finding joy in difficult times

For #ukfechat conference 2019

Starter kit: Nottingham UCU Joyful Militancy session (2.5.19)

We are living through extraordinary times. I’m known for not relying on the words of dead white men but Gramsci, a visionary who wrote from a prison cell, always inspires. His ‘interregnum’ was of a different time but I think we are similarly trapped between the old and the new and, in particular, between old and new thinking. Now I’ve started looking for them, I see and hear binaries everywhere. I’ve come to be allergic to them!

In the words of my good friend Rob Peutrell:

When times are bleak, how do we keep our professional spirits up, our integrity alive and our solidarity intact?  How do we resist being turned into assets in conveyer belt systems as education is diminished by marketing and messaging?  How do we stay true to the idea of education as an affirmative, transformative practice?

Note the collectivism implied by the word ‘solidarity’. It was long held to be a truth and a Good Thing that once the classroom door was closed, what happened within was between teacher and student. Learning walks put a final nail in that coffin but that individual space had been eroded for a long time, practically and mentally as our practice became increasingly bureaucratised. Yet, still, we operate largely in isolation from one another, as individuals, organisations, FE contexts, education sectors, public service, humanity. This is no accident, but a deliberate policy of capitalism to divide and rule. This session aims to demonstrate how, if we ‘only connect’, we can change the way we think and work. 

So here we are, on a grey Saturday in Manchester. Everyone here is committed to being an advocate of great practice in #FE or you wouldn’t have made the effort to come. But we all know that not all our colleagues – at any level of hierarchy – feel the same. Many are demoralised  – by their working pay and conditions, by the reductionist ideology that has cut the joy out of much of our education system, by the compliance practices of organisations: inhuman resources. They become obdurate – and I can see why. They fold their arms. The philosopher Henri Bergson called this ‘petrification’: they are turned to stone. 

In the midst of all of this, we have lost the ability to tell the stories of our practice. With the loss of staff rooms to accommodate more ‘bums on seats’ we don’t even tell them to each other any more! We can tell the ‘tragic life stories’ of students, because for twenty years we’ve been told that’s all that matters: not professionals but agents of transformation, i.e. it’s not about what we do, it’s something of the magic of FE itself that effects transformation. Rubbish. Let me tell you no-one with any influence on policy is interested, apart from as a convenient soundbite when they are challenged on widening participation. Transformation happens when a determined student and a skilled, professional teacher encounter one another on a field of play that is not too strewn with obstacles to navigate. Those are the stories we need to tell.

Writing the stories of practice back in to the public domain brings a new element to the relationship between teacher and student. Once more, we are in it together – equal as thinkers but in different roles. This enables a shift away from the infantilisation that has crept into FE, that well-meaning but paternalistic sense of ‘helping the less fortunate’. If you haven’t come across it already, check out think tank Nesta’s work on Good Help and ask yourself, is it good help or bad help that FE provides? (sorry, don’t like the binary but it’s not mine!)

I would like to explore today how we can bring joy back into our professional practice. I can’t take those great big boulders away that stand in your path. I can share with you some of the ideas and practice that sustain and energise me and many others. To do that, I’m going back to an even older and deadder white guy – Baruch Spinoza, Dutch philosopher of the 17th century. 

Spinoza didn’t see joy as the ‘everyone deserves happiness’ meme of the 21st century. We are sold the happiness myth by an economic system that wants us to a) be envious rather than collegiate with the people around us and b) buy more stuff. He saw it as relational – joy comes from our interaction with others, from communication, solidarity, empathy, respectful disagreement and the creative tension of new ideas. The prerequisite to this is humility and an openness to being wrong, to learning something new from someone with a different experience and world view and consequently feeling something different in the world. That’s so alien to everything we see around us in everyday discourse which is much more binary – us/them, left/right, leave/remain, all carried out by taking up a position and then defending it, what Bernard Williams (male, dead) called a ‘fetish of assertion’. A living bloke to read on this is Richard Sennett, his book ‘Together’ promotes a more ‘dialogic’ approach.

And so researching joy I found a collection of ideas from Nick Montgomery and carla bregman, still very much alive. Their book ‘Joyful Militancy’ translate’s Spinoza’s notion of affirmative ethics into a politics of now. 

I’d love to do a book like this for FE and at the launch of a project I’m involved in yesterday – #APConnect – we seeded this idea. Where is the affirmative practice in FE – practice which balances criticality with fresh thinking? What’s the impact of such practice? How do we tell one another about it? How do we tell the world beyond our silos? Policymakers? I know it’s out there, because people tell me about it. I very much see my job now – and that of others – as enabling spaces where people can learn to publish these joyfully militant stories of professional practice. 

I’m trying to live all this stuff. Two years ago I made the decision to free myself from organisations and operate as a nomad, working in different constellations of practice, doing ‘Good Help’ and moving on. I can be more safely critical in this space, including challenging people to dig deep into their courage (by en-‘courage’-ment) and find affirmative ways of enacting their personal ethics. 

Along the way, I find fellow travellers, not people who ‘think like me’ necessarily (why would I want that, if we are searching for new stuff) but who share enough of an ethics to journey together some of the way. I also found a philosophical lens that prevents me from slipping back into the silos of my own old thinking and that’s posthumanism the Rosi Braidotti way – a way of thinking that comes directly from Spinoza. 

I see theory as an energy drink and theorists – thinkers – are friends to me, challenging my thinking and keeping it sharp and moving on, just as critical friends do in the here and now. Posthumanism looks at Vitruvian Man, which established centuries ago what it was to be truly ‘human’ (and in charge of the world) – white, male, able-bodied, almost certainly affluent etc, the David Beckham of the time. Those of us who are not all of that, ie most of us, are immediately ‘less than’ – and society, culture, policy, practice forms around that. Posthumanism imagines not only what the world could be if ‘Vitruvian’ was decentred from ‘human’, but what it could be if ‘human’ was decentred from the world – but that’s for another time. 

What Rosi is saying here is that if we can create constellations of practice – ‘planes of encounter’ – which actively work at all the voices, not just the Vitruvian ones – ‘composing a missing people’ – we will come up with solutions that address the complex problems of now.

(The problem, of course, with posthuman writing is that an activist practice, an anti-fascist practice in my view, is communicated largely in academic terms which exclude that missing people! So that’s a challenge).

So after that important digression, I’m drawing on bell hooks to check us in with now and she is all about community. bell totally gets that ‘community’ is formed of numerous, often conflicting, views, identities and experiences – that’s what forms community, not the bland ‘groupthink’ of organisations and ‘politics as usual’. That sameness makes us risk averse, it’s almost dystopian. If we take chances, we are going to make mistakes, not easy in a ‘dominator culture’ where outstanding is the norm and perfectionism makes us ill – see the work of Brené Brown if you need evidence of that. What we can do – the ones who get out of bed and get here on a Saturday morning – is smooth out spaces where others can learn to dance.

So it’s time for us to stop being ‘preferably unheard’. Many of you here will be familiar with the #dancingprincesses movement in FE – many of you are part of it – writing our voices back in and throwing down the ladder for others to join us. This is a How To/Why To movement, affirmative, playful in its metaphors, taking a critical view yes, but not forgetting the practicalities too. We are philosophers of praxis, but we can’t congratulate ourselves too much when our panels, our contributors, our delegates, our reading lists are Vitruvian. I had a joyful day yesterday working with 50 people who are or will be the freshest voices in FE and 96% of them were white. I’ll leave that with you.

In fact, I’ve just given you a lot of why, so let’s move onto the ‘how’. For me, this way of living and working, whether you’re part of an organisation or not, has to be centred around your own personal, affirmative ethics in a Spinozean sense – a daily practice of checking in with yourself and relating with others – whether you like them or not – in a manner which is congruent with this practice. I’m going to be brutal now – if you have irrevocably lost hope, you have no place in education, except as a student, because there’s no way that won’t work itself into the DNA of your teaching. Most people haven’t and you certainly haven’t or you wouldn’t be sitting there now. 

Spinoza’s ethics, as we have heard, are relational. I played the Lone Wolf card for years at Northern College but it’s ultimately sterile. Figure out your own ethics – not your organisation’s code of conduct, or your political party’s manifesto, or your religion’s creed – and enact them in every interaction you make in a day, every day. That, pretty much, is what I do. It doesn’t make me good, but it makes me authentic and means that no-one can take ‘me’ away from me. 

So this (I think) is how to find joy in difficult times – not just find it but co-create it, work with it, drink from it. 

I have to finish on another dead white man – Spinoza again – twinned with Gramsci in my mind as a man before his time. 

This battle is not just for FE, not just for the public sector, not just for the country’s dignity and self-esteem, it’s for the earth. I have chosen to believe this is true. 

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