Australian Para-Academic Handbook Launch text by Ruth Barcan

At the Australian launch of The Para-Academic Handbook in December 2014 Ruth Barcan, author of Academic Life and Labour: Hope and Other Choices , read out the text below.

 It outlines all the reasons why The Para-Academic Handbook is an awesome book.


Laments about the decline of the university are not new. In the mid nineteenth century, Cardinal Newman (1976 [1852-1858]: 14) considered that the university had lost some of its authority to the fast-paced world of journalism. In 1949 a former British Vice-Chancellor, Walter Moberly, wrote a book called The Crisis in the University, a controversial Christian account of the decline in moral training provided by universities and of the contemporary uncertainty about their proper role in society. In 2005, Brendan Nelson, Education Minister in Australia’s Howard government, also lamented, seemingly without irony, the fact that universities had lost their sense of mission and were no longer “pass[ing] the soul from one generation to the next.”

Margaret Mayhew's illustrations
Illustrations by Margaret Mayhew included in the Para-Academic Handbook

Perhaps the most influential and acute modern analysis of changes to the meaning and function of the university was Bill Readings’ 1996 book The University in Ruins, which managed to combine a laser-like intellectual acuity with a certain emotional detachment. Readings noted that the fundamental role of the university, and its relation to the nation-state, were in transition. His analysis of the decline of what he called the university of culture in favour of the university of excellence remains an intellectual tour de force, which would be comic if it weren’t so tragic. Over the last couple of decades another scholarly line has arisen – one focusing on the impact of these big picture changes on academic life and labour. It critiques big forces and ideologies like corporatisation, marketization and neoliberalisation, and their concomitant institutional forms and norms, especially the twin evils of work intensification and casualization, noting their “devastat[ing]” (6) financial, emotional, embodied and intellectual effects.

The Para-Academic Handbook is a particularly interesting and particularly welcome contribution to this latter scholarly line, and I’d like to signal four reasons that this is so. First, it describes and makes visible a whole host of activities performed by scholars, artists and activists who are not securely housed within the university and not all of whom have even beento university. This is simultaneously a making-visible and an act of categorisation through which a wide variety of activities –including activism, arts, community work, and scholarship – are made to count as forms of intellectual or academic endeavour. So from this book we learn that today’s para-academics run art classes for asylum seekers in detention centres, write courses for the Free University, experiment with crowdfunding for academic books, run breadmaking workshops as part of research projects, and work at the interfaces between the university, the community sector, arts and activist groups.

The second, and I think quite substantial, contribution made by this book is that through this work of making-visible the book fleshes out and enriches the term para-academic, first coined in 2011 by higher education scholar Bruce MacFarlane. Para-academia is, I think, an invaluable new term. It too renders something visible – the normalisation of casual and precarious academic labour to the extent that it now constitutes a widely shared mode of professional and personal being, a kind of realm of practice and potentially identification. It allows us to see the existence of a group of intellectuals for whom casual academic labour is no longer necessarily a step towards a permanent job (a hope Margaret Mayhew calls “tenure track optimism” [264]), but itself a mode of work and life – a way of being scholarly whose financial, psychological, emotional and social impacts are far-reaching.

Margaret Mayhew
Illustrations by Margaret Mayhew included in the Para-Academic Handbook

Para-academia is, in the words of the editors, Alex Wardop and Deborah Withers, “a space that is not one” (12). Like the famous Irigaray phrase this cites, this is deliberately ambiguous, signalling both an absence and a plurality: the space (that doesn’t exist) is not one, but multiple. It is everywhere and nowhere. The term ‘para-academic’ is useful for its ambivalence. The prefix “para” denotes phenomena that are “to the side” of something else – in the words of one dictionary, “auxiliary to or derivative of” the base word, “and hence abnormal or defective” ( When used to denote professions, it signals lesser status (as in paramedical). So when applied to academia it represents an uncompromising choice to recognise and name the institutional devaluing faced by so many contemporary scholars. Yet “para” also signals, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, something that is “analogous or parallel to, but separate from or going beyond.” The term para-academia thus also recognises the energetic and diverse intellectual activity occurring in a variety of modes, registers and forms across a variety of sites, and it construes it as a something – a domain that has its own constituents, its own energy, and its own potential communities. This domain often issues from, and continues to overlap with, the university as a bounded institution, but it is not coterminous with it. As  Margaret Mayhew notes in her contribution to the collection, the precariously employed academic, usually working across multiple universities, has complex and shifting affiliations, attachments and identifications.

The concept of “para-academia,” then, invites a profoundly double conception of the work of scholars in these situations – a conception that is valuable in recognising just how much scholarly, teacherly, community, activist and creative activity goes on “inside, outside and alongside the conventional academy” (8), and which conceives of it less via a centre-periphery model than as a new topography.

A third intriguing aspect of this book is the way it multilayers genres. It is simultaneously a work of scholarship, a form of testimony (and testament), and a guidebook. The cover image signals its contiguity with activism of several kinds –referencing traditional protests at one remove by framing them within resistive feminist arts practices like craftivism. The term ‘handbook’ implies a practical orientation – a guide, perhaps even a self-help work; ‘toolkit’ also references a DIY aesthetic and politics. But it is more than practical; as contributor Alexandra Kokoli notes, the “practice of resistance” to the current university cannot help but be a “practice of intellectual labour” (21). So the book is, in the words of the opening contributor Gary Rolfe, “not only a handbook, but also a headbook and a heartbook (4).

So this is no self-help book if by self-help we imagine something focusing only on the “positive” emotions. On the contrary, its emotional-intellectual-political range quite rightly encompasses despair, anger, determination, pride, rueful acceptance and occasionally something resembling insouciance. The editors speak of “devastat[ion],” “chaotic horror,” the “ruthless academic ladder,” “callous mediocrity,” and the “utterly dispensable paraacademic” (7). Yet they and their contributors also note, with varying degrees of excitement, the new possibilities opened up by this new landscape. And no one tries to neatly resolve those contradictions. They remain, quite rightly, irresolvable.

So it is that the book manages to allow the co-existence of two logics that are all too often conceived of as opposites – the critical logic and a logic that we might, in the spirit of revivifying and re-valuing a seemingly tainted term – call therapeutic. It aims, in other words, to be both thoughtful and useful, to name harsh realities for what they are and also to point to spaces of possibility, and perhaps even hope. But it is a non-redemptive kind of hope – one which, while it claims that “we are all para-academics now” (Rolfe), also notes that this is a community of difference rather than unity – what Rolfe, following Bill Readings, calls “a community of dissensus” (2) – that is, “a community that consents not to be bound by consensus” (3).

The phrase that occurred to me over and again in reading this volume was “living with”. The book explores, analyses, demonstrates and exemplifies new modes of living that are born of the profound change in the nature of the university as an institution. Living with is an ambiguous phrase, implying both the business of enduring and persisting in the face of something difficult or painful but also signalling that such enduring also produces new arts of living – new habits, pathways, states of mind, communities and forms of knowledge. And one of the achievements of this handbook is that it recognises these new arts straightforwardly, without romanticism. For the editors, para-academics are not heroes, but rather “default, thrown out, thrown in rebels born of an impossible situation” (8).

I said that there were four reasons I think the book stands out. The fourth of these reasons lies, quite simply, in the very fact of the book’s existence. The book exemplifies, embodies and
performs the very conditions it sets out to analyse. In keeping with the spirit of being both inside and outside traditional institutional mechanisms, it is available in two ways: free downloads are available from the publisher, but you can also choose to support the writers and the publishers by buying a hard copy, which of course I’d urge you to do if you can.
Likewise this launch, driven in the absence of secure institutional attachment and support, by Margaret herself, and relying on informal networks, financial, and voluntary labour, is an
example of para-academic work.

As one who has been lucky enough to find a place in the “upstairs” of academia, and who, like many, I suspect, suffers from a kind of survivor’s guilt as a result, it is thus a doublededged
pleasure to launch this book. It is an honour to celebrate the endurance, creativity and passion of para-academics, but I mourn a world in which one has to be creative to get by. But
this new and unavoidable ambivalence is exactly the terrain that this book so powerfully charts. So the book, and this book launch, are in fact proof of one of the simplest but most significant messages in The Para-Academic Handbook, one spelt out by the editors, who say: “Remember that people are doing things and you have the power to do things too.” (11).


Four Corners. 2005. Interview: Dr Brendan Nelson. ABC Television. 27 June.

Macfarlane, B. 2011. “The Morphing of Academic Practice: Unbundling and the Rise of the Para-academic.” Higher Education Quarterly 65(1): 59-73.

Moberly, S.W. 1949. The Crisis in the University. London: SCM Press.

Newman, J.H. 1976 [1852-1858]. The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated. Oxford:

Clarendon Press.

Readings, B. 1996. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.