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.

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.

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.

Love-makers, Rebels or Grand Illusionists?

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.

In the spirit of challenging practices of ‘traditional linear writing’ and ‘dominant authorial voicing’ (p.81), let me begin by sharing two random things which have jolted my thinking since I started my response to this piece (hereafter referred to as the ‘Love acts article’):

First, a painted silo which I saw recently on rural Victoria’s Silo Art Trail.

The Goorambat Silo Mural (Jimmy Dvate)

Second, the ‘Hot Priest’ speech from the final episode of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag.

 

More on them in a while. So, the stage for the Love acts article is my world. It’s a world of personal development programmes, communities of practice, research and awards/promotions schemes. It’s a world where genuine teaching ‘excellence’ meets ‘soulless neoliberal performativity’ driven by an ‘obsession with quantification and measurement’ (p. 86). And the play which is performed in the article – the story of a straightforward professional development programme (forgive me!) – is a classic tale of love, compassion and hope (nod to you, PWB!). The takeaway message is that we – academic developers – have a crucial role to play in a long-awaited revolution against neoliberal values. We can and should make the spaces for love to act, to allow academic identities and emotions to be explored. If the actors in our play are academic staff, we bring the best out of them. Simultaneously we are scriptwriters, directors, stage hands, understudies, audience members…

The article certainly feels, then, like a call to arms; it’s message is not new, but the way it is presented gives it a strength of voice (and standing ovation to the authors, reviewers and editors for pushing the boundaries!). But for me, there is a stone left unturned, a speech missing from the script.  

It is best illustrated through a simple example, I think. I regularly run staff development workshops on student satisfaction surveys. It is never long before someone starts to challenge the validity, design and purposes of the surveys and I find myself in verdant agreement. I talk about how destructive they can be and how abhorrent it is that staff are judged on them. We share stories of extreme hurt, relief and joy – exposing the awfulness of the ‘love’ which is expressed and experienced. And then, with a swoosh of my neoliberal cape, I declare that surveys are engrained in university culture and can be effectively used for reward and recognition. I dread the day when someone calls me out for internal inconsistency!

There are definitely times, then, when the whole business of making the spaces for love feels insane, stressful and unsafe. We draw strength from our community (the authors allude to this), but where do we get the authority and confidence to create and orchestrate these spaces – how do we deal with feelings of hypocrisy and self-contradiction as we go about our work? Are we leaders and love-makers or just fraudsters, imposters or illusionists flitting between multiple personalities and donning different costumes? What is the ‘love act’ that we need to keep us on track? 

I guess, this article is exactly the kind of ‘love act’ we need. And, referring back to the ‘Hot Priest’ soliloquy, our real power lies in the fact that we build spaces for hope. And we never do it alone. All the awfulness of love can unfold in these spaces and empower us to lead change.

And the silo? Nothing says neoliberalism more than the loud tirade from university managers against academics ‘working in silos’.  But clearly silos can be useful, beautiful places…you just have to get close and look.  Find the hope. 

Links:

‘Hot Priest’ speech, Fleabag Series 2, Episode 12

January Challenge Part 2

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Day 16: Whatever the Weather (A storm brews in a Melbourne park and the birds are ruffled)

There was a definite gear change for the second part of the January Challenge as I went abruptly back to work and had to juggle the daily tasks with everything else.  Coming back to work after a holiday is always tough, but I think the depth of the earlier challenges really did amplify the pain and resentment of being stuck in a gloomy office with no windows.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that although I haven’t managed to do it daily, I have at least kept up.  The rest of the family have been away so I have found myself using the challenges to help me snap out of the lazy and apathetic behaviours I can slip into when I am on my own. That has made me think really hard about procrastination in academic life – its the big demon for so many of us and I have never really been able to fight the paralysis that accompanies it.  This week I decided to try something new to break the mental and physical ‘patterns’ and the results were impressive. So, instead of sitting and staring at my laptop for two hours producing nothing but a heavy blanket of guilt, I channelled my inner creative. I had a hot shower, made mint tea, played cheesy relaxation music and spent half an hour sketching un-pretty flowers with a blotchy biro. 30 minutes later I was tip-tapping away at the keyboard with newfound vigour! And my back ache had completely gone.

That was a surprise.  Not the only one, and actually this is what I think has been different this week. I haven’t had the time or space to do the slow, deep thinking I’d become used to, so things have got a bit quicker (dare I say slap-dash) at the ‘Do’ stage. And I have been surprised a couple of times about what I actually got out of the process.

For example, Day 15 Self Portrait invited challengers to draw two self portraits – one with each hand.  I delayed it for a couple of days – drawing is not my strong point. But I gave it a go and it was fascinating. I started with my right (dominant) hand and was concentrating very hard on replicating the lines I could see.  I saw grey hairs, deep frown lines, glasses that don’t suit me, a left eye with a very sad angle. It was all so harsh. Switching to my left, I expected to just repeat the process. But I didn’t. I suddenly saw softness, curves and warmth. I was really taken back. Was this to do with using different parts of the brain? Was it about repeating the process? I just didn’t know. It didn’t matter – it was a genuine moment of wonder and that was quite magical. Again I am back in love with the idea of wonder in learning…and I hope to cling to that.

What else? I continue to share only on Twitter. I watch the Facebook group but its a bit too busy for me to do more than lurk – it does make me laugh sometimes and I feel I ought to give back. But I have always been pro-lurking, it is a valid form of engagement. Back on Twitter new followers are starting to emerge – people I will continue to follow after the challenge because they seem good folk who stand for hope, kindness and compassion (and we all need more of that).

Musings on the 2020 January Challenge: Part 1

This is my fifth year taking part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge and, as in previous years, I’m taking time out at the end of each week to reflect on the experience and draw parallels with the (often un-creative) world of higher education. Here are my thoughts on the first week (or so)…

So far I have kept up with all the challenges. We’ve been on holiday in Western Australia since the New Year and I have come to rely on the daily challenge as a way of taking time out – to step off the holidaying tread mill (What’s for dinner? Are these socks clean? Why won’t this stuff fit in the case? Where did we park the hire car?), properly engage with my surroundings, and appreciate the impact that creativity has on well being. For the first time, this year, I’ve really found it an effective way of de-stressing!

I think the reason for this is that I have worked out how to make time for and enjoy the reflective parts of the activities. The framework that supports the January Challenge is ‘Do Think Share’; I have really cracked the ‘Think’ bit this time, and not just focussed on the ‘Do’ and ‘Share’.  This has made me think about how we teach, support and value reflection in our teaching, and work as academic developers – how we walk the walk as well as doing the talk.

Do

Anyone who has followed my tweets in Januaries past will know that I am an enthusiastic photographer and a very reluctant poet. I danced once in 2016 and declared that was enough! The whole point of the January Challenge is that it encourages people to take risks, have fun and just play. Failure is just as important as success.

So far, my most satisfying activity was Make Something Small Look Big (Day 5). I’ll admit that I was lucky with this one – it landed in my mailbox just as we’d made the decision to visit Wave Rock (Hyden, WA) in the morning, and I just knew what I had to do.  Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no craft materials made it all the more fun – amazing what you can do with a penknife, an up-cycled boarding pass and a glob of stolen blutack! The mini super-surfer was born and it was a lot of fun playing around with perspective in the awesome surroundings of a 130 million year old landscape!

The hardest one (and least enjoyable) was Post-it Possibilities (Day 7). Yes, I know, imagine the shock!  Post-it notes are my lifeblood, my currency and I was quite smug when I first read the challenge – to do something creative with a post-it note. But then I was hit by complete creative block. I had nothing. I gave a note each to the (5) kids – within a minute they’d made chatterboxes, fangs, wobbly eyebrows, airplanes. But I sat for hours in the the car with an empty head and a pen, and inspiration never came. The deadline came and went and I failed; I failed the one task which should have been easy. The post-it pad is still on my desk, taunting me.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I think there is something in the fact that the Post-it note challenge brief was very open – just ‘be creative’ – it lacked the structure and assessable/observable outcome of the perspective activity. What is an easy or safe activity? What IS creative? I’ve seen so many creative ways of using post-its in my time, perhaps I was interpreting it to mean new or original? I was setting myself up to fail. It has made me think about how we introduce reflective practice to our students and colleagues – do we adequately explain what is ‘expected’ and how do we support the process? When we introduce new forms of assessment (which I absolutely believe we should) then how do we ensure there are no victims to the sinking sands of ‘creative stuckness’? Actually immersing myself in the experiential side of these questions has exposed new layers of complexity.

Think

It is interesting to think (!) about what I’ve done differently about the Think tasks this year.  I see a marked difference between noticing/observing what I have done, and actually uncovering the meaning beneath or within it. I have been reflecting semi-objectively, consciously, and that is not new…but there have also been times when realisations just pop into my head (‘maybe I did/felt that because…’). It is not always comfortable enlightenment!

I have found myself thinking deeply about the significance of being here in Australia, rather than in the UK. Some of the challenges need a twist of interpretation – so for example the challenge to write a winter Haiku (Day 8) led me to reminisce about the sensations of the British winter (cold, wet, grey but with soft lights, fires, comfort food) and contrast them to those of the Australia summer (which I LOVE) – being warm, outside, swimming. January brought the most horrific bushfires to our doorstep and this led to some poignant reflections on the power of nature and the threat of climate change (in both hemispheres). As the month unfolds, there will be more explorations of my identity, connection to country and desires for the future.

Context, then, is important. We can set the same task for all, yet the meaning they attach to it will depend entirely on the context; what came before, the place, the priorities. And context changes: hourly, daily, annually. Reflection never really ends – its a life long thing. The trick – and I think this is my breakthrough – is to find your themes. This is, of course, exactly what underpins the work I do to support Awards/Professional Recognition, but this is a great example which I will find really useful to share when I am explaining it to people in the future.

Share

This has been the one area of difference for me this year. In previous years, both Jenni and I have enjoyed the sense of community that has emerged as fellow challengers (strangers) connect and play.  This year, the only real connections have come in the form of a few ‘likes’ – that is nice of course, but there isn’t the sense of being part of a collective generative project that there was in the past. Looking at the tweets via the hashtag #£64millionartists, though, it seems like there has been a big take up of the challenges in physical spaces – community hubs, libraries, museums – this is brilliant and it has made me think about how I could do that next year.

There is a Facebook group and I have never used it in the past – I don’t tend to use Facebook in that way. But out of curiosity the other day I joined, and the conversations there are literally awesome – the levels of emotional honesty, openness and personal exposure almost terrify me. Perhaps the lull I am experiencing, then, is a Twitter phenomenon, and could be just as much a product of my own relationship with social media as anything else?  I’ve certainly used social media differently since moving to Australia – I notice and value interactions more acutely. It has made me think about the ways we connect online – use filters, crave ‘likes’, (mis)interpret silences, choose words and imagery to express emotions. It has made me think – again – about feedback…the message, the purpose, the vehicle, the emotion…..that’s another can of worms open!

So, that’s a wrap on my reflections for the first week or so.  It is not too late to join the January challenge if you want to give it a go this is a good place to start: Do Think Share.

Snap Happy – Images of Community

 

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Blue things on the school run. Poppy, Ethan and Jaida (aged 7)

Followers of our blog might recall that, last year, Jenni and Natasha took part in the 64 Million Artists January Challenge. Well, we’re embarking on it again this year and we thought it would be interesting to reflect at the end of each week on our experiences and try to relate our activities to the world of learning and teaching. Here, Natasha reflects on the first week…

 

 

So, the first week has passed and already we’re awash with creativity. The first few days were a struggle for me because I had tonsillitis. I managed to design the front page of a newspaper and to draw the view from my window. I’ve still not got round to building a tower, but that is fine because there are no fixed deadlines (well, end of January I suppose). I find it interesting that I have every intention of going back and catching up – I am not sure my students would be so enthusiastic about a missed seminar task! My assiduousness, I think, is partly down to a curiosity about the learning gain (what will I discover?), and partly because I am invested in the challenge commitment (I can’t miss a day!).

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Sheffield shades of blue

My momentum finally got going on Day 4 with a challenge to photograph and share things which are different shades of blue. I enjoyed checking in to twitter throughout the day to see other people’s collages. What really struck me about this challenge though, was the way in which it brought together the virtual and real worlds. On the afternoon school run, I told the children what I was doing ( I had to explain why I was snapping a tatty old chip fork!); before I knew it a whole bunch of adults and children were pointing at objects and shouting ‘BLUE!’ and ‘Put mine on twitter!’. It was a very striking example of how an activity can capture the imagination of a group and result in a collaborative mission to collect and produce.  And if that weren’t satisfying enough, imagine the delight when a 7 year old, completely unprompted, excitedly reflected on how we so often go about our lives without noticing things. This was, of course, the point of the whole exercise and provided a powerful moment of shared reflection to everyone gathered around the phone.

New in the January challenge this year is ‘Collaborative Friday’ – a weekly task which can be completed in groups. The first was a game of ‘alphabet photo tag’ which required team members to work their way through the alphabet posting images and tagging others*.  Unsurprisingly, we immediately magnetised to form our own group, but it was so nice that several other people – strangers – were keen to join us to make a wider community. As the day progressed, our identities started to emerge; we playfully mocked ourselves, glimpsed into people’s workspaces, enjoyed sharing what we ate/drank. Without actually meeting or asking direct questions, we learned an enormous amount about each other and, I think, built bonds. At the end, we were proud of what we had achieved and looked forward to working together again.

So, what was it about these two tasks, in particular, that have engaged me in week one? Well, they both involved the use of images and I think that is important for giving learners confidence. Images allow us to explore, analyse, test and communicate ideas and there is massive potential for using imagery in teaching, even in the most unlikely of subjects. Another aspect, I am sure, is that these tasks were easy to complete with a smart phone; the fact that I could seamlessly integrate the tasks into my day was convenient but also empowering (no guilt!). But the biggest thing I will take away from this week is the power of the learning that takes place when you are involved in creating, sharing and co-producing – whether this is in the real or virtual world, part of a game or just something I do on my own. Feeling you are part of a community is energising and gives you the motivation to actively participate, interact and reflect on events; isn’t this the holy grail of teaching in higher education?

*Amusingly, the technicalities of the ‘tag’ game escaped our attention and we launched instead into a free-for-all game of ‘splatter’.  Our teammates were very generous in tolerating our complete disregard for order and rules.

Feeling inspired? It’s not too late to join. Sign up here if you want to get challenging! Follow the daily conversation on twitter #64millionartists .

Post Script:  Day 5 was poetry. I disliked it. I got on and did it. I think I passed (just). I got a bit of gentle (sympathetic) feedback. I am not sure I learned anything. Let’s move on. (thinks: how often do students feel like this about an assessment? Might come back to this…)

 

 

Why are we here?

IMG_6987In this blog post, Natasha Taylor and Catriona Cunningham reflect on life in the wonderless classroom…and the perils of asking ‘why are you here?’…

Natasha’s story…

I was really excited to have the opportunity to teach this term, but it has turned into one of the most frustrating teaching experiences I have ever had. Attendance is a serious problem and even when they do come they are not engaged – it is like they don’t care. Out of a group of 16 students, I have never even met 8 of them. Nothing in my arsenal of ‘tried-and-tested strategies’ works – absence reporting, pleas to collective conscience, signposts to assessment, promises of fun. Not even chocolate.

Perhaps it is about misplaced expectations? It is a topic that I find interesting – academically, but also at a more general level. Who wouldn’t find crime investigation, prisons and the courts interesting? Who wouldn’t want to come and have a discussion about these things? What is interesting is that in the conversations we have had, they don’t seem to have any awareness of what is going on in the world – be it in real life news, or fiction. Perhaps I am wrong to assume that their lives are enriched with new movie releases, tweeted news headlines, trashy holiday reads and Netflix?

I have been determined not to accept the argument that they are all slipping into ‘consumer mode’ and just want to be presented with a certificate at the end of three years. Surely students come to university to learn, not just be fed knowledge? At the end of one mediocre discussion, I challenged them on this very point. WHY are you here if it is not to take every opportunity made available to you? WHY the inertia?

Devastatingly, the response was numbing. They didn’t even seem to care that I was challenging their very being, demanding them to justify themselves. It was so utterly frustrating because I know what they are missing.  Am I wrong to get cross with them for that?  Should I be letting them decide how and when to engage?

Catriona’s Story

January 2016: Return to institutional life after 5 years in the academic jungle of the Higher Education Academy with its many different tribes and territories. Now, I’m in an institutional landscape where learning and teaching is taking root and sprouting. In academic development we are launching a new HEA-accredited CPD framework and are piloting a (non-accredited) course for those aiming to become Associate Fellows. Within a few days of launching this course, waiting lists for the sessions were full; there was an appetite or even a hunger for teaching and learning… As the weeks have gone by, however, I’ve often felt like I was back in the jungle constantly battling through shoots that are resistant and occasionally hostile.

I had imagined sharing the excellent practice taking place across the UK and beyond, looking at this study, or this website and helping them see the magic you can unleash in your class. They explain very patiently to me that this is all great, exciting, possibly even inspiring and yet they have no time to integrate this new way of doing things. It is as if I am bringing them brightly wrapped gifts from around the world and they don’t even want to unwrap the paper. I want exploration, they want answers. I want change, they want empathy. I want hope, they want job security.

Yesterday, to my shame, I let my emotions show in a class. In an open discussion, I felt a surge of anger I couldn’t – or didn’t – conceal and asked them why they were here to learn about learning and teaching if they didn’t actually want to change. Unlike Natasha’s participants, there was an audible gasp and lots of comments in the session feedback sheets. They were confused, had learned nothing and were deeply offended that I had questioned their reasons for being there. And they were right to be angry because instead of opening up a model for collaboration and ensuring their space was ‘safe’, I was imposing my agenda on them.

But how, in academic development, in the spirit of openness and educational enquiry, can we change hearts and minds without getting battle-fatigue? Where can we find an open clearing in the jungle?