Working in the real and imagined spaces of college education

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Last week I attended the BERA ‘Transitions’ Event and found something surprising which I had hoped for but hadn’t expected – here were presenters who genuinely challenged and who shared ideas and thoughts which weren’t always comfortable but did push thinking forwards.

I’ll dwell on one session – the ‘creative futures’ parallel session – but the whole day was genuinely thought-provoking and, for me,  opened up new possibilities of how we imagine our personal and collective stories and, in doing so, maybe change our possible futures both as individual educators and educators in a college landscape.

Let us imagine, for a second, an educational landscape that is open, both to new perspectives and that has broken the binaries of ‘policy’ and ‘practice’ and instead works in a different space.

A college education landscape which isn’t a series of closed institutions with hierarchical systems which keep everything in a pre-arranged place, but instead a shifting, fluid movement of networks, refracted patterns of thought which can gain momentum and be repeated on a macro level, enacted through shared conversations and storytelling.  Where ideas are shared like murmurations of Starlings, or Lou Mycroft’s ‘constellations’ – flight-patterns that are simultaneously grouped, individual and mass.

Imagine an education that looks like learning itself, constantly loops and swirls and is rarely fixed. Where our individual and collective knowledges and power-geometries can be forgotten, re-remembered  differently and re-told, re-shaped according to immediate need and the prevailing wind.  Maybe college-education would be a better place to try to enact this than university-education; for although colleges are bound to policy and governmental change they are not bound to commerce and business quite like the HEI.

I’ve chosen ‘college education’ as a way to describe FE because, for me, it seems more open, and less vulnerable to being a definition with vast quantities of accompanying baggage – a definition which is boxed in with notions of top-down performativity and which boundaries thinking. College education is also a term which gives space for college Further and college Higher Education to co-exist without becoming exclusive or factional or for the FE bit to swallow college HE whole (which otherwise it will, for shared imaginings of FE may not always include its degree-level teaching and yet this aspect of FE gives us traction and makes a bridge to different storytellings and reaches different audiences).

But, there is something about college education which is more real and holds the possibility of tangible, practical action. The language, and the discipline-specific subtleties of higher education can sometimes muffle and obscure; like talking through feathers – polysyllabics used to obfuscate. See – I did it then. But it’s like listening through the soft muffled sound of many feathers. The language, subtleties and complexities muffle and soften; and sometimes that is helpful, but not always.

College education also has people in it who challenge, think differently and who take risks. Lou Mycroft spoke of how she can be called ‘authentic’ by some HE audiences. Although this is probably meant as a positive by the HE audiences, it detaches and, in a sense, makes her safe; it has been through a latinate process and is part of an old language of power; ‘authentic’.

But Lou works in an in-between space – she enacts her work in her lifestyle and chosen pathway as a nomad without the institution, and if we reduce this to ideas of ‘authenticity’ then the complexities of this self-chosen path and the actual risk and challenge of this becomes all too comfortably muffled.

Alex Dunedin told his story and called for us to re-wild ourselves. The Ragged University is a great thing; it opens up and challenges the notion of education at the same time. There was a personal resonance here; I have, in the past, been poor – live as an economic outsider  and it’s something I’ve been ashamed of. I’ve felt somehow that it diminishes my right to exist in an academic landscape. So, good to have that challenged, again by someone doing – enacting their convictions – using words to communicate but not hiding behind them as shelters.

Alex also spoke of the absolute need for us to ‘re-wild’ our social – if we are to not keep on failing forward to an urban, commercial social world which makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. Again, coming from a rural place it is good to hear the rural not termed as something ‘nostalgic’ or lacking but having possibility as a radical way to consider our social futures.

Peter Shukie spoke of campfire conversations in the digital. Maybe there is a digital rural for us to camp in? Ways for people to share stories and teach each other. And of his sense of the futility of it all as we become ‘salespeople of the internet’.  I share his frustration with the internet but partly, I think, this is because things move and perhaps we need to look beyond the educational internet to the shared worlds out there where people hack stories, break models, bring worlds together through fiction; and see where that looks in terms of how we could use it to bridge educational homes on the internet. Peter spoke of campfires, and localised places to tell our stories. It makes me wonder how these would look in the digital and whether there would be a place for the object – the making of things (tangible things) somehow as part of this disembodied storytelling.

The stand-out from this session was that all three were, although clearly highly professional, adept speakers and educators –  were also unafraid of speaking clearly, and of unsettling. And unsettling is a positive – if we live in our comfort zones then we cover ourselves in word-feathers, afraid to navigate the complexities of our different worlds.

Perhaps we need to find new imagined places to live in and be unafraid to use our pasts to shape our futures. To re-wild our imaginations as well as our social; to look at rural as critical space and college as radical space – or at least at both with the potential to become these things.

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