The Curriculum as a Site of Social Justice

Understanding Nicaragua’s crisis through politics and arts

The Human Geography Research Group at the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with CinemaAttic Productions and Scottish Solidarity with Nicaragua are putting on the following event.

Understanding Nicaragua’s crisis through politics and arts

Friday, 17th May 2019

7:30pm ‐ 11:30pm 

28 Lauriston St, Edinburgh, EH3 9DJ

★✊Scottish premiere of LAS SANDINISTAS! + Speakers + Cancion Protesta: Songs from Latin America and Food from Nicaragua.

An evening to inform of the situation taking place in Nicaragua as well as celebrate Nicaraguan Culture and Gastronomy. 

📣 In this event organised in collaboration with the Human Geography Research Group University of Edinburgh – GeoSciences and Scottish Solidarity with Nicaragua, speakers Julie Cupples, Veronica Campanile and Patrick Welsh will contextualise the crisis happening in Nicaragua

The atrocities by the government of Daniel Ortega against the civilian population are worsening; latest UN figures estimate more than 60000 Nicaraguans have fled just to Costa Rica. Some national Human Rights organisations put the number killed at over 500. 800+ political prisoners that are held in subhuman conditions – subjected to psychological and physical torture including sexual violence. Their liberation is one of the key issues right now.

¡Las Sandinistas! – A SXSW-awarded empowering documentary exploring the importance of women’s place in political history, ¡Las Sandinistas! tells the story of the female vanguards of The Sandinista National Liberation Front. These women fought alongside men in the Nicaraguan 1979 revolution but are erased from modern-day Nicaraguan monuments and museums.

In this event you will find:
★Scottish premiere of award winning documentary LAS SANDINISTAS!
★Speakers In Conversation (What is happening in Nicaragua?)
★Cancion Protesta (Songs from Latin America)
★Food from Nicaragua. Traditional Gastronomy

Looking back to reach forward. We seek to connect the stories of those women with the current feminist Nicaraguan movement, amplifying the voices of the women that are shaping the change in Nicaragua.

Tickets are available here

Default lecture capture: In defense of academic freedom, safety and well-being

This is a submission based on the collated and collective views of the Human Geography Research Group (HGRG) in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh as our institution is considering adopting lecture capture by default. I am sharing it here as it might assist other academics who are confronting and concerned about mandatory lecture recording and it might help students to understand why default lecture recording is not necessarily in their interests.

The HGRG is strongly opposed to the policy of default recording on four main grounds:

  • Pedagogical reasons
  • Academic freedom
  • Staff well-being
  • Staff and student safety

Pedagogical reasons

We understand why stressed, anxious and highly indebted students might well believe that their interests are best served by having access to recordings of lectures, but it is our belief that for the majority of our students it will have a detrimental effect on their learning.

Many of us are dealing with difficult and often quite controversial material in class and we try to encourage a high level of student engagement and class participation.   Lecture content is therefore often quite spontaneous and responsive to student input.  An interactive lecture requires students to be actively present in the classroom. This mode of participation is not possible when viewing a recorded lecture later. Furthermore, the fact of recording changes the way in which both teachers and students behave, deterring both us and them from dealing with sensitive or controversial content. For many students it takes a lot of courage to speak up in class and they will simply not do so if they know they are being recorded. Lecturers would be forced to substantially change their lecture content and style of delivery that will make lectures less interesting, interactive and engaging – hallmarks of “innovative” learning. We believe that recording will destroy the classroom rapport, spontaneity and informality that are fundamental for effective learning and critical thinking. Even if lecture recording has no impact on attendance (which is debatable), it might also encourage students to be less than present during the class as they know that they can access the material later.

We also live in a highly saturated media environment in which in addition to books and journal articles, we have instant access to a range of media content, include YouTube clips, documentaries, movies, Ted talks, podcasts, and radio shows that might well provide useful supplementary learning material for students. In addition, most students are active and competent users of social media and are used to being exposed to media texts that that can be consumed very quickly.  While instant access to this kind of media content is valuable in many ways, it does create an economy of distraction and is making it harder for many people to listen and pay attention to something for more than a few minutes.  Attending lectures in person and being required to pay careful attention to what is being said for one or two hours without being able to pause or rewind provides students with an important set of skills, namely the ability to pay attention for more than five minutes, select information and critically prioritize what is important within an argument and take a useful set of notes. Students need to learn to listen. The ability of thinking critically can only be acquired by focusing on the unfolding of an argument, by struggling – and perhaps disagreeing – with it and this is a skill best acquired in the classroom rather than through another online media text. There is plenty of useful material online already for students who wish to listen to a course-relevant podcast while relaxing, walking to campus or doing exercise. We should not add recorded lectures to this already abundant and often overwhelming media content.

There are of course universities and courses that specialize in online delivery (ODL), where all of the students study remotely and material is only available in an online format and delivered in a unidirectional way from teacher to student. While ODL works for some students, these courses lack the participatory and creative learning environments that in-person course delivery provides.  If there are students that wish to avoid class participation or need to study remotely for other reasons, there are courses that cater for this mode of learning. The learning needs of the vast majority of students are better served by lectures and tutorials that they attend in person and are combined with reading and independent study.

Furthermore, most of our students do not read anywhere near enough. The failure to read sufficiently is amply reflected in students’ written work and is a shared concern often raised during examination boards. Reading is central to getting a university education and good writers and critical thinkers are also avid readers. The best thing our students can do outside of the classroom is to read material from class reading lists, rather than to watch online a lecture that they have already attended. A good set of notes taking during the lecture is more than sufficient for reviewing this material later when doing assessed work. Even if recording lectures does not impact on attendance, it might impact negatively on the time students dedicate to reading.

One of the issues we struggle with at times is poor class attendance, which can very quickly undermine learning outcomes. Availability of online lectures is likely to deter some students from attending class as they know they can catch up later. As teachers, we try to produce a collective dynamic in the classroom based on co-learning (we all learn from each other) and in which insights unfold over the course of the semester.  The most stimulating classes are ones in which conversations are developed, evolved and built on. The only way to do this effectively is to do so in an embodied face-to-face way, by being present in the room with others and by coming to class every week.

Academic freedom

The proposed policy states that opting out of recording will require the permission of the head of school. The members of the Human Geography Research Group are engaged in critical work in the humanities and social sciences but are based in the School of Geosciences. This school is dominated by physical scientists who often use quite different pedagogical strategies and tend not to teach the critical social theory and political perspectives that are central to our own teaching.  This school organization means that our heads of schools and directors of teaching tend to be physical scientists and sometimes do not have sufficient familiarity with approaches and pedagogical techniques in human geography and the critical social sciences. While we are confident that our existing head of school would support our requests to opt out, we cannot speak for future heads of school that might base decisions on a physical science model. It is important for our own personal safety, the protection of our academic freedom and the quality of our teaching that our need to opt out in respected in the future. It should not depend on whether the current or future head of school is sufficiently familiar with and sympathetic to our pedagogical approaches.

We recognize that for some lecturers and some courses and classes, lecture recording might be seen as a valuable pedagogical tool. The person giving the lecture is best placed to decide on the pedagogical advantages and disadvantages of recording and the decision on whether to record should be left to the class lecturer. Academic freedom is being eroded in all kinds of ways in British universities to the detriment of both teaching and research (see Karran’s 2017 report at and this policy would exacerbate this state of affairs.

Staff well-being

There is already too much administrative work and bureaucracy at the University of Edinburgh and for many academics workloads are unsustainably high. This policy would create additional work and an unnecessary layer of administrative bureaucracy for both lecturers and heads of schools. We are not given sufficient time to prepare and deliver lectures, grade assessments and meet with students in our office hours. These things take far longer than the time allocated to them in the workload model and most human geographers are also working over capacity. So we do not have time for the additional work proposed by the policy, not only seeking permission to opt out from the head of school but also “reviewing and editing the recording, where required, and publishing it to the students on the Course(s) via the service, normally by the end of the next working day.” The policy assumes our time is elastic, but it is not.

Furthermore, with the change to an opt-out policy, the onus will be on us as individuals to explain and justify our decision to opt-out to our students – with the default being that recording is a “good thing” against which we will need to articulate an argument. We think that this could place an undue degree of stress on us as staff and detract from the learning aims of the course.

There is also concern that the recording of lectures could easily be used for a range of non-pedagogical purposes, including for evaluation by managers. Furthermore, mandatory recording would place intolerable pressure on academics. New hires or those developing new courses often have to prepare a large number of new lectures from scratch in a very short space of time. If staff were being recorded for all of them, they might well feel more pressure to prepare these lectures perfectly and this may mean they end up reading from scripts to remain in control of what they say and avoid any momentary lapses of concentration, fluffing of ‘lines’ etc. They will find that time for research and other non-teaching activities is even further reduced.

Staff and student safety

As noted above, as experts in our fields, we are the best placed to know whether recording is appropriate or useful. The decision on whether to record should therefore be in the hands of academics.  We believe that students should be exposed to difficult and complex material that might critique and challenge the cultural or political status quo. Students in human geography need to engage with a range of feminist, queer, anti-colonial, decolonial, anarchist, and socialist ideas that are central to our discipline and facilitate understanding the world through a geographical lens. We are doing them a disservice if we do not give them the analytical and theoretical tools to interrogate the uneven and unequal world in which we live. In addition to do so requires engagement with many of the complex issues of our time, including war and conflict, forced migrations, violence against women, racism, social injustice and socio-economic inequality.

We are however living in dangerous times in which white supremacy, colonial apologetics, sexism, racism, Islamaphobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment are resurgent and are promoted by the present political conjuncture, characterized by the Trump presidency, the politics of Brexit, austerity and the use of Prevent legislation in universities as well as other factors. Online trolling and abuse by sexist, racist, and neocolonial actors is often directed towards academics. To date, universities have done very little to protect academics from this kind of abuse and as a result many are suffering and living in fear. See for example:

“I’m a Stanford professor accused of being a terrorist. McCarthyism is back”

“Death threats are forcing professors off campus”

See also the numerous articles detailing the attacks and abuse directed at Farhana Sultana, Syracuse University, and Lola Olufemi, University of Cambridge, two examples here

Online lectures make it possible for small pieces of lecture material to be placed on the internet and shared on social media and potentially expose us and our students to all kinds of emotional and physical harm.  Streamed lectures can easily be recorded, edited into memes and other forms of social media content, and used for various non-pedagogical purposes. While the proposed policy states that students who share material would be subject to disciplinary action, there would be no way to identify who was responsible for its dissemination.

Our classrooms need to be safe spaces for our students and for us and our colleagues, particularly those who are BAME or who teach through a decolonial or feminist lens. We want our students to be able to ask questions, say what they think, and participate in class discussion and we want to be able to respond to them without fear that our words and interventions will appear on the internet without our consent.

Many of us draw on our research experiences in our teaching and some of us do research in countries with high levels of political repression and authoritarianism, often directed at political opponents of the government, feminist activists or LGTB people. If we criticize the government in power, as we often do in our classes to provide context or illustrate theoretical points, this could also expose us to danger when we do fieldwork, should this material be shared.

We know from historical and contemporary experience that the lives of academics can be put in grave danger because somebody doesn’t like their politics.

This policy must therefore be strongly opposed in the interests of sound pedagogies, academic freedom and the well-being and safety of both staff and students.




What’s happening in Nicaragua? Madelaine Caracas

Public meeting

Chaired by Paul Laverty, scriptwriter of I, Daniel Blake and Carla’s Song

Tuesday 10th JULY 2018, 5pm

University of Edinburgh

Room 1.20, Dugald Stewart Building
3 Charles Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9AD

The Nicaraguan government, led by President Daniel Ortega and his vice-President wife Rosario Murillo, is waging war on its own people. For the past two months, the unarmed population has faced attack after attack from the police and paramilitary forces using war weapons to shoot to kill. Police have consistently fired into crowds demonstrating peacefully, including the massive Mother’s Day March on May 30th in solidarity with the families of those killed in mid-April. Every day state and irregular forces continue to shoot protesters who have raised barricades in towns across the country as a way of defending themselves, reminiscient of the popular resistance to the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s. The atrocities against the civilian population are worsening and have resulted in at least 285 killed, another 2500 injured and countless others detained.

Madelaine Caracas is a 20-year Nicaraguan activist who is travelling through Europe to denounce the Ortega massacre as part of an informational caravan of solidarity.

This event is supported by Scottish residents in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and the Human Geography Research Group and the Global Development Academy of the University of Edinburgh.

Why we are protesting against the government of Nicaragua

Español abajo

This is my translation of a document prepared by young people who are protesting in the streets of Nicaragua that has been shared and is circulating on social media. The original Spanish is below and can also be found here (

This protest is not just about cuts to social security. It is because of corruption. It is because of electoral fraud in the municipal elections.

It is because young people as used as violent mobs. Because the Constitution was illegally amended. It is because democracy has been violated and because your vote doesn’t count because they create their own votes. Because dead people get to vote. Because dead people get to hold high office in the National Assembly.

Because there are no efficient public servants. Because public servants got a pay rise three days before they told pensioners that their C$400 (US$13) a month pension would be cut by 5%.

Because top ranking civil servants such as Roberto Rivas are immune from prosecution, corrupt and receive salaries of more than USD5000 a month plus benefits (vehicle, petrol, life insurance, health insurance that provides coverage outside of Nicaragua, private education for their kids).

Because the government creates metallic trees instead of real trees.

Because the police force lacks professionalism. The police attack students and other people with rubber bullets, tear gas and AK-47 bullets.

Because the government bought a bunch of tanks from Russia for nothing.  Because petrol is super expensive even though the price of crude oil is low.

Because Daniel Ortega should never have been re-elected. Because the wife of the president should never have become vice-president. Because the vice-president lies.

Because they don’t let people protest.

Because they take advantage of the poor by giving them handouts of piñatas and bags of rice and deprive them of education.

Because those of us who come from poor families and have made progess in life, we have done so because our parents have sold nacatamales, tortillas, have taken in washing and ironing and have paid for our education with honest work. Because they recognize they quality education enables you to succeed in life, to think critically. Education helps you out of poverty.

Because a school teacher who works two shifts a day doesn’t even earn US$200 a month. Just a few receive a few paltry benefits on top that amount to nothing more than an end of year basket with soap, a bag of rice and a bag of beans.

Because the government employees earn more than C$25,000 (US$800). They receive two extra bonuses per year. Because the INSS (Department of Social Security) pays US$1000 a month for each child in a private school while the state schools function by magic.

Because they give concessions to mining companies that take away the gold and leave poverty, disease and polluted water behind.

Because they don’t provide accurate press releases. Because they appropriated 98% of the media companies. Because they censor information. Because they shut down independent media.

Because the roundabouts are full of state employees, secondary school and university students who are forced by the police to be there.

Because they persecute those that defend human rights.

Because people who express an alternative point of view are repressed and murdered.

Because they pay delinquents and disguise them as Sandinistas to attack students.

Because they are shitting on the country.

One of the many metallic trees to be found in the capital moments before it was brought down by protestors. For many Nicaraguans, these trees symbolize government vanity, corruption and wastefulness, especially given the rate of deforestation in the country. Photo taken by Maynor Salazar


Esto no es, ni ha sido solo por lo del INSS! Es por la corrupción! Por robar alcaldías. Robar derechos y libre expresión. Es por Indio Maíz.
Es por usar a la juventud como turba. Porque se modificó ilegalmente la constitución Por violar la democracia y que tu voto no cuente porque inventan votos. Porque los muertos votan. Porque los muertos ejercen en altos cargos en la Asamblea.
Porque no hay funcionarios públicos eficientes. Porque a los funcionarios públicos les hicieron un aumento de sueldo tres días antes que se nos informara que a un anciano se le iba a quitar el 5% de los C$400 pesos que recibe al mes.
Porque Roberto Rivas y otros políticos son inmunes, corruptos y los mantienen en su cargos con salarios de más de U$5,000 dólares + beneficios (vehículo asignado, gasolina, seguro de vida, seguro de salud con cobertura fuera de Nicaragua.
Educación privada para sus hij@s, etcétera. Porque hay árboles de la vida y no árboles reales.
Porque la policía no es profesional. Porque la policía dispara balas de goma, bombas lacrimógenas y balas de AK-47 a los estudiantes y pueblo en general.
Porque compramos tanques a Rusia para nada. Porque la gasolina está carísima y el petróleo barato.
Porque no debió reelegirse Daniel. Porque la esposa del presidente nunca debió ser vice-presidenta. Porque la Vice-presidenta es mentirosa.
Porque no dejan marchar. Porque se aprovechan de los pobres dándoles piñatas, dos libras de arroz y NO Educación.
Porque quienes venimos de familias humildes y hemos progresado en la vida, lo hemos hecho porque muchos padres han tenido que vender nacatamales, tortillas, lavado, planchado y han pagado la educación de sus hijos con trabajo honrado.
Porque con Educación de calidad es posible superarte en la vida. Porque con Educación podes tener pensamiento crítico. Porque con Educación se puede salir de la pobreza.
Porque un maestro trabajando dos turnos no gana ni U$200 dólares y los pocos que reciben beneficios, esos beneficios son ridículos (una canasta con jabón de baño, una bolsita de arroz, de frijoles, a fin de año).
Porque los empleados del INSS, la DGI, las alcaldías y otros ganan más de 25 mil córdobas. Porque esos empleados reciben 2 aguinaldos por año o dos bonos más un aguinaldo.
Porque el INSS paga 1000 dólares por mes por cada niño de un centro privado mientras las escuelas públicas funcionan de milagro.
Porque dan concesiones a empresas mineras que se llevan el oro y dejan pobreza, enfermedades y aguas contaminadas.
Porque no dan comunicados de prensa objetivos. Porque se apropiaron del 98% de los medios de comunicación. Porque censuran la información. Porque cierran medios de comunicación.
Porque las rotondas están llenas de trabajadores del estado, estudiantes de secundaria y universidades obligados a estar allí, su presencia es resguardada por la policía.
Porque persiguen a las y los defensores de derechos humanos.
Porque quienes expresan otro punto de vista son reprimidos y asesinados!
Porque le pagan a delincuentes y los disfrazan de sandinistas para que golpeen a los estudiantes.
Porque se están cagando en el país.


The RAE and REF: Resources and Critiques

Excellent post on the collective thoughts on the REF enacted mostly through Twitter. Essential to our efforts to create a more humane and intellectually stronger university

Desiring Progress

I am writing this piece at what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based…

View original post 9,805 more words

“Leadership”: Reflections from a striking LA (lady academic) in the NLU (neoliberal university)

LA: I’m going to write a monograph.

NLU1: You can’t do that, as it won’t count as much in the next research evaluation exercise, publish journal articles in top ranking journals instead.

LA: OK, look I published lots of articles in top ranking journals. I got the top score in the research evaluation exercise.

NLU1: That is great, but you really need to get a big grant (so you can keep on doing the work you used to do very well without an external grant).

LA: OK, I got a big grant.

NLU1: That’s great, but now we’ve decided that we’re mostly a STEM university, so we’re not so interested in your grant. We’re going to close a few programmes in humanities and social sciences, just because …

LA: OK, I’ll take a job in another university where STEM and HSS are valued.

NLU1: Fine, see ya.

NLU2: Here’s a new job, great you have this big grant, we like that a lot here, but I’m afraid you need to take a big pay cut. And do REF, REF is coming.

LA: Oh, that sucks, really?

NLU2: Yes, afraid so, but don’t worry, the pension here is much better than in NLU1 and your salary will catch up really quickly. And by the way REF is coming.

LA: Oh yes, I see, the pension does make up for the pay cut and I believe you when you say the pay cut is temporary. OK, I’ll accept the job offer and work on the big grant that I got when I was at NLU1. Can I please have enough time to do the work I promised the funders I would do?

NLU2: Sorry no, the overheads are going to another university so we’re not going to recognize your grant. But here’s an overcapacity teaching load for you. We’ve also based your workload on a physical science model. And by the way REF is coming.

LA: But I am not a physical scientist, I am a humanities scholar.

NLU2: It doesn’t matter. Physical scientists are way cooler than humanists and they get bigger grants, so you should too. And REF is coming, what are you doing about REF?

LA: I’m struggling with this teaching load. Is it possible to have a more manageable teaching load? And I would really like to write my monograph. It would be good for this REF thing you love so much.

NLU2: Maybe you can have a manageable teaching load in the future, but the problem is mostly you and your failure to time manage properly. Even though you’ve been a productive academic for many years and raised two kids as a single parent, please talk to your younger male colleague about how to manage your time better. In the meantime, continue with the overcapacity teaching load. And monographs don’t matter, can’t you just publish in Nature. Nature is the most awesome publication ever. It’s great for REF scores.

LA: No, I am a humanities scholar, I can’t publish in science journals.  Can I please earn as much as my younger and less experienced male colleagues? And I’m still earning a lot less than I was when I came here years ago.

NLU2: No, you can’t. Oh well, maybe you can, get some external grants that bring in overheads, oh and do some leadership. And some impact and some knowledge exchange. But don’t forget REF.

LA: OK, I got some grants that brought in overheads, even though I’m still trying to deliver on the external grant that doesn’t bring in overheads to this NLU. And I’m doing some leadership. And some impact and some knowledge exchange. Can I please have a manageable teaching load, so I can do the work I promised the funders I would do? By the way, I still want to write my monograph.

NLU2: No sorry, the grants you got aren’t big enough. But here’s an overcapacity teaching load for you. Also, what have you got for the REF?

LA: I can’t get bigger grants because I need time to work on the existing grants and do my overcapacity teaching load. And also because I am a humanities scholar and the grant income targets are unrealistic and unattainable. Oh, did you ever notice that my teaching is really good?  I get really good evaluations and nominations for teaching awards.

NLU2: I see that, but our NSS scores are disappointing. You need to do even better.

LA: Now I’ve got some external grants, and have done some leadership, and some impact and some knowledge exchange, and have been a great teacher in spite of my overcapacity teaching load, can I please earn as much as my younger  and less experienced male colleagues? I put my monograph on hold to do all the other things you wanted me to do.

NLU2: No, because you haven’t adequately demonstrated the consequences of your leadership. You need to make your leadership visible, like a superhero might. Didn’t you ever watch Superman?

LA: No but I saw Wonder Woman and it made me feel like smashing the patriarchy for a good half hour after the movie.

NLU2: Whatever. And REF, REF, REF.

LA: Ok, now I’m still doing my overcapacity teaching load and demonstrating the consequences of my leadership, so I don’t have time to deliver on the grants you asked me to get but then decided weren’t large enough. And I still don’t have time to write my monograph.

NLU2: Least of your problems, actually, as now we’ve decided to cut your pension. We’ve decided we are going to make your pension even worse than it was in NLU1. You can retire on £6000 a year.

LA: But I can’t live off £6000 a year. You told me that I would get a better pension if I took a job here.

NLU2: Yes, but we’ve changed our mind. The good thing is that we can manufacture narratives and fake numbers because we’re not subject to peer review or REF criteria. That being rigorous, methodologically sound and transparent stuff is just for you guys. And anyway, we need money for shiny buildings and VC salaries in order to enhance the student experience.

LA: OK, I’ll withdraw my labour.

NLU2: But you’ll harm the students. Don’t you care about your students?

LA: The students are supporting us. They are tired of the commodification of the university too. They’re occupying a university building in solidarity with us. And learning about resistance and how to make a better kind of university for them and for us. They are getting a fantastic education in the occupation.

NLU2: They can’t simply occupy university premises.

LA: They already did. While we’ve been on strike, we’ve been thinking a lot about leadership and impact. Do the VCs have to do some leadership and impact things too? You know, make their leadership more consequential and impactful. We are paying them quite well. They won’t have to live off £6000 a year in retirement.

NLU2: The VCs are so important that they can only do non-committal forms of leadership. And they have access to really complex information that you don’t get to see and wouldn’t understand anyway. They are really smart dudes. So smart, they don’t even stand by the work they published in top-ranking journals when they were ordinary academics.

LA: OK, I’ll be working well into my 70s, maybe I can write my monograph then. I’m grateful that you’ve given me such an in-depth insight into the gendered and embodied consequences of the marketization of the university.

NLU2: Just come back to work, you’ll miss an important REF workshop if you don’t. And we’ll have to give your grant overheads back to the funders and we need this money for our building projects and rounds of pornstar martinis.

LA: Actually no, I like the way the Cochabambinos and the Zapatistas said “¡Ya basta!”.

NLU2: I have no idea what that means.

LA: No, but our students do, that is why they’re in the occupation.


The UCU pension strike and geographic literacy

This morning I felt quite inspired by three geographers who’ve posted things on the internet that make me glad that I work in the discipline of geography and proud to be a geographer. I’m grateful to the letter to students and the Twitter thread about the upcoming UCU pensions strike posted by Alice Evans and Jason Dittmer and by Derek Aldermann’s excellent post to the AAG newsetter entitled “Time for a Radical Geographic Literacy in Trump America”. So inspired by Alice’s, Jason’s and Derek’s example, I’m posting this to encourage students to support us in the upcoming strike, not (just) because you care about our wellbeing, but because the whole higher education sector is threatened by this latest neoliberal and inhumane move. The change to our pension arrangements does not only mean that many of us might not be able to afford to retire, it also means the deterioration of our working conditions and therefore your learning conditions. As the always insightful Liz Morrish writes:

“The working conditions of the staff who teach you, are your learning conditions. Whatever justifications or denials are uttered, this remains the case. Lecturers who are made ill through work overload cannot give you the time or energy you deserve.”

The same goes for lecturers who will not be able to afford to retire even when they are very old, infirm or mentally exhausted should this move go through.

Geography teaches us to analyze our environments and the spaces and places in which we and others get to live, work, move and act and in which we experience freedoms and oppressions. I found my niche in geography as a site in which to study dispossession, marginalization, racialization, coloniality, capitalism and sexism, because it helped me understand the spatialities that constitute these processes – that racism and sexism for example always have a geography as well as a history. And so do decolonial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and feminist struggles. Because places/spaces are contingent as well as structured, by paying close attention to the ways in which oppressions and resistances are embedded in geographies, we can potentially find ways to diminish or enhance their impact. Geography also teaches us that things are connected. There is for example a relationship between the neoliberalization of higher education, the rise of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brexit insanity, the people who have died crossing the US-Mexican border, in the Mediterranean sea and in the Grenfell Tower, school shootings, and the growing mental health crisis. Doing geography means in part tracing and revealing these connections. We can acknowledge these connections while acknowledging that British academics are of course much better off than those forced into dangerous migrations.

Being exposed through the discipline of geography to critical race theory, feminism, cultural studies and critical development studies have shaped me into the scholar and the person that I am. Thanks to the awesome scholars in geography and cultural studies that I’ve been able to study with, teach with and learn from, in person and through their writing, I feel I’ve developed a set of skills that enable me to analyze the world in which I live far better than I would be able to do without that study. Studying geography enables us to understand the things that disturb or outrage us and do what we can to challenge them. The current crisis is something students can and should learn from, and not just be affected by.

In the now more than three decades that I’ve been either a student or faculty member, I’ve seen dramatic changes in the university, some of these are good, most of them are bad. Universities have become less elitist spaces and that is good. There is still a long way to go to dismantle sexism, racism and Eurocentrism in the academy, but the conversations are at least underway and are becoming connected across institutions. But most of the changes I’ve seen in higher education are overwhelmingly negative and I realize that most of my career has involved attempting to defend public education from the neoliberal onslaught that takes its shape in a whole bunch of neoliberalizing and intellectually impoverishing technologies such as REF and TEF, in the creation of the highly indebted and anxious student subject, in the increasing casualization of academic labour, in the fetishization of large research grants, in the privileging of STEM subjects over humanities and social sciences, in the increase in workplace bullying, in the treatment of so-called Tier 4 students, and in the creation of the abysmally-named Office for Students. These things do not enhance research or learning and I am annoyed that we must spend so much time resisting them in the interests of being able to still do good teaching and good research. It is exhausting. Most of us never wanted to spend our careers fighting rampant neoliberal managerialism and there is a prevailing sense among many of my friends and colleagues that academics succeed in spite of their institutions rather than because of them.

But the thing about geography and other critical fields in the social sciences and humanities is that we can’t keep our analyses confined to our primary fields of study. I know that my students will be able to apply their geographic skills to many aspects of their personal and professional lives after graduation and that is the strength of a geography degree. So as a geographer I am simply not able to analyze neoliberal processes and gender inequality in Nicaragua and then not apply these analytical skills to my working environment. I can’t learn about modes of governance that are enacted by indigenous peoples and not think how such principles could help us to create a more humane university rather than one built on exploitation, exclusion and hierarchy. I admit that I sometimes spend probably futile time imagining what the university would be like it it were run like a Zapatista caracol, where leadership means not imposing your will but obeying the will of the majority and working from below.  In other words, I can’t keep my work separate from my working conditions.

So striking for me is not just about pensions – although I do want to able to afford to retire and not be forced to work until I drop dead – it is about dignity for academic workers and our students and respect for the pursuit of knowledge geared towards creating a better world. Striking is part of the attempt to transform the ways the university is run and funded for the better.

I am fully aware of the need I and others have to look after ourselves, our families and our financial situations. We have large rents, mortgages and bills to pay and striking will make meeting those financial commitments very hard for many of us. It is even harder for women and single parents too, especially given the gender pay gap in British universities. We are also totally committed to our students and our teaching. We care about you deeply, your learning and your education. We know that most of you have taken on huge debts and are doing too much paid work in order to get your degree.  We know you are worried about your grades and your employment prospects. But know this. Striking is a really tough thing to do. It is a last resort. It puts a lump in our throats and grips us with a sense of anxiety. But strike we must in the interests not just of our pensions but of the sector as a whole and I urge you all to support us.

Some of my colleagues are not going to strike. They will cross picket lines and teach their classes. It is of course their right not to strike just as it is the right of others to strike, but the absence of solidarity makes me feel sad and frustrated. Some students will also cross picket lines and be glad that their classes were not disrupted. I understand that, especially given the excessive fees that you pay that should never have been introduced. But instead of crossing the picket line, you could spend the day improving your geographic literacy in other ways – talk to staff on the picket lines, read a book that will make you think, read something written by one of the four scholars I’ve mentioned here. Your education can continue even if your classes are cancelled. But I’d also like to encourage you to think about the broader conjuncture in which you are seeking to gain your degree and getting into debt. I have a Nicaraguan friend who was an undergraduate student in the 1970s who never finished his degree because he was forced by circumstances and political conviction to abandon his studies and fight against the Somoza dictatorship. Like many others, he risked his life but the revolution triumphed and the brutal dictatorship was brought down. It put the nation on a different course in which many good things became possible and imaginable. He was a part of that revolutionary struggle. It is one of the things that makes him inspirational to me and makes me feel honoured to be his friend. You might argue that things were different in 1970s Nicaragua, Nicaragua was a politically unstable third world country living under dictatorship, and that surely British students living in a first world liberal democracy shouldn’t have to make such sacrifices.  To make such an assertion is to profoundly misunderstand the current conjuncture and the dangers that accompany the present moment.

Right now, we are living through extremely challenging and dangerous times, which one of my favourite decolonial scholars, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, refers to as social fascism and abyssal logics. As I argue in more depth in the introduction to my forthcoming book, we are living in a world in which there is growing indifference to human suffering, in which existing citizenships are removed and borders are constructed, and in which colonial nostalgia is being resurrected with the support of forces that we think of as benign or democratic. The universities are thoroughly enmeshed in and central to these dynamics. They are not impartial observers. The politics that underpin both the Trump presidency and Brexit as well as the rise of colonial apologetics in the academy are as serious as those that underpinned the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the Latin American dictatorships that established themselves in the second half of the 20th century. Across the globe, we are witnessing the intensification of modes of racialization, criminalization and stigmatization that produce fear and anxiety and lead to the preventable deaths, deportations or displacement of innocent people.  Not only do we need to be vigilant in the face of these threats, but we also need more than ever to be on the right side of history. Because if we don’t do start to do things differently in the world and put people ahead of profits, private property and the whims of the stock market, your degree or your white skin, or whatever privileges you already possess and are accumulating might not be enough to save you, or indeed any of us. So Derek’s call for geographic literacy in this context is extremely timely. So I’m striking for my pension, because I need it to live off, but I’m also striking for you and the students that follow you, and for a decolonized non-hierarchical academy in which a feminist ethic of care and a high degree of geographic literacy may grow and flourish. We are grateful for your support.




The closure of Brixton’s Latin American community hub embodies everything that is wrong with Tory Britain

Julie Cupples and Tash Oduba-Vine

To its residents and frequent visitors, Brixton is rather an awesome place. Its vibrancy is without doubt rooted in its strong working class and immigrant cultures. Today’s Brixton is largely a result of post-war Afro-Caribbean migrations and settlement; the later Latin American and European waves; and the most recent insidious sweep of white British gentrification. These migrants who made Brixton home, both in the 50s and 60s and in more recent years, have forged strong community networks and engaged in creative and diverse forms of entrepreneurship. Small locally-owned businesses, especially shops, restaurants and market stalls, are at the heart of Brixton’s community ethos. This heart is however being ripped out by a vicious neoliberal onslaught in which the Tory government, Lambeth Council, Network Rail and now billionaire capitalist and owner of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, are all complicit.

One of our favourite things to do in Brixton is to go and eat Colombian arepas in Las Américas, also known as Casa Brixton, on Pope Road. Run by a diverse group of Latin Americans who started as an arepa business 19 years ago, Las Américas is not just a site where you can get affordable nutritious food from across the continent, food you won’t find in Gregg’s, Starbucks, or MacDonald’s, but it is also a site of affective community interaction and support in which Brixton’s Latin American community gather to eat, talk, and exchange information. The space has grown to fill gaps in the community over the years, encompassing a butcher, a cafe for coffee and snacks all day, and most recently an evening live music venue and bar.

Even for us as Spanish-speaking Latin American-loving Brits, Las Américas is one of our happy places. It is a place where we’ve flexed our Spanish muscles, found out why Cartagena is one of the most amazing places on earth, and heard about of some of the dilemmas facing the community. As one man originally from Medellín noted, he would love to return home now that the war is over but his teenage kids were born in London, they are Londoners of Colombian descent, and so leaving is not so easy.

We learned last week that this wonderful place was forced to close its doors for the last time on Saturday 20 January. Mike Ashley, of Sports Direct infamy, has purchased the entire street, allegedly to build a Sports Direct outlet and warehousing space. As noted in the Brixton Buzz article that broke the news of the closure to us – it was revealed in 2013 that 90% of Sports Direct’s staff are on zero hours contracts, and they have a track record of underpaying staff, and operating warehouse working conditions that have been compared to Victorian times. SDI (Brixton) Limited, a company linked to Sports Direct, reportedly spent close to £12 million to buy up Pope’s Road, showing once again that our communities really are up for sale to the highest bidder.

The staff on closing night were nostalgic, but upbeat. Everyone through the door was greeted with kisses and hugs, the dance floor was full of staff and long time customers, young and old, and every moment of sadness was met with a reassurance that things would go on, and a commitment to enjoy the space this one last time. A live salsa singer kicked off the evening, followed by a DJ playing reggaeton classics. As we left at around midnight, an Argentinian man outside tried to convince us to stay, “the cumbia will start soon” he said “you don’t want to miss the Argentinian cumbia.”

This buy up and community closure is the ugly head of a two-pronged wave of gentrification sweeping across south London. Communities like Brixton are being watered down by chain after chain – most notably the recent opening of Brixton’s first Pret a Manger. Yet it’s relatively easy for the middle class residents of Brixton to moan about yet another Sports Direct, or another garish chain shop. The other prong is a bit prettier, and a bit harder for Brixton’s newer residents to organise against, because for a lot of us, it improves our middle class quality of life. This looks like Jamaican cafes being replaced by sleek co-working spaces. Fruit shops being replaced by upscale barbershops. Hair shops turning into craft beer bars. Carpet stores shuttered by Network Rail’s rent hikes, with the promise of a Boxpark-esque shopping experience to come. Mike Ashley is also said to be among the front runners to purchase Brixton Market, potentially putting in jeopardy the diverse independent businesses that are the backbone of Brixton’s culture.

It is hardly surprising that those displaced and those deprived of these places to eat and shop are largely people of colour.  It reveals how little interest there is from the elite political and capitalist class in supporting immigrants who work hard and contribute to their communities. Where is the investment in the cultural integrity of our communities? A new Costa coffee branch, or even an individual Sports Direct store isn’t going to be the death of Brixton’s heart and soul – migrant and working communities are more resilient than that. However, more than anything else, the rising tide of luxury apartments and white washed neighbourhoods is proof that our current Tory government exists to serve those who need it the least, at the expense of those who have earned a living, a following and a community making arepas, telling stories and sharing music.

Julie Cupples is a human geographer at the University of Edinburgh and Tash Oduba-Vine is a Brixton resident and craft brewer. Photographer Oliver Dawe.

New book: Shifting Nicaraguan Mediascapes: Authoritarianism and the Struggle for Social Justice

Happy to announce the publication of our new book, based on research funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

This book explores the mediated struggles for autonomy, land rights and social justice in a context of growing authoritarianism and persistent coloniality in Nicaragua. To do so, it draws on in-depth fieldwork, analysis of media texts, and decolonial and other cultural theories. There are two main threats to the authoritarian rule of the Nicaraguan government led by Daniel Ortega: the first is the Managua-based NGO and civil society sector led largely by educated dissident Sandinistas, and the second is the escalating struggle for autonomy and land rights being fought by Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-descended inhabitants on the country’s Caribbean coast. In order to confront these threats and, it seems, secure indefinite political tenure, the government engages in a set of centralizing and anti-democratic political strategies characterized by secrecy, institutional power grabs, highly suspect electoral practices, clientelistic anti-poverty programmes, and the control through purchase or co-optation of much of the nation’s media. The social movements that threaten Ortega’s rule are however operating through dispersed and topological modalities of power and the creative use of emergent spaces for the circulation of counter-discourses and counter-narratives within a rapidly transforming media environment. The primary response to these mediated tactics is a politics of silence and a refusal to acknowledge or respond to the political claims made by social movements. In the current conjuncture, the authors identify a struggle for hegemony whose strategies and tactics include the citizenship-stripping activities of the state and the citizenship-claiming activities of black, indigenous and dissident actors and activists. This struggle plays out in part through the mediated circulation and counter-circulation of discourses and the infrastructural dynamics of media convergence.