Strange Times: The Creation of a Community Education Imaginary

Presentation to The Gramsci Society UK, 28th April 2021

Presentation Slides:

A huge welcome from me and the Bowerbird to my PhD lecture (more of him later). I’m delighted to see so many beloved people here. 

My challenge tonight is to express the complexity of the past six years into something that can be understood and put into action. My dissertation is an activist piece of work; it’s also been a life-changing experience in using the brain I was born with.

Firstly, I’d like to share my acknowledgements. I really don’t expect anyone to read all 80,000 words, but I’d like you to know if you got a mention. So many people helped me in different ways at significant moments. Thank you. Here’s the link.

Secondly, I’d like to tell you what I tried to do, that I still couldn’t find a way to say clearly in all these pages and which my examiner Sarah Amsler saw right away. She spelled it out for me at my PhD examination. I wanted to re-imagine community education. I didn’t want that vision clouded by what went before, or what people assumed community education was. There was so much noise and clutter, that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees, nor could anyone. What I needed to do was clear out everything that was obscuring my vision. 

I needed to make the visible, invisible.

Let me say that again. Making the visible, invisible. Often, in social justice research, what we are trying to do is make the invisible visible. We try to hear the voices that others don’t hear – and amplify them – there’s nothing wrong with that, except that they still need to be heard over the noise. And they may be limited by the stuff that we all assume, the untrue limiting assumptions we live as though they are true.

I wanted to make the visible, invisible. So I could see past it.

If I just amplified the invisible voices, it wouldn’t be enough. There’s too much debris to see clearly. Too many memories, words, assumptions, ideologies, books, siloes, structures, processes, organisations, systems, hierarchies, biases. If I wanted a clear sight of the goal I needed to shift them out of the way. I needed to make them invisible just long enough to see what might happen, if they weren’t there. I just needed a glimpse.

So I chose a new set of lenses – or lasers. And I used this laser sight to tunnel a pathway right through to the question I wanted to ask a whole bunch of people. And then I burrowed my way back out. I used the same laser to cut through their words, cut cut cut, like cutting a pack of cards or cutting a sapphire – this way, then that way, then this way…until the new thing is revealed.

Tonight I’m going to present to you what I found. And I’m also going to tell you how I got there. Some of this involves philosophy. Some of it involves concepts that might be new to you and words that might be unfamiliar. I make no apology for that. It’s not ‘jargon’. These are unfamiliar times and we need fresh words and concepts to detach ourselves from the social constructs that bind and blind us. Throughout the lifetime of this research, I have studied nearly every summer at Professor Rosi Braidotti’s Summer School at the University of Utrecht. The first time I went there, I understood 10% of what she was saying but it was enough to keep me coming back. The final time, I got maybe 50%. But that was enough, for what I needed.

I hope that I have the skill to convey complexity with simplicity. To make this project come to life for you, without losing any of its texture. If I can do that, I will have succeeded.

Critical Posthumanism

My laser lens, through which I was going to take a clean look at English community education, was Professor Braidotti’s critical posthumanism, so let’s see what that is. 

Firstly, rather than post-human, it’s easier to think of it as post-Vitruvian. Think about Vitruvian Man, there with all his arms and legs. Leonardo da Vinci loved drawing beautiful men and this one is hench. He’s full of privilege – male, clearly well nourished so there’s some money there, got all his limbs (and a few more). He’s white, he’s assumed down the ages to be straight – that term, used literally, means not deviant from the ‘norm’ in any way. Obviously I’ve put bunny ears around ‘norm’. He was the poster boy of Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, those West European philosophers who began the process of dividing the world up into taxonomies of birds, insects, animals…and humans. Colonisation accelerated here, with a centuries-long deepening of language and society which split us off from one another. Rene Descartes started the fashion for binaries – mind/body, nature/culture, man/woman. And, as I’ve learned recently from Emma Dabiri, ‘white’ was intentionally invented as a term to break the natural solidarity between black- and white-skinned workers in the plantations of America, in 1661. It’s a social construct.

Enlightenment thinkers believed, to be fair, that anyone could elevate themselves socially through education, but that didn’t explain how to become more male, more able-bodied, more neurotypical, more white. Vitruvian Man became fixed in our global human consciousness as the uber-human, the ideal. And those of us who were different in any way were ‘other’, and – over time – increasingly less than. The Australian philosopher Simone Bignall writes that the furthest away we are from the Vitruvian ideal, the more precarious our lives are. In fact, what she said was, “the closer we are to death.”

I wanted to make the Vitruvian ‘ideal’ invisible, so that I could see past structures and oppressions to the full extent of all human potential, without denying that those structures and oppressions exist.

Secondly, post-anthropocentric means looking beyond the human’s foundational belief that he has mastery over the earth. If that’s true, what a mess we’ve made of it, eh? Luckily, there was a second Enlightenment tradition, one that was much less popular at the time or famous since, probably because it didn’t serve the colonialist purpose. That second tradition comes from the work of Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of the other Enlightenment guys. His God was not a bloke on a cloud, creating us all in a social and biological hierarchy just waiting to be discovered by Descartes and co. His ‘God’ was in fact a life energy that we all share – that humans share with animals, plants, stars, soil, insects, seas, earth. This life energy is pretty much what the quantum school of physics started talking about in the late 20th century. A French philosopher of the 1970s, Gilles Deleuze, got hold of this idea, secularised Spinoza’s god to ‘joy’ and brought him back into public view.

I wanted to bring Spinoza’s joy into my research, by being playful and joyful, and by making human dominance invisible…at exactly the same time as the world locked down, skies cleared and fish swam again in Venice’s canals.

Finding the Question

I then spent two years thinking of a question to ask people. Yes I’m a slow thinker! I knew I wanted to ask a single question of a lot of people, in the style of a mass observation survey. Mass observation started in the 1930s and continued during the Second World War when ‘ordinary people’ were invited via newspapers such as the Daily Express to send in diaries of the war years. You may have seen the Victoria Wood film, ‘Housewife, 49’, based on the diary of a woman in Barrow-in-Furness. I’ve chosen Wallace and Gromit to represent mass observation in these slides, because Ardman Animations Creature Comforts were also a mass observation project – you’ll see them at the end of this slideshow. Also, I wanted this presentation to contain the words, ‘The Wrong Trousers’. 

Two years is a long time but I was entangled in all the visible clutter and struggling to make it invisible. I’m indebted to my posthuman fellow traveller Kay Sidebottom and many others for sticking with me while I knotted myself up in words. For example, for ages I’d caught the notion of class up in my question. Well class is real and has a real impact, but it’s a social construct and for this work I needed to make it invisible…in the end I got there and my survey went out on social media in June and July 2019. I got a magnificent 360 responses. The question was, 

What if you forgot all you know about community education, and imagined it for now. What would it look like? 

Filter Bubble

I wanted to reach as broad a demographic as I could. I wasn’t interested in just hearing from community educators, who would be as fettered as I was with the visible clutter. I wanted to hear from everyone – from Slimming World members in my hometown, to loved ones, to my son’s friends, to people from my previous careers in health and community work. I most wanted to hear from people whose life experiences had been different to my own, with whom I did not share identity characteristics. I had limited but reasonable success with this…I’m very aware that the word cloud generated by the demographic statements looks very much like me. Not the RAF bit.

By now we’d reached 2019 and my final visit to Utrecht. I’d had a small stroke six months earlier and I needed to slow myself down, so I travelled by overnight ferry and spent my days on the deck of a houseboat, writing and thinking. I couldn’t take in any more information. I had to let it all maze around in the back of my mind before I started writing up. Here I discovered the ‘slow ontology’ of Jasmine Ulmer, the intentional pausing of Leigh Patel and was reminded of the waves and pauses of Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment, my practice of 25 years. And how glad I am that I did, because amongst all the turbulence of the world we moved into a pandemic and the need to make the visible invisible in order to think the unthought and imagine the world anew became even more pressing. In July 2020 I released the question again and ‘Take Two’ provided a valuable post-lockdown counterpoint, with a further 40 replies. 

A Nomadic Affirmative Ethics

Before I move on, I’d like to talk a little about ethics. Here is where the Bowerbird came in. He fulfilled two purposes in the research, along with becoming my companion species over six years.

Researchers among you will already have clocked that I didn’t fit myself into any pre-formed methodological box – how could I, when those are also part of the constructs I wanted to see past? But it took me years to reach that level of confidence, to realise that I didn’t have to have off-the-peg, I could construct my own couture methodology on posthuman lines. Jasmine Ulmer helped immeasurably with this, but it took a lot of time. 

Same with the ethics of the piece, they couldn’t be a ticky box or the whole endeavour would be wasted. My ethics are nomadic, and affirmative by choice. Let me unpick that a bit. Four years ago, when I left the college I worked for, I left behind adherence to anyone else’s rules for life and work. My life’s work is equality and becoming freelance – a nomad – meant that my guiding values had to come from within, in pursuit of that. That’s how I have chosen to live and work and the Bowerbird, if you like, became a metaphor for my conscience; he sits just in front of me here, a constant reminder to work on my self-awareness and check my actions – my work choices, my practice, my relations with others – will this further equality in all its forms? Choosing an affirmative ethics comes directly from Spinoza’s joy and helps me reject cynicism – yes I’m still critical of the structures, processes and hierarchies that create inequality, that’s why I’ve worked so hard to make them invisible. But critique – which is everywhere around us – is always against the status quo and often doesn’t move us on. I wanted this to be activist research, which reaches beyond the confines of the academic process. You’ll judge for yourself how far I achieved this. It does make the ethics chapter of my PhD pretty chunky but if you’re interested, I’m always happy to share. 

The Bowerbird

By last summer, I had all the material and I began to work with the Bowerbird to cut it. Again, this was not a bespoke process. I had, I think, 45,000 participant words and I wanted to do them justice. In the real world, the blue satin Bowerbird finds his mate in South Australia by creating a gorgeous bower at mating time, not to live in, just for fancy, and he decorates it with all the blue shiny things he can find – the detritus of human life such as straws and bottle tops. I used his bird’s eye view to pick out all the ‘blue shiny things’ of the research material in this initial cut, the visions for community education of all those 400 participants who, by the way, didn’t seem to have the same problems as me with making the visible, invisible. The question had worked! The ideas were magnificent. 

A little aside about my blue friend here. It’s the male, of course, with the magnificent plumage but the female has the last word. She views all the bowers while the males are prancing about, chooses the one she wants and kicks over all the rest. And whilst the younger females go for the nicest bower, the older females choose the best dancer! There’s a metaphor for life right there…

Agential Cuts

Back to the material. I was now down to 20,000 words which seemed more manageable. I had to do some work on fading out the visible once more. I did four further cuts – one for values words, which I made into a word cloud and kept by my side. For the final three I applied my posthuman lens. The Bowerbird’s cut had provided me with twelve themes – things like, leadership, accountability, community, place – I colour-coded these (in blue, of course) and looked at each of them with a different posthuman lens.

Firstly, Vitruvian Man. We’ve met him before. This cut was about identifying where in the material inequality crept in. Sometimes it was overt, but more often it was contained in language that betrayed some kind of inner hierarchy of people. There’s no judgement attached to this – it’s how we are conditioned. So I looked for words – the ‘my learners’ that is so well-meaning but betrays paternalism, ‘hard-to-reach’ people is another one (it’s the services that are hard to reach, the people are disowned). The word ‘parents’ and that special inflexion which makes it clear that it doesn’t mean ‘parents-like-us’ but a particular kind of parent, usually one living on benefits. In fact, thinking about who ‘we’ are is a posthuman sort of thing – all sorts of assumptions wrapped up in that one.

Secondly, I took another posthuman concept – rhizomes. For the non-botanists among us (which includes me) a rhizome operates differently to a tree. The tree is the traditional hierarchy and we tend to think of it as a metaphor for life as well as work – the tree of life, roots and branches etc. The rhizome is different. Look at these bluebells here. They and other rhizomes operate from a tuber, which spreads underground. It’s persistent, subversive – sometimes invasive. The original tuber can die or be dug up but patches of bluebells still appear – under the fence and in the neighbour’s garden. They are there all the time, even when you can’t see them. Fred Moten and his pal Stefano Harney refer to this as the ‘undercommons’ – we are all already here, but the visibleness of all the other stuff means we are unseen and – deliberately – as Adrundhati Roy would say, ‘preferably’ – unheard. This cut looked for evidence of rhizomes in practice, ways in which ideas were communicated and repurposed and the potential for doing more of this.

The third and final cut was the figuration of ‘constellations’.  The wonderful Rebecca Solnit writes that, ‘The stars we are given, the constellations we make.’ Here I looked for the ways in which we meet up with one another through the rhizome and across those siloed boundaries that I was trying to make invisible, sharing our joyful energies and giving one another strength to keep doing the work. One of the challenges of writing up this research to meet academic conventions is that practice was emerging even as I was writing. The #JoyFE💛 collective is one example of this – many of you here align your own joyful energy and practice here – another is the professional learning programme #APConnect, which brings educators together outside of their organisations in different ways, not just on projects but on social media around an idea, at events sharing each other’s work. Hashtag activism and so much more, as Sammy White said in her recent OER Conference presentation. This made the writing up messy, and I was blessed to have examiners who understood my research as an activist project. 

I set out to create a community education Imaginary – a joyful remaking of community education in England. I learned that the power of collective thinking is capable of seeing right past all that visible clutter, given the right question and a space to think. Less than 1% of respondents – three people – didn’t see past what we have now. Everyone else – wow. I lived with these words for months and one of the things I will be doing soon is sharing them with the world. You imagined a community education lived both in community places – often outdoors – and online. One which was co-produced, where teachers and students learned from one another. Where families got involved – and companion species! – in initiatives which are democratically run and where the rhizome can flourish. Which makes the most of what communities already have and embraces a social purpose notion of civic usefulness which is not at odds with people needing to work as well as live. If my friend Diana Tremayne is here tonight, she’ll recognise the spirit of Tod College – the work is already underway, just not enough of it.

We’ve done nothing to make the visible clutter go away – it’s still all there and worse than ever. But that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to glimpse the far horizon as something real, not merely aspirational. This is not a utopian project, though it is one full of hope and we need hope before action, or else we’ve just given up.


I didn’t know what the Imaginary would look like, when I started. I probably imagined some sort of action plan, because I too was caught up in the structures, processes and hierarchies that weigh down our thinking, every single day. But it took two rather beautiful forms.

Firstly, an expression of community education values. There are values written into every organisation’s mission statement and many of them are completely worthless – the rhetoric gap would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic. These are different firstly because they emerge from a robust piece of research and secondly because they are designed to be lived. Think back to when I talked about an affirmative ethics and the presence of the Bowerbird which ensures these are a daily practice – he’s there again, look. Through the rhizomatic activist projects which this research has sparked in its lifetime these values will be intentionally enacted. Just not necessarily by me.

The values emerged from the word cloud we saw earlier and from the reading and research underpinning the Imaginary. They are not strictly the ‘top ten’ we see in the word cloud, part of my prerogative, within the ethics of the piece, is to select. ‘Love’ emerges from my supervisor Martin Purcell’s work around professional love and it’s inscribed too, in the way participants wrote about their community education vision. ‘Solidarity’ was ‘Unity’ right up to my PhD viva, but I’d been feeling unsettled since I handed the piece in – I hadn’t been brave enough, despite the rhizomatic flourishing of the Solidarity Thinking Space since early lockdown (if you want to hear more about that, come to the Working Class Academics Conference in July!) I asked if I could change it and the answer was, “it’s your PhD”. It was a relief to go with my ethics on this one and reclaim the word for what we’re actually doing here, standing shoulder to shoulder in our activist constellations.

Secondly, five lines of flight emerged. There were never going to be any easy answers in this Imaginary but we need directions of travel. These are presented as a Padlet, open to all – this is a screenshot but I’ll share the link in chat. I’ve not really launched them yet, that’s a summer project, so I don’t think anyone has started annotating them! Each Line of Flight links through to another padlet. 

You see how the values link in? How will they each be enacted along this line of flight. There’s the potential for several lifetimes’ work here.

Line of Flight 1 – Design and the Practice of Values

Briefly, and most urgently, how do we make the noise and clutter go away? Not just invisible, but disappeared. It’s important we keep doing the work, but systemic change is needed to really shift things. There’s some powerful (and challenging) political work to do in joining people across the ‘lines’ and localism could be really valuable here but all these spaces have their own ‘noise’. Absolutely no easy answers and much more research to do.

Line of Flight 2 – Pedagogies of Care and the Practice of Values

Here, there is some progress. Educators do – still, just – have influence in how they teach and there is a rising tide of interest in pro-social, community and trust building pedagogies of care – plus a body of research, from colleagues in Ireland and beyond, including work by indigenous educators across the world. Here too, there is work to be done around co-production and learning from each other.

Line of Flight 3 – Transversal Alliances and the Practice of Values

This feels increasingly like my work in the coming months and years. Bringing people together in spaces designed to make things happen – activist thinking spaces. Hashtag communities such as the #JoyFE💛 collective, the 2021 #AdultConversations campaign I’m involved in with Jo Fletcher-Saxon and Mel Lenehan and the Working Class Academics conference, plus more formal spaces like Leeds Beckett University’s CollectivEd coaching and mentoring hub are getting there, bringing together educators from early years onwards. If you’re not involved in education, it may surprise you to know that’s not really happened before. The challenge now is to reach even further across the silos that deliberately divide us – into youth and community work, third sector, social enterprises and public health, for example.

Line of Flight 4 – Community Research and the Practice of Values

The message from participants was clear. Communities wanted to set their own agenda, develop their own curricula and programmes of learning. The potential for community research is huge, particularly given the grassroots research drive in further education over the past few years – there is so much expertise to take out beyond the invisible wall. Unlike education policy makers, respondents had absolutely no problem with understanding that civic skills can also mean skills for work, holistically and meaningfully: social purpose ‘employability’.

Line of Flight 5 – Professional Learning and the Practice of Values

This is where my work is right now and it’s so rich. There’s a whole other PhD in how further educators – by themselves – have turned professional learning on its head this year. No more drive-by CPD (or as my friend Sammy calls it, sheep dip). Colleagues have been opening up spaces, dropping in, forming constellations. It’s been a wow sort of year. 

A Praxis Cartography

Before I close, I’d like to say a little bit about my ‘literature review’, because I know there are researchers here who might be interested. Rosi Braidotti asks all her summer school students to read one book or article a week. I tried to do that – though my ‘reading’ was a broad church and often included podcasts and journalism, as well as more academic texts. Books, not so much! I got adept at taking what I needed and developed a real love for chapters in edited editions. My dissertation presents a conventional reference list but I described it as a cartography – a map of my reading which implies an understanding of its genealogy – how ideas change and are developed over time. I love that. Now I’ve done the academic thing, I’ve been developing that concept further into a ‘Praxis Cartography’ and these slides show tonight’s – big hitters like Deleuze sitting alongside my friend Kay as an equal thinker. He’s just a bit more famous than she is yet. And there are Wallace and Gromit, the most famous of all. Citation is politics. Ethics matter there too.

The Undercommons: Making the Invisible, Visible

We live in complex times and the old structures no longer serve us – whatever your perspective the party political mess this country’s in must convince us all of that. To thrive we must be anti-fragile: flourishing despite the turbulence of life, not despite it. Many of you will be familiar with this quote from complete shero Arundhati Roy. I can’t think of a better place to end.