Starting a mistress.

On the night that I made the decision to leave my masters at Schumacher College, something very interesting happened. Suddenly all the energy I had been using to fight the structures, values and processes that were not working for me at Schumacher was released and immediately channelled into something new, into building an alternative I believe in. I had a huge burst of creative energy and was up until 4am developing and building upon a refreshing new concept a friend had already started.

Enter Kathleen Cassidy — housemate of the last few years whom — interestingly — I met at an alternative education conference in London six years ago.

Around the same time I decided to do my masters at Schumacher — Kathleen being the courageous and trailblazing woman that she is — decided she was going to embark upon her own self led learning journey, but instead of calling it a ‘masters’ she wanted to challenge the gendered nature of our academic language and instead do a ‘mistress’. In her own words:

doing a Mistress refers to doing a Masters. As in studying and becoming advanced in something. Now isn’t it interesting how the generic title for men in society, Mr (which derives from Master), is associated with becoming ‘masterful’- an expert or leader in something? Whereas the title for women, Mistress (abbreviated to both Ms and Mrs) is most commonly associated with having a sexual relationship with a married man.

Oh hello Patriarchy — there you are deeply ingrained in our everyday language. Well you’re not pulling wool over my eyes. I ain’t a sheep. I’m reclaiming my title. I won’t be spending my Mistress sleeping with married men! I’ll be honing the art of becoming the mistress of my own mind, body and actions. This way I will become both a better friend with myself and with the world.”

Kathleen was also inspired by the book ‘hacking your education’ and is joining the growing movement of people who want to learn outside of the ivory tower as they have become disillusioned with the ways in which our conventional education systems focus so strongly on extrinsically motivated learning such as exams, and with the increasing costs which contribute to widening inequality within society. If you would like to learn more on this subject Sir Ken Robinson’s most watched TedTalk: Changing Education Paradigms is hugely inspiring and informative.

During my final weeks at Schumacher, I also met Pheobe, a scientist and social entrepreneur, who had recently turned down a PhD offer focused on synthetic biology and decided instead to do a ‘self led masters’. Interestingly she had also considered doing the Holistic Science masters at Schumacher — but for some of the similar issues I discovered through my own experience- had decided against it. Instead she chose to move to Totnes and engage with Schumacher and its community from a different standpoint. We met at Schumacher and shared frustrations, hopes and dreams of what learning can and should look like, and this encouraged me to consider the idea of self-led learning as an alternative.

(You can find out more about Kathleen’s mistress, modules and motivations here and find out more about Pheobe, who is developing an online platform for self learning here.)

The night I decided to leave, I was thinking about how great Kathleen’s idea was, how I was inspired by Phoebe’s journey and how not only was I interested in doing my own mistress, but how this idea could become something bigger! How we could have a platform and community called ‘The Mistresses’ — a group of women and men who would like to be allies in moving beyond the patriarchal, privileged, head centred nature of current educational institutions; a community of people who would like to support each other to take their own learning journeys towards self and collective empowerment; to equip ourselves with the knowledge and tools we each need to live a life that is fulfilling and makes us feel alive and inspired; to engage in learning that contributes to our personal wellbeing as well as supporting us to act to create a more equal, democratic and sustainable world; learning that enables us to get out of our echo chamber, build bridges, listen to and learn from a diversity of voices and perspectives.

I started to think about all the things that could make both my own and others’ ‘mistresses’ feel empowering, structured and supported: a learning platform where we could share templates, modules and course structures; a space to share the outputs and outcomes from our modules — whether that be an essay, a podcast, a dance piece, or a project: a space where we could get feedback and give peer to peer support. I thought of the idea of having ‘womantors’ to support us on our learning journeys, the importance of intergenerational support, of creating spaces in cities where we could live together and share ideas, a Foundation that would enable people from lower income backgrounds to participate. This idea is currently being discussed and developed by Kathleen, Phoebe, me and a few other interested collaborators. But it is specifically aiming to span class, gender, race, sexuality and ability.

So as this idea develops where does this leave me? What is my mistress going to be about?

My Mistress

My mistress will focus on the key question I expressed in my crowdfunding video and have held since the beginning of my learning journey:

What is the relationship between the increase in young people’s mental health problems, the structure of our economy, and our disconnection from community, nature and our bodies?

Secondly in what ways can we tackle, overcome and find solutions to this interconnected set of issues?

I intend this to be my dissertation question, which I will engage with continuously throughout my mistress, exploring it through five different modules which I have either already experienced (i.e. my experience at Schumacher), or am in the process of designing. Each module will shed new light on that question, and each from a different perspective, and will enable me to look at the ways in which a multitude of interrelated factors affect our mental health and wellbeing.

My approach to learning will continuously move between and integrate my lived personal experience, intellectual research, and wisdom from peers and womantors in the mistress community as well as inspiring people I meet, interview and engage with along the way.

Module 1: The Ecological Paradigm: Insights and Limitations
 Schumacher College

I will honour the module I studied in Ecological Design Thinking at Schumacher as my first module. As you have seen from my second blog, it has left me with a huge number of insights — and from my most recent blog, has also educated me on its limitations.

This module shed light on my research question from the ‘natural systems’ perspective and gave me new tools to help me continue to frame and understand my research question using wisdom from complexity, systems thinking, Permaculture, and Ecological Design.

Module 2: Learning to live with myself and others
 Stroud / London/ Oxford

This is the module I am currently undertaking and it approaches the question of mental health and wellbeing by focusing on the impact of our relationships with ourselves and others.

This sphere might typically be addressed through contemplation, reading of literature, and/or more recently in the West, through a range of talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Psychotherapy, Humanistic and Gestalt therapy. All focus in different ways on the way we relate to ourselves and others. Both of these in turn have a huge impact on our mental and physical wellbeing, the wellbeing of those around us and the feelings, messages and behaviours we put out into the world to make up our collective culture and ways of interacting.

This module will explore how my own relationship to myself and others affects my wellbeing, drawing on a series of short courses on authentic relating, self esteem, non-violent communication, and on deeper resources for collaboration. This will give me insights and tools on how to develop a more positive, constructive and creative relationship with myself and others. I intend to further develop and share these tools and concepts with the hope that this in turn will support others to create healthier relationships in their lives.

Something that comes up again and again in studies of factors that affect wellbeing is how important relationships are — they are something we deal with every single day — and whether it’s in work, family or romance they can make us feel on top of the world or down in the dumps — yet I realise that not once in my whole time in education was I taught about effective, kind and honest ways to communicate with myself and others. My hope is that this module will help to strengthen the way that I work with one of the most useful tools I could have for life — communication.

Module 3: Environment and Enlivenment
 Malta/ Italy / Sicily

This module approaches my core research question by looking at the impact our environment can have on our wellbeing. When I say ‘environment’ I am talking about the wider ecosystem in which we are based.

Anyone who has been watching Planet Earth ll in the last few weeks will have seen the impact of different environments — from the jungle, to the mountains to the desert — on the wellbeing of animals and even on their physical and cognitive development. I am interested to see how different living environments affect human wellbeing. From urban to rural, island to continent, green to dry, hot to cold — I am interested in how weather, landscape, population density and cohabiting structures affect our mental health and our sense of feeling alive.

I will explore this both from a personal perspective — by changing my own environment and experiencing the impact that has, as well as investigating broader indicators that help to cast light on patterns and correlations between human wellbeing and environment. Specifically I will explore the Gross National Happiness Index originating from Bhutan, the Wellbeing Pathways developed by University of Bath and Nef’s 5 Ways to Wellbeing.

I have specifically chosen to explore mediterranean environments as they are associated with some of the highest wellbeing indicators and I would like to find out why.

Module 4: Embodied Awareness
 Devon

This module is about the relationship between mental health, physical health and more generally the relationship western society has led us to have with our bodies. As a society which in my experience is much more focused on our head than on our heart and hands — it is my belief that we have become disconnected from the wisdom, knowledge and joy that comes from connecting with, and listening to our bodies. As I have been a dancer from a young age I have always known and experienced the importance of this but experiencing mental health problems brought the importance back to me in a new way and I would like to deepen and further understand this relationship through reconnecting with a dance practice.

I will research this question through undertaking an ongoing dance and movement practice with Helen Poynor, an internationally recognised movement teacher, director and performer whose approach has evolved out of 30 years of professional practice on four continents. She specialises in movement in natural environments, site-specific, autobiographical and improvisatory performance, and cross art-form collaborations combining movement with installation, text, film and the visual arts.

Module 5: Bringing wellbeing into the economy
 Totnes

Having researched the different ways that relationship to self, others, environment and body affect our mental health and wellbeing, this module enable me to explore how to integrate this relationship back into work and the economic reality in which we exist — both for myself and more broadly. Having previously worked in co-operatives, and experienced the strengths but also the limitations of these in terms of my own personal wellbeing — what are other alternative models of work and the economy that can enable us to experience joy and personal wellbeing as well as meet our needs and have a positive impact on people and the planet?

For this module I will spend time back in Totnes both working and studying with other Economics for Transition students I met at Schumacher exploring similar questions.

The final outcome

Finally I will bring together and synthesise the insights from all the different modules into a final piece that answers my core research question. This may come in the form of a written dissertation, a creative expression, a new project, a set of interviews and podcasts or a combination of all of the above. This will be finished and shared by September 2017 — marking the end of my year long mistress.

If you are interested in following the journey of my mistress, reading the pieces I write, the reading lists I create, or helping me ‘crowdfund my grades’ by giving me feedback by on what I produce then please leave your details here.