On 11-13 October, Leeds UCU went on strike in a local dispute. It had been a while since we’d had a three-day strike and we wanted to do more with the event than picket, so we organised a TEACH-OUT (a form of protest like a teach-in, except that it happens off campus, because we’re on strike).
Good reasons to do teach-outs include:
- They show students that their teachers aren’t just putting their feet up. We care about students’ education and are willing to educate unpaid — just not to do the kind of educating we’re normally paid for.
- We only go on strike when bad things are happening, but promoting the teach-out allows us to focus conversations on a positive activity. Attending allows students (and anyone else!) to show support for the strike.
- The teach-outs also give members a communal, productive activity to do on strike days that builds ideas, capacity, and community — and reminds us what higher education is really all about.
- Not all members are willing or able to be involved in picketing, but are happy to participate in teach-outs, broadening the possibilities for activism on a strike day.
And luckily, organising teach-outs is very easy! Almost everyone in UCU organises conferences, open days, meetings and talks professionally. Moreover, it’s in the nature of teach-outs that they’re ad hoc, a bit improvised, even carnivalesque. So basically, it’s about doing what we’re good at, yet no-one minds if it goes wrong 🙂
Of course, it’s quite a lot of effort to organise something when you know a strike might be called off. We planned ours so that the talk could still run even if we’d gone back to work. But the risk of cancellation is really just a good reason to keep the planning simple, and a lot of the plans made can be shelved ready for next time, so the effort isn’t wasted.
Six steps to organise your teach-out
1. Get one lead volunteer.
Lots of things about teach-outs can more or less organise themselves in a refreshingly unhierarchical way, but we found it helpful to have one person who was clearly in charge. They were able to delegate some things to other volunteers, but it was always helpful, when people asked the UCU committee what was going on, to have one person to direct people to.
No doubt you could have a whole committee to organise a teach-out, but why organise something elaborate when you can have just as much fun with something simple?
2. Invite your members to offer events
We set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to enable people to sign up to offer events: the one we used, anonymised and now locked for editing, is . In the spirit of academic freedom, we just let people propose whatever they fancied, and aimed to host as many proposals as possible. The spreadsheet clearly requested the information we needed (contact details, title, special requirements, availability). This saved us collating emails and allowed all members to see what sorts of things were being proposed as the proposals came in. The hardest thing about using a Google Doc for this is making sure you have the privacy settings right, so that anyone with the link can see the page, and anyone can edit it — log out of your Google account and and check that it works before sending.
Here’s the invitation we sent out: feel free to use/abuse it. We were keen to welcome as wide a range of members as possible to participate, and to encourage people to do thingd they wouldn’t normally have the chance to do.
Dear UCU colleague,
As you know, on October 11-13, we will be on strike to defend our conditions of employment. We all worry about the effects our strike action may have on our students, so Leeds UCU will be running a teach-out, entitled ‘Striking Insights’, enabling students to enjoy just as high-quality education as usual (but not geared towards passing exams). We’ll be using venues such as pub function rooms on the edge of campus.
We are therefore inviting you — whether or not you are normally engaged in teaching — to suggest a session that you’d like to run while on strike.
We’ve never done this before, so we can’t say what the take up will be either from staff or students, but we’ll do our best to accommodate everyone and we will certainly ensure that the event is educational, inspirational, and fun!
Of course, we are all very much hoping that the University changes its plans and we can call the strike off. Since we hope this will be a worthwhile event on its own terms, however, we’d be grateful if prospective participants could consider running their session even if the strike is cancelled (see below).
Deadline for proposals is the end of *Monday 2nd October*.
The organisers will make sure that there are sessions directly related to the strike, on themes like trade unions, academic freedom, and students’ own visions for higher education.
We’d love other colleagues (whether academic or academic related) simply to run ‘public science’-type sessions that might capture the imaginations of our students. Possible examples might include:
Our changing ecosystems
Achieving social change
Science and ‘post-truth’ politics
What new technologies mean for our futures
How universities really work
The economics of debt
The origins of the universe
The mental health crisis
Learn a new language for 50 minutes
The future of public healthcare
What are numbers, really?
We’d particularly love to see sessions that model modes of education or topics that we’d like to offer within the university, but ordinarily can’t.
* Sessions will, as usual, run from five past until five to the hour, 1300-1600, October 11-13.
* They need to be critical, energetic, and engaging, suited to a general undergraduate audience.
* Otherwise, you can do what you like, as long as you can provide any equipment needed!
* (But we suggest a 20-30 minute lecture followed by open discussion would work well.)
OFFER A SESSION!
Please send your proposals by filling in the spreadsheet at:
In retrospect, the list of themes — which was intended to emphasise that anyone in the institution could participate — put off some people who, when they didn’t see their particular specialism on the list, assumed they weren’t invited. So maybe we should have left that out.
3. Find a venue or two
Our biggest worry was whether we’d have enough space to accommodate all the events, or audiences. But everything seemed to fall into place okay, and if it hadn’t, we’d have had fun anyway.
We checked out the suitability of three pub function rooms right next to campus, and the brilliant Central Leeds Quaker Meeting House. We settled on a room at the latter (£80 per day, but with good facilities and disabled access) and a couple of rooms in the Pack Horse (which lacked these advantages but were conveniently located and free). We guessed that two venues would be sufficient for our needs, and luckily the guess was right! But we could easily have cancelled a booking.
Depending on your circumstances, you might consider venues like pubs, places of worship, a tent in a park, community halls, walking tours, sports halls, cafes, an off-campus students’ union building, or office space awaiting proper tenants.
The main thing that we’re hoping to do better in future is prioritise disabled access; but inevitably there’s a degree to which you have to work with what you’ve got.
4. Sort out the programme
Like it says on the tin: about a week before the strike, we spent a few hours arranging the sign-up spreadsheet into a programme, taking into account people’s availability, suitability of venues, emailing them with queries, etc. This was the hardest part of organising the teach-in. Since all the participants were easy-going do-gooders, it was not very hard.
In the event, the programme didn’t change much, but because everything was done in a bit of a rush and was quite provisional, we published the programme online as a Google Doc again, meaning that those with editing rights could easily change it at any time. We made it easier to publicise this by creating a short url (from tinyurl.com) for people to circulate. You can see our finalised programme at http://tinyurl.com/ycu5ssgo.
5. Invite people to come
We circulated the programme link via the usual social media channels, including sending it to student societies. We asked members to circulate it to their students, put copies on their office doors, etc. (How many staff actually did this is unclear — but if they didn’t, their students were missing out!)
Most importantly, we printed simple black-and white programmes to hand out while picketing (pdf here): by the end of the second day of the strike, it seemed like all the students we talked to knew what was going on.
We originally only printed a few hundred of these, and regretted it. Leeds University is big, and in the event we handed out about two thousand programmes. Kudos to Footprint Workers Co-Op who rushed through an emergency order for more programmes, and liked it so much they tweeted it 🙂
Some people suggested having people sign up to events via Eventbrite, but we wanted to make attendance as easy as possible, so we didn’t do this!
6. Sit back and have fun
University staff are used to flitting between unfamiliar lecture halls or meeting rooms and to adapting when technology fails them. Moreover, our main organiser couldn’t be present for one of the three days of the teach-out. So we were clear that on the day, people should just expect to improvise where necessary and help each other out where possible. For example, here’s the message we sent to participants once the programme was lined up:
Thanks again for volunteering to participate in the teachout this week!
* I’ve attached a programme as it stands. But if aspects of the programme have to change, I (or other participants) will be keeping the version online at http://tinyurl.com/ycu5ssgo up to date, so that’s the most authoritative one.
* Probably needless to say, although I and UCU committee members will be around, there won’t chairpersons and won’t be much by way of technical support! So do please make sure you finish at 5 to the hour and use your initiative if something goes wrong 🙂
* As a reminder, if you’re in the Quaker Meeting house, there’s a data projector (for VGA-compatible computers). I’ll bring a laptop, but if you can bring your own that would no doubt reduce the range of things that can go wrong.
* If you’re in any other venue, it’s just you, your native wit, and anything else you bring with you!
* We have pretty much no idea about attendance. So do try and be flexible to respond to the size/needs of your audience. In the unlikely event that professional staff at the venues say we have too many people present for safety, please help them turn attendees away. We don’t want to be a nuisance!
* Most important, HAVE FUN!
So once the teach-out was actually underway, thanks to the skill and goodwill of the UCU members who participated (and of the venues we used), it felt like it ran itself.
What went well, what could have been better?
Given that Leeds University has over 30,000 students, we might have been swamped. So perhaps it’s for the best that the proportion of the population that will attend lectures on what they view as a windfall ‘day off’ is limited… On the other hand, we have the anecdotal sense that lots of students liked the idea that lecturers were offering classes, even though they didn’t go. And those students who did attend — mostly postgraduates or members of undergraduate socialist societies — evidently got a lot out of the events. Some were also running their own teach-outs alongside UCU’s. Some members of the public also came along, which was great. Overall, attendance generally ranged from about 12 to about 50. In future, we’ll need to encourage members to publicise the teach-outs to their students, and to get the students’ union more involved in promoting and perhaps running events.
The UCU members who volunteered were mostly from the arts and social sciences, and ran events on fairly traditional left-wing themes. We’d have loved to have more scientists involved, and would have welcomed events on pretty much any topic, as well as things like music performances. Next time, we’ll work harder to cajole some scientists into taking part and should perhaps emphasise that events don’t have to be Union-related as such. Perhaps the biggest impediment to people participating was their own overly high expectations of themselves. Anyone working at a university can probably run an interesting discussion on a subject they’re familiar with (without straying into the territory of delivering a lecture on a current module!) without any special preparation, but members did not always recognise this potential in themselves. But perhaps as the idea of teach-outs gets bedded in, people will participate more readily.
That said, a positive side-effect of the participants’ self-selection was quite a thematically coherent programme. It also involved some great activities which staff wouldn’t normally have a chance to run, like mushroom-hunting, zine-making, and a critical-geographical walking tour of Leeds. And the teach-outs certainly proved a brilliant forum for UCU members to develop ideas, situate day-to-day union activity in a bigger intellectual frame, and dream up new ideas for making our workplaces and worlds better. The discussions we had while on strike are leading us towards new events, like running a UCU seminar series and maybe autonomous higher education activities.
Our main message is that teach-outs aren’t hard, and are fun! Try it and see 🙂