Migration Stories, portraits and politics*

I enjoyed parts of the newly re-opened Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Their section on tartan, where they explained the British tartan obsession as the result of a kind of romantic exoticism by British – and English – rulers, and a symbol of British Empire, more than its to do with Highland culture, was really interesting. That said, their staff all had to wear tartan skirts and trousers, so who knows what’s going on there.

The top floors had the usual portrait gallery fare of Kings, Princes, and other aristocratic and well positioned rich ruling class people who posed for repetitive and vain portraits, occasionally commissioning pictures of their wives, which are included in the gallery maybe as a nod to gender balance. The small but interesting section on 19th century women was adorned with quotes from Charlotte Brontë, Emeline Pankhurst and others, with portraits of suffragettes and physicists and artists. The photography section had some amazing work, the pieces on romanticism and urban and rural landscapes were brilliant, as was the section on childhood and urban space.

One of the collections I was particularly interested to see was the Migration Stories series, which focussed on links between Scotland and Pakistan. Part of this was a series of photographs by Verena Jaekel, A Scottish Family Portrait.

Mohammad and Anas Sarwar with their Family, Glasgow, 9 July 2011

Mohammad and Anas Sarwar with their Family, Glasgow, 9 July 2011

In this series, Jaerkel has documented a series of Scottish Pakistani families, many of whom contain people with MBEs and OBEs, politicians, councillors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and so on. I was excited to think that maybe the Portrait Gallery might be kicking against its the usual tendency of formulaic portraits of rich people, free for the viewing pleasure of us unnoteworthy plebs, and starting to maybe include portraiture of the people who actually shape history.

With a selection of OBEs and business people, the gallery has stayed true to form by looking only at those at the top of the heap, and holding them up as examples for us to admire. Perhaps the very fact that those pictured have roots in Pakistan is enough to make this exhibition interesting, or maybe does something to get rid of the image that everyone brown wants to unleash jihad on their host country (does anyone actually think that any more? Did the wave of  “but they’re just like us!” documentaries, exhibitions, magazine features post-9/11 not work? And if they didn’t, why would one more exhibition change that?). To me, the choice of subject, and the glowing statements about how prosperous and integrated and hard working all these people are just seemed to reinforce the idea that it’s only the rich establishment who are worthy of celebration on the walls of national galleries, and that only those non-white families who “fit in” to British cultural norms are acceptable.

I’m not arguing for the opposite, an orientalist, voyeuristic exhibition of how very strange and exotic and charmingly impoverished migrant families are, and how very Other they are, although there’s always plenty of that to be found in the mainstream media – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding being a horrific case in point. It’s more the whole format of portrait galleries, and the politics of who they represent that I think needs a total overhaul. The Miracles and Charms exhibition at the Wellcome Collection was far more interesting than most of the work in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, in that it showcased art and artifacts collected from working class people, the people who rarely get onto the walls of galleries unless through the lens of someone else’s camera. Instead of a whole museum full of kings, princes, and male politicians, with a token room for well-educated women and rich, safely integrated Asians, a portrait gallery that actually reflected the historical and contemporary population of Scotland, warts and all, would be far more enjoyable.

*Usual disclaimer: I’m not an art critic, I’m mostly uninformed, sorry.


From Edinburgh to Sri Lanka: STRIKE!

University of Edinburgh on strike, by Joel Sharples

University of Edinburgh on strike, by Joel Sharples

This is really, really late, but I was deep in deadline hell last week when this post would have been at it’s most relevant. That said, we haven’t won yet, in fact it feels like we’ve only just got started defending higher education, and arts education specifically, from being undermined by education for profit. I wrote about University of Edinburgh students going into occupation ahead of the #N30 strike last week, and reposted the RSAnimate lecture about de-industrialising education this morning.

I wanted to post the section of an article read out by Prof. Jonathan Spencer, at the teach-out organised by the Edinburgh University Anti-Cuts Coalition at the library picket line last week. Prof. Spencer also emailed this round to the whole anthropology department, and his email is reproduced below.

Library picket line teach-out, N30, from Alasdair Thompson

Library picket line teach-out, N30, from Alasdair Thompson

Dear Colleagues and Students

As you know, many of us are on strike today in protest at the changes imposed on our pension scheme by University employers. As background I thought I would share with you some passages from a long article, co-written by our recent graduate Harini Amarasuriya (now a Senior Lecturer at the Open University in Colombo), and published in the national press in Sri Lanka earlier this year. The strike by FUTA, the academic union, in Sri Lankan universities this year was an extraordinary event which opened up a space for dissent and critical discussion in a society where dissent and criticism had been ruthlessly crushed in the last days of the civil war. Here are some highlights from the article:
The impulses that led us to seek employment and a career within academia were clearly not economic. We all walked into the university system with our eyes wide open as to what our economic condition would be. Most of us took the plunge because we hold on to an ideal of university life where ideas matter; independence and critical skills are valued, not feared. We have listened wistfully to stories of the past of fiery debates and arguments in senates and faculty boards, of brilliant and colourful personalities stalking our corridors, of their intellectual achievements and eccentric exploits. These legends also inspired us to choose this career path. We chose academic careers because we believed in a certain way of life, a certain form of engagement with the world. Over the years what we got was under-funded and under-resourced institutions coming under increasing political control by governments to whom education was no longer a priority. Given their environment, combined with the impossibly low salaries offered, the universities no longer attracted the best minds and inevitably took a turn towards mediocrity and apathy. And with a few exceptions and while trying to maintain some standards of excellence, most of us went with the tide!
This is not the first (and will not be the last) regime to use political power to interfere with the autonomy of universities. But safeguarding that autonomy requires academics to take their rights and privileges seriously and to fight to protect it. We reiterate that these rights and privileges are intrinsic to our ability and our obligations to fulfil our core functions in civil society. It is important that we do not forget that this fight has to happen within as much as outside the universities. As the UNESCO Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education says, university autonomy is what enables the academic community to speak out with responsibility and independence on the ethical, cultural and social problems of their time. The current FUTA trade union action has enabled us to reflect on and act on these issues both inside and outside our institutions. The trade union action being suspended does not mean that our fight to protect our privileges and fulfil our responsibilities need come to an end. It is up to us to also hold FUTA accountable for the challenge they laid before university teachers at the seminar in Jaffna when one speaker asked us what we were going to do when our wallets and handbags were filled. The trade union action has been suspended even prior to our wallets and handbags being filled; perhaps our union leaders who have been exhorting us to keep fighting need to explain why they gave up the fight long before we were ready to do so.
The current mood of the academic community shows that it was not merely the salary issue which drew us on to the streets. The intransigence and inanity of the current regime and the humiliating treatment meted out to university teachers has had a positive effect. It has, without doubt been a significant factor in causing them to finally rise up and say enough is enough. You can push a community so far and no further. Perhaps, a more significant factor is the threat to the very future and survival of the country’s much cherished public education system. University teachers are now making it clear that they will not stand silent and watch the dismantling of this system. The demand for decent salaries is based not merely on self interest but also on real fears that the erosion of adequate funding is an insidious way of destroying these institutions from within. FUTA is also asking for adequate funding of education as a whole which is a sine qua non for sustainable development.
The article can be read in two parts here:

Changing Education Paradigms

The RSAnimate lecture series is a really brilliant resource, especially for people like me who have a slightly unpredictable attention span. Really interesting topics, explained in around 10 minutes by amazing thinkers like David Harvey and Slavoj Žižek. This video, with a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson, is really great.

Firstly, his take on ADHD – as a ‘fictional epidemic’ – is really interesting, I’ve been interested in ADHD since before starting my undergraduate degree when I worked at Disability Challengers. I’d recommend Richard DeGrandpre’s Ritalin Nation for anyone interested in the growth of the ADHD industry, if a little out of date by now. Robinson describes how the ADHD ‘epidemic’ isn’t quite as ‘epidemic’ as we might think, and also shows how education, and particularly the arts, are negatively affected by the growth in ADHD prescription drugs like ritalin – if the arts rely on the aesthetic experience, then the use of anaesthetics cannot be conducive to being inspired and engaged. As someone who spent the summer trying to write whilst having to take co-codamol almost everyday, I agree!

He then goes on to talk about how the growth in the ADHD epidemic mirrors the growth of standardised testing in schools, and challenges the industrial approach of education, which sees the school as a factory, with children passed through in uniform batches. Why do children have to go through schools in classes based on age group? Why are they taught there is only one right answer, why are they told they must do their ‘own work’, when collaboration is such a positive aspect of learning?

Its given me something to think about, at the end of my first semester tutoring on the Introduction to Social Anthropology undergraduate course at Edinburgh. The legacy of formal, school learning has such an impact on the students – sometimes the groups felt like pulling teeth, no one wanted to speak. Of course they didn’t – having a tutorial, where students are supposed to be doing the talking, asking the questions, pulling apart the ideas, is completely alien to school education. You’re not taught that you have anything interesting or worthwhile to add, you’re taught that you know less than the teacher, and you need to listen to them. If you ask a question, it’s because you don’t understand something, not because you want to challenge an idea, or consider it differently. And you ask questions of the teacher, not of your fellow students. So trying to shake off all that and get students to bring their own ideas, opinions and analysis to class and actually discuss rather than listen is pretty tough.

I’m going to my first session of a Paulo Friere reading group next week run by the Adult Learning Project, who are an amazing organisation. I’m working with some friends on a new course for them for next year, but in the mean time keen to learn about more creative, empowering forms of education. We’ll be talking about this piece by Nigel Gibson next week, hopefully it might give me some ideas on how to make next semester’s tutorials run a little more interactively.

‘Occupy to support your staff’ Edinburgh students in support of #N30

This time last year, I joined a group of students occupying Appleton Tower in protest against the introduction of £9k fees. This year, students have once again gone into occupation, this time in support of striking public sector staff, and in opposition to the HE white paper which is set to radically alter higher education. Anthropology is particularly vulnerable, as cuts to arts and humanities departments threaten the immediate future of the discipline. The occupying students have released the following statement:

We are now occupying Appleton Tower, in support of the UCU strike on Wednesday November 30, against the moves of the government to privatise higher education and in defence of the principle that education is a public, social good which should be free for all.

We are currently in the middle of the most aggressive attack on the notion of public education in any of our lifetimes. The White Paper being introduced by the government in Westminster will lead to for-profit institutions, a stratification of our university system and the reinforcing of social barriers. The plans are economically illiterate and will have disastrous effects on the system of higher education in the UK.

We stand in solidarity with student occupations across the UK. In Birmingham students have been blockaded without food and water, threatened with legal action and, unbelievably, even physically assaulted by security. We realise that in Scotland we remain sheltered from some of these effects. But as with the introduction of £9000/year tuition fees in England, which have led directly to the rest of UK fees at our university increasing to £36000 for 4 years, changes in the funding and organisation of universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will affect what happens here. That tuition fees, directly or deferred in the form of a graduate tax, have not been reintroduced for Scottish students is testament to the anger and action shown by students in Scotland last year. If we wish to defend our system and move towards a genuinely egalitarian position – where students are supported through their degrees, courses and staff are properly funded and no one is priced out of education – we must make a stand now.

We aim to  persuade staff and students that education does not have to be considered as a commodity to be traded for profit but is instead a public good which benefits all of society. That education is not simply a means to future employment but has intrinsic worth in itself. That universities do not have to be run as if they were a private business, but can be democratically controlled by their staff and students.

Next week lecturers, librarians, IT staff and others will be on strike as part of the largest coordinated action undertaken in generations.  We will be standing with them on their picket lines, supporting them in their struggle for a decent pension and the ability to retire in dignity. Their struggle is ours. If unions lose their fight, we will suffer when we come to start pensions of our own on leaving university.

We call on all students to support their staff, to refuse to cross picket lines and work from home or join us on the pickets. Pickets are not just for show; they are not symbolic nor are they just another way to express your unhappiness. They are a weapon – the only weapon workers often have to balance the relation of power between themselves and their employers. To cross a picket line is to undermine a strike. If you support the aims of the staff you must refuse to cross.

Our occupation is to defend education and our university. We do not intend or expect to disrupt teaching and hope that the university will not choose to cancel or move lectures or events happening in Appleton.

We invite all students and staff at Edinburgh University to visit our occupation and to join us. We hope that you will.