And then there are situations from which even the most sympathetic creative cross-sectoral partnerships with ed tech, big and small, can’t save us.

University marketing, for example.

Visual branding is a struggle between the obvious and the obscure, and this gets very tricky when universities are trying to decide how to represent themselves. Images of location and local environment score well, as do shots of students talking to each other animatedly, preferably in carefully selected groups that hint at a limited version of cultural diversity. Featured students are rarely overweight or scruffy or dreadlocked or texting or mature-age, but there’s real effort put in to not offending or marginalising other obvious groups. Often they’re marching along in a line with a sense of glorious purpose while chatting and laughing, like the opening credits to a college movie. Increasingly they’re chatting and laughing while sitting together using laptops. The underlying message is: university enrolment will make you pretty and popular, with cool stuff.

We could leave it at this, but unfortunately now we’re branding down to the level of disciplines.  So, what to do with the Humanities? How to sum up in a single photogenic “still life object” the cascading anxieties that Arts faculties are dealing with worldwide? This is a critical time for disciplines that don’t have strong vocational alignments, and that can’t always explain how what they do delivers immediate practical support to regional, national or global economies. We can all rehearse the standard arguments about how what we do matters in diffuse ways, but we can’t always make a bar chart out of this argument, and on some key performance indicators (industry partnerships, for example, or research commercialisation) we can show up as a weak point in the overall portfolio.

So branding takes on some urgency for us, and this is why we need to pay close attention when we’re given some clues as to how others see us.

From an Australian university marketing department, this has been the opening suggestion:

Row of English, science, history, poem, political books. Model of a brain. Row of books and poems, old map/atlas, sand clock/pocket watch, evolution image

It’s hard to know where to start with this, although colleagues are trying. Their objections focus on the out-of-dateness of these icons of humanistic thinking, and they’re trying to point out that we should include more little shiny hi tech things with screens on the list. I’m not sure that just modernising the product range does the trick. In fact, the modernising impulse is a problematic objection for those of us interested in cultural history.  I spend time working with old railway maps, and this would be a reasonable representation of me, and although they might not be interesting to anyone else, they’re probably still more photogenic than, say, Australian cultural policy.  Hard to know how to shoot a big pile of film funding application guidelines in a sympathetic and attractive light.

I’d also quite like images of broken televisions as we’re at such an interesting moment in television’s cultural history, with so many working old sets being put out to e-waste pasture—our region is littered (literally) with these touching reminders of technological obsolescence. And while we’re out there, what about some of the local tagging, and other evidence that there’s a vibrant local subculture that has something to say about youth unemployment? OK, so this is probably neither aspirational nor pretty, but it is what we do.

But the bigger issue of which this confusion about visual brand is only a symptom, is the organisational conservatism that causes traditional universities to rope off an area marked “Arts” or “Humanities” in the first place, and bundle in there whatever disciplines look like they have something in common. This is where some of the oldest university disciplines are thrown together in an often fractious partnership with disciplines that emerged in the 1970s or last week, and everyone is left trying to figure out what we all have in common, beyond “not connected to industry in any discernible way”, or “qualities of free ranging intellectual enquiry historically protected in universities but we’re not sure what to do with them at the moment”, or “somewhere for students to go when they don’t know what they want to do with their lives”.

So I’d love it if this small project of self-image manipulation was the trigger for a really broad conversation about the purpose of the Humanities in the modern university.  I’d love it if we could use it to think about universities led by the traditions (old and new) of cultural enquiry, social intervention and regional commitment that we represent. I have a colleague who believes that every major research project should include a philosopher, and I think this is an evangelical vision for the Humanities that we could expand considerably. Schooling together for safety just isn’t working for us, and in many contexts will see us become the teaching unit for a university whose mission of niche research development sees the local money flow to the Faculties with best prospect of scaled-up industry partnerships and commercialisation potential.

In these circumstances, our response should be to point out that there is no commercial or industrial project that is free of social and cultural impact, or that has no need to be communicated or even particularly well understood.  These are our areas of expertise, and we’re here to help.

But, how to represent this with a still life object? Answers on a postcard to the marketing department by Friday.

4 Responses

  • Oddly enough, I’m thinking about exactly that at the moment: my departments want me to take some pictures to decorate the subject websites. Given 2 hours’ notice, I managed some very clichéd shots ( with which I’m not very happy.

    The university is unsure about what to do with ‘humanities’ either: they removed the word from our faculty’s name in favour of Law, Social Sciences and Communications, but are now founding a part-time degree in ‘humanities’. Cue cynical laughter…

    What I think we’re facing is a total failure of nerve in the face of a hostile public and political sphere. In the UK a government of millionaires with humanities degrees is intent on subjecting universities to the demands of ’employers’ (with little understanding from politicians or employers of what it is they really want), and the universities have rolled over. Rather than leading the intellectual revolution and showing the country what they need, we’re kowtowing to the latest buzzwords.

    We know what the country really needs: imaginative and critical thinkers. Employers seem to want obedient, pre-formed work units (hence the rise of the MBA, which contributed directly to the banking crash) who can’t think outside the orthodox positions. If humanities teaches anything, it’s suspicion of received wisdom, which is exactly what we all need right now.

    So if you can suggest a photograph which demonstrates that, I’d be very grateful.

  • Hmm, a resonant object that conveys suspicion of received wisdom … I’m on the case. The challenging issue here is our formal adherence in the humanities to the idea that we have a primary stake in promoting “critical thinking”. This really is in the “If I had a dollar for every time the Arts Faculty promotes this as our mission” category, but it’s also a claim fraught with irony. Because when it comes to the disruptive capacity of critical thinking, which is its real gift, this is very hard to represent with anything other than a torn placard stamped with mud. But as the always inspirational Steve Earle sings: “The barricades are going up, they cannot break our will.” How to cleave to this, and at the same time make this seem harmonious with the business plan, the strategic vision, the internationalisation mission, the delivery of efficiencies and cost savings etc.—a genuinely interesting challenge.

  • Not that I fault you for bringing this up, but I resent having this discussion in the first place. Protecting the humanities from market forces seems like the very reason that public universities exist.

  • Well, it seems that way, but sadly it isn’t. And maybe we need to be clearer that if we’re offering a service for which students and their families and our taxpayers are paying, and we’re not offering it monopolistically, then we’re all operating under the forces of market competition. Protecting ourselves from the reality of that situation is probably not an option, so while I think your resentment is relevant (and let’s face it, this kind of thing drives us all mad), I’m not sure we can just assume a head-in-sand position. We’re not necessarily well served, and nor are our students, if the ostrich becomes our resonant still life image. Although it has a kind of elegance to it. Nice to see you out here among the deckchairs, by the way.


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