This Sussex Life. Professor Kate O'Riordan: ‘My hope is to think more inclusively, collaboratively and locally'
Professor Kate O’Riordan, Dean-Elect of the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, reflects on the challenges ahead, how community is her focus, and her first career as a thatching assistant.
As a teenager, I was reluctant to go to university. I was thinking about a career in land management as I was living in the New Forest and those are the kinds of jobs you have there. So I was an assistant gamekeeper and a thatching assistant at one point. But I always really loved reading. That was the big joy in my life.
I studied English at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales, which was famed for being the smallest university college in Europe. It felt very traditional and very conservative. At the time the curriculum felt completely abstract, distant, elitist and problematic in what it reinforced about ways of thinking about the world.
I went to Greece for a couple of years after university to teach English as a foreign language, just to get away. I absolutely didn’t think I’d go back to university. But then I came to Brighton in the mid 1990s and, while I was temping in an office job, I saw a flyer for the MA in Sexual Dissidence at Sussex. It was a revelatory moment to me that you could actually study something that was relevant and meaningful. I’d had lesbian parents in the eighties. Sexuality and politics had been a big issue. It never occurred to me that you could have conversations about it or engage in it intellectually.
I went on to do a PhD at the University of Brighton – while I was pregnant with my daughter, Ella – and towards the end I got a job at Sussex in the Centre for Continuing Education (CCE) to teach media, multi-media and film studies. That was really amazing. We were supporting a different kind of learning project that was about adult learners and was community orientated. It was interdisciplinary, collaborative, and it felt inclusive. It shaped how I perceived Sussex and higher education as well, even though CCE was subsequently closed.
There was a period when I felt that Sussex was quite removed from the local community in terms of intellectual identity and cultural life, and that was partly to do with both the loss of adult education and the focus on internationalisation. The global is really important. But the local becomes the abject of that – if it’s local it can’t be good – and that’s very short-sighted.
That local community connection has come round again, with being involved in Pride and the Brighton Festival, and more direct connections with groups and venues in town, and rebuilding the campus arts venue [Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts]. That all feels good.
My research was originally on ethical issues around emerging technologies. I did my PhD in a department of information and computer science. Now digital culture is so pervasive. It’s difficult to imagine that point when that was a research question. Back then I looked at how women were engaging in websites and digital platforms in the 90s and early 21st century. I continued to look at gender, sexuality and digital technology, but I also look at emerging technologies and, by their nature, that shifts. So I have looked at biotechechnology as well as information technology, so I work across science studies and media studies.
My role as Dean-Elect of the new School of Media, Arts and Humanities was always going to be more challenging than my previous role as Head of the School of Media, Film and Music. Now it feels like the challenge has totally changed in scale again, and the prospect of building a post-pandemic school of Media, Arts and Humanities with colleagues is both inspiring and intimidating. I imagined the schools coming together, being less siloed and much more creative, and able to build more powerfully on the school’s identity, and this is still the idea.
The coronavirus crisis and the impact that has had on the arts heightens the importance of giving the arts and humanities a strong voice – to avoid getting marginalised in political struggles over resources. Community, culture, connection, creativity, capacities for critical thinking and historical perspectives are all absolutely vital in terms of recovery, resilience and sustainable futures. There is a risk in not understanding the importance and texture of people’s lived experience and its value, and right now is a time in which appreciating and understanding what’s positive and meaningful about life on a day-to-day basis is crucial.
What I am seeing certainly at Sussex in the arts and humanities is less attachment to elite forms of engagement and more focus on connection, through a greater attachment to bringing people together as an end in itself. A risk in running academic research events is that they can feel quite exclusive to people in those spaces. I’d like to see us pitch a range of activity and bring together research with education, community and culture in our work. The question is how to bring people together and have meaningful experiences, to connect around what can be inspiring and exciting about research, rather than only being a platform for how erudite you are.
My hope for the new school is to think much more inclusively, collaboratively and also locally. I don’t want to knock out the international work, which is really important and I’m invested in this myself, but there is something about listening to people in the here and now, and thinking about listening to the ways in which groups feel excluded, the resurgence of different forms of racism, transphobia, different forms of inequality which have been massively exacerbated by this scenario that we are in.
Outside of work, before March, I spent a lot of time training and playing roller derby. I love the sport, it feels adventurous and challenging and I like to feel I am doing something that is completely different to academic work. It’s very body inclusive – one of the most inclusive communities I have been involved with. We are starting up training again on Hove lawns on the seafront in small groups. We won’t be able to return to this as an indoor contact sport for a while yet. I also like sea swimming. Even when it’s grey and cold, it’s such a changing environment. The sea itself is both liberating and challenging. It has a bit of a rush attached to it. You have to judge whether you can go in.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.