Teaching, Sharing Knowledge and Building Relationships with Jill Anderson of Asylum Magazine
It makes you wonder…
“It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.”
ANN PATCHETT, Bel Canto
…and with our websites too.
An April morning, Edinburgh. I stroll across the Meadows, to the computer repair shop where I am to meet Alex. He has coffee. There are pastries. I feel welcome, quite at ease. Ease and computers are not, to me, a natural pairing, but I aim to learn.
I am on the Asylum magazine collective. Our website was hacked recently. To sort it out, and avoid a recurrence, we turned to Alex Dunedin, of Ragged University. He swiftly took things in hand:
‘I have had a look at the website and it needs a lot of work. I see that there are 22 updates and WordPress has not been updated for some time’.
He gave it to us straight – helped us grasp the scale of what confronted us – but paced things too. Identifying a list of proposed improvements to the site, one early email concluded, ‘but that is maybe for another day’.
Alex recognised the emotional dimension of what had been happening – the risk of overwhelm:
‘I’m sorry that I’ve had to do all of this. I’m aiming to keep it as painless as possible for you all and use my initiative to resolve the issues. Let me know your thoughts and concerns so I can answer them’.
He redesigned the Asylum website, ‘de-nerding’ it. He did much of the work himself, but checked with us where needed:
‘Is this the kind of thing you want me to exercise judgement on and take forwards?’
He explained things to us in simple language – the chaotic file structure we had been left with for example:
‘I liken it to having all the cans of food in a supermarket stripped of their label and so organising and cooking specific meals becomes a bit of a task!’
And he nudged us away from ill-informed design decisions – the inclusion of ‘taster’ article that cut off midway, for example – advising us on alternatives, yet always concluding with a question: ‘What do you think?’
Alex has taught us about website hosting and design, how to obtain and integrate third party apps and some pitfalls of using them, how web hosting works and how to drive more traffic to our site. More importantly he has opened up a space in which we can develop our vision for the Asylum website and start to do more for ourselves. Key to that has been encouragement and mentoring. He has, literally, put words in to our mouths. They let us do things:
‘I have made the changes you have outlined. It is super helpful that you are talking to each other and arriving at design decisions. Some vocabulary which will help you in understanding how the website is made up is that where you are referring to “Tabs”, you are talking about “Pages” which appear in the “Navigation Bar” which holds your “Menus”.
Alex shares, with Bruner, the insight that understanding something structural about a thing – knowing how it is put together – “is worth a thousand facts about it. It permits you to go beyond it” (1984, p. 183.)
So what was going on in that Computer repair shop on that April morning? Alex was sharing information about something that he was passionate about. He was doing that not in a formal learning environment, not in my home or work place, but in what has been termed a ‘third place’. The choice of venue was not incidental, nor too were the coffee and pastries. They were core to the creation of the kind of atmosphere, and relationship, that enabled Alex and I to share our knowledge – his was technical, mine was contextual – each on our own terms.
What was going on in that computer repair shop was one step in the creation of community. And that is why I began this article with a quotation about the forging not of websites but of lives.
(This section has been written by Jill Anderson)
About Asylum Magazine
Asylum is a quarterly international magazine for democratic psychiatry. It is a forum for free debate, open to anyone with an interest in psychiatry or mental health. The magazine is not-for-profit and is run by a collective of unpaid volunteers. It’s open to anyone who wants to work, in a spirit of equality, to help produce the magazine.
Asylum – the title has connotations of a refuge and of the right not be seized – encourages those who have been hurt by the system to express their views in writing. It aims – through giving people “a proper place at the table” to help them get those views discussed. Sometimes, when angry, one can write what one might be frightened to say (particularly if guaranteed anonymity). Asylum is independent of financial support from anyone other than subscribers and workers. It has no allegiances except to the right to express one’s own opinion, and for others to have the right to challenge it, along with a duty to listen.
The magazine was inspired by two visits to England, in the 1980s, of mental health workers from Italy, missionaries for Psichiatria Democratica. They brought inspiration from developments in Trieste, where the great asylum, San Giovanni, had been transformed in to a complex of apartments for ex-patients and art studios for everyone, with space for theatre and cinema performances. There were small, friendly units with crisis beds. In Trieste, they had realised that much that is therapeutic comes from the arts; from sharing good things, from eating, drinking and laughing together.
In the spring of 1986 Asylum – costing 50p but “Free to Inmates” – was launched. The first cover announced: Exclusive interview with R. D. Laing: ‘Psychiatric Democracy in Italy, The Politics of Mental Health’. Alec Jenner was one of the founding editors. He died in 2014 but, through Asylum, his spirit lives on.
After a short break Asylum magazine was re-launched in 2010 with a special issue on the Paranoia Network. Since then there have been numerous special issues on a variety of topics such as: Psychiatric meds; the demise of Schizophrenia; the Spiritual Crisis Network; Anti capitalism and mental health; Thomas Szasz; Self-harm; Mad in Toronto; Creativity and distress; ECT; and US Prisons. In 2015 the magazine has a special theme of comics and mental health.
After a quarter of a century – inspired by a radicalised survivor movement – Asylum proudly struggles on. We hope to be able make a continuing and significant contribution to understanding madness and distress and humanising mental health services. We have a tradition of accepting articles, by allowing space for what is sent to us. Reality limits complete freedom!
Asylum will never have recourse to drug companies or sell out the principles of the radical democratic movement within and against psychiatry. Please support this movement by subscribing to Asylum, and contact us if you would like to get involved:
About Edinburgh Computer Repairs
Graeme Sturrock, owner of Edinburgh Computer repairs has supported Ragged University and community education for a number of years offering space and hospitality to thus enable digital skills teaching in his small business. A fountain of knowledge, Graeme gives generously to Edinburgh and is an exemplar of good spirit, kindness and good humour.