On 21 August 2013, my friend Derek Harding told me he had cancer. In the months that followed we corresponded about his treatment and I learned so much about the treatment of cancer from a personal and medical perspective. Just as importantly, I learned more about Derek’s life growing up on industrial Teesside. It turned out that over the months Derek helped me to think more about my own childhood and family life than almost anyone else. Derek also made me reflect on how I could help other friends who were dealing with illness, in ways that were both compassionate and practical. It also turned out that his black humour about his own illness would help me deal with my own on-going battle with my mental and physical health than he would ever know. It is a deep regret to me that I never managed to tell him this before he went in for his final surgery immediately before Christmas.
I first met Derek in the autumn of 1998 when I applied for a Project Manager’s role at the University of Teesside. He was the Project Director of the funkily-titled, Chic Project (which was the acronym for the much more prosaic Courseware for History Implementation Consortium), a Higher Education Funding Council for England initiative. During this project we trailed round the country discussing pedagogy and practice, and the relationships between technology, the arts and humanities, and (increasingly) critical pedagogy. The Project’s focus was on developing courseware and then nascent web resources for History students in six universities. We then extended that in terms of curriculum areas and institutions, and focused more on institutional change.
The idea of change mattered to Derek because, as he would later tell me:
I took myself through my own efforts from the world I was brought up in which would have seen me as a working class bloke in a dead end job living in a council house somewhere wondering what the point of it all was through a career in engineering and then to the first and still only person in my extended family to get a degree and a career as a University lecturer. I did that, no-one helped me, and I did it by grabbing every educational opportunity I could get and exploiting it to the fullest extent I could. I ended up in a place I didn’t really fit into but I didn’t care about that and still don’t care because I didn’t fit into the place I started from either.
Derek had worked in engineering on Teesside and had gone to University late to study History. He was self-taught in terms of IT and always fiddling with hardware and software, and always looking for ways to circumvent established procedures and processes in order to get things done. His and my more maverick natures meant that we were never fully integrated into the work that we did at Teesside, but our collective energy meant that we were able to give the Project a more distinctive favour, as we extended its remit. It also meant that we were always looking for opportunities for “insurgency” against established positions.
Through our work, we ended-up presenting at 11 conferences, and we co-authored two articles and a peer-reviewed book about the project. However, our work also enabled me to start building a pedagogic research career, as he encouraged me to produce a further two single authored articles, and a piece for Cleveland History, on Eighteenth Century politics. My own career owed much to our work together, in terms of project management, understanding University politics and processes, in influencing and networking, and in fighting for learning and teaching to be discussed. Our work was a crucial part of my own journey towards becoming a Professor of Education and Technology. My award reflected Derek’s commitment to critical pedagogy and practice.
Over time Derek came to develop his strengths in technologies and pedagogies that support the art curriculum. Not only did he draw and paint, but he constantly attempted to fuse his practices as an artist to his teaching. When I needed someone to lead a session specifically aimed at pedagogic innovation for art and design teachers in my role at De Montfort University, it was inevitable that I would turn to him. For Derek, encouraging a wide-range of engagement for academics was critical, in formal learning settings, with local groups and through collective action. Not only did he fight for his labour in higher education, but he also edited Cleveland History for seven years and was a lifelong trade unionist.
I always felt that he was generous with his time and with his questioning and listening. When I had a breakdown in 2000, Derek was incredibly compassionate in how he managed our work and my rehabilitation back into work. Over the years, he always asked about my health, and about how I was recovering and managing. Critically, he always remembered, always wanted to know if I would like to talk about how my illness and the chronic fatigue that followed was affecting me, and he increasingly provided examples from his own life of how to manage mind and body appropriately. I loved hearing about how he conquered his nicotine addiction with hypnotherapy, and how he used a late obsession with running to improve his well-being. Both the hypnotherapy with a trusted therapist, and the work in the gym, were important to him as he battled his cancer. He made me consider how faith and trust worked in my own battle with depression.
It’s an odd thing but I often think about the office that we shared, which overlooked Teesside and the North Yorkshire Moors. We would often discuss that landscape. It was a constant reminder of the industrial colonisation of the landscape by humanity, and our battle to exist against the elements. It resonated with Derek’s fusion of his engineering background, his obsession with running in the countryside, and his deep love of this part of Yorkshire. His attempt to make sense of his life, and to live as full a life as possible, across a range of environments, was how I will remember him. Always fighting, always moving.
However, it was in finding ways to work with people on the margins and in getting things done that I will most remember Derek. He wrote to me that:
Above all I taught people and that really was the thing. During all of this I never lost the basic curiosity which has really driven my life. The question why? has always been there in my head as has our shared humanity. I fear that we have lost our way and that our humanity needs to be cared for and nurtured to get us back to what we aspire to be rather than blindly following the directions of corporates.
I will always cherish our conversations in the Lebanese Café on Linthorpe Road, and over a beer in the Star and Garter pub, and via email as both he and I struggled latterly with our health. Most of all I will remember that Derek made me feel heard. As he used to sign-off our conversations, “Keep looking for the positives.” I will miss him. I hope we meet in the next life.