Another representation

Following is the text of an email I wrote to Angela, a Journalism student from Taiwan who is, for one of her courses, writing a story about the Social Science Centre for her student paper. After circulating it to the discussion list for comments, a few people suggested that I post my response for a more public reading. I hope it makes a decent one.

There has been some good discussion on the list and in our physical meetings about how we describe, explain and otherwise represent the SSC, our own roles within it, the kind of work we are doing, the project(s), the ‘we'(s). I hope this will contribute something to that debate, at least by way of being another representation to evoke further reflection.

Hello Angela,

I’ve sent your request out to other members of the Social Science Centre, so they may reply independently. I’ll try to answer your questions from my own perspective, but if you want to talk about anything further, please let me know. I’d like to say at the outset that these are my own personal respsonses to the questions — at least where I don’t quote from the Social Science Centre website. It’s important for me to emphasise this because we are a group of people who are trying to work collectively at all levels. Within the group, however, there is a lot of diversity, so different people may answer the questions in different ways. Some of them are in fact still questions that we are discussing and debating amongst ourselves. So the one thing we do like to say is that no single person can represent the Social Science Centre in its complexity, and that each person offers one representation, their own (though often one forged through lots of discussion with others).

1. What is the main point that the teachers set up The Social Science Centre, Lincoln?

The Social Science Centre was established in early 2011 by a small group of academics, mainly social scientists, who were concerned about the British Government’s decision to both withdraw all public funding for teaching in the social sciences, humanities and arts, and to raise student tuition fees nearly three hundred per cent to, at present, a maximum of £9000. They were concerned that it would become difficult or impossible for many people to undertake study in these disciplines, and indeed that some young people (and many older people wishing to return to university) would be unable to pursue higher learning at all. One major reason for establishing the SSC, therefore, is to provide some way for people who wish to study social science but who cannot pay the new fees, do not want to or are unable to take out student loans, or are not particularly interested in learning towards a formal credential to be able to do so.

Alongside this, however, is the need that I think many educators feel to work with students and to  teach and learn in creative, cooperative, non-authoritarian and non-bureaucratised ways that are not always possible within universities today. The increasing financialisation and marketisation of universities in this country and around the world are altering what higher education means, what knowledge is for, and how people learn. In some institutions, ways of knowing and learning that are not economically efficient or profitable in different ways are marginalised or prohibited. Languages of critical education, critical pedagogy, are often silenced where discourses of ‘employablity’ become dominant. And the worth of education — of different universities, courses, schools of thought, methodologies, teachers and students — is now often measured through quantitative metrics such as league tables which encourage competition rather than collaboration between all of the above.

So, we are working both against these negative trends in education, which lead towards tying knowledge, research and higher learning to the needs of capital and to the already-powerful, and towards the creation of alternative forms of critical and cooperative education in our own locality.

The Social Science Centre is very much a ‘situated’ or local project; it is based in the city of Lincoln in the UK, and our hope is to be as active as possible across the city itself — in community and social centres, museums, public spaces, spaces that should be public. However, we are also inspired by and in contact with other people working on other kinds of alternative higher education projects in other parts of the UK, and overseas.

For a selected things that have been written about the SSC to date, see The Stanistreet (2012) article might give some background; the Burgin (2011) may give a hint at historical precedents and histories of radical, autonomous and/or cooperative education.

2. When is the exact time that the courses start? And how will it carry out?

We are planning to begin courses in October 2012. This will work slightly differently from a typical university course, in that the first weeks are likely to be spent discussing the concept of each course and negotiating its main themes, structure and curriculum. There are also likely to be different kinds of courses — running in the evening, or on weekends, or perhaps in other blocks of time, depending on the needs and desires of those who are involved in them. Prior to this, in the summer, we’ll be organising workshops and seminars around the ideas of curriculum, cooperative education, pedagogy, and other issues that are relevant for our work, and for developing deeper understandings of both our work and  the context in which we are working. There is a sense, I think, of needing to learn to learn, and build to be able to build. There is a mindfulness within the Centre that the sort of project we are imagining not only requires commitments of time and energy from those involved, but because it is in many cases very different from what we and others are used to, it also demands a lot of learning along the way. It also means that we need to look at who in the Social Science Centre, and who in society, actually has ‘time’ and ‘energy’ to do this sort of work on top of other kinds of labour, and to think about how we distribute labour fairly and increase possibilities for everyone to participate in a meaningful way. So while classes will begin in October, the process of their development precedes this point in time, and will overflow it as the courses and the Centre develop. I, at least, am looking forward to being taken in not-yet-imagined directions as they do.

3. How does the institution operate in the situation that students don’t have to pay the fees?

As it is not an institution as such, we have a lot of flexibility in how we operate. The Social Science Centre runs mainly on the energy, commitment and generosity of its members. None of the people teaching are being paid for our work. Scholars have different reasons for volunteering their time. Some see it as an intellectual or social and political responsibility; others are in positions, for example being retired, where the need for such payment is not so acute. Members of the Social Science Centre, whether they are student-scholars or teacher-scholars, are encouraged to contribute to the cooperative if they feel able to. We recommend a sum of one hour of a person’s monthly wage (e.g., if a person earns £6 per hour, they are invited to contribute £6 per month to the cooperative). This money is then used for materials, paying for spaces to hold classes, purchasing library cards for students, or the like. But this is a voluntary contribution and does not affect anyone’s membership rights. As an example, it costs £5 per hour to hire a space in a local community centre. It costs approximately £5 to make copies of a book chapter or article for 10 people. It costs nothing to find paper to write on and pens to write with. Various people in the Centre have other sorts of technologies of their own — computers, printers, etc. – and are willing to share with those who don’t. We are not paying fees to external organisations for accreditation, ‘marketing’ or etc. And above all, there is a wealth of collective skill, experience and knowledge — really in any group that organsises themselves — which, when pulled together and worked with, makes many things possible that may seem not so.

4. How many students will the institution recruit? How is the evaluation now? (Is there many students want to enter to The Social Science Centre, Lincoln?)

We would be delighted if as many as twenty people joined the Centre in order to undertake study and research in the autumn. Because there is a small group of teacher-scholars at the moment, the idea is to start and perhaps to remain small. Thus far, we have had expressions of interest from more people than this, and I think many people are in the process of seeing what the project is about and how it works; above all, whether it’s something that could be meaningful for them. It is likely not to be interesting for people who are focused on learning a formal, accredited university degree. It is likely to be more interesting for people who desire a cooperative, non-instrumentalised, non-hierarchical and really alternative kind higher education, and who want to participate actively in making such opportunities possible for others. That being said, there is no either-or relationship between this and formal university studies; I have spoken to some people who plan to undertake both simultaneously.

Personally, I’m hugely excited about the project. It offers space for me to teach and to learn with others from a diversity of social positions about the insights of sociology, philosophy and education  that I believe to be of deep significance for engaging critically and ethically in the social world. It is already also a type of space where we can learn to reinvent our relationships with each other; to cultivate ways of working with others, speaking and listening, thinking and producing in ways that are not profit-driven, competitive, bureaucratised and precarious.

This is not an easy process, of course; a brief glance at the history of autonomous and cooperative projects in education, ecology and politics will give an immediate indication of the contradictions and difficulties. But for those who believe that the present organisation of society and many of the current ways of defining and organising higher education are themselves unsustainable, the alternative should be to work towards something better. The Social Science Centre is part of this wider project, and speaking personally, it has already opened up new windows of possibility.

It might be a nice idea if you wrote back again in, e.g., November, or in January, to see what’s happened since today.

5. Please help me to find some students who want to enter to the institution. I would need their opinions.

I have sent your request out to a number of people. If they haven’t replied to you, I will try to contact them again.

I hope this is helpful for your report. I’m sure you don’t need this advice at all, but you should of ourse try to find some critical questions and comments about the Social Science Centre, in order to broaden and criticalise the perspective. There are a number of really pressing debates in general about the notions of ‘collectivity’, ‘cooperatives’, ‘autonomy’, ‘radical education’, ‘critical pedagogy’, and etc., as well as problems of social inequalities, representation, hidden hierarchies, the role of the university in society, the meaning of higher education, and etc. Any of these would be worth exploring; they are all issues and problems we are discussing in the Centre.

All best, Sarah

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