The Sussex Spirit?

Opening page of the Sussex 2025 Strategic Framework document

I have undertaken most of the empirical research for my book at Sussex University, where I have been working since 2014. In this post, I want to unpack this particular academic location a bit more.

The University of Sussex, a public university just outside Brighton, was founded in 1961 as the first of the new or ‘plate glass’ universities set up by the UK government after WWII. The term was coined by Michael Beloff in reference to the new architectural style of these universities –  using steel and glass rather than red brick and a traditional Oxbridge look. The Sussex University design by Sir Basil Spence (who incidentally also designed the new Coventry Cathedral after the original was destroyed during a massive Nazi air raid in 1940 and the Beehive, the seat of the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington) was  inspired by the beauty of the surrounding South Downs National Park  (which also makes Sussex the only UK university to be located in a National Park). It was more of a combination of the old and new as many of the university’s buildings are dominated by red brick (now mainly greyed by age and pollution), with the initial buildings organized around a  central quadrangle with modernist arches. Today, while students might still appreciate the modernist architecture, they mainly get lost in the mazes that have been purposely designed in many buildings.

What was new about Sussex was its break with academic traditions through progressive and interdisciplinary teaching, materializing in a school system that was unique for the times. Sussex also developed a reputation for student radical activism, supporting anti-apartheid and anti-Vietnam war struggles (including a group of students preventing then government advisor Samuel Huntington from speaking on campus in 1973 and throwing red paint over a visiting US diplomat). Closer to home, student dissatisfaction was manifested through boycotts of assessments as a form of social control, student protests, (rent) strikes and the periodic occupations of administrative buildings, as chronicled by Ed Goddard, a Sussex alum. Students also enjoyed concerts by legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. The forerunner to the School of Global Studies, where I teach, was AFRAS (School of African and Asian Studies), which became known for challenging existing ideas around race and gender, hosting scholars and activists from global South and counting among its alumni activists such as Helen Pankhurst.

In the late 1960s, the United Nations asked a team of experts at Sussex for science policy recommendations, resulting in what became known as the Sussex Manifesto, which was deemed as too radical to become the foreword for the UN World Plan of Action for Science and Technology in Development. It nevertheless influenced UN thinking around this confluence and was used for teaching courses in universities in the Global North and South. Forty years later, a new Manifesto was issued as the result of collaborations between academics at SPRU, IDS and Global Studies, all of which are contributing to Sussex being repeatedly ranked first in the world for Development Studies. In 2018, the university divested from fossil fuel investments after a long Student Union campaign and last year it declared a climate emergency.

If that sounds too much like all is good at Sussex, it is because it isn’t. The current Vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, became known as the ‘neoliberal beast’ during the first wave of staff pension strikes in 2018, when he was the only vc to openly side with the UUK, which was also in contrast to his former much more critical academic views on neoliberalism. Sussex became a hotspot of protests during that strike and the most recent ones and many students supported striking faculty members. The university’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science continues to be funded by fortunes made from the opioid epidemic, and a domestic violence case involving a staff member and his doctoral supervisee was initially handled in grossly inadequate ways. More generally, the Changing University Cultures report commissioned by Tickell in 2017 speaks of the performance of activism and shows the persistence of structural inequalities around race, gender and sexuality, institutional privilege and deep divisions between staff and senior management at Sussex. Still, the university’s strategic vision for the future, called Sussex 2025, wants to harness the ‘pioneering spirit’ of Sussex, however superficial this might be.

As part of this, the university has launched a management-driven Pedagogic Revolution that is more style than substance at the moment. Still, there are interesting teaching initiatives on campus such as the Active Learning Network and a great number of passionate and committed educators, many of whom I am lucky to work with in the International Development department and who have inspired my own teaching and this book. Working out the extent to which such individual, smaller-scale initiatives can have a meaningful impact on transformative teaching will be an important part of my writing. Here, I am guided by the wise words of fellow anthropologist Margaret Mead:

never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [educators] can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.

Where am I coming from

I first started using this map when we moved to NZ and had to show our kids where that was

In my first post, I wrote about my teaching experiences that inspired me to write Creative Universities. Here I want to write about some more personal adventures that have nourished my interest in alternative futures.

I grew up in former East Germany, in a small town 20 km from Weimar, the birthplace of the Bauhaus. Its radical experiments in education have been informing my own interest in arts-and-design based education. Weimar was also home to many German writers, musicians and artists and in school, we studied Goethe’s Faust from cover to cover. Much less enlightened, you can see the Glockenturm of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp from Weimar. I left home about six months before the Wall came down in November 1989; what has stayed with me from this upbringing is a skepticism of all state-sponsored socialist projects, a yearning for travel that has since brought me to all corners of the world and an affinity for repairing things (since that is what everybody did in a place where new things were hard to come by). I was therefore particularly excited when a repair cafe opened in my home town a few months ago, where I volunteer once a month.

A gap year in Montreal turned into Canada becoming my second home for 10 years. During that time I also discovered Latin America and anthropology. For my undergraduate and MA studies I conducted research in Northwestern Argentina, with traditional healers and a community of Kollas, an indigenous peoples who were fighting for the restitution of their lands. Learning about indigenous ways of thinking and being has become an enduring interest in Latin American alternatives, as for example articulated in the work of Arturo Escobar.

Upon finishing my PhD, which had brought me to the San Francisco Bay Area at the height of the dotcom bubble with its techno evangelism and rampant greed, and attempting the impossible task of surviving on short-term contract teaching and research for a few years whilst raising a family, we packed up and moved to New Zealand. It allowed me to re-connect with some of my German roots when our kids attended a local Steiner school with its child-centered and arts-based philosophy. I also discovered the power of Māori and Pacific culture, which furthered my interest in indigenous cosmologies and plurality. Swapping the sunny beaches in Auckland for the grey coast of South-east England has now brought me to Lewes, a town where Thomas Paine first developed his revolutionary ideas.

It is from all of these sources, travels and experiences that I draw in my work. I hope to do all of them, and the amazing people that have been accompanying me along my journey, justice in my writing.

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Welcome to Creative Universities!

This blog is a companion to a new book project called Creative Universities: Reimagining Education for Alternative Futures. In the book, I explore the role of creativity in university programs that focus on understanding and addressing contemporary social, economic and environmental challenges. I develop a critical-creative pedagogy that combines critical analysis of these challenges with arts-and-design based, experiential, whole-person centered forms of teaching that develop not only students’ analytical thinking, but also their imagination, emotions, lateral and practical skills. All of these will be essential if students – as the change makers of today and leaders of tomorrow – are to envision, design and build the novel solutions that are so urgently needed to address the multiple crises our world is facing.

As I embark on this writing journey, which can be a very solitary endeavor, I have created this blog in the hope that like-minded travelers will join me on my adventure, read my thoughts as they are taking shape and provide commentary if they feel so inclined. I would like it to become a space where fellow educators, co-learners and students passionate about transformational teaching can also share their ideas and stimulate reflections and discussions.

I have been teaching in the field of Global Development for the past 15 years, beginning as a Teaching Assistance for Michael Watts at his Introduction to Development and Underdevelopment course back in 1999, when I started my own PhD in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Ten years later I joined the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, a small postgraduate program under the welcoming directorship of Yvonne Underhill-Sem. It was here, teaching primarily Kiwi, Pacific and Asian students, that I first heard students talk about their disillusionment with our critical take on international development, which left them with little to no hope to realize their desire to make the world a better place through working in the field. Granted, I knew already that the field was deeply problematic and that many of the students’ desires were build on naive assumptions whose realization had often brought the students to our program in the first place. But as an educator committed to transformational teaching the reaches beyond the classroom, I could not help but feeling that something was amiss.

This continued after I joined Sussex University in the UK in 2014, which has a large undergraduate program as well as several MA courses and a thriving PhD community. Especially as Head of Department for three years, I had many more conversations with students and colleagues, which clarified my thoughts on the importance of educating students around the idea of ‘critical hope’ – a combination of critical analysis of the international development regime and its historical and current inequities and of informed awareness of existing alternatives within and without this system to guide students in imagining and working towards alternative futures.

Creative Universities: Reimagining Education for Alternative Futures, which I will be writing over the next year, is the result of this 20 year journey, showing how I, and many of my colleagues, have put teaching critical hope into practice in the classroom.

Welcome to my blog!

Anke Schwittay