According to Split Enz, it didn’t stop the cavalier, so, paraphrasing now, why should it stop the PhD student?

My university life started around about the same time I left Wellington; by all accounts a perfectly good university town with a choice of universities to attend. I moved to Whitianga on the East coast of the Coromandel Peninsula; a perfectly good beach town with a choice of white sandy beaches but not a university in sight- or even within three hours driving distance over tortuous roads. I soon discovered that there was no on-campus camaraderie for the humble distance student. University life in my experience has consisted of me, my trusty computer, and my faithful study-buddy, Ruby (my slightly loopy Weimeraner dog, who rather annoyingly chooses to sleep on my feet under my desk, rather than on her bean-bag).

The isolation of studying at distance has been well-documented by many other authors, so in this blog-post I’d like to share my response to the experience of distance study. I subscribe to Global Dialogue, the magazine of the International Sociological Association, and while browsing through an edition I came across an article by two Canadian Sociologists, Ariane Hanemaayer, University of Alberta, and Christopher J. Schneider, Wilfrid Laurier University, who wrote about an outreach sociology ‘philosopher’s’ cafe programme they initiated in a small town in Canada. I became really animated by this concept because I saw this as water for my parched earth of intellectual debate (husband excluded- the poor bloke is suffering from intellectual-debate-overload). I emailed the two Canadian authors and asked them for advice and tips/pitfalls so that I could set up a similar venture in my little town (population 4,500). Thus, in the winter of 2015 in the cusp between Under-grad and Master’s, and with some trepidation regarding my ability to actually pull off such a lark and pass myself off as a semi-academic, Whitianga’s “Penny University” was born. 

The moniker “Penny University” derives from the coffee shops of 19th century Britain, where intellectuals, labourers, wage-workers, aristocrats could come together and discuss issues of the day without the inevitable brawling that such discussions attracted in the ale-houses of the day. The “penny” referred to the price of a cup of coffee, which was the admission for joining in discussions. These coffee houses became famous as places where people from all walks of life could come together and discuss issues of the day. 

Whitianga’s Penny university started off on a Sunday afternoon in a local cafe, but has now graduated to Tuesday nights in a wine bar overlooking the marina. The primary reason for this shift is practical (truly!): Sunny weekends in beach towns are not conducive to intellectual discussions because everyone is either fishing, diving or otherwise out and about. The group meets once a month, and is advertised through local Facebook pages, in the local newspaper and by word-of-mouth. It is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Attendance numbers vary from between 8 to 20 people, and range in age from mid 30’s through to mid 70’s. There is a relatively even gender mix, and around 70/30 Pakeha/Maori split. Some people are regulars, some people come occasionally, and some come once or twice to voice their concerns on a particular topic.

Topics for discussion are open to the floor and vary from meeting to meeting. Often issues of local and national concern are discussed, such as the use of 1080 poison by DOC, housing issues (it is not just an Auckland issue- housing insecurity is alive and well in the regions), climate change, mining and poverty. International concerns are less frequently discussed, but arise from time to time, such as the refugee crisis in Europe and discussion on Trump, Brexit, or natural disasters. From these discussions some local action has taken place; a community garden initiative has been undertaken, a boomerang bag initiative has been circulated and a presentation to the local community board about a proposed town-upgrade are examples of this.

For myself, the opportunity to enact sociology in a practical sense enables me to not only ‘think’ sociologically for writing purposes, but also to ‘speak’ sociologically – quite different skillsets! It is a challenge at times to make quite complex sociological concepts relevant and clear, however it is a really rewarding endeavour to engage in a ‘public’s’ sociology. The Whitianga Penny University has afforded me the opportunity to meet other people with diverse and often conflicting views, and provided a space to think sociologically about issues and topics from multiple standpoints. From a community perspective, it enables intellectual expression and contributes to social cohesion within the community by bringing together diverse people with diverse experiences.  Finally, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that a cheeky little pinot helps the conversation bubble along nicely