Teaching and mortality

I’ve been thinking about my approach to teaching lately. Several things have prompted this: I was recently awarded Senior Fellowship of the UK’s Higher Education Academy (which involved writing a reflective teaching philosophy), and I am co-editing a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy (with teaching as activist practice a focus of at least one of the forthcoming papers). (I will post on academic activism in future as the special issue is prepared and published).

I was also inspired to think about teaching after reading Cory Taylor’s powerful Dying: A Memoir, shortlisted for the Stella Prize, written after she was diagnosed with melanoma-related brain cancer at the age of sixty. It follows a mortality theme in my recent reading (and this list is  longer than I had realised!): Being Mortal, When Breath Becomes Air, Wasted (longlisted for the Stella Prize), Disaster Falls, Undying: A Love Story, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination and Wave.

Tangentially, Disaster Falls was written by an academic after the death of his 8 year old son on a family rafting expedition. It is heartbreaking account of how we endure, together and apart, the most difficult experiences of our lives. One paragraph that particularly struck me was the intersection of his grief and a rejection at work:

Other things continued to feel meaningless: political debates, intellectual questions, and my work, too. I still could not muster much interest. But when I learned that a book contract with a leading publisher would not come through, I bent over in my office. I actually bent over because of the setback, and because I realized right then that experiencing one tragedy does not mean that more hardship will not come your way. At that moment, I had to admit that somewhere within me material strivings remained strong enough to make me bend over in disappointment. After all this?

Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End When Breath Becomes Air WaveDisaster Falls: A Family Story  Undying: A Love Story An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination Dying: A Memoir

Mortality and teaching may seem tenuously connected, but the link goes to the heart of why slow academia is important to me. One of the most insightful teaching evaluations I’ve had came from an 18 year old first year student. At the time, my daughter was critically ill in hospital, and I was teaching then rushing to her bedside (as a casual, I had no access to paid leave). In his feedback, this young man wrote: ‘I loved this unit, but I got the impression that Agnes didn’t really want to be here.’ He was right. (Soon afterwards I moved into a project role for a couple of years, before returning to teaching).

Dying is a curiously uplifting book, and Taylor’s descriptions of discovering the pleasure of writing are delightful. Her first school (in Australia) inspired “considerable bodily anxiety” in its students, but when her family moved to Fiji, she found school a joyful experience:

Stationery had been one of my earliest glorious discoveries. I had loved it since I could remember. I was a particular fan of coloured pencils in box sets or tins … They were best when new, of course, when everything lay ahead of them, and before any mistakes and erasures had occurred. Which is no doubt why I loved them, because they were promise made manifest.

On my first day in class, I was allocated a magnificent desk. Made of solid timber, its hinged lid opened up to reveal a spacious cavity where all my stationery could be arranged … I remember sitting there, watching our teacher shape letters of the alphabet in cursive script for us to copy on the board, and sensing a shift in my consciousness … It had to do with the act of writing, which suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world to practice and master, not for its meaning—that would come later—but for its mystery.

I remember two teachers who prompted a similar feeling of discovery for me: Mrs Graham in Years 5 and 6 of primary school, who gave positive feedback on a poem I had written about fairies, and Mr Brauner in Years 7 and 9 of high school, who dressed as the ghost of Shakespeare and brought his plays to life.

As an undergraduate at university, I was inspired by teachers in Critical and Cultural Studies who challenged the ways I saw the world and raised awareness of the taken-for-granted in everyday life. Starting as a tutor 17 years ago, I followed this lead and focused on developing students’ thinking processes by asking questions rather than delivering content. After I finished my PhD, I shifted discipline to Higher Education, but this approach to teaching travelled with me. My professional development of academics and teaching in postgraduate education units has a social reform agenda. I see learning is a collective process rather than an individual pursuit.  I believe the role of the teacher is, as Skelton (2006) puts it, to “disturb the student’s current epistemological understandings and interpretations of reality by offering new insights.”  To put it simply: I want my students to make their world a better place in a small way.

12 thoughts on “Teaching and mortality

  1. Such a moving post, Agnes! Your comments on teaching resonate with my own disappointment when people talk about students being ‘comfortable’. I want them to be excited, challenged, disturbed, inspired – not just ‘comfortable’!


    • Thanks Cally – I love those words to describe teaching. These adjectives could be the basis for a great discussion exercise about teaching and learning. This could work with academics and students. I can imagine all sorts of responses to the prompt ‘comfortable’!


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