Clubbing together

Lecturer Rebekka Kill's love of DJ-ing and popular music led her to build links between academe and Britain's vibrant creative industries

October 9, 2008

I used to live a double life: I had two careers that I deliberately kept separate. I was worried that if I came clean it would be a disaster both personally and professionally.

During the day, I was a lecturer working across a range of art and design disciplines. By night, I was DJ-ing regularly in venues around Leeds, working with bands and performers, promoting club nights and dabbling in fanzine writing. A few close colleagues knew about my dual existence but most people didn't - and I wanted to keep it that way.

About four years ago I started working at Leeds Metropolitan University in the fine art department and something changed. I became frustrated with the duality of my life: after a decade I was tired of burning the candle at both ends and I decided it was time to confess.

I have been collecting vinyl records since I was 12 years old. By my early twenties, people were asking me to bring records to parties and I would play them. I have DJ-ed in most bars and clubs in Leeds, including a residency in a very large club on a Saturday night. I've written for and project-managed several independent publications and I've co-promoted a night that showcased bands from all over the north alongside contemporary performance art.

The main reason I kept all this quiet was to do with institutional perceptions of academic integrity. How could I be taken seriously in the university while I was also disco dancing with the kids nearly every weekend?

Once I had made the decision to "come out", I needed a way to do it. I knew that some colleagues would feel challenged by what I was doing, so I needed a strategy.

Firstly, working with performing arts staff, we developed a new interdisciplinary art and performance undergraduate degree that also included materials on DJ-ing and events management, popular music and club cultures.

Bringing these activities into a curricular context was the key. Then a secondment opportunity came up at work. We have a scheme called "Using Your Talents to the Full", and it sounded ideal.

I wanted to merge my two professional lives. I was also interested in creative enterprise, in the relationship between curriculum and the extracurricular, and in engagement, both student and community.

The aim of my secondment was to build partnerships with the local cultural community, and in parallel I started to write and publish material on art, events and performance practices in clubs and at music festivals.

My first, most successful, and currently most well-developed cultural partnership is with Festival Republic, the promoters who run the Reading, Leeds and Latitude music festivals and help run the Glastonbury festival.

This summer we took 150 students to work at both Leeds and Latitude. Working across ten different projects, some students had internships of up to five weeks, some took on skilled roles such as stage and film crews, while others worked in semi-skilled or experiential roles such as our Helpful Arena Teams. There were Leeds Met students everywhere! Some students were assessed through work-based learning frameworks while for others the experience added to their portfolio or CV. Some came as volunteers simply because they wanted to be a part of it.

The future of universities lies in partnership; it is not just about donations and brand identification. Cultural partnerships are something that we can all engage in, especially during the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

We need to acknowledge that British culture is one of our biggest strengths as a worldwide educational destination. Academics are good at being portfolio thinkers: juggling lots of different projects, teaching and management responsibilities. We all have a cultural interest, whether it's music, theatre, dance or family history.

Post secondment, I now have a very unusual contract: half academic, half projects and partnerships. I have two other major and several other minor partnerships in the pipeline, I'm writing a new MA in creative enterprise that draws on my professional experience and I have recently been given Arts and Humanities Research Council funding to set up a research network called Festival Performance as a State of Encounter.

My type of contract is likely to become more common because universities are changing; our boundaries are blurring. We all need to look to the future, to think strategically about student and community engagement, and to work across curricular and disciplinary boundaries. This strategy not only adds value to the student experience, but also lifts us out of the daily grind, feeds our passions and develops us as individuals.

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