Doing a Mistress: What the f* does that mean?

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.” Gloria Steinem

After years of dreaming, I have left the security of a permanent job and a rented house, jumped off the career ladder and strayed off the beaten path to become a nomad and do a Mistress.

Umm, what do you mean by doing a Mistress?

Aha! You’re not the first person to ask. So in my own terms, doing a Mistress refers to doing a Masters. As in studying and becoming advanced in something. Now isn’t it interesting how the generic title for men in society, Mr (which derives from Master), is associated with becoming ‘masterful’- an expert or leader in something? Whereas the title for women, Mistress (abbreviated to both Ms and Mrs) is most commonly associated with having a sexual relationship with a married man.

 Oh hello Patriarchy – there you are deeply ingrained in our everyday language. Well you’re not pulling wool over my eyes. I ain’t a sheep. I’m reclaiming my title. I won’t be spending my Mistress sleeping with married men. I’ll be honing the art of becoming the mistress of own mind, body and actions. This way I will become both a better friend with myself and with the world.

So which university is teaching Mistress degrees?

None. They produce Bachelors, Masters and Doctors in Philosophy. I will be doing my Mistress beyond the Ivory tower of an institution. Partly inspired by the book ‘hacking your education’, I am joining a growing movement of people who are opening the curtains of the overton window on what it means to ‘becoming educated’. Why? Because I am disillusioned with our conventional education system.

Yea it obviously has a few issues. I’m still hurting over some of my own experiences in education. Which ones made the cookie crumble for you?

  My primary criticism with our current education system is to do with the impact that it has on its students and on society at large. First of all, with its yardstick of success being ‘good grades’ our education system also wires people to become extrinsically motivated – i.e. performing monkeys who engage in activities to get a reward or avoid a punishment. Exam score mania, with its emphasis on getting things right, whether you enjoy the work or not, has a very limited view on what intelligence is, kills creativity and prepares students to be externally-motivated, insecure, unhappy and easily-manipulated workers.  It has taken me years to unlearn the deeply ingrained tendencies to fear mistakes and orientate oneself towards goals rather than enjoyment of the learning process. I am still actively unwiring this as I imagine many of you are.

  Secondly, our current education system is biased to maintain many harmful aspects of the status quo. Let me give you an example. In the UK we learn repeatedly about Nazi germany and its concentration camps but almost nothing about the British empire and its ongoing legacy of white supremacy, imperialism and patriarchy that exists today. Without critical analysis of the power structures that exist today, how can the current education system be part of changing them?

    Related to this, with the introduction of more and more top up fees and the likely scrapping of maintenance grants, our universities are becoming more and more elitist. The average cost of a ‘Masters’ degree is now £12,000 per year. And that’s not including living expenses. This growing elitism at universities reflects the growing inequality throughout society. And the widening achievement gap between rich and poor is nothing to do with the calibre of pupils. It is due to structural privileges and oppressions, many of which exist at the level of education. Even if I had the money to study a Masters (which I don’t), I also wouldn’t want to be surrounded by a monoculture of privilege whilst studying one. I don’t think it’s healthy for anyone to be in an echo chamber, especially an echo chamber of privilege.  A key factor in how you learn and develop, is who you spend the most time with. So in my Mistress I am going to make an exerted effort to diversify my networks across class, ethnicity, age, gender, mental health and sexuality. If you have any tips on how to do this, I’d love to hear them. 

   As Ken Robinson says in the most watched TED talk of all time, our education system is  archaic, industrial, and has not changed much since it was designed by the victorians to produce university professors. We need an education system that draws on today’s technological and social resources and that challenges elitism. A system that instills in all students a love of learning and ability to face the real challenges of the modern world. A system that enables everyone to thrive in times of uncertainty.

So what does a Mistress look beyond the walls of an Ivory Tower?

Like Rapunzel on the run. Free. Crafty. Dynamic. Shaping her own hair cut and story. Solo but also part of a collection of interweaving stories. Feminist fairytale metaphors aside, I will be doing my Mistress not in the style of DIY, but DIT- i.e Doing It Together. I believe that the solutions to the systemic problems we face cannot be individualised. In order for significant change to happen, we need to collaborate. Our behaviours and thoughts are the product of a complex interaction between our genes, neuroplasticity and our social, economical, and cultural environments. And if we focus on changing ourselves all the time, we ignore the ongoing complex interactions between ourselves and our environments. Through the acronym of DIT I want to acknowledge the ongoing interaction between myself and the world around me. So will I do the Mistress together with the technological and social resources around me, both online and offline.  Using technology such as MOOCS, social media and podcasting, I will both learn from and give back to the communities through which I move. I want to root the Mistress in a yin-yang balance between self-direction and collaboration. I want to break down the walls between the ivory towers of educational institutions and the ‘real world’. I want to reframe what it means to study and be a student.

  1. So frame your Mistress for us. What does she look like?

I have designed my Mistress around 5 core subjects and 5 main questions:

  1. The Human Body: How can we learn to connect with the marvel of our bodies in a healthy way, at the level of individual, groups, and society?
  2. Comedy: How can we use humour to see the light in the dark and as a political tool?
  3. Intersectionality: What can we do to challenge the structural systems of privilege and oppression that affect us all?
  4. Music: How can we use music to improve our individual and collective wellbeing?
  5. Language: How can we use both verbal and nonverbal language to communicate more empathically and constructively with each other?

Why did I chose these subjects and questions? Well they all resonate with my desire to tackle systemic injustice with as much humour, sensitivity and pleasure as possible. They are partly inspired by this quote by civil rights leader and philosopher Howard Thurman:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I will be investigating these subjects and questions through project based learning. Each project will look at one or more of these questions (they are all connected) and will be shared publicly through different platforms, e.g. via podcasts, articles, performances or workshops. The world will be both my classroom and examiner. Exams will take the form of an ongoing dialogue between myself and the world through the process of creating and sharing the projects.  

I’d love to begin this dialogue by asking some questions of you.

  1. Take a few minutes to reflect on one of the most important lessons you have learnt so far in life. What was it and how did you learn it?
  2. If you were to design your own curriculum, what might you put on it?
  3. What would a Mistress graduation outfit look like to you?

I’d love to converse with you about these in person or on twitter using #MistressDIT @MsKathleenCass


3 thoughts on “

  1. #1 – As a lifelong perfectionist, it was hard for me to learn that it’s ok to be wrong as long as you know how to get to the right answer. Sometimes we misunderstand, misinterpret, or don’t know the full story, and we end up with half the facts and a shoddy understanding, and then we go on to tell other people our half-truths. I didn’t learn this all at once, but through discourse with a number of people. It’s now one of the most important lessons I teach my students: we can go through our lives being wrong about so many things (factual and otherwise), and one day we meet someone and our eyes are opened. (My biggest moment was, after years of campaigning for divestment from Sudan, I went to work there and realized that that was not what people there wanted/needed and I had effectively wasted years when I could have been working on more effective humanitarian efforts.)
    In terms of facts, I’m now ok with being corrected. I admit not knowing. I can’t know everything. In terms of experience, I’ve learned that we each experience our own lives as true without considering other people’s truths. I used to have a difficult time with theory of mind, but just getting older and meeting more people has helped me to realize that my truth might be based on a wrong or incomplete view of the world. And that’s ok! I don’t regret being young and naive, because now I’m not-as-young and less-naive and still growing, still learning that I was wrong in the past and might still be wrong now. If I offer an opinion and someone tells me that it’s based on my privilege or my belief system or my relationship to the issue, that’s an opportunity to change and create a dialectic, not to take offense. Likewise, I’m more confident pointing out other people’s wrongness in ways that are gentle and learning-focused, not accusatory. I recognize where I am on my journey and that other people need to come to their own conclusions about wrongness.

    #2 – I have recently made a huge list of articles I think are fascinating exploring the human condition from a scientific perspective. Can share if you like.

    #3 – Whatever makes you feel most fabulous.

    1. Thanks so much Stacey for this considered response! I really love what you said about learning to be ok with being ‘wrong’ and seeing that as a learning process. I’ve been on a similar journey myself so that really resonates with me. One of my favourite quotes since I was a teenager is this from Richar Bach: “That’s what learning is, after all; not whether we lose the game, but how we lose and how we’ve changed because of it, and what we take away from it that we never had before, to apply to other games. Losing, in a curious way is winning.”
      I also would love to see the list of articles you have made about the human condition from a scientific perspective – so please do share. My email is And your choice of the word fabulous has inspired me to wear something fabulous tomorrow! Really appreciate the time and attention you gave this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s