Learning about learning with the archive

archive education collage

Drinking a coffee before coming into the archive I browsed the headlines and skimmed an article on GCSEs and young people’s mental health. There were stories of tears, panic attacks and packed schedules involving sitting high numbers of exams in short spaces of time. My trip to the archive was partly just an excuse to browse but was also motivated by a desire to explore some of the archive’s education content. In fact, more than exploring the content itself, the visit prompted me to reflect on learning and my relationship with knowledge.

Initially, like the diligent student I’ve been disciplined, and have disciplined myself, to be, I opened my notebook and recorded the details of the first file I opened, trying to develop some kind of system to make my notes traceable back to the archive and to mark information to return to. Inevitably, my notes became less neat and briefer and I realised I was primarily drawn to some of the witty, ironic, provocative headings and slogans used within the journals by feminists working to advance anti-sexist, anti-racist education. Moving from a desire (and sense of obligation) to categorise and record my research to thinking about the process of engaging with the archive itself made me think about my own approach to education and learning. Teaching adults on Access courses and Foundation Degrees leads me to think, often, about how prior experiences of learning affect learning as an adult. I have thought less about how the experience of knowledge as a commodity to be exchanged, something becoming increasingly prominent across our education system, affects how we take in and absorb knowledge. The ways in which knowledge acts as a status marker, too, impacts on the process of learning.

Anyone who’s been involved in teaching will be familiar with the question ‘do we need this for the exam/essay/assessment?’. My irritation with these questions stems from my ardent belief in education as an opportunity to expand individuals’ horizons and open new avenues of thought. Reflecting on my attempt to impose the methodical ways in which I usually engage with academic texts onto my afternoon in the archive, I realise that perhaps within my unconscious are similar kinds of questions to those my students ask – ‘How can I instrumentalise this knowledge? What can I do with this information? How will I remember and retain it and which bits do I need to retain?’.

The question of memory is one that particularly haunts me, having spent most of my teenage years and early twenties documenting multiple different strands of my life and thoughts across multiple notebooks. Issues with memory, and lack of memory, also punctuate my daily life, bringing frustrations with the traces of memories of things I’ve read or seen or heard about that aren’t quite at the tip of my tongue in conversation. It is the emotions and the atmosphere that usually linger after novels I’ve read and films I’ve watched – I can rarely recount the specifics of plots but I can usually tell you something about the mood. The archive, an unwieldy, powerful mass of feminists’ energy, strength, solidarity, inventiveness and so many more things, is a good reminder of the relationship between learning and the emotions it can invoke, perhaps something which is underemphasised and underutilised in teaching.

Scribbling down slogans and headlines, I began to think about preserving or recording the feeling of my afternoon exploring the archive. This collage is my attempt to do so and to mark my commitment to explore how I can support students that I teach to engage with knowledge in new ways, recognising the anxieties associated with the need to instrumentalise knowledge and working to resist an education system that is increasingly associated with difficulties with mental health. In the process of collaging the meanings and power behind some of the amazing campaigns I read about during my afternoon at the archive sank in, inspiring me to be creative in the way I think about, plan for and fight for feminist education.