Spotlight on John Street
If you have studied politics, media, or journalism at UEA, then chances are you’ve come across John or his work. An award-winning academic and professor across the last four decades, John officially retired on 30 September, after 42 dedicated years at the University.
John has helped shape the teaching of politics in many ways throughout his career and has taught across a range of topics, such as democratic theory, political thought and British politics. He has also been involved in the development of several politics modules, delving into topics like popular culture, media, and technology.
An esteemed and long-respected colleague to many, John will be fondly remembered by many staff, students and more past his retirement. John shares some of his memories of the last 42 years – from shouting through walls to tell colleagues they have a phone call, to lecturing on Game of Thrones – and explains why he has absolutely no regrets about dedicating his career to UEA.
How did you become a professor of politics at UEA? Was teaching something you always wanted to do?
Well, it's a mixture of ambition, fate and luck. I originally wanted to be a scientist, but that turned out to be a disastrous career choice because I was rubbish at science. Then my ambition was to be a journalist; I was working on the student newspaper at the time. I almost started an MA in journalism at Cardiff but then my degree results turned out better than I'd expected, and I was encouraged by my tutors to think about doing a PhD. And it actually seemed like an easier life than being a journalist!
That’s how I ended up becoming a lecturer in politics. I was doing my PhD at Oxford, where I had a junior research fellowship, when I got my job at UEA.
And now you’ve taught at UEA for more than four decades. What’s great about teaching here?
The best thing about teaching is definitely the students: that interaction you get in seminars, where people are really interested in talking about what they're doing. And politics is a great area for doing that. It's the most rewarding thing you can do.
The key to teaching, I think, is not to presume that you know everything. The idea that somehow lecturers and professors are all-knowledgeable and all-seeing is a mistake. You learn a lot from your students, and you hope that they learn something from you.
The good thing about teaching at UEA, in particular, has been the way in which we’ve been allowed to develop modules that reflect our interests and the way the world itself is changing. I think that’s also important to success in teaching – finding topics that are relevant and approaches that engage students. On the whole, UEA has been very good at encouraging that kind of approach.
Is it true that you’ve used Game of Thrones in your teaching without ever watching the show?
One of the things I wanted to do with teaching ‘Politics and Popular Culture’ was to try and show that even those areas of our life which we think of as entertainment, and are often regarded as trivial, can – and often do – deal with very serious issues of politics.
One way I tried to illustrate that was to draw students’ attention to academics who referred to the world of popular culture, to better understand the world they were concerned with. For example, some scholars in International Relations talk about Game of Thrones as being a much better representation of the gendered power relations found in world politics than the textbooks do. I rather casually suggested that you could teach a topic like this without ever having watched Game of Thrones, and as it happened I myself had never watched Game of Thrones, or at least not a whole episode.
I had only the vaguest sense of what it involved. But you know, in a way, it didn't matter. The students knew what it was about and that was a good way of getting a conversation going, although I’m not sure this is an approach to teaching to be followed in all cases!
How have you seen the University transform across the last four decades?
When I first arrived, the student population here was fewer than 5,000 students, whereas now it’s more three times that. There’s been a massive expansion in the number of students, their accommodation, the other buildings on campus, which have increased and improved over that time.
Lecturers are also given much more in the way of support and training. When I first joined, you were just expected to know how to do teaching, and it's not as straightforward as that obviously. Things like the introduction of research assessment, the quality assurance in teaching – I think these have most radically affected how academics do their job and how students experience it.
The things I most notice though are the technological changes. When I arrived, there were no computers, no email. I shared a phone with colleagues in the adjacent offices. If someone called, you used to shout through the wall to the person next door if it was for them. It was a very different technological experience to what we’re used to nowadays.
What will you miss about UEA now you have retired?
First and foremost, my students and my colleagues.
It is a long time to be in one place. There were occasions when I had the opportunity to move away and, for various reasons, I didn't take up those chances. I don't regret that. It is true that most academics move institutions over the course of a lifetime, but UEA suited me and my family. My wife also worked at UEA, and there were all sorts of good incentives for staying here and in Norwich.
“I'm still hoping to continue my research. I’ve got a book to write with colleagues on the history of the English protest song and to complete various other projects. Research is obviously a very important part of what you do, and one of the things I've enjoyed together with the teaching. So I'm not losing all contact with the world of academia.
Any advice for your colleagues?
I think one of the things that lockdown, and all that it involved, made you realise is how much working together matters to academic life. For me, the greatest pleasures, apart from the teaching, have been in the collaborations in which I’ve been involved. I've worked with people in a whole range of disciplines: economics, law, music, sociology, media and so forth. And of course, I've worked with my colleagues in PPL.
It's a great thing because most people I find are cleverer than me and it's really lovely to benefit from their ideas. Curiosity is the key to academic study, and there are few pleasures greater than learning something new.
So yes, collaborate, although I don’t think my colleagues need much encouragement to do that quite honestly!