31 August is Ken Campbell Day: diddling and doodling, seekers, and radical education

It is time for the annual pilgrimage. So as to make this a slower and longer pilgrimage than last year, to commemorate a 10th anniversary (well, two: the death of a central person and the birth of a marginal blog), this post is was a “sticky” one for a whole academic term, all the way to its end and the end of the year; and it contains various kinds of “stickiness” played out in three Acts: revisiting 2017, 2018, and Campbellian education in action.


Today is the anniversary of the death of Ken Campbell, anarchist polymath genius.

Reader of everything. Writer. Performer. Creator. Stand up comedian, speculative fictioneer, improviser, paranomasiac, marvelling revelling adventurer in existence.

Public outreach educator and life-long learning experimenter in ways beyond the wildest imaginings of Proper Professionals in these fields before they or these fields even existed. The next time you consider using words like “innovation,” “innovative,” “innovator”: have some respect. Think first. Check with reference to Ken. If philology provides a theoretical meaning, it is Ken who provides—incarnates—a reference-point for lived active practice.

As we academics start the new year, welcome new students, and train new graduate-student Teaching Assistants, please consider giving half an hour of your time to Ken; from whom one can learn more, and more deeply, in that time than in a year’s worth of Professionalisation Training Programmes by Proper Education Specialists.

I miss Ken.

I love this video and hope you do too. May watching Ken again become an annual ritual, a commemoration to bring in the academic new year.

(TW: Contains death and diddling, and Latin and love.)

ACT II: 2018

🤬🤬🤬🤬 half an hour. As we academics start the new year, welcome new students, and work with new graduate students (and treat all of these people as apprentice colleagues and fellow knowledge-adventurers: not objects for use, misuse, and abuse), please consider giving generously of your time to Ken.

The start of a new academic year is a time of celebration. Of hope and joy. The wheel of the year turns; a time when cyclical and agricultural metaphors of new blood, fresh grain, seed, ploughing fields, and sowing jostle clumsily with harvest and wine-making; a time when metaphors turn to mixed metaphors in their over-enthusiasm, and run amok and awry in other directions, galloping off to the murkiest of rather different simple double-entendres; or, a wiser option, into the untamed wilds. It is quite a Ken Campbell time of year.


Here, then, is some more of a venerable genius and saint of education, in a three-hour special, on this his feast day and the tenth anniversary of his leaving this world; reminding us that the philological deep rooted sense of “education” isn’t just the ex– + ducere of “to lead out”—developing latent potential, a teacher bringing something out of a student—but that of guiding and drawing someone away, of helping them to move elsewhere. Leading astray and being led into straying. Digressing. Transgressing. All that is the opposite of blinkered steady progress, in a straight line, always forwards and upwards.

An education of adventure, an uneducation of undirection.

The education of Exodus 20.2, “Ego sum Dominus Deus tuus, qui eduxi te de terra Aegypti, de domo servitutis.”

An education of flight, a miseducation of migrancy; an anarchist aducation of refugees, of refuge-finding and -making and -sharing, of radical hospitality.


Hagiography aside, there is another good medievalist reason to appreciate Ken Campbell: the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’s nine-hour-long staging and performance of Illuminatus! based on the Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson SF trilogy. Shea also wrote curious medievalist alternate-historical-ish fiction featuring medieval Occitan poets (a.k.a. troubadours), Cathars, the Albigensian Crusade, and what medieval Occitanists will recognise as a very 1960s—Moshe Lazar etc.—perception of courtly love; a hilarious Crusades novel; and a two-part fiction set in medieval Japan. And now, historians and littérateurs will mock my dubious tastes 😘‬


By a happy coincidence the ever-excellent Twitter hermeneuticist @red_loeb reminded me of Ken yesterday morning, while I was working on FREN 101 course preparations:


😮🤔🤭😏 it’s not too late to change a syllabus & one of its “critical & creative” components: “task: illuminate your course materials’ paratextual synoptic grammar tables & lexicon.” Actually, seriously, it’s a good idea for learning; another & even better one (long known, easier to do with the last 50+ years’ accessible technological developments, from felt-tip pens to software) is for students to make their own, with their own choice of colours, mnemonic ornamentation, inhabited & historiated initials, and so on. When doodling meets diddling. I like to imagine that Ken Campbell might appreciate it.


Ken used the wonderful word “seekers” (see any video of The Ken Campbell Roadshow), a more elegant way of expressing both the clunky “student-centred learning” and learning-centred learning: centred on the active interactive transactive infinite adventurous questing process of learning—which is neither static nor an end—and on knowledge itself. It’s not about a product and its purchasers and consumers. It’s not about individuals, it’s about something bigger. Seeking is still very much about people, though, “seekers” being the very human adventurers and their gallant company of fellow travelling companion comrades across time and space, in a dramatic collegiality that echoes Dr Who as much as The Illuminatus Trilogy.

The arts and humanities are the foundations of higher education in a university; they are what heightens it, as knowledge is the greatest and most marvellous adventure that there is. Ken took—or “led”—ideas of questing, quaere, and the arts of questioning to giddy heights and wildly astray with the series Brainspotting. Here is its first episode:


The last word goes to Ken’s inheritrix Nina Conti, as the last station in this year’s pilgrimage is The Once And Future Ken. Raw, painful, humbling and humble, her beautiful warm funny documartyrdomary seeking her inner clown is an exemplary exercise in unlearning and radical education. It and she take lesser approaches to “self-knowledge” and “journeys of discovery” to “find oneself” into a deeper higher richer allegory of integrated teaching and learning. Tolle lege: a 21st-century mirouer des simples âmes anienties et qui seulement demeurent en vouloir et désir d’amour.

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