Co-responding: from You to Me 1

This letter is a contribution to the epistolary circle created as part of our workshop for the SEDA Spring Conference.

Below our imaginary friend responds to the letter from Me to You.

Man sitting on a bench with his back to the viewer.

Hi, great to hear from you. 

Sorry it’s taken so long to reply. Things and stuff, you know? And I’m not very good at correspondence, or keeping up with people, or, you know, having friends… (is that very male of me?) 

So, I hear on the grapevine that you have a new job? I saw it advertised and immediately thought of you – precisely because of those qualities you mentioned: creative, thoughtful, compassionate, and indeed challenging (in the good way!). It looked so right but wasn’t sure if you’d go for it. Congratulations, of course, and I’m sure you’ll smash it, interpretive dance and all. 

I’m jealous if I’m honest. Yes, there is shit everywhere, but at least you will have new shit, in a new context, with new energy. Here we have been restructured (again), with new admin (again), and I’m frankly exhausted and struggling for motivation. Maybe I shouldn’t care so much, maybe I should just let the incompetence and the politics of the University play out, keep my head down, work away on AD stuff and switch off more. I totally get what you mean about people pretending, especially taking credit for things they didn’t do, puffing themselves up in front of managers, saying the right thing in front of the right person… and generally being a man. 

Is AD a women’s world? I’m not sure, I’d never thought that – or at least I’ve never put it in those terms to myself. I suppose the closest I’ve got to thinking about this is about balance – ‘isn’t it good to have a team that’s balanced, so it helps us connect with lots of staff’. Gender is part of that, but plenty other things besides. I always felt, when we worked together, it was a good balance as you could do the fun, exciting, boundary pushing stuff while I was the boring curriculum design, practical, remember the outcomes guy.  

Sorry to be such a drag! I’m worried about the future, about what I will now have to do. I’m not a ninja either! But don’t go round telling people I’m kind or gentle – it will ruin my look… 

If you would like us to publish your response to any of the letters to our imaginary friends, please send your letter to lacunae1@gmail.com.

Letter from Bernadine to Toni

On Friday 7th May we will be hosting a workshop at the SEDA Conference: Letters from a plague year: co-responding to change with reflective storying. Participants in the session will be invited to respond to one of FOUR letters which we have created as part of our ongoing letter writing research. They are letters to imaginary friends – fictional but inspired by our actual exchanged letters. Here is the third in the series….

Dear Toni,

It was lovely to hear from you and to know that there haven’t been too many repercussions from your restructure. The new boss sounds like she might have a few promising ideas after all?? 

I’ve just had an email from a colleague that has left me floundering and I’m sure I remember you talking about something similar so I thought I would get in touch. Rather than pinging it across in an email or calling you, I wondered if the act of writing it to you then waiting for a response (no pressure!) would help me formulate my ideas.  

Anyway, this colleague is a non-native speaker of English and a brilliantly committed teacher with a lot of experience teaching both here in the UK but back in her home country too. I’d noticed when I did her teaching observation a couple of years ago that there was a small group of students in her class who were behaving oddly. They were whispering and passing notes around to each other, one was just staring at his phone constantly and one girl was even swinging on her chair back and forth. I don’t think XXX noticed this as this group were right the back of an exceptionally large and very full lecture-type space. Quite unimaginable in these covid-times… will we ever be in a huddle again??? Anyway, I digress… So, I was troubled by the disrespect these students were showing towards XXX. I could feel the tension at the back of the room as other students stiffened and tried to ignore the disruption. I was annoyed on behalf of XXXX because of this disruption but also for me, at their arrogance even when a stranger member of staff was in the room, they were oblivious. I thought long and hard about how to broach the subject in our debrief following on from the teaching observation, and I know this is something we’ve spoken about a lot in the past: our feelings of responsibility towards our colleagues in this role. I may even have spoken of this before because although I was shocked by this behavior, it was only the first of many similar displays I’ve borne witness to in the last couple of years. In fact, this treatment of a lecturer who is a non-native speaker of English by a group of young (white) Scottish students shames me deeply still. What is wrong with our society if this is seen as acceptable? Or, taking the question differently and moving away from my initial teacher-y response into more of an academic developer response: what can we do in the university sector to support our colleagues, non-native speakers of English, who are facing daily acts of racial and/or micro-aggressions in their classrooms?  

This colleague has now encountered some blatant racism in an essay she was marking and is not sure what do to about it so has come to me for guidance. As is so often the case with these kinds of dilemmas, I feel torn as an academic developer. Part of me wants to scream and rage at the madness of it all and yet I know I need to maintain my professional mask so she trusts me to respond in a way that enables her to vent and I will absorb. I also need to offer advice that will protect her legally, institutionally when all that I really want to say would only provoke an act of violence. Oh dear. Help? 

Your old friend and colleague, 

Bernadine

Co-responding to change

If you are coming to our session, see you there! But, if you are not you can still take part – in fact we would love this to be the start of some kind of network of correspondents! Simply pen a reply to one or more of the letters – keep it private to use for your own reflections . . . or send it to us (lacunae1@gmail.com ) and we will post it on the blog (anonymously if you would prefer)!

This link will take you back to the main blog post where you can access the three other letters.

Letters from a plague year: co-responding to change with reflective storying

In January 2020 the blog team began exchanging letters reflecting on the ways in which our lived experiences of academic development shaped our professional identities. We were attempting to create a methodology for reflection that liberated us from professional norms and expectations through an epistolary exchange. We were looking for an ‘uncanny encounter’, but what we got was a global pandemic, complete with learning and teaching challenges that reshaped our practice. We reflected on these challenges in the 24 letters exchanged between January and July, and out analyses of these data will be published in Spring 2021.

An open envelope with purple flowers inserted.

In the article we conclude that, in times of uncertainty, the reflective stories we tell can be powerful, particularly when this reflection takes place as a collaborative process. We believe there is something liberating in representing our professional selves to the people we trust. As such, we plan to explore ways we can engage others in diverse and playful approaches to reflective practice, and the workshop we will present at the SEDA spring conference will be a part of that exploration.

As part of the workshop, participants will be responding to a letter that each of the blog team have written to their imaginary friend. If you are coming along to our workshop it would be useful if you could read these letters in advance and choose which of our imaginary friends you would like to be!

If you aren’t attending our workshop, but would like to respond to any of the letters below as a way of reflecting on your practice, please do send us your responses (lacunae1@gmail.com )  and we will publish these on the blog (you can remain anonymous if you would prefer).

The letters

Letter from Me to You

Letter from Persephone to Amica

Letter from Bernadine to Toni

Letter from Mellifera to Cerana

Letter from Me to You

On Friday 7th May we will be hosting a workshop at the SEDA Conference: Letters from a plague year: co-responding to change with reflective storying. Participants in the session will be invited to respond to one of FOUR letters which we have created as part of our ongoing letter writing research. They are letters to imaginary friends – fictional but inspired by our actual exchanged letters. Here is the first in the series….

Hello you!

Thanks for your letter – it was worth the wait…wasn’t that hard was it? You are such a man! 😉

Anyway, like you I have had a bumpy few months at work. As you know, I’m pretty miserable so I’ve been back on the job hunt. It’s been a while, wow things have changed!

Turns out it’s not enough to be a really good academic developer now. No, you need to be a people manager, a curriculum designer (hyflex obvs), process expert, IT support, policy writer, coach…the list goes on. No one wants an old-school academic – good teaching experience mixed with an inquiring mind and bunch of research skills. As a result, I’ve spent hours repackaging the qualities and capabilities I have to address a growing list of weirdly macho criteria. No longer am I a warm, compassionate, articulate, caring, reflective, creative, thoughtful, critical, evaluative educationalist…no, I am a professional services ninja – an Agile, conflict resolving, KPI driven, rebellious, strategic, media hungry, communications guru who thrives under pressure. Bah! Where did the interpretive dance go?

All I really want is to work on a nice team and have an impact at the coal face – not that hard is it? I want to make good resources, teach staff new ideas and approaches, drive inquiry and innovation, model good practice, push boundaries occasionally – all this can change how education is for this and future generations of students.

Is the problem that the qualities we have (always valued) are soft and fluffy and somehow losing currency? What was that article which described Ac Dev as a feminine/caring profession, do you remember? Yet the reality is that these are f%$*ing hard to pull off well. And by well, I mean with authenticity and integrity. I’m getting sick of people who pretend. They’ve cleverly picked up the keywords – compassion, collaboration, community and plaster it all over their LinkedIn profiles. But I don’t see it in the cold light of day…increasingly I see meanness, incompetence and selfishness. Is this the game we have to play? Where is the honesty in that? 

I am lashing out of course – on the whole our tribe are a good bunch! How then is the job market shifting in this direction? Is it the Millenials taking over…or is it just another painful example of bad management meddling? Or am I just very out of date – is this the new (postpandemic) university? It is an Aussie thing or are you seeing it too?

How do you feel about all this, I wonder, as a man in what some might argue is a woman’s world? LOL!  Do you find that offensive or objectionable – or maybe you see it as a man’s world (we are still surrounded mostly by white, middle aged male execs after all!)? Maybe you have always understood and translated your qualities in this way, shaped your identity around the harder, more tangible things? I dunno – I have never interviewed you for a job 😉 I value you for your kindness, gentleness, emotional intelligence – yet soft you are not! 

Sigh, it is exhausting. What toll, I wonder, does all this take on our own health, identity, careers? Constantly feeling like we have to justify our profession, fight for recognition, survive another restructure…I found out just recently how this can take your feet from right under you. Does that make me weak? 

Anyway, I am sure my perfect job is out there somewhere. In the meantime I can and should be grateful for the one I have. It ain’t all bad – there is so much about this year that has changed our world for the better…flexible working, more inclusive practices etc. In many ways, it is a better place for being heard. What do you think?

I hope your days are looking a bit brighter now Spring has sprung. I’d love to hear more about your new boss and your new projects!  Let’s hope she’s not a big disappointment like you-know-who!  Write soon and tell me your stories.

Love and pastries (how I miss our morning coffee chats!),

Me.

Co-responding for change

If you are coming to our session, see you there! But, if you are not you can still take part – in fact we would love this to be the start of some kind of network of correspondents! Simply pen a reply to one or more of the letters – keep it private to use for your own reflections . . . or send it to us (lacunae1@gmail.com ) and we will post it on the blog (anonymously if you would prefer)!

This link will take you back to the main blog post where you can access the three other letters.

Responses to this letter

From You to Me 1

Letter from Mellifera to Cerana

On Friday 7 May we will be hosting a workshop at the SEDA Conference: Letters from a plague year: co-responding to change with reflective storying. Participants in the session will be invited to respond to one of FOUR letters which we have created as part of our ongoing letter writing research. They are letters to imaginary friends – fictional but inspired by our actual exchanged letters. Here is the fourth in the series….

A jar of honey and a honey spoon.

Dear Cerana,

Congratulations on getting the job!! And welcome to the bright side 😊

You wrote that you were amazed that they appointed you when you haven’t held an academic/educational developer role before – I’m not! When I looked at the job specification you sent when you asked for the reference, I could see that you had all the relevant experience even if you have never had the specific job title. One thing you will discover is that the role varies such a lot across institutions, and people come to it from so many different backgrounds. We truly are the mongrels of the academic world! Although nowadays we would probably be referred to by some portmanteau-designer-dog term rather than plain ‘mongrel’. I wonder what that could be? Ideas in your response please!

It’s understandable that you feel nervous starting this new role – and I wish I had neat answers to some of the questions you posed in your letter. Sorry! For what it’s worth though…some thoughts in response to your questions…

Yes, we probably do say the word ‘pedagogy’ quite a lot! But no more than other disciplines say their totem words/phrases, and probably with the same objective. To mark out some boundary of expertise and knowledge. You link the term to ‘theory’, and worry about the depth of your understanding of these theories. I suspect you know more than you think you do if you consider all the work you have done (and written about) on course design and supporting colleagues with their teaching. It’s just that before this theory was just one strand of your work and now it will become a central focus. One bit of advice – keep up with your reading/research as you would do in any other academic job. Those good habits you developed as a researcher will stand you in good stead – Zetoc is your friend 😊 But also remember to look out for that aspect of the work that makes your heart sing! You need to make space for that. Do you have any thoughts about what that aspect of teaching and learning that might be?

You mention that you worry about your role in supporting institutional education initiatives, some of which you think are a bit dubious in intent. In HE policy, as in other sectors, there can a tendency to reinvent the wheel, with people rediscovering issues/concerns and pitching their solutions as the next big thing. If you keep up with research in the core areas of teaching and learning you can more easily see these Emperor’s new clothes for what they are and recognise that you do have the expertise to advise and support. Of course, there will be those who accuse (too strong a word?) you of supporting ‘management’ in the latest fad, but as long as you know that your work has sound foundations, it’s best not to take those accusations to heart. And, in my experience, you can often be in a better position to resist and subvert anything that is truly problematic if people don’t feel that your first reaction is always to criticise. Keep in mind that those who spend a lot of time telling everyone about their resistance/radicalism/criticality often have less time to actually get that work done 😊 You must have had to use different (more subtle?) kinds of influence to bring about change in your previous roles. Could be good to reflect on those incidences in a letter to me 😊 and think about how you could apply the same approach again.

You mention in your letter that you are worried you might miss carrying out research – both doing the actual research and being a part of networks. Really don’t worry about the networks issue. Academic developers are great at this! And be prepared for a much greater commitment to sharing resources/ideas etc. than some other academic environments. As for the ‘doing research’ part, it might often take a different form than you are used to, but you can continue to research. Sometimes you can end up doing projects that feel quite instrumental – back to the influence of institutional initiatives again. But there are plenty of ‘What is…?’ topics to explore, and your experience as a qualitative researcher will be invaluable in this regard. The discipline and skills needed to carry out rigorous qualitative research in other settings are just as important in academic development work. Are there any particular areas you think you might like to research? Would you be looking for partners? I can probably help with ideas/contacts. Let me know.

Look forward to hearing from you again soon.

Mellifera

Co-responding to change

If you are coming to our session, see you there! But, if you are not you can still take part – in fact we would love this to be the start of some kind of network of correspondents! Simply pen a reply to one or more of the letters – keep it private to use for your own reflections . . . or send it to us (lacunae1@gmail.com ) and we will post it on the blog (anonymously if you would prefer)!

This link will take you back to the main blog post where you can access the three other letters.

Letter from Persephone to Amica

On Friday 7 May we will be hosting a workshop at the SEDA Conference: Letters from a plague year: co-responding to change with reflective storying. Participants in the session will be invited to respond to one of FOUR letters which we have created as part of our ongoing letter writing research. They are letters to imaginary friends – fictional but inspired by our actual exchanged letters. Here is the second in the series….

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Warwick, 15 April 2021

Dearest Amica,

So lovely to receive your letter – a gleam of light in the darkening day (a very unseasonable sky today). I can’t quite believe that it’s snowing in April! Although, not quite believing in April snow is apparently a clear denial of the data (isn’t there an oft-cited fact that we are more likely to have a white Easter than a white Christmas?) Instinctive feeling that the world is somehow off-kilter but really our expectations are awry. Is there a metaphor there for higher education? Probably – but I’m sure I’m too exhausted to find it  . . . . 

But then again Easter moves doesn’t it. (Never quite understood the mutability of Easter). Anyhow, assumptions or expectations or no: it is snowing and I was glad to see your letter, so there we are. 

Perhaps it is some sort of pathetic fallacy that the weather this Spring seems quite unSpring-like. Lots of sunshine but freezing – somehow pulls all hope out of the air (a different sort of chilling effect – another metaphor?) Thinking back to this time last year, which I remember bathed in glorious sunshine which seemed to promise a summer filled with long hot days. I’m sure this prompted my enthusiasm for lockdown self-sufficiency (a la Good Life). They say that gardening is an investment in the future (‘they’ being Monty Don obvs), and planting seeds seemed somehow to be a sort of unlocking maybe?* We were locked down, but looking forward, and also perhaps somehow a liberation from the day-to-day of work. Working from home, but both the home and the work were different because I had time to faff about with seeds, and watch the tulips come up, and experience place (and ‘at homeness’ differently). But writing that sounds so at odds with the workload, I remember more than frantic panic though, busy-ness seemed less performative somehow – authentic busy-ness if you can have such a thing. And thinking back to all the stuff we produced workwise! Utterly amazing! 

Sadly can’t say the same about my home-grown produce which was lacking to say the least. My optimistic Mediterranean vegetables didn’t stand a chance! Final yield was four substandard aubergines at the end of September rather than the bumper harvest promised by sunny April. Twenty dolls-house sized green peppers sat in a bowl on the kitchen worktop for a bit (seemed a shame to waste them) before finding their way to the green bin. The amount of time and money I spent on finding scarce compost, seeds, and other garden requisites meant that every bloody aubergine cost about £30. Honestly, I could have bought 50 aubergines. I don’t even like aubergines.   

Not sure whether I can ascribe the failure of my gardening experiments to my own lack of expertise/greenfingers, or the hostile climate– or perhaps just misplaced confidence that favourable conditions would remain favourable (. . . that long hot summer never quite materialised did it)? 

Anyway, I’m keeping going with it – I’ve invested in a bit of proper kit (no more refashioned milk cartons, cake boxes, or toilet roll tubes) so at least it looks more professional. Seeds are bog standard/common or garden varieties rather than the niche ones I found in fancy farm shops during lockdown (black tomatoes with a hint of smoky sweetness anyone?). I’ve also thrown in a few mystery leftovers salvaged from last year’s pitiful harvest. I don’t feel the same sense of adventure or exhilaration – seems a bit more workaday – and I’m weirdly less invested in success now that I know the supermarket system won’t collapse and we won’t be forced to live on our wits/aubergines in a desperate apocalyptic battle for resources. They are growing (but not sure I really care . . . .?) Interestingly, the mystery seeds have rapidly grown into mystery plants . . . . and are literally shooting up like beanstalks!!! (Narrator: they were in fact beanstalks.) 

I suppose I should write about work! Do I want to write about work? Do you want to read about work? Have we all had quite enough of work for the time being?  

Answers on a postcard to . . . . 

To be honest, there isn’t much to report – same old same old. Lots of (identikit) initiatives endeavouring to identify what should happen next – post-pandemic, new normal, blah blah blah. To be honest I’m not entirely sure anyone’s heart is still in it. What’s happening at your place? Tell me all your news! Quick, term 3 will be over before we blink!  

Love,  

Persephone 

* apologies for obviousness of metaphor (epistolary equivalent of overused stock image of sprutting seedling) 

Co-responding to change

If you are coming to our session, see you there! But, if you are not you can still take part – in fact we would love this to be the start of some kind of network of correspondents! Simply pen a reply to one or more of the letters – keep it private to use for your own reflections . . . or send it to us (lacunae1@gmail.com ) and we will post it on the blog (anonymously if you would prefer)!

This link will take you back to the main blog post where you can access the three other letters.

SRHE 2016 Educational birds – Singing for freedom ‘Old Tongue’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Jackie Kay’s poem, Old Tongue

The following reflective pieces were taken as ‘fieldwork’ for our SRHE 2016 paper on metaphorical inquiry.

 

cliparthttp://all-free-download.com/free-vector/download/eagle-and-nightingale-clip-art_6592.html

Catriona:

This poem highlights the way in which language is part of our identity and that sometimes learning something new actually invokes loss and even a connection with the past.

This sad tale of transition hits me in two ways. Firstly, it reminds me of the trauma of moving to France when I was a student and being completely lost in another language before eventually finding all those new words at once exhilarating and stimulating. However, unlike the narrator in the poem, I didn’t feel like I was ‘turning back’ or that ‘I would have taken them in,/swallowed them whole, knocked them back.’ For me, it was quite the opposite and I was desperate to absorb as many new words and sounds as possible with the aim of becoming French, becoming other…

The phrase ‘It made my mother’s blood boil’ made me smile (and not only because of the real ‘Scottishness’ of the phrase – she may have lost her words but not the sound). It reminded me of how upset my own (Scottish) mother was when – as I became increasingly fluent in French – I muddled up words, used the wrong prepositions as I substituted French syntax for English. There was a sense of betrayal. Yet it was this love of French, this desire to become French that was my intrinsic motivation to pursue my studies and keep going through the PhD. I have never lost this ‘new tongue’ and it has enriched my language, my ‘old tongue’ endlessly.

However, I chose my exile. For the narrator in the poem, this imposition of another language and culture is not made by choice. It makes me wonder – given that English is the lingua franca of higher education – how many others feel like that. How many of our international colleagues or students are economic migrants who arrive in our institutions, their ‘own vowels start[ing] to stretch likes bones.’?

The sense of rage, of helplessness, and finally in the last words, of defiance implies that the ‘old tongue’ lives on regardless despite being ‘lost’ and ‘buried’, the entire poem itself rejoices in the sounds and intonation of that same language. On a very personal way, it also evokes my own transition into higher education where I was struck by the inadequacies of my own language, particularly in English Studies. Like the narrator in the poem, ‘words fell of my tongue’ as I was forced to learn and become fluent in academic English. I remember returning to my hometown in a former industrial part of Scotland where I was mocked for ‘having a posh university accent’. I had abandoned my roots.

This imposition of English, of academic English in particular, in order to succeed in the world of academia and its paralysing and empowering effect on both staff and students is the thread that comes through both of these critical reflections of the poem. In one of our workshops, which we ran in Singapore, one of the participants was herself a Scottish academic who had lived there for a number of years and she chose to read the poem aloud to the group. She wept. The act of speaking those Scottish words aloud that had been ‘buried’ inside her triggered an emotional response. But also, as her tongue wrapped its way round those long forgotten words, she still knew them. As a learner and as a teacher, her ‘old tongue’ continued to speak to her. Another layer of identity to be unravelled…

Jennie:

The most striking aspects of Kay’s ‘Old Tongue’ relate to ideas of agency. Loss is a consequence of compulsion, a driving out, compelled by unidentified (or unidentifiable) external forces. Linguistic dislocation is an unconscious reaction to relocation. The result of this is similarly unseen, the gradual processes of loss not initially perceived, cannot be stopped until it is too late. Words fall, lost – although not lost. They still leave echoes, and can be recalled and listed in memoriam. It is this memory of what was before which perhaps creates the emotional experience of loss more than the actual changes in linguistic register. This knowledge of the ‘wrong sound’ – can only come from a remembrance of the ‘right sound’ – which was homely, and in which identity and sense of self and the expression of that self were aligned. This dislocation of self – can only be realised within the person who knows the before and after. It is imperceptible from outside. The new words which ‘march in’ are not ghastly if they have always been your words – ‘scones said like scones’./ Pokey hats into ice cream cones’. The poetic richness of language becomes functional, imaginatively sparse, anchored firmly to a prosaic explanation.

This speaks to my own loss of disciplinary familiarity. When I was 28 I was forced ‘south’, changing fields from the critical traditions of English Literature, which celebrates subjectivity and creative interpretations, revels in metaphor and reading against the grain to academic development. Immured in the social sciences, I felt compelled to swap pokey hats for ice cream cones.

My ways of disciplinary knowing become Kay’s lost language. They stole away, did a moonlight flit, loading the cart with academic identity, confidence and prestige leaving behind only a debt of methodological uncertainty. What happened to these ways of knowing? Kay’s poem seems uncertain, they are wandering and might be found, they are buried in her new alien land. In my own practice, like Kay, I try to call them back, ‘like calling in the sea’. I want them back, I want the right sound in my mouth, the old disciplinary ways of knowing which for me are forceful, powerful vehicles through which we can know more profoundly. In order to engage academics in pedagogic exploration, I reach for ways of expression which ‘gie it laldie’. This power can only be mastered as Heaney phrases it ‘in the language of first utterance’ – which for me is the creative, the poetic, the subjective, that which is powered by the force of critical imagining.

Yet, I pause. Is this desire to ‘gie it laldie’ and to find succour in my old ways of knowing, even now my disciplinary bones have stretched, and as I have grown into a new identity, like calling in the sea? It looks like my work is having impact, but the sea would have returned anyway. Has my new language, the language of learning and teaching, with its frameworks, paradigms, and data, born of the social science ‘south’ stealthily become my own? Is this professed desire to ‘gie it laldie’ – to express academic practice in an ‘old tongue’, a tongue which is lost, just a performance which testifies to my loss.

 

 

SRHE 2016 Educational birds – singing for freedom ‘The Moment’

Reflections inspired by critical interpretation of Margaret Atwood’s poem ‘The Moment’.

clipart

The following reflective pieces were undertaken as ‘field work’ for our conference paper at SRHE 2016, ‘Educational birds: a hybrid metaphorical enquiry’.

Catriona

This entire poem spoke to me as an extremely powerful metaphor for knowledge and raises the pertinent issue of ownership of knowledge. In our current exploration of how students learn and in particular the positioning of the student as co-creator of knowledge. This shift in teacher-student power has implications for the role of knowledge in the ‘supercomplexity’ that is the contemporary university (Barnett) as well as who controls and therefore owns that knowledge.
In my context, the first stanza strikes me as an apt description of the PhD process. The fact that there is no full stop throughout the whole stanza gives such a strong sense of the length of the process. The positioning of ‘you’ at the beginning of the third line draws in the reader at the ‘centre’ and forces us to look inwards, to reflect on what it might mean to us, as individuals. This inclusive ‘you’ brings the reader closer to the narrator, but this sense of self that is brought out through the use of the word ‘centre’ is further emphasised through the enlarging sense of space spreading out from the ‘room’ all the way to the ‘country’. This vastness of time and space highlights the extraordinary depth and breadth we go to in our ‘voyage’ with all its connotations of peril and adventure to cross the threshold and reach the other side. The doctorate. But who is the gatekeeper? As the poem continues, doubts creep in, reading through the lens of learning and teaching, the imposter syndrome grows and ‘No, they whisper. You own nothing.’ The insidiousness of these voices, which is highlighted by their plurality imply the impossibility of ever truly crossing that threshold to the other side. The gatekeepers – for the PhD students – are their supervisors of course but they are also the academic establishment. The chilling words at the end of the poem ‘You were a visitor, time after time/climbing the hill, planting flag, proclaiming’ emphasise the precariousness of knowledge. As PhD students, with each new discovery, new reading and new argument put forward is the sense that you are getting closer to that moment of ownership, of validation. And yet, as the poem expresses so poignantly, this is an ever-elusive process. For once you have the PhD and you in turn supervise others, you realise that actually ‘the cliffs fissure and collapse’ as you are not really the gatekeeper you had assumed existed. The more you read and learn and even teach, the less in control the knowledge becomes and in fact the more ambiguous everything feels… Working with this ‘found poem’ in workshops, participants respond to this metaphor and begin to probe their role in terms of gatekeeper or owner of disciplinary knowledge. Discussions around whether we can ever actually ‘own’ what we know or if everything is in fact known only in its relationship to what has been before emphasises how individual our contexts are. This may seem obvious but in fact, it is not. When we talk generically about ‘knowledge and understanding’ as a key benchmark for our disciplines, this glosses over the complexities the poem draws out as well as the way in which the individual has been shaped by and in turn shapes their own knowledge and then translates it as teachers and learners. Without reflecting critically on what this poem as metaphor means to me, these messy layers of ambiguity would have been left unexplored and the assumptions remained under wrap.

Jennie

The powerful inversion of ownership in the final lines of Atwood’s poem asserts an unfamiliar and uncomfortable authority. The emphatically end-stopped lines admit no challenge. What you thought was is not. Hard work, journeying, success does not mean possession, even though this is the story that you tell. The sense of just reward that you feel is fallacious. The right of ownership, not just disputed but denied, is not just material – of a room, of a dwelling, of a domain, of a community, of a nation. It is also deeply entwined with mastery of your own narrative, you stand not only in the centre of your space, but also at the centre of your story: ‘knowing at last how you got there,’.

For me this speaks of the reflective self, and uncomfortably confronts idea of the reflective practitioner that I promote in my academic development work. For example, I draw upon the work of social anthropologist, Geertz (1995) asking academics to position themselves within the parade of their lives, representing where they have come from in order to understand their pedagogic assumptions, and to ‘own’ their future development. It speaks to my allegiance to narrative enquiry which I believe sustains multiple truths, but which still creates ‘knowledge’ to be transferred and exchanged. I wonder, can you truly deal in that which you don’t own?

In Atwood’s poem it is at the point of certainty, of attainment, of tenure that knowledge disintegrates – melting back into its component parts. All which was comforting and secure retreats, ‘soft arms’ ‘unloose’, the language which you thought was your own is reclaimed, high ground is leveled, you have no medium within which to exist: ‘you can’t breathe’.

So, which certainties does this poem interrogate? What is this contested property? Knowledge? Narrative? Identity? When I first read this poem I thought of it as knowledge – that is imagined and reimagined, which belongs to no-one but belongs to the world. We stake our claim, we proclaim our interpretations (which we often present as certainties) but each fresh clutch of academics supplants our readings, rushing up the hill to plant a flag of their own. Like most academics I rushed to interpret the academic world through its research activities. But now, I read it again, and I wonder whether this could represent learning and teaching. We speak of ‘our students’, ‘our practice’, ‘our teaching philosophies’ – we impose ownership, we are recognised, certified, exhibited in offices, we tell stories of our teaching and about who we are as teachers. But perhaps Atwood’s poem prompts us to question this. Are the unloosing trees our students moving into independence, taking back their language as they learn and then unlearn, as they draw away do we gasp for air wondering how we can be teachers when we no longer ‘teach’?

If we relinquish our acquisitive grip on education, the story of our practice is no longer our story alone, and we can no longer be the truthful tellers of it. Rather we are the sum of many stories, and it is in the ways in which we are found by students that we earn our place in the world.

“We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round”

 

Engaging undergraduates in independent research: LSE Groups

This week my LSE colleague, Esther, and I  will be off to the Engage 2016 conference to talk about LSE Groups. This initiative takes place at the end of the Summer Term when undergraduate students from across the School can opt to take part in a two-week research project.

Yes – a research project completed in just two weeks! As a relatively recent arrival to  LSE I thought the idea was more than a little bit mad… But then I saw it in action.

Students come together in interdisciplinary, cross-year groups to develop a research question, decide on an appropriate methodology, collect and analyse data and write up their findings. And when I say ‘write up’ I mean a full paper and conference presentation!

Of course they don’t do this entirely on their own. There is a group of supervisors who are on hand to advise the students, and other staff present workshops on research ethics and methodologies. But the idea that underpins the project is that this should be independent research – the students call the shots.

The abstracts from last year’s projects illustrate just how ambitious students can be when given this independence. One of the groups (Hipsters and Spikes: mapping gentrification and defensive architecture in Tower Hamlets ) won the prestigious Booth Prize at the recent LSE Research Festival. The judges commented “The judges felt that this work touched closely on both themes and methods featured in Charles Booth’s pioneering work, combining state of the art mapping techniques with qualitative research to enhance our understanding of how inequality is produced in urban contexts.”

And the video below illustrates the process in more detail.

But there is an inherent tension in trying to provide students with this independence within the two week timescale and trying to encourage the students to think about the public engagement role of social science research. Do we try and enlist the help of certain organisations in advance and risk narrowing the possible choices students can make when designing their projects? If we are going to ask the students to do more to disseminate their findings to relevant organisations, which would involve a much bigger time commitment on the students’ part, might we reduce the number of students willing to participate? These and many other questions have shaped our thinking as we have tried to envisage LSE Groups as a more publicly engaged project. And we are hoping that our colleagues at the Engage conference will help us to find some answers! We are also hoping that people who can’t attend the conference will also share their thoughts, and you can do this by using the comments section of this blog.

Thanks in advance for your advice and support.

postcard

 

 

 

Once upon a time….

InviteIn this post we outline the rationale behind a workshop that we facilitated at the Re-enchanting the academy’ conference. We also share resources that provide opportunities for colleagues to reflect on how they might engage students using a range of stimulae – poetic, narrative, experiential and somatic.

Our story begins…

Once upon a time a long time ago the king and queen had a beautiful daughter. One day a wicked fairy cast a spell on the lovely princess, cursing her to never learn. The alarmed King locked the princess far away from the world in a high ivory tower. In time the princess was granted 3 A’ levels and set out for university. But one day, quite unexpectedly, the princess fell into a deep intellectual stupor. Her teachers lectured and talked, and talked and lectured, but the princess never seemed to learn. Each term she sat an exam, and each term she passed her exam, but at the beginning of the next term she had forgotten everything that she had known. The King and Queen despaired.

One day four benevolent fairies appeared and endeavoured to lift the hateful curse which blighted the princess’s university life:

Poésie, who spoke in many tongues and was the most charming fairy of all, offered a linguistic charm, ‘Whosoever reads these words shall feel at ease with the whole world, and will never feel doubt or shame even though their tongue may stumble over unfamiliar sounds and concepts. I give you the gift of confidence.’

Tale, who was never quite in the real world and who aspired to panache, brought a storybook, filled with devices, fancies and imaginings, ‘Whosoever lives these stories shall have the fairest prose of all. I give you the gift of academic writing.’

Sentio, who was a very practical fairy who applied herself to every task, brought a puzzle, ‘Whosoever puzzles this puzzle will grow wiser and wiser as each day passes. I give you the gift of reflection.’

Mind, an unassuming fairy who thought about everything a lot, brought nothing and said nothing, but offered the rarest gift of all: silence. Quieting the noise of the world, Mind gave the gift of concentration.

Why a fairy tale?

In keeping with the theme of the conference, we were inviting our colleagues to suspend the rational world of enhancement and embark upon a journey to a realm of enchantment. It was our job, as facilitators, to create a space in which that realm could be constituted – a space ‘in which it is once more possible to think’ (Foucault, 1970).

Excavating that space from the silted-up landscape of an academic conference – enchantment obscured under layer upon layer of convention, physical and intellectual: congested rows of chairs, an awkward rattle of cups and saucers, knee-balanced laptops and academic posturing, the imposition of ill-fitting theory, and the tyranny of properly referenced slides – is never an easy thing!

We are creatures of habit and convention, and do not always react well when our expectations are disrupted. But we were convinced that the value of our workshop – the possibilities for enchantment – lay in our colleagues experiencing for themselves the activities we had designed rather than listening to us explain the theoretical underpinning for our practice. The use of fairy tale was an interpellation to possible attendees – we are going to try something new, please come and join us if you think this might be your kind of thing!

But what do you do with all the theory and the explanations if you don’t want them cluttering up your space? It felt like it wouldn’t be enough to just demonstrate the activities and end with ‘trust us, this works!’.

Our solution was to create an additional online space where we could deposit the ‘useful clutter’. We then invited our colleagues – we handed out hard-copy invitations to delegates (see above) – that included the URL so that they could access these resources either before or after the workshop.

You are cordially invited….

If you would like to share in and comment on the resources we created for this workshop, please click on the links below

Poésie’s gift of confidence.

Tale’s gift of academic writing.

Sentio’s gift of reflection.

Mind’s gift of concentration.