Tales from the Pandemic: A Dynamic Community of Practice

Balcony Concerts by Catherine Cordasco on Unsplash.

This week, I read a great article – Thinking Together: What Makes Communities of Practice Work? by Pyrko et al. (2017). In it, the authors explore how, when and why CoPs work, arguing that the collaborative learning process of ‘thinking together’ is what brings CoPs to life. This has coincided with some reflective work on an initiative I have been leading with my RMIT colleague Lisa Curran – Solutions Labs. As I read (and re-read) Pyrko et al.’s article, I am really struck by what we can learn through observing a CoP as it unfolds and morphs over time.

Solutions Labs has been a huge success – a rare good news story to come out of 2020! It all started in the first week of lockdown*, when one of our teachers volunteered to run a session to help others get to grips with MS Teams (most of us were Teams virgins at this point). We quickly set up a session and saw something amazing – around 50 people joined the session! Now, anyone in Academic Development will know that this is something of a miracle.

So, we decided to ask if anyone else wanted to share their practices/approaches. And, before we knew it, we had a stream of volunteers. The early sessions were very hack-focussed…how to build a document projector out of a box, using iPads to annotate slides during live lectures, that kind of thing. Each week we continued to get impressive numbers – mostly returning participants, but often new names (and names we had not seen at L&T sessions before).

As time went on and staff started to get on top of the emergency, practical, tool-focussed issues, we started to see a shift in topics being shared and explored. All of a sudden we were looking at student engagement – how to build communities, encourage students to contribute to learning activities and, importantly, how to perform/present more ‘humanly’ in a live online session. Sessions continued to be well attended and became buzzing spaces of conversation, trust and laughter.

There was a point – it came, I think, at the start of semester 2 (and in the wake of a real tightening of the lockdown restrictions in metropolitan Melbourne), when we thought the sessions would dry up. We weren’t getting new volunteers and when we leaned on our contacts they said NO. It was a tense and grumpy time for everyone, and we saw the need to give people space. But, after a couple of weeks, instead of getting volunteers, we started to get recommendations ; these came from colleagues(-cum-scouts) on our own team, but also from active community members who had sight of what was happening on the ground (or whatever the internet equivalent of that is) in schools. We followed up on all these recommendations and, curiously, the Semester 2 sessions stand out through their creativity and innovation – we’ve got augmented reality, live taste-test labs and even jokes and memes!

Reflecting on the Solutions Labs journey has been fascinating. We did not set out to create a CoP – indeed, Pyrko et al. hammer home the point that it is almost impossible to successfully ‘set one up’. Our success came in how we fostered the emergent community so that the learning processes which form and drive it could happen. Lisa and I have worked before on storytelling projects and there were three things we knew we had to do to support the academics who were so generously giving their time to share their practices:

  • First, we make things as easy as possible for the participants, especially the session ‘presenters’ (we call them ‘collaborators’). Not many people realise how much work goes into organising, advertising and disseminating the sessions – Lisa and I have developed a slick process which means the collaborators can focus on telling their story and immerse themselves in the process of ‘thinking together’.
  • Second, we help staff to find the hook/angle which would attract people to the sessions. Many of our staff are new to education/pedagogy, so they just don’t always know the language or see what is innovative or likely to be useful across disciplines. We are the translators, the horizon scanners and sometimes the mentors.
  • Third, we record, edit and publish the supporting resources for follow-up and broader reach. The Solutions Lab community extends and functions beyond the live sessions, and we work hard to keep the resources as simple, useful and accessible as possible (as Pyrko et al. note, a CoP can be killed if you get the tools wrong!).

Both Lisa and I are in the difficult position right now of having to apply for new roles under a large scale restructure (yes, another one!). We’ve started to think about what might become of Solutions Labs, and whether we should/can bring it to a close. But reading the article by Pyrko et al. has made me question whether that is our decision to make? I am not sure.

* Melbourne has been in varying states of lockdown since late March 2020. Four weeks into the start of the academic year, the university campus was closed and that is how it has stayed for the whole year (we are now wrapping up semester two). So, our staff had to go online overnight and, actually, have stayed there for a whole year.

Resources:

Solutions Labs – the entire programme to date, each page featuring the session recording and accompanying resources.

Video: Celebrating 25 Solutions Labs – some of the community members share their thoughts on the benefits and impacts of Solutions Labs.

Pyrko, I., Dörfler, V., & Eden, C. (2017). Thinking together: What makes Communities of Practice work? Human Relations70(4), 389–409. https://doi.org/10.1177/0018726716661040

Learning from Letters

Things have been a little quiet in Lacunae recently. With the pandemic inserting new layers of complication and chaos to our lives, it’s been a really busy time. As we have all been sucked into our own spaces, the monthly reading project has been shelved, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been writing! In fact we have been putting all our available energies into a research project which has taken us away from our screens (mostly) and immersed us in the world of good old-fashioned, pen-on-paper letter writing.

Without giving too much away (peer review may force us to revise what we promise to deliver!), we have been exploring our work and the world of academic development through the exchange of letters. Those letters – autobiographical accounts of our thoughts and experiences – are our data. Through analysis of them we have blurred the lines between fact and fiction, played with interpretations of text and looked for shared meanings.

The whole process has been revealing (not always in a good way!). And although our initial quest (a journal article) is complete, we were all so intrigued by the power and potential of the project that we have agreed to continue with it. Where the journey will take us is not yet clear, but we decided that sharing aspects and insights along the way would be a good thing to do. This, then, is a post to get the ball rolling.

For the love of letters…

At the moment I am reading the novel What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt and it has prompted me to reflect on what I have learned through my epistolary journey in the last 6 months. Half way through the story, following the tragic death of their son, a wife leaves her husband and the family home to take up a job in another city. Accepting their relationship is strained, but not over, they agree to find a way of sharing their day-to-day lives through letters:

‘I dont want the words to be naked, the way they are in faxes or on the computer. I want them to be covered by an envelope that you have to rip open in order to get at. I want there to be waiting time – a pause between the writing and the reading. I want us to be careful about what we say to each other. I want the miles between us to be real and long. This will be our law – that we write our dailiness and our suffering very, very carefully. In letters I can only tell you about my wildness…’ (p.151).

In a single paragraph, Hustvedt captures the essence of letter writing, exposing it as a physical, emotional, transformational experience which connects two people across chasms of space and time. For me, it really draws out some of the powerful contrasts between the way I reflect, read and write in the electronic vs. paper-based formats.

The physicality of letters

Letters have a tangible quality which emails or DMs just don’t have. The stamps and post marks say something about the miles travelled; the stationery carries a message of its own, be it a practical or aesthetic choice. The act of ripping open the envelope can be exciting, bringing anticipation, nervousness or joy. The clunkiness of having to fold all the pages together and stuff them back into the torn envelope and find a place to keep them – a pretty box or a letter rack (remember those?); mine are bundled in a blue elastic band! It makes email feel so sterile – opening with a click, standardised fonts and line lengths, moving to a folder – it is all so mechanical. The words are, indeed, naked.

Is it possible to bring some of these physical qualities and pleasures to electronic communication? You can include pictures, add attachments, use nice formatting. But is it the same? I don’t think so – it feels like a gap that can’t be filled. What is lost?

Writing our dailiness

Too often, electronic communication demands efficiency; the need to be lean with words/characters drives out what might be seen as unnecessary waffle or overly personal sentiment. What letter writing reveals to me is the power that ‘writing our dailiness’ has – it sets the context and connects the reader to the writer in a meaningful way. By sharing what we can see or hear from our desk, or musing about what to cook for dinner, we open up portals into our lives. This makes the reader experience richer, more intense; to be able to imagine the sights, sounds and smells that the writer experiences, and to feel/share the emotion is deeply satisfying.

I’m put in mind of Helen Sword’s work. Frustratingly, my copy of Stylish Academic Writing is stuck on my desk in the locked-down office – I can’t get a direct quote – but she talks about how we adopt a very formal, somehow detached ‘persona’ when we write emails. We are all conscious of being professional, and not wasting people’s time, but maybe it is time to think about how those communications could be more human? Is it possible to make receiving an electronic communication a more physical, sensual, connected experience through including more ‘dailiness’? Or must those details remain in the realm of the informal/personal rather than professional space?

Freedom in reflection

Somehow, writing with a pen feels more free and I certainly find it a more productive way to write. It is slower than typing, forcing my brain and hand to work together more slowly and deliberately. It is easier for thoughts to flow – it can be a stream of consciousness. But at the same time, I find that my mind is busy making decisions about what to include and not include – and often the things unsaid are more important than those written. When I write an email or text I seem to make these editing decisions after the words have been laid out.

I think letter writing has re-kindled a more active and honest form of reflective practice for me. I’ve bought a nice fountain pen (3 actually) and re-started my practice of a daily work journal (nothing more than a foolscap notebook which sits on my desk and records everything I do, think and hear). I am not sure when I stopped doing this – maybe a few years ago – but it strikes me how shallow and restrained my reflections had become without it. Letter writing has returned me to a place where visual and playful practices can catalyse and deepen my reflective thinking.

I’m pretty sure that none of these are original observations – there is a great literature on epistolary research and letter writing as a research methodology (literatures which we will inevitably get into as the project develops). But right now, it has really made me think about how I process my thoughts and share ideas and what I could do to make my writing and communications richer, more human, connecting to readers more strongly. What do you think?

Reading and writing group – May

Photo by Miika Laaksonen on Unsplash

This month we have chosen another book as the stimulus for our reading and writing – With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy.

Six chapters of the book have been made open access this month – if you click the ‘Read an Excerpt’ button you have access to the following:

  • Introduction: A Once and Future Pedagogy (Kirtley, Garcia and Carlson)
  • Text, Object, Transaction: Reconciling Approaches to the Teaching of Comics (Dale Jacobs)
  • Thinking in Comics: All Hands-On in the Classroom (Nick Sousanis)
  • Teaching the Unthinkable Image: An Interview with Lynda Barry (Leah Misemer)
  • Comic Art Research: Achievements, Shortcomings, and Remedies (John A. Lent)
  • Misunderstanding Comics (Johnathan Flowers)

If you would like to join in – chose a chapter, read and then write a 500 word (approx.) response. You can either post your response on your own blog or send it to us (lacunae1@gmail.com ) to publish on Lacunae.

We are a little late setting the text this month, but it would be good to meet an ‘end of the month’ deadline if we can.

We will be aiming to publish responses in early June – let us know if you are joining us so that we can schedule releases.

We may be in the gutter . . .

jean-philippe-delberghe-vlQnJZ5rOwY-unsplash

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

Our reading and writing group project for March was to select a chapter from the book The Power of Partnership , read it and respond. This post considers the Introduction to Section Two: Intersections: Annotations on the Spaces in Between by Nancy Chick.

Telling the story

Introductions tend to be pretty formulaic – some grand editorial overviewing plus nutshell synopses of each chapter, finished with a “ta da” of significances and maybe a bouquet of applause. But here Nancy Chick – my long time hero* – reinvents the introduction, twice.

* We share an origin story, forged by literature, outlaws from Social Science research paradigms.

She offers a literary reading of the section through the lens of a favourite book, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera (1987). This offers a double-duty authenticity which reflects her own identity as an author, an academic and practitioner, and which remains true the meaning and essence of the texts introduced.

And there is a cartoon which places these ideas within a visual and spatial relationship: the spaces in between.

It’s this idea of the space in between that I want to explore. For me ideas are born in the spaces in between Chick’s quotes:

‘in that in between space you can access both worlds’

‘both/and’

‘telling the story vs being part of the story’

‘us and them’

‘our identities are never singular’

‘personal stories are important’

But they are also built in and by the spaces between texts – and those texts are only related through my experience and reading of them. So, when Chick (which is weird to write because honestly I’m thinking ‘when Nancy’) writes she thinks of ‘all the inks’ in her annotated copy of Anzaldúa’s text I immediately think of the four colours of Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook (1962). Lessing’s protagonist, Anna Wulf, in fear of the chaos and formlessness, the messiness of life, the prospect of breakdown “Everything’s cracking up” separates her life into four distinct volumes: the notebooks. Black is historic; red is political; yellow is fictional; and blue is personal. In the personal volume she pledges to write honestly, and in so doing put aside ‘the instinctive feeling of shame and modesty’ which make it so hard to inscribe the body. Anna’s commitment to the unspoken taken-for-granted realities of everyday life brings readers the first tampon in English literature: “I stuff my vagina with the tampon of cotton wool.” This is why I remember Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook so vividly although I read it just once over 20 years ago as an undergraduate.

So, the in between space is intertextual as well as intersectional.

I remember being a student, viscerally. I remember exactly how my (long gone) copy of The Golden Notebook looked, even how it smelled. I remember the colour of my vintage satin bedspread (still here) on my bed as I read it. I remember being a student. But that was over 20 years ago. I know what it was to be a first in family student of English Literature, discovering feminist fiction at a Russell Group University in the East Midlands during the early 90s. I’m an expert in my own experience. My identity, my readings of the world, like my reading of the text, is grounded in this history.

My own experience tells me nothing of what it is like to be a student in 2020. And especially not what it is like to be a student in 2020 during a global pandemic. The only way to discover ‘the complex and multiple lives students inhabit outside the university’ (Peseta) is to work with students to discover the space in between, and those ‘personal stories are important’.

Being part of the story

So, the other introduction is a cartoon.

Comics are constructed through animated panels separated by empty spaces the ‘gutters’.* Scott McCloud suggests that it is the gutters – the spaces between which enable the reader to observe the parts but ‘see the whole’. In a medium which doesn’t allow for real time action, the gutter simulates time and motion, leaving it for us to decide what happens between scenes. The gutters become invisible messengers, which are purposefully left empty by the author to be filled by the reader. David Low styles these non-spaces as a source of ‘continual, active communication between author and reader’, that is a process of ‘gutterance’ (2012, p. 372). Narrative, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and gaps beg to be filled. And so, the gutters constantly challenge readers to co-author the narrative with their own inferences (Low, 2012 p.376). But, although the reader draws their own conclusions, they are not left to chance, the author influences the conclusions that can be drawn.

In the in between space you don’t just access both worlds – you create the world.

Lars Wallner (2018) explored how readers fill those spaces, how worlds are created. He found that meaning making in the gutters was not a function of cognitive structure but rather a product of social action. We make worlds together. In partnership.

So, back to the cartoon introduction to section 2. There is a gutter. A big one, which runs down the middle and splits ‘you can access both worlds’ down the middle.

I prefer to read this ‘You can both’ ‘Access worlds’. The author has nudged us to find our meaning, to make the transition, and to transform multiple images of partnership, multiple ideas, quotes and experiences into a unified idea.

*Thanks to Greg McInerny (@GregMcI) for introducing me to gutter in comic books, and for our inspirational discussion about the gutters in teaching and learning.

Thanks also to Gwen van der Velden (@Gwenvdv) who’s tweet on the Dutch game ‘stoeprandan’ (or kerby to Brits) also made me think of the value of gutters in a different way.

A uni-verse of hope

Hidden beauty in Geelong

Our monthly reading and writing projects are open enterprises – anyone can join us! This month we were really pleased to receive this contribution from former HEA colleague Jenny Louise-Lawrence. She responds to a chapter by (another HEA colleague) Abbi Flint.

In her chapter, Space in the Margin, Abbi uses poetry to explore staff-student partnerships. It is fitting, then, that Jenny’s response takes the form of a poem…

Without Hope partnership becomes a transaction.
A mere response to national drivers, to policy instruments,
A rude ploy for over ambitious strivers, For over acheivers
To overwhelm all Others.

With Hope partnership is just.
It’s a transmission
A movement of power
Not from one to the Other,
(Though sometimes the One is the Other)
But a shared ignition of
Heart
And mind
And motivation
To imagine another way,
To choke, to stutter, to find some…. progress
Some
Kind
Of
Evolution Of the Heart.

Responding to lessons in partnership

rosie-kerr-vppwHIitOoE-unsplash (1)

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