Interview with Nina Power
© Nina Power and Figure/Ground
Dr. Power was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. December 30th, 2012.
Dr. Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the co-editor of Alain Badiou’s On Beckett (Clinamen), and the author of several articles on European Philosophy, atomism, pedagogy, art and politics. Her book One-Dimensional Woman was published by Zero Books. Dr. Power also writes for several magazines, including New Statesman, The Guardian, New Humanist, Cabinet, Radical Philosophy and The Philosophers’ Magazine. She is reviews editor for The Philosophers’ Magazine and also runs a film club (Kino Fist) in her spare time. She is based in London.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
Well, it should be noted that in the UK, I’m a lecturer rather than a professor (which is the most senior position), but I appreciate the term is used generally to mean someone who teaches at a university. In terms of ‘conscious choice’, I’m not sure: I certainly enjoyed studying, and it’s certainly true that I wanted to carry on researching and writing on topics that interest me and that I think are socially important. I also enjoyed teaching, having taught both 16/17 year olds at a Further Education college and adults of all ages at a continuous learning institution while doing my PhD. So I was happy to apply for university jobs and even happier when I got one, as it’s not easy: There are so many people I know with PhDs, excellent publication records, teaching experience etc. without work.
There’s also the problem of rendering oneself unemployable the longer you stay studying: if you finish a PhD at 27-30, you’ve very likely not been in full-time work for any extended period of time, making you pretty unattractive to most non-academic employers. So I think a lot of people end up in academia – if they get a job – almost because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s not meant to sound depressing by the way! I think the desire to continue studying is at the heart of it – I clearly can’t get enough, as I’m currently midway through a part-time law degree which I study at an evening university in London after work.
Who were your mentors in university and what are some important lessons you learned from them?
I think I had excellent and encouraging teachers all the way through – from primary school to university. It’s actually perhaps more teachers from my Comprehensive (state) school that stand out when I think about ‘mentors’, as at university level there’s perhaps a feeling that you are working in a more independent way and relating to your lecturers on more of an even playing field. I would say that some of the best lessons I’ve learnt from teachers and lecturers are critical, difficult ones that hurt a lot at the time: about failures of thought and unsuccessful modes of writing, for example. I appreciated the single-mindedness of a lot of my lecturers and their dedication to their subject and the way this spilled over into their enthusiasm for teaching. I often think that one of the most important things a teacher can convey is enthusiasm – perhaps the most important thing, in fact.
In your experience, how has the role of university professor evolved?
Well I haven’t been working at a university for long enough to say, perhaps, but there certainly has been a great deal of worry at institutions I’ve taught at – places that are not in the league of supposedly ‘top’ universities – about the impact of massively increased fees, 100% cuts to the arts and humanities funding budget, visa restrictions for overseas students and so on, about what the ‘role’ of the university worker might be, and how best we can help students, who themselves are very often in precarious financially positions, and frequently working long hours alongside their studies. I think university workers have perhaps had to become more ‘rounded’ in the wake of the economic crash, fee increases and threats of course-closures – that is to say, more aware and adaptable to crisis and to understandable student worries and anxieties about what doing a degree ‘means’. At the same time, there is much more pressure on individual institutions to prove their worth as a whole – meet government targets, participate in generic research assessment exercises, and so on. So that filters down too, and working in departments where subjects are under threat of closure (the UK has seen the closure of many ex-Polytechnic Philosophy and other Arts, Humanities & Social Science courses in recent years) makes people more aware of the precariousness of their employment. On the plus side, this also makes it easier to relate to the difficult situation students often find themselves in as regards to employment after their degrees. But it’s a unenviable ‘plus’.
I think there is an older image of a lecturer/professor, who can simply get on with their research, occasionally teach topics relating to this research and who can afford to be a bit ‘other-worldly’ or ‘eccentric’. I’m not sure how true this ever was, but it doesn’t feel possible at all now.
What effect has the information age had on the university and on pedagogy?
That’s an extremely broad and complex topic: clearly the possibilities for different models of learning and dissemination of information have expanded immensely. The internet has a great democratising capability and effect, and there are infinite resources available to those with an internet connection. At the same time, we have new enclosures of knowledge: companies who profit from fenced-off journals where the (unpaid) labour is done by academics in the shape of the articles themselves, peer-reviewing etc. – and these things are not legally available to the online public. I think the internet has made it much easier to organise para-academic things like free universities, reading groups, and some of the barriers that prevented people thinking they could go to free lectures on universities campuses have been overturned by the internet: so it’s overall extremely positive as regards pedagogical possibilities, and helps takes the idea of ‘knowledge’ away from the idea of a privileged domain belonging to a cultural elite. But there are more and more in-built restrictions to this knowledge as the parcelling up of the internet continues apace.
What advice would you give to graduate students and aspiring university professors?
I’m not sure any advice I give would be very useful, as I’m not a very good scholar in the sense of sticking to one area or field, which is often what departments require. I think, though, that having a fairly wide-range of teaching experience, not only at university level, is great training and demonstrates that you can work with people with different motivations for learning, different ages, and so on. I think the desire to convey enthusiasm is important, and to understand where your students are coming from helps.
What is the status of disciplines today? What are the strengths and/or weaknesses of interdisciplinary studies?
I’m quite interested in the idea of ‘transdisciplinarity’ which was the topic of a couple of workshops hosted by Kingston University (London) this year, where part of the idea, as far as I understand it, is to think about texts and positions that are not bound by discipline in the first place: so Marx’s work – stretching across economics, politics and philosophy, but critical of all of these disciplines might be better understood as transdisciplinary (and ultimately anti-academia, perhaps).
There are some places – Goldsmiths in London, for example, where inter-disciplinarity seems to work – but often it comes across as quite gestural, and more driven by outside research opportunities than from any genuine encounter between different modes of thinking/working. Having said that, it’s been important in the struggle to save departments to identify them as ‘disciplines’ worth saving in their own right, rather than be amalgamated (and thus eliminated) into other programmes. So it’s a complex situation, part academic, part strategic and part a critique of academic differentiation.
How has the privatization of education affected the university? Is the university as an institution in crisis?
I’ve already mentioned some of the negative effects, in terms of course closures and so on. We’re starting to see some of the impacts of the massive tuition fee-rise voted through in December 2010, in terms of students, particularly from poorer backgrounds, deciding that borrowing such a large amount of money isn’t going to be worth it. The expansion of higher education that we saw in the second half of the twentieth century is going into reverse, and, along with the increasing difficult for overseas students in terms of visas and so on, the composition of the student body is going to revert to a very elite group of home students. This is depressing for everyone. At the moment, things look bleak for those universities, and those departments, not regarded as part of the elite group – so mostly the fight is to save them, and members of staff who are victimised for trade union activity and/or for questioning management decisions. But it would be good to imagine what we would change about the university if we didn’t have to fight to simply keep it alive: to think about what a truly democratic, free university might be.
© Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Nina Power
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Iliadis, A. (2012). “A Conversation with Nina Power,” Figure/Ground. December 30th.
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