Judith Okely ( Lectured 1981-1989)

UnknownFurther details on my Essex Students in the 1980s Judith Okely

When I arrived at Essex from Durham University where I had been lecturer, I soon noticed very different students. In the former, many came from elite Public Schools, although I am delighted one of the most talented was first generation university from a Manchester working class family. He is now professor and former Dean at Durham. But he was the exception. In Essex I did not encounter many students from private schools. One who attended my Social Anthropology Course, I knew immediately was from the North East. He was a true Geordie and shockingly, not likely ever to have been at Durham university. Indeed, so disconnected were the Southerners at Durham that when a postgraduate, born and brought up in Newcastle, was heard talking at a student party, several congratulated him for his ‘perfect imitation’ of the local accent.

The student in Essex was doing a joint sociology/government degree and told me years later he knew John Bercow there. This person is now Speaker in the House of Commons. Andy Dawson , by contrast got to know me well. He was gripped by social anthropology. I supervised his dissertation where he gathered the older university porters and cleaners for a recorded discussion about ageing. Typically he had got to know them. There was no class distance here. He obtained a distinction for the outcome.

Well into my time at Essex, I obtained several ESRC grants on Ageing both in France and Essex. There were at the time competitive ESRC phd awards ‘linked’ to an existing staff research grant. This was the year of the miners’ strike. Despite negative support from the then senior staff, I put in an application for Andy, at his suggestion, to do research on Ageing, retired miners. Just before we finalized the application, I asked if he had any connections with miners. His reply “EEH flower, 11 of me uncles were miners!” It was an added bonus to elaborate his knowledge of the North East locality as research site. I believe that some about 6 colleagues applied with different proposals. I was the only successful one.

I had been thrilled by Andy’s parents’ excitement at his graduation. He was the first in his extended family. The joy was even more ecstatic when he obtained his phd. He had various research jobs then a lectureship at Hull university. In the mid 1990s, he persuaded me to move there from Edinburgh. Eventually,  Dr Andy Dawson was to become Professor of anthropology at Melbourne university, Australia.

Recently I emailed him to ask for details of an extraordinary encounter which he had mentioned in the late 1990s when we were both at Hull. One of our phd students had become involved in studying conflict in former Yugoslavia. Andy followed him to the field sites, many of terrible violence.

Dr Andy Dawson in Bosnia asked if he could make contact with key peacekeeper officials. Initially skeptical, he found door after door opening. Entering the main office, he approached the manin charge who casually looked up and said ‘Hello Andy. I did your course on the Anthropology of Europe at Hull’. He argued that this was the only thing which helped make sense of the context. He has become a leading light in ‘The Organisation of the High Representative’ led for most of its existence by Paddy Ashdowne, the EU’s body in Europe. This senior official’s main degree was in S. E. Asia Studies at Hull, with the one course from our sociology/ anthropology department.

Andy emailed me: ‘ When I was there, Bosnia was full of young lawyers and political scientists whose core belief was that, since Bosnians has got themselves into this mess, they were the  last people that one should listen to in devising resolutions. They believed that peace-building was all simply about the rigid implementation of international law. In contrast, Jonathan  (Robinson) was very much an anthropologist, learning the language, getting out into the field and listening to people. The feeling was that through this he was able to broker some really significant agreements between local Serbs and returning Muslims. I have no doubt that this explains his rise.”

All this is inspirational. As a committed anthropologist I delighted that Paul Thompson, then HOD, and others on the appointments committee which included David Lockwood and Peter Townsend, offered me the lectureship. It was only a year later, that I was to discover  that a female sociologist, initiated an unsuccessful petition against my appointment. Apparently for her, anthropology was reduced to racial/racist profiling. A couple of years into my appointment, she asked me why it was that so many students enrolled for my course. It was incomprehensible. The example of Andy Dawson proves the point. I still note other ex students who have progressed in wonderful ways after graduating. It is always a joy to recognize them and see their trajectory.

Judith Okely

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