As we return to work, one of our members writes a letter to their students. We would be pleased to host other similar letters from members.
I know this might sound odd to you, but I’ve missed you. Every day that I have been on strike, I have thought of you. I’ve treasured your sympathetic and kind messages of support for the industrial action that my colleagues and I have taken. And I hear you when you say you are worried and anxious about what lies in store for you.
I know that for many of you, your final months at Queen Mary are perilously close. I can hear the concern in your voices, as well as the frustration, the confusion, and the traces of what you’ve been told to accept: that you are consumers and universities are education service providers. That you’ve paid so much to be here, only to find that your lecturers are deserting you.
I also know that not all of you think like this. I know from the conversations we’ve had that each of you has unique and brilliant perspectives that you bring with you. I know that, even as I stand in front of a silent classroom after I have asked you a question, there is great diversity in opinion – it just hasn’t been voiced yet. I know that you challenge unethical behavior when you see it.
I know that you also bring much collective wisdom with you. In the six years that I have been at Queen Mary, I can honestly say that I have learned as much from you as I have taught. I marvel at your determination, your drive to develop careers in filmmaking, curation, and the arts. I wish I had had an ounce of the courage in my early twenties that you have already in spades.
Film Studies was never an option I could have considered studying at university. It was nowhere near as widespread a degree programme as it is now, and my risk-averse family background was opposed to taking subjects in the creative sector. Studying film or art wouldn’t get me a steady job, I was told. And yet, I see you, and the graduates who precede you, going on to become producers and curators, writers and journalists, programmers and award-winning directors.
I was trained in a very different university setting. The majority of my peers were from vastly wealthy and well-connected families with long histories of university attendance at the world’s most elite institutions. I never considered myself poor or lacking until I went to university, where I met many people who already knew how everything worked, how to ask for what they needed, and how to network ferociously. I felt like an alien for a very long time. My grades bombed for the first two years of my course. I nearly dropped out of university, twice. I suffered, and unlike those of you who have had the great courage to speak up about your mental health, I kept quiet.
It was only when I took the decision to follow my own interests, rather than those that other people had lain down for me, and to stop caring what everyone else might think of me, that I finally began to understand what an incredible thing it is to learn to read and think for myself. When I started to trust myself, I began to have a flesh and blood connection to my own capacities for critical thinking. I remember beginning to feel this way in Paris on my year abroad, where I spent the mornings doing technical translation, and afternoons watching films in empty cinemas, occasionally reviewing them for an English journal, and writing my dissertation. The cinema and the art gallery and the library are where I discovered my love of visual cultures and the ways that we experience film and art in our bodies, not just with our minds. I began to notice that cinema overwhelmingly reproduces stories about white men, and so I turned to the places where I could find other stories unfolding, in other languages. I began to question my own place in the stories that were told on screen and in the daily street harassment I experienced, and I began my very long journey towards finding another way of telling the stories that my body tells me.
I don’t want you to feel like a consumer of your education, and I have a strong feeling that many of you don’t want that either. I know that you have critical capacities that far outshine anything I have seen yet: I see it when you talk about the issues that concern you, when you begin to explore the boundaries of the discipline of film in class, when you ask for better and more diverse representation on the curriculum. Your independence is your virtue, your ability to think outside of established narratives and bring in new ones, is what makes you brilliant.
I know that you too have the strength and empathy to ask what it is that has pushed many thousands of academic staff to undertake strike action. If the strikes feel extreme, it is because they are: they are a powerful chain reaction ignited by the erosion of higher education over the past decade, where students have become debtor-consumers, and academics are precarious minions delivering content with workloads that have increased so significantly that the entire sector is experiencing an epidemic of work-related stress and mental ill health. Meanwhile, those at the top receive salary increase after increase, the gender pay gap remains wide, and there is little or no change to the representation of BME academics anywhere.
That is not my vision of a university. I want you to find your own path – not the well-trodden one, not the populist one, but the one where you, in all of your complexity, get to flourish. I want you to have the confidence to disagree with me in class, and to preserve the opportunity for me to learn with you, and you with me. I want to help you to find your voice and your drive. I can’t do that if I become a hollowed-out husk, living in fear of the day when I am no longer able to work. I can only help you to flourish if I am flourishing too. As some of the slogans said on the picket line, my working conditions are your learning conditions. That needs to be a model of wellbeing, not consumerism.
When we went on strike, we did not desert you. What we are fighting for is for you, too. It hurts, and we hurt too. I am so sorry, for all of us, that it had to happen this way. But I think fighting is better than becoming a hollowed-out robot delivering content to education consumers. I still believe in the possibility of the university, and I want to protect that for you too.
Yours, with warmth and solidarity,