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Dr Jonathan Dean

Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the sad death, on 24 May 2024, of our colleague, comrade and friend, Dr Jonathan Dean, Associate Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Studies.  He was 41. In his life and work Jonathan embodied what it meant to be both committed and compassionate, and he shone as a human being.  His presence and influence in POLIS will be missed by all.  This tribute has been contributed by colleagues and friends.

Jonathan first joined the University of Leeds in 2010 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2017. Although he was known as a ‘political theorist’, sometimes Jonathan resisted that label.  It is easy to see why he would have some ambivalence about wearing that badge.  If political theory is understood as trying to establish moral and political certainty, to develop an understanding of the role of people in well-oiled machines, and to present an abstracted representation of a world that is ‘out there’, then this was not what Jonathan set out to do.  For Jonathan we were not just passive components or spectators of a pre-given world, we were participants and co-creators of a world.  Jonathan’s world was one where we have to take responsibility for ourselves and others and to work together on a collective endeavour.  At the heart of Jonathan’s approach was a true commitment to the feminist insight that ‘the personal is political’.  It was people that Jonathan was interested in, worked for, and cared for.  That can be seen to have permeated everything that Jonathan did at Leeds: whether that be in his research, his teaching, his political activity, and his relations with his friends and colleagues.

Given Jonathan’s ethos and understanding of what it means to be engaged in the life of an academic, it is perhaps little surprise that when theory provision was reworked in the early 2010s Jonathan took the opportunity in POLIS to not only reformulate a well-trodden and rather pedestrian curriculum and canon of political theory, he also took the opportunity to reformulate what political theory itself might be.  The large second year module that he devised – a module that covered a sweep of political theory – drew students away from the most obvious, dominant names and chose to focus on those whose names and understandings of politics had been marginalised.  In doing so, he introduced students to thinkers who reimagined politics and its possibilities, and who connected to their own concerns.  The same was true of his specialised third year module which somehow managed to combine political theory and popular culture.  Love, dancing and pop music were all political issues for Jonathan – and for his students too.

This same combination of theory and practice, high politics and popular culture, was reflected and pursued in Jonathan’s research which produced numerous publications, for both academic and non-academic audiences including writing published in The Guardian.  Jonathan once pointed out that we live in an age where the question ‘What are you working on?’ often elicits the response of ‘An article for the Journal of Such-and-Such’.  Jonathan never bowed to that way of thinking – his research interests were connected to his teaching interests and as equally diverse, surprising, and intriguing – and Jonathan wrote rather a lot.  Jonathan’s research included work on the apolitical, celebrity, Corbynism, fandom, feminism, gender, the left, melancholia, neoliberalism, popular culture, populism, radicalism, social media, solidarity, and the Pet Shop Boys.

To watch Jonathan lecture was amusing, enthralling, but always educative.  When Jonathan lectured, he ricocheted between passionate assertion and then sudden and exhaustive qualification – but there was always a passion and a desire to transmit that to his audience.  Jonathan once vowed that he would never start a lecture in the traditional way of outlining the contents of the lecture or the main take-home point.  Jonathan would begin lectures opaquely, by reference to a contemporary event, a piece of popular culture, or by setting a puzzle.  Only after he had piqued the interest of his audience would Jonathan reveal his topic explaining to his audience how the political theorist or theory which was to be the topic of the lecture would tie up the threads of the plot, explain all, and possibly – just possibly – solve the mystery.  Famous for his carefully chosen musical interludes during lectures reflecting the topic in hand, Jonathan was able to take students with him on a journey through his themes which combined both abstract theory, concrete culture, and amusing off-the-cuff commentary.  Jonathan was able to locate and communicate what was really at stake and relevant to those he was talking to.  In so doing, he was able to connect with students in a way that showed why theory mattered to them.  To watch Jonathan lecture was to watch a person who really wanted to communicate – but never wanted to mislead or forget the nuance and detail.

No account of Jonathan’s contribution to the life of POLIS and the University of Leeds could be complete without highlighting his activities in UCU.  For many years he was the departmental representative (whilst committed and passionate, it is indicative of what Jonathan was about that he also did this because it was necessary, and a service to others).  Many in POLIS will first have encountered Jonathan through his emails imploring colleagues to think and engage with what it means to be a part of the endeavours of Higher Education.  Jonathan would be a prominent figure on the picket line, a comrade in times of industrial action, and the issuer of clarion calls concerning the dangers of the ‘neoliberal university’.  However, his motivation in all of this was not some simple ideological belief or unquestioning obedience to the demands of ‘the cause’.  Jonathan was a comrade – but he was also a colleague, a friend, and someone who cared about people.  Jonathan combined the ability to disrupt without being disruptive.  He could confront things without being confrontational.  He could be committed without thinking that commitment was the same as certainty.  He challenged conventional and accepted ways of thinking, but he was always collegial, compassionate, and understanding.  What drew us all to Jonathan as a union rep was his deep commitment to counter injustice, but also his compassion, his ability to listen to others, and his deep concern for the idea of what life at a university could and should be.

However, important as he saw his work for POLIS, and deep as his commitment to education was, academic life was only one part of what for Jonathan was a full life.  Jonathan had an interest in music (a self-described 'amateur synth-doodler', Jonathan would somewhat sheepishly share his creations with friends). His synthesiser reworkings of pop classics from the 1980s and 1990s always raised a smile, and were in fact really quite accomplished, women’s football (long before corporations realised they could make money out of it by advertising and sponsorship), whisky (several impressive bottles would always sit tantalisingly just to his shoulder in Teams meetings), and an enduring and passionate interest in ornithology (an interest which, like the migration of birds themselves, would take him to far off places).

Jonathan was a much loved and active colleague who combined commitment, clear thinking, and compassion to everything that he did.  His academic interests were also his personal interests – Jonathan was able to show that the personal is the political, and to live his life in that way.  He will be deeply missed and mourned; but his life and legacy will be remembered and celebrated in the lives of all who work in POLIS who have learned so much from the joy and light of his comradeship, collegiality, and friendship.

A memorial event for Jonathan, to be held in Leeds, will be announced shortly.  Our thoughts are very much with his partner, Maria, their young family, and his mother Judy.