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.

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

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

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

Photo by Hannah Wright on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

Love acts: swipe left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Required from us a song

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

There the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Requiring of us a song

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

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

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

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

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

Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat…

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).