it is “a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or a period”.

In this way, Williams was interested (through his study of the Bloomsbury Group) in how the feeling of that culture and time might have influenced how people made choices, how bodily sensations and emotions were shaped at that time to be part of the way people approached the lived culture that they were experiencing. This is what Sharmer and Tygstrup suggest Williams is analysing as the ‘affective infrastructure’. Williams was interested in “the study of relations between elements in a whole way of life; . . . ways of studying structure, in particular works and periods, which could stay in touch with and illuminate particular art-works and forms, but also forms and relations of more general social life“.

There is hardly space in this short blog to properly explore Williams’ work on the structure of feeling, but he was interested in what a particular period did to the forms and relations of social life. How its institutions shaped interactions and in turn how these different aspects then created a sensibility. What has become obvious to us, and colleagues that we have engaged with these last few weeks, is that that we are in the microcosm of another structure of feeling, shaped by the UCU and the Liverpool Guild of Students.

For example, through the teach outs, colleagues have taught across a whole range of subjects for free, including those who may never have taught students before the fee structure was introduced. Lecturers and students alike have discovered, or rediscovered, the liberation of teaching outside the system of commodity exchange. Lecturers as facilitators of a learning process, but one that students and lecturers are part of together driven by interest, not capital. It has revealed the strength of the alliance between student bodies, lecturers and support staff that has to some extent been masked by a system that inevitably creates dividing (exchange) lines in its attempt to turn knowledge into a commodity. It has allowed us to connect with colleagues from all over the university in open, interesting conversations and debates, on pickets, marches or coffee breaks.

While in one sense this structure of feeling might also be called solidarity, the stark contrast of affect in the strike as a cultural moment has enabled us to step back, see and analyse, the structure of feeling that has taken hold in academia outside of strikes. It is one often driven by fear, where relations with our colleagues are increasingly atomised through lack of time and divisions created by research and teaching targets. It is one that has blunted feelings of trust and openness between lecturers and students, as the current system reproduces the myth that lecturers and education can be turned into products to be delivered to students.

What this strike has shown us, is that there is a possibility for a structure of feeling where students and lecturers trust each other (even more), lecturers and professional services staff support each other (even more), and in doing so, we feel that we can work together productively to generate ideas and change. That sensibility that has been discovered, whether it was underneath and has risen to the surface, or has emerged because of the strike, will be very hard to forget or push down as we return to work, and the University seeks to reassert its influence over our structure of feeling.

Craig Haslop is a Lecturer in Media at the University of Liverpool. His research focuses on intersections between queer and class politics in promotions and representations on film, TV and social networking sites. He tweets at @craigh_

Rosalynd Southern is a Lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on political communication during election campaigns, particularly online.

Originally posted 19th March 2018.

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