Love-bombing Higher Education and beyond

This blog has kindly been provided by by Kai Syng Tan Associate Professor in Arts and Cultural Leadership Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton

Portrait of author being interviewed by Japan Broadcasting Corporation as juror of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2023 in Japan, by Kah Wai Lim.

It’s Valentine’s day, and I’m looking for love.

Don’t be silly, you scoff.

Silly, then for one Paulo Freire to link education to love, framing the four-letter word as an act intertwined with solidarity and liberation. One generation on, bell hooks describes love as a ‘practice of freedom’ to ‘move against domination, against oppression’. Critically, diversity is fundamental to this love. The same way opposites can attract, the poet-professor argues that a ‘beloved’ community is formed ‘not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world’.

Well, serious academics today don’t talk about love. Nor do they laugh (much), you kindly warn.

Luckily, I’m not just an(y) academic.

I’m an artist. It’s my job to be dotty. That’s why I’ve discussed how the queen of dots Yayoi Kusama gives form and direction to unknowns, and called for the governments to collaborate with artists to co-curate new visions. I called this ‘artful leadership’, where artists catalyse change beyond the remit of art and design.

I’m also unashamedly autistic, dyslexic and hyperactive. I connect dots in atypical ways. That’s why I love appropriating EDI as a positive, galvanising force and creative solution — not an appendix or problem. This counters how HE art and design is under-valued, as CHEAD reports. I founded the Neurodiversity In/& Creative Research Network which comprises 410 atypical innovators worldwide, including a theorist of ‘neuroqueering’. Such efforts matter. While neurodivergence is over-represented in art and design, barriers faced — as well as advantages neurodivergence afford — remain mysteriously under-discussed in Higher Education (HE).

Education needs love to foster change, argue Freire and hooks. That was why I outlined ‘tentacular pedagogy’. Nourished by my working-class migrant background, this centres the art school ethos of creativity, courage, curiosity and change-making, but with its hearts in neurodiversity, decolonisation and intersectionality. This teaching and (un-)learning framework rallies art and design to play a pro-active leadership role to catalyse change in and beyond HE. It seeks to update art and design’s mission to serve ‘society, the economy and the environment’, and fulfil UNESCO’s vision for HE to prioritise care, solidarity and social justice too.

But talk is cheap. I’m a maker. That’s why, as a trustee board member of an arts and social justice charity, I’ve helped steer radical transformation in its governance, by embedding co-design and anti-oppression policies and practices, leading to the appointment of its first, Black neurodivergent female Artistic Director.

That’s also why, with the distinguished Professor of Architecture Ola Uduku, I co-curated the 75th Anniversary Celebrations of the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester (PAC75). Black students chaired sessions with elders like Lemn Sissay. Materials produced reached 18.2 million people, and are used in the universities of Manchester, Salford and Ghana.

In a new arts and cultural leadership masters, I’m calling upon hooks and others to decolonise and love-bomb the curriculum. The modules I lead on seek to dismantle the master’s story of leadership.

Sure, the academy ‘is not paradise’, reminds hooks, but education remains ‘a place where paradise can be created’. Freire adds that without education, ‘society cannot change’. The road ahead isn’t paradise, and love — solidarity, justice, freedom, and liberation – aren’t exactly low-hanging fruits. Yet, many who teach art and design do what we do, because we believe that HE art and design is a force for good. We know that change, like love, takes time, and that with students we can build a world where it is easier to love. And only serious, artful academics get – and want to beget – love..

I’ve outlined my seriously silly efforts to beget love. It’s only been 25 years since my first full-time HE teaching role – I moisturise, cheers, love – and I’ll keep trying. Tell me about your efforts, so that we can join hands.

The full version of this article was published on 2nd February on Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE)

Kai Syng Tan PhD PFHEA is a trans-disciplinary artist-curator, advocate, advisor and Associate Professor in Arts and Cultural Leadership, University of Southampton. Her book Re-Imagining Leadership with Neuro-Futurism: An A-Z Towards Collective Liberation (Palgrave Macmillan 2024) will be out in Spring. Rather than something based on individuals, hierarchy, organisations, genes or luck, Kai re-imagines leadership as a love-led, beyond-colonial, neuro-queered and (co-)creative practice, outlining ‘neuro-futurism’ as a multi-faceted toolkit within this. These are her personal views. @kaisyngtan


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