1Luciana Radut-Gaghi: What is your research background and how is it relevant for communication?
2Seán Hand: I’m a Professor of French whose degrees, in French and Spanish, and then French literature, are from Oxford University. Back then and still predominantly, Oxford’s approach to languages was literature-based, and only secondarily and instrumentally about language. Just about everything was (and is) taught through English, reflecting a residual colonial view of communication and influence. It suited me at the time, since I mostly just wanted to read poetry! But I am from Ireland originally, from Northern Ireland in fact, so even within one language I am attuned to the nuances and assumptions involved in communication and expression. I certainly enjoy learning about other languages above all for this reason: you gradually morph into the mindset, sensibilities, expressivity, in a word culture, of the other. This is a fundamental part of successful communication – you’re not just broadcasting, you are adapting, translating, performing, absorbing, mutating … Sadly, some parts of official “British” culture – the post-imperial establishment bits – are still stiff, inept, arrogant and tone-deaf in this regard, even to the vibrant cultures that abound inside the UK.
3As for my research field, my own interest has always been first and foremost in the modern and contemporary French-language field, and I have published books, articles and collections on writers and thinkers like Michel Leiris, Derrida, Lacan, Duras, Jabès, Jean-Luc Nancy … At a certain moment, when his work was not so widely known or used in English-language circles, I produced work on Emmanuel Levinas that brought him to a wider audience, and I found it very satisfying more recently to look at his posthumous writings, partly as they forced a reassessment of what have become utilised versions of “Levinas”. I have always been drawn to cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary and phenomenological perspectives that encourage continual review. What drew me originally to Leiris was not just his complex autobiographies but also his total involvement in several overlapping disciplines such as ethnography, art criticism, language, and even political ideas. This produced a highly self-aware and self-critical practice. At the moment, I am reading a lot about the Anthropocene: as an idea and a demand, this has the same delimiting and holistic appeal for me, and I can see it involves the same lifecycle of elaboration and self-critique, and the need to promote deeper, clearer and more knowledgeable perspectives and connections. It is also trying to formulate an inherently international outlook and communication, while negotiating with national and local experience, obsession, guilt, denial and the like.
4Luciana Radut-Gaghi: Can you give examples of academic cooperation?
5Seán Hand: Lots! After all, the implied opposite, a notion of academic solitude where you don’t cooperate precisely in order to produce some giant isolated work is increasingly a bit of a shibboleth. Certainly that kind of deep dive has its place, and it’s kept alive and encouraged by the traditional rituals connected to academic progress such as the doctorate and the monograph. This can produce great work, and it can be personally fulfilling, as I know, since in many respects I remain profoundly that kind of person! We are also inspired of course by visionary thinkers like an Einstein or an Emerson. But academic non-cooperation, if I can put it that way, can often be just a sedulous mining operation, or a complete colonisation of a limited field with heavy ownership rights asserted. Even in Humanities now, where lone scholarship is still perhaps a norm, the emphasis and opportunity today, however, increasingly fall on collaborative projects. In the UK at least, I think we are past the point where collaboration in the Humanities gets presented tacitly as a less intellectually profound activity, even if we still have a traditional system of individual reward whose practices can predate the university itself. Of course, there is a huge system of hierarchy and ladder-climbing at work here, and of course I remain part of this system!
6Let me give two different personal examples of academic cooperation, one more managerial than the other, but both necessary in my view. Through my work on Levinas, I became more generally informed about French Jewish intellectuals in the twentieth century. Warwick University was developing links with Boston University and Monash University. I set up links with Boston’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, and then with Monash’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. This was in spite of the fact that Warwick does not have an equivalent or even something like a Theology department. I managed to get funding to hold a terrific small conference first in Boston on post-war French Jews. At the same time, through pump-priming I developed a Holocaust, genocide and “aftermath” collaboration with Monash. Then I brought the two elements together via a conference held at Warwick’s Venice Palazzo (where we have been teaching History of Art and History students for 50 years). We then refined the subject further and with additional invited papers we published a collection on Post-Holocaust France and the Jews 1945-1955 with New York University Press. Now in the course of editing this collection, I had to define in the Introduction a view of this period which had been overlooked or categorised as falling between the Shoah and postwar decolonisations. The papers collectively exploded the period’s presentation: they exposed the complex range of activities happening, from intellectual work through restitutions and international aid to orphanages. But as well as that, it became clear to me that I had to balance out many different ways of conceptualizing and writing about the period: there was even a different set of emphases when it came to the writing of history by people communicating from out of a North American or Australian or French or British tradition and network. So the editorial and presentation work became a balancing act, a negotiation between a stress on facts and numbers versus more emotional or holistic narratives, proof and phenomenology, details and grand narratives, and so on. Overall, this took a long time to produce, much longer than a monograph would have taken! So academic cooperation, even on quite a limited scale like this in Humanities, takes time, it needs funding and institutional support, and at one level, at least for me, it definitely concerns communication strategies and a related collaborative structure of learning or re-learning.
7My other example concerns what we are doing now with the EUTOPIA alliance. We have brought together six very different universities from different nations, systems and circumstances, to work on a common goal of producing collaborative teaching, research structures, challenge-led priorities, inter-regional engagement, student and staff mobility. This involves the Université Paris-Seine, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Ljubljana University, Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and Gothenburg University. Academic cooperation here is set by the initial promised outputs associated with our pilot-phase bid to the Erasmus+ European Universities initiative, but the aim is of course much greater than this and involves having to create new, different and above all collaborative forms of teaching, research support and management, and student and civic engagement. The premise is naturally that cooperation makes us stronger, and the challenges we face can’t be resolved through separated efforts or unpooled resources. But there is a lot of unsexy building work to do to erect triumphal arches! Our educational systems may have an international intellectual range, but they have grown as national bodies and are subject to local circumstance and politics. Our staff and students are still largely formatted by national culture and priorities. There’s a lot of reinvention of the wheel going on there. And of course language and its role in intellectual formation is a fundamental part of this situation. So here academic cooperation has to work with legislation, funding mechanisms, and more broadly a whole politicisation of the space. And unfortunately this does also include a phenomenon like Brexit. At this point leading academic cooperation necessarily involves working also with several bodies, alliances, think tanks, organisations and even lobbying groups, to be aware of opportunities and problems, and to seek to influence, communicate and champion collective efforts. Finally, we are different organisations with different communities, strengths, histories and possibilities, and an alliance involves embracing and exploiting these differences rather than looking to create some elite and exclusive club. So we must keep communicating outwards and inclusively.
8Luciana Radut-Gaghi: You are in fact one of the leaders of the EUTOPIA alliance. Can you say a bit more about this project? And how does Brexit affect academic cooperation and communication?
9Seán Hand: Let’s begin with Brexit. The referendum result was a shock to UK universities. Not just because of their cosmopolitanism and hugely successful participation in European research, but also because of Brexit’s challenge to their fundamental support for borderless development, influx and investigations, and the economic model that had grown up around all of this. From its beginning, Warwick had been an inherently international university and it intends to remain that. We have a very high proportion of international staff and students right across the university’s faculties. So we knew we wanted to respond with more than passivity or retrenchment to Brexit. Hence our leading of the EUTOPIA project, which is a projection really of what we wish to be and to support. For this reason, I sometimes announce provocatively that “I love Brexit”, because it forces you to take a stand and to explain and defend your core values. However, I obviously regard Brexit as a complete disaster culturally as well as economically, and this certainly affects universities that are internationally cooperative and competitive. It is also nefarious politically, and we shall see more populist attacks in many countries on what universities represent as open spaces of communication, sharing, collaboration and, of course, critique. In the run-up to the UK referendum, then, several senior academic leaders, myself included, were personally attacked in belligerent media for daring to encourage students to vote about their intellectual, professional and social future. Seemingly, this was universities being unacceptably political – as though the ugly attack on independence of thought and internationalist alliance was not itself wholly political.
10But ultimately, Brexit is not the fundamental issue here. I’m afraid it’s just a stupid and dishonest obstacle for UK colleagues and Europe-wide research, that exposes heavily deferred post-imperial trauma and, indeed, a massive political failure of communication. Warwick was already working with colleagues in Paris and Brussels, and we were determined to press on with plans to bring researchers and operations together. When the Erasmus+ Universities Initiative was announced, following the articulation of the idea by President Macron, we quickly decided that we wanted to communicate our support, to our own staff and students as well as to international colleagues, for this natural next phase of collaboration. Through contacts and discussions we were swiftly joined by Ljubljana, Pompeu Fabra and Gothenburg.
11As for leading this, it was natural – given my background in European languages and cultures and my internationalism – for me to be asked to lead the project academically at Warwick. I had also previously represented the university in California when we were investigating the invitation to develop a new university there, and before that I had been the first Head of our combined School of Languages and Cultures. So I had experience of the managerial processes involved in having to communicate a vision, involve and enthuse all contributors, listen to and negotiate with differences, interact with lots of agencies and interested parties, and so on. A quite fundamental part of the role therefore involves communication, with the same core message having to be translated into the context preoccupying a certain group of people: academic colleagues, funding bodies, media interest, civic opportunities, of course students and researchers, and so on. This resembles discourse analysis! The alliance embraces the work of over 30,000 staff and 165,000 students, in at least six languages. So it definitely also helps that at an earlier point in my life I did a lot of drama and music performance! Clearly, when an initiative involves speed and scale, you also have to personify the proposition and to be able to express the vision with conviction.
12Beyond this, I work closely with Vice Presidents in the other universities, as well as with a core team of colleagues at Warwick. Our practical job now is to manage the collaborative realisation of our plans for a new type of learning community, knowledge creation, inter-regional or “place-making” operation, capacity development and further international linkages. So the communicational role involves finding a common language and process among ourselves, and equally extends beyond our universities into business and civic authorities, as well as beyond Europe into our wider international connections. And all the while we are of course communicating with our own community of scholars, to inform and to learn.
13Luciana Radut-Gaghi: Is there a distinction in your work between information and communication? Which do you find the more complex?
14Seán Hand: We’re all the time doing both, of course, as I just suggested. They are part of an endless loop. We are processing information, communicating a plan, getting feedback, negotiating blockages, absorbing possibilities, reviewing timescales, reacting to events, suggesting extensions, dealing with success and failure … For me personally, although both are necessary components, leadership is ultimately about communication. People can be overloaded with information, and if it is communicated negatively, insufficiently, conflictingly, impersonally, it can demotivate and even crush. It is possible to tune out. Communication is not just about conveying information in an appropriate way. It is also about lifting people up, creating energy and even excitement, encouraging growth.
15That sounds a little ideal, so I want to add that we also have to communicate a certain urgency. Universities are vital to our economies and our politics, but they are often sacrificed when short-term economic decisions are taken by professional politicians. Non-stop communication of the value of university research and education has to be maintained, or the knowledge of that becomes lost in instrumental messaging by others. And that urgency has to begin at home. As knowledge creation and technology grow exponentially, and as universities become truly multi-polar in their abilities and power, European universities, including British ones, have to have their status quo challenged. So one part of this work does involve encouraging rethinking and redesign, in a way that still can reflect organizational values and customs, but none the less wants to push forward the available talent and tools and resources to develop quality education and greater social impact at scale. That is a mission, and a vocation that uses information to advance a higher cause. So communication is the leadership bit for me. Which of course makes it inherently more complex, more ambiguous, more exposed.
16Luciana Radut-Gaghi: Have you ever experienced any moments of breakdown or resistance when it comes to communication?
17Seán Hand: Of course! At an instinctual level, no-one likes change, especially if it involves leaving a comfortable routinized situation and embarking on an uncertain new venture. And as academics have been trained to argue a position, and operate in cultures that are remarkably democratic – and vocal! – in spite of everything we might complain about, then resistance is a part of the process. At its best, this leads to more robust discussion and better testing of ideas. At its worst, it is the aggressive maintenance of a privileged position. Most often, though, it is an anxiety and a real worry, since academics are also very open to personal judgement of their work and are promoted or not on that basis, at least certainly in British universities. Lots of analogies come to mind, of course – conducting an ensemble, managing a team, being in a play, singing in an opera – and different European (and North American) universities have very different models of leadership, from the most messianic to the frankly bureaucratic. And there are externalities as well that lead to collective decisions that change the agenda: not just Brexit, but a different view that emerged in our university leadership, for example, regarding opportunities and risks associated with the project to build a university in California. Speaking personally, I’d want to say only that communication is two-way, so I have to recognize that different people are comfortable with different levels of risk or speed of absorption or perceived dismantling of the status quo. I don’t want to sound too “zen”, but resistance is also part of the history and movement of ideas and a musical or dramatic development! But clearly, I am always engaged by possibility and new alignments, and that is after all why I am engaged in my current role.
18Luciana Radut-Gaghi: EUTOPIA is an interdisciplinary project. What have you found to be the connections between information, communication and interdisciplinarity?
19Seán Hand: For me, the most exciting and fulfilling part of the EUTOPIA project involves its interdisciplinary potential, and this is above all what I want to communicate, as a research value and as a social project. If we just put our informational resources together, we shall have done very little to change the world, and in the eyes of some we shall have encouraged a kind of monopolisation of intellectual assets. Yes, we can improve and ultimately equalize capacity across the European space, but there are also funding mechanisms we could use for that. We can create general standards for open science, open access to knowledge, and so on. This is certainly a benefit, though it can still seem primarily about efficiency, ownership, management. What excites me conceptually, and this is the excitement I look to communicate, is that by working together in a genuinely aspirational way, we can generate new approaches to knowledge creation and sharing for the benefit of a generation of students and researchers who come up with breakthrough ideas, technologies and processes. Of course, the core of any innovation process remains the culture of an organisation. So I realize that what I am also communicating is that we have to change ourselves. This does mean that we have to harness and nurture an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and post-disciplinary approach to knowledge development, on top of disciplinary training and expertise. The vision I want to communicate involves a transformative evolution of university strengths taken out of silos and local successes by collaborative activities that help to produce a generation of experts in emerging fields who can give our work transformative social impact and application. Of course, there is going to be resistance to that! But if universities exist to bring about change and to discover emancipating knowledge, then that is what we must communicate at every level, responsibly, accountably, and purposefully.