Transmission in Motion


[TiM Recap] “Academic Freedom as a ‘Matter of Concern'” – Berteke Waaldijk (UU)


by Kangning Li


The opening seminar for 2023-24 Transmission in Motion opened with a lecture from Dr.Berteke Waaldijk, who addressed the theme of this year’s series ‘Matter of Concern’ by using academic freedom as the entry point. The first part of the lecture began with the introduction of Latour’s concept on the Matter of Concern then followed by interactive sessions where there were small discussions between smaller groups, followed by the lecture session in the second part which the limit and approach to academic freedom is addressed.  For the third part, the concluding section consisted of elaboration on the importance of care and Q&A where Waaldijk connected her lecture to practical issues within the realm of the University.

In the introduction to the seminar topic Berteke Waaldijk introduce how the theme ‘ matter of concern’ can be stretched to diverse field such as research, societal concerns, and practical doing despite its context within the realm of science. When such a concept enters University, academic freedom can be a pressing issue even though not appear to be constrained strictly. The actual situation of academic freedom within the University can be situated and somewhat differs depending on perspective, and during the Q&A session, the differentiated interpretation is addressed in detail.

How can we talk about academic freedom? Before entering the discussion on such a situated matter of concern, Waaldijk demonstrates how the question came to be by bringing the attention of the participants to two kinds of MoC.  The first is ‘Matter of Concern’ suggested by Latour as an opposite approach to post-structuralism reading of science and his love of the studied object. Here the interactive was brought up to highlight how Latour came to a ‘Matter of Concern’ out of love, the participants are also asked to form small groups and share their love concerning individual research, etc. Such a turn to affect led to the second kind of MoC: Matter of Care introduced by Puig de la Bellacasa. The concept ‘Matter of Care’ is inspired by Latour but it takes a feminist approach in response to the limitation of concern for its lack of aspect on preservation of the object. Nonetheless, both forms of MoC propose the turn-away form of extreme ‘debunking’ to the critical analysis which sees entanglement such as empirical experience and aiming for productive or protective knowledge-making.

With the conceptual introduction in mind, Waaldijk came to the very definition of academic freedom as boundary work since it expands and excises with limit, thus differs from other forms of knowledge-making. Followed by a second interactive section, where participants were asked to share their limits, Waaldijk continued on demonstrate how academic freedom is beyond fact-making and defensive line-drawing but an entangled realm that concerns the academics alongside the non-academics as well.

With a clearer picture of the definition, Waaldijk posed two questions: Can we talk about academic freedom as a positive freedom term? How to imagine it? Here the approach to academic freedom combines the two MoCs and is directed toward the middle ground between de-structural criticism and care. For the first question, Academic freedom exists within legislation and it’s technologically embedded, yet it does not mean every aspect concerning it is neutral and clear. It is a concept that still requires debunking. For the later question, Waaldijk proposes to rethink care beyond protection and its conventional meaning which implies innocence and targets the vulnerable.

The lecture session concluded by addressing the fragility of academic freedom and its need for a kind of care beyond protection alongside continuous debunking. Then the seminar participants were invited to pose questions during the Q&A session, where more practical and precise aspects of academic freedom were mentioned such as labor relations within the University and the need for de-centralized communication. Last not not least, Waaldijk proposed that the conversation around academic freedom needs to go forward even though the report suggests it is in a relatively safe position.