A Short Letter from Alexandria

wooden shelves of books in an old library

(This is a direct transcript of a talk delivered at Oxford University’s School of Geography)

wooden shelves of books in an old library
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’m particularly excited to talk at an event called “Enough” because unlike most places I speak I figured that you can’t call an event “Enough” unless you are at least willing to have someone talk about the need for paradigm change. Because when it comes to mental illness, neurodiversity, and higher education in the 21st century, only paradigm change will do. So thank you – I am going to take the title of this event at its word and be blunt.

Please accept that for speaking purposes I am using the rhetorical you, the you of the university’s senior leadership and higher education as a whole, and not the specific you who have provided this opportunity. And to those of you in the room who share my uncertainties, I hope these thoughts will help you to know that you are not alone. There are people out here who will not be silent while the uncertainty remains.

I’m talking about uncertainty. In particular I want to talk about the particular kind of uncertainty that neurodivergent and mentally ill folk like me experience. But because most other people don’t, let’s first take a step back and understand what it is that we in higher education do.

I’ve thought about this for the more than 3 decades since I arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate, and my conclusion is very simple. The one thing you do at your core is this.

You burn books.

As a society we tell our children to dream. And it is essential that we do so. Every question, every hope, every encounter with a library, with an experiment, with a problem, every what if, every I wonder, every maybe we could try this, every time someone looks up at the night sky and wonders what’s out there, every time someone stands at the edge of the beach and looks out and asks what’s down there, the first time we hold a dying animal in our arms and as if we will ever be able to understand why just being alive brings so much pain  – every one of those is a remarkable story waiting to be told. Every one of those is a different world. And you are uniquely tasked in higher education to decide which of those incredible, beautiful, potentially world-enriching or even extinction-avoiding stories will never get told.

You think of yourselves as enablers. You celebrate the stories you bring to life. And you should. But they are just tiny points of light in an infinite and dark universe and unless you understand that part of what you do you will never come close to taking your responsibility seriously.

By the way, that’s not me being blunt.

My blunt point is this. You burn our books, those of the neurodivergent and the mentally ill, before we even get to once upon a time and the story you tell yourself about why you do that is the paradigm you need to shift.

And that is where we come to uncertainty. To the uncertainty we experience in our daily contact with higher education.

It is the uncertainty that crawls sulphurously from the gap between the promises made by your words and the everyday actions by which you casually break them.

It is the uncertainty which comes from a strategic plan that says

We are committed to equality of opportunity, to engendering inclusivity, and to supporting staff and student wellbeing, ensuring that the very best students and staff can flourish in our community.

While job descriptions and the forms you must fill in to apply for them, and if you do get through them the internal research funding eligibility criteria and the even less accessible forms you must fill in to obtain it ensure that these words can never play out in action.

It is the uncertainty of seeing wellbeing initiatives while being on hiring panels where “concern for wellbeing” is used to deny a person a job and the simple measures that would make it accessible for them are deemed impossible.

It is the uncertainty of a policy that says we will tolerate no act of harassment that plays out as a parroted response “but that is not harassment” and a policy that says “we will make any reasonable adjustment you need” that plays out as a record stuck on “but that adjustment is not reasonable.”

And arising from all of these uncertainties is the elephant in the room of all uncertainties. Why do you say you want us? Because your actions tell us that you don’t yet your words passionately insist that you do.

For some of you it will be a realisation that the law as it stands says you have obligations.

Some of you will understand the business case as it were. We are living in a world in which the way we have always done things has led us to a cliff edge. You realise that you need us because whatever a better future might look like, we will only get there if we do things differently.

And for some of you our value is not even in the contribution we can make but in our simple humanity.

And yet still you burn our books.

I believe this is because you simply do not see the uncertainty we see. You do not see how your actions negate your words. You see our world through your eyes. And so our demands seem somehow unreasonable – because you do not understand the reason that to us seems obvious. And so you will not change your ways because you will not understand that you must. It is the tragedy of every paradigm that while it sees the anomalies in its midst it seeks to assimilate them until the moment it collapses. You are not wicked. You are not special. You are part of a fundamentally mundane narrative. You say you want to do things differently. We tell you what that means. You say you can’t possibly do that. We say OK, in that case goodbye. You ask us “can’t you just…”

And our books burn.

We could start to tell you how to heal the faultline through which uncertainty steels in.

We could explain that you need to drop almost every eligibility criterion in your further particulars because it is unfit for its stated purpose.

We could explain that you need to drop the paradigm of the journal article and the monograph as the pinnacle of research outputs.

We could explain that networking dinners, packed conference schedules, drinks receptions, polite body language, dress codes, in-person meetings render the rest of what you do unfit for purpose.

But you will not listen.

And our books will burn.

I could explain a very simple exercise. Imagine someone turns up at your door with a line of research that may provide the answer to one of the most important questions in your field and the ability to follow it through.

Now imagine that person is a 63 year old autistic woman without a qualification to her name who cannot make eye contact with you, struggles to speak at social events, and has violent meltdowns if you insist she tries.

The exercise is simply to write down every reason you would not hire her. In the few minutes it has taken you to do that you have written your strategic plan for the next 5 years. Your aim is simply to ensure that at the end of that time every reason on that list is gone.

But you will not do that. Unlike her, who if she “just tried hard enough could” do the things you demand that have nothing to do with her research, you “simply can’t” change.

And her book will burn.

I could tell you that a very simple way to close the gap between word and deed is to ensure that we sit on every decision-making body you have, and that we have a veto.

But you will explain that you cannot justify that unless we are properly qualified, and so we will continue to shout from the margins, warning you of the unintended consequences that your policies will create and in five years’ time when you shake your head because while everything has changed in words nothing has changed in deed and say “but we simply couldn’t have known” we will be there reminding you that at every step we told you. Our books will burn but our screams will not be silent in the flames. Our voices will haunt you from the fire.

If you will do none of those things. If you believe you need to do none of those things. If you believe you “cannot possibly” while we “can just”, then the only thing left for us to ask is for your honesty. If you are not willing to have your paradigms shifted do not claim you long for outcomes that only a paradigm shift can create. Do not sneak to the bonfire under cover of dark but do us the courtesy of throwing our books into the flames by day. Because as long as you make promises with your words that we know your actions have no alternative but to break; as long as you encourage us with your missions and your wellbeing statements and your strategies and policies to put our heads above the parapet only to walk away when we do and leave us standing in the line of fire, we will continue to be blunt.

So I end with one simple request. Each morning, ask yourself “whose books will I burn today?” If you do this, take as it were one tiny piece of uncertainty into your life, if not better then at least more honest decisions will follow.

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