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

Reading (and writing) group

Back in October last year we (Catriona, Jennie, Natasha and I) wrote a blog piece for LSE Higher Education blog based around our reading of a journal paper. We worked independently – reading the paper and writing our responses without discussing our thoughts. We found the process so useful (and even enjoyable!) that we are going to do this again. But this time we would like to invite others to join in.

The paper we are reading this time 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.

ABSTRACT
There has been significant interest in developing academics through Teaching Scholar Development Programs across the USA, Canada, the UK, and more recently in Australia. At their core, such programs develop academics across teaching scholarship, leadership, promotion, and award opportunities, where universities reap the benefits of developing such a cadre of leaders. This paper pays witness to one such a program in an Australian university to highlight enactments of caring passionately. We use qualitative survey evaluation data, metaphor analysis and reflective practice to nuance the pleasures, passions and challenges of the lived experiences using phenomenological and metaphor lenses to describe our experiences. Metaphors provide powerful insights into the dimensions of experience as they open up how programs are perceived and experienced. Our paper disrupts traditional linear writing through rhizomatic, multivocal and multitextual encounters to challenge dominant authorial voicing. The academic identity work and emotional work required in the program is unfolded through evolving, experiencing and reflecting on the program to inform design and highlight what we have come to (re)value in our academic work when we come together to learn, share, and lead. We forge ways to be and become with and against neoliberal agendas that have
choked the soul of ‘the university’ to evolve rich spaces and practices of/for reciprocity and kindness where not only learning can thrive, but where love acts – a much needed revolutionary praxis for our time.

Join in

If you would like to read (and write) with us, that would be great. We are not looking for carefully-crafted critical responses, although those are welcome too! We would value responses that come from your heart as much as your mind. You don’t need to respond to the paper as a whole, it may simply be a paragraph or a phrase that speaks to you and the context in which you practice. We are also not just looking for traditional academic text. Image – moving or still – or poetry, for example, would be welcomed.

As the article speaks to the notion of love, we plan to publish our responses on 14 February so it would be great if you could send us any contributions before that date. Yes, we know it is a short deadline – but just go for it! If you would prefer us to publish your contribution anonymously, that’s cool too.

Send any contributions to our mailbox lacunae1@gmail.com 

January Challenge Part 2

thumbnail_IMG_0932
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.

Creating compassionate spaces in higher education

A reblog of a post earlier in the year from LSE Higher Education blog.

In a time of change and uncertainty, four academic developers from different disciplines, Jenni Carr, Natasha Taylor, Catriona Cunningham, and Jennie Mills, revisit Haynes’ and Macleod-Johnstone’s powerful paper Stepping through the daylight gate: compassionate spaces for learning in higher education and aim to make connections with how compassion plays an integral role in their practice

Creating compassionate spaces in higher education