Working Class Academics Conference: 14th – 15th July 2020

I am pleased to be involved in the organisation and creation of the Working Class Academics Conference in July this year. I first met the educators who are the engines behind the vision several years back when an academic in Manchester felt that I had something to contribute as well as something to learn in the area of digital inclusion.


Working class conference

This was in 2014; it was four years in to doing Ragged University and as yet I had hardly stepped foot inside of an institution of formal learning. I was still in shock that individual academics were supportive informally of what I was doing and the social learning activities which I had been been involved in coordinating.


I not only felt uncertain but at times had been labelled overtly as an imposter in the realms of academia by certain types who seemed incensed by the notion that I should be trying to make contributions in professionalised fields of thinking without the given formal qualifications which authenticated me as a ‘valid thinker’.


The counter valence to this ostracising sociological phenomena are the people who I have met in academia who encourage and are encouraged by people who learn outside the formal setting. In my experience these people outnumber those who are outwardly hostile and it is these spirits who have made me feel welcome as an independent thinker to contribute to how discourse is formed – especially in areas where I have direct experience.


What we see played out in the turbulence of the human ecology are indicators of the dynamics at work in the institutions of learning and wider society in general. Primates form ingroups and outgroups and this is a part of our the strength and limitations of our species. The accounts offered by Emile Durkheim speak to me meaningfully of what is at work in education, knowledge and acknowledgement. The founder of the academic discipline of Sociology described a class as a miniature society expressing resistance against the idea that it is merely an agglomeration of individuals independent of each other.


This is very helpful in framing how the perspectives we take on education and the institutions go on to determine participation in activities. In it we have a lens to gaze at what cultures there are. Within these realms hierarchies and categories get formed accentuating essentialised aspiration and exclusiveness. In the shimmering mirrors of our institutions are reflections of the dominant values of the society as they get enacted in our day to day experiences; as we re-enact, extend and recreate what has come to us as ‘received wisdom’.


For educators to truly engage with policies like ‘Widening Participation’ and ‘Public Engagement’ departures from the way that things have (and are) done. This is also a departure from the entrenchment of agency which expresses itself as authority but is in fact only a part of an extended ecology of human culture.


The production of knowledge and culture from working class and less resourced population demographics is tragically under and misrepresented. That there are educators who are not only discussing widening participation and public engagement, but also who are enacting tangible practice as a manifest reality for communities beyond the academy represents a departure from the compulsive enclosures of status society.


This upcoming conference is a refreshing reconfiguration of how academic conferences can be organised so as to include and make welcome thinking from diverse places. My particular interests are anchored in the least well resourced spaces where people and communities develop their own forms of education in the wild. These interests are geared to looking at learning as a shared activity essential in human development and wellbeing – something very distant from some of the Malthusian visions of education as profit bearing business.


There is a lot of advanced thinking which goes on outside of the academic and professionalised spaces which never gets acknowledged and as such it is an impoverishment on the whole of society where people are excluded from being able to contribute into commons which revivify the collective through supporting the individual.


The working class cultures have long existed as opulent sources of arts, sciences and culture. As Jonathan Rose put it in his prize winning book ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’: “Historians, as Robert Darnton observed in 1980, ‘want to penetrate the mental world of ordinary persons as well as philosophers, but they keep running into the vast silence that has swallowed up most of mankind’s thinking’”…

Rose, J. (2010). The intellectual life of the British working classes. New Haven: Yale University Press. (Page 1)


People have forever philosophised down the mines, theorised in the fields and invented in the mills, however, like the intellectual lives of women, they have been overshadowed by expropriations.


We see history in action especially be looking beyond our own navels; if we look to the global south we can see the poverty of mind which is at work in the embargos on the great continent of Africa and its nations for example. In his Globalization and its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz writes how “Western countries have pushed poor countries to eliminate trade barriers, but kept up their own barriers, preventing developing countries from exporting their agricultural products and so depriving them” (page 6). They are the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists who decorate the highly privileged in the highly privileged economies like Britain.


As a trend, the barriers and preclusions to participation, recognition and valuation decrease as resources and their associated status increases. When capital flows into a cultural space, those who have the most capital generally dictate the terms of that space. As education is now a target for the stockmarket investors which view everything primarily in terms of means to extract value. Those individuals and educators who are resisting the colonisation of learning exchange and knowledge building as public goods are protecting a vital ground for scholarship distributed in the everyday.


…Jonathan Rose continues in his biography detailing the missing history of working class intellectual life: “Six years later, however, Darnton had become more optimistic. ‘It should be possible to develop a history as well as a theory of reader response,’ he now suggested. ‘Possible, but not easy….’


In fact, in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars in the emerging discipline of ‘book history’ invented the research methods and tapped the archival resources that allowed them to penetrate this mystery. Common readers disclosed their experiences in memoirs and diaries, school records, social surveys, oral interviews, library registers, letters to newspaper editors (published or, more revealingly, unpublished), fan mail, and even in the proceedings of the Inquisition. Of these sources, the most useful are the autobiographies of ordinary people”.


Jonathan Roses book is an important document in the history of the intellectual lives of the working classes and I look forward to this conference being a part of that history – one which includes all the people, many of which have become academics and gone on to teach generations of people and resist their essentialisation as special or exceptional.


If you are interested in the conference and want to present on any of the themes and topics, please submit an abstract.  There are free places for people who submit from outside academia and who do not have the money to cover the costs.  Share your intellectual life and celebrate knowledge and learning on your own terms.  Here are a list of themes for activities and/or presentations:

  • Art, Activism and Class.
  • Intersectionality.
  • Class as an influence on pedagogy.
  • Pedagogies of the working class.
  • Autobiographical journeys beyond the divide.
  • Critical economics.
  • The University as a class barrier.
  • Environmentalism and the working class.
  • “Must we leave to achieve?”: Education, social mobility and the resituating of the working class.
  • The rectification and commodification of the working class.
  • Performance, the Academy and working class.
  • A digital planet – barrier of enabler for working class engagement.
  • Being a working class student.
  • ‘Housework, children, jobs and cooking’: working class women on/in academia.
  • Class and migration.
  • Faith and class.
  • Imposter Syndrome and Jonah Complex: the challenges of coming to terms with being working class academics.


Here is an interview with Lisa McKenzie on the run up to the conference