For all the significance my decision to study at Essex was to have on my life, my memories of my actual time there are very hazy. I do remember the mixture of excitement and trepidation I felt when I first arrived in 1967 in what was still in part a building site and, then again taking part in my first seminar groups. I enjoyed being part of such a new and young department and to feel that we, the students, were contributing to its development alongside the staff. I was privileged to be taught by Peter Townsend and I suspect it was those seminars that led me to the Child Poverty Action Group and then on to an academic social policy role. However, we had our criticisms of the curriculum: in particular we felt we were served a somewhat indigestible overdose of Talcott Parsons with very little of the founding ‘fathers’ of sociology on the academic menu!
But my clearest memory is of some of the events of May 1968. The sense of virtually the whole student community coming together in protest was exhilarating. Every time I hear Country Joe and the Fish’s Fixing to Die Rag it takes me back to dancing round the square. (And music generally was a highlight -crushed into the Hexagon for bands such as the Who and Fairport Convention.) I recall one of the endless meetings when a woman, whose name I forget, strode across the platform, sleeping bag under her arm, declaring that she’d had enough of all this f****** talk and was off to Paris where the real action was.
The aftermath of May 1968 was, however, disappointing. We negotiated with the university authorities for greater student participation in the governance of the university. But when we returned the next year it seemed like much of the political energy had dissipated: the student leaders had retreated into the developing counter-culture leaving the foot soldiers to get involved in the more mundane staff-student liaison committees etc. Indeed my overall memory of the Left at Essex isn’t that positive. When I went to a meeting of what I think was called the Socialist Society as a green fresher it was so unwelcoming that I never went back. And I found it strange that the same leaders who spoke the language of student-worker unity were dismissive of the concerns of local residents (many of whom were of course the very same workers).
My disappointment is, however, not to belittle the significance of greater student involvement in departmental governance, which was still pretty novel back then. In the sociology department I think we were able to make a real difference, especially with regard to how our work was assessed.
Overall I’m proud to be a graduate of the Essex sociology department; and receiving an honorary degree in 2012, with the oration given by Joan Busfield who taught me all those years ago, was quite an emotional experience.
Ruth Lister is Baroness Lister of Burtersett and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. She was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Essex on July 18th, 2011. For more, click on Honorary Degree.