On Institutional Belonging

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about institutional belonging.

You see, in January I moved from Melbourne to Sydney (my partner got a new job). I wouldn’t have so readily left Melbourne had it not been for the upcoming move to Sweden for my Endeavour project. I figured seven months in Sydney could be a good excuse to write a lot and avoid the multitude of distractions that inevitably come with being embedded anywhere for long enough.

It turns out that holing yourself up in a foreign city can drastically improve productivity! But while eliminating familiar distractions has proven to be beneficial for my writing, I couldn’t have anticipated the sense of loss that has accompanied it.

See, I have spent the better part of my adult life at La Trobe University. I started in 2010, arriving from Perth at barely nineteen years old. In the seven years that I lived in Melbourne, through all the rental properties and share houses (seven in total), the career changes (just one), the casual and part-time jobs (many), and the countless friendships, heartaches, tragedies and adventures, the La Trobe campus at Bundoora has been the most constant fixture in my life.

It might just be nostalgia, but I find myself thinking often of the humble brown brick structures, surrounded by bush, where watching the local wildlife (turtles, swamp hens) thrive and grow with the seasons is a favoured daily past-time. I miss the greasy flavourless comfort of Ping’s Chinese, and the freezing winter dash from Carpark Three to the David Myers Building when no amount of jackets is quite enough. I think of the undergraduate lectures that I, and my mother many years before, attended in the iconic East Lecture Theatres, as well as the joy and terror of giving my first lecture there in 2016.

It was timely indeed when a few weeks ago I attended a seminar about Institutional Histories as part of the ‘History Now!’ seminar series at the Australian Centre for Public History, University of Technology Sydney (UTS). There, Tamson Pietsch recalled a Griffith Review piece from 2016 where she described universities as institutions that “…hold us in time and [they] connect us to each other”. In her spoken paper, she described the ‘classroom, library and laboratory’ as public spaces where we encounter difference, and where civic relations are formed which hold us in time and space.

Though her point was more about the enduring power of public institutions in the era of individualism, I couldn’t help thinking of my own life (ironic, I know), and how influential La Trobe University has been in my becoming so far. Although many ideas were already germinating when I arrived, my time at La Trobe – which is known for its radical tradition – has only strengthened my commitment to a more just and equal society; my solidarity with leftist politics and labour movements; and my belief in publics including the idea of the public good, public spaces and institutions, and public knowledge.

But before I get too misty-eyed about La Trobe, we know all too well that universities, and institutions generally, have uniquely painful ways of letting us down. We have all experienced the myriad of ways that they can disappoint, frustrate, belittle, embarrass, anger, and sadden us, particularly lately.

On this, Pietsch quotes Hugh Heclo’s On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford University Press, 2011); “[i]n a backhanded way, our capacity to feel betrayed speaks to a residual trust in institutional values.” She adds; “Getting angry at the way institutions fail us is not a sign we want to do away with them, it is an indication that we want them to be better.”

As I get closer to departing for Sweden and forming new institutional relationships at Umeå University, I am drawn to reflect upon the sudden loss of collegiality and belonging that I’ve experienced since leaving my home institution. In Sydney, I’ve been incredibly privileged to work at the Australian Catholic University, and to have spent time both at UTS, and the University of Sydney, each with proud traditions and unique institutional cultures.

And yet, I wonder about the many thousands of PhD students whose institutions held them together, and who worked ceaselessly towards submission only to abruptly discover the sense of loss that surely must follow. To La Trobe University, I am grateful for those well-treaded grooves across time and space bounded by the experience and borders of the institution, that I now, and we all inevitably, must make anew.

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