Forking the University: legitimising deliberation in physical and virtual space

The theme of the place and politics of the Academic Commons crops up often in my writing and work. In particular I am taken with ideas of how and where academics and students as scholars can resist and then push back against the enclosure of the spaces and places for academic practice and critique. At DMU this has led to two inter-connected ideas: the virtual DMU Commons; and our new, physical Speaker’s Step in Magazine Square.

The Commons apes those other examples of virtual common-land, for instance at Lincoln, and CUNY, and BCU, and which our student DMU Commons Gardener is documenting here. Our Commons connects to a deeper history of protest, negation and refusal, and stories of custom-in-common that define a shared, collective identity, which I wrote about here. So our Commons is:

a shared place for the production of learning and research that is personally and socially transformative. Our DMU Commons will connect the social world of DMU to the resources, artefacts, networks and conversations that emerge from our thinking. The DMU Commons will nurture, stimulate and enhance respectful and generous learning conversations, within and beyond the University. It will help us to realise our ambitions through co-operation and our shared labours.

This connects to a second strand of thinking about hacking or forking the University, which is being developed nicely as a research project by Joss Winn at Lincoln, and which embeds ideas of craft and skill and tradition and production, and then links them to personal and social identity. I see this as a position from where the negation of ourselves as subjects inside the University might be fought. Moreover, it offers a way to connect with Christopher Newfield‘s desire for Re-Making the University in the face of austerity.

Thus, at DMU we might take the idea of craft and re-making or re-producing, in order to develop an idea of commonality around which we might also offer-up, create or carve out spaces for local/University developers, like the Leicester Linux Users’ Group, to engage with users, like the DMU Mashed group. This might then enable those new partnerships to use gizmos (Arduinos, Pis and drones) and sandboxes (part of a private cloud) to engage with real data (OpenAccess, OAuth and Big), in order to give a forked DMU community the opportunity to re-create/re-produce the University, and to solve problems inside enterprising, politicised, open spaces. In part this re-making depends upon the engagement of multiple and disparate groups in a set of shared problems, worked out in common or on a commons. Thus, the DMU Commons might become important as a place where research groups, developers, students, external friends of the University, alumni etc. might meet or see or review or hack or fork each other’s work.

However, we are now moving towards the idea that a DMU Commons might also need a physical place where ideas might be catalysed and problems identified and solutions debated. The need for a physical, communal spaces that also serve as ciphers for administrative or juridical or political groupings has a long tradition: from wapentakes/hundreds in English political administration; to the histories of general assemblies in, for example, student struggles; to workers’ councils; to the history of political reform meetings; and the recent histories of political struggles in Syntagma Square in Athens and Tahrir Square in Cairo. As spaces become enclosed the risk is that our opportunities for deliberation and free debate are stifled. The need is then for the courage to reassert in common our rights to deliberate in shared spaces.

At DMU we have begun to open-up just such a communal, deliberative space in Magazine Square, and we are reclaiming its use for the University-in-the-City. The space was first co-opted by Nick Clegg at the 2010 General Election and then, in response, by Ed Balls in 2011 in the run-up to the Leicester South by-election. Both Clegg and Balls stood at the same point on the same concrete podium, which serves as a seat in the Square, in order to make their election pitches. This is important precisely because it invested the square as a political space, but it is also important that the Square itself is centred on one of Leicester’s most historic spaces, by the Castle Magazine, Castle Park, St and Mary de Castro Church, and with a resonance through the University’s name to Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament.

It is also important that the seat, or step, sits very near to the the DMU/Leicester City Council boundary line. The demarcation is clearly marked by metal studs in the ground, and two brick square studs in the grass behind the speakers’ step. The deed lines for the land ownership are fascinating as they move along the front of DMU’s Hugh Aston Building and across the Magazine. This rudimentary sketch of the DMU/Leicester City Council Boundary shows this a little more clearly. Although the step wall where Clegg and Balls spoke technically belongs to Leicester City Council, there is no permission required given that speaking there will be an open public forum, taking place in an open public space. We are going to mark what we now refer to as Speaker’s Step with a plaque inscribed with Nelson Mandela’s quote that:

Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation”.

We have already held Student Union hustings on the Step, and on Thursday 8 March, to coincide with the Queen’s visit to DMU, we are hosting a series of speed lectures, hopefully complete with heckles and interruptions and questions, which will further inscribe Speaker’s Step as a space where we might reconnect the University with the public and the City. The idea for these speed lectures is to discuss the idea of the University as a public good, and Executive Board members, academic staff and students will be deliberating issues that matter to them around: local governance; creativity; open education; the NHS; software design and the history of computation; why we need another inquiry into housing; management information, universities and £9k fees; language development and education for the multicultural learner; and the cultural importance of Margaret Atwood and Florence Nightingale. We hope that this will be the beginning of a recapturing of this public space by the staff and students of DMU, as a way to re-create and re-produce the University as a public good deeply connected to the politics and place of Leicester.

As important will be our attempt to catalyse the use of the space for hustings, meetings, general assemblies, rallies and so on, as a legitimate form of re-imagining the University-in-the-City. Legitimising ways and places in which people can colonise and develop ideas and problems, and hopefully then re-produce or hack or fork the University, in order to solve those problems is central to this project. It is in the legitimation and interconnection of our DMU Commons with our Speaker’s Step, and the wider University/City, that we begin this political process.

One Response to Forking the University: legitimising deliberation in physical and virtual space

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