Like many of my friends and colleagues, I was devastated by the outcome of the referendum on British membership in the European Union (i.e., “Brexit”). I woke up on the morning of Friday 24 June 2016, read the headlines, and literally started to cry in despair. To me, the results suggested true failure on the part of the British population and the world at large (I consider myself a part of the British population, and indeed my Commonwealth status allowed me to cast a vote). This includes:
* failure to moderate the deep misinformation circulating in the run-up to the vote;
* failure to intervene in a matter that boiled down, in some cases, to bigotry and xenophobia masquerading as democracy;
* failure to educate such that we (1) enable truly critical thinking and (2) foster decision making based on extensive, robust research and real evidence gathering and weighing – not based on gut instinct, nor on personal experience alone, nor on fear or desperation or prejudice.
The events following Brexit have left me even more despairing. As I see it, the fallout has mainly reinforced or actually worsened all of the most contemptible practices and belief systems that fed into the predicament in the first place.
By this I mean, for example, the efforts by many to avoid critical reflection on the implications and potential long-term results of the vote (for one such excellent reflection see Tobias Stone’s post, “History tells us what may happen next with Brexit & Trump” – and also his follow-up, “A response to some of the comments on my last essay”, wherein he aims to review the nature of, and respond to, the replies to his attempts at critical discussion and hypothesising about the future).
Also, I mean the tendency to then silence and/or mock those who might express these critical thoughts. Here a “stop complaining and move on” rhetoric is spouted, as though critical thinking and reflexive consideration of the pathways and politics that have contributed to today’s predicament aren’t integral to figuring out how, in fact, to move on.*
Also, I mean the continuing trend not to intervene, not to express any opinion on, and instead basically just pass the buck when such rhetoric begins circulating. Here inaction or passivity usually leaves interested people (like me) without the infrastructure or necessary support to figure out how we might contribute to rethinking the world as it stands today.
These behaviours are seemingly manifest all around me. However, I was especially devastated to see them made possible on a Council for British Archaeology (CBA) Facebook thread launched on 31 July in relation to a Guardian article about funding risks for UK archaeological research post-Brexit. Here a conversation ensued which encouraged or demonstrated many unsubstantiated claims, threatening and/or abusive language, as well as the silencing of critical voices by direct and indirect insults (e.g., “How incredibly stupid”; “The decision has been made…You cannot live in the past”; “you’ll achieve nothing sitting there and moaning”). For a significant portion of the thread, too, there was no obvious mediation by the CBA, an organisation that one might assume would have adopted a stance on Brexit from the moment the referendum was announced. Indeed, the CBA was founded more or less as an advocacy organisation in the mid-20th century, so the notion that it should sit mute about a matter that directly impacts its constituencies is unfathomable to me. (Note that the CBA has indeed responded to Brexit – interestingly, this response was posted the day after the thread was initiated – but the nature of that response deserves its own scrutiny & hence is beyond my scope here.)
I have been so heartbroken about the current state of affairs in Britain that I have begun to diligently seek out advice from friends on how I might personally respond. In the first and most basic of my attempts, I used social media to solicit some thoughts:
For me, joining a political party was not my priority, but of course several of my friends rightly replied that I need to think seriously about why I’m so quick to dismiss this option as meaningful. (I’ve many reasons both for and against, but the state of politics in Britain strikes me as cruel and dire at the moment, and I’m not prepared to invest in it now.)
Others suggested interesting ideas like public teach-ins, poetry movements, local volunteerism, or seeking out citizen action groups. My worry, of course, is how I initiate and assemble such things when I barely have time to fulfil present obligations.
Still others generously suggested that I’m already doing relevant work through my teaching and field projects. (More on this below.)
Most important to me were extended emails from two of my closest academic friends, Tom and Alistair, whose recommendations all clustered around a similar set of ideas. Tom and I have discussed formalising everything into a clearer call for action for the archaeological community. But for now suffice it to say the general gist is that, relatively speaking, we are in powerful positions in the university system, hence we need to capitalise on these positions. Whether through teaching or writing or using our voices & research to connect us with the media and the wider world, my friends made the point that I do already have the tools at hand to respond (even if I sometimes feel that I’m speaking only to like-minded individuals).
So, I thought I might put this advice from my confidantes in action…
In late June/early July, my Visualisation Team at Çatalhöyük narrowly missed both the Ataturk Airport attacks in Istanbul and the Turkish coup. We were in the position to leave the country and return safely to our homes abroad, however many of our dear Turkish friends and colleagues were not. I was, and I still am, genuinely scared for their wellbeing and futures.
As my research and practice are effectively entirely centred around community building and cooperation, I couldn’t fathom resting motionless in York whilst events were unfolding as they were in Turkey. I sought advice on the best way to act, and my fabulous colleagues in the department here at York suggested, in the first instance, that I write to more powerful forces in the university system to garner their backing.
I wrote a letter to my university’s Vice-Chancellor and to University Archaeology UK. I’m happy to send you a copy of that letter should you wish – you could then adapt it (i.e., make it better) if you think it might be meaningful for your own activist causes. Sadly, the letter has led to nothing, replicating the disturbing patterns I describe above. In the only constructive outcome of my efforts, our VC kindly proposed that I write to Council for At-Risk Academics and Scholars at Risk, and offered his support if I did so. I’m not sure, though, if it’s worth pursuing this further, as I’m not convinced that my letter (or any letter, for that matter) will lead to consequential action.
Then, this past week, while teaching on a course in Athens (see #dialpast on Twitter) where my focus was mainly on collaborative story-writing as means to foster care/concern, I got the terrific news that I’ve been shortlisted for the Times Higher Education (THE) 2016 award for Most Innovative Teacher of the Year.
This is a tremendous honour for me, and I owe much of the success to colleagues who’ve believed that my quirky goals might be achievable, and hence who’ve supported my endeavours to realise them. I have to explicitly name Lucy Moore, Amanda Walters, Tom Smith, and Meghan Dennis. Their written contributions were ultimately directly included in my nomination – so I’m indebted to them.
However, it wasn’t until one of my brilliant MA students in this year’s Cultural Heritage Management cohort wrote to me that I started to think critically about the THE award:
Following Gill, whilst my nomination concerns innovation, I have to say that what I strive for most has more to do with the opposite (if one takes innovative to mean a concern for the new and original): i.e., I’m interested in creating sustainable, long-lasting networks of compassion, support, stability, trust and collaboration. For me, digital tools & efforts at novelty help to facilitate such work, but that work also exists independent of them and can manifest just as well (sometimes better) in their absence.
It is matters of care and cooperation, then, that are of most interest to me: nurturing them, passing them along, teaching them to others, and maintaining them in the future. This means my relationships with students (and them with their peers and partners) are often very long-term, going far beyond the lifetime of any single innovative project.
I’ve been particularly inspired by the sociologist Richard Sennett, who’s been writing a trio of books on “the skills humans possess to make a life together.” At the core of his most recent argument, as I read it, is the idea that, to survive in today’s world – and to create a better world for the future – we must cooperate. Most significantly, as I understand, cooperation is a craft that demands skill, and this skill can variously be taught, learned, practiced, valued and advocated for.
Regardless of the results of the THE nomination (although obviously my fingers are crossed! & I feel it might open new spaces for me to take action), I hope it’s this basic craft that I’m recognised for; i.e., nurturing civility, good citizenship and cooperation with my collaborators/students which, in turn, nurtures the same in their colleagues and peers. In this way, my impact may be small, very specific, and ordinary, but with potentially significant consequences in the longer term.
I want to be responsible for making the world a more tolerant, caring, empathetic place. I would like – and I believe it’s imperative – to cooperate with others in this quest. We, as teachers, have a unique capacity to teach not just didactic content, but compassion, sensitivity, kindness and critical thought. We don’t actually need novel tools or methods to do so; rather we need merely a commitment to the principle of togetherness (borrowing from Sennett), and trust in ourselves, our students and colleagues that working together matters, that it must be prioritised, and that it offers us more and better options for the future than does the alternative.
* The archaeologist Reinhard Bernbeck (2013, 26-27) is one of many to identify this tendency as a symptom of “our post-critical age”. As he puts it, “At the root of this problem is a deep misunderstanding of what ‘critique’ means…”