When Minesh Dass went to Rhodes University to teach English he was advised to attend the departmental tea each morning. He neither understood the abbreviated, insider, allusions nor had any need for caffeine. These rituals of hospitality left him alienated and anxious. It became clear that he could either adopt the paraphernalia of diurnal conventions or remain a stranger. His new colleagues were exemplary in their politeness; he was, they were saying, free to become like them. He felt more excluded with every new welcoming gesture
Together, the innumerable microcosms of similar departmental rituals constitute a university; every university. In his thoughtful and provocative essay, Dass shows how such “conditional hospitality” is profoundly conservative, the Janus face of an academic collegiality that excludes those who will not conform. Extended to the university as a whole, this is the “dead road to a dead world”, closed to new ideas and possibilities. Understanding such conditions of hospitality, Dass shows, throws a clear light on both transformation and the core idea of the university.
Minesh Dass’s essay is part of a collection on race, institutional culture and transformation in Higher Education that was published late last year, titled “Being at Home”. While the focus is on Rhodes University, the volume’s relevance is far broader.
Rhodes’ long and contentious shadow is an example of historical legacies that are an integral part of many universities’ pasts, from Rhodes’s continuing commemoration at Oxford to Brown’s slave-owning founders, and to the University of Massachusetts’ General Amherst, who came up with the idea of distributing blankets infected with smallpox to the native American communities who were in his way. The past is often nasty, and universities that root their culture in the dark side of history risk its sharp bite.
But, first, back to the English Department tearoom. Given that Dass neither drinks tea or coffee, nor smokes, why did he get involved in Rhodes University’s rituals? Because he was persuaded, as part of the university’s orientation for new staff, that attendance was essential for his successful integration with his new colleagues. But he found the conversation
as foreign to me as a dialect of German spoken only in certain parts of Switzerland. The informality of the gathering only strengthened my sense that here was a community at ease with itself. And I quickly realized that it was my job to become more like them. I needed to learn the lingo, read the signs (and drink them, too, it seemed). Even if I did not really get the joke, I would have to learn to laugh anyway. Every admission, however, subtle, or a lack of common ground would implicitly ensure that ‘they’ remained the department and I remained someone on the outside, looking in……
This resulted in “a profound sense of displacement and loss”; a double bind between remaining a “foreigner” or abandoning his sense of self, leaving him “terribly isolated, unsure and confused. This was not because Dass’s new colleagues were not “collegial”; it was rather “precisely the kind of collegiality they generously advanced” that was the problem.
Faced with such personal crises – the kinds of situations that set off remnants of childhood insecurity, every sliver of self-doubt – there is often recourse to a theoretical construct that offers a kind of intellectual therapy. For Dass this took the form of Jacques Derrida and, specifically, Derrida’s concept of “unconditional hospitality”.
In a characteristic mind experiment, Derrida asks that we imagine a situation in which we “give place” without any constraints or expectation of reciprocity, perhaps without knowing a person’s name, or asking who they are. This requires, Dass notes, that we “respect the infinite unknowability of the other, at the cost of any sense of our home as comfortable, sage or inviolable”.
This device, of holding up the everyday customs of the academic department against the notion of a radical alternative, reveals the deception inherent in the traditional university shibboleth of “collegiality”: markedly conditional forms of hospitality that “designate a kind of violence because they all work by prescribing, determining and knowing the guest only in terms of the host. What is established in the process is a diminished form of the guest, a limiting of the other, which allows for disregard, abuse and harm”.
Dass links Derrida’s concept of unconditional hospitality with a key tension in the idea of the university as a whole. On the one side is the ideal of the universality of knowledge and freedom of inquiry. But on the other side are the barriers to entry that constantly restrict and exclude.
Dass asks what a university would be like that adopted Derrida’s “unconditional hospitality” to define itself as an alternative to conventional tea-room collegiality: “it is only on the condition that we accept the other’s alterity that we might actually experience something we could not predict in advance, something outside our frame of reference and, thus, revolutionary”. This, he argues, would extend the boundaries of enquiry, shift the horizons of knowledge.
Dass wants universities that set no conditions on their hospitality, that are “in the most profound sense, universal”; that “open their borders in the most radical manner”. He is surely correct as seeing such openness as essential for everything that a university should be, particularly so at a time when, across the world, borders are closing and sectarian divisions are hardening.
In his essay, Dass looks back to E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. In an existential discussion with Christian missionaries, their Hindu interlocutors wonder whether there are mansions in the House of the Lord first for monkeys, and then for wasps, oranges or bacteria until the missionary, Mr Sorley, exclaims “we must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing”.
The traditional university collegiality that Minesh Dass dissects has no time for wasps, oranges, monkeys or bacteria either, and we are all the poorer for it.
Minesh Dass: “Making room for the unexpected: the university and the ethical imperative of unconditional hospitality”. Pages 99- 115 In Being at Home. Race, Institutional Culture and Transformation at South African Higher Education Institutions. Edited by Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews. Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2015.
Jacques Derrida: “Of hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond”. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000.