Interview - Long shots: alternative academia documented

Chris Parr speaks to two scholars who hit the road to document a ‘silent revolution’ in education

July 25, 2013

For many early career academics, feeling run-down, overworked, underpaid and pressured to perform is all part of the job – something to be tolerated in the hope that a fruitful and rewarding university career awaits.

But two disillusioned young scholars recently decided instead to abandon their fledgling academic careers to pursue the true meaning of higher education by embarking on a round-the-world trip, visiting institutions that approach university life rather differently from traditional institutions in the UK, and making a documentary film about it.

From 2010 to 2012, Udi Mandel worked in the department of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Bristol as a temporary lecturer. When he was offered the opportunity to stay longer, he declined.

His travelling partner, Kelly Teamey, had been lecturing in education and international development at the University of Bath for four years before handing in her notice to embark on the voyage.

“One of the reasons we left our jobs was a growing discontent with what was happening in UK academia,” says Mandel, who obtained a PhD in social anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2004.

“It’s an increasingly stifling environment to work in. We wanted to learn from other countries and from institutions that approach higher education in a different way.”

For Teamey, who completed a doctorate in education research at King’s College London in 2007, it was the “feeling of exploitation” that convinced her to quit.

“As early career academics, there is a huge amount of work and pressure placed on us. It leaves you trying to combine study with research and lecturing, while being put under pressure to publish, and the expectation that you’ll bring in funding. Teaching seems increasingly marginalised, whereas in many of the places we are visiting it is really valued.”

The husband and wife team have been on the road for 10 months, visiting institutions in Canada, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, Australia and India. They will conclude their tour with visits to institutions in the UK, continental Europe and the US.

They hope that the film of their journey will capture the “silent revolution” that they believe is happening in higher education, and highlight the alternative approaches to tertiary learning that are being taken by “social and ecological movements and indigenous communities around the world”.

Cooperative knowledge economies

One of the universities they have visited is the Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca, Mexico, which has no compulsory learning activities for students and no institutional hierarchy. All “learners” and “teachers” work together in seminars to further their education.

“It’s only been going for a few years, and has dissolved the boundaries between teachers and students,” Mandel explains.

“It’s run by a guy called Gustavo Esteva, who calls himself a ‘deprofessionalised academic’. His institution really goes against the grain of what you might expect in more established universities.”

“He doesn’t see his knowledge as any more valuable than anyone else’s,” Teamey continues. “Anyone over 18 can attend – the only criteria are that you can read and write. There are no degrees, no certification. It is about learning, not receiving a degree.”

At the Escola Popular de Comunicação Crítica (School of Critical Media Studies), located in Rio de Janeiro’s biggest favela, Teamey and Mandel saw how students were being taught to engage with and to challenge negative stereotypes about those from unprivileged backgrounds.

The institution offers a one-year intensive communication and media course to help boost the prospects of young people living in the area.

“It was interesting and inspiring to see how young people developed a deeper confidence about their place in the world,” Teamey says.

In Chile, they visited a campus of the permaculture-inspired Gaia University, which describes its mission as starting “from the perspective that it is your life, your passions, your projects, your vision – and the rapidly changing contexts in which they are emerging – that best give rise to what you need to learn and how you need to learn it”.

In New Zealand they paid a visit to Te Puia, the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute; in Argentina, the Universidad de los Trabajadores (the Workers’ University), based in a reclaimed factory in the middle of Buenos Aires; and in India, Grandmothers’ University – an organic farm that brings together indigenous and scientific knowledge.

Lessons for those back home

By showcasing such unconventional ventures, the two scholars hope to help revolutionise the way developed nations approach higher education and to help provide answers to the questions “What is a university for?” and “What kinds of knowledge do we need to meet the challenges we face today?”.

A rethink is needed to re-establish the values that underpin education systems because traditional institutions have been unable to address crises in the environment and the economy, Mandel and Teamey say.

In the places they have visited, learning is “enlivened, connecting people to their creativity and to community, land, history and culture”, Mandel observes. “We are looking at different ways of doing things, and questioning what university is really for.”

Initially the two travellers funded the journey out of their own pockets, sleeping on sofas and bartering with the film footage and photography that they can produce with their equipment.

However, they have also raised more than $6,000 (£3,950) by appealing to the public for financial support for the film through a crowdsourcing website.

“We approach the universities and say we want to learn and do some filming, but offer them access to any footage that we take,” Mandel explains. “Every place that we have been has been very welcoming, and I think that because we aren’t working for a particular institution, we are regarded as less of a threat.”

The pair’s documentary, Enlivened Learning, will be completed by May 2014 and will be distributed free online.

“Our intention is to encourage accessible and critical debate on higher education around the world,” explains Teamey, “and open up imaginative possibilities of what learning can be.”

Click here to read Udi Mandel and Kelly Teamey’s blog, find out more about their documentary or donate to the project.

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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