Storying Sheffield

What are Universities for?

Many thanks to Steve Pool and Kate Pahl for sharing this piece. Steve is a Sheffield based artist, and Kate is an academic in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield.

What are Universities for?

Steve Pool and Kate Pahl
Here we ask a fundamental question about what universities are for in order to help us imagine what they could do in the future. We do this in the format of a conversation between us.
Steve Pool:

The science fiction writer Kilgore Trout described a perfectly hideous society, not unlike his own, and then, toward the end, suggested ways in which it could be improved.
In 2BR0TB he hypothecated an America in which almost all of the work was done by machines, and the only people who could get work had three or more Ph.D’s. There was a serious overpopulation problem, too.
All serious diseases had been conquered. So death was voluntary, and the government, to encourage volunteers for death, set up a purple-roofed Ethical Suicide Parlor at every major intersection, right next door to an orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s. There were pretty hostesses in the parlor, and Barca-Loungers, and Muzak, and a choice of fourteen painless ways to die. The suicide parlors were busy places, because so many people felt silly and pointless, and because it was supposed to be an unselfish, patriotic thing to do, to die. The suicides also got free last meals next door.
And so on. Trout had a wonderful imagination.
One of the characters asked a death stewardess if he would go to Heaven, and she told him that of course he would. He asked if he would see God, and she said, “Certainly, honey.”
And he said, “I sure hope so. I want to ask Him something I never was able to find out down here.”
“What’s that?” she said, strapping him in.
“What the hell are people for?”

(Vonnegut 1962)

This has got me thinking about what Universities are “For” and perhaps what art is “For”. The problem is that people have lost an ideology which frames the meaning of these places. Everything is driven by the short term – the project, the publication, the book but the essential purpose of existence is unclear.
Perhaps the university of the future is one which regains its purpose?
It is difficult to imagine a university of the future without imaging the future in more general terms. I’ve had the opportunity to take part in a couple of visioning workshops which the NCCPE have organised with the aim of imagining the university of the future. Many suggestions were put forward. The really interesting thing about the sessions was the inability of most people to imagine anything drastically different to what we have now. Perhaps this is a good starting point and we should first think about what we have now and how important it is to recognise its value. In many discussions with the people I work with about the role of universities in society I’m reminded of the “What have the Romans ever done for us” sketch in Monty Python’s life of Brian. The premise of this scene suggests that areas have benefitted greatly from the Roman occupation which seems to make resistance a little counterproductive. Applying this thinking to Universities it is difficult to see the end of a list of all that these institutions have contributed to society. Perhaps it is this history of value which makes it so hard to let go of the university of the present and imagine a university of the future.
To compare a University to an occupying army seems a little unfair. However if we think of the university occupying distinct areas of knowledge it may be useful to consider how they expand into new territories. Much of my recent work in partnership with universities has involved trying to engage with and impact on society. Whatever the drivers behind this work, I fully support the intentions and am committed to doing as much as I can to be a very small cog in making this happen effectively. One personal obstacle to developing this work is a question which I often end up coming back to: “What are Universities for?” On one level it’s very simple and can be answered with a list, but on another level, especially as we imagine the future, I find this list shorter and the answers less satisfactory. This is not to say that universities will not exist, it’s more a question of what will they do?
In very simple terms I would like the University to be a place where people endeavour to “know”; a place where we strive to “know more” about a place; and where ideas, thoughts and imaginings are extended because it is important for us as a species to be extended. If, however, the university wants to get more involved with working with people it is critical that it considers how it presents knowledge and that it never considers that it or the people within it “know best”. In planning how we move ourselves from here to there some very searching questions need to be asked – plans made and strategies written. I would suggest, however, that the university of the future will evolve in small stages and be defined by what it does. When I go to heaven and ask the vice-chancellor in the sky ‘what are universities for?’, I’m hoping he will reply: “I’m not sure but we are going to have a real focused effort to continue to try and work it out.”

Kate Pahl:
I think the key thing here is in the process of imagining. To make sense of futures involves a profound noticing of the everyday, of what is going on in the here and now. However, to make this future thinking equitable, it requires being guided by ways of knowing and seeing that encompass more diverse, extended and wider perspectives than our own. Ethnography, particularly collaborative ethnography, can provide one way of noticing and listening as well as recording these frameworks (Lassiter 2005). Possible futures exist within the present. These imagined futures are guided by how that present is framed and understood. The process of futures imagining then, becomes an exercise in predicting through existing frameworks. If these frameworks come from outside everyday experience, they can shape a different vision of the future. The re-framing process necessitates an attentiveness to other people’s meanings, framings and experience. These ways of knowing can include stories, joint meaning making, together with collective and situated activity including art. The practice of doing art as well as ethnography can be a way of making things strange and finding out about ‘other’ realities and identities. So the problem partly is that people in Universities come from a particular schema. We need Universities to be like juries, full of lots of different sorts of people so we can re-imagine the future in different ways. The trouble is the way knowledge is created is quite hierarchical and involves passing exams and doing a Ph.D. You can be a really interesting and wise person and also work on a building site and never go near a University. The problem is that the universities believe that their created knowledge is special and different. It is and it can be but it should always be contingent.
So what do we both think?
In the car on the way to Rotherham today we thought about Universities being an emergent space, a space of making. Whether you call this emergent space ‘Studio Practice’ or the ‘Not Yet’ or ‘School of Engineering’ doesn’t really matter, but in terms of an engaged University perhaps it is about building something together which makes things better.