Newspapers and airwaves are full of obituaries for Stuart Hall, the celebrated public intellectual, and former Professor of Sociology at the Open University who died this week. Stuart’s intellectual range was phenomenal. His reputation world-wide.
He was one of the founders of the discipline of Cultural Studies. He was one Britain’s leading thinker on questions of race, identity and multiculturalism, and his was the first and most perceptive account of Thatcherism (he coined the term) and the neoliberal hegemony under which we now suffer. You can Google Stuart’s life, career and ideas easily elsewhere (there are some links at the end of this article). Instead I want to convey what it was like to work with this most charismatic of men.
The single most important thing to say about Stuart Hall’s time at the Open University is that his dedication to teaching, to the needs of students, was exemplary. There are many professors who disdain teaching, and work for years in the solitude of libraries to produce the handful of books which make their reputations. Stuart was not one of them. From 1979 on, Stuart chaired a series of famous and influential OU courses in the area where Sociology met Politics and Cultural Studies: Understanding Modern Societies, The State and Society, Beliefs and Ideologies, Culture, Media and Identity. He led from the front.
The way in which Stuart managed the dynamics of large course teams was memorable. Stuart laughed a lot, and we laughed with him! His example generated a warm and good-humoured atmosphere, and the discussion was of course extraordinarily stimulating. He had a way of bringing out the best in people who worked with him. The largest egos were moved in the direction of collegiality. The most insecure members of the team felt valued, and were increasingly encouraged to contribute, knowing that their contribution would be judged only on its merit, never on the formal status of the speaker. There was something exhilarating about that open-ness, that egalitarianism, that mutuality of respect.
In his writing, and in his packed summer school lectures, Stuart had a genius for teaching ideas to students who thought they hated theory. And the studentsfound his combination of breath-taking articulacy, playfulness, and sweetness of disposition irresistible. He was also, and some thought this unfair, a very handsome man.
Working closely with Stuart for almost 20 years, I discovered that he had infinite reserves of warmth and patience. Despite the size of the job he had to do, the phone calls and letters which poured in every day, the requests for interviews, lectures, trips abroad, he always had time for people. He was interested in everybody. He cared about how you were "in yourself" as they say in Scotland.
In short, Stuart was a great leader of course teams, and an inspirational teacher who reshaped the way we now think about a cluster of ideas at the heart of our culture.
But he was more than that: he was a really wonderful human being. It was an extraordinary privilege to have worked with him. And it hurts to say good-bye.
Stuart Mcphail Hall, born Kingston, Jamaica, 3rd February 1932, died London, United Kingdom 10th February, 2014. Professor of Sociology, The Open University, 1979-1997.
More about his life & work
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