Although teaching outside an institution as a form of nonconformity, protest or rebellion has existed as an idea for centuries, and likely most familiarly known in the modern world from squatting movements and autonomous social centres of the 20th and 21st centuries, the practice of the teach-out as a UCU form of strike action emerged in a somewhat semi-formalised fashion in the atmosphere of the 2018 pension strikes. In 2018, 61 universities took part in UCU strike action in a dispute centred around the USS pension scheme. The 2018 pension strikes saw the extent to which social media and online platforms can be used to foster strength, solidarity and resistance. The 2018 industrial action seemed to reach online to an extent not seen before, with the practice of the digital picket being taken up as well as the spread of information about pickets and negotiations taking place over Twitter. Conversations were happening over social media at a rapid pace, not just about the strike action: thoughts about the entire nature of the university were being discussed on pickets and online. The 2018 strikesfostered a larger conversation about what universities had become, but also what a university could be: staff and students from not just the UK but across the Anglosphere were in a position of talking beyond disciplinary and institutional boundaries, and thinking past the pension scheme into, now, how to transform the marketized higher education structures that so many find unpalatable. In this atmosphere, the importance of the teach-out became a part of the new conversations.
While there is no formal definition nor UCU guidance of what constitutes a teach-out, in general they consist of a teaching session of any variety outside the university structure, to help foster discussion, solidarity and resistance. Pedagogically speaking, the sessions can be equally traditional or exploratory, with the focus on the discourse following the teaching in the style of the Socratic seminar. Creativity and curiosity are encouraged, in artistic or intellectual senses. The form of the individual session is up to the scholar conducting it, but the overarching concept is simply to take higher education outside the academy and encourage dialogue between the participants. The pursuit of knowledge here is in an informal fashion whilst when possible linking the concepts and ideas of a topic to those relating to resistance and solidarity around the current focus of industrial action, creating challenging conversations. Dozens of universities have organised teach-outs during the 2018 and 2019-20 strikes, and the practice is going strong.
The University of Winchester joined the 2019-20 industrial action in spring 2020 and pursued an active schedule of teach-outs for the first time in branch history, having not been a part of the 2018 strikes. We aimed for a series of events that would be informative, challenging and encourage conversation amongst the participants. While teach-outs are very specifically education outside of the university, I was enormously surprised and discouraged when my institution went to great lengths to try to prevent them from taking place. We were disallowed use of any university resources – including our email addresses – to organise or advertise them, and repeatedly reminded in varying and ominous ways about insurance, health and safety, and equalities issues in attempts to make the branch cancel them, as if this were a University event.
Throughout this experience, I have also been struck by the deep irony that a series of public-facing, dynamic, educational activities has been so actively disavowed with vigorous attempts made by the institution to block them. In a different context, these sessions done under the auspices of an institution would provide a seed or a cornerstone for an impact case study or an environmental statement for the Research Excellence Framework, resulting in potentially thousands of pounds of research income to an institution. In this neoliberal university structure, under a deeply conservative government, it must make us all wonder if universities care about education if it does not benefit the institution through prestige or, perhaps more, income.
However, teach-outs are not just not a university event. They are, to a great degree, events that were meant to help us both remember and demonstrate what a university could be. Sessions about decolonising curricula, preventing Prevent, the interlocking forms of bias, university budgets and finance, the voices of rebellion and more challenge the learners to think outside assessment criteria and the tick-box exercises of ‘quality control’ as well as gain a greater understanding of the world through a variety of methods and disciplines. For example, my session, which was titled ‘Anglo-Saxon Slavery and Modern Racism,’ brought to the floor points such as the connections between the academy, racism, sexism and classism, whilst in his session called ‘Excruciating Etymologies’, linguist Eric Lacey explored the connotations of the words for ‘work’ in a variety of ancient languages and what that means in modern discourse. To some degree, teach-outs also represent a tearing down of the walls of academic disciplines, which are so strongly and sometimes disadvantageously entrenched in university structures. Many teach-outs have been filled with students and lecturers from across departments and faculties, and even from other universities, learning from an academic they may have never met before, and who students may not see again through the course of their formal degree. Some of these teach-outs no doubt do more for interdisciplinarity than many university or funding body structure can do.
The level of genuine interest and engagement from across disciplines and universities has led to discussions between the Winchester UCU and Unison branches and the Southampton UCU branch about making similar talks a regular part of our formal activities. So many attendees have expressed the value of a space in which we can gather and learn in a cross- and multi-disciplinary way. The ideas around what education can be is too important, and has too much momentum, to think of it only as a conversation with traction in a time of industrial action. Teach-outs are, as my colleague Marika Rose has pointed out, a crucial reminder that at the best of times, teaching and learning can and should be a transformative experience inside and outside institutional walls.
As the fourth week of strike action in this round draws to a close, it remains to be seen what will be offered by the employers, and what UCU and its members will accept. But the industrial actions since 2018 have exposed another side of higher education: they have opened up the possibilities of how we can be as educators. As we come to the end of this round of strike action, we must continue to consider inequalities, pay, pensions – and what a university should be.
Dr Katherine Weikert is in the Strike Committee of the Winchester UCU branch, where she organised the teach-outs for the Feb-Mar 2020 strikes, and a Senior Lecturer in Early Medieval History.