“To change the conversation, we have to change who is part of it”

Why A Working Class Academics Conference? Because we need a celebration, not an apology

Tuesday 14th and Wednesday 15th July 2020.
Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

On a blustery, cold winter night in Blackpool we got back to the car after walking the illuminations.  A bit shattered and glad of the warm, by chance I happened across a radio show by a brilliant woman that led to this website, this conference and the creation of this brilliant group of academics, students and thinkers of all kinds.

The woman on the radio was Rachel Gibbons and she talked of her experiences in academia as a working-class person; of imposter syndrome, and not belonging in the world of academia, its distant accents and cultural conventions;  of a Jonah Complex, the rejection of success that necessitates becoming part of some other world, something invisible but that stripped us of our identity in return for a new form of academic success;  and of the often traumatic, emotional turmoil that ‘getting an education’ meant.  I felt every word, it resonated, and we listened attentively, not a word was spoken in the car as Rachel’s reflections stung, burned and then warmed the soul. 

This chance encounter over the airwaves triggered a punctum, a drawing back from the now as I whizzed through the decades of learning and struggle and realised how much class defined almost everything – and still does.  Yet it remains undiscussed all too often. 

Just as the People’s Power House recognises, the necessity for respect, diversity and to be heard is too often missing when discussing working class communities, people and experiences.  This is no less true in academia where a working class background can be something to hide and deny.  We intend to reverse that and make something powerful and assertive. 

Most of my life as student, boy, adolescent, youth and adult has shaped my direction now as an educator.  Having been marginalised, outside and dismissed because of class, I know education offered me both a way ‘back in’ – but was also the place that made me deeply aware that I did not fit.  Listening to Rachel that evening, I realised I had let all of this slip away, allowed the domination of philosophies and theories of others cloud my own experiences and those of the people I work with.  Every time I shared the podcast it triggered deep conversations, with colleagues, my students, friends.  These experiences of being outside, lesser, ill-fitting were so common. I heard academics talk of research in which working class students were ‘sniffed out’, and where university academics were fearful of being ‘outed’ as working class.  Articles encouraging working class academics ‘to come out of the closet’.  There is a reduction of working class heritage and lived experience that strips it of any power, value or worth.  In academia, the encouragement is not to come out but to see working class is a past we acknowledge only when we want to demonstrate how far we have progressed’This was not my experience, nor that of so many academics I spoke to that that considered their experiences as working class academics as powerful, culturally rich and the ways they defined themselves and their academic work.  The pressure to only see this as a starting point and a thing to be concealed, a shamed past, was not what came through.  Many conversations inspired this conference, notably the writings in Kit de Waal’s anthology ‘Common People’ and conversations with colleagues across the UK.  The sense was that we need to begin with a celebration of working class academics, not an apology or a mass shaming. 

We needed a conference – or at least a different type of conference that did not begin with the conventions of exclusion, the practices of an academia that see working class as a condition to be cured, but only for the few.  This is that conference.  Once spoken aloud, it was clear so many others have felt the same, laboured under the expectations of a diminishing of where we come from and toward ‘the light of a middle-class salvation’. 

The conference begins with the recognition that we are continually stripping the brilliance of the working-class communities, relocating the poets, writers, thinkers, academics, researchers, artists, educators, designers, sociologists, scientists, mathematicians and other professions considered the domain of others, of another class. 

This conference is different, and I am looking forward to working with all of you as a collective, to find different voices that recognise working class spaces not as places of deprivation, of poverty and unending misery.  Nor are they places of utopian idealism and beauty.  They, like everywhere else, are complex, rich and contested places and it is here we can reveal what that means for those of that have moved into academia. 

This is a conference about voice and place, not the draw to the centre of a class-bound academia but the recognition of distributed expertise.  We argue that you do not need to leave to achieve.  This is a line in the sand, a significant moment where we establish that working class academics bring something essential to the way we create knowledge.  This is not a request for patronising recognition but an assertion that strong, purposeful research is as likely (if not more) to come from academics with working class heritage that it is to come from elsewhere. 

I am Peter Shukie, I am now a doctor and focus my work on exploring what ‘education’ is, the complexity it brings and the ways that my working-class background have been at odds with it most of my life.  I was awarded the 2019 Festival of Learning Award for Social Impact.  I work with students as we look at how education can be made vital and real in their communities. Still looking at the thinkers that shape the academic discourse, but testing them by applying them for real, in active projects that seek to make a difference.   I created a digital platform to take learning outside institutions, COOCs (Community Open Online Courses) provides a place that recognises everyone can teach, and everyone can learn. It focuses on doing this for free and by empowering everyone to have the responsibilities and the rights to be an educator.  We prove that education, excellence, depth of reflection and positive active knowledge creation happens everywhere. 

The conference follows a similar principle in being a collective, where we all as speakers and delegates create the conference.  The fire and the drive to make this happen comes from being part of a conversation in which we all get to speak our experiences and revitalise the concept of class not as deficit but as inspiration. I look forward to hearing you, supporting you and being empowered by you as a working class academic – something we do not correct, but that we celebrate.  We will be in the inspiring surrounds of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, a fabulous venue in which the successes of those outside the cities is clear to see.  We hope you can join us, to speak, discuss, present, sing, perform, exhibit, display or simply get involved with others. 

Please follow us on Twitter at @AcademicsClass

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* These blogs are a collection of thoughts and opinions from people living or working in the North. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the People's Powerhouse.




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