From what I gather, existential crises are super common amongst researchers – so I’m not going to make out as if I’m the only one who’s ever gone through this. For example, Lynsey Hanley, borrowing the words of Richard Hoggart in her book Respectable, finds herself “uprooted and anxious”: having come from a working-class background to join an academic circle that is, by virtue, a middle-class bubble. Those words seem to speak to me in some way, too.
My biggest strength in coming from an ex-mining village in Barnsley (one world) to eventually study a PhD at Sheffield University (a completely different world), is simultaneously my biggest weakness. I feel like I can move with fluidity between the two worlds; and at the same time, I belong to neither.
I started feeling this way around a year ago, when I was putting together a collection of poems about the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike for my Master’s dissertation thesis. I was going out to writing groups in Barnsley and Rotherham to talk to poets about their works, and ultimately, to ask if I could use them for my own project.
I was able to walk into spaces that the more socially-elevated academic might have been turned away from. Indeed, one writers’ group in particular expressed their resentment for academics, having felt that researchers who had visited them in the past had exploited them.
Around 2014-15, when the Miners’ Strike was the flavour of many months (it was the 30th anniversary, after all – and many controversial government documents from the time had finally been released), these poets (these people) were merely seen as vessels from which the strike could be tasted, and nothing more. I heard one story in particular about a visiting academic promising crucial funding so that the writers’ group to continue to function – in return for using their words for research.
Of course, the words flowed one way, but the money never came in return. Broken transaction; broken trust. An angry community; a happy academy. And I, half working-class lad from Barnsley, half middle-class academic, find myself both siding with the former, and apologising for the latter.
When I go into spaces like that, and have to come out to the community as a ‘researcher’, I feel a great shame. Hearing stories like that about my peers, and knowing that I am (at least on paper) one of them, hardly provides me with a sense of belonging.
We must do better. Projects like ‘Engaged Learning Sheffield‘ at least give me hope that there are others wanting the same thing: to change the way academia works. For too long, the academy has been content with reserving itself within its own little bubble, far removed from the cities and towns that universities have come to call home.
That has to change. We cannot continue to let our communities down.
When we ask of something from a community, they should be able to expect something in-kind – that is the underlying principle of co-production, a growing fundamental of academic research that I am almost certain to return to in a later blog post.
And when we don’t deliver on our promises – when we fail , and fail, we regularly do – it is those communities we serve that must hold us to account, and not just the funders who facilitate our research.