Oracy on the street: Conversations on the picket line (2)

by Ayesha Ahmed

Last year, on returning from industrial action to protect our pension rights, I wrote a short blog about the conversations on our picket line. We have just returned from striking again, this time over pensions, fair pay, inequality and casualisation in academia (the conversion of secure jobs into short-term or hourly-paid work). Here are my reflections on this year’s picket-line talk and how it was different.

Notable this year was the huge amount of student support that we had on the pickets. Being joined by our students was heart-warming and a great reminder that we were fighting for a better university for all. They brought us tea and biscuits but they also brought us their perspectives on learning at the university – how it is for them and how it could be different.

On day 1 we talked about what we hoped to achieve by striking. And on day 2 this talk was turned into a wall of hand-written posters outside our workplace on which students and staff re-imagined education as it could be.

We continued to organise activities to keep us warm and to stay positive as we stood up for what we believed in, sometimes feeling that we were small in number, often wishing that we were inside doing our jobs. We had poetry on the picket. Some wrote their own poems addressing the issues we were striking for, some read the poems of others. It was powerful and emotional. Some of us were tearful. This wasn’t uncomfortable – it felt OK to talk about how we felt and to be emotional on the street in a way that it may not have done inside a seminar room.

There were times at which the talk turned a little too much to work and it was hard to know where to draw the line – a colleague and I discussed our approach to an upcoming meeting for a few minutes before realising that we were working and so stopping ourselves. A student said ‘I’ve been meaning to catch you to pick your brains about…’ at which point I said ‘Great, let’s talk about that next week. Today I’m on strike’. This was a hard thing to do but it felt right. Instead we learned from each other by co-constructing ideas about casualisation in academia and how this could be changed, about closing the gender pay gap, about access to universities. For more on this, see Tyler Denmead’s succinct and informative Pedagogy of the Picket Line 101 and 202.

On the last day we were visited by Kirstie Whitaker, who facilitated a teach-out entitled ‘How can researchers answer questions disabled people care about?’. She started with some ‘housekeeping’ in which she suggested some rules for the talk during the session: e.g. we would all try to use language that was respectful and that we could let her know if we felt that any language was ableist. This led to a conversation with a student later that morning about group talk in university teaching sessions and seminars and why it was sometimes so hard to join in the conversation. We discussed Ground Rules for talk such as giving everyone a chance to talk and listening to everyone’s contributions with respect (see here). We discussed how agreeing these sorts of rules at the start of a course or a teaching session might help all to take part in the discussion and feel that their contribution is valued. This is an issue that is often addressed in school classroom situations but perhaps not so much in Higher Education settings. It may be a particular issue in a university that is seen as elite (see here for a fantastic blog post on oracy in HE).

Towards the end of the strike period some of the students started to tell us how much they valued the conversations. One even stood on the wall outside King’s College during a strike rally to say this. We learned as much from them as they did from us.

Striking is tiring. Withdrawing labour and standing on the street isn’t a break from work, just a different kind of work. The weather was the damp kind of cold that gets in your bones. The tea and the biscuits and the talk kept us going.

Thank you colleagues, students and visitors on the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education picket line for all of the conversations.

We Are the University.

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