Interview with Mariya Ivancheva (University of Leeds)

Mariya Ivancheva is currently working on a research project with the Universities of Leeds and Cape Town called “The Unbundled University.” Some of her recent work includes “The Discreet Charm of University Autonomy: Conflicting Legacies in the Venezuelan Student Movements” (2016), “Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis” (2016, with Kathleen Lynch), “The age of precarity and the new challenges to the academic profession” (2015), and “The Bolivarian University of Venezuela: A radical alternative in the global field of higher education?” (2013). You can also follow her on Twitter or Academia.edu.

Eli Thorkelson: I was really interested to see that your early work was about Walter Benjamin’s theory of utopia, and that you’ve written a great deal about Bulgarian women’s and environmental movements (and migrant workers in Britain) as well as about university politics in Venezuela and precarious academic labor in Europe. Do you think you could say a few words about how your research projects have evolved since you entered the academy?

Mariya Ivancheva: Where to start… All these different topics and field-sites might sound thematically and geographically eclectic – even more so, given that my current field research is in South Africa. The new project I just started working on with the University of Leeds and the University of Cape Town is on widening of access to higher education through digital technologies, in contexts where marketization and disaggregation of traditional degrees (unbundling) are going on. And yes, many times we come to study topics that mix our biographical and intellectual trajectory with contingencies of educational institutions and the job market…

Still, I would rather think of my interest in all these projects as feeding into one bigger intellectual/academic project, which I have tried to address through different field sites. Walter Benjamin’s (unwritten) theory of utopia, which I explored in my days as a student in Philosophy and Social Theory, had a strong influence on my thinking. Benjamin insisted that lost revolutionary moments (unsuccessful struggles or intentions that don’t enter the historical record, because official history is written by the winners) need to be salvaged “from the garbage heap of history”. I see myself as a social historian of lost projects of radical social change. As an anthropologist, I study them not only in their own contemporaneity but through the concrete material and social effects left behind in their aftermath.

My major case studies are about progressive projects that started with good intentions but – due to a combination of structural and agentive forces – have gotten derailed or faced unintended consequences, failure, and sometimes oblivion. Such is the story of my main field sites, state socialist Bulgaria and Venezuela of socialism of the 21st century, and I see many commonalities in post-apartheid South Africa. These were places where good intentions failed, and the institutions which reproduce an unequal society got perpetuated in spite of egalitarian aspirations. By studying these projects’ initial intentions, their historical development (including turning points of rupture or continuities), and the legacies and silences left in their aftermath, scholarly research can help nurture the historical imaginary of new generations.

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Vita Peacock, “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence”

Vita Peacock turns in a significant contribution to the growing literature on precarious academic labor with her “Academic precarity as hierarchical dependence at the Max Planck Society,” which she published this year in the open-access journal Hau. Peacock’s paper is a challenge to what we could generically call “neoliberalism theory,” a body of thinking which has often viewed the ongoing explosion of precarious labor as a consequence of the general process of neoliberalization that has reshaped the global political economy since the 1970s. In academia, to rehearse the obvious, neoliberalization usually refers to things like the growth of contract and audit-based funding systems; the treatment of students as consumers (whose student debt is considered an investment in “human capital”); the expansion of academic branding and marketing; and the generalized decline in job security for university staff. Indeed, when the contingent workforce grows to 74.8% of all academic teachers in the United States (in 2007), one may reasonably speak of a growth of precarity. It matters how we analyze and historicize precarity, though; which is the crux of Peacock’s intervention.

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