Philosophers of Praxis

This wordstorm was my preparation for speaking at Higher Education Cheshire’s Annual Conference, held at Mid-Cheshire College on 6th July 2016.  My intention? To provoke thinking and present a different view of scholarship than is, perhaps, the norm.  

I don’t do justice to some brilliant, connected Higher Education minds, academics like my pal Vicky Duckworth who could never be accused of living in an ivory tower (she’d be growing her hair ready for the long drop if she did).  Not only do I know many such thinkers, they are the very people who helped me articulate my own voice.  They are my fellow travellers, my space-to-dancers – and my friends.

When Frances Bell quite rightly called me out (in Comments, below), about Gramsci’s unhelpful binary (grassroots ‘feel’, intellectuals ‘think’) I considered softening my ranty polemic – and decided on this introduction instead.  Writing is an act of resistance, as my (HE) friend Kevin Orr often says.  If I can fire even one person up to write each time I speak, I’ll use what ever tools are (ethically) in my reach.  Enjoy the following words, and understand that I really mean we all should rise up and raise our voices.

Slide1Hello and thank you for inviting me to speak at your Scholarship Conference today.  My name is Lou and I am a Philosopher of Praxis.

My aspiration in the next twenty minutes is to convince you that you have a voice that needs to be heard in the world.  These are strange times indeed and challenging times for our profession.  And our voices are barely audible in policy or media discourse.  My belief is that this is because we do not have a professional identity as scholars.  We leave that to the folks in HE and they don’t know what our lives are like.  My session here today is about scholarship as praxis; that is, action and reflexion upon the world in order to challenge and change its oppressions.  Scholarship is thinking – yes, it’s reading – yes.  Sometimes it’s studying.  But in a praxis model, which is all I’m interested in, it’s about forming the words to speak out about something that needs to change.  It’s about writing, filming, recording – and then publishing.

Slide2

Writing 100 years ago, the philosopher Antonio Gramsci called for Philosophers of Praxis, by which he meant grassroots, activist intellectuals.  Gramsci was a man of his time and he was writing in a Marxist context; in case any political theorists get me wrong I want to be very clear that I am transplanting his idea to the here and now and that is not the standpoint from which I’m operating.  The idea is what’s of use to me and, after all, philosophy is the study of ideas; the leadership, if you like, of ideas.  Gramsci is part of my philosophical genealogy, and I am standing on his shoulders to do new thinking that is relevant for now.

Putting semantics to one side for the moment, Gramsci made the point that “the popular element” – ie us and our students – feel an experience but do not always think about it, ie reflect.  In fact, reflexive practice is what we’re all about and the best pedagogies are reflexive experiences for all involved.  So the problem here is not that we don’t think, but that we don’t write it down/film it/sound record it.  Intellectuals, on the other hand – for the sake of argument let’s say these are today’s policy makers, academics, ‘experts’ – do lots of thinking/writing but they don’t ‘feel‘ – they are not in the experience that we are in, not any more or never have been.  It’s a no-brainer that a way out of that situation is for us to start writing and publishing stuff and that both is and isn’t as easy as it sounds.

The fact is that every political movement – and let’s be right about this, the liberation of Slide4further education from the sausage factory model to something more emancipatory is a political movement – needs its intellectuals, its dissident writers.  Here are a few.

bell hooks, amazing Black feminist writer and educator.  If you haven’t read her, you should, because her pedagogy of love speaks to us all (bear in mind that she is shouting with us, not at us).  She is one of many inspirational figures – Audre Lorde, Angela Davis – who wrote women into the political landscape.  Irina Ratushinskaya was imprisoned by the Soviet regime; she wrote verses on soap, then washed the words away once she’d memorised them.  Vaclav Havel stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Slovakian politician Alexander Dubcek in Wenceslas Square at the birth of the Czech Republic, symbolic of art and politics together.  Nelson Mandela’s prison diaries gave hope to millions.  Chinese radio presenter Xinran transcribed the stories of women who told her the truth of their lives on her late night show.  Each of these writers have given birth to liberation through their words and now there is a new generation speaking through music and video to change the world: check out how many people follow Emma Watson.  Listen to Akala.  Where are our dissident writers in further education?  If you think I am stretching a point here, think of your students.  How many healthy, fulfilling lives and futures rest on the access to FE?

At the bottom left of the slide, there is the offering of me and my friends, the Dancing Princesses. Our book is inspired, two-thirds edited and half written by philosophers who are still working in FE.  Even now, though I’ve come here to do this today, I am embarrassed to be in such awe-inspiring company and even a little socially awkward at calling myself a philosopher. That’s because I am a working-class, adopted child from a town called Mexborough in the South Yorkshire coalfield and people like me aren’t philosophers, they aren’t writers (you may tell me that Ted Hughes and Margaret Drabble came from Mexborough but check out their growing up, their grammar school education, their leaving behind of their roots). What stopped me finding my voice for the longest time were untrue limiting assumptions that people like me – people from my identity groups – didn’t have anything to say.

Nancy Kline, whose Thinking Environment processes I use all the time in my work (and used at the start of the session today) says that the key obstacles in our life and work Slide6emerge from the key obstacles in our thinking – the untrue limiting assumptions that actually shape the way our brains are wired.  In a Thinking Environment, we’d identify those assumptions, speak them out loud and, like hoeing weeds in a garden, we’d see them shrivel and die, because mostly they are ridiculous.  However it feels on a day to day basis, we are privileged people in a privileged country, mediated by technology, able to get our thoughts out to others in 140 characters or more.  Finding a liberating alternative question, to barrel on past those untrue limiting assumption, is key to becoming a confident scholar.  Once this work is done, all the technical stuff will slot into place. At the end of my talk, I will ask you to ask this question of each other.

We live in an era of emerging open scholarship.  Yes, there are still academic textbooks costing upwards of £50 but they are a dying breed and, frankly, the words in them are often dead by the time they are printed.  To storm the ivory towers, we need to write/film/record things, then share them in creative commons; literally common land that anyone can access for free, for the price of crediting the creator.  This is the only way Slide7in which thought, opinion, knowledge and ideas can stop being the preserve of the ‘intellectual’ and start being the playground of the ‘popular element’ – ie us and our students.  Putting ideas into circulation means we start broadcasting, not narrowcasting to “people like us”.  It means that we connect and network with others of diverse views, challenging and sharpening our own thinking if we go into those dialogues with open minds.  It means that we collectively start to dismantle the #whitecurriculum – those unseen structures of oppression that shape our very existence.  If you do one thing after today, watch ‘Why is My Curriculum White?‘ on YouTube and then go out and find the diverse voices that are missing from your subject.

Put yourself in spaces which feel uncomfortable – otherwise, aren’t you just learning what you already know? It only takes a glance at the political shenanigans happening at the moment to know that new thinking is sorely needed.  Disrupt your own thinking through your scholarship and then disrupt the thinking of others around you.  Once you get used to it, it’s lovely! This creates a new, participatory, ecology of learning, where we are equal as thinkers.  At Northern College we don’t keep ‘theory’ at one remove.  On our Teacher Education programme, we crowd-source resources lists that are contemporary, meaningful and diverse; thinkers who we often interact with on Twitter, who are our equals as thinkers and critical friends.  We don’t ditch the whole teacher ed cannon – we love Dewey and Mezirow! – but we dump what’s not relevant any more, or not relevant to us.  Don’t Pavlov me…

…and we believe in co-production.  Because if we are equal to thinkers, our students are equal to us.  They help co-construct our curricula.  Bluntly, if you don’t think your students are your equal as human beings, you shouldn’t be in the game.

So what can you do, to become a scholar, a 21st century Philosopher of Praxis, a leader of ideas.  It’s not a zero-sum game.  If you take ideas in and you find dialogic spaces to Slide8discuss them with other open-minded people, new ideas are created, along with an activist energy that drives you through the untrue limiting assumptions of, “I can’t“, “I’m tired” and “I don’t have time.”  If you do one thing after today, I suggested you watch the YouTube video, “Why is my curriculum white?”  If you do two things, get yourself on Twitter.  Use it to get into spaces you may not normally go, spaces like @writersofcolour  Use it to open your mind to new and exciting stuff and then, as your own ideas emerge, start to record them.  Tweeting is publishing.  Shared blogging spaces are publishing.  Facebook is publishing!  I’m not saying don’t aim bigger – you should – but don’t decry the nursery slopes.  And stop thinking that the best way out is to lock yourself in an ivory tower.  Because you might just find there’s an army of philosophers heading your way.

 

Posthuman Realness #TD16praxis

Opening Words – The Posthuman Now (Lou Mycroft) (1)

Today I have the privilege of meeting with some amazing thinkers at Northern College, for the fourth annual TeachDifferent conference.  We are hoping that the essentials of posthuman theory will provoke us into new horizons of thinking.  We are unashamedly Utopian; our country has never needed fresh thinking so desperately.

These chaotic times are when we most need ‘theory’.  Along with art (in any form), theory offers us chance to reimagine new futures, as long as we create spaces to think.  I am Image of brightly coloured stained glass in an abstract design, suggesting biological cellspropelled into tomorrow by the (partial) ‘unconference’ construction of yesterday’s #ReImagineFE conference at Birmingham City University which confirmed what I’d suspected:  there is an appetite for change and in the broken ground of post-Brexit Britain, there is opportunity too.

A couple of years ago, I had the sense that conventional further education was in its death spasm.  It’s a graphic metaphor, but the prospect of demise is often accompanied by a desperate, febrile energy and that’s how our sector has felt for some time now.  I noticed it in the response to 2014’s #FELTAG report:  panic at the thought of change, followed by a sign of relief and the toughening of resistance to any sort of innovation.  Creativity receded and it was hard to do transformational work in the months that followed.  But the rhizome is tough, and it’s endlessly patient.  We kept on keeping on and we worked the ground from underneath, subverting where we could.  Now is the time – in Rania Hafez’s words (2) – to storm the castle.

Rania’s argument is that as long as we subvert, we collude. As a natural subversive, that was hard for me to digest and I resisted her analysis for the longest time.  I have never wanted to ‘sit round the table’ with people who are unable to think Utopian thoughts.  I have always wanted to imagine new futures and I believed that was my strength.  But Rania is right.  In Dancing Princesses, she writes:

“It is time we restore our autonomy and voice, rather than persisting in living this double life that is keeping us under the metaphorical lock and key, and eroding our professionalism.”

The mood of the meeting at #ReImagineFE would agree.  In the leadership, professionalism and teacher education strands there was a new sense of agency.  Right here, right now, doom seems inevitable.  So let’s find our inner Blitz Spirit and fight to reclaim our professional self-esteem. Let’s build our own future, instead of waiting for power brokers to decide it for us.

During periods of profound historical change, there are no certainties.  As Rosi Braidotti, philosopher of the posthuman, says, “These are strange times.” And the very fact that nothing can stay the same should give us hope of a different future.

Today is all about reimagining that future.  It’s about thinking the unthinkable.  What we ask of you today is to keep in mind these two principles:

  1. Question everything.  Challenge everything you take for granted.
  2. Focus on praxis.  Turn thinking to activism.  Plan resources: money, people, time.

What we are offering you is space to think and posthuman theory to frame your thinking. Imagine spring cleaning your brain! We figure that if we can shake out the dust from old certainties, new stuff can emerge.

Three centuries ago, certainties were fixed that we still take for granted today.  These certainties came out of the Enlightenment, so it’s no surprise that they were created in the image of Enlightenment thinkers: white, European, relatively privileged men.  They are of their times and they were important at the time, not least for recognising the importance of education.  But they are not fit for now, and they leave a disturbing legacy.

This is Vitruvian Man; the image, of course, from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch.  He is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). MiddleLeonardo's Vitruvian Man– or upper-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.

But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.

Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding ‘othering‘. It’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. It follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time.  It also refers to the anthropocene  time – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done.  Posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and also animal rights, as well as human welfare.  It is also concerned with breaking down those categories of ‘life’ that we take for granted.  Who said sociology is sociology? When is it not anthropology? Why did geology have to be invented? Possibly because geography did not admit the possibility of studying a history of the world.  If political thinkers had listened to historians more, we might not have seen racism becoming a significant political force again in parts of the UK. Posthumanism welcomes interdisciplinary enquiry, which takes a complex issue and brings whatever thinking is needed to bear on it, until something new is created.

Posthumanism challenges the way we use the word ‘humanity’. We persist in seeing humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the face of the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does:  Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.Anime of androgynous superhero

What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race in favour of some robot uprising. On the contrary, it forces us to face that we are already technologically mediated. ‘Technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for granted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses?  We are posthuman. We are already there.

If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our frames of reference are desperately out of date, based as they are on the Vitruvian model. That’s why education is not keeping up with what the world needs, why our political systems are in crisis. Posthuman thinking is about facing up to the here and now.

The here and now is, put simply, the death of capitalism. For more than a century capitalism and Marxism (in its many forms) were locked in a battle to the death.  For 30 years, capitalism has been the victor but with the global economy in freefall, political thinkers such as Paul Mason are beginning to suggest that this is the endgame for neoliberalism, the ideology underpinning capitalism which forces us to view everything in terms of ‘us and them’: you’ll come to recognise this as a form of Vitruvian ‘othering’.   It gets quite addictive watching for these binaries: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Leave vs. Remain, Winner vs. Loser. We take it for granted that the hierarchies of capitalism are the way of the world, that they are they only way. Posthuman thinking tries to imagine new, differently constructed futures.

It does this by moving away from the politics of identity; posthuman thinkers try to not to operate from their places of pain.  It uses affirmative action and active language to transform cultures of negativity and challenge that binary thinking that keeps us trapped in the trousers, no matter what leg we inhabit. Posthuman actions operate rhizomatically – that metaphor again – people gathering through the recognition of mutual energies, not because they are trapped in a structure together.  Activists form, leave and reform assemblages based on this activist energy, which Rosi Braidotti names, pleasingly, as ‘zoe‘, a Greek word meaning active and vigorous life.

Today’s gathering is not a conference, but an assemblage.  You are here through rhizomatic means, to gather with others and create something new.  In the workshops that follow, you will have the opportunity to identify your/our next affirmative activist step.  

 

 

Image of yarn-bombed treesThinking together, using our friend Posthuman thinking as a lens is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place  – the media, political structures, the arms trade, Labour ‘rebels’, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But thinking together connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.

So in the spirit of hopefulness, which today is all about, I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti, talking about the sixteenth century philosopher from whose well she drinks:

“Once a year have your dose of Spinoza’s champagne.  He just makes me rock.”

Closing Words – Posthuman Demos (Lou Mycroft)

Demos – the people or, more precisely, the common people, have spoken loud and clear in the recent Referendum on EU Membership and ‘we’ don’t like it.  In the hidden assumptions and unseen binaries of current media discourse we see all of today’s concepts played out and fuelled by the kerosene of both wilful and ignorant misinformation.

As we have heard from Mole Chapman today, the language we use forms the thinking we do, and all the more so if we are not aware of the untrue limiting assumptions we carry with us about how the world works.  Others know this too, of course, the political spin doctors who have helped make ‘hard working families’ buy into the politics of envy – and who have rendered apologies meaningless.

So what does this mean for us as activists? As educators, we frame our professionalism through three lenses – you’ll have seen the refraction of this in the workshop themes today:

Digital Professionalism – educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical thinking.

Dialogic Professionalism – educators who open up new dialogic spaces, in order to meet others as equal thinkers.

Democratic Professionalism – educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively, to maintain the integrity of the profession.

It requires only a small twist to see how this approach could work for a more strategic activism too:

Digital Activism – activists who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical thinking.

Dialogic Activism – activists who open up new dialogic spaces, in order to meet others as equal thinkers.

Democratic Activism – activists who are committed to working critically and collaboratively, to maintain the integrity of the demos as a whole.

The very best activism – whether words, art, physical protest, campaigning – is effective because it is eye-catching, often even newsworthy, memorable.  We can’t download amazing activist ideas into anyone’s brain, or we’d be out there doing them for ourselves. What we hoped for from today was that you might find the posthuman lens and thinking spaces effective sparks to kindle your own thinking.  We look forward to seeing the changes you make ripple out into the world.

Let’s finish with a a 21st century addition to the activist’s toolkit.  It’s time to consign the Vitruvian ‘ideal’ to the history books and move forward as a civilisation, one meme at a time.  Thank you for coming here today.

 

(1) Some words were first published on http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.com (Lou Mycroft’s EdD blog).

(2) Hafez, R. (2015) Beyond the Metaphor: time to take over the castle.  In Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London.  Trentham Books.

 

 

Un-Thinking Vitruvian

First published on http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.com (Lou Mycroft’s EdD blog) in March 2016 

 

Question 1:  So, what does a posthuman curriculum look like?

I’ve got to answer this question, however rough and ready that answer may be.  I’m learning that my commitment to praxis is more than tokenistic, that the interplay between theory and practice is essential in keeping me hooked into my academic thinking. Once I’ve figured out the answer to Question 2 (1), practice gets rolled up into my research, of course, but I’m not there yet. In the past seven months (really?) since I got home from the Human/Inhuman/Posthuman Summer School in Utrecht I’ve been figuring out how to teach some key aspects of posthuman thinking (learning them simply and deeply in the process), so this is my attempt to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.

Human and Posthuman

For human, read Vitruvian Man, that famous Leonardo sketch that inspired a million Leonardo's Vitruvian Mandifferent takes (Vitruvian Cat anyone?) Vitruvian Man is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). Middle-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment (2) there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.

But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.

Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding the #whitecurriculum (4). Of course he is. Because it’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. They have certainly constructed our education systems (5). Therefore it also follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time.

Human/Nature 

Enlightenment thinking formally established the dominion of ‘human’ (see above) over other species and thus established ‘speciesism’, described by Peter Singer as, “…an attitude of prejudice towards beings who are not part of the same species as us.” The notion of dominion is very much part of the Christian tradition, a dominant choice to read Genesis in a certain way.

This human/nature divide (sometimes referred to, interestingly, as a culture/nature divide) explains much that has come later in terms of raping the earth’s natural resources and decimating its wildlife (not just hunting, but intensive, super-destructive factory farming methods, check out @cowspiracy to find out more). Some thinkers refer to the Stylised image of the Earthtimes we are living in as anthropocene – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done. Politically, the term ‘anthropocene’ is being used to call for a recognition that dominion has gone too far. So posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and animal rights, as well as human welfare.

We persist in seeing humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the face of the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does:  Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.  Enough already.

Technology

What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race. Because some early posthuman thinkers (eg Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles) have a focus on the more science-fiction (6) end of technology, it’s easy to overlook the fact that ‘technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for Anime of androgynous superherogranted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses? We are already technologically mediated (or, as posthuman thinkers like to say, embodied in a technological world). We are posthuman. We are already there.

If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our #whitecurricula are so often based on the work of dead white men writing sixty years ago. In fact Robert Pepperell already had a solid grip on what posthumanism meant back in 2003, not about the “End of Man, but the end of a man-centred existence…”, where technology was an extension of the human. (Interestingly, Robert is a Professor of Fine Art. One aspect of posthuman thinking is that it crosses the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. And who decided what those boundaries were, anyway?)

So a posthuman curriculum is already necessary, it can’t be pushed to one side because your workplace bans mobile phones, or you don’t have laptops in the classroom. It’s not about that, or not only about that. It’s about facing up to the here and now.

Which brings us to…

Capitalism

…sometimes called neo-liberalism (7). Put simplistically, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 any real challenge to capitalism disappeared and it became one of those taken-for-granted things, the only system that works. In fact, it was simply the winner out of two greatCover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes 12" meta-narratives:  Capitalism vs. Communism, Reagan vs. Chernenko, VHS vs. Betamax, Right vs. Left, Winner vs. Loser. Marxists would point to the hegemony of how we each collude in accepting capitalism as the only norm:  watch yourself doing it, it can get quite addictive.

Capitalism encourages us to think in binaries and it is even more addictive watching for these: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Academy vs. State School. We take it for granted (that word hegemony again) that the structures of capitalism – hierarchies that always have someone at the top and someone at the bottom – are the way of the world, that they are unavoidable. Posthuman thinking shares with Marxism the imperative to deconstruct these structures, to imagine a world constructed differently (it doesn’t share with Marxism the conviction that this brave new world should be communist).

Which leads us to…

Art

…because new futures need first of all to be imagined.

So that’s some of what posthumanism is. Thinking about imagining new futures brings us onto how.

Rhizomes

Rosi Braidotti, with whom @kaysoclearn and I studied in Utrecht, draws on the (dead, white) French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (with whom she studied) to explore how we might take affirmative posthuman political action. Discarding the binaries of capitalism, which they describe (unfortunately, but of their time) as Famous photo of Carlos the Jackal‘schizophrenic’, they use the metaphor of the rhizome to challenge traditional notions of leadership and campaign. A rhizome (bluebell, ginger, iris, couch grass) spreads unseen and underground, forming nodes which emerge unexpectedly, possibly in the ‘wrong’ garden. It is persistent and subversive, hard to dig up, a guerrilla plant (if you can de-couple that word from negative images of the Baader-Meinhof gang and Carlos the Jackal).

Nomad War Machine

In rhizomatic political action (as in rhizomatic learning), people – and things, if we reject ‘dominion’ – form and reform in ‘affirmative assemblages’ to become a nomad war machine, popping up all over the place to weaken the foundations of the capitalist machine/sausage-factory education system. Within this model, leadership takes on different forms at different times, people assemble around an energy, disband when the work is done, re-assemble elsewhere to do ‘the work’, rather than constructing themselves tiredly into the same old hierarchical frameworks. Social media affords a transport system to move the nomad war machine around much more effectively than Gilles and Felix ever imagined and I believe this is at the heart of some of the affirmative politics we are beginning to see.

Affirmative Politics

All this sounds very testosterone-laden and it is. Rosi exhorts us to understand all the histories of our thinking (battling that #whitecurriculum again) and these metaphors from Gilles and Felix arise from their work with Michel Foucault and before him Jean-Paul Satre, who thought and smoked Gauloises while Simone de Beauvoir did the photocopying with a young and starstruck Rosi. But posthumanism also draws on Baruch Spinoza, one of the most Image of Simone de Beauvoircapricious of all the Enlightenment thinkers, and he finds the affirmative in the every day. Our work is above all to identify and carry out positive practices and if their cartography (another posthuman concept and the metaphor Rosi uses for knowing all the histories of your subject) is Vitruvian, then it’s our job to bring in the ‘other’ through what we read, the people we seek out and with whom we assemble, to challenge ourselves over #whitecurriculum thinking and to ensure that our nomad war machines are always meaningfully diverse.

Examples of this kind of approach abound, but only when you start looking for them. Do you follow Upworthy, or even Russell Howard’s Good News, gentle political satire with a smile not a sneer? Have you seen the knitted scarves around the trees in Sheffield threatened with felling because there isn’t the money (where?) to maintain them? What about Free Hugs? Spoken Word? Some of the Occupy activity was affirmative (though the leadership structures not always), as were the singing women at Greenham Common back in the day. How about the challenging, amazing examples of refugee Image of yarn-bombed treesartwork such as Za’atari in Jordan, shared every day on Twitter (if you are looking in the right place). Or Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way‘ (listen to the words), or Beyonce (8), Banksy? Witty internet memes engage ‘non-political’ people in political debate, which is sometimes more nuanced and less binary than in days gone by. Pitch these against so-called grown-ups shouting at one another across the House of Commons…and go figure.

Becoming

‘Becoming’ is the final piece of the jigsaw (I hope. There might be some more which have fallen under the table). Remember those rhizomatic assemblages, which form the ebb and flow of the nomad war machine? They combine in the energy of their action to make something new; put simply they learn from one another, they learn to ‘become’ each other to some extent and that’s how we break down the impact of othering that we’ve all grown up with. You might term this ’empathy’ but it’s more than that, it’s about blending bits of yourselves and you go away with that mingling still in you. Apologies for going all Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit like the old idea of becoming blood brothers (or sisters) by each cutting your palm. Possibly less painful, but in the act of recognising your own privilege and sense of entitlement, also possibly not.

Becoming impacts on your identity,  permanently. That’s why it’s useful to do this work alongside keeping a reflexive account of what’s happening with you, as I’m doing here. Writing this has been a bit like giving birth (I have given birth, so I feel it’s OK to say that). This is not my PhD, but it feels like blogging first is the only way my PhD is going to get written, at least in my own voice.

Why is all this theory important? 

If you drifted off at the talk of Spinoza and co, you may have drifted back in when that cheery bloke on the telly Russell Howard was mentioned. Why is that? You’re as bright as anyone else reading this but it could be that the culture around you is anti-intellectual; as Frank Furedi asks, “Where have all the intellectuals gone?” If you’re feeling impostorish about reading philosophy/theory, that’s possibly because you, too, are not quite Vitruvian. Believe me, if you’d gone to Eton, you would only not be reading it because it didn’t interest you, not because you thought you wouldn’t get it. You’d have a complete sense of entitlement about that.

The language of theory is also tricky, because it is often unfamiliar and that feels excluding. Sometimes it is meant to be, but why should that matter? You don’t have to be friends with a philosopher, just learn from their thinking, stand on their shoulders, as it were, so that you can see further than they could. New concepts demand new words – or Poster of Noam Chomsky redefining anarchynew definitions of existing words – given that the language we have is part of the structures we want to undermine (a bit of Chomsky there). So read with a dictionary metaphorically in your hand and get over it.

Theory is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place (9) – the media, political structures, the arms trade, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But theory connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.

Not that posthuman theory is easy to read, and this is where we come in. The concepts are so dense, so multi-layered, nuanced and counter-cultural, that it’s difficult to absorb what they mean (and how to use them). It took me seven months to figure out the nomad war machine (thanks @geogphil) and I’m still not quite there, though I’ve learned to be more comfortable with explaining Vitruvian Man. More of us need to dig into this stuff and Image of ancient mapwrite our own posthuman stories; stories with global cartographies – one of the criticisms of posthuman thinking, which most posthumanists accept, is that it currently operates from within the narrow confines of white European philosophy. We are where we are, but we need to keep pushing to hear othered voices. Thinking posthuman involves us taking the hegemonic (remember?) fetters off our minds.

And keeping affirmative.  I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti from her lecture last year, Spinoza Against Negativity:

“Once a year have your dose of Spinoza’s champagne.  He just makes me rock.”

(1) Question 2:  So, what does a posthuman research methodology look like?

(2) A period of (largely male (3), white, European) thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries, the foundations of which proved so influential over the next 200 years that we are only just realising that they were basically just one way of looking at the world.  (The novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is a great – if humanistic – introduction to continental philosophy of this time).

(3) Women were involved.  Men got published though.

(4) Not just about race, though NUS Black Students did kick-start the campaign, but about Vitruvian ‘human’.

(5) Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant insisted that one could achieve ‘human’ through education.  They did not explain how education could make you become white – or male.

(6) But not any more, not really.

(7) Political scientists will argue nuances of difference, but this will do for now.

(8) When the bloke under the table is introduced to the concept of intersectionality. That.

(9) Have you been watching The Night Manager?  Episode 5:  The Permanent Secretary, “…her job is to preserve the status quo, whatever it takes.”

Want to read/see/hear more? Follow the links within the narrative and have a look at the ideas below.  Some are tougher to get into than others, some I’ve not nailed yet, but you might easily.  We are all different, don’t let The Impostor in!

Rosi Braidotti Punk Women and Riot Girrls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5J1z-E8u60

Rosi Braidotti Nomadic Theory (book)

Rosi Braidotti The Posthuman (book)

Noam Chomsky’s Website https://chomsky.info/

Dave Cormier Open Education and Rhizomatic Learning  http://www.open.edu/openlearn/education/open-education/content-section-7.5

John Weaver Educating the Posthuman and Posthumanism and Educational Research (both these books are quite expensive, so try libraries or Google Scholar)

Frank Furedi Where have all the Intellectuals Gone? (book)

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Baruch Spinoza (podcast) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079ps2

Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Two Tribes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2QAMqTgPKI

A Perfect Storm

Back in April, I said that education was facing a perfect storm and it feels like the storm circled over the Teacher Education programme at The Northern College for a while this year.  No-one can plan for two reviews/inspections at the busy end of the academic year, when the team is running at reduced capacity.  And we don’t even talk about ‘cover’ now in FE, do we? We are all so cut to the bone that it’s just not a thing.

Everyone in state education knows that Inspections/Higher Education Reviews are blindingly hard work; for the Inspectors/Reviewers too, to be fair.  The guys who came to us had a punishing schedule.  We did all the stuff I’ve written about elsewhere, we were bold, we were brave, we were Northern; we gave it our best shot, students were amazing (obviously) and it all went euphorically well.  But a bit like Glastonbury after the crowds Image of debris and rubbish left in a muddy field after Glastonbury Festivalhave gone home, I spent some time afterwards looking round at the debris through the lens of an adrenaline crash and wondering how to tidy it all up. And don’t even get me started on how the maths stacks up: how one day’s 48-hour notice inspection can put me behind schedule for three weeks. (Maybe that’s just me…)

The most recent inspection was a two-part process, so the pain/pleasure won’t be over until the Autumn, though I have to say that everything is very clear and fair, we know what we need to do.  Maybe that’s part of why my dopamine high was short-lived; maybe too the tangle of emotions occasioned by at the same time saying goodbye to Certs 2014 after two years and two bereavements meant that it was all too much…but there was an unexpected flatness once we’d waved off the inspection team and I certainly felt very strange for quite a few days afterwards, way beyond my annual separation anxiety.

Part of what’s tangled in my head is the paradox of doing incredibly well and at the same time breaking all the perceived rules of what Ofsted look for.  It’s not an easy one to unpick but it seems to me that if we could do that, we’d stand a better chance as a sector of doing education substantially differently than the risk-averse, panicky sausage-factory we have now.  I’m not saying, “Do it like us,” – one of the lightbulb moments this last week is that consistency and diversity can co-exist – but at least, “Take a chance on being yourselves.” Everyone I speak to seems to be telling me that Ofsted are mainly interested in making sure your paperwork is in order but that has not been our experience, perhaps because our Principal is a experienceAn image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."d pragmatist who doesn’t use the threat of inspection as a stick with which to beat her staff.  What inspection teams do find with us is a deep knowing of students, where they’ve been, where they’re at, where they are going…and that always seems to be appreciated.  So what is happening with the perceptions of the majority?  Are we just a tiny microclimate at Northern College (1)?  Or is it possible for us to really think differently about inspection in the sector as a whole?

Are we, in fact, outstanding because we stand out (2)? Because we are different?  A sort of national treasure like Vivienne Westwood or John Lydon, Mrs Brown perhaps or Jade Goody, naughty but nice. Let’s have a peek in at Northern College then return to doing what we do….

I sincerely hope not.  We are trying to change education here and it’s a serious mission.  My dissonant feelings are caused in part by doing well under a regime I know isn’t healthy, in terms of its impact on mental wellbeing. At the heart of any such scrutiny is the need to be reassured of the commitment to continuous improvement (or ‘enhancement’); on the face of it a good thing of course but surely the quest for ever-better practice is a kind of perfectionism? If so, my CBT training tells me it brings in its wake a world of pain, in terms of never being able to feel that you’ve done ‘good enough’. If your self-worth is tangled up with your work…that’s not a healthy place to be. Something doesn’t sit well with me about succeeding under a system which, whatever its intentions, quietly terrorises our profession.

As I write this, there’s a change at the top of Ofsted and it’s impossible to know whether meeting the new boss will feel the same as the old boss. I wonder if Amanda Spielman realises the sea is rising up to meet the sky? At Northern Rocks 2016, where she would have spoken had her appointment not been announced, the mood was clear.  There is a sea change.  There was a strangeness and richness about every one of the Northern Rocks presentations that spoke of a time beyond teaching to the test.  Utopian, perhaps, but new futures were being imagined there, and at the launch of EdTech North in Sunderland just a couple of days before. Perhaps those of us left standing have nothing left to lose.

 

*Be careful.  I do get irritated when people try to marginalise us as being able to do what we do because we’re fortunate in some way.  We don’t do anything that others couldn’t do, if they were minded to.

**Many thanks to Tim Wood for flexing my thinking around this.  Outstanding/standingout.

 

 

 

A New Professionalism: what should a teacher look like in 2020?

Written for the 2016 Subject Specialist Conference at The University of Huddersfield School of Education and Professional Development.  Co-presented session with Charlie Deane.

What should a teacher look like in 2020 SC 2016 – Lou’s slides from #hudconf2016

Update:  Thanks to everyone contributing to the debate at #hudconf2016 and beyond, on Twitter, Yammer, Facebook, at #HudCRES yesterday, and wherever else. This is the rhizome in action:  affirmative, collaborative, provocative :-) 

The UK education system is horrible.  That’s my starting point and my challenge by the end of this blog is to get us all to a more affirmative place.  Frankly, if I thought I’d be battling this same system in 2020 I wouldn’t be writing this now, I’d be working on a career change.  But I am hopeful.

I believe a perfect storm is on the horizon for education.  It’s coming for education as whole, but I’m concerned here and now with our contexts of further, adult and community

Beautiful image of storm clouds
A Perfect Storm Public Use Permitted. Credit/Source: NASA.

education and of what is currently referred to as ‘the skills sector’.    The ideologically-placed sticking plasters are beginning to fray.  It’s time for change. What we have is unsustainable.

Let me begin by saying where I think we are. Outside a few elite institutions, state-funded education is paved with dumbed-down qualifications, low expectations and attempts to enforce obedience to The Man. Since the school-leaving age was raised to 18 we have hundreds of thousands of young people, barely educated in any meaningful way at school, forced into a sausage-factory of not-quite-fit-for-purpose qualifications, an abattoir for any remaining aspirations they may have; a system that nevertheless makes money for the ever-growing institutions they attend – a success, in capitalist terms, maintained as such by endless goalpost-shifting.  Until now.

If those young people somehow find their way through this hope-curdling morass, they have the privilege of getting into mortgage sized debt for a University education – or, like so many, they’ll fall off the rails of life and the lucky ones may end up getting educated in rehab, at Recovery College, via Probation or in prison, alongside their children at family centres, luckier ones through their trade union, even their workplace, or they’ll wash up where I work, at The Northern College.  That journey might take 40 years.  Along the way they could be forced to work for nothing in intern or traineeships, or for next to nothing on apprenticeships. Or they may get their education elsewhere and end up marching through Rotherham with the EDL, or getting on a plane for Syria. If I was still a Marxist I’d be describing the majority of our students as inhuman labour to feed the capitalist machine. But, sadly, I no longer believe in revolution.

Two things are happening as a consequence of this situation. The first is that I observe an accelerating tendency to ‘other’ students; treat them as lesser thinkers, even lesser beings. In adult education, students have arguably less in common with their tutors than they ever had. The second is that I observe a level of acceptance of the status quo which frightens me.

Let me be clear. Brave teachers begin hopeful careers in every workplace. I believe that every one of us in this room does our best to make sure each student has a meaningful

Gauguin Self-Portrait of his disembodied head
Paul Gauguin Self-Portrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

experience. But we are operating as disembodied individuals within a profession that has terminally low self-esteem. Anyone here read Secret Teacher in The Guardian?  Last weekend’s was one of the saddest I’ve seen…a teacher actively shutting down their networks, to ensure they kept a productive bubble around themselves so they could go on doing their job. I sympathise, and I get like that sometimes…but it’s exactly the wrong way to bring about change.

We need to organise. No-one will change this if we don’t change it ourselves, because they have too much invested in it staying the same.  Obviously it would be lovely if we could bring down the capitalist machine, but that might be a bit ‘big picture’ at this stage🙂 In the meantime, remember the perfect storm is coming. Education now is making some money for some institutions – some money for some consultants! – but this is becoming unsustainable. The goalposts are inching off the pitch, they can’t be moved any further.

I was at the TechNorth conference the other week, packed with employers from the creative and digital industries; employers who want to take on willing, risk-taking, critical thinkers, not obedient qualbots. The response from Colleges was pretty cringeworthy, to be honest. “We don’t have the funding”, they said, “…the awarding bodies won’t let us.” Well I work for awarding bodies too and if you’re determined, you can certainly find your way to do good work round the edges.  I sat on that stage doing a facepalm (and I did have a little rant when it got to my turn). You may not have found your way into it yet, but I’m telling you there are a lot of people out there who are joining their energies to affirmatively create a different education.

What we have to do to make it happen is to be our best selves as educators. I don’t mean ‘best’ in Ofsted terms, I’m not interested in that (1). I mean professional, digital, switched onto our pedagogies and the transformational power of education. My message to you today is that if we teach differently, and if enough of us do that, then education will change. It needs courage and energy. It needs a different skills set. We will have to fight our own institutions and assumptions along the way.  And we will certainly have to work and think differently.  But it’s doable…it’s more than doable, it’s already happening.  We are the critical mass.

2020 demands a new professionalism from us:

Democratic Professionalism – Educators who are committed to working critically and collaboratively to maintain the integrity of the profession.

Four Cambodian dancers in solidarity
Royal Ballet of Cambodia Source: Google Images under Creative Commons license

You’ll note I’m talking about organising from the middle. Education’s future relies on a collective, distributed leadership, a leadership of new ideas and thinking.  I’m certainly not leaving it to those fewer and fewer people who pop up everywhere, controlling things from the top to keep them just as they are. Teaching is leadership, teaching is research, teaching is social responsibility. The structures we work within don’t just happen to be that way, they are actively policed to keep us in our place and to keep our students in their place. I was very struck by something I saw in a TV thriller recently – anyone see The Night Manager?  The work of a senior civil servant was described as, “…preserving the status quo, whatever it takes.”  That is absolutely the case for education. Tait Coles, a hero of mine, wrote something profoundly important in The Guardian a couple of years back:

Education is produced for and by the white middle class to help maintain the social and economic status quo. It deliberately fails to consider the values and beliefs of any other particular race, class or gender. Young people who enter the educational system and don’t conform to this vision are immediately disadvantaged by virtue of their race, income or chromosomes.

We can dismantle these structures by stubbornly, affirmatively, refusing to buy into them, in any safe way that we can.  By subverting what we can.  Of course, it’s safer when we do this collectively; organising nationally through our trade union to resist the extremes of Prevent, for example, or working as a team to worm critical pedagogies into our curricula. Making time for the collegiate critical friendship of a Twitter chat or other social media space. Drinking from the well, as our students call it, when they return as graduates to our Community of Praxis. Read too, for inspiration, but not the boring stuff, not the old farts.  All dead white male psychologists can tell us is what dead white male psychologists think – and we already know that. Read bell hooks, Spinoza, Edward Said; read what excites you on Twitter (2), read what makes you cross and then talk to your networks about it.

Don’t put your faith in institutions, put it in each other. We have somehow acclimatised to the ‘fact’ that the world has to be about making a profit, that education is about the financial bottom line, but it’s institutions that demand that, not teachers and students. Question everything. Some of the images you see here are inspired by my involvement in a book

Tutor Voices: National Network for Further, Adult, Community and Skills Educators
A Perfect Storm Public Use Permitted. Credit/Source: NASA.

called ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a book that has legs – 24 of them! – because the energy we generated there, writing collectively about democratic professionalism, has translated into Tutor Voices, a rhizomatic network of campaigns, projects and people, all fighting for education to survive and transformationally thrive into 2020 and beyond. Join us. Join us on Facebook, on Twitter, on LinkedIn, over a cuppa, at a conference. But join us (we don’t cost anything :-)).

 

Dialogic Professionalism – Educators who open up new dialogic spaces in which to meet students as equal critical thinkers.

Dialogic engagement, as described by Richard Sennett, is about equality and it’s about

A dancing Qajar Princess
Dancing Qajar Princess Source: Google Images under Creative Commons license

exploring the middle ground, rather than defending binary positions. It’s about thinking critically and differently. Yes, we enter a power relation with a student when we mark their work, but we can be honest about that and still be equal as thinkers. I hear a tone, increasingly, when tutors talk about students (worse still when students are referred to as ‘learners’, but that could just be me). It’s an ‘othering’ tone. It’s a tone of oppression and inequality. It’s an ‘us’ and ‘them’. That has to stop.

Our Community of Praxis approach involves all of us – theorists (dead or alive), students, tutors, graduates, critical friends – in co-creation of learning environments, on and off line. We curate and transfer “content” – the stuff that inspires us – discuss it, pull it apart. I no longer have to be that ‘false expert’ who is expected to know everything about stuff that bores me, like behaviourism, just because it’s on a reading list.  We seek out all the histories of our subject, as Trevor Gordon will exhort you to do tomorrow.  We defy the #whitecurriculum, systematically constructed to maintain the status quo that Tait Coles wrote about (3).

And we talk. We talk endlessly and we process and we create our own ways of being, our own ontologies as social purpose educators. We use processes such as the Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy and Restorative Practice, to ensure that we continue to engage in every one of those spaces as equal thinkers, whatever our identities, starting points and places of pain. When we are scrutinised by the powers that be – and I’ve been through that twice in the last two years and may well go through it again this year – we come out like shining stars.  Because they have stolen our words for their rhetoric, they can’t then claim that what we are doing is wrong. Our grades are the best, our behaviour superb, our widening-participation reach meaningful and enviable. This stuff works.

Digital Professionalism – Educators who navigate and exploit the affordances of the digital age, to enhance critical education.

120px-Vasnetsov_Frog_Princess
The Frog Princess, dancing Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

And now we get to the crux of the matter. Not the philosophical crux, that’s our old Marxist friend, hegemony, us unthinkingly colluding in our own exploitation as our profession implodes around us.  This is the practical crux. The resistance right here right now to digital pedagogies. (I’m guessing that, by the way. I’d love you to prove me wrong). I am no longer apologetic about what I am going to say next. If you don’t go digital, you shouldn’t be teaching. And this is not about laptops in classrooms and state-of-the-art whiteboards. It’s not about lending iPads. It is about broadband reach and the digital divide, but there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about the latter which is really just about educator/institutional resistance.

#FELTAG spelt it out and others since have clarified and refined the message. Jisc are really getting into their pedagogical groove, promoting the digital and physical blended together, helping us “…see the digital as a set of spaces, not just a set of tools.” We can work with this! Instead of sitting sulking with folded arms, because you think you’ve been asked to do something ‘extra’, get over your ego and get down with your students in figuring out new ways of learning and being. Why? Because they are leaving you behind and you are doing them an ethically unacceptable disservice by under-skilling them for life and work, particularly in terms of keeping themselves safe and effective online (4).  And the bigger why? Read David Price‘s ‘Open’. Open education, open media, open research…this is how the world will transform.

These are the skills you need in 2020 – so you have four years to get them in place.

  1. ›Creating dialogic, restorative, philosophical Thinking Environments
  2. ›Growing digital Resilience, Creativity and Curation
  3. ›Participating in Open Education (research, journalism)
  4. ›Amplifying diverse voices, through Communities of Praxis
  5. ›Being a democratic, dialogic, digital Leader of ideas (whatever your place in the hierarchy)
  6. ›Dismantling the #whitecurriculum

›To paraphrase the Mental Health Leadership project I’ve been involved in recently, ‘Break the Rules’ (5) – affirmatively, this is not about whingeing – in any way you can, with the support of the rest of us out there. If you don’t buy into new ways of being, it’s not just that you’ll get left behind.  There won’t be anything left, for you to be left behind from.

 

(1) And I maintain that the main practical problem with Ofsted is the narrow way many senior managers interpret their requirements.  For the philosophical problem with Ofsted, see Finland.

(2) Check out the Twitter list at the end of @kaysoclearn’s thoughtful blog on PREVENT to bring diversity to your thinking.

(3) Much of the post-#hudconf16 debate has centred around #whitecurriculum and the dismantling of privilege – or rather the dismantling of denial of privilege.  It’s a painful process and the first step towards it is the hardest.  Trevor Gordon prefers the term #monoculturalcurriculum but I think that tries to hide from the pain and that’s impossible.  What do you think?

(4) See @helenbeetham’s work on Digital Wellbeing.

(5) Check out #Breaking_Rules

 

Breaking the Rules

Updated for Keynote to Barnsley College pre-service PGCE students and Certs 2014 at The Northern College 18.4.16  Please click through on the links for access to deeper research.

(If you read one thing after this, please make it The Centre for Mental Health’s ‘A Day in the LIfe‘ Report – and follow @markoneinfour on Twitter.

Slides accompanying this blog will be are here: Breaking the Rules April 2016

Link to an Adobe Voice recording will follow.

A troubled face, with the caption Welcome, Breaking the Rules Affirmative Mental Health Leadership, ELMAG 3 Mental Health. Also includes logos for Time for Change, The Education and Training Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute

This blog post reflects on our experience of the ‘Breaking the Rules’ affirmative mental health leadership project, funded by ELMAG, the Education and Training Foundation fund which makes possible so much brilliant work around leadership, always on a short timescale; an adrenaline-fuelled experience, a rollercoaster ride.  Inspired by the growing movement of neurodiversity, which tells us that mental ill-health and learning disabilities are not just not a deficit but an actual JOY to the WORLD, we put together a leadership programme called ‘Breaking the Rules’.  Note that, for us, leadership is something we all do, it’s not just the remote preserve of those who sit at the top of hierarchies.  We refer to it as ideas – or thought – leadership, an extension of democratic professionalism.

What was ‘Breaking the Rules’?  It blended a face-to-face Thinking Environment day with an online, reflexive programme; there were options for one-to-one coaching and leadership analysis work.  It gave the opportunity for current and potential leaders to affirmatively explore the leadership of mental wellbeing, with the support of leadership coaches. It absolutely rejected the othering of those who experience mental ill-health, who are often us (though we maybe dare not say so).  Mental health diversity is not a deficit, it is an actual thing and many of the people in the room with you are experiencing it right now, whether they are prepared to go public with it or not (I increasingly am and it’s proving to be a virtual spiral of liberation as others share their strategies too).  What’s more, mental ill-health can be a thing that is actually caused by the work we do, so maybe our ‘sector’ (whatever that means) has some responsibility here.

________________________________________________________________

One of the unspoken ironies of adult and further education – whether sausage factory or social purpose – is the mental health cost to its staff.  The irony, of course, is that adult education, done properly, is one of the greatest contributors to improved mental wellbeing.  At places like the Exchange Recovery College Barnsley, transformational pedagogies are integral to the recovery process; staff are properly teacher trained and partnerships with local adult education providers nurtured.  And they are making a difference.

But if the staff themselves achieve these successes by pushing themselves to the max, limiting their own potential in the process, the net cost to education is tragic.  We are all in danger of forgetting that we have ‘mental health’ too; that we are all vulnerable (particularly under stress), and that users of mental health services make up only a proportion of the “1 in 4”.  We define diversity (in part) as “being present as yourself”.  At those times when your mental health is fragile, can you truly be yourself at work?

Pretty much everyone who works in adult, further and community education means well. Increasingly, in this world of pay freezes and zero hours, none of us do it for the money. We are likely to have invested in our own training, for a pay-off of doing rewarding work in precarious circumstances.  We arm ourselves daily against media slingshots and political A complicated Cubist paintingsneering.  We live with our profession being deregulated and downgraded from ‘education’ to ‘skills’. We find it impossible to meet anyone socially who doesn’t assume we work in a school. Somehow, in all of this melee, we raise families, maintain relationships, grieve and care for loved ones.

We’re fighting back but that takes it out of us too; added to the emotional labour of believing in people who don’t – yet – believe in themselves is the terrifying courage needed to challenge statuses quo. And we are likely ourselves to be people who don’t quite fit the mould of the ‘professional’, who are maybe developing our own cutting-edge definitions of professionalism. Many adult educators are people who benefited from adult learning ourselves and who are now pedagogical pioneers. We have ‘passion’*. We want to ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’.  We are good at what we do because we’ve been there.images-3

And so our own mental wellbeing gets eroded. The early starts…the late finishes.  The long (unpaid) ‘holidays’ so envied by our non-teaching friends packed to the gills with marking and the secretive checking of emails. Family members resentful, bank accounts in the red. Panicky organisations over-regulating, micro-managing, Ofsted-petrified.Traditional autonomy replaced with tick-boxy bureaucracy. Teaching observations. Paperwork. Loss of dignity and control, yet sort of publicly ignored at the same time**. Under this level of pressure, no wonder many of us become ‘mentally diverse’; life gets harder as we struggle to keep it all in balance and the vicious spiral begins.  As long as we are in a culture which sees mental diversity as something lacking, rather than something potentially creative, we risk being attached to a label that will haunt us endlessly.

And we know, of course, that even before considering the needs of the most marginalised in our society, such as refugees, that if in our individual identities we are diverse from the #whitecurriculum ‘norm’; if we are female, if we are black, if we are poor, if we have other ‘disabilities’,  we are likely to experience both more mental ill-health and less helpful support.  ‘A Day in the Life‘ makes that absolutely clear.

A commitment to diversity is increasingly – and healthily, wellbeingly – defined as people who can be present as themselves in any given situation. How true is that of you at work? An image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."How true is it of me? How does that fit in with ‘fitting in’, where there is an unspoken ideal of quiet reasonableness, of diligent and consistent graft, of neatness and order (oh yes, there is). Nancy Kline, founder of the Thinking Environment, points out that even in business (sold to us in adult ed as a hive of creativity and free-thinking), there is an ‘epidemic of obedience‘. It’s a measure of how institutionalised I am that, watching The Theory of Everything with my son over the holidays, I was mostly worried that Stephen Hawking would get the sack from Cambridge, but of course in that day and age, for someone of his background, brilliant awkwardness was almost de rigeur; his physical disability just took it to another level (Ian Walsh would argue that times have definitely changed).

The latest transformational leadership models focus on enabling the creativity of staff, affirming (more or less) measured risk taking, and the centrality of mistake-making to creativity. Nonetheless, many workplaces don’t feel like that and, despite the health-promoting paternalism of modern HR strategies, there’s a lot to be said for pro-actively taking hold of your own mental well-being before things get out of hand.

There may be a book you can take strength from – I’m reading Brené Brown’s research into shame at the moment, something that really resonates with me as kicking in when I’m under stress.  I am learning to be shame-resilient.  Therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) don’t work for everyone, but are certainly thought to do no harm in the case of mild to moderate Image of the sea with the caption 'Find what feels good'depression and/or anxiety – and you don’t need a referral from your GP to try a CBT course you’ve found on Groupon, or work through exercises from the web.  It may be that you have regular coaching, or get to work in a Thinking Environment, giving you space to develop the resilience not to dwell on stress or fear.  You might practice Mindfulness. (When I was 50, friends bought me twelve bottles of Prosecco and three of those Mindfulness colouring-books, which gave me a pretty good idea of how they viewed my life).  What all of these have in common is a sense of agency.  Work on what you can fix for yourself and don’t waste energy on what you can’t change.

You may already know what else works for you – fresh air, running, yoga, lots of sleep – but it’s possible you’re not doing it because if one thing is certain, it’s that the chemicals of stress take away our desire for wellbeing behaviours. What I want to say to you, with painful self-awareness, is that nobody will do it for you and no amount of work-based stress management training will replace you doing what’s good for YOU.

Organisations have plenty of processes for identifying and supporting mental ill-health, and some of these are even genuinely about staff wellbeing, but external forces are strong and the level of stress and struggle continues to ratchet up. We need to take up the reins ourselves, itself an empowering act.  As the hugely successful (by every measure) drag diva RuPaul would say, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the  hell can you love somebody images-6else?” When we suffer (get fractious, forgetful, go off sick), our students suffer. Something has to change.

There are some brilliant resources on www.mhfe.org.uk to help you keep yourself safe and to help you teach this practice to others. And of course the legal and emotional safety net of belonging to a trade union should not be discounted. One of the horrible paradoxes of the employment landscape in adult and further education is that the most exploited of us – those on zero-hours or fixed-term contracts – are the least likely to be unionised and consequently have the least protection from the darker side of working life.

As I’ve written elsewhere recently, we are all seeking the nirvana of creativity, but not the extreme mental stress that comes with it, because we don’t know how to handle the fall-out from that. The fact is that our entire sector, with its model of heroic leadership and its mimicry of corporate business, continues to ‘other’ and deficit mental health diversity; acceptable in ‘learners’ and pathologised amongst its own staff. Until we have leaders who get it, who are prepared to shatter #whitecurriculum thinking with their own experiences of being black/female/disabled/young/mentally diverse, we will continue to marginalise and exclude those brilliant minds amongst our own workforce, who are just the people to lead us to a brighter future.

Can I get an ‘A-MEN’?

 

Interested in Breaking the Rules?  Although the ELMAG Pilot has finished, we hope to continue to offer the course.  Please contact Sally Betts sallybetts@ideasforlearning.co.uk 

*Pah-pah-pah-pah-passion (as David Bowie might not have sung).  Certainly a double-edged sword.  In adult education we pretend it’s a good thing and we certainly mine it heavily.  But it’s not passion that gets you to places of influence; or if it does, it’s likely to be the thing that topples you.

**My heart is palpitating as I write this.  And I am one of the lucky ones, with the privilege of a permanent contract in an organisation which has tried for 38 years to live the good values it espouses.