The Nucleus: Do It Yourself ‘Ragged University’-like Events

A lot of people have asked over time about ‘doing Ragged University’, and this is a set of notes for people who want to do their own thing in their own location independently. The essence of the project has been about identifying methods, strategies and means which anyone can do. Ragged University is not an organisation, it is something people do themselves and share with others – it is not something which is delivered onto others. It is a social practice which anyone can do in their locale to generate a learning process in someones life.


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Anyone is capable of doing everything which can be found depicted on the website; a main point is that you don’t need permission, you don’t need magical powers or a special hat (no matter what anybody with a special hat tells you). Create events, create your learning environment, generate your own activities – invite people along; it is easy but like anything it requires effort.


You can take your own education as far as you like. It is not about delivering education for others but about you as a coordinator being a learner; letting others take part and get what they want from sharing in the activity only makes the whole thing richer. Don’t involve money; it will only act like a virus (see video). The aim of this nucleus is to share a way of working which people without money, as well as people with money, can manifest in their own lives and context. Knowledge in the wild exists independently of finance.


Central in this, the coordinator of the events is the learner – the coordination of events is a part of the learning. The idea is that each person is a ‘Ragged University’ – they are a unique and distinct body of knowledge accredited by their life experience, and it has a membership of one.  Thinking about how you can embody over time all the stuff which goes on in a university as a compass to take you on a journey.  The nucleus practice will open up means and spaces of learning which you as an individual can act on.


1. Pick a name, any name – who cares what name ! It does not matter a whole lot.  Jane’s talks, Pub Talks (what Grant Crozier chose to call his), Scunthorpe Thinkers, Thursday Nights – Whatever.  Don’t get hung up on the detail.  Ragged University came to mind because I had been told about the Ragged Schools by two friends who liked the history and they said that I made them think of them (probably because I am skint and scruffy).


2. Start by picking an area, public spaces, venues- it could be a road or a district. Identifying different spaces in your locale which you can use to gather people together to do learning activities i.e. a talk in a pub etc. Using public spaces means that without dictating rules everybody already kind of knows how to behave and treat others (on the whole). Pubs, cafes, libraries, parks, etc. With a little imagination you can find a range of spaces which you can use – adapt, improvise, overcome.


3. Ask every independent business if they have a space you can use for free to put on an event where you get people to do a short talk, you put out some snacks and you invite the community to the event. Be candid and honest; speak to the decision maker.  Don’t bother with corporate businesses; they are riddled with hierarchies which you often get lost in – not uncommonly people in corporate businesses don’t know or don’t care who can make a decision; also corporate businesses are overwhelmingly driven by finance, what they say today will change tomorrow if something better comes along and as their staff change.  With independent businesses there is continuity and transparency through which you can nurture relationships. I like pubs with back rooms as they are friendly spaces and you can have a drink. Pick a venue where you can get an individual space where whoever is speaking is not competing with an alternative sound source. Pick a space where you are not displacing an existing community – i.e. even if it is offered, do not choose to empty a pub for the evening so you can do the event.  The regulars and their conversations are important.


4. Start with planning a single event organizing a single date with the venue plenty of time in advance. Once you have done this you will be more familiar with how running an event in that space works and you will have the beginning of a relationship with the staff.  Later, once you have developed a good working relationship with the venue – or a  series of venues – you can organise a series of events according to your capacity.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Try only to do things which you absolutely can go ahead with.


5. Use the room or space to plan the event.  Stand in it and visualise how you would organise the basic details of the event.  An advanced familiarity with the space and what it affords will ensure things go smoothly.  How many plug sockets are there ? Where are the plug sockets ? Are there chairs ? How many chairs are there ? Are there tables ? How many tables ? Etc.  Also get to know and develop a respect for the people who manage and maintain the space; they will often be helpful but be prepared to do everything yourself.  Get to know the names and appropriate contact details of the staff; aim to be their perfect guest so that it is a no-brainer that they will give you the space again.  Hospitality staff deserve respect and support – the work they do is an art form which involves more than meets the eye.


6. Find people who love what they do and ask them if they would do an informal talk one evening. Ask a range of people and don’t be pushy – you are looking for the people who would get a kick out of it.  People who love what they do tend to invest more time in their subject area and enjoy sharing this with others. They also tend to make the subject areas more interesting.  Also, prepare some talks and presentations which you can give on things you have learned and loved.


7. Send the people who express interest a ‘speakers information sheet’; this is to get an overview of what they want to talk about, an introduction to the subject and learning resources they recommend.  The people who are organized enough in their own life to fill in the sheet will get around to doing this task.  Set up a special email for these purposes – this keeps your engagement with the general public separate from your personal email address. As the speakers information sheets are returned schedule them in the next available slot (i.e. two speakers to an event decided by whoever gets their details back to you first – this is the simplest way to organise. Don’t try to curate the world, let the world curate you – you do not have to understand a connection between the subjects; audiences can manage and enjoy mixes of subjects.  Two talks with a small break in between is a format which works well.


8. Start a WordPress blog to publish the speakers information sheets allowing a way for people in general to check the details of the event and also prepare for the event by learning about the subject.


9. Put the information of who is going to say what, where, at what time in a place which is easy to find.  To reiterate, the critical information to set up and communicate to the world is – who, what, where, when. This should be clear and easy to find in posters, flyers, emails and websites.


10. When you have the next speakers lined up, meet with them individually and buy them a coffee (if you can) and chat about their subject of interest and your plan for the what is happening at the event.


11. Set up an email list with Mailchimp (currently a good, free way to manage a newsletter with up to 2000 subscribers) or something which is free. Print out some flyers and posters to put up about town, on notice boards etc – this can be done cheaply and it is a simple way to bring a collection of people along to your event who you do not know (something which is very valuable). Avoid spamming via email – only email the details of the event to those who have said they want to be on a mailing list (it need not be more complicated than keeping a list of email addresses in a document which you have created of people who have told you to keep them informed of upcoming events). Remind people who sign up for the digital newsletter twice – once a month ahead and once a week ahead of the event.


12. Turn up early to the venue on the day. It helps to acclimatise to the space.  Also it means that if there is something which you have forgotten there is some time to flex around the situation.


13. If you can, buy the staff a drink. It is important to thank them for their help with the venue.


14. Help set up the chairs and any equipment like projector and laptop


15. If you can, buy the speakers a drink and thank them.


16. Ask them to turn up slightly early so everyone knows what is happening and you get a brief chance to chat


17. Let people come in and go from the event as they please; do not ticket the event, do not collect the information of people who attend the event, do not involve money.  These things are distractions and change the nature of the event depersonalising and instrumentalising the space.


18. When the general public come along to the event, try to make the space feel friendly and informal so people are at home. When it comes the time, you as the host and coordinator briefly address the room, tell the folks what is happening and introduce who is speaking, and then sit down with your focus on learning.


19. Take a pad of paper and a pen so you can take notes and so you can learn more after the event from them; writing notes is one of the most powerful learning tools you have available to you and forms the basis of a lot of future learning you will do as it is a means of extending your memory. This is about active learning; just like going to a gym and watching people exercise will not make you more athletic, it is important to exercise your skills and abilities by creating some kind of artifact that represents what you have learned. Alternatively you can take an audio or video recording (with permissions), of the speakers presentation with anything from an old smart phone to more fancy equipment you might have available or have somehow used for the evening.


20. Write down words you don’t understand and look them up; also learn to ask questions to people when you don’t understand something and actively listen when they give you a response.  Do not feel embarrassed to ask a question when you do not understand something – it is the sign of a true learner and the sign of a true teacher is that someone will try to help you understand by offering an insight through explanation.  If you come across someone who belittles you for not knowing or understandings something, move on and put them out of your mind – these people do not have a social intention. Equally if someone belittles you for saying a word incorrectly or mis-spelling something, move on and put these people out of your mind; saying a word incorrectly is a sign of somebody who has learned through independent activity. Regards to spelling, it is the meaning of words which is more important – spelling can often be a fetish. Pay attention to the intention with which people say something. Try to put into practice the advice which people offer – it may be that they have recommended you read a book or attempt an exercise; it may be they have suggested you read something they have written.  Get into the practice of doing these things over time, as and when you can.


21. Take part in the conversation which goes on. You never know who has come along or what they might know and contribute to understandings.


22. If you can, put some biscuits or food on a table for people to eat during the break. Invite people to bring along some food and put it on the table, and also take away what is left at the end of the event so that nothing goes to waste. This sets the scene around a social dynamic and has a magical effect.


23. Make it an open and free space like any good pub.  There are no reasons not to be inventive about spaces so long as people are comfortable, the spaces serve the purposes of the event,  they are free, and  you do not displace existing communities.  In part this is about being inventive and adaptive with the available landscape using what you can to bring together these events; people have organised education in the worst situations and without any fancy resources. There are histories of self organising education in prisons,  in woods, in underground tunnels – there is no reason why you cannot be as adaptive.  A laundrette for example. Education and learning refers to a set of behaviours not a set of resources; the tools you use are secondary and can be gleaned from your environment.


24. You can take this as far as you like or shape what you do, how you like; the more you exercise yourself, the more you will learn – don’t make other people do the lifting, this defeats the point. There is no reason not to adapt this basic practice to your needs and/or desires; for example making approaches to people you don’t already know who do something in a field which you want to learn about – i.e. a railway engineer, a neuroscientist, a dancer, a hip-hop artist etc.


25. This is not a scalable project (in many ways the problems we face culturally are the ubiquitous models that come from this corporate factory mind set); this is anchored around you as an individual creating events and activities where you can learn something. This is not an opportunity to build your CV (employability is a culture focused on its self), this is not a chance to build a voluntarism opportunity for a burgeoning third sector (this is an extension of finance), this is not an opportunity to manage people (this is a neurosis), this is not an opportunity to study and expropriate information of a community of people (this is abusive behaviour).  This is a personal covenant with learning.


26. Every person will create a different mix or different set of opportunities from the mix of place and speaker and people; just like everybody will manage to create a different loaf of bread when they cook.


27.  Resist making the organisational practice (what you are doing) into an organisation of people (a charity, a business, etc), it changes the dynamic and therefore it changes the nature of what comes out of the practice. Organisations get colonized by administrative practices, people and habits. The context I am speaking to is specifically how an individual may generate learning experiences and construct an education within the means of their own life and the relationships they have with the world and the society around them.  Focus on a personal covenant with learning.


28. Over time, what you will have from doing this practice is a collection of speakers information sheets and memories, possibly recordings, new relationships unfolding which you can learn from and from that you can use to go on to construct your own educational curriculum; a curriculum you realise through exercise. Practicing the nucleus here in a way that is open to the world should take you out of your own pattern of thoughts and behaviours and it sets the scene for personal transformation – that means change in simple language, without which no learning is possible. Without a willingness and desire to change, then what you are planning is something different to what is being thought about here.


29. It is to be understood as a good way to meet the world and appreciate it, not to judge it. Navigate, nurture and build around good will. Make sincerity the basis of your interactions; don’t get involved in interpersonal politics, gossip or group making, these are side effects of corporate behaviours and bad habits which will take you away from deep learning. Gossip is a sign that impermeable boundaries are being created and reinforced.


30. Let the occasional un-warm reaction or interaction slide off your back. You are putting yourself out into the world and will be meeting a magnitude more people than normally happens.  A small minority of these will, for some reason or another, be hostile. You will see the full gamut of human behaviour from the altruistic to the sociopathic distributed across all the areas of life; it is an illusion to imagine that all of a type of behaviour (i.e. honorable) will be found in a given context (i.e. ethics departments) – you will find all things in all places, let it be a part of your journey, be aware of and move away from people who are antisocial.  Be self reflective but also be aware that sometimes, some people will dislike you because the clothes you wear, that you look like someone they dislike from their past, because they are in a bad mood, because they like conflict; there is nothing to be gained here, only things to be lost. Shit happens, don’t get hung up on it – find the fruitful places.


31. Don’t bother trying to work with corporate structures, focus on the individuals who work in and under the structures.  Corporate structures make fools out of those trying to speak for the structures because they are not negiated by the individuals; they are as certain and as powerful/dangerous as ice flows – they are more changable and less reliable than individuals.


32. Don’t use your friends as leaning posts and don’t hold expectations of others. This is about self development and creating opporunities in which others can also self develop through shared activities in the way they want to. Whilst it is tempting to call upon help from those who most naturally lend support to you in your life, avoid co-opting them as it changes your relationship to something more instrumental; if people want to be involved they might speak up. Avoid thinking about this as a volunteering scheme where you manage people – it creates a range of problems due to the limits of voluntarism and the effect which organisational structures have on the psychology of people.


33. Reflect on why you are doing this and what you want to get out of this. This whole enterprise in your life should revolve around a reflection on radical honesty with your self. Understanding the values which you are serving will reveal to you not only what you are constructing as your world but what you are exposing others to.  Think about the differences between intrinsic (internal-inherent) rewards and extrinsic (external-alien) rewards; for example, are you wanting to learn because it will enlarge your capabilities and enrich your understandings and appreciations of the world you live in etc (intrinsic rewards) or are you wanting to do this because you want to be seen to be involved in education and want to impress an employer etc (extrinsic rewards). Build your practice on intrinsic rewards.


34. Value people for what they are and give the necessary time to appreciating this; hold in mind curiosity, humillity and see in others ‘an infinite sense of wonder’ as the thinker Luce Irigaray suggests. A friend Mark Johnson suggested to me in the Ford Maddox pub in Manchester, “knowledge is an epiphenomenon of social relations” and talked about how it is the relationships we have which educate us and build knowledge.


35. Don’t fetishize academia; don’t undervalue it; everyone in the world is a teacher.  If you are interested in connecting in to the thinking of people who work in formal academia, make your focus the individual and not the institution – this is about individuals connecting with individuals; it is impossible to have a conversation with an institution.  Equally, see in the world how each person is an equally important source of insight nad knowledge; the gas and heating engineer as the applied physicist and mathematician, the waiter as the systems thinker and sociologist, the publican as the philosopher and chemist, and so on. Equally true the teacher and academic exists as many things in the world beyond the place they work in; they are dancers, musicians, writers, electricians and so on. People do not have a singular identity so beware of the category you might perceive people through. Deep knowledge surrounds us and wisdom is stored in the (?) people.  Everything which happens in a university happened in the world before universities existed…it happens in less formalised ways outside of universities.


36. Resist putting yourself (or your personal life) on display.  Actively maintain your privacy and the privacy of others. Don’t overshare and manage your boundaries.


37. The first and primary technology is language, and along with place and people, forms the means of education and learning.  Spoken and written language is the most powerful of technologies because of its usefulness and familiarity and capacity to adapt to circumstances.


38. Pleasure is a guiding principle; be sincere and keep your sense of humour close


39. Don’t interpret all of the above a dogma. Practice giving dogma up 🙂 Activity like this will look different in different places and these differences are to be celebrated across the world.  Rabindranath Tagore once said “All I need is the shade of a tree to build my school in” and this kind of adaptive spirit offers the basis and means for organising educational activities in the part of the world you are in.


40. Many people think learning and education as something which is done by other people who are socially privileged as more intelligent. This is a myth which obscures the truth of the matter, that all human capabilities are latent within all human individuals – by and large, if someone else has done it you too will be able to do it.


41. Take in the lessons of the Life of Brian and Franz Kafka; if in meditate on Spike Milligan.