Tag Archives: History

2023 End of Year Reflection⤴

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Posting an end of year round up at the end of January might seem a bit daft, but I’m already one step ahead of last year, when I posted my end of year reflection in February! 

The beginning of the year was a succession of real highs and lows.  UCU entered a long phase of industrial action which came at a particularly challenging time for me as January and February is usually when I’m preparing for Open Education Week and the OER Conference.  However I also took some time out for a trip to New York with friends, which turned out to be one of the high points of my year. 

Open Education Week

For Open Education Week we ran a webinar that celebrated 10 years of open course development at the University of Edinburgh and shared the open course creation workflow that we’ve developed and refined over the years. 

 

OER23 Conference

It was great to see the OER Conference returning to Scotland in March when it was hosted by UHI in Inverness.  Inverness is a place that is very close to my heart as it’s the main city in the Highlands and it’s also were we used to go on holiday when I was a kid.  Inverness is still a stopping off point on the journey home when I go to visit family in Stornoway so I had a slightly weird feeling of nostalgia and home-sickness while I was there, it was odd being in Inverness and not traveling on further north and west. 

One of the themes of this years conference was Open Scotland +10 and Joe Wilson and I ran a number of sessions including a pre-conference workshop and closing plenary to reflect on how the open education landscape in Scotland has evolved over the last decade, and to discuss potential ways to advance open education across all sectors of Scottish education. 

Photograph of Open Scotland Plenary Panel at the OER23 Conference.

Open Scotland Plenary Panel by Tim Winterburn.
Here, the closing Panel Plenary session

Generative AI

Like many working in technical, educational and creative sectors I found it impossible to ignore the discourse around generative AI, though I hope I managed to avoid getting swept up in the hype and catastrophising.  In July I wrote an off-the-cuff summary of some of the many ethical issues related to generative AI and LLMs that are becoming increasingly hard to ignore: Generative AI – Ethics all the way down.  I appreciated having an opportunity to revisit these issues again at the end of the year when I joined the ALT Winter Summit on Ethics and Artificial Intelligence which provided much food for thought. Helen Beetham’s keynote Whose Ethics? Whose AI? A relational approach to the challenge of ethical AI was particularly thoughtful and thought provoking. 

Student Interns

Much of the summer was taken up with recruiting and managing our Open Content Curator student interns.  It’s always a joy working with our interns, their energy and enthusiasm is endlessly inspiring, and this year’s interns, August and Mayu, were no exception. I suggested it might be fun for them to interview each other about their experience of working with the OER Service and, with the help of our fabulous Media Team, they produced this lovely video. 

 

I was delighted when August and Mayu were shortlisted for the Student Employee of the Year Award in Information Services Group’s Staff Recognition Awards, in acknowledgement of their outstanding work with the OER Service and their wider contribution to ISG and the University. 

Their Finest Hour

The OER Service welcomed another student intern in the summer, Eden Swimer, who joined us to help run a digital collection day as part of the University of Oxford’s Their Finest Hour, a National Lottery Heritage funded project at the University of Oxford, which is collecting and preserving the everyday stories and objects of the Second World War. Organising and running the digital collection day proved to be a huge undertaking and we couldn’t have done it without the help of 26 volunteers from across ISG and beyond who committed so much time and energy to the project.  

 

The digital collection day took place in Rainy Hall, New College at the end of November and it was a huge success. Over 100 visitors attended and volunteers recorded over 50 interviews and took thousands of photographs, all of which will be uploaded to an open licensed archive that will be launched by the University of Oxford in June this year.  It was a deeply moving event, many of the stories recorded were truly remarkable and the visitors clearly appreciated having the opportunity to share their families stories.  In some cases these stories were being told by the last surviving relatives of those who had witnessed the historic events of WW2 and there was a real sense of preserving their experiences for posterity. 

Their Finest Hour digital collection day by Fiona Hendrie

The collection day was covered by STV and you can see a short clip of their news item here: Second World War memories to be preserved at university collection day

Publications

It was a privilege to work with co-authors Frances Bell, Lou Mycroft, Guilia Forsythe and Anne-Marie Scot to contribute a chapter on the “FemEdTech Quilt of Care and Justice in Open Education” to Catherine Cronin and Laura Czerniewicz’s timely and necessary Higher Education for Good: Teaching and Learning Futures. 

“Quilting has always been a communal activity and, most often, women’s activity. It provides a space where women are in control of their own labour: a space where they can come together to share their skill, pass on their craft, tell their stories, and find support. These spaces stand outside the neoliberal institutions that seek to appropriate and exploit our labour, our skill, and our care. The FemEdTech-quilt assemblage has provided a space for women and male allies from all over the world to collaborate, to share their skills, their stories, their inspiration, and their creativity. We, the writers of this chapter, are five humans who each has engaged with the FemEdTech Quilt of Care and Justice in Open Education in different ways, and who all have been active in the FemEdTech network.” 

I was also invited to submit a paper to a special open education practice edition of Edutec Journal.  Ewan McAndrew, Melissa Highton and I co-authored a paper on “Supporting open education practice: Reflective case studies from the University of Edinburgh.”

“This paper outlines the University of Edinburgh’s long-running strategic commitment to supporting sustainable open education practice (OEP) across the institution. It highlights how the University provides underpinning support and digital capability for OEP through central services working with policy makers, partners, students, and academics to support co-creation and active creation and use of open educational resources to develop digital literacy skills, transferable attributes, and learning enhancement. We present a range of case studies and exemplars of authentic OEP evidenced by reflective practice and semi-structured ethnographic interviews, including Wikimedia in the Curriculum initiatives, open textbook production, and co-creation of interdisciplinary STEM engagement resources for schools. The paper includes recommendations and considerations, providing a blueprint that other institutions can adopt to encourage sustainable OEP. Our experience shows that mainstreaming strategic support for OEP is key to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.”

Writing this paper was an interesting experience as Edutec is a research journal that expects evidence to be presented in a very particular way.  As a service division, we support practice rather than undertaking academic research, so the case studies we present are based on authentic reflective practice rather than empirical research, however it was useful to think about this practice from a different perspective. 

Wikimedia UK

In July I was awarded Honorary Membership of Wikimedia UK in recognition of my contribution to the work of the charity during my six years as a Trustee. When my term as a trustee came to an end, I was hoping that I’d have more time to contribute to the Wikimedia projects.  That hasn’t quite happened, I didn’t manage to do any Wikipedia editing in 2023, but I did enjoy taking part in Wiki Loves Monuments again.  I also digitised some pictures I took of the Glasgow Garden festival way back in 1988 and uploaded them to Wikimedia Commons to share them with the fabulous After the Garden Festival project, which is attempting to locate and archive the legacy of the festival. 

Teddy Bears Picnic, sponsored by Moray District Council. CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell on Wikimedia Commons.

ALT

I made short-lived trip to the ALT Conference in Warwick in September.  Unfortunately I  had to leave early as I came down with a stinking cold. I was really disappointed to have to miss most of the conference as it was outgoing CEO Maren Deepwell’s last event and I was also due to receive an Honorary Life Membership of ALT award. It was a huge honour to receive this award as ALT has been a significant part of my professional life for over two decades now.  You can read my short reflection on the award here: Honorary Life Membership of ALT. 

For almost three decades Lorna has been a champion of equitable higher education and an open education activist. Lorna ‘s lifelong commitment to and passion for equality and diversity clearly is evident in her work, yet Lorna tends not to push herself forward and celebrate – or even self-acknowledge – her many achievements. 
ALT press release.

Kenneth White, 1936 – 2023

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Kenneth White in August.  Despite being an avid reader of Scottish poetry, and having studied Scottish Literature at Glasgow University for a couple of years, I hadn’t come across White until my partner introduced me to him in 2002.  His absence from Glasgow’s curriculum, and indeed his relative obscurity in his homeland, is striking given that he was a graduate of Glasgow University who went on to become the chair of 20th century poetics at Paris-Sorbonne. White, however, has always been a writer who divides the critics, particularly in Scotland. A poet, writer, philosopher, traveller, and self-identified transcendental Scot, White founded the International Institute of GeoPoetics and was a regular visitor to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was fortunate to see him read.  To say that White’s writing, particularly his meditations on openness and the Atlantic edge, had a profound effect on me, is something of an understatement. This blog is named after the title of White’s collected poetic works and his lines frequently find their way into more unguarded pieces I’ve written.  I’ll leave you with a few words from the man himself. 

Image of the coast with the words of Scotia Deserta by Kenneth White.

2021 – Finding a way⤴

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At the end of each year, I used to write a round up of significant work and life events over the previous 12 months.  That didn’t happen last year.  Just getting to the end of the year felt like an achievement.  That was enough.  I’ve kept this blog ticking over for the last year, though I’ve written fewer posts here than in previous years.  It’s partly that I’ve been blogging elsewhere, on the OpenEd, Teaching Matters, and Open Textbooks blogs. But it’s also a question of bandwidth; surviving in the midst of a global pandemic, and taking care of those around you, be they family, friends, or work colleagues, takes up a lot of emotional energy, so there often wasn’t much energy left over to reflect on what I was actually doing.  I’m still committed to using this blog to share my practice though, so I want to end the year on a hopeful note with a blog post about all the things I’ve done that I didn’t manage to write about at the time, or that I only touched on in passing. 

Open eTextbooks for Access to Music Education

Fundamentals of Music Theory open textbook coverAt the start of the year I was awarded a University of Edinburgh Student Experience Grant, and together with Dr Nikki Moran and three brilliant student interns from the Reid School of Music, we undertook an experimental project to repurpose open resources from an existing MOOC and on-campus course to create a prototype open textbook, Fundamentals of Music Theory.  Working with Nikki and the students was a delight and we learned a lot about different publishing platforms and the process of editing and creating ebooks in different formats. My InDesign skills are basic at best, but my old HTML skills came in very handy!  We gave a talk about the project at the OERxDomains Conference, The Scale of Open: Repurposing Open Resources for Music Education, and it was great to receive such positive feedback on the importance of working together with students on projects like this. In his final reflection on the project our intern Ifeanyichukwu Ezinmadu wrote;

“This project has got me inspired towards creating an independent OER project in music theory based on the ABRSM theory syllabus. To achieve this new goal of mine, I look forward to deploying skills developed on this project such as collaboration, research, design thinking, and other technical skills. I will dearly miss the entire team that has made this Project a possibility – Lorna, Charlie, Nikki, Kari, and Ana – and I look forward to engaging with other opportunities within and beyond the University of Edinburgh to learn and contribute meaningfully towards music education projects.”

You can read more about the project on our blog here: Open eTextbooks for Access to Music Education, and download our open textbook here: Fundamentals of Music Theory.

Learn Ultra Base Navigation Upgrade

Another project I was involved in earlier this year was the Learn Ultra Base Navigation Upgrade project, which investigated the implications and feasibility of upgrading to UBN in advance of a full upgrade to Learn Ultra.  I’m not usually directly involved in supporting and delivering our Learn VLE service, but we were short handed so I was drafted in to do some of the project management. Although it was a bit of a steep learning curve for me, it was a really good opportunity to connect with colleagues who maintain and support the Learn Service and the Learn Foundations project, and it was interesting to have a preview of UBN and the functionality it provides. 

OER Policy update

On more familiar territory, I enjoyed working with our Education Technology Policy officer Neil McCormick to review and revise the University of Edinburgh’s OER Policy.  The University’s original policy was approved in 2015 and five years later, in September this year, our new policy was approved by Education Committee.  This new policy, which has adopted UNESCO’s definition of OER, strengthens the University’s commitment to open knowledge and achieving the aims of the Agenda for Sustainable Development.  You can read about the new OER Policy on Teaching Matters here: A new OER Policy for the University, and access the policy itself here: University of Edinburgh OER Policy

Open Education Global Awards

The OER Policy is just one of a sweet of open policies for teaching and learning that the University shares under Creative Commons licence, and we were delighted when these policies were awarded Open Education Global’s Open Policy Award as part of their 2021 Awards for Excellence.  Edinburgh rather swept the boards at the awards, also winning the Open Curation Award for our collection of OERs on TES Resources, co-created by GeoScience Outreach undergraduates and our fabulous Open Content Curation interns.  Melissa Highton won the Open Leadership Award, and Wikimedia intern Hannah Rothman won the Open Student Award.  We didn’t win the Open Resilience Award, but Charlie and I made a very cool video for our entry so I’m sharing it here anyway 🙂

ALT, Wikimedia UK, Creative Commons

I’ve continued serving as a trustee for ALT and Wikimedia UK and it’s always an honour to give something back to both these organisations, given their ongoing commitment to  openness, equity, community engagement and knowledge activism. This year I was privileged to sit on the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year Awards panel, which is always an inspiring experience, and the recruitment panel for the new ALT CIO. I also stepped briefly into the role of interim Chair of Board for Wikimedia UK, when Nick Poole’s term came to an end and before our new chair Monisha Shah took up the role.  With my Wikimedia UK hat on, I contributed to the Creative Commons working group on the ethics of open sharing, chaired by Josie Fraser.  You can read the outputs and recommendations of this working group here: Beyond Copyright: the Ethics of Open Sharing.

Knowledge Activism

I made my own small contribution to knowledge activism at the beginning of the year, when the University’s Disabled Staff Network and Staff Pride Network decided to run an editathon for LGBT History Month, I suggested HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland as a topic. As a result of the HIV Scotland Editathon, six new articles were created and several others improved, making a significant contribution to representing the history of HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland on Wikipedia.  I created a new article about Scottish AIDS Monitor and I also wrote and article about Jill Nalder, the Welsh actress who inspired the character of Jill in Russel T. Davis’ drama Its a Sin. Later in the year, Gary Needham invited me to present a webinar on Knowledge Activism: Representing the History of HIV and AIDS activism on Wikipedia for the University of Liverpool’s School of the Arts.  Gary and I have a formative shared queer history that goes back many years, so it really meant a lot to me to be able to speak to him and his colleagues about the challenges of representing queer lives and experiences in this way. 

A different kind of knowledge activism was provoked by the BBC drama series Vigil, which opened with distressing scenes of a fishing trawler being sunk by a nuclear submarine off the West Coast of Scotland.  I certainly wasn’t the only one who noted similarities to the sinking of the fishing vessel Antares by hunter killer submarine HMS Trenchant off Arran in 1990, despite the BBC denying that the incident was based on any specific real life event.  At the time, there was no Wikipedia entry about the sinking of the Antares and HMS Trenchant‘s entry made only a veiled reference to the incident, so I fixed that.  It’s important that we remember tragedies like this and equally important that we remember who was responsible. 

And while we’re on the subject of activism and loss of life at sea, please consider supporting the Royal National Lifeboat Institution if you can.  Their volunteers risk their own lives to save those who find themselves in peril at sea, and they are facing increasing hostility and abuse for their selfless courage and humanity. 

COP26

Activism of a different kind was going on all over Glasgow in November to coincide with COP26.  I can’t say I’m hugely optimistic about the outcomes of the conference or the will of global leaders and developed nations to enact meaningful change to halt the climate crisis, however it was hugely inspiring to hear the voices of so many young indigenous community activists.  These are the radical voices we need to listen to and make space for.  Also kudos to my daughter for snapping what surely has to be the most accurate photograph of the conference and the crisis we face, when we joined the climate march through Glasgow on 7 November. 

COP26 Climate Crisis March, Glasgow, CC BY NC SA, Rhuna McCartney

Open Scotland

Another area where we’ve made less progress than I would have hoped is with Open Scotland.  As a purely voluntary initiative Open Scotland hasn’t been particularly active for a number of years now, but many of those involved are still supporting open education, open practice and OER through other initiatives and activities. We remain committed to the aims of the Scottish Open Education Declaration and we haven’t given up hope that one day, the Scottish Government will wake up to the benefits and affordances of sharing publicly funded educational resources under open licence.  In March this year, with support from Creative Commons, we made another attempt at engaging the Cabinet Secretary for Education with the the UNESCO Recommendation on OER and the Scottish Open Education Declaration, but again we were disappointed to receive a generic response from a civil servant.  At a time when inclusive and equitable access to quality education and lifelong learning opportunities has never been more important, Scottish Government’s continued failure to engage with open education and OER is disappointing to say the least. 

Hello Helo

On a more positive note, we got a new kitten this year.  This is Helo and he behaves more like a puppy than a cat.  He’s very cute, but he’s also an absolute menace.  My two long suffering adult cats are getting no peace. 

Helo, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

Home

I got home to the Hebrides in the summer for the first time in two years.  It was a joy to see family again and when I finally got to the beach (yes, that beach) I felt like I could breath again for the first time in months.

Traigh na Berie, Isle of Lewis, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

Hope

In what has been a difficult and challenging year on many levels, I’ve been privileged to continue working with so many kind, compassionate, fierce and committed open education practitioners and open knowledge advocates.  You give me hope. 

It seems fitting to end with a quote from the late, great bell hooks, whose courage and clarity touched so many and whose words provide hope for us all.

“My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Educating is a vocation rooted in hopefulness. As teachers we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know.”

~ bell hooks (1952 – 2021)

M&M Podcast on Knowledge Equity⤴

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Earlier this week I had the very great pleasure of joining my colleagues Myles Blaney and Michael Gallagher for their fabulous M&M Podcast to talk about knowledge equity.  I’m a big fan of the M&M Podcast and knowledge equity is a topic that is very close to my heart so I really enjoyed the experience.

In a packed, half-hour conversation we covered everything from what knowledge equity means, improving knowledge equity through open education and co-creation, gatekeeping in open spaces, the impact of algorithmic bias, power, privilege and unconscious bias, learning from other cultures and knowledge structures, and what practical steps institutions can take to improve knowledge equity and inclusion. 

We also went off at a few tangents to talk about COVID vaccines, the historical repression of knowledge equity, how history is constructed and taught, acknowledging the legacy of Scotland’s colonial past, and confusing the twitter algorithm. 

You can listen to the podcast here – M&M Podcast 24: The one where we talk with Lorna Campbell, and like all good things, it’s open licensed of course! 

Knowledge Activism: Representing the History of HIV and AIDS activism on Wikipedia⤴

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This is a transcript of a talk I gave for the University of Liverpool School of the Arts “Making a difference in the real world” series. 

My name is Lorna Campbell, I’m a learning technology service manager at the University of Edinburgh and I’m also a Trustee of Wikimedia UK, and today I’m going to be talking about Wikipedia as a site of knowledge activism, the representation of queer and marginalised histories on the encyclopedia, and particularly the history of HIV and AIDS activism.  And I’ll also be introducing some of the people who have inspired me on my own journey to becoming a knowledge activist.Slides are available here: Knowledge Activism

First of all I’d like to start with a few acknowledgements.  I know acknowledgements usually come at the end, but as I’m going to be talking about the work of colleagues whose knowledge activism has been deeply inspirational to me, I want to speak their names up front.  So I’d like to thank

  • Áine Kavanagh, Reproductive BioMedicine graduate, University of Edinburgh.
  • Prof Allison Littlejohn, Director, UCL Knowledge Lab & Dr Nina Hood, University of Aukland.
  • Ewan McAndrew, Wikimedian in Residence, University of Edinburgh.
  • Tara Robertson, Tara Robertson Consulting.
  • Tomas Sanders, History graduate, University of Edinburgh.
  • Sara Thomas, Scotland Projects Coordinator, Wikimedia UK.

Wikimedia UK is the UK chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation, the international not-for-profit organisation that supports the Wikimedia projects, of which Wikipedia is the best known.  Wikimedia’s vision is to imagine a world in which every human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.  This is not just a statement it’s a promise of inclusivity.

Wikipedia itself needs little introduction, the free encyclopaedia is the fifth most visited site on the internet, with over 6 billion monthly visitors.  English Wikipedia alone has over 6 million articles and there are an estimated 52 million articles in 309 languages supported by the site as a whole. 

Wikipedia is not just a repository of knowledge in its own right, it’s also a source of information for others services such as Google, whose 92 billion visits per month dwarfs Wikipedia’s paltry 6 billion. Amazon Alexa also draws much of its information from Wikipedia. Whenever you ask Alexa a question, there’s a good chance that the answer will come from Wikipedia.

In the global knowledge economy, knowledge is power, and Wikipedia is the largest repository of free, open and transparent information in the world.  Consequently, it’s perhaps no surprise that Wikipedia is censored to various degrees by numerous countries and regimes throughout the world, and outright banned by several including Myanmar, China, and Turkey. 

Having access to a platform where we can all access reliable, high quality information for free has never been more important in this age of disinformation, fake news, and government sanctioned culture wars.  How information is created and consumed matters like never before, and understanding how knowledge is created on Wikipedia can help people to understand how they consume and reproduce information.

This is one of the reasons why we believe that Wikipedia is such a powerful tool for developing critical digital and information literacy skills. At the University of Edinburgh, we believe that contributing to the global pool of Open Knowledge through Wikimedia is squarely in line with our institutional mission to share knowledge and make the world a better place, and that Wikipedia is a valuable learning tool to develop a wide range of digital and information literacy skills at all levels across the curriculum.  So the first person I want to introduce you to is Ewan McAndrew, the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian in Residence, who works to embed open knowledge in the curriculum, through skills training sessions, editathons, Wikipedia in the classroom initiatives and Wikidata projects, in order to increase the quantity and quality of open knowledge and enhance digital literacy.  Creating Wikipedia entries enables students to demonstrate the relevance of their field of study and share their scholarship in a real-world contexts, while contributing to the global pool of open knowledge.  Engaging with the Wikimedia projects also encourages both staff and students to become knowledge activists; not just passive consumers of information but active creators of knowledge.

For example, this article about high-grade serous carcinoma, one of the most common and deadly forms of ovarian cancer, was created by Reproductive Biomedicine student Áine Kavanagh as part of a Wikipedia assignment in 2016.  This article, including over sixty references and open-licensed diagrams created by Áine herself, has now been viewed over 120,000 times since it was published 5 years ago. It’s hard to imagine many other undergraduate student assignments having this kind of impact. Not only has Áine contributed valuable health information to the global knowledge commons, she has also created a resource that other students and global health experts can add to and improve over time. Creating resources that will live on on the open web, and that make a real contribution to global open knowledge, has proved to be a powerful motivator for the students taking part in these assignments. I’m not going to be talking primarily about Wikimedia in education today, but if you’re interested in finding out more, our Wikimedian in Residence and Wikimedia UK have recently published this book of case studies which you can download: Wikimedia in Education.

I want you to hold onto this concept of knowledge activism though. Just because Wikipedia is a free and open resource that anyone can contribute to, doesn’t mean that everyone does.  Wikimedia’s problems with gender imbalance, structural inequalities and systemic bias are well known and much discussed. On English language Wikipedia just over 18% of biographical articles are about women, and the number of female editors is somewhere around 16%. Some language Wikipedias, such as the Welsh Wicipedia, fare better, others are much worse.

 In order to warrant a Wikipedia entry, subjects must be notable and the encyclopedia has extensive policies and guidelines that are used to assess notability, with some domains, such as academia having additional supplementary requirements.  A topic, subject or individual is presumed to be suitable for a stand-alone article only when they have received significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject.  As proof of notability, articles need to be supported by reliable secondary sources.  Without sufficient citations, articles run the risk of being flagged for deletion by Wikipedia’s volunteer administrators.  The problem of course is that the bench marks for notability are invariably based on the lives and careers of cis white Western men.  This problem is compounded by the fact that it’s much harder find good quality reliable sources for marginalised groups who are frequently omitted and elided from the historical and the published record.  And this is not just a historical problem. Women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ individuals are still written about less often and cited less frequently.  And the danger here is that we end up with a feedback loop where things that are more visible on Wikipedia, become more discoverable in google, and are written about more in the press, and therefore become more visible to the public, and are written about more on Wikipedia, because you now have more secondary sources.  The danger is that the visible become more visible and the invisible risk disappearing altogether.

So the next person I want to introduce you to is Professor Elizabeth Slater, and I hope some of you have heard of her as she was the first female professor to be appointed to the Garstang Chair of Archaeology here at the University of Liverpool, and you have a research laboratory named after her that was opened in 2015.  Professor Slater didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until I wrote one for her in 2017 as part of Ada Lovelace Day, the annual event celebrating Women in STEM.  And the reason I chose to write about Liz is that I studied with Liz as an under graduate Archaeology student at the University of Glasgow.  I thought Liz deserved an entry because she was one of the few women working in a very male dominated field and I’m pretty sure she was the only female professor of Archaeology in the UK in the early 1990s.  

Although the entry I wrote about Professor Slater was approved by an Admin, a process all new pages go through, I was a bit miffed that a paragraph I had included listing various committees Liz had sat on was removed by the Admin because “we don’t usually include routine academic service (committee memberships etc.) in biographies”.  Of course the point is that participation on high level committees is not necessarily “routine academic service” for many female academics, whose contributions to their field of study are frequently overlooked.  For example, Liz was the only female academic on the 2001 RAE panel for Archaeology. 

Another example of an academic who fell foul of Wikipedia’s notability criteria was Dr Donna Strickland. Dr Strickland, an optical physicist at the University of Waterloo, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018, and there was something of an outcry when it was revealed that she did not have a Wikiepdia entry until her Nobel laureate was announced.  To make matters worse, the reason that Dr Strickland didn’t have an article wasn’t that no one had bothered to write one.  The reason she had no article was that a new editor had written a draft article but an administrator had decided that it didn’t meet the notability criteria as the references did not show sufficient coverage.  The conclusion that many people drew was that Dr Strickland had to win the Nobel Prize in order to be considered notable enough to warrant a Wikipedia entry.  That wasn’t entirely true, it’s likely that if the original editor had added more citations to the article, it would have fulfilled the notability criteria.  They didn’t though, in fact the editor only made two edits before disappearing from the encyclopaedia all together.  And this highlights another problem, new editors can easily be discouraged if their first articles are flagged with requests for deletion.

This incident caused much debate and soul searching within the Wikimedia community.  The Foundation’s CEO Catherine Maher posted a twitter thread that acknowledged Wikipedia’s systemic biases and structural inequalities, but at the same time commented:

“Curators, academics, grantmakers, prize-awarding committees, and all other gatekeepers — you too are responsible. When you do not recognize, write about, publish, or otherwise elevate women, queer folks, people of color, and others, you erase them and their contributions.”

As it stands, Wikimedia reflects the worlds biases and structural inequalities, and it needs all of us to work to redress these imbalances.

Despite Wikipedia’s gender imbalance being an acknowledged problem, that projects such as Wiki Women In Red, which aims to create and expand Wikipedia biographies about women, have sought to address, too often those who attempt to challenge these structural inequalities and rectify the systemic bias, are the subject of targeted hostility and harassment.

The Wikimedia Foundation are well aware of these issues and has been undertaking a Movement Strategy exercise to shape the strategic direction of the movement to 2030.  Enshrined in this Movement Strategy, are the key concepts of Knowledge as a Service and Knowledge Equity.

Knowledge as a service, is the idea that Wikimedia will become a platform that serves open knowledge to the world across interfaces and communities.

And knowledge equity, is the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge.

The Movement Strategy includes ten recommendations which acknowledge that Wikimedia communities are not yet representative of the diversity of the world. They neither reflect the diversity of people working with knowledge, nor the diversity of knowledge to be shared. Among the common causes for the gender gap, and other gaps in diversity of content and contributors, is the lack of a safe and inclusive environment. This limits the work of existing communities and is a barrier for new people to join, including women, LGBTQ+ people, indigenous communities, and other underrepresented groups. In addition to the Movement Strategy Wikimedia also recently launched a new Universal Code of Conduct, which is intended to make Wikimedia projects more welcoming to new users, especially underrepresented groups who have too often faced harassment and discrimination.   It’s too early yet to know how much impact this Code of Conduct will have but it’s certainly a much-needed step in the right direction.

In a 2018 article titled “The Dangers of Being Open” Amira Dhalla, who at the time led Mozilla’s Women and Web Literacy programs, wrote:

“What happens when only certain people are able to contribute to open projects and what happens when only certain people are able to access open resources? This means that the movement is not actually open to everyone and only obtainable by those who can practice and access it.

Open is great. Open can be the future. If, and only when, we prioritize structuring it as a movement where anyone can participate and protecting those who do.”

This lack of equity in the open knowledge domain is significant, because if knowledge is to be truly open, then it must be open to all regardless of race, gender, or ability, because openness isn’t just about strategies and services, openness is about creativity, access, equity, and social inclusion and enabling us all to become fully engaged radical digital citizens.

Radical Digital Citizenship, as defined by Akwugo Emejulu and Callum McGregor, moves beyond the concept of digital literacy as simply acquiring skills to navigate the digital world, to a re-politicised digital citizenship in which social relations with technology are made visible, and emancipatory technological practices for social justice are developed to advance the common good.

Talking of radical digital citizenship, is anyone familiar with Dr Mary McIntosh?

Mary Susan McIntosh, or Mac as she was known, was a sociologist, feminist, political activist and campaigner for lesbian and gay rights in the UK.  McIntosh’s earliest research was in the field of criminology and the sociology of homosexuality and she was a member of the Criminal Law Revision Committee that lowered the age of male homosexual consent from 21 to 18. McIntosh was also among a small group of lesbians who contributed to the founding of the London Gay Liberation Front and she co-authored their Manifesto in 1971. Along with a group of feminist colleagues, McIntosh founded the journal Feminist Review in 1979 and she was also an active member of Feminists Against Censorship, a group of sex positive feminists, who argued against censorship and radical separatist feminist critiques of pornography, and who defended sexual expression and the right to produce sexually explicit material.

Despite McIntosh’s important contribution to gay rights here in the UK, she didn’t have a Wikipedia entry until I chose her name at random from a list of articles to be created as part of an International Women’s Day editathon in 2017. I have to confess I had never heard of McIntosh before writing her Wikipedia entry and I was shocked that such an important activist and foundational thinker had been omitted from the encyclopedia. Sadly, this was hardly surprising, as queer history is not well represented on Wikipedia.   What really struck me about McIntosh though, was that her omission meant that an important contribution she made to the field of sociology was also overlooked.

In 1968 McIntosh published a paper called “The Homosexual Role”.  Based on a survey of gay men in Leicester and London, this paper argued that rather than being a psychiatric or clinical pathology, homosexuality and same sex relationships were influenced by historical and cultural factors, and that “homosexual” is a social category coercively imposed on some individuals for the purpose of social control. This paper has been described as being crucial in the shaping the theory of social constructionism, a theory later developed by, and widely attributed to, Michel Foucault.  However McIntosh’s formative contribution to this field has been widely overlooked.  Although I created the biographical article for McIntosh, I haven’t really got sufficient understanding to edit the article on social constructionism to include her contribution to the field, so I’m hoping that someone who knows more about social constructionism than I do will pick this up.  Also if you’d like to know more about Mac, the British Library has some fabulous oral history interviews with her that were recorded before her death in 2013 at the ripe old age of 76.

In order to address the omission of queer histories, lives, and experiences, Wikipedia has an LGBT+ User Group that aims to encourage LGBT+ cultural organizations to adopt the values of free culture and use Wikimedia projects as tools for strengthening queer communities, and to increase the overall quantity and quality of this LGBT+ content in all languages.  The user group supports a range of activities including Wiki Loves Pride, and Wikipedia for Peace which, among other things, runs editathons to coincide with the Europride festivals.  In 2019, I was able to attend the Wikipedia for Peace editathon at Europride Vienna as part of a group twelve editors from all over the world who created and translated 113 new articles on LBGT+ topics in a range of European languages and uploaded hundreds of photographs of the Europride parade on Wikimedia Commons, making a significant contribution to improving equality, diversity and queer representation on Wikipedia.

It was while taking part in the Europride editathon that I noticed that the history of HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland was completely absent from the encyclopaedia.  Scottish AIDS Monitor and PHACE West, two prominent AIDS awareness organisations, had no articles at all, and although an article already existed for Derek Ogg, the founder of Scottish AIDS monitor, it only touched on his legal career and made no mention of his important AIDS activism.  This omission was all the more glaring in light of the belated public conversation about the impact of the AIDS pandemic sparked by Russell T Davis’ tv series It’s a Sin, which was broadcast earlier this year. So when the University’s Disabled Staff Network and Staff Pride Network decided to run an editathon for LGBT History Month in February this year, I suggested HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland as a topic.  The Network were keen to address this omission, and HIV Scotland also came on board to support the event, and I’m pleased to say that six new articles were created and several others improved, making a significant contribution to representing the history of HIV and AIDS activism in Scotland on Wikipedia.  I finally got to create an article for Scottish AIDS Monitor, and along with one of the other participants we were able to add images of some of the SAM ephemera we had lying around. But of course there is still a huge amount of work to be done, even in the coverage of prominent AIDS / HIV topics.  For example although an article exists for Gran Fury, the New York activist and artist collective, only 3 of the original 11 members have their own articles and there are numerous other activists, organisations, films, plays and artworks that are still missing.

Shortly after the HIV Scotland editathon, I also created a Wikipedia article for Jill Nalder.  And Jill is the next person I want to introduce you to. Jill Nalder is an actress, activist, and friend of Russell T Davis, who inspired the central character of Jill Baxter in It’s A Sin, and who played the fictional Jill’s mother in the tv series. Nalder became involved in HIV/AIDS activism while living in London in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. With other members of the West End theatre community, Nalder organised fundraising campaigns, including cabaret shows and performances, to raise money to support AIDS awareness and research.  She also supported HIV positive gay men and made numerous visits to AIDS patients in hospitals around London, something we see the fictional Jill doing in the series.

Now I know that there has been some criticism of It’s A Sin for stereotyping women as carers, and for centering the experiences of cis woman rather than gay men, and while there’s a discussion to be had there, I do think it’s important to acknowledge the many women who played an important role in awareness raising, fund raising, befriending and yes, caring for, people living with AIDS from the earliest years of the pandemic.   If we don’t remember the contribution of these women, and also the experiences of women who contracted AIDS at a time when they were told it was impossible, it’s easy to assume that they simply did not exist.  

I witnessed a stark example of this, just a few weeks after our HIV Scotland editathon, when the Staff Pride Network ran an event on International Women’s Day 2021 on the role of women in AIDS and LGBTQ+ Activism. The event brought together speakers, several of whom were HIV positive, to share their experiences of the earliest days of the AIDS pandemic. While listening in to the event I tweeted one of the participant’s criticism of the absence of HIV+ women in Its A Sin, which immediately prompted this response: 

In the period this is set it was clearly pointed out to Jill that it was of little or no concern to women. So while the theoretical risk was there in the case of injecting users and factor 8 recipients there simply were no HIV+ women – why rewrite history?

And yet there I was listening to two women who had contracted HIV at the very time the series was set, so I guess it depends on whose history you’re trying to write.  

This is just one of the reasons why it’s so important to include and represent the experiences of marginalised individuals, particularly women, people of colour and trans people, who are so often elided from the historical record. If we record their lives and stories, it makes it that little bit harder to deny their existence.

Although I am a lifelong advocate for open knowledge that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, it’s important to acknowledge that openness is not always in the best interests of those who are marginalised and who have experienced multiple intersecting forms of discrimination.

The next person I want to introduce you to is Tara Robertson, an intersectional feminist who uses data and research to advocate for equality and inclusion.  Tara has worked for many years in open source technology communities, including as Diversity and Inclusion lead at Mozilla, and her work on trans inclusion has been featured in Forbes.  I was introduced to Tara’s work at a conference a couple of week’s ago and I want to share it with you now, with her kind permission. In a 2016 keynote titled “Not all information wants to be free” Tara highlighted examples of when it is not appropriate or ethical for information to be open to all.   One example was the digitisation of the lesbian porn magazine On Our Backs, which had been digitised and released under Creative Commons licence by Reveal Digital, an organisation that aims to “bring together fragmented documentary material from under-represented 20th century voices of dissent.”   Although initially excited by the digitisation of On Our Backs, Tara became worried about friends who had appeared in the magazine before the internet even existed. Consenting to a porn shoot that would appear in a queer indie print magazine is a very different thing to consenting to having your image shared online under open licence. Tara undertook extensive research visiting archives, reviewing contracts and copyright legislation and interviewing women who modelled for the magazine.  She was concerned that open licence enables feminist porn to be remixed in ways that could appropriate the content and actually demean these women who had never consented to their image being used in this way.  One woman Tara interviewed commented

“When I heard all the issues of the magazine are being digitized, my heart sank. I meant this work to be for my community and now I am being objectified in a way that I have no control over. People can cut up my body and make it a collage. My professional and public life can be high jacked. These are uses I never intended and I still don’t want.”

As someone who is passionate about knowledge activism and the representation of queer history in open culture, this really gave me pause for thought, particularly as I had recently created a Wikipedia entry for another lesbian porn magazine Quim, which was co-created by a former On Our Backs photo editor.  And it also made me wonder about the ethics of sharing all those Europride Vienna photographs on Wikimedia Commons. Those queens and leathermen might have been happy for me to take their photograph on a euphoric summer afternoon in Vienna, but that doesn’t mean they consented to their image being shared under open licence on one of the largest repositories of open images in the world, for anyone to download and use for any purpose they see fit.

If knowledge equity is the dismantling of structures of power and privilege that prevent people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge, it must also respect the rights of marginalised groups and individuals to choose not to share their knowledge and experiences.  As Tara has pointed out, the ethics of openness are messy; it’s important that we balance the interests of open knowledge with respect for individuals and the right to be forgotten.

To return to the theme of knowledge activism, I want to highlight some research undertaken by Professor Allison Littlejohn, Director of University College London‘s Knowledge Lab and Dr Nina Hood, of the University of Auckland.  Allison and Nina evaluated the experiences of participants at some of the University of Edinburgh’s very first editathons, which focused on the Edinburgh Seven, the first group of matriculated undergraduate female students at any British university. The Edinburgh Seven began studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1869 and, although they did not win the right to graduate at the time, their campaign raised a national political debate about women’s right to access university education, which eventually resulted a change to the legislation that enabled women to study medicine at university in 1876.  The Edinburgh Seven were finally awarded posthumous degrees by the University in 2019, 150 years after they matriculated and four years after the editathon that raised awareness of their campaign.  Seven current undergraduate medical students accepting the degrees on their behalf.

Allison and Nina observed that as participants grew into the editor role they began to recognise their personal responsibility for representing historical people and events that have been traditionally under-represented. The editors recognised how new media forms are continuing to perpetrate existing cultural inequities, and that by becoming knowledge producers and information activists, they were able to challenge and redress these inequities.  Inherent in this role is the exposure of structural and systematic biases and the removal of barriers to the creation and dissemination of information.

Many of Wikimedia UK and the Wikimedia community’s activities focus specifically on challenging these structural and systematic biases, by working to redress gender imbalance, centre marginalised voices, diversify and decolonise the curriculum, and uncover hidden histories. Some inspiring examples include the Wiki Women in Red editathons; Women in STEM editathons for Ada Lovelace Day and International Women’s Day; supporting minority and indigenous languages through the Celtic and Arctic Knot Conferences, the annual international Art + Feminism campaign, LGBTQ+ editathons at Senate House Library as part of their Queer Between the Covers Series, Digitising Africa in the Dancehall at the Africa Centre, Protests and Suffragettes in Glasgow, the award winning Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Wikidata project, and Wikimedia UK’s own Closing the Gender Gap campaign.

Projects such as these provide opportunities to engage with the creation of open knowledge and improve knowledge equity. And what is particularly gratifying is that, as Allison and Nina’s research highlighted, creating open knowledge, often inspires people to further knowledge activism.

So the last person I want to introduce you to tonight is Tomas. Tomas was an undergraduate History student, who spent the summer of 2017 working with us at the Open Educational Resources Service at the University of Edinburgh, as an Open Content Curation intern. While he was working with us, Tomas also took part in a Wiki Women in Red edition run by our Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan, and he was so enthused that he went on to run a successful Wikipedia editathon for Black History Month with the student History Society.

As part of that editathon Tomas created a Wikipedia entry for the Mangrove Nine, a group of British black activists tried in 1970 for inciting a riot in protest against the Metropolitan police targeting The Mangrove, a Caribbean restaurant in Notting Hill, west London.  This trial was significant because it was the first judicial acknowledgement of racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Tomas’ article languished somewhat after he created it, with just over 5,000 pageviews in the two years from 2017 to 2019. Interest picked up last summer, most likely as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd. Then in November last year pageviews shot up to over 17,000 in a single day.  That was the day that Steve McQueen’s drama Mangrove aired on BBC television as part of his critically acclaimed Small Axe series.  McQueen’s drama causes a resurgence of interest in the case of the Mangrove Nine, and where did viewers turn to find more information?  Google and Wikipedia.  And they were able to find out more about this important event in British black history because an undergraduate student committed to knowledge activism created that Wikipedia entry three years previously.

Talking about his experience of engaging with Wikipedia in an interview with our Wikimedian in Residence, Tomas said

“The history that people access on Wikipedia is often very different from the history that you would access in a University department; there’s very little social history, very little women’s history, gender history, history of people of colour or queer history, and the only way that’s going to be overcome is if people from those disciplines start actively engaging in Wikipedia and trying to correct those imbalances. I feel the social potential of Wikipedia to inform people’s perspectives on the world really lies in correcting imbalances in the representation of that world. People should try to make Wikipedia accurately represent the diversity of the world around us, the diversity of history, and the diversity of historical scholarship.”

And one of the lovely things about Tomas’ knowledge activism is that it didn’t end when he left the University, three years after he graduated, Tomas turned up at the HIV Scotland editathon we organised in February this year.

All these stories I’ve highlighted are examples of knowledge activism; the commitment to representing diverse and marginalised lives and histories on the world’s largest source of free and open knowledge, and the dismantling of obstacles that prevent people from accessing and participating in knowledge creation. Ultimately, this is what knowledge activism is about; counteracting structural inequalities and systemic barriers to ensure just representation of knowledge and equitable participation in the creation of a shared public commons.  

So how can you get involved and become a knowledge activist?  First of all you can reach out to Wikimedia UK to find out about activities and events they’re supporting.  With many editathons now taking place online, it’s easier than ever to learn how to edit.  For example the Wiki Women in Red editathons run by the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian in Residence every month are free and open to all.  And Ewan and one of his student interns, Hannah Rothman, have also created this comprehensive set of resources to help get people started with editing, so please do take a look.  And of course you’re also welcome to get in touch with me if you have any questions, or you’d like any further information about how to get involved with the Wikimedia projects and start your own journey to becoming an knowledge activist.

Those who fought: Representing HIV/AIDS activism on Wikipedia⤴

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LGBT History month is almost over but before the month draws to a close I want to highlight the brilliant work of the HIV Scotland Wikpedia editathon that took place at the end of January.  The event was supported by the University’s indefatigable Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, and organised by the University’s Disabled Staff Network and Staff Pride Network, who were keen to run another editathon following the success of their previous Pride editathon on LGBT+ Books in Scotland and Beyond.  (I’m proud to have created a page for the controversial lesbian magazine Quim as part of that event.)  I suggested HIV / AIDS activism in Scotland as a potential topic as I’d noticed previously that this important history was almost entirely missing from the encyclopaedia.  Scottish AIDS Monitor and PHACE West had no articles at all, and although an article already existed for Derek Ogg, it only touched on his legal career and made no mention of his prominent AIDS activism.  This omission was all the more glaring in light of the belated public conversation about the impact of the AIDS pandemic sparked by the broadcast of Russell T Davis’ series It’s a Sin.  The Network were keen to address this omission and HIV Scotland also came on board to support the event, and I’m pleased to say that six new articles were created and several others improved. You can find out more about the articles created on the event dashboard here: HIV Scotland Editathon.

As part of the event, I wrote an article about Scottish AIDS Monitor, an organisation I first came into contact with in 1992 at an event at the Tramway which coincided with their seminal exhibition Read My Lips: New York AIDS Polemics.  That event and exhibition, which featured works by Gran Fury, Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torress and others, left a huge impression on me.  I was aware of the AIDS pandemic, growing up in the 1980s it was impossible to ignore, even in the Outer Hebrides. Who could forget the stigmatising horror of the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign?  But it was Read My Lips that really brought home to me the deeply personal impact of all those lost lives, the fight for justice and recognition, and the importance of organisations like SAM in raising awareness, providing support and promoting safe sex.

Read My Lips: New York AIDS Polemics

Returning to It’s a Sin, the second article I wrote this month was a biography of Jill Nalder, the actress and activist who inspired the character of Jill Baxter and who played her mother in the series. I know that there has been some criticism of the series for stereotyping women as carers, and for centering the experiences of a woman whose own sexuality and relationships are elided from the show.  While there’s a discussion to be had there, I think it’s important to acknowledge the many many “ordinary” women who played an important role in awareness raising, fund raising, befriending and yes, caring for, people living with AIDS from the earliest years of the pandemic. 

I still have a copy of the Read My Lips exhibition catalogue, which includes a transcript of Vito Russo‘s seminal speech, Why We Fight, from a 1988 ACT UP demonstration.  These lines really resonated with me. 

“AIDS is really a test of us, as a people. When future generations ask what we did in this crisis, we’re going to have to tell them that we were out here today. And we have to leave the legacy to those generations of people who will come after us.

Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes — when that day has come and gone, there’ll be people alive on this earth — gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.”

Wikipedia is the fifth most visited website in the world, with aspirations to provide “free access to the sum of all human knowledge”.   For this reason more than any other it’s critically important that the history of HIV and AIDS activism is represented on the encyclopaedia.  So that those generations that come after will be able understand the legacy and the courage of those who stood up and fought. 

If it’s September, it must be Wiki Loves Monuments!⤴

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How is it September already?!  Time always seems to fly at the end of summer but this year has been particularly weird as we’ve started to ease out of lockdown. July seemed to run on for ages, and then August disappeared in the blink of an eye! 

The best thing about September is that it means Wiki Loves Monuments is back!  For those that haven’t come across it before, Wiki Loves Monuments is Wikimedia’s annual photography competition, which runs throughout the month of September. The rules are simple, all you need to do is register a Wikimedia Commons account, take an original picture of a scheduled monument or listed building, and upload it to Wikimedia Commons using this interactive map. In addition to the overall prizes for the best UK entries, there are also prizes for the best images from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  

One of the things I love about Wiki Loves Monuments, is that anyone can enter. You don’t need to be a professional photographer, you don’t need a fancy camera, any camera phone will do.  Last year, one of the winning images, a gorgeous picture of the interior of Arnol Blackhouse, was taken with a smartphone.  

91 Buccleuch Street, Garnethill High School For Girls, by Lorna M. Campbell, CC BY SA, on Wikimedia Commons.

Normally I’d encourage folk to use Wiki Loves Monuments as a great excuse to get out and about to explore sites and monuments across Scotland, but this year is a little different of course.  Many of our historic monuments are closed to the public and most of us are restricting travel unless it’s absolutely necessary.  However! There are still lots of ways you can join the competition.  Why not load up the interactive map, take a wander round your local area and photograph some of the listed buildings in the vicinity?  You might be surprised how many historic buildings there are right under our nose!  If you’re in Edinburgh, you might like to download the Curious Edinburgh app and explore some of the walking routes they have mapped out across the city.  And in Glasgow,  the Women’s Library have a series of Women’s Heritage Walks you can follow.  Although the guided walks aren’t running at the moment, you can download maps and audio guides of the routes to follow yourself. I did the Garnethill Women’s Heritage Walk a couple of years ago.  It was absolutely fascinating and I uploaded several of the pictures I took along the way to Wiki Loves Monuments later in the year, including this picture of the former Garnethill High School for Girls. 

You can even take part without leaving the comfort of your own home.  Why not dig out your old holiday snaps to see if you’ve got any pictures of sites and monuments you can upload?  It’s also a lovely way to relive holidays past, for those of us who haven’t been able to get away this year.  I’m a bit sad that I’ve already raided my (horribly disorganised) photo archive for previous years competitions, but I might have another look just in case there’s any I’ve missed. 

But perhaps the best thing about Wiki Loves Monuments is that not only is it great fun to take part, you can also enjoy the fact that you’re making a positive contribution to our shared knowledge commons, and that’s a lovely thought to brighten up a dreich September! 

Closer to home⤴

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I’ve struggled for words this week, or rather I’ve struggled to know whether to speak. There are so many other voices that need to be heard and listened to right now, rather than another privileged white cis woman. I can’t help feeling that stepping aside and making space for these other voices is the most useful thing I can do. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that I am appalled, I am utterly horrified, by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of the white supremacist state that is the USA. I can’t even begin to imagine the rage and fury of Black people who live with this fear and injustice on a daily basis. So for most of the week, I’ve tried to use the small space I occupy online to amplify the voices of others, while trying to listen and learn from what they have to say.

At the same time I’m not so naïve to think that systemic racism and police brutality are problems that only afflict the US.  Witness the deaths Joy Gardner, Cynthia Jarrett, Sean Rigg, Mark Duggan, and Sheku Bayoh, whose death at the hands of police officers in Kirkaldy, is currently the subject of a Scottish Government Public Enquiry.

Racism is so ingrained in the social, historical and cultural fabric of Scotland and the UK that we barely even see it. I live in Glasgow, a city whose mercantile wealth was founded on the exploitation of Black bodies; the slaves who worked the plantations of the tobacco barons and sugar merchants. When we walk down Ingram Street, Glassford Street, Buchanan Street, we barely give a thought to the fact that these streets commemorate slave owners. Their mansions are now art galleries, bars, restaurants, designer clothes shops but nowhere in Glasgow is there a visible public memorial to the enslaved men, women and children whose lives and labour were exploited to build the wealth of the slave owners and their city. Scotland has a long, long way to go before it even begins to acknowledge its racist, colonial legacy.

When universities, museums, art galleries and archives tweeted their support for #BlackLivesMatter this week they were, quite rightly, called out for their hypocrisy and performativity. After all, where is the evidence that black lives really do matter to these public institutions? Where is the evidence that they are addressing systemic racism, discrimination and inequality?

At the same time, the deluge of racist abuse that the University of Glasgow received for tweeting its support for #BlackLivesMatter shows why it’s so important that our education institutions do stand up to be counted.

Ironically, Glasgow is currently the only university in Scotland that has made a concrete effort to address its historic legacy of profiting from slavery through its Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report, its commitment to raise and pay £20million pounds in reparations and its MOU with the University of the West Indies to found a research centre to “stimulate public awareness about the history of slavery and its impact around the world.”

In its own public statement in response to the murder of George Floyd, the University of Edinburgh announced its intention to:

launch a community-led process of restorative and reparative justice, through which we will interrogate the role of the University in slavery and colonialism.

And furthermore to:

launch a cross-disciplinary hub, RACE.ED for research and teaching on race and ethnicity… to bring together academics and students to explore issues of racism and be part of a University network taking forward anti-racist initiatives within our University.

Because of course addressing historical racism is only part of the picture, we need to address the systemic racism and discrimination that still pervades our academic institutions. The University of Edinburgh Student Union’s statement of solidarity notes:

Across Scotland, Universities have a BME attainment gap of 8.9%, which rises to 24.5% for Black students (AdvanceHE, 2018) – at Edinburgh, the BME attainment gap is as high as 17.7% in some Schools (EDMARC, 2019a). The University’s own internal review of support for BME students in 2019 found that a lack of racial literacy among both staff and student fundamentally undermined the experiences of BME students at Edinburgh (UoE, 2019) – this is unsurprising in an educational environment where BME academic and professional services staff are less likely than white staff to be employed at higher grades (EDMARC, 2019b) and across the UK Black academics make up less than 1% of University lecturers (HESA, 2019).

And as Dr Jasmine Abrams succinctly put it:

I don’t really know how to end this post, so I’m going to end it with the queer Black poet Essex Hemphill

“It is easier to be angry than to hurt. Anger is what I do best. It is easier to be furious than to be yearning. It is easier to crucify myself in you than to take on the threatening universe of whiteness by admitting that we are worth wanting each other.”

Please donate if you can. There is a list of bail funds here, and a list of UK organisations fighting racism and injustice at the end of the EUSA statement here.

Threads That Connect Us⤴

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In my post about my Open World femedtech quilt square I explained why I chose to make my square out of Harris Tweed, a protected fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides where I was born and brought up. In many ways the fabric is emblematic of both the islands and the islanders; the wool is shorn from the local black face sheep, the colours, traditionally from natural dyes, reflect the colours of the landscape, and the cloth is woven by hand to produce a fabric that is unique, beautiful and hard wearing.  As with many traditional fabrics, tweed production was originally a communal activity, and much of the work was undertaken by women; from dyeing and spinning the wool, to weaving the tweed, to waulking and finishing the cloth.  Waulking involved soaking and beating the tweed to remove dirt and impurities, and soften and shrink the cloth. Before tweed mills were built in the islands to process the hand-woven cloth, finishing a tweed was a social activity as much as a collective task.

This following account of the importance of waulking as a women’s social activity, comes from a Gaelic radio programme called Tigh Mo Sheanair (My Grandfather’s House) which was recorded in the early 1970s and the speaker is my grandmother, Anne Campbell, who was born in 1909 and lived in Harris all her life.  Her words were translated from the Gaelic by her daughter, my aunt.

Anne Campbell & Sybil McInnes

“The entertainment whilst waulking the tweed was better than a wedding, for us anyway when we were young, especially if the waulking took place in the evening.  If the waulking was in the morning we had to come home afterwards and stay in in the evening.  Waulking was sometimes our only entertainment.  We were always delighted when we got news that someone in the village was about to complete a tweed.  In those days it was the women who wove the tweed on the “little loom”.  A tweed would take three weeks to complete – today a tweed is completed in one day using an automatic loom.

To waulk the tweed a long table was set out with seating for four women on each side.  There was a tub at either end of the table. The tweed was cut into two pieces and a piece dropped in each tub.  One side worked left the right and the other right to left.

For a bit of fun the loose coloured threads at the end of the tweed were cut and each woman would put her thread outside the door. If your thread was the first one then the first man who came to the house had to see you home that evening.  It did not matter if you had a steady boyfriend, it was who ever found your thread that had to take you home.  There was often good-natured bantering outside the house especially if your own boyfriend turned up expecting to walk you home. We didn’t think anything of being up all night if there was a waulking.”

Although my granny wasn’t a weaver, she did spin and dye her own wool, which she used to knit socks, jerseys and other garments.  When I was a child, there was a huge cast iron cauldron wedged in the rocks outside the house, which had been used for dying wool before modern conveniences came along.  The remains are still there today.

This communal aspect of fabric production, sewing, embroidering, and quilting has always been important.  It provides women with a space where, to some extent, they are in control of their own labour. A space where they can come together to share their skill, pass on their craft, tell their stories, and enjoy each other’s company.  These spaces sometimes seem to stand outside the strictures and expectations of “normal” society, and provide women with a space where they set their own rules.   To my mind this has been the most powerful aspect of the femedtech quilt project, which has given so many women from all over the world, a space to collaborate, to share their skills, their stories, their inspiration and their creativity.

I’m writing this post with Frances and Suzanne in mind who will be coming together this weekend to sew the femedtechquilt, and although all those of us who sent in squares won’t be able to join them in person, I hope they’ll feel the strength of the threads that bind this amazing community together.

Gray and Glasgow – Living Imaginatively⤴

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I was deeply saddened this morning to hear of the death of the author and artist Alasdair Gray, undoubtedly one of the most significant English-language authors of the last century. I have a strong personal connection to Gray’s writing as in some obscure way it’s bound up with my decision to come to study and live in Glasgow.

I first came across Gray’s writing in one of Penguin’s Firebird anthologies in the early 1980s, when I was about 14, then the following year my partner’s brother, who was studying Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University, came home with a copy of Lanark and gave it to me to read it. I was completely captivated by everything about the book and pestered my friends to read it, most of them did and were equally enthralled. (Dragonhide was a condition we recognised well.) After Lanark, I went on to Unlikely Stories Mostly and 1982 Janine. I know 1982 Janine is a divisive book, and I certainly read it at an impressionable age, but I still think it’s an incredibly powerful work, and one that comes frighteningly close to capturing the disorienting reality of mental breakdown in words and typography.

When I had left school, I had hoped to go to Edinburgh to the School of Scottish Studies, but although I was successful in securing a place, the university didn’t offer me a place in halls, and, as I couldn’t afford to travel to Edinburgh to find a flat, I had to turn the place down. Instead I went to Glasgow, which offered me accommodation and a place to study Scottish Literature and Archaeology. I wasn’t exactly keen on going to Glasgow at first, but in an odd way it was through the writing of Alasdair Gray and Edwin Morgan, and an anthology of Glasgow poetry called Noise and Smoky Breath, that features Gray’s artwork of Cowcaddens on the cover, that I warmed to the idea of moving to the city. I say odd, because Gray’s vision of Glasgow in Lanark is very much a dystopian one, but it’s a very human dystopia.  

When I first read Lanark in Stornoway as a teen, I had no real experience of Glasgow, it was a city I’d visited only once as a child, so re-reading the book at university while I was living in the city was a real eye-opener for me.   I saw Gray reading several times while I was a student, most notably at Felt Tipped Hosannas, a Mayfest event in 1990 to commemorate Edwin Morgan’s 70th birthday. He read an excerpt of McGrotty and Ludmilla and he was hilarious.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Lanark since then, at least a dozen probably. It’s a book I go back to time and time again and every time I read it, it becomes more relevant.

It goes without saying that I love Gray’s art as much as his writing, as it’s really impossible to separate the two. For a short time, while I worked at Strathclyde University in the early 2000’s, we were privileged to share our Cetis office with some original prints of the Lanark illustrations from the University’s art collection.

I’ve lived in Glasgow for over 30 years now and somehow my experience of the city is still inextricably bound up with Gray’s work, whether it’s his artwork in Hillhead, Oran Mor, or The Chip, or his words that are woven into the fabric of the city.

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”

“Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

Lanark ~ Alasdair Gray

As an eighteen year old teenager from the Outer Hebrides, I was able to imagine living in Glasgow because I had already visited it through Gray’s art, and never once have I felt like a stranger here.

Dunfermline College of Physical Education: A personal connection⤴

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While I was off on strike I was able to spend some time finishing a project I’ve been working on for a couple of months; editing the Wikipedia page for Dunfermline College of Physical Education.  I was inspired to update the existing page by the recent Body Language exhibition at the University of Edinburgh Library which delved into the archives of Dunfermline College and the influential dance pioneer Margaret Morris, to explore Scotland’s significant contributions to movement and dance education. And the reason I was so keen to improve this page, which was little more than a stub when I started editing, is that my mother was a student at Dunfermline College from 1953 – 1956, and when she died in 2011 my sister and I inherited her old college photograph album.  

My mother was not a typical Dunfermline student. Unlike many of her fellow students, who were privately educated and went straight to the college on leaving school, my mother was educated at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, and after leaving school she took an office job while working her way through the Civil Service exams.  She’d been working a year or so when the college came to the island to interview prospective students, and her father suggested she apply.  Her interview was successful, and she was awarded a place and a bursary to attend the college, which at that time was in Aberdeen.  Having experienced a degree of independence before going to Dunfermline, my mother chaffed at the rigid discipline of the residential college, which expected certain standards of decorum from its “girls”.  She didn’t take too kindly to the arbitrary rules, and it’s perhaps no surprise that her motto in the college year book was “Laws were made to be broken”.  She did however make many life-long friends at college and she went on to have a long and active teaching career.

My mother worked as a PE teaching on the Isle of Lewis, first as a travelling teacher working in tiny rural schools across the island, and later in the Nicolson Institute.  She passionately believed that all children should be able to enjoy physical education, regardless of aptitude or ability, and she vehemently opposed the idea that the primary role of PE teachers was to spot and nurture “talent”.  Her real interest was movement and dance and many of the children she taught in the small rural schools where convinced she was really just a big playmate who came to play with them once a week.  Sporting facilities were pretty much non-existent in rural schools in the Western Isles the 1970s. Few schools had a gyms or playing field, so she often organised games and sports days on the machair by the beaches. The first swimming pool in the islands didn’t open until the mid 1970s and prior to that she taught children to swim in the sea, on the rare occasions it was sufficiently calm and warm.  None of the schools she taught in had AV facilities of any kind and I vividly remember the little portable tape recorded that she carried around with her for music and movement lessons.  She retired from teaching in 1987, not long after the acrimonious national teachers pay dispute.  Despite being rather scunnered with the education system by the time she retired, it’s clear that the years she spent at Dunfermline played a formative role in shaping not just in her career, but also her personal relationships and her approach to teaching. Typically, she was proud to be known as the rule breaker of her “set” and I think she’d appreciate the irony of her old pictures appearing on the college Wikipedia page. 

[See image gallery at lornamcampbell.org] In order to add these images to Commons, I’m having to go through the rather baroque OTRS procedure, and I’d like to thank Michael Maggs, former Chair of Board of Wikimedia UK, for his invaluable support in guiding me through the process.  Thanks are also due to colleagues at the Centre for Research Collections, which holds the college archive, for helping me access some of the sources I’ve cited. 

One last thing….when I was producing our OER Service Autumn newsletter I made this GIF to illustrate a short news item about the Body Language exhibition. 

Garden Dance GIF

Garden Dance, CC BY, University of Edinburgh.

The gif is part of a beautiful 1950s film featuring students from Dunfermline College called Garden Dance, which was released under open licence by the Centre of Research Collections.  The film is described as “Dance set in unidentified garden grounds, possibly in Dunfermline” however when I was looking through my mother’s college album I found this picture of the very same garden, so it appears it was filmed in Aberdeen. If you click through to the film, you can clearly see the same monkey puzzle tree in the background. It was obviously something of a landmark!  I wonder if my mother is one of the dancers?