#5: #WeAreLocal

In an increasingly globalised society, many of us are guilty of far-sightedness. As observers, we are becoming telescopic: we have little trouble in seeing what’s floating above our heads in cyberspace, but often miss what’s sitting there right under our feet.

Perhaps some of us do it unintentionally. Our media outlets, on all levels (national, regional, and even local), have become obsessed with the wider world like never before. And we, the media consumers, have simply followed suit.

Like a worn-out stereotype, I best start off with the millenials. I picked up my younger brother from school the other day, and I heard a bunch of his mates debating about whether Donald Trump was ‘a good leader’. I was selfishly happy to hear my brother was arguing ‘against’, but I was shocked, more than anything, to hear a bunch of ten-year-olds engaging with politics – and American politics, as well. We barely even spoke about Tony Blair when I was at school; never mind George W. Bush.

So it’s probably not all bad. It’s just a shame there isn’t the same level of engagement with local issues. I can say the same of my university (University of Sheffield). The Students’ Union have run a fantastic #weareinternational campaign for the past five years or so, and its been truly heartwarming to see so many nationalities and cultures being celebrated embraced (and not “assimilated) within a community. The campaign itself has been a major success, being backed by dozens of other universities and even stimulating a dialogue in Parliament.

Sadly, the local communities outside of the institution – many, just as multicultural (if not always as socially harmonious) as the University – rarely get a say in this kind of discourse. As a good friend and colleague of mine wrote to me in an email last month,

“#weareinternational is fine but what about #wearelocal too?”

In today’s treacherous academic funding climate, I fear that a project bid looking far beyond the local community would stand a far greater chance of getting funded than one that seeks to work with communities close by. And that’s a problem if universities like ours still aspire to become “pillars of the community“, following in the footsteps of US institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania. As Ira Harkavy of UPenn writes:

“…our great universities simply cannot afford to remain islands of affluence, self importance, and horticultural beauty in seas of squalor, violence, and despair.”

I’d say Sheffield isn’t quite as bad as that, but the inescapable disparity between the privileged isolation of the university and the state of the city beyond its campus renders the latter in a state of relative poverty.

The University of Sheffield proudly declares itself a ‘civic’ university, but how many of its projects are actually contributing positively within the city region and its neighbouring towns? I don’t have the figures handy, but empirically speaking, I imagine they’re pretty low.

But this certainly isn’t an issue exclusive to this university alone. Actually, in an unashamedly-biased-but-evidenced sort of way, I quite proudly point (once again) towards our Engaged Learning network. Nevertheless, we still need to do a lot more – and would say the very same of Sheffield Hallam University and, indeed, any other university in the UK (although I’ll happily stand corrected if anyone from any of those can prove otherwise.)

And to any prospective discipline-specific cross-examiners of this blog, I’ll even pre-emptively add in this condition: give me an example of any discipline that isn’t translatable into any form of contribution to the wider community. I’m yet to think of one.

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It’s great that more of us are broadening our horizons and talking more about the wider world than ever before. But where do the locals fit into that narrative? We all need to escape from our own little bubble from time to time, and immersing ourselves into other worlds is something we all do (typically, these days, via US-based TV series). After all, we all share the same physical world, if not always a social one. But aren’t we (not just academics, but all of us) doing this a little too much now – and unduly ignoring our neighbours in doing so?

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