On Wednes­day 5 Jan­u­ary 2011 the Uni­ver­sity of Kent’s Occu­pa­tion came to an end after 4 weeks. The Sen­ate build­ing, nor­mally used for admin­is­tra­tive meet­ings, saw a very dif­fer­ent kind of decision-making as the group of stu­dents who occu­pied the build­ing worked on a fully con­sen­sual prin­ci­ple to cre­ate a base for polit­i­cal action across cam­pus and a free space for edu­ca­tion of all kinds. In this post, I high­light the dif­fer­ent kinds of work activ­i­ties and processes involved in the Occu­pa­tion on the part of those inside the build­ing.* These can be roughly divided into three forms of work; the polit­i­cal, try­ing to make a state­ment across cam­pus and involve stu­dents; the domes­tic, organ­is­ing day to day liv­ing within the space; and the aca­d­e­mic, try­ing to meet the intel­lec­tual com­mit­ments that go with university.

The begin­nings of a ban­ner in the cre­ative area

Dur­ing term time days quickly gained a rou­tine, involv­ing large evening meet­ings as well as smaller morn­ing ones both con­cern­ing our strat­egy. Here tasks were decided upon and divided up between the group to vol­un­teers who would report back on them at the next meet­ing. By the end of the first full day it was decided to form task­forces for cer­tain areas such as com­mu­ni­ca­tion through Twit­ter and Face­book, direct action, and poster and ban­ner mak­ing. There was some resis­tance to this sep­a­ra­tion of tasks at first for fear of cre­at­ing sta­tic com­mit­tees and wider divi­sions within the Occu­pa­tion. It was decided that these groups should remain fluid in order to allow new mem­bers of the Occu­pa­tion to join in, and thereby stop any entrenched divi­sion of labour and also main­tain lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion across them. Within these groups there was never a dis­cus­sion of abil­ity. Instead, any­one who wished to do a task or help with some­thing was wel­comed to do so regard­less of pre­vi­ous skills. This worked both to enable the devel­op­ment of new skills but also their syn­the­sis with exist­ing skills, as well as the deploy­ment of skills in ways which were unex­pected by allow­ing the space for this cre­ativ­ity both in actions and ways of work­ing. This was some­thing refresh­ing for many stu­dents used to work­ing indi­vid­u­ally or in highly pre­scrip­tively organ­ised ways.

Inter­est­ingly despite the organ­i­sa­tion of these tasks there was a stronger resis­tance to the organ­i­sa­tion of domes­tic tasks, with many pre­fer­ring instead to see that these activ­i­ties would sim­ply get done on an indi­vid­ual and infor­mal basis. As such, the major­ity of these daily tasks would be car­ried out indi­vid­u­ally or by a small group of peo­ple, apart from large clean-up oper­a­tions which were con­ducted most morn­ings, or when mem­bers of the Occu­pa­tion had sim­ply had enough of the cof­fee cups lit­ter­ing the build­ing. This was in part a reflec­tion of the group resis­tance to any pres­sure for cer­tain mem­bers to per­form cer­tain jobs through the enforced expec­ta­tions of a clean­ing rota or cook­ing duties for instance. Although this became an effec­tive sys­tem where the tasks did get com­pleted it still lead to an unequal sys­tem where some spent a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time clean­ing up after oth­ers. This small group, which would do reg­u­lar water col­lect­ing, clean­ing and on some occa­sions cook­ing, was com­posed of both males and females although women were often more strongly rep­re­sented within these tasks and in express­ing con­cern over these tasks, bring­ing them up in the organ­i­sa­tional meet­ings. The group dynam­ics con­cern­ing these issues were giv­ing rise to a cer­tain amount of resent­ment from those con­duct­ing them lead­ing to an unsus­tain­able sit­u­a­tion in the long term. In many ways resis­tance to organ­is­ing these tasks and so tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity for ensur­ing the equal spread of work can be seen as reflec­tive of soci­ety as a whole. This cre­ated a dis­ap­point­ing sit­u­a­tion where despite other efforts to chal­lenge wider norms, forms of domes­tic work were still seen as lowly mak­ing them beneath dis­cus­sion and organisation.

Group meet­ings

After sev­eral days of lob­by­ing we were able to open up one of the down­stairs con­fer­ence rooms. This became a qui­eter sleep­ing area at night and our study space dur­ing the day. This was felt to be a huge pri­or­ity of the Occu­pa­tion due to its aims but also due to the tim­ing of the actions which took place just days before many stu­dents’ end of term dead­lines, so we recog­nised the need to help stu­dents work for their study com­mit­ments whilst mak­ing their polit­i­cal state­ment. This was demon­strated in the image here which shows that whilst meet­ings were ongo­ing some were unable to tear them­selves away from their work but at the same time con­tin­ued to con­tribute to the deci­sion mak­ing process. Notice mem­bers on lap­tops con­tin­u­ing to work whilst also con­tribut­ing to deci­sion mak­ing but also the use of lap­tops within the meet­ings to check infor­ma­tion or write notes.

The space pro­vided more than a chance to do the soli­tary work often expected for essays. We saw many stu­dents work­ing together in ways sadly often not wit­nessed within our cur­rent higher edu­ca­tion sys­tem, with stu­dents from first year to PhD being able to help one another. One par­tic­u­lar exam­ple was an expe­ri­enced French speaker and two native French speak­ers help­ing to coach some­one who had taken a French wild mod­ule and was feel­ing unsure about his chances of suc­cess in an upcom­ing test. Vis­i­tors and occu­piers in the Sen­ate also built their own library, and encour­aged sem­i­nars both by staff and stu­dents. The feel­ing was very much focused on attempt­ing to recre­ate the Sen­ate as a free space of learn­ing. The empha­sis lay on an encour­age­ment for all to join in as much as they could. There was never a com­pul­sion to do so, instead there was an under­stand­ing that all would con­tribute what they could, how­ever they could.

After two weeks of Occu­pa­tion free access to the build­ing and con­nec­tion to the inter­net was denied by the Uni­ver­sity after the com­mence­ment of legal pro­ceed­ings. From this point on, num­bers were rad­i­cally reduced as were the activ­i­ties of those inside. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion needed to be organ­ised around a phone tree of close out­side sup­port­ers and don­gles with reduced inter­net access. The key work inside at this point notice­ably shifted towards court­ing the media where the focus was on com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic­ity. Inter­views were even con­ducted through win­dows and arti­cles were writ­ten in national news­pa­pers. This came to a head with the deci­sion to end the Occu­pa­tion attract­ing wide media atten­tion. Yet the ques­tion of future actions was also dis­cussed as those inside under­took a large scale clean-up oper­a­tion to return the build­ing to its for­mer meet­ing room char­ac­ter and plans began to be made for meet­ings for the new term.

These work­ing pat­terns were par­tic­u­lar to this space pro­vid­ing a fluid dynamic but one which was reflec­tive of wider hier­ar­chies of intel­lec­tual, polit­i­cal and domes­tic work. Now that the group is work­ing out­side of this space it remains to be seen if the same flu­id­ity and lack of demands can be made of indi­vid­u­als for tasks and how sta­ble organ­i­sa­tion will take place.

*All pho­tos have been allowed for pub­lic use and where pos­si­ble the photographer’s per­mis­sion has been granted for their use within this post.