Storytelling

I’ve had little to blog. Work has been a constant stream of meetings, and complex and challenging, but uninspiring, tasks. I’m listening to Classical Music for Reading while doing this work. I’ve been wondering: where’s the story in that? This highlights a recent preoccupation of mine: the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we do.

This year I am studying creative writing—a wonderful, yet daunting, experience but one that is solely mine and not in service to other people’s needs and wants. It is only week one but it is already priming me to notice how we craft stories.

I recently read Australian songwriter Clare Bowditch’s You Own Kind of Girl about her experience of overcoming debilitating anxiety. We have posted her mantra on the kitchen wall: Face, Accept, Float, Let time pass. Bowditch found this in Claire Weekes’ 1960s work Self Help for Your Nerves. (Books follow books: I am now reading Judith Hoare’s The Woman who Cracked the Anxiety Code).

Above all, Bowditch tells a good story. In a podcast with Wil Anderson about writing her book, Clare used the word story many times (and turned attention to Wil’s own stories, to his seeming discomfort).

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Clare. My daughter and I listened to her songs a lot during a tough year. ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’, ‘People Like Me’ and ‘You Make My Happy’ buoyed us. In response to an open call for correspondence, my daughter emailed Clare to tell her this, and received an affirming letter in return.

While writing this post, I was reminded of an example I used when teaching visual narratives many years ago. It was an extract from Robert Winston’s BBC series The Human Body which showed the life story of ‘Charlotte’ from birth to death. (Note to self: I must rewatch the Raging Teens episode). The series was made in 1998 (!) and I’ve been unable to find a good quality copy online. The scene I was thinking of was a statistical version of a life in fast forward—6 months on the loo, 2 weeks kissing, 28m of fingernails, eight years at work, 150 friends,  sex 2580 times, 12 years talking, and only 2 of her 8 great-grandchildren remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell in academic contexts, beyond what can be quantified. I have just started reading The Positioning and Making of Female Professors—some great stories in this edited collection.

I continue to reflect on Tamson Pietsch’s excellent blog post on rewriting her academic biography. She writes:

[My academic biography] says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home.

She re-narrates her story, noting that it was an uncomfortable experience.

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle illustrates a similar discomfort in ‘Academic career construction: personnel documents as personal documents‘. This journal article is a great read (and includes ‘don’t be driven by stories’ as advice given to early career academics). Ortiz-Vilarelle tells a story:

I felt discouraged by my department from applying for promotion to Full Professor because conventional advice about my publication gap of more than two years and the language of ‘continuous’ scholarly publication … I applied anyway … I had a choice to make. I could let the gap stand as a ‘trace,’ a story not told, and risk that at each level of review, it would somehow speak for itself … Or I could ‘get personal’ and explain the reasons for my gap … I included two lines, just two lines, that read: ‘Obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship are two medically complicated pregnancies following tenure, one of which required leave time, and the care and passing of my terminally ill mother shortly after my promotion to Associate Professor. More recently, I required a medical leave in Spring 2017 for several necessary surgeries.’ That’s all. Not very elegant. Not much at all in terms of word count, but such a trace.

I haven’t yet condensed my story as well as those told above—regular readers will know this blog is itself a story in progress.

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You are here

Once again, Karina Luzia (aka @acahacker) puts in a tweet something that takes me a few more words.

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As careers progress, many academics find themselves in the middle.

I’ve mentioned Winter’s work Academic manager or managed academic? in a previous post. Winter (2009) contends that managerialist attempts to align academics to corporate values lead to a schism between the “identities of ‘academic manager’ (values congruent with the managerial discourse) and ‘managed academic’ (values incongruent with the managerial discourse)” (p 121).

Academic managers have internalised values and constructed goals and working patterns that reflect the imperatives of a corporate management system, such as strong hierarchical management, budgetary control, income maximisation, commercialisation and performance management indicators … Managed academics have defended and promoted distinctive accounts of their own professional identity and that of the institution by invoking values of self-regulation, collegial practice and educational standards.

What about those whose identities straddle both? Or who move between these positions?

Last year, Times Higher Education posted an article on academics who accept senior leadership roles in universities. These voices resonated:

  • I gained 11kg in my first year as a VC, and wasn’t able to lose it until after I finished.
  • I began … to study the university itself. My administrative work always seemed like fieldwork of a kind.
  • I have gained a more nuanced understanding of the wider complexities within and beyond my university.
  • It was an unusual opportunity for a woman and a non-scientist to have a voice.
  • It was painful to find myself on the wrong side of a “bosses versus workers”.
  • You have the chance to influence change directly.
  • One question insistently echoed in my brain: What am I doing here?

In navigating life in the middle, this is what helps me. Learning to listen. Aligning my work to my personal values: nurturance, openness, cooperation, challenge and humour. And remembering that the university and its work is far more complex and variable than a list of two (or even three) kinds of people.

Beginnings, endings and lifetimes

The past few weeks have reminded me of the importance of rituals to mark beginnings, endings and the lifetimes in between.

At work, we have celebrated new jobs and roles, baby showers, reunions, farewells and retirements.

 

With family and friends, we have celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary (pictured below, the tie my father wore to get married in 1969), birthdays, winter solstice and 100 days of learning for the Kindergarten kids at school.

These celebrations has been a break from ordinary routines and an opportunity to acknowledge successes, transitions and milestones.

The event that sparked this post was the retirement of my PhD supervisor, Professor Nick Mansfield, who first taught me as an undergraduate student nearly 25 years ago. In the University’s recent Higher Degree Research newsletter, we reflected on our relationship (thanks to Sally Purcell for organising this):

HDR Dynamic Duos
Agnes Bosanquet

How did you come to know each other?

Nick taught me as an undergraduate student in Cultural Studies. I’m surprised to say that was over twenty years ago! He was an inspiring teacher, bringing complex theory to life in relatable ways – so much so I made Cultural Studies my major.

What was a particular hurdle you worked through, together?

In 2006, Nick became my third PhD supervisor. I had previously tutored on his units, but I think he was the Head of Department who took on the troublesome students. I had a sick baby and had gone AWOL from my thesis. Nick saved my thesis from what Inger Mewburn, the thesis whisperer, calls the valley of shit.

What do you appreciate most about Nick?

I had not realised supervision could be so engaging, generous, thoughtful, reliable and compassionate. My greatest obstacle to completion was my daughter’s illness. My thesis focussed on the philosophy of Luce Irigaray, and I wrote my experiences into the thesis. It became a way of testing the weight and resonance of feminist philosophies on motherhood, which I found wanting. I know the approach of my thesis was challenging at times – in fact, Nick annotated ‘This makes me very nervous!’ in the margin. We had wonderful conversations.

You have known each other for many years now. What have you learnt from Nick?

I have learned a lot from Nick. I submitted in 2009, and graduated in 2010 with my partner, daughter and parents in the audience. Nick wrote a reference for my first academic role, in the Learning and Teaching Centre at Macquarie. My manager at the time said it was one of the most well-written references he’d read. Many people told me I was committing career suicide by taking on a part-time, teaching-focussed academic role; Nick was positive and focussed on the possibilities.

I’m still at Macquarie, now Associate Dean (Curriculum) in the Faculty of Human Sciences. My daughter is now a teenager, and Nick has also trodden that ground before me. He told me of the many things he enjoyed about parenting teenagers, and some days I need to remind myself of these. Nick has been a role model for how I supervise my MRes and PhD students. In a way, the skill is similar to parenting teenagers – getting the balance right between providing support and encouraging independence. My slow PhD has been a useful learning experience to support others.

Nick Mansfield

How did you come to know each other?

I remembered Agnes from her undergraduate years and when she as a tutor so when she approached me to be her Supervisor, I felt that I knew her quite well already. I had already worked with a number of candidates who, through no fault of their own, had multiple supervisors and Agnes had the additional issue of an interrupted candidature because of her child’s illness. My first impressions of Agnes as a PhD candidate were that she was witty, reflective and a sophisticated thinker.

What was a particular hurdle you worked through, together?

There were a couple of hurdles that Agnes and I worked through together. Agnes had already done a significant amount of work when I became her Supervisor and her project was a very original take on a prominent and influential philosopher which was intellectually risky because it challenged the orthodox thinking. Additionally, Agnes also had to cope with her daughter’s serious and unpredictable illness. Agnes attended a conference led by the philosopher and raised views that were considered unorthodox. I was impressed with Agnes’ courage to pursue new ideas in the face of resistance.

What do you appreciate most about Agnes?

Her courage and her strength. I admired her perseverance to continue with her project when there were so many personal challenges. Agnes’ determination never faltered in pursuing her creative and inventive approach to her PhD project. The personal and intellectual excitement for her thesis meant that our discussions were buoyant, engaging and we were both passionate about her ideas.

You have known each other for many years now. What have you learnt from Agnes?

How to maintain composure in very trying circumstance. Often our meetings followed a period where Agnes had been at the hospital with her daughter and had meetings with Doctors and I was always impressed with Agnes’ capacity to reflect on the experiences and share anecdotes in an almost light-hearted way. I observed how Agnes continued to maintain her commitment to her PhD which is a difficult undertaking even when there are not additional challenges. The word resilience can be over-used and yet it describes Agnes well. Agnes has a mature attitude and has a great life-force. There is a lot to learn from Agnes’ natural wisdom and I enjoy her wit and openness.

Happy celebrating!