A passerby comes up to my group and hands us a brown paper bag. ‘It’s full of flat whites,’ she says. ‘You looked like you could do with them.’
No one told me how cold it would be.
Or about the amazing conversations I would have.
Or how much I would learn about colleagues that I thought I knew so well.
Or about the colleagues I now look upon as lifelong friends, even though I have known them five minutes.
Or about the random acts of kindness.
Or about the laughter.
Especially the laughter.
I go to bed each night absolutely shattered, even though all I have done all day is stand in the cold and talk and laugh and try to coax a wave or horn-toot from motorists.
‘White vans are the best hooters. Especially Devon County. Then small cars. The most we had was three in a row. The worst are the four wheel drives. Not that this is about stereotypes. When this is all over we’re going to write a paper on it.’
A medical researcher comes out to the picket line to ply us with coffee. She has filled the salad drawer from her office fridge with a cafetiere, a stack of mugs, a carton of milk, plus spoons. A PhD student follows her, carrying a large jug of hot chocolate.
The Abstract begins: ‘In newspapers and blogs, on Twitter, and in academic papers, stories of struggling academics abound. Substance abuse, depression, failed relationships, and chronic illness are the casualties of a neoliberal university sector that values quantity over quality and demands ever more for ever less. Within the academic literature a growing counter-movement has called for resistance, collective action, and slow scholarship.’
Stunning poetry readings by Jane Feaver and John Wedgwood Clarke at the English Department Teach-Out at St David’s Church. These poems about snowdrops and burnet roses are about more than snowdrops and burnet roses.
A third year English student and I get into conversation at the Teach-Out: ‘I’ve been scrutinised my whole life. GCSEs. A levels. All my essays. A really good degree, then hopefully a good job at end of it. But nowhere is anyone saying what it’s all for.’
Prejudice alert: I never knew geographers were so hilarious. Or had such good taste in music. Respect.
‘I think this playlist needs a bit more ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy.’
‘One in four of the students in my department are on medication for depression. This is not an organic problem. They have internalized the values of neoliberalism.’
Speaker after speaker at the Teach-Out, from undergraduate student, to doctoral researcher, to senior academic, both from the platform and the floor, emphasises how tired they are. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. How the system that they are work in and contribute towards in good faith, with love, passion and energy, is no longer serving them as people. They feel forgotten, overridden, ignored. Like my colleagues’ poems about flora, this strike is about so much more than pensions.
A friend and former colleague sends me a text on day 2 of the strike. Her three year-old has just composed her first poem: ‘Click clock gloves in the hock/ Hickety hock birds in a dock.’ My friend continues: ‘It’s something about people being treated with respect and the massive value of education.’
On day 3 of the strike, I read this, before heading out to the picket line:
Plato told us about his teacher Socrates’ view of education.
Socrates was a great teacher – but he didn’t believe education was the handing over of knowledge.
The problem was not that people didn’t know enough -they knew plenty: they were ignorant simply because they were looking the wrong way.
To educate someone, he believed, was to turn their mind round, so that it looked in the right direction. It wasn’t about information…but about how they looked at the world.
Most of our seeing is rather odd, condidtioned by our past. We see what we’ve always seen, our minds too habitual to notice anything new. And new information doesn’t change this, which is why new information quickly becomes stale.
So here’s to fresh looking, fresh seeing today. We shall attempt to observe the whole of life rather than just fragments. We shall look rather than assume.
It’s a higher education.