A comrade retires

This post is adapted from a speech I gave for my close colleague Cathy Rytmeister at her National Tertiary Education Union farewell. If you have worked with the NTEU in any capacity, then I expect you know Cathy. If you have taken parental leave from an Australian university, then you have benefitted from her advocacy. It was honour to give a speech to celebrate Cathy’s work for the NTEU and her retirement from Macquarie University, where she has worked to improve working conditions for over thirty years.

Cathy Rytmeister on a bicycle with NTEU flag

I have known Cathy for a long time. I encountered her at Macquarie University over twenty years ago soon after I started work as a research assistant at the then Centre for Professional Development. Cathy had recently moved from teaching and researching in statistics to academic development.

We were in the tea room — the Centre was well known for its generous morning teas. So much so, that as a casual staff member,  I asked whether I should omit the time from my timesheet. The director of the centre, Stephen Marshall, and my manager, Lyn Hammett, said no. Morning tea was the most important part of the working day. It was an opportunity for conceptualising research, developing teaching capabilities, and building relationships. We also laughed a great deal and ate a lot of cake.

So, twenty odd years ago, we were in the tea room of a cottage on campus that has since been knocked down. (Cathy asked if I had any photos of the cottage last week, and I said yes, before realising the only ones I had were of the bulldozer demolishing it.) This morning tea — a vast spread of cakes, biscuits and tea in front of us — I was sitting next to Cathy Rytmeister. Staring at my profile, she said ‘I know you’ and asked whether I had attended lessons at a local art centre with my brothers in the 1980s. I had.

Cathy had been my art teacher as a child. Here I am:

a sepia-tinted photograph of a child with paint-covered clothes

Cathy then asked whether I was a member of the NTEU. I was, and said my father had told me it was important to join the union. ‘I knew I liked your parents’, she declared.

There are so many ways in which I could describe Cathy — authentic, humorous, spontaneous, loyal, ‘not entirely whinge-free’ as her partner Roy has said. But I shall pick just three words and share some examples of how she has contributed to the NTEU and inspired me and others: integrity, generosity and passion.

First, her integrity

Cathy speaks truth to power, and has described her role as being “the little voice that annoys”. Like me, Cathy grew up pro-union, and her strong sense of social justice was honed in her childhood. Workplaces, notably the post office, and universities have played an important role in radicalising Cathy — she describes her time as a student at the Institute of Technology (now UTS) as a “hotbed of radicals” and a turbulent time that gave her a taste for campaigning, strikes and picket lines.  Studying maths at Macquarie and being a Student Rep in Academic Senate prompted a lifelong interest in academic governance and leadership, and the politics of higher education. She was active in the students’ political movements and worked with members of the Macquarie University Staff Association (MUSA), a branch of the Federated Australian University Staff Association (FAUSA) – a predecessor of the NTEU (thank you to Nikki Balnave for those details.)

Cathy has a long history with the NTEU, starting as a casual staff member at Macquarie in 1989, and joining the union as soon as she could as an academic a few years later. She has been active at all levels of the union, as a member of Branch Committee, NSW Division, National Councillor, Education Committee member, Women’s Action Committee, state Assistant Secretary, Bargaining Committee member over several rounds, Macquarie Branch Vice President (for both academics and general staff) and six years as Branch President. She has participated in four rounds of Enterprise Bargaining. It may have been faster to list the positions she has not held! A highlight of her union work is successfully campaigning for paid parental leave – and, like many, I and my children thank her for this.

We can celebrate Cathy’s successes, and recognise there is still plenty of work for us to do. Everyone here will be familiar with Cathy’s integrity and principles in the ongoing struggle — let me check my notes from conversations with her — against rampant individualism, unrestrained commercialisation and passive complicity with the neoliberal agenda.

Second word: her generosity

I am sure you have all been recipients of Cathy’s generosity. It has had a powerful influence on my professional and personal life — I can’t disconnect the two because there’s an intimacy to working with Cathy. We’ve been through challenges — multiple rounds of change management, parental leave, break-ups, illness, the deaths of colleagues and friends — and celebrations of birthdays, degrees, jobs and family. Cathy and I have worked closely in the NTEU, in politics for The Greens, and as co-teachers, co-authors, researchers and committee members. I have interviewed her several times for different projects — her knowledge keeps on giving — and she has not let me forget putting [snort] into one of the transcripts.

Cathy nourishes people — sometimes with food (pancakes in the tearoom), sometimes with hard liquor, or by knitting socks and baby blankets. (This photo, over sixteen years ago, shows her exquisite knitting.)

a baby in a snuggle bed with a green knitted blanket

She supports and celebrates people — in song (her farewell songs are legendary, including Knock knock knocking on Kevin’s door for Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Kevin Jameson), with advice, and by sharing quality time.  Cathy feels deeply and her emotions are big. It’s a wonder that someone so sensitive can be so tough at the same time. We’re lucky that Cathy feels the world the way she does, and that she is generous with her vulnerabilities. Cathy is generous by disagreeing with people and challenging them. Her relationships, including with those she disagrees with, are enriched by her generosity.

She is also generous with her opinions. You won’t leave a meeting wondering what Cathy really thinks about something or someone. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, what would Cathy say? A discussion with Cathy, or witnessing her in enterprise bargaining or on academic governance committees, leaves you in no doubt about her principles: equity, transparency, fairness, solidarity and activism.

Cathy shows that the revolution begins with care. Warm feet, a full belly and a song.

But don’t let being comfortable fool you. Cathy will challenge you. ‘Your warm feet feel good in those knitted socks, don’t they, your belly is full with the food I cooked, your ears are full of song, but what’s good for your world? What’s good for your neighbour? What’s good for the society as a whole? What’s good for people you never see? How will you pay the debt of your privilege, and share what you have?’

Finally, her passion.

Cathy is passionate about higher education. She is passionate about activism and politics within and beyond the university. Quality learning and teaching, education as a public good, effective leadership, the student experience, staff rights and conditions…

And she is passionate about life outside of work. Singing in two activist choirs, travelling, caring for her grandkids, loving Roy. That is inspiring. Let it be an example to you that your life at work does not define you. Cathy is leaving Macquarie, but she has songs to write, gigs to perform, socks to knit, campaigns to join, and a rich and loving circle of family and friends. May you have the same.

I have talked about Cathy’s generosity, her love and care. Part of her passion is also anger. Many of you will have seen Cathy being the ‘crankiest woman in the room’. She reminds us that anger is necessary and valuable. I am looking forward to the publication of her email drafts folder so we can finally see all the messages that were deemed too saucy to send after the heat of the moment had cooled!

Cathy’s integrity, generosity and passion come together in her work for the NTEU, and her life’s work.

Her office offers something of an archive as she cleans it out and uncovers gems of her history at Macquarie and with the NTEU. Treasures will include: bawdy and possibly defamatory song lyrics that she has written, a facsimile of an olive branch sent to former Vice-Chancellor Di Yerbury, learning and teaching awards, and union t-shirts and posters, including those inviting former Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz to come to the party.

A toast to Cathy. To what she has given us, to what she leaves us and to what comes next. Thank you comrade.

ABCs of Pedagogy: D is for diversity

Welcome to the fourth post in the ABCs of Pedagogy cross-posted at the university blog Teche. One of the aims of this series is to support learning and teaching award applicants. Although deadlines for internal awards have closed at my university, external award and recognition applications remain open. The skill of using scholarly language to describe your teaching and learning practice is also valuable for the purposes of reflection, conversations about teaching and learning, scholarly activities, and career progression. See the previous posts in the series.

Teaching for diversity, equity and inclusion have been a focus at my university this year, and the conversations that have resulted have been challenging and rich. These have included an Inclusive Teaching event and responses to the questions it generated on teaching for accessibility, teaching for diversity, reasonable adjustments; exemplars of Indigenous learning and teaching; focus groups with staff and students on supporting inclusive teaching; and a podcast discussion club (like a book club, for podcasts) on belonging and including teachers.

For the purposes of this series, what scholarship can you use to describe your diversity pedagogy or inclusive teaching pedagogy?

These pedagogical approaches draw on constructivism’s active learning and student-centred learning approaches (see C is for Constructivism), special education (supporting students who have physical, sensory, cognitive and social learning needs) and universal design for learning (see this free self-paced module from Disability Awareness).

If you are applying for a learning and teaching award, or otherwise documenting your teaching practice, and would like to describe your diversity pedagogy, start with your students.

Your classroom has students with diverse backgrounds, genders, religions, accents, ethnicities, abilities, ages, and experiences, including students who are first in family, underachieved at school, have had interrupted education, manage learning or health difficulties, are studying part-time, and a myriad of other factors that can impact learning.

Reflect on your responses to the following questions: What strategies do you use to get to know your students, especially early in the course? How do you ensure students feel welcome in the classroom? How do you make visible that diversity is a strength? Do you support individual students or cohorts with varying needs? How do you invite feedback on inclusivity and respond to what students tell you?

Continue reflecting on your practice and your teaching strategies, learning materials, assessment design and student evaluation. What can you evidence through student outcomes and feedback, collaboration with colleagues, curriculum design and engagement with professions, industry or community?

This reflection (I recommend making notes!) will enable you to be specific about your practice and apply an appropriate theoretical or conceptual framework to describe your philosophy of valuing student diversity.

Perhaps your focus is building your students’ academic capital.

Rowlands (2018) defines academic capital as the “various inherited and acquired resources that students bring to bear upon their education” (p 1824). The concept comes from the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986) on social, cultural and symbolic (as opposed to economic) capital.

At the risk of over-simplifying these concepts, here are brief definitions based on how Bourdieu (1986) described these currencies of power and privilege. Social capital refers to connection to a network of recognition, support and esteem (an old boys’ club). Cultural capital includes access to resources: material (a musical instrument), institutional (a musical education) and dispositional (an appreciation for opera). Symbolic capital is more abstract but can be understood as the recognition of status and prestige, and the extent to which a person able to ‘fit in’ or belong in a particular context.

Academic capital is a combination of these forms of capital and is enabled by quality education and facilities, access to resources and technologies, participation in extra and co-curricular activities, and social and community support.

Referring back to your reflective note-taking, how do you work with students to alleviate the constraints of the uneven distribution of academic capital in your classroom? Do you include an accessibility statement? Do you scaffold assessment tasks and share exemplars? Do you provide feedback on an early, low stakes assessment task?

Or, perhaps, your focus is improving students’ self-efficacy, or belief in their capabilities for learning, which is a powerful predictor of student success (see Bandura’s social cognitive theory (1997) which builds on the theories discussed in C is for Constructivism). This might resonate if you have interest in self-regulation, motivation and other psychological concepts. More on these ideas when we reach M is for Metacognition.

The topic of inclusion has been interrogated from multiple perspectives which gives teachers from different disciplines an opportunity to connect to it. Other ways of describing your diversity pedagogy include social justice, students as partners, decolonising pedagogy, trauma-informed pedagogy. More on these ideas in future posts when we reach F is for Freedom, N is for nurturing, S is for student-centred learning and U is for universal design.

Next in the series: E is for experiential learning.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.


Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital.’ In J. Richardson (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, pp 241-258. New York: Greenwood Press.

Rowlands, J. (2018). Deepening understandings of Bourdieu’s academic and intellectual capital through a study of academic voice within academic governance. Studies in Higher Education, 43(11), 1823-1836.

ABCs of pedagogy: C is for constructivism

Welcome to a new series, the ABCs of Pedagogy, cross-posted at the university blog Teche. It is learning and teaching award season at my university and one of the aims of this series is to provide applicants with the scholarly language to describe their teaching and learning practice. This skill goes beyond award applications and may also be useful for the purposes of reflection, conversations about teaching and learning, scholarly activities, and career progression.

If you have only heard of only one pedagogical term as a teacher in higher education, it is likely to be constructivism, one of the most influential learning theories in formal education across the world. You are probably familiar with John Biggs’ framework of constructive alignment, in which teaching activities and assessment tasks are designed to meet student learning outcomes (Biggs and Tang, 2011). This is evident in our approach to curriculum design: identify the intended learning outcomes for students, facilitate activities that enable students to develop and practice specific skills and knowledges, and assess their capability.

Constructivism and constructive alignment are linked through an understanding of students as active participants in their learning, and a view of the role of the teacher as structuring learning experiences to challenge students’ thinking. The starting point of constructive alignment is not “What do I want to teach?” but rather “What do I want students to learn?” (See a Quick Guide to Constructive Alignment here).

To sum up constructivism in a couple of sentences: learning, or the construction of new knowledge, happens through social interaction and is based on prior understandings. A constructivist teaching context is designed to enable students to collaborate to make meaning and to build knowledge based on their experiences.

As with all pedagogies discussed in this series, constructivism is contested in the scholarly literature and, strictly speaking, draws on many theories and encompasses multiple pedagogical approaches. Van Bergen and Parsell (2019) discuss three broad approaches to constructivism – radical, psychological and social constructivism – and their epistemic and pedagogic assumptions. As they succinctly put it:

Each version of constructivism …  can be seen as a particular elaboration of the central claim … that knowledge is constructed. If the construction is characterised individually, as the product of one person’s interactions with the world, the result is radical constructivism. If the construction is instead thought to happen in social groups, the version is social constructivism. If the cognitive processes that constitute the construction of knowledge are emphasised, the version is psychological constructivism.

Van Bergen & Parsell (2019, p 47).

The origins of constructivism, as we understand it in higher education today, are Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, Lev Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism and Ernst von Glaserfeld’s (1995) radical constructivism. (You’ll hear more from Vygotsky when we reach Z is for Zone of proximal development).

Piaget’s (1970) theory of cognitive development offers a model for ages and stages from childhood to adulthood learning. For the purposes of higher education, knowledge is constructed based on students’ prior learning and experience, and adult learning is marked by a capacity for abstract thinking and metacognition.

Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of social constructivism focuses on the social environment as a facilitator of development and learning through various cognitive tools and structures: language, symbols, objects, and institutions. In such a complex and changeable context, learning is seen to be directly connected to social factors.

In von Glaserfeld’s (1995) radical constructivism, knowledge only exists within a learner’s subjective experience. If this idea appeals, you may also be interested in ungrading.

The following questions may help you to decide whether constructivism aligns with your teaching philosophy and practice:

  • Would you describe your teaching as student-centred?
  • Are you a facilitator of learning?
  • Do you utilise active learning strategies in the classroom?
  • Are there opportunities for collaboration between students in small groups?
  • Is class discussion a valued learning strategy?
  • Are any of the following an important part of your teaching: experiential learning, problem-based learning, reflective practice (more on these ideas as we proceed through the alphabet in this series).

If these questions are partly true for you, it may be that your teaching context is appropriate for a moderated form of constructivism that incorporates direct instruction and guidance to scaffold learning. It is important to note that these brief explanations can only scratch the surface, and further reading and reflection on your teaching practice is always recommended.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.


Biggs, J. B. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill.

Piaget, J. (1970). Science of education and psychology of the child. New York: Oxford University Press.

Van Bergen, P. and Parsell, M. (2019). Comparing radical, social and psychological constructivism in Australian higher education: a psycho-philosophical perspective. Australian Educational Researcher, 46, 41–58

von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London: Routledge Falmer.

Vygotsky, L. V. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.