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Stuart Hall: An OU perspective

Updated Friday, 14th February 2014
Jessica Evans offers a perspective on what the late Stuart Hall was like as a colleague and teacher at The Open University.

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Stuart Hall in a screengrab Stuart Hall I am going to give an OU perspective on what Stuart was like as a colleague and teacher at the OU and how this related to his intellectual life and personal history. Stuart was Professor of Sociology and Head of the Sociology Discipline for 18 years until his retirement in 1997. He created an intellectual culture centered on teaching, open debate and collaboration. His intellectual authority flowed from leading by example and the giving of himself actively and generously to the detail of making and presenting courses, and the intellectual challenge he saw in teaching.

Looking back on the appeal of the OU in an interview from 2007, referring to the point in his life when he was thinking about where to go after Birmingham University, he said he decided he did not want to continue teaching social thought and sociology in an established university with highly selected groups of students who were on postgraduate scholarships. Instead he ‘wanted the pressure on me of making more popular the ideas that I’d been working on in cultural studies’. (Colin MacCabe: See reference 1).

Stuart took time to foster the development of junior colleagues, such as me, who arrived from a 'brick' university, bewildered by the pedagogy of distance teaching. He showed us the minutiae of making OU courses because he had a detailed command of the 'day job'. Stuart enjoyed the seemingly endless work of drafting chapters and study guides, re-drafting and commenting on colleagues' chapters, discussing the choice of all words in assessment questions, debating the subtleties of the ideas we wanted to teach our students and expressing his high expectations of their capacities as mature adult learners. All this took place during intense bi-weekly day-long meetings over three years of course production to create fantastically honed course textbooks, which were widely admired - and extensively used! - outside the OU. Book covers were the subject of some of the most vexatious and angst-ridden discussions for course teams. Furtive discussions took place in corridors about how to take that difficult decision about which photograph or jacket design to use because of its 'connotations' about the meanings of the course, which were always contested; those in the department who were not specialists in visual culture learned much from Stuart about the central importance of the politics of representation in this way!

I remember colleagues who exasperated and challenged him, as there is inclined to be in academic institutions, and not a few heated debates, but he relished the exercise and discipline of debate. He was secure enough to engage with adversaries as much as his supporters, believing that keeping a channel of open discussion alive, while both nibbling away at the illogic and unexamined assumptions underlying people's assertions and being combative where needed, was a vital part of maintaining civility and central to academic values. I think his sense of collegiality came from his profound belief that multiculturalism should rest on a democratic practice in which we open ourselves up to people other than ourselves, recognising, as he put it so eloquently, ‘that it’s trying to enable people to live together, without eating one another and without pretending they are the same.’ (Laurie Taylor’s Interviews: Stuart Hall).

Stuart was truly a public intellectual, long before higher education’s numbing equation of that term with auditing 'engagement' and 'impact' and the ‘salami-slicing’ publication culture it has spawned. He was prescient, using a long view of history to understand the nascent ideological and political crisis that would eventually lead to the dominance of what we have now come to term ‘neo-liberalism’ or free market conservatism. In his collaboratively written book Policing the Crisis (1987) he saw the way that ‘race’ and ‘crime’ were being yoked together in a state-created panic directed at young black men as part of a fundamental shift in the wider society. He predicted, rightly, that this would not be a temporary break with the past, and spotted the new political juncture, the rise of the radical new right in the form of Margaret Thatcher.

Coining the term ‘Thatcherism’ before she became prime minister, he then analysed across a number of highly important articles the contradictions that were held together in what he called the right wing’s ‘authoritarian populism’. That is, the collapse of Britain's post-war settlement via the reframing of the trade unions, education, the welfare state and law and order, all as problems to which the 'new right' had radical, popular solutions. Stuart sent an uncomfortable message to the left wing, however, in his argument that the left and the Labour Party were complicit by failing to recognise certain fears and aspirations in parts of the population that the apparatus and discourse of the ‘welfare state’ suppressed. Hence ‘Thatcherism’  found a popular way to make compelling the principles of a free market philosophy, by, for example, mobilising imagistic folk-devil figures such as the parasitic welfare 'scavenger' and the 'nanny state' that saps the capacity of the individual to create his or her own destiny for which they are deemed personally responsible. (Stuart Hall, 'The Great Moving Right Show').

When you read Stuart's writing and his teaching texts – or better still, had the privilege of hearing him speak; he was the best orator I have ever seen or heard – you hear the steps in his thinking and an individual voice that appears to speak to you personally. He was not reliant on second-hand or self-sufficient theoretical formulations as he always wanted to test them out in a concrete historical moment. Indeed he wryly expressed his disassociation with a certain kind of ‘cultural studies’ that had become re-attached to a traditional notion of literary scholarship – based on textual study alone (‘everybody quoting everybody else’). He felt it had lost its moorings from the study of the relationship between culture and ‘social formations’, whether these be those of politics, class or economic structures (Colin MacCabe: See reference 3).

Stuart's later work from the 90s onwards, on the relationships between identity, race and multiculturalism, was inflected by a psychoanalytically oriented examination of his own subjectivity. However, Stuart showed that his own personal trajectory lived out the complex interplay between class, colonial, racial and national allegiance and identities. Hence his commitment to the OU, born out of empathy with those who came to higher education from less usual, complex routes, just as his own difficult background in colonial Jamaica saw him come to England and Oxford University at the age of 19 on a Rhodes scholarship.

His history shows us exactly how the political and the personal are so entwined. In a number of gripping interviews Stuart tells us how he was the darkest skinned member of an aspiring middle-class Jamaican family, inheriting a mixed descent of Portuguese-Jewish, African and English in a culture where skin colour was freighted with distinctions cutting across class and colonialism. His mother had white ancestors and was in thrall to an imaginary distant England. His sister would say ‘where did you get this coolie baby from?’, meaning low class Indian, not black baby (Tim Adams, 'Cultural Hallmark').

Stuart’s mother forbade him from bringing black school friends home - even though to colonial eyes he was black himself - and she stopped Stuart's sister from seeing a black medical student. He said that his sister’s life was destroyed by this, causing a breakdown that was treated by electric shock after which she became a carer to their parents, never having another relationship again. Cultural studies, he said, was born out of the question of the contradictions lived out by his family – he could not understand then why his family pursued ‘the subaltern position, on the knees to the dominant culture’ (Tim Adams, 'Cultural Hallmark'). His sister’s life was ‘one of the reasons I have never been able to think or write about the individual separate from society. The individual is always living some larger narrative whether she likes it or not’ (Laurie Taylor’s Interviews: Stuart Hall).  

Stuart had a classical English education in Jamaica, reciting English poems before knowing the names of Jamaican flowers, while allying himself with the struggle for independence from colonial rule. Needing to escape Jamaica’s colonial restrictions he got a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University. He was as alienated there, finding himself taking on the persona of the West Indian diaspora despite not having ever met anyone from islands other than Jamaica. He left without completing his PhD, becoming the founding editor of the New Left Review, doing political campaigning and teaching, and later settling into another identity as a ‘black intellectual’.

Stuart’s major contribution to a multicultural conception of Britishness was based on the struggles of immigrant culture. Seeing Britain always as an outsider – even after living most of his life in Britain as a black person from a former colony he could not feel ‘English’ – is precisely what gives his writings an edge. For him, multiculturalism rests on inclusiveness but without an impossible imposition of mono-culture and a fantasy about the suppression of differences. So, the perceptions of outsiders, of those ‘others’ who were colonised, are a full part of their subjectivity and Stuart spelt out the dangers of a definition of ‘Britishness’ that seeks to erase this. And what he has to say about the definition of multiculturalism is pertinent for anyone with identities in transition, with twists and turns such as Stuart’s. Multicultural ethos, as he argued time and time again, imagines immigrants remaining true to themselves and to the traditions that they wish to retain at the same time as making adaptations to another culture and country; not one or the other.

Perhaps this gives us a further clue about Stuart’s commitment to the OU as precisely that – an OPEN University with its unique open access policy. Mature students who have been in all kinds of employment or bringing up families may take what they feel to be a big risk in joining an academic community. Stuart believed that higher education could not but effect a critical transition at a personal level if it’s to be successful – it aims to develop and change the whole person through an  encounter with an ‘other’; opening up a new world and future imaginings of what we can achieve and aspire to. That was what the OU was set up for – founded on the belief that it is never too late to enter higher education, whatever one's past. Yet change can unsettle a student’s sense of self, as previous ways of doing things may become questioned.

Stuart had a deep understanding of these narratives of aspiration and loss, of the unsettling nature of new identities and the balance between retaining something of ourselves and giving up bits of our past selves in order to assimilate into new institutions or ways of life. He was the subtlest and most agile thinker of his generation, and those of us lucky enough to work with him realise that being with Stuart was a life-changing experience.


  1. MacCabe, C. (2008) ‘An Interview with Stuart Hall’, Critical Quarterly, vol. 50, nos.1-2, p.31.
  2. Hall, S. (1979) 'The Great Moving Right Show', Marxism Today, January.
  3. MacCabe, C. (2008) ‘Interview with Stuart Hall’, Critical Quarterly, vol.50, nos 1-2, p.28.
  4. Adams, T. (2007) 'Cultural Hallmark', the Observer, Sunday 23rd September.

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