Rich pedagogical gifts

“Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves” (Hoggart, 1989, cited in Crew, 2021).

I would like to dedicate this blog to all of the women whose resolve and dedication to education inspire me every day. I would also like to thank everybody around me who is supportive of innovation and giving people like me opportunities.

Gemma Ahearne for Tate Exchange, March 2022.

I have also been unashamedly open with much (if not most!) of my lived experience and believe it makes me a better teacher. I have lived experience of most of the things I teach about and that is powerful. I speak from and not to.

I also realise this is risky and exposes me to further and intensified stigma and undermining. It can also be threatening to others. You can study for extra degrees, publish extra journal articles, apply for more grants but it is hard to get insider knowledge.

I have written previously that: “My impact will be measured by how many others I pull up behind me. I am not an insecure mediocre gatekeeper. I long for change and a radically (re)imagined academy. Cite working-class women. Create trauma-informed practice and spaces. Platform the excluded. Have a genuine commitment to widening participation. Propose more visual and arts-based journals and books. Every time you try and shut us out we rise. We are on fire for this”.

I am driven by my personal values and my faith. My work has to align with this. I am extremely privileged that I have a job where this is the case.

I have been re-reading this excellent journal article by Dr Teresa Crew ‘Navigating Academia as a Working-Class Academic’ and it has resonated strongly with me. I am in networks (formal and informal) with other working-class academics and I am very thankful for the insights shared.

Dr Crew interrogates the micro-aggression, hostility and bullying that working-class academics endure. Crew also talks about the benefits of being a working-class academic in terms of our innovative, passionate commitment to teaching. We see education as a way to another world.

“Permanent contracts are like gold dust in academia so I still punch myself now that I am fortunate enough to teach and research subjects that fascinate me, although feeling ‘lucky’ is typical of an academic like ‘me'” (Mahoney and Zmroczek, 1997; Crew, 2021, p.1).

I do feel lucky and grateful to be here. That is not a popular declaration but I love what I do and it works well with my health and other commitments. I also understand this this is directly related to my background. I don’t expect anything.

I grew up to parents on benefits, the youngest of 6 children with an alcoholic father. I am hesitant to make this the trauma Olympics but a lot has happened. I have written an auto-ethnography about being a former dancer here. This gave me a pretty good insight into the misogynistic hatred of ‘disgusting’ working-class women’s bodies.

Of course it has also provided me with 20 years experience of the sex industry and an award-winning module.

The Canvas visual navigation grid for SOCI349 Crime, Justice and the Sex Industry by Dr Gemma Ahearne
Guided walk by Dr Gemma Ahearne, November 2021 (Photo taken by Jenny Graham)
Guided walk by Dr Gemma Ahearne, November 2021

I am so privileged that I get to teach about my passions and develop innovative trauma-informed pedagogy. My “dark funds of knowledge” (Zipin, 2009) mean that I can re-contextualise my experiences and facilitate students to engage with their own experiences in a way that values them.

In my Methodological Innovations journal article ‘Criminologist or Criminal?: Liminal Spaces as the site for auto-ethnography’ I argue that:

“I am not separate from the field of criminology. I am a part of the topics that I teach and my emotions are a valuable asset in the teaching of criminology and the (re)conceptualising of women’s voices in the field. This positionality can be hard to wrestle with and I have often felt like an outsider” (Ahearne, 2021).

“The academy must place more value on lived experience and on narratives that disrupt the status quo and challenge the discipline…I recommend that criminology allows more people to speak for themselves, and to be able to do so in noisy, fractured, provocative ways. By placing value on new ways of storytelling, we place value on women’s writing and those who come from non-traditional academic backgrounds” (Ahearne, 2021).

This means, for instance, I have insider-knowledge of both being the wife of someone who’s been in prison and through the CJS, and of being a victim-survivor. I can engage with the nuance and complexities when teaching on punishment and penology and I promote the spectrum of decarceration. These are messy debates and need to be acknowledged as such.

I am always delighted when people reach out to say they are using my work with their students, it means more to me than any esteemed accolade. I want to be part of on-the-ground change in how we ‘do’ criminology and sociology. That means nothing to me if it’s locked behind paywalls. I am dedicated to teaching and scholarship.

Dr Teresa Crew argues that working-class academics make excellent teachers and develop new and exciting practice.

I am always keen to connect with anyone regarding innovative pedagogy and different ways of knowing.

Gemma x