I’m striking on Tuesday. A post on the Guardian Higher Education network from the last strike helps outline the reasons, and Sussex Against Privatisation have just published a guide on how and why to strike.
Academics can be a bit rubbish about going on strike. Many pour so much of themselves into work that it can be hard to know where to switch off. Should philosophers stop thinking, linguists fall quiet, historians try to forget? There’s also the problem that the work will still, most likely, be there when you get back, and it’s never done anyway. So there’s a temptation to just stay at home and catch up with some marking. And we love our students and don’t want them to miss out, so classes get re-scheduled (though some also argue this is just another way to cross a picket line).
One of the things I cancelled was speaking at a debate on storytelling and climate change. I was looking forward to it, but I would be appearing to discuss my academic work and I think that if you are putting down the tools of teaching and research and admin, you should do the same for public engagement too.
Public engagement is part of your job as an academic. If you are on strike, you shouldn’t do it any more than you should go into the lab.
To say “ah, but it’s public engagement, that doesn’t count” is to denigrate such work to an optional extra in a way which may be traditional in academic cultures, but is ultimately corrosive. It also goes against the policies of most universities and research funders who recognise how important it is to engrain public engagement in work. Such policies give us money, time, training and other institutional support, so those of us who do public engagement aren’t dismissed as somehow unacademic.
The flip side of this is that universities/ funders/ your boss can take some credit. In the case of a strike, it means running a public engagement event signals the campus as still “open for business” – because public engagement is part of our business these days – just as many are taking industrial action to close it down. You might not support the strike, but that’s another issue. If you are striking, you should include public engagement work.
There are larger issues though. Arguably, the institutionalisation of public engagement limits academic scope as citizens a bit, focusing our attentions to more “sanctioned”, less disruptive, activities. Public engagement could be seen as a form of fourth estate, akin to journalism, a way of bringing new ideas and critique into universities, a challenge. It should make anyone doing it feel a bit uncomfortable. It rarely does though. For all that a lot of expansive rhetoric gets pushed around, it is usually applied to promote the agendas of the more powerful researchers. All very cozy, and that coziness rarely gets called out.
To say “ah, but it’s public engagement work, it’s too important to cancel” is another matter, perhaps more to do with how you see the strike. I’m sceptical though. I certainly look forward to anyone playing this card prioritising public engagement above everything else on non-strike days, as it’s not a pattern I’m used to seeing.
If you really think public engagement work is so key, and you really take public engagement seriously (i.e. you want to interact with the public, not just talk at adoring fans/ PhD students), use the strike as an excuse to take yourself outside the comfort of university structures. Drop the logos, locations, budgets and professional affiliations of a standard public engagement event (sorry, no deferring to “Professors” or free wine after) for the day and do something different. Something like a teach-in, or Tent City University, but which actively aims to open up the structures and normalcies of academia for external critique.
Just as a strike can be a liberating and positively disruptive change to the working day – meeting colleagues in other departments, reflecting on the politics of your labour – you may well learn something from taking some industrial action to our usual patterns of public engagement.