What does it mean to be an academic activist? With a background in banking and finance, Professor James Arvanitakis, a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, is not your average human rights activist. He aims to ‘teach beyond the classroom’, a powerful idea achieved through innovative and experiential methods.
Nucleus had the chance to chat to James when he came to UNE in November to give a handful of lectures and presentations.
Going from finance and banking to human rights activist is a big change – how did that change come about for you?
‘So two things happened. You get caught up in that environment and yeah, you become that person. So it’s a very competitive, brutal environment, and I became a competitive, brutal guy… It means that you’re not doing anything illegal but, ethically, it’s all very grey, and you begin to justify your actions in that way. And so the first thing that happened to me was that I looked in the mirror one day and I literally didn’t like who I had become. I took a year off to travel. I witnessed child labour in mines in Bolivia and seeing kids working in mines, eight year olds carrying rocks, breaking rocks up with their bare hands, for eight hours a day and then sort of knowing that the economic policies I had promoted and supported and thought were the solutions to the world’s problems, that they actually were responsible for that.
‘It’s a bit self-referential but when it happened I was driving a German sports car, right? And when I saw the child labour I asked the folk, what comes out of those mines? And they said, oh all sorts of metal. And I said, where do they go and they said all over the world. (I was) chatting away with the mine manager, the mine guys, and one of them said “Oh you know, it goes to Germany for car manufacturing and stuff like that…” I had this realisation that actually the real cost of the car was not the fifty grand or whatever that I paid for it but actually the lives. That’s when it actually kind of dawned on me… The same thing about the five dollar t-shirts that come out of those horrible factories in Bangladesh. We all want a bargain, but what’s the consequence, what’s the cost? And that’s when I kind of went, actually, you know, there has to be a better way to do things.’
That’s a very real, in-the-flesh experience – do you think that’s what it would take, for a lot of people, to reach that point?
‘That’s obviously one thing but at the same time, you gotta go looking for it; I went to those mines. So it’s not an easy thing to do. And a lot of people have their daily lives and they have their daily work and they have their own problems, their own mortgages and stuff like that. So I think one of the really easy things to do is to just sit there and say, these people are so naïve, they should get into it and become activists and why are they so frustrating like that … but it’s people’s lives.’
Like you were saying before, it’s about the environment and culture that directly surrounds you?
‘That’s exactly right. And so the question is what interventions can we make, what can we ask of those people? ‘I’m lucky enough that I use my class as a way to connect with students, I say “This is what I’ve seen, this is what’s happening, this is what you can do, this is what we can do as a group.” That’s why as a lecturer I believe that I lecture beyond the classroom. Because the lecture that I have, if done well enough, if appropriately delivered, can be discussed at the kitchen table, at the dinner table, or in the café, or in the pub, or in the car.’
James Arvanitakis received the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year Award in 2012. His lectures can include dancing, music and flashmobs, and he explained that this helps make the impact necessary to ensure the discussions flow on.
How do you try and teach effectively so that that does happen?
‘For me teaching things effectively includes three principles. One is to make things relevant; the consequence can’t be ‘over there’. So things like globalisation: explain them in a way that shows that they’re alive and around us. Class is not about a dead white guy that talked about it in 1880, it’s about a life experience today.
‘The second thing is to get people to not only make things relevant but also be able to apply them and analyse them from their worldview. So when we do stuff on gender: getting people to think about their own relationships with people, their relationship with their girlfriend or boyfriend, with their parents, with their sisters, their brothers, and think about what that tells us about our relationships and how they operate. ‘Thirdly I try and make my lectures use a whole bunch of different strategies to make it really experiential. The lectures become real events; people actually do all these different exercises inside the lectures. And then hopefully people can take that and say “Oh my god, we did such-and-such today…” and that raises a whole bunch of questions and issues as well. Unless you do that, people don’t experience it in a way that they can go out and discuss.’
James teaches in the Humanities department of UWS, a university at which some 60% of students are the first in their family to attend university. He explained that he has come to focus on working closely with first-year students, and finds exposing students to new ideas hugely exciting.
What kind of challenges do you face then, teaching them?
‘Challenges are – the fact that a lot of the students are balancing multiple commitments, so a lot of the students will work a job or be the primary carer for their family… they’re trying to balance all that stuff.
‘Another real challenge is colleagues, who I think are cynical and bitter and twisted…
‘I think the third one is just that I like teaching, I love research and I also do a lot of community engagement, so it’s kind of trying to find the right balance that suits you, and I think a lot of academics only specialise in one area or the other, whereas I’m trying to do all three, and I find that really hard.’
Lastly I want to get your opinion on what you think the role of student media is, and what we can do and how?
‘I think student media is incredibly important. I’d say there’s a few things. One is to definitely be a voice for students, with a focus on what students are experiencing, going through, concerns, challenges, things that are pissing them off and so on.
‘Two, to push the boundaries. To really push the boundaries. To talk about a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t get talked about – and you can do that without being crass. But to do that and to also be prepared for a bit of blowback for putting it out there.
‘And three is to provide a venue for debate – and here I’m thinking about reasoned debate; not just petty arguments, but reasoned debate. Sourcing people’s different perspectives on things, and sort of saying... do you have a different point of view, would you like to write a response? Saying that you need a reasoned debate - and providing that, sometimes on the same page, if you can source that, but other times just getting people to respond.’
James Arvanitakis will (hopefully) be returning for another visit to UNE in 2014.
See below for a snapshot of James's more recent visit.