That holiday feeling

I’ve been back at work for a couple of weeks and school starts this week, which offers a welcome return to routines. In Australia, children have a six week (or longer, depending on the school) break over Christmas and January. It was a challenging time for many this year—bushfires across Eastern Australia constrained travel (at best), ruined air quality, put emergency services under pressure, devastated country, took properties and lives (at worst). That holiday feeling—certain smells that signal summer, blue skies, a loosening of the shoulders and release from responsibilities—remained elusive. It was not a time for “enjoying the flourishing of who you are” as Dessaix writes in The Pleasures of Leisure.

Returning to work and school can be difficult at the best of times (from the existential ‘Is this my life?’ to the mundane ‘I hate this uniform!’).  At my university, a new curriculum has increased workloads, especially for administrative staff. Organisational restructures are well underway, with redundancies and new roles to be navigated.

In a vain attempt to hold onto a holiday feeling, I am making time to ruminate, to follow idle trains of thought. This is an emotional time, so I have been thinking about how we recognise what we are feeling.

This emotion wheel from Geoffrey Roberts has prompted interesting conversations:

I Feel - Emotional Word Wheel - The Feel Wheel - American English

The emotions that describe the holiday feeling for me: eager, sleepy, free, joyful, and thankful. The return to work and school: pressured, overwhelmed, worried and hopeful.

How do we read the emotions of others? A pop culture example is  ‘resting bitch face’ (you know, when someone’s neutral expression is read by others as mean or critical). According to researchers who have developed a computer program to read faces, those with ‘RBF’ have a subtle contempt expression. I was able to load my own face into the reader. Turns out my neutral face is slightly angry, at least in this moment in time.

So how can I hold on to that holiday feeling? Today it is having breakfast at a cafe before I re-apply my lippy and head to a meeting. And deliberating over which book to start reading tonight:

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Shock to thought

This is a continuation of the previous post, reflecting on the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. The four papers I discuss here were among the highlights of the (too few) sessions I attended. (I plan to email several participants whose intriguing-sounding presentations I missed, in the hope they share slides or notes). Here is a brief wrap up of some of the ideas.

  • Pushing Academic Identity Development Further: imagination, creativity and ensoulment (Susan Carter, University of Auckland)

The abstract read:

I draw on imagination theory for an approach based upon how as individuals we make and have worlds (Johnson, 1987). How firmly can we each acknowledge the strengths of our individual experience and resulting imagination in order to have compassion without despair and to model generosity in an age of often mean-spirited accounting? The paper folds theory around academic development for the purpose of scaffolding inner growth a s a deliberate resistance strategy.

Carter structured her presentation around a series of questions, which prompted one of the most enjoyable discussions I had at the conference. For example: Think about your own childhood learning: what troubled, bothered or eluded you, and what did you like about learning in your early years at school? Our discussion spanned childhood games, the spaces we occupied, the games we created, and the rules we followed and refused to follow.

  • (Un)becoming academics: stripping down and laying bare, to story spaces of hope (Ali Black & Gail Crimmins, University of the Sunshine Coast; Linda Henderson, Monash University & Janice Jones, University of Southern Queensland)

This was a pre-recorded video presentation, which I think is a difficult thing to get right. In this case, it was very successful. From the abstract:

We are four women from three Australian universities in various phases of (un)becoming academics. One of us has moved from casual to “permanent” in the last year only, one is awaiting a probation review to secure permanency, one has been in academia for more than twenty years with “very little to show for it”, and one has recently walked away choosing voluntary retirement.

Their video, which included drama and visual/poetic representations, as well as oral vignettes of experiences in academia, was described by the audience as delicate, vulnerable, beautiful, trusting, bold, strong. The autobiographical accounts were heartbreaking: 11 years on probation, applying for lower level positions, devastating inequalities, redundancy, emotional collapse.

  • Academics ageing (dis)gracefully: pleasures and pains (Claire Aitchison, University of South Australia; Cally Guerin, University of Adelaide; Anthony Paré, University of British Columbia & Helen Benzie, University of South Australia)

This was an excellent companion to the above video. The authors described it as follows:

In this round table a group of academics share end-of-career stories, rich in passion, disappointment and new beginnings. The stories are both hope-filled and hope-less, tinged with disappointment and loss, desire and inspirational reimagining of selves.
End-of-careerers, with their lengthy contribution and deep disciplinary knowledge, should, potentially, be amongst the most influential and valued members of an institution/discipline – but are they?

Short answer: no. The session ended with hope. Anthony Paré reflected on his career in academic activism (a subject which is close to my heart) through service and governance (“breathing life into otherwise lifeless forms”). He challenged the ‘us’ and ‘them’ often heard when talking about university management. “We are on the committees that ramp up requirements for academics and their work. We can change this. I became an activist … We are the university … I have loved the activist part of my academic career. Of all that I do, it is probably the thing I will miss the most.”

  • The Art of Generous Scholarship and the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sally Knowles, Edith Cowan University & Barbara Grant, The University of Auckland)

This presentation was a joy to listen to, with a long-standing academic friendship on display. Knowles and Grant contrasted the imperfect work in progress presented at writing retreats with the imperfection of wabi-sabi:

When exposing one’s unfinished texts, showing the technical flaws and imperfection of our authorial selves, there is potential for harm and/or shame. The care-full structure of the work-in-progress process supports both writer and responders by appreciating the potential of the flawed quality of each other’s unfinished work …
Likewise, the tea ceremony ritual demonstrates participation and enjoyment through awakened sensibilities. It is based in the principles of wabi-sabi which include transience, imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness

Allowing imperfection requires “generous scholarship” which can be seen at writing retreats: gentleness of spirit, an inward feeling of soft-heartedness, tender-mindedness. Cecile Badenhorst and colleagues described a similar philosophy at work in their writing group (“soft eyes turned to wonder”) in their presentation On Being Reviewed: From ghosts that haunt in isolation toward connection and unexpected agency.

You may be curious about the title of this post. It is taken from the work of Deleuze and Guittari on the “shock to thought” of affective experience. I was thinking of two things: the conference presentations I attended and the ways they stretched my thinking, and the experience of travelling to Japan with my family. A different country full of new experiences—the shock to thought, the challenge to everyday-ness, is what we came for and enjoyed in abundance.

Reading and wondering

This week colleagues and I submitted a journal article. Collectively and individually, we did a lot of reading.  The following papers will prove important for future writing, but they didn’t make it into the list of citations this time. The process of writing together sent the paper in new directions.

I was inspired by educational historian Catherine Manathunga‘s approach to close critical reading or textual analysis of qualitative data, which she shared with the research team for the Academic Identities Conference cultural history project. She suggests thinking about ‘noticings’ while reading—what jumps out at you, resonates, irritates, or jars? What surprises, delights, repulses, angers you while reading? Why?

This follows Maggie MacLure’s thinking on the untapped potential for wonder in qualitative research:

This potentiality can be felt on occasions where something—perhaps a comment in an interview, a fragment of a field note, an anecdote, an object, or a strange facial expression—seems to reach out from the inert corpus (corpse) of the data, to grasp us. These moments confound the industrious, mechanical search for meanings, patterns, codes, or themes; but at the same time, they exert a kind of fascination, and have a capacity to animate further thought. On other occasions I have called this intensity that seems to emanate from data, a “glow”. But here, I want to think of it again as wonder … Wonder is not necessarily a safe, comforting, or uncomplicatedly positive affect. It shades into curiosity, horror, fascination, disgust, and monstrosity. And the particular hue or tenor that it will assume is never entirely within our control.

While I love applying this to qualitative data, it also resonates while reading. Here are some noticings and wonderings from two papers.

  • Lynch (2010) Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education

Is there a culture of carelessness at universities? Certainly, I think universities are marked by undercare but there is something (disturbingly comforting) about how non-specific that seems. With undercare, we are all raised by wolves. Carelessness, by comparison, feels personal. It’s directed towards others.

The paper starts with audit culture. The “unrelenting measurement of performance”. This changes the institution and changes the self, infects ones personal life “with a reflexive surveillance of the self.” The result? Inauthenticity, alienation, compliance, futility.

Lynch shows that carelessness is gendered. Individualism is care-less. Free time = work time. The ideal academic is unencumbered by care. Even self-care is incidental, a last resort when performance is negatively impacted. This recent article called it self-helpification. (Damn, it’s paywalled).

“A care-less academic culture sends out a strong message also to graduate students and postdoctoral scholars as to who is and who is not an appropriate candidate for academic life.” We fall for the myth of the ideal academic. We don’t nurture orchids. We don’t resist.

  • Gill (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neoliberal academia

This chapter starts with a conversation. Stressed, drowning, work piling up, 16 hour days, always late, not sleeping. Fed up, rejected, crying, useless. “This fragment of conversation … speaks of many things: exhaustion, stress, overload, insomnia, anxiety, shame, aggression, hurt, guilt and feelings of out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure within the contemporary academy.” Bad feelings, all.

The voices are heart-rending. Precarious employment. Fast academia. Emotional labour. Rejection and failure. It’s a poisonous mix. What about this section entitled ‘Pleasure’? It’s only a paragraph long. It ends with the words “making things worse.”

Where are the promised “small-scale micro-negotiations of power in the academy”? It seems we are all too tired.


Still more to notice and wonder about (some of which you can see in the image above). For now, bedtime stories; with the 5 year old, we are reading (and re-reading) Mr Men and Little Miss stories. Their names are a list of the affects of higher education: rush, busy, worry, calamity, trouble. And the character profiles on the Mr Men website  read like a curriculum vitae of an academic superhero and his side-kick: “Mr Busy: diligent, on-the-go, engaged”; “Little Miss Busy: occupied, bustling, multi-tasker.”

Which university? Which self?

Barbara Grant’s keynote from HERDSA has been haunting me. It was a pleasure to listen to, and has rewarded slow consideration. Entitled A Thousand Tiny Universities, Barbara challenged the audience to think about ourselves, our universities, hope and the future. In writing this post, I am relying on memory, my sketchy notes and some brief comments on Twitter. Rather than an exact record of what she said, it is as much, if not more, about what her keynote allowed me to think.

The title of her lecture was taken from Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) A Thousand Plateaus and Grosz’s (1993) feminist response A Thousand Tiny Sexes. At the risk of performing an institutionalised reading that closes down complexity, Deleuze and Guattari ask their readers to reorient their thinking from structured, hierarchical, centralised thought (they call this aboresence) to horizontal, random, multiple (rhizomatic) thinking. Barbara’s line of argument about our relationship with the university was similiar.

Barbara started with the bad feelings invoked when working in a university where staff are being made redundant: sadness, anger, and guilt. She has previously written  about her troublesome identity as an academic developer in a similar way:

For example, in claiming myself as an ‘academic developer’, I almost immediately begin to experience both a kind of inner dissatisfaction with the limits of what that identity offers me and, over time, the myriad ways in which that identity is perceived by others as either fraudulently academic, or baselessly know‐it‐all, or servilely a tool of managerialism … If I am going to refashion myself as an academic developer, and in the peculiar time of mourning it seems possible to do this in a way that it has not before, what kind of self do I want that to be?

Some of the tweets offer a glimpse of the layers of Barbara’s keynote:

What kind of self do you want to be in the university? Barbara shared two portraits of herself at work: one in her office, red lipstick, radiating pleasure, with a glimpse of a certificate for an excellent first sentence in the background. She contrasted this image with disturbing context of higher education: withdrawal of public funding, shifting costs to students, audit culture, a growing precariat workforce. In the second photo, she is writing with her dog in her arms. Less outwardly happy, the latter represents the greater joy. “An academic woman in her right place” says Barbara. She is a counter-story to the self as “servile tool of managerialism”.

Ultimately, Barbara’s keynote was hopeful. She called on us to locate ourselves in our institutions, to find counter-stories, to inhabit universities in different ways, to open up the nooks and crannies, cracks and crevices. We each become a tiny university. She asked the audience: what does your tiny university look like?

Starting with self portraits, my favourite are those taken unawares, where I am caught in the act of talking or writing. The self that is represented in these images is entirely relational, in communication with an unseen audience.

HERDSA photo

I have written a great deal on this blog about my experience of the university—sometimes uncomfortable, oftentimes collegial and occasionally joyful. This blog gives space to my tiny university, one among thousands or more.