Responding to lessons in partnership

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Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

In her chapter Sitting on rocks, human knots and other lessons I learned in partnership, Anna Bruder leads us, invitingly, into her story of partnership. Authorship and Agency are probably the key characters in this story which has, I’m pleased to tell you, a happy ending. Let’s delve into why these are powerful ways to explore partnership.

Learning

The story Bruder told of her early experiences as a teacher sounded familiar – you can tell that she cares for her students and has always wanted to involve them in the learning process. However, she describes her frustration with the fleeting nature of those high moments, the buzz of the class that remained a ‘transient glimmer of clarity. A flash in the pan.’ Bruder’s desire to extend this feeling and take it beyond the classroom ensured she was ready for a new way of engaging with her students. This desire is arguably universal, if only we could sustain the learning, make the learning transferable. Yes! I thought reading her story. I want some of this too.

Control

It is interesting to note that at the beginning of this chapter, the words ‘control’ and ‘performance’ appear several times in relation to teaching, suggesting that teaching was indeed initially for Bruder something with which she was trying out new personas to maintain her own authority. I’m sure this is again something that resonates with many of us. Indeed, I often find myself saying in my PG Cert class with new lecturers that they should ‘let go of content to focus on learning’. We explore questions of knowledge and ownership as well as the idea of the teacher as ‘gatekeeper’. However, as the chapter progresses, these words fade, control is in fact ‘ceded’ to be replaced with risk taking and trust. Tracing this evolution in the chapter made me wonder if in fact I do this enough in my own teaching. I think I would like to revisit this notion of ‘control’ with my own learners and will definitely borrow the silent ‘conversation’ to draw out explicitly power and resistance in my own context.

The human knot

The desire articulated above prompted Bruder to begin a partnership and she was encouraged to change the culture of her classroom by creating, quite literally, a human knot in the classroom with her students. Her knowing tone anticipates my initial baulking. Really? A human knot with your students?? I try – and fail – to imagine this working in my Scottish context. And yet Bruder’s powerful assertion that this physical human knot ‘works because it makes learning an embodied practice’ makes me want to silence my inner cynical (fearful?) voice and try it with my learners. Perhaps part of its appeal for me now lies in the impossibility of creating a human knot. As we sit in our own homes connecting through digital spaces, the very notion of connecting physically with the bodies of others in a classroom space feels profoundly shocking. Instead this learning can only be imaginary and anticipatory.

Bruder ends her story with an invitation to respond to questions, all of which have helped shape my response to this chapter. I would like to end my own post with a question to you.

  • In our current COVID-19 world, what do you miss most about embodied practices of learning?

 

 

A new dawn, a new day? On the importance of being welcoming.

Our reading and writing group project for March was to select a chapter from the book The Power of Partnership , read it and respond. We are publishing the responses over the coming week.

I selected Chapter 2 ‘ From Novelty to Norm: Moving Beyond Exclusion and the Double Justification Problem in Student-Faculty Partnerships‘, by Wilson et al.

The chapter begins with a really depressing story about students presenting at a SoTL conference. Despite their best efforts to present robust and legitimate research in a professional, public forum they felt their work was undermined by the patronising questions they received from the academic audience. This leads them to expose and analyse the norms and behaviours which, they argue, prevents students from becoming full members of the SoTL community.

As someone who has done a lot of work with students and tries really hard to be inclusive and respectful, it really did make me cringe. But perhaps I wasn’t surprised.  As I progressed through the chapter, I started to feel frustration, fuelled I think by the dichotomy of ‘faculty vs. student’ within the narrative. I accept that the book is about staff-student partnership, but from my position in academic development, I see a much more complex and kaleidoscopic range of players in SoTL partnerships. Students (undergrad, postgrad and alumni), researchers, lecturers, academic developers, technicians, advisers, consultants – the list goes on – are all involved in SoTL work. Each person brings a distinct set of epistemologies, methodologies and values; often these features are still emerging and evolving as individuals struggle to fuse multiple/blurred identities. It is a messy place and, sadly, I have seen many examples of exclusionary behaviour which impact on individuals in exactly the way the students here describe. It is not just students who are made to feel unwelcome.

And it is not just conferences that are the problem – publication brings out the worst in exclusionary behaviours. I’ve witnessed several horrible cases of peer review for SoTL publications.  The feedback has been personal, unkind and unnecessarily derogatory – it unfairly attacks the ability of the author to be conducting SoTL and referred to the process of reviewing as a ‘waste of time’.  This makes me so angry, not the least because it flies in the face of everything we know (from SoTL research!) about feedback/forward and collegiality.

It is so important not to underestimate the impact of these behaviours, even on experienced members of the SoTL community. I was myself recently excluded by senior faculty. After 6 months of working with a team of academics to develop a research project on a topic which was bang in the SoTL sphere, I was brutally and unexpectedly ousted from the team on very vague grounds that research is not ‘part of my role’. It was handled clumsily and disrespectfully and it did, I will confess, shatter my confidence.

Without getting overly dramatic, these are real-world examples which show that it is not just students who are excluded from the SoTL community. So, what does this say about SoTL as a discipline and the SoTL community? Is the picture even gloomier than the authors suggest?

Reflecting on SoTL’s history and development, I do think it suffers from a chronic case of imposter syndrome.  This is not surprising given that so many of us have to fight for recognition and resources on a daily basis. I can’t excuse the behaviours that we all know exist, but perhaps the lack of confidence and clear identity of the discipline makes it a breeding ground for overly-defensive and cliquey behaviour (actual and perceived).

I wonder if now is the time – and let’s face it, these ARE extraordinary times – to look at our SoTL identities, values and practices and work together to re-define our community manifesto. For all the bad stories I have covered here, I can counter with examples of collegiality, kindness and genuine professionalism. As partners in SoTL we are all equals. Let’s do it differently. Let’s be welcoming.

Going underground

Our reading and writing group project for March was to select a chapter from the book The Power of Partnership , read it and respond. We will publish the responses over the coming week.

An image of the original underground map

In their chapter The experience of partnerships in learning and teaching: a visual metaphor Kelly E Matthews talks about the messiness of working in partnerships and presents us with an image that is, indeed, very  messy!

At the same time, the image is bold, brightly-coloured and connected. Matthews argues that images, rather than simply words, offer “space to affirm the messiness of an idea, an aspiration, a practice, a pedagogical praxis, and a commitment”. And her provocation to us is “How is your partnership messy?

So what visual metaphor would I choose? A London underground map. Yes, that most cited example of design providing clarity, but at the expense of accuracy! That masterpiece of compressed design overcoming messiness! So, how does this provide a visual metaphor for messy partnership working? Whilst acknowledging that messiness, I do think that at some point – in order to move forwards/backwards/sideways – we do need to step over, outside, beyond that messiness.

It is worth reading about how Harry Beck used design to bring some level of organisation and clarity for fellow travellers – how he surfaced the underground detail. Apparently he wasn’t commissioned to do the work. Anna Renton, senior curator at the London Transport Museum says that “It was more a demonstration of his ingenuity, in seeing a problem and coming up with a solution to it, rather than a response to public demand”. Alternatively, I suppose his actions could be viewed as rather presumptuous! What right did he have to decide how to impose order? What does this tell us about the power relationships of the day? But I am going to put this well-trodden ground aside for the moment. Beck did his design and, as it turned out, people didn’t need to know the every detail to move around, to navigate and get where they wanted to go.

Current map of the London Underground
tfl.gov.uk

Recently TfL published a version of the map that shows the walking times between the various stations – in a sense adding back in a layer of that accuracy that was abandoned in that original design. If you want to stay in the fresh (?!) air or experience the bustle of London, this version of the map is great. But I can understand that tourists might find walking around on the busy, noisy, confusing streets of the city a bit overwhelming, and happily retreat back to the clarity. Although if you do want to go between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, trust me, you really don’t need to use the tube!

One of the wonderful things, I think, about the underground map is how it has been adapted and/or subverted over the years. There’s a version that makes links to well-known films and one that links to books. You can use another version to find out where to buy the cheapest pint of beer. If you are a fan of bad jokes, there’s the Punderground. Then there’s the ‘honest’ version – although this one is possibly only funny if you already know London well. There are the versions that aim to represent what an accurate map of the underground.would look like. So many adaptations that you never knew you needed!

So yes, partnership working is messy, but to achieve anything at all we – although who that ‘we’ might be will vary – need to establish some order, I think. But we need to do it in such a way that people find it useful. And we need to acknowledge, accept and even celebrate that others will adapt and subvert that order for any number of reasons.

So my visual metaphor for partnership is the London underground map – thanks Harry!

Sounding brasses, clanging cymbals and love, potentially

In January we embarked on a new collaborative writing project. The brief: To compile a collection of individual responses to one stimulus piece with a view to starting a great conversation! We wrote independently without discussing our thoughts and are publishing them here as a series of posts.

The stimulus piece is: “Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development program” Higher Education Research & Development, 39:1, 81-98, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1666803.

220px-Four_weddings_poster

I am currently helping to organise a wedding. One of the tasks is to help choose readings for the marriage ceremony. Now 1 Corinthians 13 is an obvious choice (too obvious?). Thinking about this reading I was reminded of the scene in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ when the character George (played by Rupert Vansittart) reads, in a harsh, pompous, monotone, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am become a sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.” Gareth (played by Simon Callow) is heard to mutter “Good point!”.

And it is a good point. When we speak of learning using the words that have been moulded by the ‘cascade of neoliberalism’ referred to in the article we, like George, can remove all beauty from its meaning. On we go through our daily working lives, sounding our brasses and clanging our cymbals. Yet, speak we must if we are going to get our jobs done, and help others do theirs.

I think it is the recognition of our complicity to maintaining the neoliberal university that makes articles like the one we are responding to here so appealing. The authors outline a programme that provided them with an opportunity to deploy a ‘pedagogy of the heart’ when supporting colleagues through a period of professional development. I was particularly struck by the metaphors that the participants used to describe their experiences of the programme – both powerful and uplifting. So the article was uplifting in both style and content.

But after the uplift, there is the inevitable ‘come down’! I want to stress that this is not a criticism of either the programme or the authors’ account of it – more a reflection of feelings when you turn from the stories of love to look at the endless ‘to do’ lists that structure our working lives. So what turns those lists into acts and action? The last line of the reading from Corinthians claims “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Is it though?

sparklerI think faith (in what we are doing and encouraging others to do) and hope (that between us we are making some difference) are what underpin our everyday practices. When we reflect back on those practices, isn’t that when the love comes? Perhaps that’s why academic developers are so keen on reflection!

When Noujain (1987) tells us that sometimes it is more appropriate to think in terms of micro-revolutions rather than revolution, they are not saying we shouldn’t aim high. Rather that, if we are not going to be overwhelmed by a lack immediate fundamental change, we need to pay attention to ‘the accidents, the minute deviations, the reversals, the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that give birth to those things that have value for us’ (Foucault, 1971, p.81).

Back to Four Weddings and a Funeral….

Charles (played by Hugh Grant) and Tom (played by James Fleet) are talking after the funeral. Charles thinks it is remarkable that Tom retains such faith in the institution of marriage, and hope that he will get married. Tom responds:

Well I don’t know, Charlie, truth is – unlike you, I’ve never expected the thunderbolt – always hoped I’d just meet some nice, friendly girl, like the look of her, hope the look of me doesn’t make her physically sick – then pop the question and settle down and be happy. It worked for my parents …well, apart from the divorce and all that!

So perhaps we all need to be a little bit more Tom. It takes until the film is almost over, but his reward for all his faith and hope is that he does eventually find love – complete with thunderbolts!

References

Foucault, M. (1971), ‘Nietzsche, genealogy and history’, in D. Bouchard (1977) (ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

Noujain, E. G. (1987), ‘History as genealogy: an exploration of Foucault’s approach to history’, in A.P.Griffiths (ed.), Contemporary French Philosophy, New York, NY, Cambridge University Press.

Images

Four weddings and a funeral  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Weddings_and_a_Funeral

Drowning – Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

 

 

From Love Acts to Language – where can we get back our desire for learning (and teaching)?

In January we embarked on a new collaborative writing project. The brief: To compile a collection of individual responses to one stimulus piece with a view to starting a great conversation! We wrote independently without discussing our thoughts and are publishing them here as a series of posts.

The stimulus piece is: “Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development program” Higher Education Research & Development, 39:1, 81-98, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1666803.

Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

Metaphors abound in this article, which I read with growing intrigue given my own interest in creative methodologies as a way of enabling academic colleagues, particularly those new to teaching, to explore their academic practice. There is a plurality in this article – of methods, of theories, of voices – and yet by the end I felt that although I had a strong sense of how participants had responded to the Teaching Scholars programme, I had more questions than answers about how ‘love acts’ can actually help academics combat the neoliberal agenda of our universities:

  1. There is an intention of juxtaposing languages but it is all in English – where are the other languages?
  2. The metaphors and language used to describe teaching feels similar too – the words are all cosy and comfortable words we use often in learning and teaching. They are Words We Like: nurturing, weaving, gardening… 

How can we push our metaphors further and expand them to take in other – more friction-filled – words? Words that encapsulate the tensions between teaching and research for example, a sword-bearing snail that has lost its shell? Or a blind mole lost in the tunnels of module evaluation forms and programme review?

 As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us in her wonderful TED talk:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

Can we talk about love without also talking about desire? Desire to learn? Desire to teach? It is hard to feel desire in the neoliberal university.

In this short response to the article, I cannot hope to answer any of those questions but I would like to explore further how we – as academic developers – can expand the language we use to talk about learning and teaching to move away from the idea that being an academic in a western university in 2020 can be a smooth and caring journey. The ongoing industrial action in the UK tells us that academics are angry, exhausted, cynical. 

We know that teaching is indeed an act of caring but one that requires energy and courage. An intimate act, where you are often exposed and vulnerable, it is also a process that can be frustrating and disempowering, particularly in a new context and in a language that is not your own.

This is therefore a plea to invite other languages into the conversation – share your metaphors of teaching in Arabic, in Japanese, in Swedish and in Maori. And let us also articulate the pain and frustration of teaching as well as the joy and the love. Perhaps through these linguistic encounters, we can locate the spark of desire for learning?

Links:

Adichie, C. N. (2009) The danger of a single story . TED Talk:  

Love acts: swipe left

In January we embarked on a new collaborative writing project. The brief: To compile a collection of individual responses to one stimulus piece with a view to starting a great conversation! We wrote independently without discussing our thoughts and are publishing them here as a series of posts.

The stimulus piece is: “Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development program” Higher Education Research & Development, 39:1, 81-98, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1666803.

There is something of the dating profile about title like ‘Love acts and revolutionary praxis: challenging the neoliberal university through a teaching scholars development programme’ in that it elevates the mundane to the exceptional. Even the photos are good. Given that the abstract read like a compilation tape of every idea that I’ve flirted with (metaphor analysis, reflective practice, phenomenology, rhizomes, identity work, lived experiences, emotion, voice, textuality, reciprocity and kindness (if I’m honest, not that into kindness, but I’m not going to admit to that) all pressed into service against ‘the man’): I swiped right.

But, as we all know, dating profiles frequently engage in a little gentle kittenfishing. (Or as Calamity Jane might put it not exactly lying but careless with the truth).

There is impossibility in the very premise of this paper. An academic development programme established to support academic colleagues gain promotion is surely deeply rooted in structures of performativity which are infused with neoliberalism and enact managerialism (Friberg, 2015 in Roxå & Mårtensson 2017). This is perhaps especially the case in what Macfarlane and Gourley term “the ‘hidden curriculum’ of emotional performativity” (p.455, 2009). By demanding emotional truth we really just hollow both out.

“Witnessing, as an act of love, involves the deliberate attendance to people, seeing and taking notice of that which they believe is meaningful.” (Laura, 2016, p. 219 in Love acts, p.83)

What we notice is never neutral. What people want us to notice is never neutral. We can see traces of this in the feedback cited in the article, which resonates most powerfully with the language and constructions of educational development.     

 “I have developed a passion for learning design . . .” (Love acts)

This feigning of passion is not even weary pastiche. Everyone is just too exhausted to celebrate anything, we’re just going through the motions, the reflective equivalent of garage flowers. In the Northern town where I grew up in the 80s, the Saturday before Valentines’ day some girls would buy massive cards with cardboard envelopes from the indoor market and carry them around town for the whole day. These cards weren’t inspired by any secret infatuation. They were simple, proud statements of belonging – ‘look I have a boyfriend’, because that’s what mattered, we all believed that carried meaning.    

Making such blatant claims to ‘passion’ is banal. It erases what it seeks to announce.

So can we empower participants in educational development programmes to perform sufficiency (for Fellowship, for promotion, for qualifications) within our structures of control, and yet retain spaces for truths which hold meaning only to them? What would that look like?

Elizabeth Smart’s novel of prose poetry By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept (1945) tells the subjective truth of her affair with poet George Barker, capturing “the power of emotion to transform one’s perspective on the world” (Ingrid Norton). On the Arizona border Smart and Barker are arrested for committing adultery. Her extorted ‘confession’ at once responds to and resists the interrogating officer. She answers the logical, rational progression of the interrogation with verse from the Song of Solomon, and so refuses to bear witness to her own legal or moral transgression. 

But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed.

What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.)

How long have you known him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.)

Did you sleep in the same room? (Behold thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair: thou hast dove’s eyes.)

In the same bed? (Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant, also; our bed is green.)

Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste.)

When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.)

Were you intending to commit fornication in Arizona? (He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.)

Behold thou art fair my beloved, behold thou art fair: thou hast dove’s eyes. (51-52)

To the officer these logically dislocated responses are unintelligible and combative. But the reader, immersed in Smart’s metaphorical landscape, sees ‘her refusal to temper the heroic terms of her love into “a reductively literal view of the world” (McGill 80 in Bloom 2015, p.51). As Bloom has suggested: “In her lexicon, the subjective truth of erotic love is more legitimate than the institutional discourses that police sexual expression.” (Bloom 2015, p.51)

The title of By Grand Central Station alludes to Psalm 137 (“By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept …”) echoes the central question how can we find our own truth, tell our own stories in world which oppresses us: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” How do we liberate and legitimate the subjective truths of practice which exist outside the institutional discourses within which we operate? This is the challenge of educational development. 

(As a child I misheard the lyrics to Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon – which I thought was ‘How shall we sing the love song in a strange land”. I might stick with that for now.)

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Required from us a song

Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Requiring of us a song

Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat…