WHY RESISTING EXCELLENCE IS (PARTLY) WRONG: RESPONDING TO AN INTERVIEW WITH INDOCENTIA

Have a look at this interview published in the online El Diario.es. The title is long but self-explanatory: “Disciplinar la investigación, devaluar la docencia: cuando la Universidad se vuelve empresa. Entrevista al colectivo de profesores y estudiantes Indocentia sobre la transformación neoliberal de la Universidad” (Amador Fernández-Savater, 19/02/2016, http://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/Disciplinar-investigacion-devaluar-docencia-Universidad_6_486161402.html).

Indocentia groups a number of Social Sciences professors and students at the Universitat de Valùncia (contact them at indocentia@gmail.com). Its name alludes to ANECA’S programme ‘Docentia’ (http://www.aneca.es/Programas/DOCENTIA), aimed at monitoring the excellence in teaching of the Spanish Universities. UAB’s reference is DOC14UAB/07, and we have signed up to obtain a certificate for the period 15/10/2014 to 15/10/2019. I didn’t know this–check the list at ANECA for your own university. I gather from the interview, though this is just implicit, that the application of Docentia at the UV appears to be quite unwelcome among the teachers there, hence Indocentia.

I feel an itch to play devil’s advocate, you’ll see why later on, so here we go.

Indocentia point out that the media critique of the Spanish university is outdated as it fails to understand how the traditional feudal system based on client networks has adapted to the new requirements of the (American-inspired) liberal university. We need, hence, they claim a “real-time critique” which surveys and questions new key issues such as, I translate, the demand of hyperactivity, the subjection of knowledge to the market, the devaluation of teaching, the frailty of the precarious jobs. They criticize the complicity with the liberal programme of many researchers who, they say, appear to be selfishly obedient and who only care for their own CVs.

Whatever knowledge is generated ends up, Indocentia claim, locked up in closed circuits and measured with standards set up by ANECA and CNEAI following the directives of, they point out, “two private companies, Thomsom Reuters and Elsevier (owners respectively of databases WoS and Scopus)”. Indocentia strongly criticise the bias which this generates in favour of English-language publication, which they connect with a “colonial logic”. They strenuously complain, in addition, against the Government decree (or ‘ley Wert’) which has turned the ‘sexenio’ (or personal assessment exercise) into an instrument to discipline both research and teaching, to the detriment of the latter. Docentia is in particular criticized for trying to measure teaching using ruthless computer applications that simply are not adequate to the task (at UAB we are not using this
 yet).

I am sure we all agree with the diagnosis. We must also be grateful to Indocentia for pointing out what we suffer in silence (or over coffee with other depressed colleagues): the constant anguish that we do not measure up, the psychosomatic complaints associated with the need to keep personal energies constantly available, the fear of mediocrity: “La excelencia mata, la competitividad enferma, decimos desde Indocentia”. Also the incomprehension–the look on my doctor’s face during my last visit a month ago regarding a scary, persistent headache. ‘So what do you do?’, the dialogue goes. ‘I’m a university teacher’. The raised eyebrow and the classic question: ‘And that’s stressful?’

The Indocentia interview, by the way, refers constantly to texts produced by the collective but they do not seem to be centralized in a single platform. You may want to read Carmen Montalba’s “El sueño de la excelencia: desvelarlo, desvelar-nos” (http://roderic.uv.es/handle/10550/49036) or LucĂ­a GĂłmez and Francisco JĂłdar’s “Ética y polĂ­tica en la universidad española: la evaluaciĂłn de la investigaciĂłn como tecnologĂ­a de la subjetividad” (http://atheneadigital.net/article/view/1169-Gomez).

Now, here’s my problem. The article ends with a bland declaration that, I translate, “Therefore, we cannot renounce the possibility of collectively producing new rules, new constituent praxis”. Check, if your wish, my own post of 18 April 2015 commenting on “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” published by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). I should say that this manifesto is much closer to what we need here in Spain in terms of including a programme of anti-liberal activities. Perhaps, as usual, even as regards the complaints against the liberal university we are lagging behind our European peers


I do not want to go into the list of grievances and the list of proposals which our Dutch colleagues offer, for one year later I feel quite tired of going in circles and advancing nothing. A few days ago, for instance, I found myself helping the Head of my Department to prepare the meeting she is to have with our Vice-Rector of Personnel. Here’s the impossible situation: like everyone else, we have got no new full-time permanent positions for about eight years, not even to replace the many full-time positions we have lost to retirement and even early death. How you can run a Department of fast ageing teachers, with too many seniors past 60 and with associates past 40 who might have to wait 10 years for tenure
, is beyond anyone’s understanding. The secret masterplan of neo-liberal policies is, clearly, the complete elimination of the public university.

What bothers me about the Indocentia interview is this: by throwing the idea of excellence away as the trademark of the liberal university we’re throwing away the baby with the bathwater. I do aim at being an excellent researcher and teacher, hopefully a much better one than some of the personnel I had the misfortune to come across as a student in the 1980s Spanish university. I do not want this aim denied or criticized just because the instruments to measure it are downright wrong. I am entitled to being acknowledged as a researcher because I am doing my best–like many other of my peers. Also as a teacher.

I think we are missing one significant part of the History of the Spanish university–the time when my own generation (I was born in 1966) understood that we had to pull ourselves by our boot strings and do much better than our predecessors. ‘Sexenios’ were introduced back in 1983 and, please, remember, they were initially an incentive to pull out of their lethargy the many university teachers who simply published nothing–including full professors. Even with the ‘sexenios’ as an incentive many university teachers have managed to generate no publications at all, which means zero knowledge transfer (whether to open or closed circuits). The supposition that this is because they are devoted 100% to good teaching is simply a lie. I am also very tired of the assumption that a committed researcher can only succeed at the cost of being a poor teacher. Actually, among my colleagues the best researchers are also the best teachers. This does not mean that I know of no excellent teachers uninterested in research but, then, perhaps what we need in the university, and nobody is considering, are separate categories for teachers who wish to do no research and for teachers/researchers.

I can only agree with Indocentia’s diagnosis of all the faults of the monstrously demanding system used to measure our activity and bemoan, like them, its consequences, for I suffer them first hand. What worries me is whether the resistance to being accountable for our task by the current dubious methods might conceal a certain backlash to the time when university teachers were not accountable at all. I remember that time very clearly, for I suffered it as a student–the arbitrary teaching methods, the unavailability of always absent teachers who did not keep office hours, the nepotism, the appalling textbooks forced on us, the provincial lack of international connections, the general backwardness


I’ll end, then, by repeating my warning: no matter how much you hate the methods to measure it, do not reject excellence itself–just fight to take it away from the hands of our liberal oppressors back into our hands. We had the chance to construct a functional version of ‘excellence’ briefly there, perhaps for a few years in the 1990s, before we lost it. Consider also who is complicit with that loss, and name them. I have a suspicion that many of them are the people we proudly sent abroad to be trained in American universities and improve the state of our own university. Generally naming ‘the liberal university’ as the arch-villain does not seem to be helping us…

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2 thoughts on “WHY RESISTING EXCELLENCE IS (PARTLY) WRONG: RESPONDING TO AN INTERVIEW WITH INDOCENTIA

  1. Here’s a recent complaint of mine about sloppy or wrongheaded criteria and evaluations at the CNEAI. With names, too, as you suggest. I actually fit the bill quite well, because there’s a complaint against the current “English Only” Zeitgeist in research evaluation. I hope I dont’s sound as though I’m against any kind of evaluation, or as though I’m throwing the baby away with the bathwater—although I do complain that there’s lots of hogwash in the bathwater:
    http://www.ibercampus.es/retrato-a-la-justicia-y-a-la-cneai-32476.htm

    —and btw, you should really be publishing these posts on Ibercampus as well, in order to reach a wider audience, just a suggestion!

  2. I can only say that you are totally right and there’s no reason why a ‘sexenio’ should be rejected just because you submitted a publication in Spanish, never mind that you are a specialist in English Studies. This confirms the bias noticed by Indocentia, certainly. And thanks by the suggestion, I’ll bear it in mind.

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