Saturday, 19 December 2015

Reflecting on Education for Movement Activism

I have found it incredibly difficult since the start of the new academic year to find the time to sit, reflect and write material for this blog. On the positive side this is largely because the volume and range of trade union education undertaken by Ruskin College is increasing. I must use this post to formally welcome Fenella Porter and Maria Exall to the ILTUS team, as they are part of the College plans to boost ILTUS activity. What has also impacted however, is my re-engagement with doctoral study, with the ambitious goal of submitting my thesis in October next year.
So, this final post of 2015 is an attempt to explore a little of my doctoral research (an overview of the impact of the MA I run at Ruskin in the context of the College's historical legacy of developing and providing worker/trade union education) with reference to four students of the BA ILTUS (for whom I was the lead/personal tutor) who completed their six-year part-time programme this weekend with the submission of their dissertations.
By the end of such a long part-time programme (the BA is now only four years in length) the four stalwarts who completed are Kemo Sangyang, Mark Daniels. Steve Skelly, and Mo Malik. Although only four students they represent diverse employment sectors, political backgrounds and differing reasons to start the BA.
It is critically important that we at Ruskin pay attention to the lessons leaned by students as a result of their educational experience here, but particularly so, I would contend, when that experience is predicated on an express and implied set of social and political values outwith the confines of the institution and posited across movements oriented to profound political, social and economic change.
From l-r: Kemo Sangyang, Mark Daniels, Kate Daniels,
Steve Skelly, Karen Skelly and Mo Malik)
As Christian Smith conveys in his study of the US-Central America peace movement of the 1980s:

social movements do not consist simply of abstract structures and contexts, of impersonal forces and events. Social movements are, at bottom, real, flesh-and-blood human beings acting together to confront and disrupt. They are the collective expressions of specific people, of concrete men and women struggling together for a cause. Bringing our focus down to real, concrete human beings in this way raises a set of questions. Namely, exactly what kinds of people participated? Why did they tend to join or become recruited into the movement: What personal characteristics or circumstances may have predisposed them to become activists? (Smith 1996:168)

A link to Smith's publications is here:

As I have written previously in blog posts the writing of people like Aziz Choudry ( and Mario Novelli ( are essential to my thesis research around how, for example, processes of knowledge production themselves transform movements and the actors within them.

This notion of movement transformation as a in/direct result of the experience of actors is problematic in the context of labour movements, as I will be arguing in my doctoral research. This problematic conception extends also to the broader purpose of research activity and this tension was captured clearly in a neat, sharp article, Collective narratives and politics in the contemporary study of work: the new management practices debate, which was published in the Work, Employment and Society journal in 2011.

The introduction of ‘On the front line’ in this journal is an important departure in British sociology of work and employment and a commitment to engagement with labour raises critical issues about how to achieve this. First, we require recognition and the articulation of myriad dimensions of ‘voices from the front line’ including those perspectives relatively autonomous from ‘official’ voices. Second, it is important to recognize that until recently this was indeed a feature of some research agendas both within and outside the academy, sometimes in alliance with the organic intellectuals of the labour movement, including those in the workplace who have become less audible. Third, it is argued that being out of earshot is linked to a more widespread shift away from interest in the politics and texts of labour and its concerns, reflecting at one and the same time less curiosity within the academy and the official labour movement itself. Finally, since ‘independent voices’ of labour remain inexplicable within the realm of the latter, discouraging as it does a research agenda premised on an acceptance of oppositional voices and practices, commitment to these oppositional voices has to be an imperative if we are to capture the richness of workplace and worker debates and experiences.

This sense that Ruskin can work with the 'independent voices' of organised labour, bur remain a central institution of the same movements, is always a difficult balancing act. As our colleagues who complete their BA this weekend demonstrate however (and as I hope my doctorate research reveals) they exit their undergraduate study with a heightened degree of consciousness, renewed political enthusiasm and become also part of the international tapestry of Ruskin's educational activity.

I wish them all the very best.

In Solidarity