Kerry William Purcell

Kerry William Purcell

Kerry is a VERY busy man – as well as teaching, he writes, curates, publishes his own podcast and is mid-way through a PhD. In his spare time he enjoys swimming in the sea and watching his beloved Grimsby FC. We caught up with him to find out how on earth he fits it all in…


Tell us a bit about your background and how you first got into teaching.

Well, by accident really. It was never a lifelong desire. I had written a book on Alexey Brodovitch and was asked to give a guest lecture on his work at Kingston University. After doing that, I was asked if I’d be interested in giving tutorials to final year graphics/illustration students working on their dissertations. I did this for a while and because I was publishing books on design and photography, I was made a Research Fellow.


What does your job at the University of Hertfordshire entail? Can you describe a typical day?

I live in Norwich, so it’s an early start (5am). I drive the 100miles to Hatfield (with an audio book for company) and go straight to the gym or pool. I need exercise to start the day, not doing it can seriously impact my mood! Then it’s to my desk (via the coffee shop) and answering emails (usually from panicky students who have been emailing me at 3am the night before!). Then I’m either straight into tutorials or lectures. I enjoy thinking on my feet, so tutorials are my favoured form of teaching. I do this all day (with a little break for lunch). Then back home and bed (usually by 9pm!). 


What are the most challenging aspects of teaching and what do you think are the most rewarding?

The most challenging aspects of teaching? As we have seen over the past 10years, the growing power of middle management in HE is causing most of the distress for staff. Trying to model HE along corporate lines has meant mass casualization, micro-managing modules, etc. I also think the way the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is narrowing what is considered valuable research is highly damaging. What’s good? The students of course! On the whole, it’s great to be around enthusiastic creative people. They always seem to cope with whatever is thrown at them, and frequently amaze me with their work.  


What changes (if any) have you noticed in education since you started teaching? Has the introduction of tuition fees had an impact on student expectations?

Well, apart from a few comments along the lines of “I’m paying for this” or “I’m paying your salary!”, nothing too much. The universities are having to be more responsive to student needs, although I’m frequently amazed how passive the students can be. They have a lot of power to change how education (the world!) works, but they often don’t see it/use it. I blame years of schooling which has taught them that the way to get on is to pass exams (which is more to do with school league tables, than any genuine love of learning).   


Why do students who are studying practical subjects such as graphic design and fashion need to study critical theory?

I’m allergic to the practice/theory division. Theory can be practice and practice can be theory. It is a false distinction. To divide them is to either fall into sophistry or mindless playing with form. Whether in politics, art, or science, theory is part of actual practical change and not a separate rarefied sphere. For students, they need to see that they are already working with theoretical ideas, they just not cognisant of it. Just understanding how ideology works in normalising modes of production or certain social-political ideas can be immensely liberating. However, the thought that the “theory” element of a course is where you ‘write an essay’ still persists (especially amongst many studio staff). 


What do you find is the best way of engaging students who are resistant to reading (and writing)?

A tough question. I think we’re facing a generational issue here. Students in my experience are reading less and less. Even if you break down reading into manageable ‘chunks’, they still don’t do it. I come from a humanities background where we had to write an essay a week, so it’s still shocking to me when graphics-illustration students moan about writing one 2000 essay a semester! My answer, and this partly connects with the question above, is to try and get them to engage with critical ideas visually. So, for example, my current 2nd years are having to produce a poster that responds to the question of ‘what does migration in the UK mean today’. The have to read texts to respond to this, but the conclusions are visual. This year, we’re working with the Museum of Migration, and a selection of their submissions will be exhibited at the museum next year.    


What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from your students?

That they know just as much as me. Lecturers who believe that their job title actually means they are ‘better’ or more ‘knowledgeable’ than the people who attend their lessons, are kidding themselves. I often start a new year by saying to them (I include myself in this): “in this room are citizens, mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbours, workers, commuters, runners, cooks, friends, and yes, students. But this last category is probably the least interesting.” Allowing students to bring all aspects of their lives into the classroom is vitally important, especially if we are to allow what we do at university to translate into other areas of society. Also, I think faced with the increasing commodification of HE, to deny the symbolic role of ‘lecturer/professor’ etc., a role we are compelled to occupy by the institution, is to deny the passive-consuming dynamic of “you’re the lecture, I’m the student, I’m buying my education, teach me”. The belief that what one has written, published, or exhibited (or the length of time you have been doing a job), confers on you some special status as a human being is imbecilic. It’s status anxiety of the worst kind.


If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

Grades. Really, grades just get in the way of discussion and the development of ideas, and if I had the opportunity, I would simply have a pass/fail mark (and on my more radical days not even that). As noted, coming from a school system, where students have faced years of propaganda that grades are king, many just want to know what they need to do to get a 1st or 2.1, so they can get a good job to start paying of their £50,000 worth of debt. In this way, knowledge becomes utilitarian, functional. This is the nature of education in contemporary capitalism. Knowledge has to have some relevance to the market, if it doesn’t, then it is frequently classed as worthless. Everything here is reduced to the count! I’m part of the Socratic tradition of corrupting the youth (but rather than Athens, I’m just off the A1 outside St. Albans).


As a tutor, how do you prevent yourself from becoming institutionalised?

I have just gone part-time, and it’s the best decision I have ever made. Even though I often run out of money midway through the month, I would rather have the time to do my research and see my children! Going for a swim in the sea on a Thursday afternoon, what’s not to like about that!


How’s your PhD going? What first prompted your interest in the French philosopher Alain Badiou?

My first degree was in Sociology, and my masters was in visual cultural theory. I’m not a Design Historian, although that’s what my job title says I am. Reading Being & Event (Continuum, 2005) was a Pauline-conversion for me! I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the focus on forms of representation and the language of victimhood in liberal thought as the only path to social change. Specifically, what interested me most about Badiou’s work, was that it offered a potentially new way to think about our relationship to history. In that truly historical events contain within them a Truth (even if that Truth had since been corrupted or betrayed). In my PhD, I contend (via Badiou) that the practice of history can maintain a fidelity towards these truths, one that requires the historian to embody the Truth fully. I know this sounds highly abstract, but I’d require an additional 70,000 words to make it clear!


How do you manage to fit everything in?

My iCal! I’m the type of person who needs to have six projects on the go at once, otherwise I feel like I’m stagnating. I think it’s a fear of my mortality (50 is not too far away!)


You have three wishes – apart from world peace, how are you going to use them?

1.     I wish I could go back to Lindsey Comprehensive School, c.1983 and punch E.C in the face.

2.     I wish Mary Anne MacLeod had never met Fred Trump.

3.     I win the lottery, buy Grimsby Town F.C., and then give it to the fans to run.


Kerry’s forthcoming book Grunts & Grapples, which charts the Golden Age of British Wrestling is available to pre-order now.  Listen to his podcast The Last Outpost here.

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