Becky Bainbridge, Francesca Bernardi, Jo Fletcher-Saxon, Fraser Mycroft, Lou Mycroft, Joanna Norton, Jodie Rees, Amber Taylor-Smith, Jane Williamson
Originally published on Working Class Academics (www.working-class.academics.co.uk) in preparation for our workshop at the Second International Working Class Academics conference in July 2021.
When we found one another in lockdown, in a Zoom room called the Solidarity Thinking Space, we also found our voices. Not that we’d been exactly silent before; our number included many outspoken activists. We found that coming together around our shared identity as ‘working class thinkers’ (still an uncomfortable label) enabled us to be unguarded in a way which caused us to reflect on how guarded we’d been before.
The Solidarity Thinking Space, hashtag #SolidaritySpace, is jointly facilitated in a Thinking Environment (Kline, 2020), a set of processes which enable people to think well together. There’s a discipline to it, involving not interrupting one another, listening to generate others’ best thinking and leaving role, rank and ego at the door. We hope to model this process at the Working Class Academics Conference 2021. It has also been the basis of the popular Chai Conversations events, leading up to the Conference.
Our regular Fridays, late afternoon, have become precious unguarded spaces in a world which sees our deep rage as inappropriate (to what? we ask) and aggressive. We may not go quite so deep in public, but we won’t be doing any manipulative role-play either. In our Conference session, you will experience us thinking as our authentic selves and see something of how we gain strength and energy from each other.
We will focus on a topic about which we have much to say, but which hopefully won’t lead to the sort of incandescent outrage precipitated by the mention of Priti Patel (a popular ‘light the blue touchpaper’ moment for us all). Shouty rants still only feel safe in our safe space. We are going to present a genuine Solidarity Thinking Space around the subject of Working Class Voices.
Our thoughts will inevitably flow, because these are experiences that we all share. From the social coding we are subjected to when we say ‘tea’ instead of what we now understand to be the middle-class term ‘supper’ (not two Jacob’s cream crackers and a glass of milk then), to the way society views us when we enact our right to swear, you will hear us rip into the microaggressions experienced by all of us who are perceived to sound like we come from a council estate – because of course, there’s no other way to be working-class. Or the disappointment we feel when we encounter other working-class people who think we’re better than them because of where we live and the work we do, since we occupy liminal spaces when it comes to who infers what, when they hear us speak.
Being told that if we want to succeed we’d need to drop our regional accents has led some of us to be recommended elocution lessons and we’ve all – at some point – been told to talk ‘proper’ by our mams, who don’t want ‘where we come from’ to hold us back. Or the surprise and amusement when people find we call our mam ‘mam’. The times we’ve been told by middle-class colleagues – in some cases, quite recently – that we can’t teach in our regional accents without conveying ‘incorrect’ English grammar to students.
Whether it’s our language structure, swearing, accents or dialect, the message that we need to express ourselves not as ourselves is something we have all experienced. Accents don’t equal class, because some of us do change how we speak to fit in, but bias is manifold, comes at us from all quarters and leaves us in limbo – “stop your Royal speak” one of us was told, outside their local pub. We are too posh for home, and not posh enough everywhere else.
The ‘novelty factor’ of a regional accent is something many of us have been patronised by, being told how ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ we are, whilst knowing that when it comes to the big decisions, our views will be marginalised and not taken into account.
Food is a minefield. Not only is ‘tea’ supposed to be ‘supper’, but we might have our dinner at midday. And a liking for avocados does not actually signify the class with which we identify. We may not move in circles where choosing the wrong fork means social disgrace, but we still feel uncomfortable in ‘posh’ spaces.
The expectation that we should suppress our emotions to be ‘appropriate’ is powerfully shaming, even for those of us racialised as ‘white’ (and we recognise how much more damning this is, for black, brown and Gypsy/Romani/traveller friends on the intersection of class and race). We are expected to work so much harder at playing nice and we are silenced frequently for being too emotional, sweary, common, gobby, outspoken and – yes – radical. The associated shame makes us learn to silence ourselves.
How we look, too, shouts our ‘difference’ from the power-holding norm. We were shocked to encounter our hoop earrings and clothing choices being parodied by photographic artists and instagram filters alike. Shocked, but not surprised. And school uniform is not the equalizer its fans claim it to be, in our experience.
We hope that our experiences resonate and strengthen the people who find them relatable. And if you come along to our Conference workshop, you may even feel empowered to start up a Solidarity Thinking Space of your own.
Adapted from a talk to South Thames College Group staff 11.2.22
I’m here to tell you about a grassroots movement that is taking off nationally in FE – a movement of joy. That might seem a bit surprising for a Friday in February, in a sector which is chronically busy and with educators who must be longing for half term. Our work is so boom and bust and that’s exhausting. Even though I’ve worked independently for five years now, I still feel the rhythm of the academic terms, and I’m always looking for new ways to manage that. The practice of joy I have shared with so many others over the last few years is something I’m finding uplifting and I’m here to share that with you today.
I work on two national projects for the Education and Training Foundation, who many of you will know get the professional development budget from the Department for Education. #APConnect is the national advanced practitioners programme. I also work on its sister programme, Centres for Excellence in Maths, so a shout out to all the maths teachers today! In fact a shout out to all of you. I may be a few years out of college life, but I see you through the eyes of the people I work with, and I know how hard you work.
I also work on another national ‘project’. Nothing that’s funded this time, but a coming together of educators at the very start of lockdown, with the express purpose of lifting the spirits of the sector. Nearly two years on we’re still going, with hundreds of FE educators up and down the country changing the cultures of their organisations through a practice of joy. This morning I’m going to talk to you about JoyFE.
The Theory of Joy
First of all, I want to tell you about joy by telling you what it’s not. It’s not putting on a brave face and pretending to be happy. That’s the sort of toxic positivity that’s all over Facebook and Instagram. Sometimes you can almost feel the pain underneath, the brave attempts at resilience in a world that is incredibly challenging. We have all been through a thing in the last two years and ‘normal’ still seems out of reach.
JoyFE’s joy has surprising roots. When I was studying for my PhD I came across the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He’s dotted throughout this presentation – or, at least, his finger puppet version is. He lived in 17th century Netherlands and he was always in hot water with the establishment of the day, because at a time of religious intolerance he just didn’t believe in a ‘God-on-a-cloud’. He believed that God was in all of us – and in animals, rivers and trees too. He wrote about the joyful life-force we all share, an energy he thought of as potentia. He believed that our ethics should come from within us, rather than be externally imposed by the church or the synagogue, and that we should think for ourselves. You can see how that might be unpopular back in the day. Other philosophers were busy dividing the word up into binaries: nature/culture, man/woman, black/white – and we have inherited their thinking to this day. But Spinoza believed that we could each take responsibility for channelling the pain and sorrow of life into this joyful energy – and do something with it.
In 2019, just before the pandemic, I got the chance to do a TED talk. It was the first TEDx event in my home town of Doncaster, and although it isn’t international TED, it’s a franchise that insists on every detail being in place – that iconic circle is a bath mat is from Dunelm, which probably doesn’t happen in Houston, Texas! With Spinoza in my mind, I chose to talk about joy.
I talked about it as an intentional practice – small acts of microjoys to counter the microaggressions of daily life. It’s alright talking about abstract concepts like this, but you have to put them to work: 1% vision, 99% alignment. Since becoming a freelancer, I’ve tried to live my life like this – being guided by my personal values and ethics about what work I chose to do. It’s a privilege, and one I’d worked hard for; like you I’d served my time in FE and before that in public health community work, always a public servant. It was scary, at first, to say no to work that didn’t bring joy to myself and others. But I was never going to tell people how to teach, or how to serve Ofsted. Plenty of other people were doing that. I go into colleges to help people think for themselves. My work, from the start, was about building community, so that educators could inspire, energise and support one another – pooling that joyful energy and drawing on it in tough times.
Little did I know that just a few months later I’d be putting joy to work in unexpected ways. On 20th March 2020 – my birthday! – I got a call from a friend who was head of teaching and learning at that time, at a big FE college locally – Stef Wilkinson. Lockdown was looming and she said, we have to do something to help people keep their heads up. On Monday 23rd March, when we were all adjusting to the shock of bringing our laptops home and working at the kitchen table, #JoyFE was born.
We started as a hashtag, with a broadcast on Twitter each morning at 7am. People tuned in and joined us in a WhatsApp group, by the end of the week #JoyFE was 20 people strong! Over the next weeks and months, we opened online spaces where people gathered to share stories and ideas, plan new ways of working and ask each other how they were: a practice of care. So that was yet another value we were putting to work. We are still going strong two years later. We run online ‘Ideas Rooms’ and writing groups, four times a week, we publish a digital magazine monthly, we still broadcast (every morning at 7.45am on Facebook Live). We operate as a collective – no money, no organising core – and have come to partner with those national projects, running workshops and mingling our potentia right across all settings and contexts of FE.
We have joined an exciting and emerging landscape of grassroots-driven FE communities: constellations, we call them, because they are not closed groups but open networks where anyone can join, anyone can leave, and anyone can contribute the energy and idea that they have, or listen in from the sidelines. Genuinely, this is Lave and Wenger’s community of practice in action, if you’re familiar with their work. You may already be involved in the #FEResearch movement, or go along to #ukfechat every Thursday at 9pm on Twitter. There are emerging online communities where English practitioners come together, or vocational tutors, or parents in FE. And organisations are seeing the benefit of this way of working, because the energy ripples out. FE has redefined its approach to professional development. Yes, we still need expert-led CPD sometimes – CfEM is brilliant for this though, again, the ‘experts’ are practitioners in the field. But we don’t need those ‘drive-by’ approaches as much as we thought we did. The expertise is here, in us – in you. Professional learning constellations and events which are peer-led and which, crucially, break out from the walls of the organisation and connect educators up and down the country. Not like minds, but like values.
How the national projects fit in is that they provide the architecture for some of this – for example, APConnect runs Festival Fridays, free online workshops some of which are provided by JoyFE, some by the Women’s Leadership Network or other grassroots FE communities such as FEResearch or PDN. In his recent work, communities of practice guru Etienne Wenger identifies a role for projects and organisations as providing this vital architecture – holding the space, providing the admin and then backing right off!
Building Community, Building Trust
I have come to see the mission of this work as building trust. We have massively lost that in FE. With policy change after policy change directly impacting on our work it’s hard to trust the intentions of national government regarding our sector – whoever they are, that’s not a party political comment. Politicians and civil servants have so rarely experienced FE for themselves that they just don’t get it. Yes, we are about GCSE resits and it’s incredibly important that young people and adults have the basic skills they need, to navigate their way through life – particularly those young people who have missed out on two years of ‘normal’ schooling. But that’s not all we are. We provide excellent vocational education, which is grounded in our communities and in good working relationships with local and national employers. And we provide an education for life, not ‘soft skills’ – I refuse that term – but social, emotional and digital literacy, so that they can fulfil their own potential as rounded human beings living in this challenging world.
You know that. But it gets harder and harder. And with all the bureaucracy we navigate, it’s hard to keep hold of an appetite for what matters – yes, the students, but also our own creativity, passion and wellbeing.
There was a brief moment at the very start of lockdown, when organisations trusted teachers. It was frontline staff who stepped up to the pump two years ago and completely re-learned their practice, supported by the fabulous APs I worked with, true agents of change. For a few weeks, before scrutiny stepped back in. And what I see now in many places – and again, I don’t know your colleges – is gobackery. A pull to the old, in a world that has fundamentally changed.
Trust is ebbing away within many organisations and the work of joy – not just #JoyFE but the joy in all of us – is to rebuild that. Dr Christina Donovan is an FE trust researcher. Her research identifies that the first step towards building trust is transformation – a bit of a challenging statement for us in FE. We have been schooled to write ourselves out of the transformation picture, transformation is about the individual student and what they achieve. I’m not knocking that. But we have to do something different in our organisations, if people are to gather around that new idea, thrive and have hope for a better future.
That process of building trust is exactly the same as building community. So those grassroots communities I told you about – and communities of practice which operate within organisations – are a positive step. A word of warning though – we must look outside our own workplaces. Otherwise the same stale ideas just circulate round. We can only learn so much by looking at college’s Ofsted reports online.
The Practice of Values
That’s part of the picture. The other returns us to joy – and to care. To that intentional practice of values: consistent, persistent. Not identifying them via a focus group and pinning them on the walls. Values should be lived, not laminated.
At this point, I invited participants to contribute the three values they consider most important to their work, to a wordcloud (via Mentimeter). Kindness, honesty and respect were consistently repeated, with equality, patience, fairness, empathy, understanding and support not far behind.
I love seeing these come in. And it always affirms for me that, as humans, we want the same things. If I could change one thing in FE, it would be to remove that word ‘outstanding’ from Ofsted gradings, that assumption that we are brilliant in every moment, in every day. Nobody is that, not even Simone Biles! Outstanding literally means ‘to stand out’ – to be so great that you’re different from the norm. That burden of perfectionism is making us all sick.
Imagine how it would be, if our organisations were truly led by these values. Individually, we can’t make that happen. But together we can. And by ‘together’, I mean everyone. I’ve been a governor at Chesterfield College for the last year or so and I’ve seen the fundamental changes that happen to all staff and students when the culture shifts to values first. We’re not perfect. But as a governor I’m seeing the impact of this in the data now.
Potentia and Potestas
Collectively, we have power. And I don’t mean ‘take it to the union’ power or ‘standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square’ power, though there’s a time and a place. Spinoza has the answer.
Writing in Latin, he had two words for power at his disposal.
Potestas – is power as we know it, power (and politics, by which I mean internal politics) as usual. It’s the individual, status, hierarchy. Think of it as the tree, growing straight up, with some of us at the top and some at the bottom.
I’m interested in:
Potentia – where that joyful, activist energy comes into play. It’s collective, energetic, distributed – it happens at all levels of an organisation and spreads beyond its walls. Think of it as bluebells, or lilies of the valley. These rhizomatic plants can be very unexpected. You think you’ve killed them off, then they pop up somewhere else, or across the road, or in the neighbours garden. They are invasive and, fair enough, you don’t always want that with a plant. But invasively, persistently, even a little subversively spreading ideas and joyful energy across FE. I’ll take some of that!
So when I work with colleges and other organisations, I try to create spaces where people can discover their potentia. This is so hard in the noise and velocity of FE life. We are too busy to think. We are too busy to go to the loo sometimes! But even small pauses will let the ideas come flooding in, especially when we think together in community. Finding ten minutes in a day to walk round the block with a colleague, sharing the time, five minutes each, without interruption. Knowing you are not going to be interrupted juices the brain (that’s not a technical term) and calms the heart rate. These thinking spaces have a profound effect on our cognitive and mental health and I can prove that by showing you the read out from this blood sugar app on my arm. Keeping us too busy to think new thoughts, keeps things stale and anxious. At Chesterfield College, we have a 15 minute break every morning when all students down tools and just breathe. Thanks to an idea which came out of a thinking session with our learning mentors, I’m hoping that will be introduced for all staff. Fifteen minutes. Imagine! Of course, there has to be some self-discipline, it would be counterproductive to police people for checking their emails! We have to do the work on ourselves to do the work.
The Values Line
One of the pieces of work we do on the advanced practitioners project is to help APs construct values-led questions to guide their practice. We are at the mercy of KPIs but I don’t believe for a minute that we have to make that as hard work as we do. Paperwork layered on endless paperwork that has built up over years because we are frightened we’ll miss something and experience the big stick. Holding thinking time allows for college administrators to go back to basics and figure out what’s really needed to monitor those KPIs as accurately and efficiently as possible, clearing time for the values work. And put into place pared-down, straightforward systems that work, so we are not responding to endless ‘urgents’. I’ve worked in A+E, that’s urgent. Aside from an acute safeguarding issue, FE is not A+E.
We then take those values you’ve identified today and form them into questions to guide planning and implementation:
What could staff sickness policy look like as a practice of kindness?
What could a reorganisation look like as a practice of honesty?
What could supervision look like as a practice of respect?
If we are going to take values work seriously we need to bake it in (thank you Catina Barrett from The Women’s Leadership Network for that phrase). We can’t just finesse it at the end – that won’t work, just saying words or laminating posters won’t work. It’s inauthentic and also pointless. Those values questions need to be there from the beginning of our thinking. I hope that this wordcloud might stay in your mind today, and that you consider bringing values-led questions to the rest of the work that you do together.
Telling our Stories as Educators
Finally, my friends, we need to tell our own stories. I’m not diminishing the role of the student’s story here, though I do feel we pay more attention to tragic life story Olympics than to outcomes sometimes and that’s particularly true in my heartland of adult and community education.
When I worked on the DfE’s Community Learning Mental Health research project a few years ago, it became agonisingly clear that educators had lost the confidence to tell their own stories, even when directly asked for them. It was almost like they couldn’t, that they’d forgotten how. I knew I needed something colourful and engaging to try and spark a new way of thinking.
Enter The Bowerbird, the last concept I’ll share with you today.
The blue satin bowerbird hops around on the forest floor in his Australian home, picking up the blue shiny things of human detritus – bottle tops, condom wrappers, straws. He uses them to decorate a beautiful twig bower, not to live in but to attract a mate.
Those blue shiny things are the stories of your practice that end up on the cutting room floor. The thank you cards, the chance conversations, the photographs, the celebratory tweets. All the stuff that isn’t needed for the KPIs, when you’re contributing to a Self-Assessment Report for Ofsted or whoever. Be your own Bowerbird. Collect those things and share them – in your conversations, in blogs, on social media, in the college newsletter. Don’t wait to be asked, bring those joys to your practice, alongside the microjoys of kindness, empathy and appreciation that really do transform the working day. This is how cultures change for the better, not a directive from the top, but you finding your potentia, finding thinking pauses and wriggle room, re-finding the appetite for your own creative and values-led practices. Minor gestures which are consistent, persistent, invasive, subversive – just like the bluebell – and which change the culture from within. I know it works. I see it working. And if this lights a tiny spark I can wholeheartedly recommend you listen to the work of Karen Walrond and Brené Brown.
Joyful practice is critical practice. It’s not resilience (laying it on you), but endurance: recognising the challenges of the world and resisting through those small gestures of “I would prefer not to…” And it’s not cynical. As Rutger Bregman says here, from his book Humankind:
A final word on the Bowerbird. Once the female has chosen her mate, the bowers get kicked over and the blue shiny things repurposed for another time, which is a model of sustainability in itself. Incidentally, the younger females choose the nicest looking bower. But the old birds like me prefer the best dancer.
I hope you have felt some joy in yourself reading this and maybe found that tiny spark of potentia within. Karen Walrond says that to be change makers – lightmakers, she calls us – we need to listen for the whispers, but to hear those whispers we need to pause and listen once in a while.
Our joyful mission isn’t about getting ‘likes’ or ‘follows’ for JoyFE. But we are absolutely here if you want to seek us out and share your light with ours.
I was invited by Catina Barrett of the Women’s Leadership Network to rethink my PhD through a feminist lens.If you can bear to read all 80k words, or just want to dip in, you can find the full dissertation here.
I finished my PhD in 2021. It was an interesting experience of theory and activism running alongside one another, feeding each other, and my working life changed hugely during the course of it. It was always forward-facing, so when I return to it now even though the river has rushed by, it still feels fresh. My research was about lots of things, and mainly it was about making the visible, invisible – so that we could imagine a new future – in the case of my research, for community education, but I learned much much more about how to see the world differently.
I wanted to start today by saying to you that the reason why it wasn’t a ‘feminist’ piece of work in the first place – as in, I didn’t choose an off-the-shelf feminist methodology – is to do with where I situated my ethics. They came from within me, rather than being imposed by an externally-constructed methodology: so ‘feminist methodology’, or a ‘critical realist’ methodology etc. That’s the nature of posthuman research – it’s couture. You construct it from your ethics outwards, rather than following the shape of what already exists. If your head is wrestling with that, it took me four years to realise that my original research question was untenable: if posthuman thinking is about making the containers we’re in invisible, in order to see beyond them, how could I even include the container of ‘class’? I had to rethink, and write the containers out of my own research architecture – and that included feminism.
Learning to rely on a personal ethics was a theoretical and practical endeavour. It came out of me studying posthuman thinking from 2015, so let me set that up for you first of all.
Posthumanism can mean a number of connected things so let’s take cyborgs out of the picture. The stream of posthuman thinking I followed was the critical posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti, who I studied with at Utrecht University summer school 2015 to 2019. Braidotti defines poshuman as:
Let me unpick those. Imagine the figure of Vitruvian Man. During Enlightenment times, this David Beckham-esque figure was the poster boy for what became to be seen as human. By extension, anyone less hench, less physically gorgeous…less male, less white – the list goes on – began to be seen as less-than-human. In fact, the (feminist) philosopher Simone Bignall claims that the further we get from the Vitruvian ‘ideal’ in today’s world, the closer we are to death.
Post-anthropocentric means de-centring the human. We share this earth with living things which we have hunted, mined and ravaged to extinction. Posthumanism isn’t just about education, it’s transdisciplinary, which is why we see posthuman lawyers and anthropologists protecting the rights of rivers, otters, mountains and trees, in law. It’s time to stop thinking that humans have all the answers.
So posthuman research means rethinking what it means to be human, and rethinking the dominion humans have over everything else on earth. It means looking at the systems, structures and processes that hold the current inequalities in place. And it means not only finding a way to end the troubles – in this research, of community education – but a way to end the structures, systems and processes that cause these troubles. A useful way to express this is via the concept of ‘monuments and documents’ introduced by Foucault – not a feminist. We need to topple the monument, for any real change to happen. Not just play around with the documents that hold the monument in place.
So all the ‘containers’ had to be placed to one side. Feminism, anti-racism, anti-ableism, class analysis, queer theory – they are structures, systems and processes too. They belong to an externally imposed ethics in every case. That’s why my research was not feminist.
Part 2 – why my research is feminist
My research is feminist, because I am feminist. And because I drew deeply on the work of feminists, whilst holding the space for posthuman thinking. The work has feminism in its genealogy, but not just feminism. In fact academic genalogy is a feminist concept. And because the critical posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti is grounded in her feminist genalogy. She has chops, she used to do the photocopying for Simone de Beauvoir (who did the photocopying for Sartre, but that’s another story).
My feminism is troubled and problematic. Leaving a rough old coal town at 18 for university I ran not towards boys or gigs (well, maybe a bit of that) but towards feminism, to find myself rejected because I was a working-class dolly bird. Down the years I came to understand that the dominant brand of feminism in the UK was white and middle-class. From my outsider perspective, it seemed to embrace female queerness and disability (I’m tentative about this) but had no place for you if you were Black, working class or at any point in your life had carried a pair of bollocks. I’m not sure things have changed much, for many in my generation. I’m welcome in feminist spaces now because I pass as middle-class – hopefully my use of the word ‘bollocks’ in the previous sentence shows you I’ve no interest in passing.
Feminism for me is a joint effort to dismantle the patriarchy and we can only do that in solidarity with all those harmed by it (and that includes men and non-human entities). The Women’s Leadership Network is the only space I occupy which is genuinely intersectional. There are enough people here with a bone-deep commitment to intersectionality and to transnational feminism to make it work.
So all of that infuses the personal, affirmative ethics which guide the research.
Back to those ethics, before I identify the feminist strands of thinking which run through my work. Posthumanism – post-Vitruvian and post-Anthropocentric. The man who was up to his eyes in shaping all of that is the 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (there’s a pun there, he was an optometrist). The next generation to Descartes, who was the guy who separated the world into binaries. Spinoza argued instead for a ‘god-in-all-of-us’, an animate life-force which we share and which we have an equal right to – by the way, this frames much of my work, finding out what happens when we pool that life-force (‘joy’) and put it to work. He was on the losing side back in the day, but his work now is inspiring non-binary approaches to living. Spinoza’s great work, published posthumously, was ‘Ethics’, in which he argued that if “god” was in all of us then our ethical code was too. I embraced this and I’ve lived it for seven years now.
The easiest way to define ethics is that they are what – bone deep – you know are important, your values. And to enact them is to live with integrity. I don’t claim my ethics are feminist, because I don’t hold them up to any yardstick created by anyone else. They are as feminist as I am, which is to say slightly uneasy with that definition, because of how feminism so often is, but committed to resisting patriarchy. And they are feminine; rightly or wrongly my life is socially constructed as a woman. And – thank goodness – many women are beginning to articulate how they see the world differently to the patriarchal hierarchies and structures we have inherited from men.
Cartography and Genealogy
My literature review is a map: Rosi Braidotti defines ‘cartography’ as a political and theoretical landscape; in my research it guided the development of a bespoke methodology and inspired activist projects which ran alongside the research and informed it in turn. What is mapped is the genealogy of thinking. Feminists have always brought bodies back in – into this family tree – in various ways, and being mindful of genealogy means you don’t leave texts without authors floating around. Real people formed this thinking and although I haven’t done a detailed analysis of my reference list, a sample suggests that 50% of sources were women and most of them writing in the 21st century: unlike many of the guys in ‘the canon’. Thinking about how little airtime women scholars got until recently (and how this has been interrupted by Covid even for white middle-class women, feminism’s own ‘Vitruvia’), a picture which is even worse for disabled scholars, working-class scholars and scholars of colour: this is resistance. I politely refused any argument about whether blogs or tweets were ‘academic’ enough (and my supervisors, both cis-male, were always supportive). I’ll give you an example of that – a Twitter pile-on by guys who argued that shame researcher Brené Brown’s work didn’t ‘count’. That’s Dr Brené Brown, a Professor at the University of Houston, Texas, whose work draws consistently on 20+ years of research (and counting).
At the Utrecht Summer School, Braidotti exhorted us each year to read one book a week; if I didn’t manage that I certainly read an article each week and there are 300+ sources on that reading list, constructed over six years. I also worked hard to find perspectives from women and men far from the Vitruvian ‘ideal’, including from indigenous scholars living in settled lands. My friend and posthuman colleague Kay Sidebottom has done some brilliant work to bring these perspectives to the fore.
Citation is politics and I took my responsibility to amplify these voices sincerely. I’ve got a strong social media presence, so I amplified thinkers: from a single tweet to a complex tome (Karen Barad being the hardest I wrestled with). This included the posthuman pals I read diffractively with: writing in, around and through one another’s words in shared documents, discussing on Zoom. If anyone’s interested, Kay and I are currently running a diffractive reading group looking at one chapter of Braidotti’s ‘Posthuman Feminism’ each month. It’s worth saying that not all the women writers on my list would self-define as ‘feminist’ and not all the male writers are completely in thrall to the patriarchy.
Relationality and Constellations
Back to Spinoza, remember that his ‘god-in-all-of-us’ was a joyful energy that we shared with other humans and non-human entities. This makes his philosophy inherently relational and brings bodies and feelings back into play. Braidotti refutes René Descartes splitting of the world into binaries, so convenient as an argument for colonialism: “bodies embrained and embodied brains” makes us whole again and of course for Spinoza and many others there is a spiritual element too, often found in nature, which some feminist thinking is not afraid to embrace. Again, Indigenous and Black scholars such as Robin Wall Kimmerer lead the way on this.
Feminism is not an individual pursuit. Like posthumanism, it thrives in community. We pool our energies in order to put sorrow and pain to work as joy and when we are tired we return to community to refresh: Karen Walrond’s work on activists as ‘lightmakers’ is evocative of this. We are not afraid of the visceral, the emotional, the spiritual. All my work since, during and before the PhD has been about community, but I see community very differently now than I did when I was a locality worker for the NHS. There it was all about parameters, constitutions, hierarchies and power. Now I work with the posthuman concept of ‘constellations’: time-limited, open-bordered, common-purposed communities of difference. For some years I was part of a loose constellation of educators known as the ‘Dancing Princesses’ from a trilogy of books we co-wrote. Men and women in FE and HE slipping out from underneath their institutional KPIs and clearing spaces to dance together, to create new futures. All constellations have their time and last year when I listened to the history of the Dancing Princesses being slotted neatly into some sort of FE timeline, I knew that time was up. Other constellations have, of course, come along.
Potestas and Potentia
It’s time to talk about power. Some women find their power in the natural world, and always have done. This is not inconsistent with posthuman thinking at all. We now know that you can be a thinker and have faith: indeed, assumptions of atheism have prevented Black, Brown, Indigenous and Gypsy women from belonging to feminism for many decades (alongside racism of course). Catina taught me this when we worked together as part of the Network of Equalities Networks.
Feminist power should not be patriarchal power, yet it so often presents as such and it’s hard to call out when feminism is being explicitly claimed, as Black women have found since the 1960s – see bell hooks for more on this. Spinoza comes to the rescue (not in a patriarchal way, since he’s long dead). Writing in Latin, he had two words for power at his disposal:
Potestas – power as usual, hierarchy, individual power, status, the tree 🦚
Potentia – collective, activist power, influence, the rhizome 🌱
(Rhizome is a botanical reference from Gilles Deleuze, a scholar of Spinoza who helped to bring his work back to attention in 1970s Europe. A rhizome is a plant which doesn’t grow up tall like the tree, it finds its own persistent, subversive path, coming up across the road or the neighbour’s garden. Think bluebells. Some posthuman thinkers also like the mushroom metaphor).
Because of how some ‘feminists’ behave, and because not all men support the patriarchy, I have always resisted saying that potestas is male and potentia female but there’s something of the yin and yang about it – socially constructed of course. It’s a different kind of leadership. Potentia is certainly changing things in education, but there’s no chance of the monument falling just yet, sadly – until hierarchical leadership either moves out of the way or changes significantly. Its joyful nature is an act of resistance; putting sorrow, pain and frustration to work in a series of microjoys (thank you Jo Fletcher-Saxon) which are consistent, intentional ‘minor gestures’, to cite Canadian artist and thinker Erin Manning.
A great place to start with Spinoza-infused potentia is ‘Joyful Militancy’, written by Canadian activist and film-maker carla bergman (who uses lower case in spelling her name to de-centre the human and honour bell hooks) and co-writer Nick Montgomery.
Slow Practices of Healing and Care
Three huge influences on my work were the thinkers Jasmine Ulmer, Leigh Patel and Nancy Kline. If you’ve worked with me before you’ll have encountered Thinking Environment practice, where the component of Ease is used to slow things down and cut out the noise. Kline works with ‘waves and pauses’, lengthening silences to move towards truly independent thinking. Patel writes about intentional pausing as resistance and Ulmer writes similarly about what she refers to as ‘slow ontology’; her work is particularly beautiful and I recommend her article ‘Wildflowers’ as an entry point. Slowing down is a practical resistance in the face of capitalism’s noise and velocity, which exists with the intention of keeping us busy so we do not think.
These are one set of practices: the practice of ‘slow’, or ease as we say in a Thinking Environment. And there are other practices – values practices – which relate closely to feminist practices of solidarity, healing and care. I was particularly influenced by the work of Irish feminist scholars such as Maggie Feeley, who works with men as well as women, and whose work – a truly community based approach to literacy – draws on trauma-informed practice with survivors of the notorious Magdalene ‘laundries’ and their families. I don’t need to tell you how closely feminism is tied up with practices of care, always ‘women’s work’, which makes it even more heartbreaking when feminists don’t care for one another. Maggie is part of a constellation of Irish authors and researchers developing practices of care at all stages of education’s lifecycle.
Practices of ease and care are written into my research through a broader practice of values. In fact ten values emerged from the fieldwork – a mass observation survey – as being key. Love is one, care is another. At the Women’s Leadership Network, you talk about trauma-informed practice and that’s certainly catching on as the latest thing across FE. A friend tells me that her inbox is full of emails from private companies selling her ‘trauma-informed’ training, in my experience they often don’t even bother to say trauma-informed what. Words utterly matter when we are trying to think ourselves into the new, which is what we must do to retain hope and energy for the work. Recently, I’ve been using the word ‘healing’, to encompass practices which are essentially feminist: practices of care, solidarity, love, ease and hope in times of collective trauma.
Spaces to Think
The architecture for these values-led practices rests on the consistent, regular, opening of spaces in which people come to share and refresh their potentia energy though the co-production of thinking, writing and ideas. Rosi Braidotti would call these ‘drinking from Spinoza’s champagne’ and the annual summer school provided the same function for me. Usually facilitated more or less in a Thinking Environment, current spaces include twice-weekly Ideas Rooms, twice-weekly Writing Rooms, various slightly more focused thinking spaces such as one fortnightly around social purpose education, and, also fortnightly a Solidarity Thinking Space. This work has taught me so much about open and closed spaces and experience teaches me that any space should be open until it needs to be closed, for the protection of those within. So the Solidarity Thinking Space, open at first, has settled into a closed cohort of people connected via their working class identity, other intersections notwithstanding.
I used to talk about safe spaces, came to love the Women’s Leadership Network for its conception of brave spaces and am now embracing the idea of protection: protecting and protective spaces. Aboriginal scholar Tyson Yunkaporta opened my eyes to the fact that there is no such thing as safety in Aboriginal worldviews. He writes that assumptions of safety places people in a passive role, at the mercy of authorities who may or may not intervene. Australia has of course a disgracefully recent history of ‘intervention’ with Aboriginal families, removing their children to places deemed more safe, in common with the treatment of other Indigenous people worldwide. Circles of protection also go deep into this country’s ‘indigenous’ knowings and the rhizomatic ‘spaces to think’ which informed and emerged from my research also open and close with this connection.
Crucial to these disciplined, facilitated events is the practice of equality. The few rules, rigorously held, include a request for role, rank and ego to be left at the door. The first two are so strongly part of the culture that it’s rare to see the rule broken; ego is harder of course because it requires high-levels of self-awareness to see when it’s in play. Setting the spaces up as both pro-social and anti-competitive (therefore anti-capitalist) communicates a clear expectation that we will do ‘the work’ on ourselves, in order to do ‘the work’. Many ‘feminist’ spaces say that they are equitable, my experience is that the structures and processes that we take for granted actually work against this, until we change them.
I can’t end this talk without mentioning my two companion species, both of them resolutely male. Many of you will be familiar with The Bowerbird. In my research he started out as representing a research principle; that what has most value is exactly that which ends up on the cutting room floor, when all anyone (and their structures, hierarchies, processes) cares about is the data requirements of Ofsted or some KPI. The male blue satin Bowerbird hops around the forest floor in south east Australia, picking up the blue shiny things of human detritus – bottle tops, condom packets, straws. He uses them to decorate a bower he has built not to live in, but to attract a mate. He represents the skill and practice of curation, which has the potential to tell the stories forgotten in FE – those outside the KPIs and the headline tragic life stories – the stories, often, of staff. My curation work with Catina on the Community Learning Mental Health Project which was coterminous with the first part of my PhD showed me that educators had forgotten to tell their own stories.
He became such a visible and engaging symbol of my research that I – and others – began to see him as my companion species. I loved the non-human element and the eye-catching photos. He came to have his own emoji 🦚 Over time, he sort of developed a life of his own – Braidotti would call this a figuration, an actor on the scene. He appeared at conferences and in presentations where I wasn’t present, he took me to Australia, and he became for me a talisman of my ethics, reminding me to ‘walk my boundaries’ and keep myself in line.
And of course, my cat Rooney, definitely a tomcat though not an entire one. I am not sure how I would have survived a very solitary lockdown without his company.
Did it bother me that they were blokes? Not really because neither of them patriarchally oppresses anyone (as far as I know). Though I was pleased to learn that when the female Bowerbird chooses her mate all the other bowers get kicked over (and recycled) and even happier to learn that while the younger females looked for the nicest bower, the old birds like me chose the best dancers! The fact is that feminism isn’t the answer, dismantling the patriarchy is and that needs all of us on board, including people of all stripes, across all dimensions of difference, the needs of the earth and the future and my non-patriarchal Bowerbird and cat.
I would prefer not to…
I entitled this talk, “I would prefer not to…feminist resistance and posthuman thinking.” I am so over any narrative around resilience in FE, or anywhere really. Whatever the good intentions, resilience ultimately places the burden on the victim. I by far prefer ‘endurance’, which recognises that we are all overburdened with various kinds of shit and which implies graft, patience and possibility. This is my kind of resistance, and my kind of activism too – remember Erin Manning’s ‘minor gestures’, JoyFE’s #microjoys. Just raising the hand and saying, no. No to oppression, no to capitalism. That won’t stop a tank in Tiananmen Square, but daily, patiently, collectively it will build a resistance, a different kind of revolution. We are already here and ‘we’ are all we have, constituted by Braidotti as, ‘we-are-all-in-this-together-but-we-are-not-one-and-the-same’ (the best portmanteau word since ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’). This work requires doing the work on yourself to do the work. It requires not rescuing or fixing, but listening while people work it out for themselves, “help is the sunny side of control,” as the writer Anne LaMott so powerfully claims. Potentia driven by posthumanism rather than by any silo (including the monument and documents of feminism) does not seek like minds, rather like values, who are willing to travel together in constellation for a while.
“I would prefer not to…” is described by FE lightmaker Elizabeth Draper as ‘Joyful First Aid’. A quick fix to hold the space for deeper work, it buys a pause to find clarity. Clear is kind. Recently, shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has been considering her position with Spotify, where her hugely successful podcasts are exclusively broadcast. She was protective enough of her life’s work (and that of many others) to take a pause when the Joe Rogan situation broke. And she was piled on, mercilessly, by former supporters who did not allow her this room to breathe and find out the information she needed to make a decision. Pausing is sometimes all we have.
This has been a fascinating experience and I’m so grateful to the Women’s Leadership Network for inviting me, and to you all for coming (or watching, if you’re watching later). I hope my dissertation defence is clear! Not not feminist, just not limited by feminism.
Click here for the cartography which accompanied this talk.