A Common Purpose: Wikimedia, Open Education and Knowledge Equity for all

At the end of February I was honoured to be invited to present the closing keynote at the Wikimedia in Education Summit at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University.  This is the transcript of my talk. 


Introduction

Although I’m originally an archaeologist by background, I’ve worked in the domain of learning technology for over twenty years and for the last ten years I’ve focused primarily on supporting the uptake of open education technology, resources, policy and practice, and it’s through open education that I came to join the Wikimedia community.  I think the first Wikimedia event I ever took part in was OER De a cross-sector open education conference, hosted by Wikimedia Deutschland in Berlin in 2014. I remember being really impressed by the wide range of innovative projects and initiatives from across all sectors of education and it really opened my eyes to the potential of Wikimedia to support the development of digital literacy skills, while enhancing the student experience and enriching our shared knowledge commons. And I think we’ve seen plenty of inspiring examples today of that potential being realised in education institutions around the UK.

So what I want to do this afternoon is to explore the relationship between the open education and Wikimedia domains and the common purpose they share; to widen access to open knowledge, remove barriers to inclusive and equitable education, and work towards knowledge equity for all. I also want to turn our attention to some of the structural barriers and systemic inequalities that prevent equitable participation in and access to this open knowledge landscape. We’ll begin by taking a brief look at some of the recent global policy initiatives in this area, before coming back closer to home to explore how the University of Edinburgh’s support for both open education and Wikimedia in the curriculum forms part of the institution’s strategic commitment to creating and sharing open knowledge.

Continue reading

Threads That Connect Us

In my post about my Open World femedtech quilt square I explained why I chose to make my square out of Harris Tweed, a protected fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides where I was born and brought up. In many ways the fabric is emblematic of both the islands and the islanders; the wool is shorn from the local black face sheep, the colours, traditionally from natural dyes, reflect the colours of the landscape, and the cloth is woven by hand to produce a fabric that is unique, beautiful and hard wearing.  As with many traditional fabrics, tweed production was originally a communal activity, and much of the work was undertaken by women; from dyeing and spinning the wool, to weaving the tweed, to waulking and finishing the cloth.  Waulking involved soaking and beating the tweed to remove dirt and impurities, and soften and shrink the cloth. Before tweed mills were built in the islands to process the hand-woven cloth, finishing a tweed was a social activity as much as a collective task.

This following account of the importance of waulking as a women’s social activity, comes from a Gaelic radio programme called Tigh Mo Sheanair (My Grandfather’s House) which was recorded in the early 1970s and the speaker is my grandmother, Anne Campbell, who was born in 1909 and lived in Harris all her life.  Her words were translated from the Gaelic by her daughter, my aunt.

Anne Campbell & Sybil McInnes

“The entertainment whilst waulking the tweed was better than a wedding, for us anyway when we were young, especially if the waulking took place in the evening.  If the waulking was in the morning we had to come home afterwards and stay in in the evening.  Waulking was sometimes our only entertainment.  We were always delighted when we got news that someone in the village was about to complete a tweed.  In those days it was the women who wove the tweed on the “little loom”.  A tweed would take three weeks to complete – today a tweed is completed in one day using an automatic loom.

To waulk the tweed a long table was set out with seating for four women on each side.  There was a tub at either end of the table. The tweed was cut into two pieces and a piece dropped in each tub.  One side worked left the right and the other right to left.

For a bit of fun the loose coloured threads at the end of the tweed were cut and each woman would put her thread outside the door. If your thread was the first one then the first man who came to the house had to see you home that evening.  It did not matter if you had a steady boyfriend, it was who ever found your thread that had to take you home.  There was often good-natured bantering outside the house especially if your own boyfriend turned up expecting to walk you home. We didn’t think anything of being up all night if there was a waulking.”

Although my granny wasn’t a weaver, she did spin and dye her own wool, which she used to knit socks, jerseys and other garments.  When I was a child, there was a huge cast iron cauldron wedged in the rocks outside the house, which had been used for dying wool before modern conveniences came along.  The remains are still there today.

This communal aspect of fabric production, sewing, embroidering, and quilting has always been important.  It provides women with a space where, to some extent, they are in control of their own labour. A space where they can come together to share their skill, pass on their craft, tell their stories, and enjoy each other’s company.  These spaces sometimes seem to stand outside the strictures and expectations of “normal” society, and provide women with a space where they set their own rules.   To my mind this has been the most powerful aspect of the femedtech quilt project, which has given so many women from all over the world, a space to collaborate, to share their skills, their stories, their inspiration and their creativity.

I’m writing this post with Frances and Suzanne in mind who will be coming together this weekend to sew the femedtechquilt, and although all those of us who sent in squares won’t be able to join them in person, I hope they’ll feel the strength of the threads that bind this amazing community together.

Open World for #femedtechquilt

At the end of last week I sent off my contributions for the #femedtechquilt project, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to part with them.  As soon as Frances Bell raised the idea for this amazing project I knew that I wanted to make something out of Harris Tweed, a protected, handmade fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides where I’m from, and which is woven into the identity of both the islands and the islanders.  I decided to try and make a representation of the header image of this blog, not only because Open World is where I share my open practice, but also because that header image is my own picture of one of my favourite places in the whole world, Traigh na Berie beach in Uig, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis.  I’ve visited this beach almost every year of my life since I was a small child, I did my higher geography project on the flora of the beach, my Masters dissertation was on the anthropomorphic landforms of the surrounding area, I worked on archaeological excavations there, and I use another picture of the beach as my twitter header.  I’ve also returned there frequently with my own daughter.  It’s a place that I have a deep attachment to, which has always inspired me, and still does.

I already had some beautiful left-over tweed from a length I bought to make curtains for our VW camper van, and I bought a bundle of off-cuts when I was home in Stornoway in the summer.  It wasn’t difficult to make a rough representation of the beach, as the colours of the tweed naturally echo the colours of the Hebridean landscape.  Sewing it was more of a challenge.  My mother taught me to sew when I was a kid, but it’s not something I do regularly, other than altering clothes.  In order to sew my square, I had to get my mother’s sewing machine, which I inherited when she passed away a few years ago, repaired and reconditioned.  Using it seemed fitting, as she was a talented seamstress who used that machine to make beautiful tweed coats and jackets for my sister and I when we were young.  I was really pleased with the way the square turned out, it looked much better than I could have hoped.  One thing that really surprised me when I was making the square was just how evocative the smell of pressed tweed is. It immediately took me right back to the islands and my childhood. For me, this square represents hope, inspiration, and the unbreakable threads that connect us to the people and places we hold dear.

Tweed on the machair

Image 1 of 7

My other square was much more low effort, but it still has meaning to me. It’s a tracing of the Open Scotland logo drawn in fabric pen on cotton cut from one of my daughter’s old school shirts, and it represents the hope that one day all publicly funded educational resources in Scotland will be freely and openly available to all.   Open Scotland was an initiative that I founded, along with Joe Wilson, Sheila MacNeil, Phil Barker and others, back in 2013 and I’ve poured a lot of time energy and commitment into it, so I wanted to commemorate it in the quilt.  I also love the idea that my daughter has made a small contribution to the quilt too.

Tracing the logo

Image 1 of 4

Reflections on @Femedtech Curation

Despite the overwhelming gloom of Brexit, I got the year off to a positive start by curating the @femedtech twitter account for the first two weeks of January. I’ve been involved with femedtech in one way or another since its inception, and I often tweet using the hashtag, but this was the first time I’d actually taken a curation slot and it was a real honour to be the first curator of the New Year.  An obvious theme for my curation would have been New Years Resolutions, but to be honest, I’ve never been much of a fan of those.  I know they work for some people, but all too often they tend to become an additional source of guilt and pressure, which doesn’t strike me as a very good way to start a new year.

So instead I decided to focus on a theme of Inspiration. I had intended to tweet one source of inspiration every day, but I wasn’t quite able to do that. I did manage to tweet from the femedtech account several times every day, though this was a bit of a challenge once I was back at work.  It wasn’t hard to choose my first inspiration, Audrey Watters phenomenal roundup of 100 Worst Ed -Tech Debacles of the Decade

Audrey has been described as the Cassandra of ed tech, and indeed she is, but she is also our Mnemosyne, our collective memory.  Audrey reminds us of all the failures that the ed tech industry would prefer us to forget, but if we don’t remember, how can we possibly learn from out mistakes and move forward?

Other inspirations I shared over the course of the fortnight were…

Annual reflection posts shared by friends and colleagues

ALT

Wiki Loves Monuments Winners

Hong Kong Protest Artists

The #femedtechquilt project

My final inspiration was a twitter thread about Archive Of Our Own, which provides a salutary contrast to Audrey’s 100 Ed Tech Debacles, and which I’m posting in its entirety below. 

It’s an Open Source repository initiative, launched in 2009, which has over 2 million registered users, and over 5 million items. In had 281 million page views in the first week of January this year alone, and 1.12 billion in the month of December. It’s *huge*.  The repository is not for profit, has no foundation funding, no sponsorship, no advertising revenue. It supports anonymity and pseudonimity and it doesn’t collect or sell user data. It also has a hybrid tagging system maintained entirely by volunteers, which is a thing of wonder.  It’s based on inclusive feminist design principals and built and maintained almost entirely by women, many of whom are young, queer and nonbinary. Last year it won a prestigious international award in recognition of its achievements.  Some of you will already know what I’m talking about, others might be wondering why they’ve never heard of this astonishing initiative before.  It is of course Archive of our Own, the archive of fanfiction managed by the Organization for Transformative Works. It’s an incredible achievement that’s been almost completely ignored by the majority of the tech sector for the last decade. I’ll leave you to decide why. I started my curation with @audreywatters sobering “100 Worst Ed Tech Debacles of the Decade”, and I can’t help reflecting on what AO3s has achieved in the same period.  At a time when concerns are growing about identity, surveillance, data ownership, & ethics, AO3 shows us that there is another way to be, that another kind of internet is possible. If ed tech opened its eyes, it could learn a lot from AO3 *and* the women who built & maintain it.  To learn more about this incredible collaborative achievement I can highly recommend this 2018 Open Repositories Conference keynote by Casey Fiesler, @cfiesler,  And you can follow @ao3org and @OTWnews here.  I’ve also written a blog post AO3 – The mad woman in the open source attic?

That thread got quite a response when it was retweeted by AO3, and I was very grateful when Frances also drew attention to it at the start of her own curation, however I’m still not sure that many ed tech people sat up and took notice. 

Although I use the #femedtech hashtag frequently I felt a much greater sense of responsibility when tweeting from the account. I was very careful about what I shared, reading every blog post, paper or news article from start to finish before tweeting it from the account. In the process I discovered several voices I would not have come across otherwise, including Marianne Thamm, whose powerful article In Defence of South African Hope, was brought to my attention by Laura Czerniewicz.

At the same time that I was curating @femedtech, I was also tweeting from my own personal account and curating the University of Edinburgh’s OER Service account, @openededinburgh.  All three accounts require different approaches and voices and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the boundaries sometimes got a little blurred on occasion. I didn’t consciously try to mute my own voice while curating @femedtech, but I was always very conscious of the accountability of my words.  So it was really interesting after the end of my curation when Maha opened a conversation about the diversity of curators voices on femedtech.

All in all I found curating @femedtech to be a really positive and empowering experience and a great way to start the New Year.  I’m already wondering when I can sign up for my next slot! 

Diminished

It’s hard to know what to feel about today, but there’s a lot of emotion there, just below the surface; disbelief, anger, fear, disappointment, betrayal, gut wrenching sadness. It’s prickling behind my eyes, rising in my throat. I haven’t been able to watch the clips of the MEPs singing Auld Lang Syne in the Parliament, or listen to Molly Scott Cato’s final speech. Just scrolling past them on my twitter feed has me blinking furiously.

And that’s another emotion that’s there. Fury. Sheer blind fury that specious, self-serving men have dragged us out of the European Union against the will of a significant majority of the people of Scotland. And much as I feel for all my friends and colleagues in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and fuck knows I do, there is a special fury and indignation reserved for Scotland and the lies we were told six years ago. The fake Vows and false promises that swore the only way Scotland could guarantee its place in the European Union was to vote no and remain part of the UK. Well look where that got us. But to make this just about Scotland depreciates the enormity of what is happening today. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU diminishes us all; every one of us, every country in the UK, every country in Europe will be lesser tomorrow than we are today.

By triggering the Brexit referendum four years ago, Cameron truly opened Pandora’s box, releasing all the evils of xenophobia, racism, bigotry and isolationism. They were all there already of course, make no mistake. Many people have faced, and continue to face, these evils every day of their lives, but there’s no doubt that Brexit has given the racists, the bigots and the xenophobes a legitimacy that surely even they could scarcely have dreamed of.

And like Pandora, all that’s left to us now is hope; hope that another generation can fix this mess we’ve made, hope that another referendum can bring us back together, hope that Europe will not turn its back on us and will keep that light burning.

“Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.” 

2019: Inspiration and Hope

2019 was a difficult year by any standards, what with Brexit looming, the disastrous general election, the strike, and other issues rather closer to home. However I don’t want to dwell on the negatives, instead I want to focus on the people and events that inspired me and gave me hope over the course of the year.

OER19

The OER conferences are always inspirational but this year that inspiration was particularly necessary and timely. The theme of OER19 was Recentering Open: Critical and Global Perspectives and the conference gave a much-needed platform to many of the diverse voices that are often marginalized in the open knowledge domain. More than anything else though, the conference was about hope. From Kate Bowles uplifting opening keynote, to co-chairs Catherine Cronin and Laura Czerniewicz quoting Rebecca Solnit in their closing address, OER19 provided a much needed beacon of hope.

“Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

OER19, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

ALT and Wikimedia UK

I was honoured to be re-elected to the boards of both ALT and Wikimedia UK for a second term in 2019. I can’t speak highly enough of my fellow board members, board chairs and the CEOs of both organisations. Their commitment to supporting their members and communities for the greater good of all is endlessly inspiring. It’s a privilege to be able to make a small contribution to both organisations.

Wikimedia UK Board 2019. By Josie Fraser.

Society for Nautical Research

I stepped down as a board member of the Society for Nautical Research, after five years as chair of the SNR’s Publications and Membership Committee. It was an experience that was equal parts rewarding and frustrating, particularly when I was often the only female voice in the room. However I’m very grateful to my colleagues on Pubs Comm who supported me throughout, and I was pleased and surprised to be made a Fellow of the Society when I stepped down in July.

Femedtech

I’ve been peripherally involved in Femedtech since it’s inception but last year was the first time I sat down and really made a contribution with the femedtech Open Space, femedtech.net, which Frances Bell and I built for OER19, with the generous support of Alan Levine and Reclaim Hosting. I was overjoyed by the response to the Open Space and I’m delighted to see it living on to host subsequent femedtech projects and initiatives.

Frances Bell, Life Member of ALT

Although I’ve known Frances and admired her work for many years, so it was a joy to work with her to build the femedtech Open Space. It was a real privilege to be able to learn from her experience, commitment and empathy. So I was over the moon to see Frances’ contribution to the ed tech community and beyond acknowledged by ALT when she was awarded Life Membership of ALT at the ALT Conference in September. Being invited by ALT CEO Maren Deepwell to present the award to Frances was, without doubt, one of my personal highlights of the year.

Frances Bell, Honorary Life Member or ALT, CC BY NC, Chris Bull for Association for Learning Technology

Wikimedia for Peace in Vienna

In June I took time out from work to go to the Wikipedia for Peace editathon, which took place in Vienna to coincide with Europride 2019. It was amazing to be able to meet and work with a group of inspiring editors, all of whom are deeply committed to upholding the rights of marginalized individuals and communities through knowledge equity. I’m very grateful to Wikimedia UK and Josie Fraser for supporting my participation in this event.

Wikipedia for Peace editathon, CC BY SA 4.0, Mardetanha, on Wikimedia Commons.

Dunfermline College on Wikipedia

I didn’t manage to do as much Wikipedia editing this year as I would have liked, but one thing I was able to do was to edit the rather sparse page for Dunfermline College of Physical Education. I was inspired to do this by the University of Edinburgh’s Body Language exhibition and the fact that my mother had been a student of the college in the 1950’s. I inherited my mother’s college photograph album when she passed away several years ago and many of her photographs are now illustrating the college’s shiny new Wikipedia page. Many thanks to Michael Maggs for guiding me through the OTRS process.

ICEPOPS

The ICEPOPS Conference came to Edinburgh in July and I was delighted to be able to go along, not just because I’m a big admirer of Jane Secker and Chris Morrison’s work, but also because my OER Service colleague Charlie Farley was presenting one of the keynotes. Charlie is a joy and an inspiration to work with it was wonderful to hear her presenting her first keynote.

Stephanie (Charlie) Farley and Jane Secker, CC BY Lorna M. Campbell

Once Upon An Open

I first heard Sara Thomas’ moving story Once Upon An Open when she uploaded it to the femedtech Open Space during OER19 and it moved me to tears.  I missed Sara telling the story live at the conference, but I heard her perform this piece again at the Wikimedia AGM in Bristol.  Since then, I’ve listened to it countless times and urged everyone I know to listen to it too, it’s worth five minutes of anyone’s time. 

Open For a Cause

In early December ALT and Wikimedia DE invited me to Berlin, where I had the privilege of participating in Open For a Cause: Fostering participation in society and education. It was a humbling experience to sit alongside a group inspirational thinkers, including Laura Czerniewicz, Audrey Watters, Martin Hawksey,  Maren Deepwell and Christian Friedrich, all of whom have had a huge impact on my own understanding of the open knowledge domain. It was also lovely to spend time in Berlin, a city I’m very fond off, with such good friends.

Maren Deepwell, Audrey Watters, and me. CC BY Martin Hawksey

UCU Strike

The UCU strike was difficult this year, I’m not going to deny it. It was long and hard and came at a difficult time of the year with Brexit and the general election looming. It had to be done though and I’m immensely proud of colleagues across the UK who joined the strike, and stood up for the rights of all those working in Higher Education today.

UCU Strike Rally, CC BY SA, Lorna M. Campbell on Wikimedia Commons

Open Scotland

In my end of year reflection last year, I noted that one of my frustrations had been that I had neglected Open Scotland due to lack of time and headspace. I’m pleased to say that at the end of 2019 Joe Wilson and I made an effort to resurrect the initiative. Open Scotland has now moved to a shared curation model inspired by femedtech and I’d like to thank all those who volunteered for enough curation spots to see us through into the New Year.

Return of the Magic Bus

Another woe from last year was the sad demise of our faithful old VW T25 camper van. After months of swithering we finally decided to bite the bullet and shell out for a new engine and by mid summer the magic bus was back on the road and heading for the Outer Hebrides where we spent a fabulous week visiting family and touring the length of the islands.

Scurrival Campsite, Barra. CC BY Lorna M. Campbell

Friends

And last, but by no means least, friends. Friends and colleagues have been an endless inspiration and support this year and I am grateful to every one of them. It was a particular pleasure to reconnect with the old Strathclyde crew, Allison, Sheila, Sarah and Karen, and to be able to revisit our favourite old haunt Café Gandolfi. Good times. Here’s hoping there will be many more of them.

Gray and Glasgow – Living Imaginatively

I was deeply saddened this morning to hear of the death of the author and artist Alasdair Gray, undoubtedly one of the most significant English-language authors of the last century. I have a strong personal connection to Gray’s writing as in some obscure way it’s bound up with my decision to come to study and live in Glasgow.

I first came across Gray’s writing in one of Penguin’s Firebird anthologies in the early 1980s, when I was about 14, then the following year my partner’s brother, who was studying Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University, came home with a copy of Lanark and gave it to me to read it. I was completely captivated by everything about the book and pestered my friends to read it, most of them did and were equally enthralled. (Dragonhide was a condition we recognised well.) After Lanark, I went on to Unlikely Stories Mostly and 1982 Janine. I know 1982 Janine is a divisive book, and I certainly read it at an impressionable age, but I still think it’s an incredibly powerful work, and one that comes frighteningly close to capturing the disorienting reality of mental breakdown in words and typography.

When I left school, I had hoped to go to Edinburgh to the School of Scottish Studies, but although I was successful in securing a place, the university didn’t offer me a place in halls, and, as I couldn’t afford to travel to Edinburgh to find a flat, I had to turn the place down. Instead I went to Glasgow, which offered me accommodation and a place to study Scottish Literature and Archaeology. I wasn’t exactly keen on going to Glasgow at first, but in an odd way it was through the writing of Alasdair Gray and Edwin Morgan, and an anthology of Glasgow poetry called Noise and Smoky Breath, that features Gray’s artwork of Cowcaddens on the cover, that I warmed to the idea of moving to the city. I say odd, because Gray’s vision of Glasgow in Lanark is very much a dystopian one, but it’s a very human dystopia.  

When I first read Lanark in Stornoway as a teen, I had no real experience of Glasgow, it was a city I’d visited only once as a child, so re-reading the book at university while I was living in the city was a real eye-opener for me.   I saw Gray reading several times while I was a student, most notably at Felt Tipped Hosannas, a Mayfest event in 1990 to commemorate Edwin Morgan’s 70th birthday. He read an excerpt of McGrotty and Ludmilla and he was hilarious.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Lanark since then, at least a dozen probably. It’s a book I go back to time and time again and every time I read it, it becomes more relevant.

It goes without saying that I love Gray’s art as much as his writing, as it’s really impossible to separate the two. For a short time, while I worked at Strathclyde University in the early 2000’s, we were privileged to share our Cetis office with some original prints of the Lanark illustrations from the University’s art collection.

I’ve lived in Glasgow for over 30 years now and somehow my experience of the city is still inextricably bound up with Gray’s work, whether it’s his artwork in Hillhead, Oran Mor, or The Chip, or his words that are woven into the fabric of the city.

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

Lanark ~ Alasdair Gray

As an eighteen year old teenager from the Outer Hebrides, I was able to imagine living in Glasgow because I had already visited it through Gray’s art, and never once have I felt like a stranger here.

Hope and Resistance

I guess this is another one of those blog posts. You know the ones. The ranty sweary ones. The morning after the night before ones. Those ones. This morning my partner said “How many times do we have to wake up like this?  It’s like fucking groundhog day.”  I’m getting a bit (a lot) fed up of writing these and tbh honest I had no intention of writing one today. But on days like this I can’t not write.

I wish could say I was surprised by the result, but I’m not. I’m horrified, terrified, disgusted.  I’m heartbroken beyond words for friends and colleagues in England and Wales. But I’m not surprised. I’m also immensely proud of every person in Scotland who voted to keep the Tories out. And who have kept voting again and again and again. And yeah on the one hand it feels very much like the dawn of another (worse? Who’d have thought that was possible.) Thatcher era, when Scotland was disenfranchised and denied a say in it’s own destiny. But on the other, having come so close to independence, to have stated so strongly that we do not want the racist reactionary right-wing politics so popular and populist south of the border, surely we won’t give that up without a fight?  

We have to hope, and more importantly we have to resist. And keep resisting. Care is an act of resistance, self-care is an act of resistance, joy is an act of resistance. Find inspiration wherever you can. Find it in the people on the streets of Hong Kong, Santiago, Beirut and Barcelona. Find it in the climate protesters.  Find it in the kids. Find it in libraries and unions and picket lines. Find it in the words of Jimmy Reid, or Peaches, Hamish Henderson, Rebecca Solnit or bell hooks. Find your inspiration to resist and to hope, and when you find it, share it.

Uncredited Hong Kong protest art.  Source: https://twitter.com/uwu_uwu_mo/status/1176694124675813378?s=20

Dunfermline College of Physical Education: A personal connection

While I was off on strike I was able to spend some time finishing a project I’ve been working on for a couple of months; editing the Wikipedia page for Dunfermline College of Physical Education.  I was inspired to update the existing page by the recent Body Language exhibition at the University of Edinburgh Library which delved into the archives of Dunfermline College and the influential dance pioneer Margaret Morris, to explore Scotland’s significant contributions to movement and dance education. And the reason I was so keen to improve this page, which was little more than a stub when I started editing, is that my mother was a student at Dunfermline College from 1953 – 1956, and when she died in 2011 my sister and I inherited her old college photograph album.  

My mother was not a typical Dunfermline student. Unlike many of her fellow students, who were privately educated and went straight to the college on leaving school, my mother was educated at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, and after leaving school she took an office job while working her way through the Civil Service exams.  She’d been working a year or so when the college came to the island to interview prospective students, and her father suggested she apply.  Her interview was successful, and she was awarded a place and a bursary to attend the college, which at that time was in Aberdeen.  Having experienced a degree of independence before going to Dunfermline, my mother chaffed at the rigid discipline of the residential college, which expected certain standards of decorum from its “girls”.  She didn’t take too kindly to the arbitrary rules, and it’s perhaps no surprise that her motto in the college year book was “Laws were made to be broken”.  She did however make many life-long friends at college and she went on to have a long and active teaching career.

My mother worked as a PE teaching on the Isle of Lewis, first as a travelling teacher working in tiny rural schools across the island, and later in the Nicolson Institute.  She passionately believed that all children should be able to enjoy physical education, regardless of aptitude or ability, and she vehemently opposed the idea that the primary role of PE teachers was to spot and nurture “talent”.  Her real interest was movement and dance and many of the children she taught in the small rural schools where convinced she was really just a big playmate who came to play with them once a week.  Sporting facilities were pretty much non-existent in rural schools in the Western Isles the 1970s. Few schools had a gyms or playing field, so she often organised games and sports days on the machair by the beaches. The first swimming pool in the islands didn’t open until the mid 1970s and prior to that she taught children to swim in the sea, on the rare occasions it was sufficiently calm and warm.  None of the schools she taught in had AV facilities of any kind and I vividly remember the little portable tape recorded that she carried around with her for music and movement lessons.  She retired from teaching in 1987, not long after the acrimonious national teachers pay dispute.  Despite being rather scunnered with the education system by the time she retired, it’s clear that the years she spent at Dunfermline played a formative role in shaping not just in her career, but also her personal relationships and her approach to teaching. Typically, she was proud to be known as the rule breaker of her “set” and I think she’d appreciate the irony of her old pictures appearing on the college Wikipedia page. 

In order to add these images to Commons, I’m having to go through the rather baroque OTRS procedure, and I’d like to thank Michael Maggs, former Chair of Board of Wikimedia UK, for his invaluable support in guiding me through the process.  Thanks are also due to colleagues at the Centre for Research Collections, which holds the college archive, for helping me access some of the sources I’ve cited. 

One last thing….when I was producing our OER Service Autumn newsletter I made this GIF to illustrate a short news item about the Body Language exhibition. 

Garden Dance GIF

Garden Dance, CC BY, University of Edinburgh.

The gif is part of a beautiful 1950s film featuring students from Dunfermline College called Garden Dance, which was released under open licence by the Centre of Research Collections.  The film is described as “Dance set in unidentified garden grounds, possibly in Dunfermline” however when I was looking through my mother’s college album I found this picture of the very same garden, so it appears it was filmed in Aberdeen. If you click through to the film, you can clearly see the same monkey puzzle tree in the background. It was obviously something of a landmark!  I wonder if my mother is one of the dancers? 

 

Where to draw the line?

Today I am on strike to support the industrial action called by UCU over changes to the USS pension scheme and universities’ failure to make improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads.  You can find out more about the UCU strikes here: Everyone Out

Having worked on short term contracts for much of my academic career, casualisation and precarity are causes particularly close to my heart and it’s appalling to see how contracts and conditions have deteriorated over the years. I experienced precarity working as a contact researcher for almost twenty years from 1997 to 2015 and I am well aware that my experience pales in comparison to the casualisation and exploitation that many academic colleagues, support staff and early career researchers are currently facing. It’s hard to overestimate the stress caused by constantly scrabbling to get your contract renewed, not knowing if you’ll be employed next month, next semester, next year, not being able to commit to this or that project because you don’t know if you’ll still have a job, not knowing if you’ll be able to pay the mortgage, the rent, the childcare.  Coupled with wildly unrealistic workloads, grinding insecurity, invisible emotional labour, and an “always on” culture exacerbated by social media, it’s hardly any wonder that higher education is facing a mental health crisis. 

But. Here’s the thing, when your personal commitments and professional identity are so tied up with an exploitative system, where do you draw the line?  This is something I’ve grappled with for years. I currently work 0.8 fte at an institution where my primary responsibility is to support uptake and engagement with open education and OER. I’m immensely privileged to work in a field I love at an institution with a strong civic mission and a real commitment to openness and sharing knowledge.  I also have a long standing commitment to open education and social justice that stretches back for well over a decade and I use the time I’m not employed by my institution to contribute my labour to other organisations and initiatives that support like minded goals, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes in a more formal capacity, as a Trustee or committee member, sometimes just for fun.  These include #Femedtech, ALT, Wikimedia UK, the Open Knowledge Open Education Working Group and Open Scotland.  But when my own personal and political commitments and activism are so interwoven with my professional employment the boundaries become blurred and it’s hard to know where, if anywhere, to draw the line.  I’ve written about the issue of open education and invisible labour before, and I still don’t have any good answers to the questions I raised in this post: Open Practice and Invisible Labour.

So although I am supporting the UCU strikes today, and I will be back on the digital picket line next week, I have not cancelled a commitment to take part in a free event hosted by Wikimedia DE and ALT in Berlin this week on the theme of Open for a cause: fostering participation in society and education.  I’ve done a lot of soul searching to reach this decision, and I’m not sure if it’s the right one, however I believe that many of the conversations that will be aired at this event are directly relevant to the systemic issues plaguing higher education, which the UCU strike is calling for action on.  I’m still deeply conflicted about this decision, but this is where I’m drawing the line, even if it’s terribly blurred.  In lieu of striking for the three days I’ll be in Berlin, I’ve made a contribution to the UCU Fighting Fund instead.