by Ayesha Ahmed
During the recent wave of strike action by University staff to defend our pensions, many of us have been standing huddled against the cold weather, in groups outside our workplaces. On the first day of strike action, I had no idea what to expect. A handful of us arrived and discussed where we should stand, then held up our signs and chatted fairly randomly about the pension valuation and the weather. We began to discuss the tensions involved in striking, and not doing the jobs we love. And we began to discuss some of the theories and ideas behind what was happening at Universities around the country.
By week 2, our numbers had grown significantly. We were a group that spanned different research groups, teaching programmes, roles and responsibilities, ages, stages and backgrounds. We were joined by students and by some local sixth-formers who brought us tea during their morning break. And we began to realise that something unique was happening. Whereas inside the building roles were fairly fixed and discussion happened within certain groups and followed certain conventions, outside the building there were no such rules. Instead of the more formal learning that takes place during teaching sessions or research seminars, discussion was more open and collaborative, and the learning was palpable.
For week 3, we decided to formalise this to some extent and hold teach-outs. Each day had a theme, and often someone who had done some work on that topic started things off. But the format was ‘open-mic’ or rather ‘open-megaphone’ out on the street, on one of the busiest routes into Cambridge city. We had a poetry slam, a session on accountability measures, and a session on the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, during which we warmed our frozen fingers at the brazier and jumped on the spot to stay warm.
The informal learning continued during week 4, through discussions, in groups, and without barriers. We realised the power of talk for learning. We realised that We Are The University.