Becoming Nomad

Nomad 9

I celebrated one year as a nomad pretty quietly in May, drowning in undergraduate scripts as I had for many years previously, so that nothing in that moment felt different from before. I wanted to write something to mark the anniversary, then the summer happened and it didn’t get done. But I did a lot of thinking and now I’m writing this, for myself really. I’ve learned that being happily nomadic means finding little anchors in time, moments to pause and make sense of the experience through as many lenses as I can gather. I’ve learned, too, as my friend Liz taught me years ago, that thinkers really are our friends. I write the map on a daily basis, but I take each step diffractively, breaking new ground because of other thinkers behind and around me. If you can understand it deeply enough, play fast and loose with it enough, theory supports you.

Fast forward three months and I’m mixing with the brightest of the bright at Rosi Braidotti’s posthuman summer school in Utrecht (so great to be back after missing a year). The theme this year is Posthuman Pain, Ethics and Endurance: Living an Anti-Fascist Life. This has been me, for the past fifteen months, trying to live an affirmative ethics, an anti-fascist life. When I’m asked to present an aspect of my work to the Pedagogies Panel, I decide (eek!) to talk about my new career as a nomad educator.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not incapable of complexity. I love the discipline of wrapping my head around complex thinking; after all, my idea of a holiday is not Ibiza (well, maybe it also is) but Posthuman Summer School. But I can’t live complexity, I can only live simply, so my attempt at making nomad life real involves distilling complexity into some form of workable essence.

Deleuze runs through my life like words through a stick of seaside rock.

Nomad 1Before I was a nomad, I was a teacher educator, for many years, and the teachers I worked with taught adults, often in non-traditional settings: drugs workers, prison tutors, trade union tutors, nurses, communities, family support workers. My team worked with a social purpose pedagogy, infused with posthuman thinking after Kay Sidebottom and myself came back from Summer School in 2015: if the first thing fascists seize is the curriculum, they weren’t having ours. The hallmarks of our work were slow pedagogies – pro-social, community building (1), supported by digital structures of engagement: a community of praxis which reached far beyond the walls of the institution to draw newness in – and an intentionally posthuman curriculum (2).

An effective pedagogy, by any ethical or instrumentalist measure. Within the bubble of the classroom, we all thrived.

Nomad 2Posthuman thinking compels you to question the structures and systems which close in on the bubble: the interests of potestas (3), the ‘law’ (scrutiny, hierarchy, management). Once you start looking, you can’t unsee. What happened with me is that, slowly, the organisation stopped being ‘the work’. The work became the organisation. Hierarchy asserted itself and the posthuman moment arrived: the pull of  potentia drawing me beyond my limitations. It was time to go.

I expected to be frightened, on the outside, so I asked myself what I was frightened of. It turned out that nothing was as scary as potestas in the form of a perfectionist (4) culture imposed from above (Ofsted (5)); an education system where ‘outstanding’ was the required norm. The euphoria of being released lifted the fear of having no salary and something glorious happened: the community of praxis swelled up to support me and offers of good work flowed in. Where values are shared, ‘networking’ pays.

Nomad 3So far, so capitalist. But I wasn’t prepared to be an ‘educational consultant’ raking in the cash. I’m a Deleuzian nomad, trying to live a daily practice of affirmative ethics, in a pestilent setting which, nonetheless, brings me great joy.

Adult education in England is characterised by an exploitative (6), managerialist, scarcity culture which has led to a demoralised workforce where fear, stasis and obduracy abound. To paraphrase Bergson, the sector is petrified, predated by its own infrastructure and the sharks of ‘improvement’. Despite ten thousand mission statements (perfectly reflecting the expressed values of advanced capitalism) its ethics are corrupt. Pedagogy is nowhere. Students already failed by the sausage-factory school system take endless resits and rotate through apprenticeship after unwanted apprenticeship. Lifelong learning is bitterly absent, and England is full of poorly-prepared plumbers (I’m a plumber’s daughter, so this bites).

Nomad 4So the fascists already hold the curriculum and my little teacher education bubble was just that, a tiny, isolated constellation. What’s the job of a nomad in a world like this? It’s certainly not taking on commissions to help adult education providers “get outstanding at Ofsted”.

I began thinking about the potentia of nomadic work to find new lines of flight, to deterritorialise spaces claimed by the machinery of state, however briefly. Since 2015, I’d been getting to know other educators who also hadn’t got cynical; we referred to ourselves (informally, rhizomatically, tongue-in-cheek) as Dancing Princesses (7), after a book some of us had been involved with, and we gathered princesses along the way. I figured that my work should be amplifying (and diversifying) those networks, generating potentia energy and smoothing out ‘spaces to dance’.

Nomad 5It took me a while to climb out from under conventional ideas of what a career should look like, to establish legitimacy for myself. (Thankfully I’m too old to worry what anyone else thinks about me). Stumbling across a research methodology based on the Australian bowerbird shifted me to another plateau (8). Suddenly the players were assembled and the fragments of what I was trying to do locked into place onto a plane of immanance (at least that’s what it felt like). The satin bowerbird (9) creates its beautiful structure to attract a mate, decorating it with (usually blue) objects. As Tess Brady writes, to create an ethical career out of shiny blue things requires “nerve, a good eye and a lot of know-how.” Realising that with the tax breaks afforded to the self-employed (10), I didn’t need to be greedy, I began a daily practice of ethics: walking my boundaries, as it were, in order to try and live a life of radical transparency. It is at once the most difficult and the easiest thing to do, especially when it involves turning down work, and I am grateful to the continued practice of the Thinking Environment (one of the slow pedagogies, also a peer coaching technique), to keep me grounded in my own ethics.

Nomad 6

Nomad life takes discipline and I don’t always get it right. I dither over decisions and take too much on; I still end up working punishingly early mornings, overdoing it and sleeping all day but I’ve no-one to blame for that now.  Rosi Braidotti’s rule of thumb is that a good career is two-thirds potestas to one-third potentia. This has been a useful guide and certainly helps me balance paid and pro-bono work, as well as map where my influence is strong. Staying on the move and outside of power relations takes energy and there’s no sick-pay safety net in self-employed work so I have to keep rested and well; in many ways (not least being released from the sickness of perfectionism) this move has been good for my health.

Sundays I’ll rest up if necessary but more often I’m getting ready for the week; working across constellations takes some thinking about (11) and there’s usually housework to be done. Mondays I run five Slimming World groups, my bread and butter and the best public health work ever (12). Tuesdays, I count my cash (13) then I have three days to work on whatever constellations are live: digital community building, professional development training, Thinking Environment coaching, public speaking, lecturing, mentoring, community development, (minimal) meetings, policy work – and the rest. Fridays are for writing – education journalism, academic articles, an ebook, for my PhD – and I go to a co-working space to escape the tyranNomad 7ny of my increasingly untidy home. Saturdays I take my mum shopping (14). All held gently in a web of social media engagement so that I’m constantly thinking diffractively, re-walking my boundaries moment by moment.

The concepts I’m working with are familiar to all students of the posthuman: rhizomes in the form of constellations of praxis, de-accelerating the manic velocity of advanced capitalism with slow pedagogies of joy and hope (15). To guide my daily praxis, I seek out what I forgot to forget, not trying to mend or rescue but, with others, to do something new, in pop-up spaces which we briefly smooth out. I’m guided by a belief in ‘enough’ and it’s working, to resist the apocalyptic demon of scarcity thinking.

I’m not saying this work is better. I’m saying this work is my work. It’s still reactive – a dilemma I Nomad 8face at the moment is that to truly bring newness in it’s looking like I need some sort of organisational vehicle (16). I can’t piggyback forever and I can’t always work (formally) alone. Of course this feels like reterritorialisation and I’m pondering how to make that happen without becoming incorporated – in the UK even a social enterprise gets weighted down with potestas and before you know it you’re sitting in meetings every day. I’d certainly be living my best life if I never had a proper job again: in fact I think I’m unemployable as I’m allergic to any hint of ‘line management’. I still can’t drive past an Ofsted school banner without feeling sick so unless things radically change I’ll never work in education again (17).

Complacency is a real and present danger – Bergson’s petrification – and the pull of reterritorialisation is strong; it takes energy not to be drawn into power relations. A diffractive practice (readings, conversations, social media) helps me focus on newness: after all, the whole point is to change systems, structures, assumptions – everything. To shift into a post-Vitruvian, post-anthropocentric world.

There is so much potential for working with others – human and non-human, within and outwith formal education structures. I see the balancing of constellations as ‘tending to the vines’ (18), permeating institutions and forming relationships with those princesses on the inside who want to create spaces to dance. In the future, who knows? Next year marks one hundred years of co-operative education in the UK and perhaps a Co-operative University could sit at the heart of this rhizomatic world. It’s a compelling thought and one to keep thinking. In the meantime I’ll keep smoothing out and dancing along.

EDIT: For the sake of transparency, since we can’t escape (yet) living in a capitalist world, it’s important to say that I had no rich parents, no contributing partner, no savings behind me (in fact, after raising a child alone for 20 years I had debts). I remortgaged my house, cashed in an insurance policy (both privileges) and with what I had owing from my former employer, I made it work. To use business parlance, I broke even after six months. 

Nomad 10

(1)  Thinking Environment, Community Philosophy, Restorative Practices.

(2) Here is my take on a posthuman curriculum and here, more usefully, is Kay Sidebottom’s.

(3) From Spinoza: potestas = hierarchical power, politics as usual/potentia = the campaigning spirit, the vital politics of change.

(4) See Brené Brown’s work on blame, shame and vulnerability: consequences of perfectionism (‘Daring Greatly’).

(5) Public education scrutiny, UK-style.

(6) Zero-hours contracts, more teaching hours, less pay, infantilising ‘line management’, remedial approaches to professional development, that’s just the staff.

(7) Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. (2015) Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London. Trentham Books. See also same editors, (2017) The Principal: Power and Professionalism in Further Education. London. Institute for Education.

(8) While shopping online for perfume. Strange but true.

(9) Irritatingly, this is the male bird, although the imaginative researchers who came up with the concept are all female (Australian scholars of creative writing): Tess Brady, Pam Greet, Helen Lillecrap. After my first ever presentation about the bowerbird, I was delighted to learn from a Tasmanian colleague that the female selects the bower of her choice, after which all the other blokes’ bowers get kicked over.

(10) Yet another way in which advanced capitalism replicates itself.

(11) I could write a whole other blog about how to balance lots of constellations which would basically boil down to a) do what works for you visually and b) use Trello.

(12) If you’re surprised by this, that’s great. I love it when that happens.

(13) A lifelong socialist (whatever that means these days), I never thought I’d be nostalgic for old-fashioned, non-advanced capitalism: a direct transaction of exchange. And shopkeeping.

(14) This is a whole-day endeavour.

(15) Read bell hooks.

(16) For two reasons. One is because not everyone will contract with an individual. The second is to bring new people into the constellation.

(17) At least I’m not a hypocrite. I don’t care if I’m at the top, bottom or middle of a hierarchy, I don’t want to be enmeshed in those power relations.

(18) Botanically inaccurate. Vines have a single root, they are not a rhizome.