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.

Learning from Letters

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

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

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

For the love of letters…

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

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

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

The physicality of letters

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

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

Writing our dailiness

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

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

Freedom in reflection

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

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

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

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.

Do, think, share #64millionartists

Junk modelling
Junk modelling

New Year’s Day. The day when everyone makes those resolutions to start dieting, take up more exercise and just generally be a ‘better’ person. Years ago I stopped making those resolutions because I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I would never keep them.

So why was this year any different?

Searching on Twitter (I know!) for ideas about the role of creativity in learning and teaching, I came across the account for 64 Million Artists and decided in  a mad moment to sign-up for their January Challenge. Still haven’t really unpacked what prompted that impulse, but I’m glad that I did.

Put simply, you get an email to your mailbox every day throughout January outlining a different creative challenge. You do, then think, then share.

Over the month I have, amongst other things, compiled a picture of the year ahead,  made a junk sculpture, danced myself silly (nothing new there!), documented my day through taking a photo every hour (goodness my life is boring!), carried out a random act of kindness and, written a story a line at a time in partnership with fellow Lacunae blogger, Natasha.

I won’t claim to have completed all the challenges.  But I had a go at most of them. You can see my responses to the challenges, and those of many others, on Twitter via #64millionartists.

So what did I take away from this experience, and how is it relevant to learning and teaching?

Do

Talking to my 8-year old self.
Talking to my 8-year old self.

It’s amazing how much time you can spend thinking and writing about creativity, and yet not actually do any creative activity beyond the thinking and writing.. I think this can be a real issue when working as an academic developer. I have certainly spent more time showing people how to make rich pictures and explaining the theory behind them than I have ever spent doing them myself.

Putting aside 20 minutes a day to complete the challenge, and allowing myself some more time if I was enjoying the activity, was a real treat.  And I did feel like I had achieved something everyday. I don’t consider myself to be any good at certain types of creative activities but I am quite competitive, so turn the activity into a challenge and I’ll give it a go!

I think this points to the first take away message from this challenge. Having a go was what mattered. And having someone else telling me what it was I had to have a go at gave me permission to not be very good at it.

As teachers do we give ourselves time to do something each day (or even each week!) that we might not be very good at? By this I don’t mean the ‘worthy’ activity of identifying areas for CPD and working on them. I mean just having a go at something where the outcome itself is of little consequence. Given we are all so time poor, it isn’t surprising if we don’t. But perhaps we should.The actual ‘doing’ bit of the tasks, which in many cases involved very tactile experiences, felt very satisfying. This was definitely more about process than outcome.

And it is that focus on process that might make this a very useful learning tool when students can be so very focused on outcome. It’s difficult to introduce tasks into learning and teaching that aren’t directly related to the context of their desired outcomes (their qualifications) – “If it doesn’t count towards their grade, they won’t do it”. And because of this we do take the time and effort to try and contextualise activities that don’t involve direct scored assessment by explaining how they might help them do better in that type of assessment. Once again we drag their thinking back to outcome rather than process.

But what if we didn’t try and do this contextualisation? What if we just provided a short, sharp bit of creative ‘doing’ each day? Would they do it? They might if it were fun!

But why would we, as teachers, bother?

Think

Memories of summer
Memories of summer

Now you don’t need me to reiterate here all the arguments about the role of reflection in and on learning – hopefully we can all agree that this is a ‘good thing’. But it is not always easy to get students to engage in reflection in a consistent and constructive way. In order to somehow structure the activity we provide templates or series of questions that require a response.

Perhaps we should think about how we can use a much more ‘free association’ approach (going all Freudian!) to encouraging the development of these particular academic muscles. The prompts given by the 64 million artists team were What was it like? Did you enjoy the experience? Did it feel difficult?

The qualitative researcher in me baulks at the inclusion of some closed questions as a prompt for reflection, but actually I found they worked well. When short of time or feeling a little alienated by any of the activities, I could respond quite simply no/yes, but often I found that afterwards the question of ‘why that response?’ spent time percolating through my thought processes. Sometimes even eliciting more sophisticated responses! At other times I felt I could just stick with the no/yes response with no need to justify my response in any way.

Might students, especially those only just beginning to shape their academic identities, find this a more engaging prospect when compared to the more directed reflection we tend to offer them?

Share

Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.
Instructions to an alien. How to mend a broken heart.

Sharing your thoughts and reflections – always a ‘deep- breath’ moment! The focus here was on sharing the feelings and thoughts about doing the activity rather than sharing whatever you had produced. Again, process rather than output. Lots of people did share what they had produced, however, and I found that sharing very affecting.

You could share via a project space on the 64 million artists website, or via social media. Mostly I engaged via Twitter, and as the month progressed I felt a real sense of community developing.

I have been reading and thinking a lot recently about student self-efficacy and resilience. And I keep returning to a piece of work that Simon Cassidy wrote about on the HEA learning and teaching blog. Specifically, the issue that students who are more resilient for themselves also have the potential to support the development of other students’ self-efficacy and, as a result, their resilience. As Simon points out, this has encouraging implications for peer-led learning and mentoring.

Again, there is a tendency to formalise this type of learning and mentoring, but is there space for a much more fluid engagement in a learning community? One of the things that struck me about the January Challengers that shared via Twitter was just what a diverse bunch we were. In most instances the only connection was participating in the challenge, but that connection still enabled learning from each other, and a supportive and encouraging space.

One aspect I include in workshops I facilitate that focus on providing learning and teaching beyond time and space is the need to provide opportunities for learners, who may never meet face-to-face, to create a social space for peer-support. In my work as  a tutor with the Open University that space was a ‘Cafe’ forum within the module space on the VLE.

Interestingly, during the rounds of introductions that characterise the beginning of the module students seem to want to be able to situate each other both in terms of space and time. Contributions usually started with “Hello my name is xxx and I live in xxx”. Subsequent discussions – discussions where people were continually presenting and (re)presenting their identities – usually included some elements relating to the the contexts in which they were attempting to study.

But these spaces, confined as they were within the VLE and linked to specific modules, were formally informal! Is there the potential for students to come together around a theme like creativity and an aim like completing the challenges to develop a learning space that encourages peer learning and support? Would that space be the richer for having students from different disciplines and at different stages of their academic careers contributing?

More questions than answers there! I’d love to hear your thoughts – or to hear about any similar strategies you already have in place.

So, the January Challenge is done and dusted, but I have signed up for the Friday Challenge – a creative challenge sent to your email box every Friday. Why not join up and join in? http://64millionartists.com/pledge/

A love that dare not speak its name?

Lecture at LTH LundThe long-maligned lectures holds sway (if not student attention) in most higher education institutions, and gives many HE professionals their job title.

In her article ‘Lecture me, really’ Molly Worthen bravely pledges her troth to this time-tested practice, so unjustly spurned by modish educators.

In her article ‘Lecture me, really’ Molly Worthen misguidedly chains herself to this archaic practice, so wisely rejected by enlightened educators.

Pieces in defence of the lecture appear regularly – and are met by a celebratory “hooray” from its avid and loyal admirers, and by dismay and bewilderment from its detractors.

Whichever tribe you belong to every vindication or condemnation offers valuable opportunity to revisit dearly held assumptions about the way we teach and the way in which students learn. Engaging in debate about divisive practices like the lecture can reinvigorate our engagement with the big questions: what can a University education do, how should it do it, and how do we as educators and students as learners best achieve our goals?

So, maybe not lecture me, really, but disagree with me, absolutely.

This post was one of our advent learning and teaching treats. To explore all the other treats click here.