Academia and activism: a student’s story

“I studied International Development with Spanish”. The sentence that often requires a deep inhale prior to saying it and tends to lead to blank faces and a polite smile. Admittedly, I had no idea that my degree existed before I found it a few months before applying. I also had no idea that I would graduate with this degree let alone with a concept of myself being an activist. This thought bubble is a journey through my 3 years of studying, campaigning and volunteering. I suppose having just graduated my thoughts have turned to reflections on how my degree was taught, what activism means and the links and contrasts between academia and activism. I’ll write a bit about these reflections and my experiences and will hopefully convey why the question “What did you do at uni?” could have a sentence long, or day long, answer. 

University of Sussex campus, the place where a lot of these thoughts and reflections started

I left school with the thought that university wasn’t for me as I hadn’t come across a course that I thought would interest me for 3 years and I didn’t like the idea of getting in debt for the sake of it. I was, and still am, interested in so many different things and did not want to narrow down and focus on one subject. When I found International Development at Sussex it seemed to be a varied option that would suit me. I remember looking at the module list choices for the course and thinking that each one of them looked so interesting I wouldn’t know how to choose (I now always would advise to-be students to do the ‘does the module list look exciting’ test before applying to anything). Broadly speaking, I studied anything related to how the world has changed, is changing, and could be changed. And since it is called International Development, different aspects of the course could be related to anywhere on the planet and any of its inhabitants. Critical thinking and taking a holistic approach was a theme throughout most modules but each module had multiple different contexts, opinions, theories, examples and angles to consider the content from. My modules have included studying the history and legacy of colonialism, environmental perspectives of development, theories of race and ethnicity, international education, research methods and development economics. Due to this wonderful buffet of options, I think the course and its mix of topics about people and places could be used in so many scenarios. Recently, I have come to realise how well matched studying International Development is with involvement in activism.

Alongside the course, I joined the Sweatshop Free Campaign which aimed to raise awareness of workers’ rights abuses in the electronics industry and get Sussex to affiliate to a worker led monitoring organisation called Electronics Watch (which they did-yay!). I also co-founded SEASALT Housing Co-operative, the first student housing co-operative in the South, and have gained a lot of skills and knowledge in the housing sector, particularly community led housing. These activities have been referred to as activism and I’ve come to see them as such.  Before University I had always been active in writing to my MP, joining initiatives and voicing concerns but had never thought of the word activism to describe this. I think all too often the word activism is overshadowed by radical activism or direct action and stereotypes take over. This certainly is a respectable type of activism but I sometimes feel like it dominates people’s minds about what activism is and sometimes even scares people off. To me, activism is simply being active and acting about things that matter to you no matter how you do it. I suppose I have reached this conclusion since being called an activist and these voluntary roles being called activism. If I were to say to people that I was involved with activism at university, I doubt the emailing and formal meetings necessary for the Sweatshop Free campaign and planning application proof reading necessary for the Housing Co-operative would spring to mind. Without going too much on a tangent about activism, the point I’m trying to get across is that I feel the term itself is often misunderstood and misrepresented. Acknowledging the wider umbrella of what falls under activism is really important and activism should be used as an inclusive term for active actions that may not be action packed- but still create an impact.

SEASALT Housing Co-operative banner at an event

So for me, being at university wasn’t just the course, it was also these activist activities, extra lecture series, and societies. It was having the space to think about, talk about and read about the world and people around us. I joined the campaign and the Housing Co-operative primarily to gain some new skills and meet new people. Only during the last few months have I come to appreciate quite how much I learnt from them and quite how relevant they have been for studying International Development and vice versa. To go back to the analogy of the International Development course being like a buffet, I suppose the involvement in the activist areas feel like the crockery and cutlery. They help the food-the thoughts, knowledge, analysis, critical thinking, be used and organised. And just like a buffet without food, my experiences and knowledge gained in the activist roles would be less wholesome without the course. This analogy is perhaps a slight exaggeration but the sentiment is there. Now that I’m applying to jobs I really see that the academic side of university and the activist side complement each other. 

When thinking about how this has occurred, sometimes it is a chicken-or-the-egg situation- I can’t discern which came first, academia or activism. And other times it’s a scrambled egg situation- I can’t discern whether the ingredients were academia or activism. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the clarity is lost on the details because the mutual usefulness and value is clear. For example, during academic studies, I have been particularly interested and passionate about participatory development as an approach and have enjoyed it when modules have touched on this. Outside of campus, as part of SEASALT Housing Co-operative, I have received training in, and participated in, community engagement and consensus decision making. I feel that this practical, hands on involvement has given me some tools to implement and visualise how participatory development approaches could be enacted, but this is closely entwined with the knowledge and understanding gained from the lecture theatre and readings. In fact, my interest in participatory development and autonomous grassroots organisations sparked from academic study may be why the co-operative sector particularly caught my curiosity in the first place.

Another example is that during the Sweatshop Free campaign I sometimes took a step back to question if what we were doing was the best approach and had appropriate, targeted outcomes. Pre-University me would have probably got on board with a campaign for workers’ rights without really thinking about the impacts or complexities of the issue and just assuming it to be ‘right’. I was slightly naïve and lacked a lot of insight about what lies under the world’s surface- I had never properly studied colonialism before for example (which as a British citizen, I am still shocked that up until the age of 20 I could name more famous Tudors than Countries in the former British empire). Student and graduate me sees these issues with a more nuanced and critical mind-set. The passion for issues related to workers’ rights has remained, but what has changed is my realisation that nothing is as obvious as it may seem and most issues don’t have quick, easy fixes. Studying International Development therefore encouraged me to look at the campaign from different angles and step back to ask questions. My involvement in the campaign later also influenced me to write a dissertation about Electronics Watch in a 3rd year module called Business, Development and Corporate social responsibility. That dissertation was the first time in the course I had linked activism and academia and it was a really interesting piece of work to write and I would argue that academic knowledge is valuable in activism. I analysed the Electronics Watch model using academic literature but also touched on aspects of the campaigns and activism to encourage affiliation.  

Sussex Sweatshop Free banner at freshers’ fair

International Development as a course was therefore successful in increasing understanding, awareness and knowledge about an array of topics, people, places, ideas and theories. It engaged with case studies and made students think critically. However, I think there were some missed opportunities to integrate practical, creative skills and alternatives to teaching and learning. As the above examples from my experiences hopefully suggest, academia and activism go well together and influence each other. Seminars often revolved closely around discussing readings and the contents of the lecture which is interesting, but moving beyond gaining knowledge to learning how to apply it would make some modules far more relevant to the world beyond academia. I always enjoyed learning about case studies where the norm was broken and the unexpected happened, and learning in situations where the norm was broken. Within practical and creative activities, I think it is important to relate academia with lived experiences of students to make it feel relevant and to avoid perpetuating issues sometimes found in development. For example, we were once asked in seminar to write what we would include in an educational curriculum for a country that most of us had never been to. Although the activity was arguably practical and creative, it would have been far more appropriate to talk about countries we had some familiarity with. This would have applied academic knowledge to lived experiences and avoided a subconscious sense that knowledge gained at a Western institution is more important than hearing the lived experiences of people in the country in question. I recognised and appreciated when modules were taught in creative ways, going further than just discussing academic literature with a list of questions and pushing us to be creative in our responses too. The idea of creative universities and taking a good look at how social sciences are taught at universities is overdue and will only improve what and how students learn.

Learning about such examples and in innovative ways also plays into the idea of ‘critical hope’, which I think is essential in International Development. Critical thinking is really important but sometimes it is easy to criticise, evaluate and overthink to a point where you feel you’re verging on entering a pit of despair and having an existential crisis. By learning that there are alternatives, innovative models and approaches and learning some tools to see how these could work is vital. With a focus on hope, being critical is conducive to finding an outcome rather than being critical for critique’s sake. My involvement in activist work has hugely helped with learning tangible techniques and gaining experience relevant to the course but also the course has helped me engage better with activism. I leave Sussex with optimism about the future and an appreciation of the different aspects of my education. I leave with an identity as both an activist and a graduate and will carry my critical thinking glasses wherever I go. And these glasses are probably the reason why I think there is scope to improve and broaden the societal concept of activism, the joining of activism and academia and the course itself. I also leave Sussex with a potentially lengthy answer to “What did you do at Uni?” which often leads to blank face and polite smiles.