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!

135 words

An alarming flu season is underway here and, like many, I have been sick, looking after others and trying to keep up with work. A colleague and I are writing an abstract, and I have promised 100-150 words by the end of today. This seems achievable, so I am blogging the same number.

I have recommended this article to several colleagues and PhD candidates this week: Ways of constructing research questions: gap-spotting or problematization?

In brief, Sandberg and Alvesson (2010) argue that identifying a gap in the literature dominates, but is lazy scholarship. Gap-spotting is relatively easy, we’re taught to do it and it lacks criticality. Alternatively, ‘problematization’ challenges assumptions and enables the development of new and creative theories.

Once seen, gap-spotting can’t be unseen, including in your own, already published, writing. Consider yourself warned.

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The edge of knowing

Several times recently I have become aware of the limits of knowledge, and what it is  like to feel uncertain and unknowing.

In writing group, I gave feedback on a paper about teaching grammar to young children. Unfortunately, I came of age in an era of Australian education that refused to teach grammatics. The limit of my knowledge: a verb is a doing word; a statement I have subsequently discovered to be false, or only partly true. At the risk of stating the obvious for some readers, verbs can be doing words AND saying words, sensing words, relating words, or existing words.

I have an excellent tacit knowledge of grammar, but reading a paper on its teaching made me aware of the limits of my understanding. To familiarise myself with linguistics terminology, I looked at first year lecture notes. (My university has an online learning commons—that is, lecture notes for most courses are open to staff across the university). So much I have not learned.

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Once a week, I volunteer at my son’s school for 45 minutes of individual reading with children in his class. The five and six year olds guess words more often than not. From week to week, their learning is palpable, as is the pleasure in their achievements. It’s amazing to witness their progress after only 15 weeks of school.

My daughter’s high school recently hosted an evening program on adolescent development. The teenage brain is a truly frightening place! (The raising children website has a good summary of the back-to-front development of the brain during adolescence). Referencing Dweck’s work on growth mindset, the school psychologists reinforced the power of ‘yet’ (for our children and ourselves).

I can’t do this … yet.

I don’t know this … yet.

This week I read some new (to me) theoretical work. I am impatient. I want to gulp it down and regurgitate it for a paper I am writing. I want to perform an institutionalised reading. I need to slow down and sip the reading. I don’t understand it … yet.

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‘Threshold concepts’ is Meyer and Land’s well-known phrase for how learners navigate difficult or troublesome knowledge. As they describe it in their seminal (or should I say oeuvral?) work:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

This ‘portal’ or liminal phase of learning is marked by unknowingness and uncertainty.  It is a transformative time during which shifts in subjectivity occur. The learner is a different person on the other side of the portal. As Kiley and Wisker (2009) characterise it in the context of doctoral education, the liminal state is defined by change and oscillation:

This altered identity often comes after a liminal period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt, something akin to the transition within a rite of passage … Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one … It is while in this state that doctoral students are often likely to feel ‘stuck’, depressed, unable to continue, challenged and confused.

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My colleague Jayde Cahir and I wrote about our experiences of liminality as doctoral candidates (‘What Feelings Didn’t I Experience!’: Affect and Identity in PhD Writing, published in Cecile Badenhorst and Cally Guerin’s edited collection Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers).

Did you experience any identity shifts during the process of writing your dissertation?

Agnes: Becoming a mother completely changed me as a person. It consequently changed my research – in fact, my whole orientation towards feminist theory changed … [It] meant a great deal of change and uncertainty. I felt completely different … I think this was an element in my subsequent transition to a different discipline – one dominated by a practical rather than a theoretical orientation.

Jayde: At the beginning of my candidature I felt that I was ready to ‘become’ an academic but as time went on I found that I was asking myself questions like – do I want to be an academic?  And why am I ‘doing’ a PhD? Looking back this was most likely due to the anxiety that I experienced while writing my dissertation but in saying that, the process of writing and research during my doctoral education made me seriously question who I was and where I was going career wise.

What became apparent to us in writing about our learning experiences as doctoral candidates and early career academics was that liminality was ongoing. We never reach a state of complete knowingness.

What did you learn during the process of transitioning from doctoral candidate to early-career researcher?

Agnes: This was a huge learning curve as I changed disciplines. I became a student again, enrolling in a higher education qualification, which prepared me for the shift to a new discipline. Three years on, I still feel that I am establishing myself as a researcher and a writer.

Jayde: I think the key thing that I learnt … was how much more work there was to do. Even though I had spent four years developing and improving my skills, I was really only at the beginning – again.

Photos in this post were taken on a recent family bushwalk; same spot, camera pointing in different directions.

We cross one threshold, only to encounter another. I am keenly aware of this, once again, as an academic and as a mother.

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Slow academia: a panel discussion

This week I listened to the recording of a Slow Academia panel I participated in earlier this year. It was organised by Demelza Marlin for higher degree research students and early career academics, and I was on a panel alongside Andrew Dunstall, an academic from Philosophy “who surfs casual contracts from semester to semester and tries to write research articles in his spare time”, and sociologist Michelle Jamieson, who is currently HDR Learning Advisor in Arts.

Our talking points included the following challenging questions:

What does slow academia offer beyond a darn good critique of the corporate logic of the modern university? Does the vocabulary of slowness offer us a way to re-value forms of academic labour that are currently under-valued (spending time with students, cultivating scholarly communities, spending time in thought)? What is at stake for HDRs, ECRs and casual staff in going against the grain and opting to produce less? Is that what slowness is ultimately about? How do you incorporate it into your working routines?

Here is a link to the 90 minute recording and Demelza’s slides are available separately: An introduction to slow academia.

Listening to an audio recording isn’t my favourite way to experience something I’ve missed (in this recording questions from the audience are especially difficult to hear, and there are some quiet gaps), so here are some of the highlights.

From Demelza Marlin:

  • Demelza described “time sickness” or “time poverty” in academia, a culture of speed, quantified academia, productivity and time management, anxiety, and fragmented time
  • Because the audience was predominantly higher degree research students, Demelza spent some time talking about the push towards “fast PhDs”. At its extreme, there is an organisation that promises to “support” you to complete a PhD in 3 months!
  • Demelza describes time management strategies in relation to Max Weber’s work: “idleness is a sin, leisure is important only in that it restores you for the working day”. “We are invited to think in utilitarian terms about our leisure as well as our work”
  • She shared this gem of university marketing “Never stand still” and, tongue in cheek, encouraged us to try never standing still and see what that experience feels like

From Michelle Jamieson:

  • As an academic learning advisor for research candidates in Arts, Michelle sees students under pressure to complete a PhD in three years: distracted, pulled in multiple directions, loss of wellbeing, less pleasure in research
  • Tries to achieve time at work that does not feel pressured or measured by not focusing on productivity, but on enjoying what she is doing
  • Michelle is running a workshop series on mindfulness for researchers, including regular meditations (I am keen to attend some of these sessions, so I hope they continue next year).

From Andrew Dunstall:

  • No allegiance to any slow movement, “I am just slow”
  • Asks: What has to change in institutions to ensure a future generation of researchers and to ensure high quality research and teaching?
  • Maintain your body if you want to be an effective researcher: be active, eat well
  • Identify your own expectations and beliefs that put pressure on (e.g. as a PhD candidate thinking “I want my articles to become classics that are read in 100 years” is too ambitious).

From me:

  • Being a slow academic is a consequence of my experiences as a PhD candidate with a sick baby; that  was my pressure cooker
  • Slow academia should not be individual, it requires collective institutional and sectoral focus on the politics and cultures of higher education
  • I recommended ImaginePhD, an online career planning tool for humanities and social sciences

From 50 minutes on, we had questions from the audience, which covered:

  • daydreaming, reflexive freedom and timeless time
  • the need for students to have time to make mistakes and experience failure
  • writing and research practices and the motivation of stress and deadlines (I recommended Helen Sword’s Air and Light and Time and Space)
  • academic activism, the importance of union membership, and leadership roles
  • the opportunities and limitations of working part-time
  • non-linear conceptions of time (e.g. I Aboriginal experiences of time circles, eternity now).

Lots of food for thought! For the time being, here’s Demelza’s summing up of slow academia using Seeber and Berg’s The Slow Professor:

Slowness is not just a critique, it also offers an alternative, a different model for academia … The slow movement advocates a shift in our practice and our public discourse and our relationship to work. This gives meaning to thinking about scholarship as community (not competition), to periods of rest, and understanding that research [has] rhythms that include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive. It allows us to shift from worrying about the annual report to thinking about what is sustainable in the long haul.