31 August is Ken Campbell Day: diddling and doodling, seekers, and radical education as seeking learning outcomes

It is time for the annual pilgrimage.

Like last year’s pilgrimage post, this post is a “sticky” one for a whole academic term, all the way to its end and the end of the calendar year. It contains various kinds of “stickiness” played out in three four Acts: I. revisiting 2017, II. 2018 and III. Campbellian education in action, and IV. 2019 and learning outcomes.

I’ve also added a few Anarcoos because it seemed appropriate and, well, to quote my first PhD supervisor: “why not?”


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 while I was working on 2018 FREN 101 course preparations:


😮🤔🤭😏 it’s not too late to change a syllabus—or at least some appendix attached to it, and this is a good reason for having online versions—& 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:


Ken’s inheritrix Nina Conti was the last station in this year’s pilgrimage: 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.


Via Twitter:


This might seem, on a superficial first reading, to fit with ignorant modern (i.e. mostly 18th-19th c.) stereotypes about education in medieval Afro-Eurasia: but look at the hands and the eyes. It’s an artist’s attempt to represent the unrepresentable …


… the unrepresentable that is metamorphosis: a frequent trope in illumination and other art, and for obvious reasons, as it’s fun and intellectually stimulating to try to depict four or more dimensions in two …


That is: the metamorphosis of learning: combining the magic moments of thinking, of communicating, and of understanding, each of which is a marvel in its own right.


Just stop for a moment yourself to consider that idea: how awesome is that?


Knowledge-centred learning is learning that is centred on the knowledge itself. Here, for example, the centre of the composition and of its contents is a circle—rather, a sphere—containing books, hands in motion, eyes ans thought behind them …

… zoom in a little closer, and that circle is really a sphere in motion, thinking and communication in live action, or rather, interaction; at the centre of it, two books that are talking to each other. What we’re seeing here is knowledge-centred and learning-centred learning.

It’s also worth pointing three other things out in that image:

(a) knowledge and knowledge-work are inclusive and equitable: teacher/student, different generations (centuries, worlds), face to face, eye to eye, brought to the same level by those books and the knowledge in them;

(b) another magical property of knowledge: it transcends the usual rules of the space-time continuum, bringing learners into direct—intellectual, imaginative—contact with others elsewhere, and the dead, and those who have never been alive, and other worlds;

(c) all of this is interactive and in motion: those two books only come to life, and they are only able to talk to each other, with the help of those two humans; knowledge needs learning, and vice versa, as a beautiful sustainable symbiotic ecosystem.


Knowledge-centred learning doesn’t always immediately look like (active, interactive, transactive, transformative) learning-centred learning. But it’s what’s going on whenever you see a scholar reading quietly, or looking out the window, or eyes closed.

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Learning-centred and knowledge-centred learning transforms learners and learning, in a transformative innovative virtuous circle; this is what the “higher” in higher—university—education means.


So. Think of what lies behind and beyond it the next time you see a pointy finger (in a university / educational context, that is; but who knows, perhaps also elsewhere, this might be one of those weird ambiguous universal morals).

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10/ Here endeth the allegory of the day.

And here unendeth that thread, with a gallery of spinning armillary spheres and the like, in random order and re-randomising themselves every time one revisits them.

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On which topic of un-ing things, here are some links about the unessay and ungrading:

This year’s last word goes to my brilliant colleague Dr Brianne Orr-Álvarez, a fellow seeker whose work combines, remixes, and reimagines what others all too often divide into “research” and “teaching.” In her case, she is a scholar of revolutions and one of our department’s several winners of Killam teaching prizes.

She created our FHIS Learning Centre ex nihilo. A new thing in our department and university, it’s a real live actual renovation / innovation, and translates an idea from elsewhere into a new place. A translation with, as with all translocations, transformation. Now running for several years, our Learning Centre has been a central locus for progressively changing this department’s culture and ethos; a model for what might be imaginable in further translations elsewhere, in our faculty of Arts, in its new Humanities Hub, in the university and how it perceives itself as a university and translates that into being a university. A Centre of Learning that is itself composed of Learning Centres. Not as a traditional figurative body is composed of limbs and torso with a head at its top; but as a human body is a whole integrated system of numerous networks, from the more obvious circulatory and neural ones to the endocrine and gut biome and skin flora; as a whole living ecosystem.

On a larger scale, our Learning Centre is also a symbolic translatio studii. As balances of power shift in our world and—aside from threats of assorted impending dooms and rises of fascism—there’s hope for creative imbalances, for rethinking why a certain version of balance should be a main or the only one given its historical associations with the stability and stasis of absolutist and totalitarian régimes. Not just hope for the shifting of power as a hegemonic move, with or without the translatio imperii that’s often been associated with translatio studii, from empires of Modern European Enlightened colonialism and their “Western Civilisation” predecessors to neo-colonialisms and neo-imperialisms in the post-war era and(/ a.k.a) corporatist post-modernity. Looking to medieval Afro-Eurasian intellectual communities as a pre-and-para-and-post-hegemonic model: monasteries, schools, universities and research centres, libraries. As an idea and as theory translated into practice, centres of learning and learning centres are not necessarily singular, simplistically centralised and hierarchical, or associated with imperium and hegemonic imperial power. Such centres of learning tended to be in networks, and their networks were in turn networking with other networks, in a rhizomal fluid constellation. Weaving an intellectual worldwide web: transnational, even if also in complex relationships with other networks—political, religious, and commercial—and, of practical necessity even for the most hermetic, albeit in contact with external secular structures of authority; at best, with the hope of being tolerated and ignored.

Our Learning Centre came to us, here in Canada, from a model in a university in the U.S.A. Many universities and colleges in that country used to have such things. And teach “foreign” languages, and value them and everything that they stand for and what learning them means: central to a humanistic undergraduate education. (With apologies for that last term’s multiple redundancies, but these days, such things apparently need to be spelled out.) Some still do. There are of course and always have been other reasons for learning languages too, to do with the worlds of commerce or of the military-industrial complex or, in truly dark times when the two are one, to do with both. But our Learning Centre has a new feature this year, one that should remind you that it’s also a community centre and kith and kin with community centres in other countries and cultural traditions, including those of our department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies’s places and their languages: a People’s House, a Palace of Culture, casas de cultura in Cuba. Bringing learning to life and into lifelong learning.

The FHIS Cultural Club is a departmental club that meets once a week to facilitate conversations among students enrolled in FHIS courses or to offer special cultural lessons related to different Romance Language Contexts.  Language specific sessions meet once a month, so check the schedule and follow the FHIS Learning Centre and FHIS Department on Facebook and Twitter for details about specific dates!

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