It has been quite difficult to write this seminar. The difficulty has not been in knowing what to say, but in recognising the responsibility that comes with saying it.
Writing this rather than speaking free-form is itself a departure for me but one I need to do. I need to write because I feel the energy, the archaic electricity of solidarity that means what I speak is already immersed in others. I see this as important in ways far beyond the latest academic submission.
A more targeted introduction – This evening I will speak about the First International Working Class Academics Conference, a two day event that happened on July 14th and 15th and that ran online. My reflections today will expand on where the event sprang from, the principles behind its creation. I will then take this parallax view, several months after the event, to reflect on the practices and how these were formed by our mantra of creating a conference BY and FOR working class academics.
I will start a little bit after the fact. Weeks after the conference, still editing the videos and re-watching the poetry, art, experiences, evocations from the two days something hit me – like a kick in the guts – as Kit de Waal described the best way to measure impact. What kicked my guts was a recognition that in twenty years as an educator, in excluded young people spaces on government intervention programmes, as a literacy tutor and community worker, in Further Education, in Higher Education, as a PhD student, as a researcher – these voices I had heard, this whole event, was the first time ever I had been somewhere outside a classroom in which working class people were the majority. The first time I had been involved in something in which my class was not one of a tiny minority.
This had been the intention, the purpose from the start. But still, as I heard again the diverse accents, the multiple and powerful experiences, it hit me that this had actually happened. Kicks in the guts work on numerous levels for those unaccustomed to them – they do make for cognitive reflection, ‘what happened there?’ ‘what led to that?’ what shall I do next?’
They also have a visceral reaction, a straining emotional screech that is not controlled by thought at all. When kicked in the guts, you might find that you cry why simultaneously thinking ‘the one thing I will not do is cry’.
You may as well cry.
But crying not as lament, just small drips of inspiration to do more and make things better.
Kicks in the guts like this one are, after all, not caused by boots but by something altogether more forceful. These gut wobblers come from repressed and confined and constrained feelings of being not allowed in somewhere, of being permanently outside, abstract in a knowledge space that is unrecognised, with a voice that is not worth listening to. And not just my own, that’s what makes this kick that bit more of a breath stealer. Generations of me, of my class, of family, community, neighbours, friends. Outside and unheard in The Academy. I did not need telling that our communities are not silent – they are noisy, complex, energised, reflective, responsive – they include a full spectrum of life and approaches to it. But not in The Academy.
And here they were – hours of voices from these diverse spaces, accents, backgrounds, experiences. HERE WE WERE.
In Blackpool, last October and not quite 12 months ago we had walked the Blackpool Illuminations in a balmy semi-gale and only light rain. As we got back to the car, I spun the radio around looking for the Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show and found instead Rachel Gibbons – a recorded talk from The Green Man festival, and talking about imposter syndrome, Jonah complex, her experiences of being a working-class woman in a middle-class university. It lasted little more than 10 minutes but the catalyst was there – I recognised everything Rachel spoke about, realised I hardly ever spoke it out, felt like I had boarded a hot air balloon and decided this was it. The seed was sown/ blown.
I had form in shifting what we did with learning – The Ragged Alliance saw us set up speakers in pubs and had energy and random wildness – one memorable night saw a Fracking discussion closed by the anti-fracking Choir while upstairs a Danish punk band rattled the light fittings – the two entered into a noise off that made our experiences forever ingrained. The Ragged University inspired this, Alex Dunedin has generated much learning, introduced many speakers, that would never had had space otherwise. I had created a technology platform to rival Massive Online courses and rooted in community, not massive. This, with Rachel’s call to respond echoing in my skull, meant a conference seemed not only possible but pre-destined.
Plenty of other inspiration followed, I had read Common People, edited by Kit de Waal and found a renewed understanding of her opening phrase – ‘A celebration, not an apology’. I contacted Kit on Twitter, she spoke to me on the phone for an hour, committed to speak and gave me encouragement and inspiration. This free, solidarity-based support became the hallmark of this event. It did not run like a conference, it ran like a movement. Those early supporters generated an energy – others I already knew, those in my world, in our class, in a community college HE, others that had toiled under the frustrations of being working class and proud and aware of the complexity and brilliance – but also aware of the pressures to adapt and comply to another set of conventions.
We found that we had friends, fellow teachers/ lecturers, writers and researchers with similar feelings and the idea of the conference was taken up by many, immediately, with passion and a desire to make it work.
It was not all positive, others said such class definitions were weak, that being in academia precluded working class authenticity, that we needed a clear alignment with one or other concept of class. Others questioned diversity, perhaps insinuating this most diverse class of all was somehow dominated by singular voices. Others questioned how we would pay for it – who would fund us.
Negativity is often good, it makes you want to do things more than you originally wanted to do things. Our collective became more alive and we reached out – via social media and then a rhizomatic network of people that walked into the light. As we grew in number – never massive but around 20 [people by Christmas – we built a website, had an email account, started to meet online. We had a venue – Blackburn Museum and Art gallery – and at the same time realised that institutional support was not going to happen.
This felt good.
As every promise from other organisations came tied with financial implications we could not meet, or objectives that altered the course of things, we found we had to decouple from The Academy.
Being non-institutional started to frame us, by removing the framework. We were free. I started to think in terms of possibility that was always, and only, limited by the willingness, ability or opportunities of the small group we had formed.
That sense of agency, of being the ones to make this happen, was powerful and helped us power forward.
All of this was being done for free – not an uncommon thread in academia – but this free was given freely, voluntarily, there would be no other benefit than being a part of making it happen. Still, we were small, the interest was growing and more were coming. The winter was still in full force yet the wind of the pandemic had yet to hit us.
We were emergent and finding common responses.
The conference proclaimed itself as not being a plea for recognition, a desire to open a door and find sweet charity. It was the assertion of a right to speak, to be heard and to listen to each other. I wrote at this time that the conference would provide a space to speak but would also correct commonplace notions of working class. These might be summarised as:
Working Class is not a problem to be solved
Not an accent to be lost
A savagery to be civilised
A roughness to be polished
A wideness in need of a particular type of participation
A background to be assimilated
A society that needs to be mobilised, to be somewhere else.
Nor does it mean that working class is static and immobile without Middle Class academic intervention. Together, we were creating a light that illuminated our realities and each of those realities demonstrated the weaknesses of how we had been portrayed. In response, new ideas developed and these looked more as:
working class coupled with achievement,
working class as a space of philosophy, art, science
working class as active creators of knowledge not the passive subject of other people’s
working class as academics
At this point, we knew we had started a process of what I will talk about now as Border Crossing.
Border Crossing: Paul B Preciado inspired
We cannot create a new world by more vigorous polishing of the old one.
Paul B Preciado talks about border crossing and what this means across whole tracts of knowing – “it is a question of crossing the borders between philosophical genres: epistemological borders, between documentary, scientific, and fictional languages: the borders of gender, the borders between languages and nationalities, those that separate humanity from animality, the living from the dead, the borders between today and history.” (Preciado, 2020, pp.50-51)
Part of this is the reflection on a history that we might be continually asked to revisit, to attempt a fixing of a past. Like the ‘Solitude’ statue in Paris as a recreation of a new morality based on past wrong, a revolutionary slave who was hanged the day after she gave birth. This promotes a response to the destruction of statues such as Colson in Bristol and the renaming of libraries. Facing up to a past based on the present that allows us to move forward with a new sense of our contemporary wisdom.
Yet, such looking back is not creating anything new. It suggests we are now developed and we can, through the pressures of activists, remove the stains of a soiled past. It suggests now is already fixed and only needs a few new statues erected, degree courses designed, politicians removed/ elected and all will be well. This revamped present becomes little more than a renovation project, the structure barely touched as the new fixtures and fittings are ushered in, the tarnished old school unfashionable artefacts thrown away.
But like the nomadic childhood home of Rosa Parks shifted from its Detroit home, to Berlin and now Naples this ‘Almost Home’ is asking America to ‘remember a house it didn’t know it had forgotten’ (Mendoza, 2018). The curation of statues and courses allows the existing power to remain, but updated. Forgotten, until universally remembered and only those elements remembered in turn once that universality is acknowledged, permitted and included in the voice of the powerful. Our own concerns over inequality, of classes as a majority left outside the privileges of a minority, also made nomadic. As the artist collapses then rebuilds Rosa park’s home in various spaces, so do we seem able to collapse our outrage and rebuild in various locations, always only temporarily. All the time, we forego meaningful change and the same people stay in the same positions – they become even more empowered by suddenly claiming to be the arbiters of equality, engorged now with their largesse bestowing renewed awareness and welcoming ‘diverse communities’.
The response of the Academy is not an authentic border crossing, it is crossing no borders, it is staying exactly where it is and flexing its heel muscles as it tells us that it was/ is and always will be the space that dominates and decides what is knowledge.
The conference call to Working Class Academics was not a nod to social mobility or widening participation, nor community outreach. The conference was in no way designed as a pacifying engine that allowed small charges of change and recognition of inequality. Such tiny pacifying engines offer only appropriation of multiple voices while simultaneously feeding into the power stations of institutional dominance.
Preciado’s inclusion of Thomas Bernhard is significant, ‘When Knowledge is dead, they call it the Academy’ (Preciado, p.50). The Working-Class Academics Conference was never meant to be a niche inclusion, a cap-doffing thanks to the institutions and a wallowing in a nostalgia for what was before and how well we have done. It was ‘a celebration, not an apology’ . A celebration of these working-class academics themselves, not of the academy of which they are part. This is important. We had to establish a space that was non-institutional as every early encounter we had with existing organisations channelled the event down familiar, and disempowering, routes of subjugation.
Border crossing is not easy and requires a change in who we are, courage to become other than we are and strength to overcome resistance to those that need us to stay the same. The conference as idea was no nostalgic lament for times passed – there has been no golden age – nor a meaningless request for access to gated gardens of delights.
We cannot create new worlds by more vigorously polishing the old ones. The tiny engines we did build, and are building, are not powerless. They are engines of hope and optimism that are detached from the institutional mainframe and allow new ideas and approaches to emerge. The lights that our dynamos illuminate help shape new knowledges that includes working class voices because they are unavoidable. Not because of some charitable impulse. This is not the same as Threshold Concepts, that locate the change in the individual and not the portals through which we pass. Instead, these borders alter what happens on either side of the boundary as we cross. Both The Academy and the communities that now more fully influence it are changed by open exposure to each other.
What the conference offered was an opportunity to cross a border, acknowledge our own unfamiliarity in these familiar places and do so with courage. We had created a border crossing – now we needed to walk across it.
Knowledge Creation and Participation
In Budd Hall’s adaption of a Lawrence Ferlenghetti poem, he reminded us that
‘working class academic work is not a sedentary occupation, not a take-your-seat practice. Stand up and LET THEM HAVE IT’.
Only in recognising our agency could this conference be the powerful catalyst for change now, and inspiration for change yet-to-come, that it needed to be. Budd spoke in his closing remarks that ‘The Academy’s knowledge is largely written by non-working class people’
The issues this bring lie in the subsequent acceptance of a natural state in which one class writes, creates, develops while another is silenced and perceived as incapable of these acts. Unchallenged, this leads to common sense acceptance that working class communities are capable only of consumption and rely on an Academy to provide and select.
This was evident in the need for the conference and in the responses that helped shape it. It felt different because it was not remote – even though it was literally remote.
There were some planned elements to this, and lots of individual brilliance – work completed over weeks and generated through practice and collaboration. Work that called on experiences and acted as catharsis, not for speakers alone, but whole swathes of us.
It was evident that, like getting a kick in the guts, there was visceral response, this was powerful in detail and data, yet the overall experience was one of being part of something exciting. It might be something to recount that the chat was continually alive, we trended on Twitter, the energy was palpable, and the feeling was often exhilarating.
In terms of knowledge, this was almost the perfect response to the laziness of the Classics, of Plato and the call for people to know their place. It felt like we could know this place, generate massive power in this place. Realise unheard and silenced knowledges, become something more through solidarity with masses of others, in this place.
The call now must be to realise that we must be integral parts of The Academy, start to make that place our place too.
Small groups and support – Let Them Have It but in a way that changes the shape of a conference.
How to ‘Let Them Have It’ came through establishing a feeling for the event and the surrounding networks that were different. Many of us have had the uncomfortable sensation of having to lecture about dialogue, turning critical education into banking education through lack of time and space. Here, we did not have that fear.
Every submission was accepted. Some needed much more work and were embryonic. That was OK, a friendly yes, a network of support and beginning with a positive ‘you are in’ made a big difference. This open door did not lead to random and unfinished presentations. The opposite happened, once we created a collective through those coming in we could create small groups, each with a Chair. These little hives centred loosely around big ideas – of art, of experience or focus on a theme. The suggestion was to work together as groups of three or four, spend time sharing the ideas and presentations. This was no ‘we welcome new speakers’ that then left them to do work out what happened next. Experienced presenters worked with first time presenters, community educators prepared with Russell Group peers, students with long-term lecturers, all equal and supportive.
I would perhaps reflect we were lucky to have such excellent, dedicated and creative speakers. It was not luck. I knew they would come even while forming the dream driving away from Blackpool’s lights.
These little groups were hives, of energy, of creativity, of support and of purpose. As the conference neared, we met weekly as a larger group, throwing ideas about and simply enjoying being around each other. Technology training was given to each group, the Chairs and the speakers. Nobody missed these sessions and the experience was often inspirational, this sense of being part of something.
Outside the speaker events, the blog was garnering superb submissions. Powerful voices that reached tens of thousands of reads over the months before the conference. These were not just good reads, they helped create a sense of this being a collective, a beating pulse, of people that were responding to an idea, recognising the border and joining together to cross it.
As I write this, I think of the power I am investing in the whole event. Am I going over the top, imbued with my own investment in this? I might be, that’s OK, let’s just accept that as a possibility. It is still true, all the same.
I have not spent time on the massive disruption we had when COVID caused the initial venue to close and threatened the whole thing. It is worth a passing comment as I almost gave up myself, sent an email that was laden with my own sadness, close to giving up. Almost immediately I had a dozen replies, laden with beautiful offers of support, commitments to continue and electronic arms around the shoulder. This was something of a turning point, the whole thing uplifted and we could welcome new speakers, voices from Western Canada, from Italy, West, East and Central United States, Australia, investigation of Kashmir, the intricacies of different but linked lives and a wide reach across the UK. Perhaps too, we had that sense of being more acute through shared purpose. The values of small groups are more than a method, a means of delivering a product. At the foundation of thinking, of practice, this model is one rooted in togetherness and support. Without those, they are nothing.
Types of Presentation – Poetry/ Art/ Film
We created safe spaces by working in the hives, but not safe spaces that were necessary because of a perceived vulnerability. Safe spaces in which creativity could be better developed, discussed, shaped and re-shaped. Work that was altered based on the networks in which the presentations took shape. This led to a difference we could not have anticipated or requested.
Film was prevalent, powerful and used in multiple ways. The professional excellence of Inside Film used documentary to expand ideas of exclusion but of struggle and reflection, of brilliant lives needing space to grow. First time film-makers like Ian and Emma forged new ways of expressing their ideas, with skills learned from across others in the collective. Kevan momentarily reduced the chat to silence as his own silent animation film echoed in stomachs and souls across the planet. Film was not a mere technique, it was a form of engagement that challenged us all to encounter thought and experience in new ways.
Poetry gave a definite character to the conference, to the way we engaged with the speakers and with each other. A massive challenge is how to describe a kick in the guts, render it visible and simultaneously part of a global response, to try and replicate animal responses of hurt and subsequent courage in response. Charlotte, Elaine, Budd and Tony used poetry, each showed us that power in language and ushered us across borders we find hard to identify.
From Canada, the US and Italy we found that experiences might feel similar but our worlds are very different. The detailed exploration of what was happening in other land masses, across other societies, helped us see the commonality of inequality even while seeing the gulf between how that was lived. What was evident was the way that the Academy has successfully networked the world, made research and literature, ideas and theory a global concern. What the international aspect of the presentations showed is that without subsequent inclusion of local knowledges, of contexts of inequality, this great network can only perpetuate disadvantage – a grand silencing that we must resist through localised voices, combined and shared.
Across all the speakers, of the powerful reflections rooted in the personal but reflective of the global, art, speech, testimony and incredible bravery in authenticity and openness – across all of this, we felt a different type of understanding, a new form of knowledge in an academic conference.
The form of presentations was not a creative exercise in difference. It was testimony to the necessity of alternatives, of expressive practice, of experimentation in speaking out, of finding new voice if we truly do seek to work with our diversity.
We cannot create new worlds by more vigorously polishing the old ones.
What was key?
All of it.
Not ‘all of it’ as a gushing throwaway comment. All of it because how can we decide what was best and what will linger, what was temporary or what was fundamental – at this stage we felt we had recognised each other.
We found more as working class academics than we knew existed. As we came together we saw other familiar lives, some diverse and wildly different to our own but threaded with a similar and shared experiences as we encountered – and were encountered by – The Academy. There were common threads we might not have anticipated:
Across speakers and delegates there was a concern of being in, but not of, the academy. There was difference between us. Some of us in often working class contexts such as college based HE thought class was forming their output, but lacked any impact or recognition beyond these spaces. Other speakers and delegates in larger universities, Russell Group and other markers of difference, had constraints of that prestige and were more likely to feel their background could cause issues. In the lead-up we visited a Lancaster Seminar by Carol Binns who reported academics fearing being ‘outed’ as working class. Without this conference, such thinking would add a dark and sombre tone to our considerations of class. This event was very much about being out – largely be rejecting the very notion that being ‘outed’ should be ever considered. Despite the differences in context, our experiences were familiar and developing solidarity across these spaces is possible and is happening. By Us and For Us helped identify a working-class identity that was not about absolute commonality, but that highlighted the diversity of backgrounds, of race, gender, cultural and geographical distance. Solidarity that would help each of us see through elitism and have the courage to face it.
We need to support each other to de-robe the mysterious elitism of academies that serve to divide our society and uphold historic inequality. The importance of creating a fair and equal representation for diverse working class academics goes beyond academics ourselves. Many descriptions and experiences were about the isolation as we travelled into a world unknown to the one we had to leave. Like nodes on the end of tentacles, the deeper we moved in The Academy, the more we had to leave our own communities. This distancing, this replacing of warmth that turned cold, this alienation was often felt both in The Academy and later when returning to our homes. Our establishment of an openness of the Academy is crucial, it must be prised open to encourage voices across society, enriching and correcting narrow class dominance. The Academy remains a core space for generating knowledge and this has to be informed by thinkers, artists, creatives across all areas of knowing that include working class backgrounds. On every level this makes sense, why would any society not want everyone involved to make things happen?
It was obvious in every speaker and collectively across the conference, the blogs and the conversations we have had that many, many people feel excluded and irrelevant –if not irrelevant now, then where they had come from, what they had learned. What was irrelevant was not only as ourselves, but our entire histories. What the conference highlighted is the necessity for diverse histories to be included as knowledge is created and shapes what is written, what lives and thinking go on to form theory and shape practice. What we saw was not deficit communities seeking access to knowledge. This was a demand for other histories to be included. If we continue to allow only the assimilated to engage, to first abandon their backgrounds, then only those narrowed elements of our own lives, those deemed admissible, remain. By recognising diverse histories we are not creating sepia tinted nostalgic pasts but correcting long-standing wrongs and building more powerful and productive presents. The past was not written by working class people and therefore the books, galleries and theories created obscure us as powerful agents of change and action. We become all too easily the monsters of a middle class history and only by writing ourselves into history can we correct these tarnished and brutal wrongs. We must be a part of correcting that right now.
New types of knowledge, new ways of seeing academia will come with a wider working class engagement. This is not only a mark of a fairer society but it is also essential to generate knowledge fit for the coming worlds. The pandemic has highlighted in every society how the working class are the keystones, the millions of tiny engines, that support and uphold society. This goes beyond the work done and relies instead on endeavour that means this work is done without the accompanying clamour for privilege and ownership that has characterised middle class achievement. In a world stripped bare to satisfy demand, we need new thinking and ways of organising that do not rely on impossible and insane continual growth, extraction and individualism. By operating to a working class as equals logic, we need to incorporate local and indigenous knowledges, spaces of creation that are rooted in making a community work, not attaining distancing achievements and dislocated and elite models of being. Understanding this is important as we try to make clear that ensuring working class academics are able to establish themselves and be heard is NOT a request for inclusion. It is an assertion that we need a better, stronger and more purposeful Academy. Enough of social segregation, enough too of weak half-hearted concepts such as social mobility that justify inequality by selecting out a few ripe berries while allowing the plant to wither. we need strong thinkers and creators across all strata of society and the old models of regurgitated feudalism and selective policies are fatal, to us all, to the very planet itself.
I do not consider this planet saving claim as over the top here. These efforts to create a space for the majority, to create a fair and equal Academy, is massive in implication. It would involve old practices having to establish their reasons to remain, reframed in dialogue with wider societal influence. It will not be a case of revolution but an evolving of a deeper and more reflective learning space.
The claims are not over the top but the challenge cannot be overstated. We did this outside the institutions because that remains the space we can do it unfettered, with some of the necessary wildness that comes with breathing cold, fresh air, filling lungs accustomed to dusty and restrictive atmospheres. We are tiny but growing and for those of us involved – for you and for others still to come – the conference provides a belonging and a purpose that joins up the past to the now, and helps us create a future we can embrace and fill with our voices and experiences. We are as a collective one more tiny engine, a collective of tiny engines, reaching out to others. This is not utopia, not a golden dream of problem-free existence. But a life and an Academy we can see that includes all of us and gives us hope that all our tiny engines can combine, find mutual links and help us solve problems and grow in ways that include us all. As Teresa Crew’s presentation reminds us – ‘We are none of us free until we are all free’.
It might be simple to consider that a non-institutional collective space is somehow anti institutional, And I confess to having enough of that course through me over the years. How can we live the machinery that chokes us with fumes Of dismissiveness while promising us light somewhere ahead in the fog?
But it is not anti, it is a more vigorous and determined action of making institutions MORE than they are, not less.
More significant because they represent, more fluid because they understand and engage – not as distant singular class observation posts. More because they link with their communities, become the spaces in society that link tiny engines and alter collective visions of who we are. Not as bastions of classist classical representations with clumsily appropriated columns, towers, quads and fostering elitist contempt. Instead, spaces in which all backgrounds come to enrich the academy by representing their own histories, lives, experiences and values. It’s a can-do and must-do collective that has a lowering of ego, a raising of solidarity and togetherness, a replacement of Cultures of conflict/debate with Ones of support/dialogue.
The future is not something we see as a distorted parallax view – the future is what we do now stretched out before us.
‘They (We are Coming verse)
People I work and study with now – some call these relationship students, others are introducing more forcibly the concept of customers – smile when I tell them that my parents’ response of going to university in the 1980s was ‘don’t be so bloody stupid’. I did not disagree with this, it was bloody stupid, and my life was one of being bloody stupid, so I bloody went. Being bloody anything is actually a part of finding ourselves and becoming something else and if that is not easily done – if those paths are less well accessed, unfamiliar, different, they become threatening. Crossing the border is not easy because it threatens both sides. Actually, seeing the Academy as being threatened is immediately ridiculous, we did not threaten, we were tiny and inconsequential. Our job is to not be afraid and to work together as we recognise the power of an Academy to be different. The conference has shown me that we can do both – be working class and be academic. In fact, it has done more. It has shown that without working class, marginalised, indigenous, local and contextualised voices the Academy is weakened to the point of worthlessness. Little more than a mystery machine of dubious promises and fading concepts of privilege and vague memories of a past that excluded most. We can recognise the anxiety this might bring to those we need to loosen their grip. It is often hard to let go of what has become almost innate entitlement.
We can help.
We can bring purpose and help reframe an Academy for a world that does need spaces to think, redesign and generate new practices, theories and ways of living. Our border crossing brings openness and vitality, expressions of a living world that can speak for itself and do things that matter where it matters. We need courage and togetherness, we need to speak and never remain silent. The conference was a part and we continue ahead, with writing retreats, seminars/ webinars coming next, a journal edition and podcasts, the blog and the plan for the conference in 2021. Every one of you is invited to contribute.
No, we cannot create new worlds by more vigorously polishing the old ones. We can create new worlds by working together, calling out inequality and ensuring our tiny engines are generating power rooted in a dream for a better Academy, that can serve a better world.