The smile economy in the teaching machine: undoing neoliberalism in the academy today?
Stuart Hall and radical pedagogy of the 1970-‘80s.
Twenty years ago, while in the process of compiling a collection of essays in honour of Stuart Hall, subsequently published in 2000, I had some reservations about putting into print in my own essay on what seemed like issues internal to the university, and to one’s own working life. It was not really the done thing then. In a tentative voice I drew attention to the increasing difficulties faced by women, especially mothers, in the academy. The implementation of what was then called the Research Academic Exercise (an audit of publications and monographs) was just one of the expectations heaped upon scholars including the even more pressing requirement to fulfil the criteria of ‘grantability’. (I did not mention the way in which a new managerial vocabulary was creeping in, with a glossary of terms craftily aimed at measuring a person’s success or failure to comply with an ever-expanding set of criteria). Winning grants and writing monographs were of course in addition to teaching loads and administrative responsibilities. Under the heading of teaching was the important task of PhD supervision, a major undertaking since it not only, on the longer term, replenished the academic field, but it also carried the expectation that the supervisor would support the student in their afterlife, applying for jobs following completion of the thesis and seeing through its publication. Many of these activities fed into RAE ‘scores’ then, as they do now, but also into the promotion rounds and for new job applications. The seeming advantage of flexible working hours, as I noted back in 2000, was offset by the fact that for many, if not most of us, this meant returning to one’s desk late night, well after the children were asleep. It felt as though the template for being a successful academic was modelled wholly on a 1950s nuclear family ideal, where Daddy might stay in his laboratory late night if he had a paper to polish off, leaving Mum to provide the kind of warm domestic environment which would ensure his career flourished.
Two decades later it has been those changes ushered in by the regime of REF, as it is now called, and more generally by the New Public Management (the branding, the endless league tables and the idea that students need to be seen as customers, something I come back to later) which have accounted for the most sweeping transformations for our day-to-day professional lives. But back then in the late 1990s our everyday pedagogy was not a terrain subject to a great deal of sociological reflection. It was what we talked about inside and outside of meetings, but not a topic for research in the arts, humanities and social sciences, not even in feminist and gender studies. We barely noticed how few female scholars had children. Nor had Stuart Hall himself throughout his long career written much about education, the university or the kind of pedagogy he practised, other than some stray comments here and there. There was of course his own trajectory which told a whole different story.
Hall found, on his arrival in 1951, that as a black young man from Jamaica Oxford was neither to be a place of welcome nor of real intellectual engagement. Influenced by Raymond Williams who despite being at Cambridge gravitated to adult education and the Workers Educational Association, Stuart then taught in London, an early champion of media studies in schools and FE colleges, before being offered a job with Richard Hoggart at Birmingham University, at that time a proud red brick campus in the leafy suburbs of Edgbaston. After that came the Open University another pioneer university providing degrees at all levels from BA to PhD through high-quality distance learning technologies as well as providing top class surroundings for faculty to carry out their own world-leading research. As people recall, Stuart’s mesmerising and research-led lectures on late night BBC TV (often running into the early hours) marked a major element of his contribution to knowledge and also to pedagogy. A then-young Kobena Mercer has written about coming across them as a teenager and the profound effect they had. Others recall in 1979 the BBC TV Open Door slot (a kind of community broadcast series). The programme was called It Aint Half Racist Mum, a re-working of the title of the comedy series It Ain’t Half Hot Mum which Hall and his colleague Maggie Stead exposed for its reliance on the most injurious of racial stereotypes. In the same short programme Hall also challenged BBC flagship Panorama introduced by Sir Robin Day for the inflammatory way its documentaries dealt with immigration, echoing all the tabloid vocabularies of being swamped and invaded. The reaction by the BBC at the time as I recall was furious and defensive, even outraged at being put under this kind of spotlight. The key point here is that throughout his career Stuart Hall was interested in making academic research and intellectual debate more widely available, he was reaching out beyond those sectors of the population who could take for granted winning a place at a top university. This commitment to challenging the existing hierarchies was a project which increasingly had to contend with those forces which were designed to re-instate hierarchy, award prize winners only and foreground competition as a cultural value seeping into every corner of the everyday life of the academy. From the late 1990s we could vividly pose a radical democratic model as against the neoliberalisation of the sector as a whole.
Stuart Hall ’s experimental and egalitarian pedagogy also extended into the writing process itself. Of the various volumes of Working Papers in Cultural Studies many contained no authors names at all, while others were multiply authored by graduate students. Doubtless this also reflected the radical times of the late 1960s and early 1970s, similar initiatives of pamphleteering and independent publishing emerged directly from the student’s movement of 1968. But during my own time at Birmingham University CCCS (1974-77) it was clear that co-authorship, despite the time that had to be invested in complicated social relations with other graduate students with whom one might not necessarily agree, challenged to the core the hierarchical and deferential structures which defined the protocols of academic life. This was typically a slow process of apprenticeship, envisaging publication at the very end of the doctoral period. Internally published work-in-progress or Stencilled Papers, as championed at Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, handed over responsibility for authorship and for upholding strong academic ideals of research to the younger generation. We were also, I think, healthily unmoored from the kind of dependency and anxiety which conventional supervision creates (in Germany this system still remains in place and the PhD supervisor is typically referred to as a mother/Mutter or father/Vater figure).
In the intervening decades the world of the university has almost literally turned upside down. Critiques of the marketisation of higher education that began with Readings’ The University in Ruins, (which ironically held cultural studies to task) are now unapologetic and ubiquitous. There is barely an inch of our professional lives now not subject to forensic investigation by working academics themselves, from the long hours culture, to the prevalence of white male privilege, to exploitative relationships between supervisors and doctoral students, including sexual harassment, and there are even recent moves to establish a field of Critical University Studies. In the UK leading contributors to this debate include Marina Warner, Stefan Collini and Andrew McGettigan. In this flurry of activity it is worth remembering two strands of Hall’s personal style of intellectual leadership. First that his egalitarian ethos stretched to the institutions in which he worked; he was an ardent supporter of the new universities, then polytechnics, for the reason that they opened doors to disadvantaged students from ethnic minorities and also to women, and he was as happy to work in this sector as in the more prestigious red-brick environments, overall he harboured no desire to move upwards towards top universities or, in the US, the Ivy league. He ended his academic career at the Open University, (now itself threatened with dramatic reductions in courses offered and reduced opportunities for its faculty).
But today this ethos has been demonstrably overtaken by the popularity among parents and political commentators and the general public for universities at the top of the league tables. The effect of contemporary neoliberalism in the field of education has been to succeed in creating a new common-sense about the university system. Where market values apply and where parents as well as students are customers then it makes sense to know what one is paying for and where to find good value for money. The downside of this is that it has become normal to disregard local universities and to only hold in esteem those belonging to the Russell Group. Students attending new universities have grounds then to feel themselves inferior. Competition translates into re-invoking class-based (not to say ethnic and gendered) hierarchies, and this in turn becomes part of the wider culture. We begin to get used to comments from parents and their teenage children and teachers, as well as from journalists and commentators that what really matters is getting into a ‘top university’. (I have overheard people say ‘ I would not want my kids to go to anything other than a Russell Group university’, and, from a recovering anorexic young woman interviewed on TV about her illness, who said ‘before this all happened I had been offered a place at a good university’).
These boundary-marking practices inevitably have an impact on those destined for more lowly institutions as well as those who work in them. They will often be defensive in a context where everyone comes to be caught up in the vortex of self-evaluation or in the spreadsheet mentality of human capital. The low status now accorded to local universities is not just socially damaging but historically wildly inaccurate. One should not have to explain to even fellow academic outside the UK system, that new universities, as it happened, some decades ago absorbed some of the most famous art schools in the world, and that they remain places of outstanding research innovation and invention. Or that new universities also took over responsibility for the vast range of health disciplines, and for training to degree and to post-graduate level for professional careers in law, in the social services, including youth and community work and in the public sector. That it has become incumbent upon us academics to constantly refute the common-sense of league tables and ratings, and to make some attempt to restore value to diverse forms of research and pedagogy as well as to those studying and working in these institutions, says so much about the endless labour of undoing the seeming common-sense of neoliberalism.
A second strand that can be taken from Stuart Hall’s pedagogy is the emphasis on collectivity and collaboration. Without this, especially for doctoral students, there is only the ethos of individualisation and the isolation that comes with it. Not everyone is cut out to be a monastic type scholar. Here again the new spreadsheet thinking kicks in, ‘but is it worth it?’ I am asked by new doctoral students, ‘will it really help in finishing the thesis and getting a job’? ’How can I be sure that if I read someone’s draft they will do the same for me’? My own answer to these questions is that there is no predictable or guaranteed pathway, but that collaboration on writing projects with fellow students, permits a demystification of the PhD process. I stress this kind of approach now in a context where reports are published on a seemingly weekly basis about the mental ill-health of doctoral students in British universities. These are not intractable problems. There is another kind of radical common-sense which would mean ridding oneself of the need for status indicators and to be prepared to welcome the idea of working in an ordinary or local university. The drift of my argument here is that academia needs to be able to consider itself a more normal place of work, faculty should not feel browbeaten if they do not fulfil what are often unattainable goals. As Richard Sennett argues, the modern world of work sees into being the ‘corrosion of character’. Even when we try, it is hard to remove ourselves from the boasting and bragging culture and the self-promotional ethos, books and articles flagged up onto every work email we send, lavish personal websites carefully cultivated, email details that include recent prizes and ‘major’ awards and so on.
Teaching in the Smile Economy.
Why is it important to refuse the idea of treating students like customers? Why is this one of the most aggravating features of the New Public Management in the university system? What does it mean when teaching comes to be compared to delivering a service? It was Arlie Hochschild who undertook pioneering qualitative sociological research in the early 1980s on the training that air cabin crew had to undergo before becoming fully-fledged employees. As American airlines were finding themselves subjected to increasing competition the company which Hochschild studied adjusted by emphasising the quality of service and the personal attention provided by cabin crew. The young women who hoped to be taken on as full-time employees were told they had to ‘work that smile’. (They were also subjected to the indignity of regular weigh-ins and pressure to lose some pounds if they went above the required size.) Hochschild also identified the rise of emotional labour, a form of the service economy devoted to making people feel good and at ease. Budget airlines remain one of the best examples of this ethos which has now spread so far across the service sector that one almost expects to receive a text message after booking, let us say, a window cleaner to give a score to the way in which the service was delivered. Indeed the quality of the attention in the new service economy is clearly measured according to the gradations available at point of sale. In my own travels I have noticed that having upgraded recently to ‘easyjet plus’ i.e. acquiring an orange card which makes various aspects of flying on a cheap airline faster and ‘easier’, the warmth and friendliness of the greeting (the smile economy) is more effusive as I take my seat. Cabin crew clearly have been trained in this respect, something also noted by Emma Dowling in her autoethnography of working in a central London expensive restaurant. She describes how the training manuals provided instructions so that waiting staff carefully adjusted the quality of their smiles and greetings according to the exact distance, measured in yards, from when the customer enters to when he or she is led to their table.
Translating the smile economy into the university seminar room requires a more metaphorical deployment of the term, so that we can, nevertheless, take issue with the model of the ‘customer always knows best’ while at the same time recognising that there have been dramatic social and economic changes since the more relaxed and the more socially liberal times of the late 1970s. This calls for adjustment on our own part, and to be rid of any temptation for nostalgia. To do so, we must bear two things in mind: first that we are witnessing the seemingly terminal decline of the period of social democracy which despite its flaws supported many of the activities that have made our professional lives so rich, leaving us and our institutions ‘hollowed out’ as Wendy Brown puts it; and second how recent it is that a larger sector of the population have had access to higher education, something set in motion during the Blair years 1997-2007. If we now live in the age of mass higher education then it should come as no surprise that hierarchies are being more blatantly resurrected as a means of managing status differentials than was the case in the more egalitarian times of social democracy. Not only do institutions pull away and garland themselves with so many honours, prizes and world-leading accolades but the same logic applies equally to faculty. Here too the winner takes all ethos is ‘corrosive of character’, where there is no incentive to think and act collectively unless it is part of a remit promising rewards such as grants where being part of a team is an imperative. In effect, as Wendy Brown points out, within neoliberal culture everything in higher education is economised and subject to calculation, students expect a ‘return on investment’ or ROI.
The smile economy in the classroom translates into a kind of measured self-management style of pedagogy, one which is constantly alert to the need for good scores in the end of term evaluations, which in turn are based on almost day-to-day performance factors. Its corrosive reality was made apparent to me after an exchange with a colleague from another university who was concerned about her scores and ratings as a teacher, which in turn affected her chances for promotion. I had no doubt about the effectiveness of her teaching, her quiet and low-key persona underscored by the vastness of her knowledge of Modern Theatre and Samuel Beckett. Our conversation veered towards the seeming need for wall-to-wall cheerfulness, a happy smile more likely to be expected from women than from their male counterparts for whom an ‘Eeyore’ or melancholic stance in the seminar room could be construed as a mark of erudition. So the requirements of heterosexual femininity were also quietly encoded within the academic version of ‘customer care’. Alternately this dilemma could be understood as part of a process of streamlining the teaching machine, ridding it of irregular modes of teaching, eradicating flamboyance and eccentricity for fear of litigation or complaint. But let us take this line of thought a little further. If some students expect pleasing femininity in the form of smiles and warmth in a way that is not expected of the male colleagues how can this be identified as sexist without offending the student body? How can female academics refuse some of the assumptions of a motherly demeanour, the giving of time beyond the end of the office hour, the willingness to provide additional support? Departing from normative femininity runs the risk of being seen as somehow ‘scary’ and this too is a sexist appellation. Joan Scott has also commented on these issues, including the request for grade inflation on the part of fee-paying American students who need top scores for their CV when it comes to ‘employability’. Likewise when faculty need to receive positive feedback on their teaching and in all dealings with students in order to progress, it makes complete sense to rein in personal quirks, refrain from ever showing degrees of bad temper, or impatience and adopt the persona of a kindly and perennially smiling person.
I do not have any easy answers to these questions. But I do not think them unsolvable. The problem is that, for example, finding ways of avoiding the inter-personal difficulties which can arise from PhD supervision nowadays where the sole supervisor is fully responsible for the future career of the doctoral student, would mean recalibrating the whole process in ways which are not in keeping with the calculations of the current system of cost effectiveness. This is where the smile economy meets its academic limits. Doctoral candidates find themselves infantilised into their late 20s and at the sharp end of a precarious labour market which offers only a succession of temporary posts and maybe no job at all. One issue here is the one-to-one relationship, something approximating to the Mutter/Vater system I referred to at the start of this article. Second supervisors exist on paper and do play a role but often there are no other real specialists alongside the main supervisor in the same across a whole university never mind department. But it does not take a great deal of imagination to envisage formally organised inter-university consortia arrangements which would put 3 or 4 people with shared responsibility, even if that meant covering the costs of travel every so often. As it stands this would possibly dent the competitive university ranking systems, the need to show completion rates in order to keep funding in place, because the ‘funding follows the student’ etc. Faculty might resist for reasons of this being even more time consuming, but if the system is unsatisfactory and even dysfunctional then foreseeable dangers arise. One of these dangers is the Mutter/Vater scenario which continues to haunt the edges of the pedagogic relationship precisely when team- work and collaborative supervision are not deemed economic.
This idea of danger is where I want to finish this section before moving on to make some concluding points. One would need to be an academic hermit not to be fully aware these days of the high rates of mental ill health suffered by so many students, as well as by their academic teachers and advisors. An adversarial atmosphere has become more normal, as students burdened by debt and also holding down numerous jobs while also studying feel incapable of meeting their own often inflated expectations, to get a first or to gain a distinction, to excel in everything. The wider culture of aggressive individualisation only intensifies stress and anxiety, if not full-blown depression. One young woman sitting in my room discussing her under-graduate dissertation seemed so mournful I asked her if she was ok? Her answer was simply that she missed her Mum and Dad and her home life. She would have gone home at the weekends but needed to keep her part-time job. This kind of situation finds itself multiplied many times over for PhD students, who otherwise might expect to be gaining new more adult responsibilities and making headway in their careers, but are instead handing in drafts and waiting for the next supervision while undertaking low paid jobs. The new emotional economy is also dominated by ideas of excellence and achievement, of personal bests, and these are particularly resonant for young women, who feel the need to do well precisely as grateful subjects of governmental attentiveness.
But what is at hand as help or support for these problems instead merely intensifies the sense of being locked into an unforgiving system which eventually leads to rages against the teaching machine. The anxiety associated with the need to make ends meet, to keep up with the reading, to get things into print, can only be translated, in strictly neoliberal parlance, as ‘obstacles to be overcome in order to succeed’. This makes malaise something that is to be dealt with through recourse to self-help tips and manuals, to adopting online regimes for overcoming problems of self- esteem or lack of confidence. Indeed as Robin James points out contemporary neoliberalism will even suggest that we need to suffer, or become damaged in this way in order to build up reserves of ‘resilience’.
In contrast a strong sociological analysis would point to the dislocation effect of having to win a place in a more prestigious university even when this means leaving behind care obligations at home and putting oneself in difficult if not impossible financial circumstances for the sake of a degree from a ‘good university’ which in turn promises to become a more valuable asset on the future labour market. But at what cost? When a happier and more intellectually fulfilling time could be had at a local new university, more fulfilling because without the need to work long hours and pay high fees for halls of residence would mean more time in the library. Often academics like myself meet students self-berating not just on their own behalf but because, having got this far, they don’t want to let their parents down. Yet again the pull of the emotional economy takes its toll. All the more need then to challenge the new hierarchies and the league tables, in favour of a more balanced and egalitarian provision of higher education. Where debts need not be incurred, and where students have access to maintenance grants, an entirely different academic experience becomes available.
In the recent past gaining an under-graduate degree or a PhD from a new university like Middlesex University in London which boasted at the time one of the world’s leading art history departments, was a passport to an academic career in universities across the world. The advantages of attending a local university allowed more black and Asian British students as well as those from working class backgrounds to make their way into key roles in the arts and culture. This is a lot less true today. One reason, among others, for this, is the prevalence of market forces across the sector which means that, with no cap mechanism in place, high ranked universities have opened up their degree courses to larger numbers of intakes each year, thereby drawing in students who might otherwise attend local universities. This also benefits the prestigious universities who are requested by government to widen access for especially talented but socially disadvantaged students. Overall this produces greater polarisation across higher education, with local universities losing out. Only by reducing the ethos of competition, by paying less attention to ratings and to league tables and by being less driven by market forces, could a less divisive system be envisaged. In a more egalitarian system faculty would gladly take jobs without having to factor in reputation.
The Feminist Problem of Passionate Work.
Some years ago I authored an article about the modern work society titled ‘From Holloway to Hollywood: Happiness at Work in the New Economy’. Here I sketched out the pitfalls of the new creative industries that seemed to rely on young people falling in love with their work. I argued there, and subsequently elsewhere, that for young women this was a particularly pernicious phenomenon. They were encouraged through processes of feminist-inflected individualisation to transfer their affective lives from romantic love to the romance of a working life. This idea of passionate work entailed a feminised version of Steve Jobs’ ethos to love your work, and for young women (or Top Girls) it coincided with new forms of governmentality which deemed them ‘subjects of capacity’ and thus meriting attention in what seemed like a luminosity of encouragement to achieve. Thus was re-born the idea of the dream job, (think of The Devil Wears Prada) now seemingly more widely available to those who would put in the hours and prove themselves to be willing subjects of the new world of work. As various ethnographic studies have shown this ethos was also gestated in the university environment. Here the ethos of passionate work is most manifest, putting in the long hours, staying up all night drinking coffee while ‘sweating over’ the dissertation on feminism and pornography, or on Jane Austen, or preparing the catwalk collection for the degree show. As Robin James would put it these are the ‘good girls’ who also train themselves thanks to all the online self-help programmes to overcome obstacles, and who through learning resilience techniques will then, hopefully and unquestioningly find ways of fulfilling their goals. Meanwhile the self-help online programmes create brand billionaires whose daily upbeat posts masquerade as a friendly face during the long nights of essay writing. In this respect university truly does become a training ground for the modern work society. The romance of creative work, of finishing the edit (and this can include of course doctoral research) occludes, because of all of its ‘self-help options’, the deeper questions, which continue to elude these good girls leading them often to clinical outcomes (or ‘illegible rage’) rather than to sociological anger and resistance. The ethos of passionate work in fact emerged from US management theory of the late 1950s which sought to quell worker discontent by somehow finding ways for employees to find ‘pleasure in work . No single undertaking has been more successful in the many attempts to undermine organised labour and trade unionism than this. More recently at least since the times of post-Fordism this takes on a fully feminised inflection through the smile economy. And with employability as a key factor for academics to engage with in their pedagogic activity, it is too easy for this ethos to find itself uncritically endorsed, a kind of academic approval is given to the smile economy as a way of getting a valuable internship. In effect it means encouraging the right attitude, it can mean preparing students for long hours, and overall to being pleasing in order to increase the chances of being offered something more permanent. This marks the spot where neoliberal common-sense kicks in. We implement not just because we are compliant subjects but because we do indeed want the students to get the job. At the same time we have to work even harder to simultaneously provide the tools of feminist critique, because without this it would mean simple reproduction of the status quo, with young women entering and remaining at the lower echelons of the creative economy, as curatorial assistants or in junior editorial positions, all jobs where as the film The Diary of Bridget Jones showed, smiling heterosexual femininity is a requirement, in this case with the added ingredients of feigned old-school dumb blondeness.
But while directly puncturing the dreams of under-graduates and post-graduates alike is a joyless and unrewarding task, it also accentuates existing inequalities and begs questions about how faculty got to where they are now without somehow secretly complying with the ethos of passionate work? In short there is a danger of being disingenuous. At which point emerges the need for compulsory sociology and /or cultural studies as a core foundation for understanding the workings of contemporary society. When various authors refer to the need to take structural factors into account when considering sexual inequality and indeed sexual harassment across our social institutions and in the culture industries, in effect what is meant is that we investigate with a historical or ‘conjunctural’ approach the policies, the everyday practices and the wider cultural factors which have prevailed and which have intensified relations of power and powerlessness. The star system in academia, especially in the US where faculty are traded like football ‘transfers’, the emphasis on awards and prizes and accolades making a normal quotidian career almost something to be ashamed of, these are the factors which need not be set in stone. To help us imagine another world of academic work we might refer again to Sennett who argues that there is a lot to be said for the feeling by 5pm, of a good job well done, and who also suggests a return to craft-like approaches to our pedagogic labours, and to refusing the performance indicators in favour of sanity and ordinary enjoyments, a quick drink with colleagues at the end of the day.
Angela McRobbie is Professor of Communications at Goldsmiths College, London, and the author of Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries (Polity Press 2015).
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 This article extends a talk to be delivered at Goldsmiths University of London on September 13th 2018 as the John Beacham Memorial Lecture.
 My own very first encounter with a non-closeted gay person took place while attending first year sociology lectures delivered by the wonderful Dr David Evans at Glasgow University in 1971. It was the times of David Bowie and Evans, wearing snakeskin trousers and using a mike, wound his way up and down the aisles of the lecture theatre, occasionally pausing for effect. All that was missing was a sound track. With this performance David not only made sociology an exciting prospect for study, but also undermined the hitherto unquestioned macho culture of Glasgow which prevailed even in the seminar room.
 This point is dramatically made in The Guardian Long Read 21/08/18 where a US journalist describes in detail the terrible burden of debt which he took on in order to gain a BA and an MA from a highly regarded university (MH Miller 2018). With his father as guarantor the then 17 year-old could have had no idea of what would happen when in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis both of his working class parents would lose their jobs and eventually have their home re-possessed, as well as face the costs of medical bills when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The author reflects on the doubtful practices of banks offering loans and credit as his mounting debts are sold on from one company to another, leaving him aged 30 with a debt mountain which will be with him for another 20 years (see also Michel Feher Rated Agency 2018).
 Let us say there are lively debates among faculty about this ‘insertion’ process and about the politics of internships.