Thursday, 25 May 2017

The 'curse of knowledge' and what to do about it

Dear Colleagues,

I am in the process of writing-up my doctoral thesis and have taught myself two valuable lessons, primarily as a result of (a) nor being able to maintain a schedule of output and (b) feeling that my writing just isn't good enough. What I have learnt is, I am partly ashamed to admit, that I need to listen to the advice that I would give to a student in the same predicament:

(1) Just write - it might not be brilliant, but it's better than finding the day is ending and you've done bugger all. Linked to this;

(2) It isn't meant to be perfect first time 'round - great if it is - but it doesn't matter if it isn't. It'll give you some to read and reflect on and send to your supervisor to prove you are still alive and/or haven't run away.

Part of the problem is an assumption that, writing a doctoral thesis should mean using language that looks like the stuff I have been reading to help get my head around my research focus: activist education and knowledge production.

Well it should certainly look like I understand key messages, be able to grasp and apply elements of theory and relate this to my own research. But, what I shouldn't do is, as Steven Pinker warns, fall foul of the 'curse of knowledge' - and I think I have been.

For Pinker the curse of knowledge is:  the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows — that they haven't mastered the patois of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Taken from his book, The Sense of Style ( the simplest explanation of Pinker's position is that you can become so bound up within, or confident about your subject knowledge, that it becomes difficult to relate this in simple, explainable, understandable terms.

To know that I actually know what to do here is frustrating - I just need to keep reminding myself of the advice I'd give to students tackling the same challenge. In addition I shall bear in mind Pinker's advice to manage this problem:

Get rid of abstractions and use concrete nouns and refer to concrete things. Who did what to whom? Read over your sentences and look for nouns that refer to meta-abstractions and ask yourself whether there's a way to put a tangible, everyday object or concept in its place. “The phrase ‘on the aspirational level' adds nothing to ‘aspire,' nor is a ‘prejudice reduction model' any more sophisticated than ‘reducing prejudice.'”

When in doubt, assume the reader knows a fair bit less than you about your topic. Clarity is not condescension. You don't need to prove how smart you are — the reader won't be impressed. “The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.” 

Get someone intelligent and part of your intended audience to read over your work and see if they understand it. You shouldn't take every last suggestion, but do take seriously when they tell you certain sections are muddy or confusing. “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.

Put your first draft down for enough time that, when you come back to it, you no longer feel deep familiarity with it. In this way, you become your intended audience. Your own fresh eyes will see the text in a new way. Don't forget to read aloud, even if just under your breath.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 18 May 2017

Fight the Tory Attack on Schools

Dear  Colleagues,

The education unions are heading a campaign to fight back against cuts in school funding. Please use the interactive website below to identify an event near you that you can support.

You can also organise your own event by ordering resources from the campaign website:!/

Whatever you do, please join one of the most important campaigns of current political history.

In Solidarity


Thursday, 27 April 2017

Workers' Memorial Day: Friday 28th April 2017

Dear Colleagues,

All being well you have an event planned for tomorrow.

If you need to see what events are taking place across the UK - perhaps you can join one if you have nothing planned in your workplace - please follow this link:

In Solidarity


Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Radicalization of Pedagogy

Dear Colleagues,

Just a brief post to give a plug for a fascinating new book (published by Rowman and Littlefield) by
Simon Springer, Marcelo Lopes de Souza, and Richard J. White. You can order a copy here:

As those who regularly read this blog will know, a key focus and interest of mine is the means by which activists learn and shape their craft. This new text enters this domain with a focus on anarchist geographies.

As the advertising blub states:

How do activists learn radical politics? Does the increasing neoliberalisation of education limit the possibilities of transgressive pedagogies? And in what contexts have anarchist geographers successfully shaped alternative pedagogic practices?

Pedagogy is central to geographical knowledge and represents one of the key sites of contact where anarchist approaches can inform and revitalize contemporary geographical thought. This book looks at how anarchist geographers have shaped pedagogies that move towards bottom-up, ‘organic’ transformations of societies, spaces, subjectivities, and modes of organizing, where the importance of direct action and prefigurative politics take precedence over concerns about the state. Examining contemporary and historical case studies across the world, from formal and informal contexts, the chapters show the potential for new imaginaries of anarchist geographies that will challenge and inspire geographers to travel beyond the traditional frontiers of geographical knowledge.

The case studies deployed to explore the core thrust include the Zapatista tradition of education as a formative anti-neo-liberal model to. There is an article in Roar Magazine based on this chapter:

You can also see a sample chapter by following the link at the top of this page.

In Solidarity


Monday, 3 April 2017

Renegade: RIP Darcus Howe

Dear Colleagues,

Earlier this year the biography of Darcus Howe (activist, writer and broadcaster) Renegade: The Life & Times of Darcus Howe was re-published by Bloomsbury. Details are here:

Sadly, the news today is that Darcus Howe has passed away aged 74. There will no doubt be many tributes, but here's a link to an article in today's Guardian:

Growing up in Moss Side at a time of great economic and political turbulence, it was Darcus Howe through his writing and occasional appearances on television at the time, who made the greatest impact on me in linking contemporary racism to the UK's colonial past.

The tributes pouring in reflect his role challenging endemic racism in UK society, not least within state machinery, and particularly the police force. As is stated in the Guardian articled linked above:

In a hugely varied and influential journalistic career, he was also an editor of Race Today, wrote columns for both the New Statesman and the Voice, and served as chair of the Notting Hill carnival. His television work included the multicultural current affairs documentary The Bandung File, which he co-edited with Tariq Ali, and more recently White Tribe, a look at modern Britain.

Howe's legacy is vitally important in the current context of Brexit and the rise of populist politics and the far right. Please look out for the many hundred of articles critiquing his life and political contribution.

In Solidarity


Friday, 17 March 2017

The legacy of Chris Wilkes (18/12/57-18/03/16)

Dear Colleagues,
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic, early death of former Ruskin College Principal, Chris Wilkes. Chris was an inspirational leader in many genuine, authentic ways. He was deeply committed to Ruskin's ethos of providing an excellent educational experience to working class adults, and encouraged all ideas/initiatives which were in pursuit of this. Below is the post I added to the blog just after an event at Ruskin last year to celebrate Chris's life. I wanted to post it again in memory of him.

Yesterday at Ruskin College we held a memorial event to celebrate the life of Chris Wilkes, the Principal of Ruskin College who died unexpectedly on 18th March.

The event drew many current staff members, and a diverse body of ex-Ruskin staff from the period of Chris's time at Ruskin, the bulk of which he spent in the role of General Secretary on appointment in 1991.

I left Ruskin College in 1991 and so missed meeting Chris, however, we did meet when I worked at the WEA and Northern College, and it was a great privilege to be under his leadership when I started to work at Ruskin College, first as a visiting tutor, from 2000.

Many people made a contribution yesterday, including Ruth Spelman, Chief Executive of the WEA, and Stephen Yeo, ex-Principal.

The overwhelming sentiment expressed was of a kind, caring, considerate man, with a profound commitment to the development and delivery of education which could transform the lives of working class women and men.

I spent many very happy hours with Chris on a variety of areas of work and always felt his genuine support and care for my role at Ruskin. Chris was also my main encouragement to start my doctorate research and I am aim to dedicate this to him.

I was privileged yesterday to host the memorial event, and this allowed me to introduce speakers, and I concluded by saying that the event marked not the end of the way that we remember Chris's legacy, but just the beginning.

In Solidarity


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa

Dear Colleagues,

In previous posts I have written of the close association between Ruskin College, the South African liberation movement, and also those books that had a great influence on me during my time as a student at the College.

With this in mind this post is a plug for the re-issue by Zed Books of Baruch Hirson's seminal text on the making of the black working class in South Africa, Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa:

Whilst the original edition in 1990 came in for some relatively negative critique (like this from Ian Hunter:, Yours for the Union: Class and Community Struggles in South Africa is still recognised as a critically important text in placing in historical context the inability of the black South African left to overcome internal division.

As the promotional Zed text states:

Yours for the Union stands as a landmark history of the making of the black working class in South Africa. Drawing on a wide range of sources, it covers the crucial period of 1930–47, when South Africa's rapid industrialisation led to the dramatic growth of the working class, and uncontrolled urbanisation resulted in vast shanty towns which became a focal point for resistance and protest. Importantly, Hirson was one of the first historians to go beyond the traditional focus on the mines and factory workplaces, broadening his account to include the lesser known community struggles of the urban ghettoes and rural reserves.

I came across Hirson's book not long after I had read key chapters of Ron Ramdin's The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain. Taken together both books provide a powerful insight upon the processes of radicalisation of economically/politically marginalised groups - not least when a key driver for that marginalisation is racism.

You can still get hold of the original (1990) version of Hirson's book, and although weighty in parts, is essential reading for those interested in working class formation and political mobilisation.

For those with feedback/comments on Hirson or Ramdin please post a reply.

In Solidarity