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.