Off piste academia

“We can learn from theory. But we can learn from the embodiment of that theory by experiencing what it is.” Maha Bali here:

A few days after my first day studying teaching I was discussing what we’d learnt with my mum. When I told her we’d discussed Freire, her response surprised me. “Why are people still talking about him? Haven’t things moved on since I was a student?!”. After some thought I understood her reaction. Why do some writers end up as code words for a certain set of ideas long after those ideas have been taken up, changed and lived for 40 years or so? And why did they get to claim it in the first place? It used to enrage me as a teenage anarchist when people dismissed my (in hindsight parroty) opinions as Marxist. I have never cared much for how history seems to want to make sense of ideas by giving them names of dead men.

Then I watched a youtube clip of Judith Butler which prompted me to pick up her book Gender Trouble despite the fact that for the last ten years all I’ve known about it is something like ‘oh, ’90s queer theory, really hard to read’. Y’know it really was hard to read but at the same time I knew exactly what she was saying. I knew because I now live what 20 years ago she was theorising. It was a surreal moment where the genealogy of queer feminism stretched into a past I didn’t know about. It was uncomfortable. I could suddenly see how easy it could be to say ‘ooh your analysis is pure Butler’ and become the cynical smarter-than-thou theorist. And then reading Bulter kinda made me want to read Foucault and I realised that this is how academics are born. That somehow the history of ideas has well worn paths, even the radical emancipatory ideas.

Last Wednesday I had a really tough day at work trying to persuade teenage lads that neatening edges in a park was worthwhile and important while mostly failing to challenge their deeply misogynistic ideas (the more we work together, the more comfortable they are to express them. Be careful what you wish for Ellie). I still love it, but I think it will always destroy me. I came home physically and emotionally exhausted, quickly made food and then went out to a reading group. I almost didn’t go despite the fact I’d spent probably six or seven hours reading the 28 page article and most of the people I knew would be there were friends.

I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to hold my own. These people did reading groups all the time and were all ‘better educated’ than me. Turns out I did hold my own, and really did enjoy the energetic exchange of ideas despite it being obvious to everyone (because I made a point of making it so) that I was out of my depth academically. Inevitably there was a bit of ‘her ideas are very so & so’ and I did a lot of ‘what does that mean’-ing in a softly softly approach to challenging the assumption of that well worn path I so dislike. It was interesting.

It was also surreal. Near the end it came out that the person I knew least well had a philosophy of science degree from Cambridge. I got vertigo thinking of her studying, the same age as the lads I was working with a few hours ago, the ones I work with on level one maths and English. Talking politics or identity or philosophy has long been my safe space; dreaming of how the world should be heals me from the painful experience of how it really is. But being there always feels indulgent because its just one more safe space defining my intersecting privilege.

How do I work to make my world of ideas less exclusive?

The first one is simple: every word I read I ask myself how the words will change my life. How they will assist me in the real life world of working towards transformational eco-education. If it means I make useful change, the indulgence isn’t just of benefit to me.

I promise to never say ‘that’s so whats his face’. The only originator of your ideas is you, no matter how parroty you sound.

The more aware I am of well worn paths, the more responsibility I have to find my own. The internet has blown this world right open, we can take whatever path we choose and with some perseverance cross paths with some incredible like-minded people. We don’t have to trace ideas back through published books any more. We don’t have to preoccupy ourselves with where ideas come from. Its not important and from where I’m sitting its becoming exponentially clear it never was.

This one I learnt from the brilliant @teachnorthern
Theorists are our friends. Just like the people who post appreciative blog comments or ask us interesting questions. At college we talk of bell and Paulo, not hooks and Freire. What if Gilles and Felix were really here with us, not heroic but distant fathers we struggle to understand. This is the best tactic I’ve found to democratise academia because you suddenly realise that that well worn path started with just one pair of tracks, which is what every one of us is doing.

My last one is to just push through the fear and share my ideas. So hello internet world, especially #rhizo14 here’s my latest offering. Thank you all for the inspiration.