Welcome to the Club

Brené Brown’s definitions of belonging (“be who you are”) and fitting in (“be like everyone else”) frame this blog (Atlas of the Heart, 2021).

That’s a provocative title for me to choose, because those words strike me with as much horror as they did when I was teenage me, accepting that I’d never be part of anyone’s club. I didn’t understand, then, that I was also choosing not to fit in, that ‘fitting in‘ means being like the other people in the space. I was never really prepared to compromise on that.

But I always wanted to belong and that wasn’t really on offer either. I was happy in our little family of four, but there was never a time I didn’t also know I was ‘the adopted kid‘ to my dad’s folks, an othering that played out in some quite unpleasant ways. At school, I was always on the periphery of friendship groups, both yearning for and rejecting them.

I didn’t understand that my belonging was not in other people’s gift. I thought other people had to grant me some magical key to the door. It took me a long time to figure out that I needed to take responsibility to belong to myself and that was quite hard to figure out as an adopted person because I wasn’t at all sure who I was. I know that’s a bit of a RuPaul soundbite statement (“Can I get an amen?”), but that doesn’t make it less true. Took me years and the building of new relationships to do that work on myself and it wasn’t until I was doing some thinking in preparation for this blog that I realised that it wasn’t an unfixability in me that was ever the issue, the bad guy here is how we are educated and socialised.

I’m thinking about this because with my friend and colleague Claire Collins I’m organising a workshop on the subject of belonging at the Women’s Leadership Network #YouToo22 Conference on 31st March 2022 (tickets still available). Belonging in the sense of ‘belonging with’ a group of people (rather than individual attachments) came so late to me that I’m probably a bit of an expert in unbelonging, in a lived experience sense.

I’ve been fortunate in my 50s to find belonging, both with a ‘birth’ family of familial and non-familial kin and within a friendship group which was born at the same time and in the same intense moment as the collective movement #JoyFE💛 I can remember a warm evening in Edinburgh during the Festival in 2017, sitting in a big room with friends and family, in my dressing gown, everybody chatting, windows open to hear the sounds from the street, not really joining in, just thinking: so this is how it feels to be part of something.

I realise as I write how much this experience helped me understand why I’ve spent much of my life resisting labels. Labels, I’m thinking now, are a false belonging. I know they mean much, to so many, and I am not being disrespectful if that’s the case for you. I have been there. I am writing personally and somewhat painfully about me. I remember that desperate clinging on – to a political standpoint, an identity characteristic – a diagnosis. I’ve done all of that, and the latter I really noticed during my short tenure as a slimming consultant (I didn’t fit in there, either). I noticed how women self-limited around a diagnosis by using the word “my”*. Emphatic, final. Confident, even: the most confident I ever heard them sound. “I can’t do that because my fibromyalgia. I can’t do that because my mental health.” I realised, in hearing this repeated echo, that I’d been exactly the same. Sometimes I couldn’t do the thing, no. But sometimes I actually could.

I self-pathologised because I was afraid to step into my power. My potentia, as I’ve learned to call it, using Spinoza’s distinction of joyfully activist potentia from power-as-usual potestas. That took energy, it took self-responsibility and it took courage. Far easier to tell myself (and the world) that I was too damaged to move. I atomised my identities down to the ones where I felt most broken and in doing so I made even less effort to belong. Over time, I began to see the lonely road I walked as inevitable, as a badge of honour, almost. Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to connect with others around our shared brokenness, so I never belonged to those communities either.

Maybe that’s why, when I encountered Spinoza and his affirmative personal ethics I was ready to hear the whisper of something more joyful and leave the tragic life story Olympics behind. Spinoza made himself deeply unpopular in 17th century Holland, because he believed that god was in all of us, not a remote being sitting transcendently on a cloud. He believed that the life-force in all of us was an energy we could pool and share (and not just with humans). And in this way, we could channel the pain, sorrow and despair of everyday life into a joyful activism: potentia**. Spinoza’s times were as turbulent as ours, so he knew what he was talking about.

Potentia rests on us each figuring out what our values are – ethics being the sum of these values and integrity being what happens when we’re true to them. An affirmative ethics is one which plays out in joyful practice: potentia. Navigating our lives from the inside (ethics) out, rather than via a cacophony of externally imposed ethics, is where potentia is at.

But it’s not where society is at. I heard the other day about a five-year-old being sent to the ‘Regulation Station’ in school, because of some sharing infringement. School uniform and toileting activities are monitored like never before in secondary schools. FE students are exhorted to ‘be professional’. The Society for Education and Training has just published a code of ethics for FE teachers. We impose compliance and control in the name of behaviour management across all contexts and settings of education. Yet when are we ever taught to explore our own personal ethics? Values are everywhere, for sure; laminated and stuck onto walls but are they actually lived?

These are cultures of ‘fitting in‘, not cultures of ‘belonging‘. The message we all get from the education system is “be like us.” Don’t, for goodness sake, try to be yourself.

What might education look like, if we created cultures of belonging which began with enabling people to identify their personal ethics? If that was part of induction, for students and for staff, revisited regularly? I’m not suggesting anarchy; there can still be guidelines, with transparent rationales, where we can all understand the reason why and we buy into it because we understand it, because it resonates with our own ethics, because we are given the chance to belong and because belonging, inevitably, builds trust (check out the work of Dr Christina Donovan, FE trust researcher).

I visit a college regularly where every classroom has a sign saying, “Don’t sit on the floor, it’s not professional!” I can imagine my reaction to this as a 16-year-old. But if the sign said, “Please show respect to others by not sitting on the floor outside class,” then yeah, I could hear the echo of rightness in me, it would be a much bigger step for me to transgress. It’s an appeal to my ethics and that’s always powerful, especially when I’ve had the chance to work them out for myself.

Our workshop will hand over to you, so that we can explore together practical ways to build a culture of belonging (and trust), working from a personal ethics outwards. In #JoyFE💛 we call these #microjoys💛 – small and intentional acts of affirmative potentia which challenge the macroaggressions and cynical assumptions of everyday life. Follow the #YouToo22 hashtag (and check back here) for inspiration and to add your own.

*I didn’t hear men do this. But then, there weren’t many men.

**This is exactly the thinking behind the collective movement #JoyFE💛

Solidarity Spaces and Working Class Voices

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.

The Practice of Values: Joyful Resistance in FE

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. 

#JoyFE

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.

Lightmakers

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 would prefer not to…” Feminist Resistance and Posthuman Thinking

Women’s Leadership Network Wednesday Webinar 9.2.22

The Bowerbird Presents..."I would prefer not to..." Feminist Resistance and Posthuman Thinking (image of blue satin bowerbird felt toy hanging from a leaf of a healthy plant)
Opening slide

Part 1 – why my research is not feminist

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.

A figure of Vitruvian Man, a finger puppet of Baruch Spinoza and the words 'post-vitruvian' and 'post-anthropocentric'

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: 

  1. Post-Vitruvian 
  2. Post-Anthropocentric

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. 

A
ne

Ethics

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.

The word
s ‘

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. 

Values
of th

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. 

A bower
mad

Companion Species

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.

An unfond farewell to 2021

Wow 2021 was tough, wasn’t it? 2020 at least had the occasional frisson of excitement, big moments when it seemed the world might change…2021 for me – and maybe for you, if you’re reading this – was digging deep, finding the fundamentals of what matters and holding tightly onto them, in the face of…so much. So much! I’ve had bigger years, and deeper sorrows, but my word for this year has been ENDURANCE. Recognising what’s in the way and holding on tight, while we figure out which hills are worth dying on – and which are not (yet).

This year I’ve watched in appreciation and awe the endurance of those around me. And through the emotional courage of my son I have learned that nothing is more important than being awkward, brave and kind (in the words of #BreneBrown).

The small rituals of daily visits to Little El, morning broadcasts (all those times I wanted to get back under the duvet), regular #IdeasRooms and not fearing vulnerability each time I post in brave spaces like #JoyFE💛

And the rewards? Deeper connections, strength to channel sorrow and fear into joy, learning to love myself and others deeply in the process of holding on…joy is a practice and yes, so is hope, walking the tightrope between naivety and cynicism, figuring out what I can do and what I can’t.

And at the end of the year I celebrate community and also difference, I celebrate the latter with cartwheeling joy. And I have never believed quite so much in my purpose, or in love.

So as the year turns, I will be celebrating the people who came (back) into my life and those who are determinedly still there. I might still be a bit of a lone wolf, but I am deeply connected.

This New Year’s Eve I will be sending tipsy messages of love, knowing that they are reciprocated a million times. New Year’s Eve is joyful precisely because we feel the losses and sorrows so acutely. Put that joy to work, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Wishing you hope, health, wisdom and joy in 2022 ❤️

📸 @beinvauxhall

All Things #JoyFE💛

All things #JoyFE💛 – what we’ve learned from a year of joyful practice.

Presentation to Coleg Ceredigion/Coleg Sir Gâr Festival of Practice 28.6.21

📸 Matt Barton via Unsplash

Bore da, good morning.

Two years ago I was here at the start of your Culture of Curiosity, your research journey. Since then, Coleg Ceredigion, Coleg Sir Gar have become a beacon for so many other learning providers. A beacon of how things can change when educators get involved in making change happen.

I’m here today to include you in another joyful remaking of education, if you’d like to step inside. #JoyFE💛 is trying to change education as a whole.

I’m not selling you anything, because no money changes hands in #JoyFE💛 I’m not pushing a power agenda because there’s no hierarchy. I’m here representing a growing collective of individuals who are all practitioners in FE. We are all part of the same landscape of change.

#JoyFE💛 is a groundswell of FE educators who think that education can be more than it currently is. It’s not a talking shop, in fact sometimes we think we don’t talk enough, because we are too busy doing! 

We also deeply believe in our own agency – we can change things. In fact, we are the only people who can – no use waiting for the cavalry folks. It’s not a party, unless everyone’s invited, as my Google coach friend Sammy White says. So, as I take you on a journey of #JoyFE💛 don’t imagine us as a group of ‘others’. Keep hold of that open invitation in your mind. 

#JoyFE💛 started on 23rd March 2020. I’m sure you won’t have forgotten that was the day the whole country went into lockdown for Covid-19. My friend Stef Wilkinson, who was Director of Learning at Barnsley College at the time, called me and said, we have to do something to keep people’s spirits up. We agreed to broadcast live on Twitter every morning at 7am, to help people start their day. We used the hashtag to invite people along.  And #JoyFE💛 was born. 

I’d already been working on a practice of joy. When I left Northern College in 2017 after nearly 20 years I’d promised myself that instead of chasing outcomes – e.g. “I want to earn X amount in a year” – I’d be guided by my values in a very practical sense. People who don’t like what I’m about often call me naive or ‘airy-fairy’ and I am absolutely not. I’m a pragmatic, working-class Yorkshirewoman who has always had to graft and continues to do so. My values had to be lived and enacted every day.

This was working out for me. I was making a good living by my lights and was able to do interesting volunteer work too. I’d done a TEDx talk back in October 2019 called An Ethics of Joy and people were taking a real interest in values-led practice and ethical leadership. (That red ‘TED’ square is a Dunelm bathmat by the way. Only in Doncaster!) #JoyFE💛 has been a brilliant expression of that work. 

So how do you practice joy? Well, it’s about making a choice – quite simply to practice joy – then aligning everything to that. 1% vision, 99% alignment. I’m not talking about toxic positivity – chasing individual nirvana by pretending to be happy all the time. Joy is not what we own. It’s more than an internet meme or those big letters from Ikea. But after 16 months of Covid I guess we all realise that now. 

My joy goes back 350 years, to 17th Century Amsterdam, where the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza is grinding spectacles lenses to make a living. Spinoza managed to get himself kicked out of every religion going because he just couldn’t make himself believe in a god on a cloud. He believed in the life force of the universe, the love and emotion and energy that sparks between us when we are in community with one another and in the world. I think many of us really get that, after last year, even if we didn’t before. That energetic joy of being in a space with other people who care about what we care, the peaceful joy of an ideas-creating walk in nature.

Don’t worry, I’m not going all woo-woo. I’m not religious myself, though you’re welcome to yours. But, encountering Spinoza during my PhD, I immediately fell in love with his philosophy. I’m a people person and I believe in what people can do.

This last year has been about community. We’ve all felt it – that surge of love for the NHS, for our neighbours, for families and friends we’ve been unable to see. That warm and fuzzy feeling when we are in community together? That’s joy. When our work is recognised? That’s joy too. When we are given appreciation which is sincere, specific and succinct? Joy. Out in nature? Also joy.

#JoyFE💛 is about aligning our practice to our values, in order to joyfully remake education. It’s not about accepting the status quo. We are critical when the need arises, but affirmatively so. Not cynical, negative or bitchy. In his book Humankind – which is wonderful, by the way – Rutger Bregman describes cynicism as: 

Cynicism is a gift to those in power, a legitimisation of hierarchy and inequality. Because if we can’t trust each other, then we need them…today it’s an act of defiance to believe in the good of humanity. Cynicism is out, hope is in.

What is further education about, if not a belief in the potential of humanity? Another thinker I admire, Rebecca Solnit writes about hope as being not a lottery ticket you sit on the sofa and clutch but an axe you use to break down a door. So we have do the work. And by doing the work we can sometimes (re)discover our own power.

Here’s Spinoza again. He was writing in Latin, back in the day, and this afforded him the chance to use two words for two different types of power: 

Potestas: power as usual, status.

Potentia: activist power, influence.

That energy I talked about, that shared life force, is potentia. Far from being some crystal ball woo-woo, it’s an expression of power. A world changing one. And this is a changing world.

We – the workforce – are powerful, but we’ve forgotten this and no wonder, after being prodded and scrutinised for 25 years, never good enough unless we are ‘outstanding’ all the time, told the only thing that mattered was the bottom line of learner achievement and KERCHING KERCHING. As educators, many of us choose not to buy into this, hence the endless exhausting effort of subversion.

In getting involved with #JoyFE💛 educators found communities of strength, support, inspiration and care which enabled them to do brilliant work in challenging times. #JoyFE💛 created spaces in many different media which invited people to explore joyful practice. This was about sharing rather than resources – sharing ideas, practice and hope.

The early broadcasts were soon viewed by tens, then hundreds of people. You’ll recall that after two weeks that felt like two years, it was the Easter holidays. By this time, we had a WhatsApp group of 20+ people who wanted to be part of this new movement. During that Easter some combination of us met every morning at 9am.

By the end of that two weeks we’d published our first #JoyFE💛 magazine, pretty much in the format you see today (link in chat). None of us had ever done anything like that before. It was an instant hit and over the months that followed we were able to welcome in guest writers. Welsh colleagues, already getting used to talking about their practice, were quick to support. Glenda Dowdell Thomas, I don’t know if you’re in the room but you were one of our first. In the pages of the #JoyFE💛 magazine you’ll find that critical but not cynical approach I talked about before. We believe that every educator has something to contribute to the joyful remaking of education. Everyone is invited to write for us although, having got ourselves organised recently, we *will* ask you to stick to our word counts or the whole thing gets too chunky.

That extraordinary period of creativity also inspired the Ideas Rooms. Many of us who initially came together were familiar with a set of practices called the Thinking Environment. You may have heard of this, and if you haven’t yet, I think you will soon. Thinking Environment practices are about enabling the conditions for independent thinking. They are values led, so they work with our mission of joy. In a Thinking Environment, values are literally enacted through facilitation. This can be applied to work with groups, individuals and pairs. That Easter, we created a new application of the Thinking Environment, our very own bootleg, the Ideas Room, and that’s what people most tend to think of when they think of #JoyFE💛.

In an Ideas Room, tiny seedlings of ideas are nurtured in a safe but stimulating space, which allows them to grow. You don’t need to come with an idea, you can bring the generous gift of your listening – you’d be amazed at how many lightbulbs you’d have. Ideas Rooms are magic. We run public ones every Wednesday at 8pm and Fridays term time at 9am and people float out of them like they are on a cloud (link in chat).

There are lots of things we can be as the #JoyFE💛 of the future. We’ll soon be part of an ITN documentary (don’t get too excited it’s not The One Show). We’re writing a JoyFE💛 book. The magazine, the curated Twitter account – which is a different voice from the sector every fortnight – the Ideas Rooms, the hashtag community #JoyFE💛, will all continue. And now we broadcast on Facebook Live every term-time weekday morning at 7.35am.

Where does this fit with your Culture of Curiosity here at Coleg Sir Gar/Coleg Ceredigion? Well, we have joined a broader community of FE educators doing it for themselves. Last year, the Association of Learning Technologies mapped the hashtag communities of FE and #FEResearch was right up there, as was #JoyFE💛 only a few months in and also #APConnect⭐️ a government funded programme in England that I also work on. Together we have been the engine rooms of change in these most challenging of years. We have called out how the world needs to change and we are not prepared to slip into ‘go-backery’ – a fabulous term coined by Jennifer Thetford-Kay of Shipley College – and yes, making sure we cite each other is part of the work. Before was not so great, that we can’t learn different ways to be. 

By not buying into the negativity of conventional cynicism we keep ourselves – and the people around us, including students – buoyant. Every day we dig deep into our anti-competitive practices of joy, care, solidarity, openness and equality. It’s worthwhile time because it keeps us fizzing and focused through tough weeks and months. It takes tenacity and discipline. It is perfectly possible to have both sound ethics and far-reaching outcomes.

We are not alone in this amazing ecosystem of practitioner-led professional learning, but we are leading the rest of education. It doesn’t exist in Universities and doesn’t really exist in schools, with the honourable exception of Early Years. And isn’t that funny, because alongside ourselves, Early Years has long been seen as some sort of Cinderella service, the afterthought. #JoyFE💛 and your Culture of Curiosity form part of a potentia landscape, which kicked off in 2015 with the publication of FE and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, the first in a trilogy of books which reject the notion of the FE workforce as downtrodden Cinderellas. Sometimes the book can come first. Dancing Princesses rejected the old cynicism in favour of a collective approach – those princesses who escaped their captors every night and danced till their shoes were in ribbons. We create our own spaces to dance now.

FE is changing. The pandemic has helped with that of course, because we’ve had a taste of being trusted to get on with things and we want to keep hold of that. No gobackery!

We’ve also learned to tell the stories of our practice and these are narratives of hope. Along with the #FEResearch movement and associated #FEResearchMeets (which I know you had here a week ago), the original Thursday evening #UKFEChat and other constellations like #AdultConversations, #PDNorth etc, educators are singing from the rooftops about their practice. We are podcasting, thinking, creating, writing, co-producing, researching, learning from each other.

It’s not all about #JoyFE💛 and that’s the final thing I want to say. Two years ago, FE was eating itself. Colleges were hoovering each other up and Big Tech was waiting in the wings to pounce. Government policy had driven this culture of competition and it was beginning to take hold within our organisations too. Favouritism was rife across the sector and staff were protective of sharing their practice. Things are so different now. The sharing/inspiring culture which both Culture of Curiosity and #JoyFE💛 is part of is deliberately anti-competitive, intentionally values led. I think it’s world-changing.

Thank you for listening and we have time for questions I hope.

Moving FE Forward Together

My panel input for the C-Learning Event on 23rd June 2021. I’m sure to learn loads. Afterwards, don’t you always think, “Wow!” at everyone else’s stuff?

#FEForward

How has your practice improved and for those around you too? 

Where do I start? The levels of emotional intelligence I have seen in the past 16 months have been incredible. And also the intentional practice of care. I have seen how digital has facilitated relationships and enabled the conditions for independent thinking.

What does effective blended learning look like in design compared to traditional face to face and edtech integration?

It has the potential for relationship building, agency and independent thinking. The basic assumption that learning only happens when human beings are sitting in front of the teacher has been blown away. Asynchronous learning gives everyone the opportunity to discover different and powerful ways of learning, partly by being thrown back on their own resources, less passive. 

Synchronous vs asynchronous – best practice and learnings?

Synchronous – Thinking Environments, simple practical acts of discipline which build trust and community and enable independent thinking. Asynchronous – shared online spaces where people can learn alone and in community, bags of potential for social learning and co-construction but quiet times composting too.

Peer-to-peer connections and collaboration and how this can improve the learning process?

Before lockdown, decisions were often driven by the assumption that people would cheat if they had chance to work together. The last year has blown that out of the water. Peer-to-peer collaboration – transparent and ethical – builds trust and self-belief through the development of time-limited community: constellations. This is the revelation.

How can we support and coach others to improve their practice rather than just usual training and CPD?

The clue is in the question – coaching, but maybe not in a conventional sense always. Informal peer coaching has punched above its weight last year, in particular the Ideas Rooms, developed by JoyFE💛 and finding their way into FE organisations up and down the country. Here, educators come together to nurture seedlings of ideas, inspiring one another along the way.

Have you collaborated with more people outside of your organisation since lockdown?

1000% yes.

Just using edtech isn’t the goal in itself. How do we move forward?

  1. Acknowledging that relationship building is the foundation stone of any learning experience, even if its wholly asynchronous. Witness my 91 year old mum and her Scrabble bot, Zoe.
  2. Realising that we can both work towards outcomes and design our journeys using a practice of values. How is care practised in curriculum planning? How is equality practised in assessment? 

How do we ensure we use tech for delivering a wider curriculum not just subject (creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration)?

Embrace the right – whatever our overlords say – for education to have a social purpose. Begin to work in transdisciplinary ways. Plus the above.

Future Imperfect

Input to Right2Learn Conference Panel 20.5.21

Good evening. I’m Lou Mycroft and I’m here tonight representing the #AdultConversations campaign, which is attempting to channel activist energy into adult and community education. Three friends co-founded the campaign at the start of the year: myself, Jo Fletcher-Saxon of the FE Research movement and Mel Lenehan, Principal of Fircroft College. Jo will be posting links into the chat as I speak, so keep an eye on that. The idea came out of a #JoyFE💛 Ideas Room – a thinking space – and it’s a tripartite campaign. Firstly, we are publishing 52 pieces of writing about community education, one a week for the year, and bringing them together in a publication at the end: 52Weeks52Speaks. Secondly, on 28th June we are running a Big Conversation which will bring people together in an activist thinking space to make commitments to action. We’ll reconvene at the 52Weeks launch in December, where we’ll also announce the winner of the third strand: the search for a word to describe ‘adult community education’, like the Finnish ‘sivistys’ or German ‘bildung’. We’d love your suggestions! The campaign runs for one year.

When we started, we had an aim of getting people talking about adult community education. Well that’s happened – and we can’t claim the credit! But what are we talking about at events like these? We know that adult community education has a dignified history and a lot of high-punching support – that it flies in the face of current ideologies which deny inequality and promote meritocracy. There are good people here tonight who are working on making those messages land at political and policy level, people who have the clout to do so: potestas power. But there’s another kind of power. And that’s the potentia of people who are engaged in activist projects together, playing tag team with their energies, influencing thinking and driving the work in to new places.

It’s time to be more radical, and by radical I don’t mean “more to the left”, I mean radical. The question tonight is not the right question, because the answer is quite simply: everyone. Obviously it’s not as easy as that because our way is cluttered with barriers to equality – hierarchies, systems, processes, assumptions and biases – and the funding silos which limit our thinking. My PhD research attempted to make these briefly invisible, so that participants could see beyond them, if only for a moment. The results were extraordinary.

Given the chance to redesign community education, people ignored the containers that dominate and restrain our imaginations. They saw ‘adult community education’ as embracing yes, the stuff funded by the Adult Education Budget but also youth and community work, adults on FE courses, mature students at uni – many nurses for example – libraries, public health, sports and leisure, social enterprise. The focus was ‘community’ and what we have to offer to each other, based on our own experiences. Community researched, co-created, reciprocal education; held in existing community spaces (including outdoors) and online: all of us as teachers and learners, pollinating new thinking and new and old skills across generations. We’d need a rethink about what ‘teacher training’ is too. 

Clearly, this is a significant project. It’s time to smash open the filter bubble and let go of some of our givens – and our assumptions about who is and who is not vulnerable in these challenging and uncertain times. Let’s hear all the voices! Collect in activist spaces where we are equal as thinkers. Operate not only as the tree, punching up to try and challenge stubborn ideologies but as the rhizome: persistent, subversive, unexpected and invasive. Our gathering point is social purpose education. For example, what could a social purpose employability programme look like? Civic engagement plus a recognition that people want work – work that is meaningful. We’d need to work with employers on that one too and we’d need to open our minds to new funding ideas – they are out there.

That’s just one example. If we can get beyond our echo chamber, beyond the hauntology of yesteryear and actually listen to a diversity of thinking, the possibilities are genuinely endless.

The Practice of Values

#Adult Conversations

I sat down to summarise my research for the second week of #52Weeks52Speaks but something else was on my mind. Any piece of research has to end somewhere and I cut the threads on my Community Education Imaginary when I handed in my PhD dissertation back in October 2020. But it was an activist project from the start and so the Imaginary itself has rolled on past that point, gathering and developing ideas. And I am caught up right now in the idea of replacing structures with practices; specifically practices of care.

I spent several years looking at English community education through a posthuman lens: fresh concepts which enabled me to question the fundamental structures, processes and language of our service(s). My reading, thinking and discussions with others encouraged me to make a new design for my own life, based on regular practices and a personal, affirmative ethics of joy, rather than operating within the framework of an organisation (I talked about this for TEDx Doncaster in October 2019). This approach isn’t for everyone, but as I sifted through the generous contributions of 400 research respondents, I glimpsed how it might be possible to construct education itself as the practice of values.

My research identified ten practice values and five lines of flight for activist projects: values led practices of design, pedagogy, alliance, research and professional learning. #AdultConversations falls squarely in the practice of alliance and it’s a delight to see this activist campaign begin to unfold.

Adult and community education is not without alliances and at a level where people try and influence policy, you do tend to bump into the same people in different settings. We wanted to be certain that #AdultConversations added something new.

Firstly, we are time limited. The three of us – me, Jo Fletcher-Saxon and Mel Lenehan – are giving this campaign our best shot for one year – 2021 or bust. By January 2022 we sincerely hope that conversations spinning out from #AdultConversations will have their own activist energy and that change is happening on the ground…we’ll step away from the helm and be involved then in the projects of our choosing.

Secondly, we are expansive and by that we mean we’ll be actively seeking out people to join the movement from all the tributaries of adult and community education – that means not just further education, not just higher education but all those places outside of education where adults go to learn – third sector community work, the climate change movement, trade unions, youth work to infinity. We’ll build relationships with other campaigns in the same space, such as Right2Learn whose excellent manifesto was published a few days ago.

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly – we’ll practise those those ten values in everything we do: not least, right now, the practice of an ethics of care. We model this in how we three take care of each other, noticing when someone is tired and needs to step out for a bit. In how we encourage others to write for #52Weeks52Speaks, offering a helping hand whenever we can. And when we bring people together for our #AdultConversations Regional Roundtables you’ll notice that our facilitation is focused on making sure everyone there is equal as a thinker.

It feels like the right time to be doing this, while we are all going through it. If my research taught me anything, it’s that people want to work and learn in environments which care not only for the whole human, but for the landscapes and creatures with whom we inhibit this earth. We’ve got a chance to build our little corner of a better world and we’re here to take it.

The Stars Collide ✨

This blog was inspired by this morning’s #JoyFE💛 Ideas Room. I’m writing it, but equal credit goes to Jackie Rossa, Jo Fletcher-Saxon and – above all – Hannah Woolgar, because I wouldn’t have got here without our constellation this morning. Thanks also to the genealogy of thinking which led me to Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s ‘Antifragility’ via Nancy Kline’s latest book, ‘The Promise that Changes Everything’ and onto the brilliant work of Sam Conniff Allende, author of ‘Be More Pirate’.

Caveat: I’ve still got a lot of reading, thinking and listening to do.

The stars collided this morning around all of this and our enduring experience of the pandemic (and everything else that’s happening in the world), plus the posthuman perspective of my thinking and practice over the past few years and a desire to articulate the philosophy I bring to #JoyFE💛 – which is both the place I get my strength and the joyful work of my heart.

I’m reading all of the above, at the same time, plus Brené Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’, which is always pertinent and also timely, as it’s the subject of the #APConnect Reading Rooms on Friday. I’m trying to practice an ethics of joy and care in everything I do, which involves challenging a lot of my own internal narrative.

And I’m seeing a convergence which has so much promise. As I read it, ‘antifragility’ is the counterweight of what Jennifer Thetford Kay so helpfully termed ‘gobackery’ right at the start of first lockdown. It’s a concept which means that not only do we survive adversity, but we thrive on it. It means seeking out and challenging the assumptions, norms, binaries we take for granted and which are enshrined in the monuments and documents of our society so deeply that we believe not only have they always been there, but they always will be. They are held in place by language and by the hierarchies, structures and processes we operate within.

What would it mean to operate out of communities, rather than organisations? Those of us involved with #JoyFE💛 and other grassroots constellations already do both, which creates tension – yes – but also opportunity to find new spaces in which to unfold our thoughts. Here we can recognise gobackery in all its forms and start to challenge documents, in the hope of pulling down the monument. As we said right at the start of #JoyFE💛 we want to do different things, rather than the same things differently.

In the Ideas Room, Hannah was reminded of her time at sea. Seafarers have to be antifragile, since every moment is unexpected. They learn not just to live with that but to embrace every wave. We are in the ship together and we’re not just trying to reach the gobackery of the distant shore. We want to embrace our identity as pirates, sailing on the sea.

Photo by Per Bjørkum on Unsplash