Education, commons, pirates and ninjas

This original version of this article was original published for EduFactory Web Journal on 23 January 2008. I have been reflecting on teaching lately and re-read it – and I still think it is relevant so I am re-drafting it, updating it and putting up on my site.

One day at the university in which I lecture – University of Western Sydney – a student ran into me in the corridor. He said that he wanted to remind me that it was ‘international speak like a pirate day’, and I should announce it in the lecture.

As we walked and discussed the likely history of such a day, he noted that I, like many famous pirates, had learnt to adapt to my new environment: away from the more prestigious ‘sand stone’ universities to one established to serve the lower-socio-economic areas of greater western Sydney, I was changing my language to suit the new students I was meeting.

As I thanked him and headed for my second cup of coffee, he turned and said: “James… pirates were resourceful, like ninjas, they learnt to use their environment.”

What do pirates and ninjas have to do with any the university? Maybe I will come back to that a little later but this article will be focussed on my autonomous education initiatives, which I have tried to adapt to my environment.


Different pirates, different flags

One of the fundamental dimensions of universities is the existence of hierarchies. I feel comfortable with some hierarchies: I like having mentors at the university who I can look to for advice and learn from.

I also accept that there are different hierarchies in knowledge: I know a lot more about the race theory than my students. Though I have experienced racism – particularly when I was younger – the knowledge in my Muslim student who has experienced racism in this country is far superior. I give in to this hierarchy of knowledge and experiences when she talks of someone trying to rip off her headscarf.

Saying that, however, there are other hierarchies with which I am uncomfortable. There are some fields of knowledge that claim authenticity or argue that they are more scientific than others. I still read student Honour’s level projects that have an implicit apologetic tone if they have not used enough quantitative research: an apology encouraged by their supervisors.

Only recently a PhD student was told to keep his personal feelings out of a thesis even though he had personal experience in the area he was writing: being removed from his parents because of his Aboriginality.

It is negotiated hierarchies that I am comfortable with.

Education as commons: staking my claim/raising my flag

My position is reflected in the concept that education should be seen as a commons. The commons can confront scarcity and create abundance. Here I am talking about the commons in the ‘cultural’ sphere.

I argue that the commons can include human relationships such as the need for safety, trust, shared intellect, as well as simply cooperation. Briefly focussing on ‘safety,’ for example, I would argue that safety as a commons can be understood as both a sense of peace and an absence of fear. It can be thought of as mediated by a sense of belonging that allows members of communities to interact with each other. Cultural commons such as safety represent a form of biopolitics that promotes the potential for greater cooperation. That is, if I feel safe within my community, even when surrounded by strangers, then I am likely to cooperate with them. Safety can produce relationships that are non-hierarchical and inclusive, allowing communities to work together to overcome scarcity, crisis and fear (Hardt and Negri 2004, Multitude, xvi).

I see education as a cultural commons: something that we all share and can grow to expand creating a new form of biopolitical production. To do this, where possible, I make my research and own intellectual work available for all. I only expect that those who use it do the same for me in return – even if this is simply feedback: as one student once said: “dude, that really sucked, made no sense at all.”

Only by openly sharing can our intellect and education really grow. But this too must be negotiated: I would refuse to allow my work around, say ‘understanding trade’ to be available to a right wing racist group. I also respect that some people do not like politics.

This negotiation is different from enclosure – the commodification and patenting of knowledge that most universities now encourage through a variety of mechanisms. That is, the fact that we are often required to sell off our research to a ‘corporate partner’ or that the university patents research to sell off at some future time. This is enclosure that promotes a scarcity in knowledge – and as any economist will tell you, the scarcer something is, the more value it has. Such scarcity has important implications for education and intellect.


My initiatives: the pirate (or ninja) in me

My initiative is simple: I believe in the democratisation of knowledge and therefore do my best to distribute the education material that I have produced in different formats that are accessible to all. One way that I have done this is facebook and my own website.

Yes, I know, Facebook is a large organisation that collects and stores data about us, but like open source software, if we can use these tools as mechanisms for a university initiative, then why not? And, more importantly, it is these tools that many students of mine use. If this is a way I can discuss Marx, Foucault, Weber, Hardt and Negri with them, then this is the tool I will use. I use other mechanisms also, but Facebook is the one that has proven incredibly popular.

Here students interact with me on their own terms.

It is this way, by making the information accessible – both in the way it is discussed and available – that I believe that we can find some insights into university knowledge production. This way, universities can exist both inside and outside institutions, be simultaneously local and global and be available to all.

My vision: the treasure I would love to establish a network of practitioners who work on such initiatives and who openly share our knowledge, information and work – agreeing that we all have different methods. I would also love to have a physical site somewhere: to got to and learn and teach, where others can do the same and to share: be they established theorists or activists looking to discuss their experiences.


Thanks for reading this and I look forward to your feedback…

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6 Responses to Education, commons, pirates and ninjas

  1. Pingback: Kill your Powerpoints and teach like a pirate | The Canadian Daily

  2. Shirley Goodbar says:

    Finally! A university teacher who believes in and attempts truly to educate in the proper sense of that word rather than simply dump information into students’ brains. Go, man!

    • James Arvanitakis says:

      Hey Shirley

      Thanks for your awesome email… means so much to get such positive messages! I love teaching and have a bunch more articles about to follow, so watch this place!

      Best, james

  3. Lisa Gorman says:

    Thank you!
    My daughter shared a link to your blog site as she knows I am interested in blogging and also studying at UWS (M Ed Leadership) so therefore general interested in learning!
    What a joy to read of your love for this space – I too am using Facebook to ‘spread the word’ and seek ‘feedback’ and learn from the collective wisdom of others; so much to learn!
    What an inspiration to read you are pushing against the destructive boundaries of enclosure. Information is power and in sharing we empower others… surely universities would see transparency and knowledge sharing as a way to engage the broader community, some of whom may actually decide that they can indeed ‘go back to school’! Sadly, it seems this is not the majority view point?
    Finally, I love your thinking on hierarchies in regards to learning… surely we all have a rich history and life experience that deserves to be honoured and shared – connecting us all and opening our eyes to further insight of life’s hardships and lessons. It saddens me to think at a Doctoral level that this may not be a given… even in a small way… our work is surely less because of this view.
    Thank you for a fabulous start to Thursday!
    Best regards

  4. Great man, great courage, great teaching!

    My kind respects,

  5. Andi says:

    Thank you, James, for giving me hope!

    You and your actions are a great source of inspiration. I hope one day to be one too.

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