What makes your teaching shine?

This is the 10th post in Over a cuppa, a series which offers prompts to reflect on learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. I have set myself the challenge of keeping these posts to 300 or so words. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

I have an earworm, a line of a song stuck in my head. Thanks to my son’s listening habits, it’s the first line of Tones and I’s Dance Monkey: ‘They say, oh my god, I see the way you shine’.

It’s not a shiny time right now, but having the line on continuous loop prompted this reflection. At this stage of semester, you and your students are probably feeling tired. This interesting post on teaching tiredness was written pre-pandemic:

With multiple courses to teach, we do get tired, but I think we regularly confuse physical fatigue with the more serious emotional tiredness that comes from a heavy workload of always being there, always giving, and always juggling multiple balls in the air…

This post on Zoom fatigue offers a contemporary update. The author describes her teaching:

Over my decades of teaching, I’ve learned to read a room pretty well: the harmonized posture, the breaths, the laughter, the eye gaze. My classes are successful when everyone is so excited that they want to speak over each other out of sheer exuberance. When people sit up straight and say, “Wait! Do you mean …?” because they have a brand-new way to understand the world…

It can be difficult to push though the tiredness. The advice offered can be helpful but is likely familiar: change, refresh, pause, collaborate, celebrate. It is important to note that this reflection is not a response to the emotional, physical and mental exhaustion of prolonged stress. But if you feel a bit flat at this stage of the semester, consider what makes you shine in your teaching. What do you enjoy?

I am inspired by Maggie MacLure’s thoughts on wonder in research:

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.

What animates, surprises, delights, refreshes you and your students?

Here’s one suggestion for waking up teachers are students alike: take your teaching into the wild (weather permitting) or bring the outdoors into the classroom.

Thank you to Professor Ronika Power for talking through the ideas in this post and sharing her fabulous teaching practice.

MacLure M. (2013). The Wonder of Data. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 13(4): 228-232. doi:10.1177/1532708613487863

Wrapping up 2020

I am making peace with leaving my to-do list undone, and this will be my final blog post for 2020.

The year is ending with uncertainty—a COVID-19 outbreak across Sydney is restricting celebrations and, in my immediate family, the last day of school ended with an epileptic seizure and an ambulance trip to hospital. My daughter is fine now (and even ventured into the surf yesterday) but it seemed a fitting end to a difficult year.

January 2020 will be remembered in Australia for the bushfires. That holiday feeling—certain smells that signal summer, blue skies, a loosening of the shoulders and release from responsibilities—remained elusive. In February, we sought distraction from natural disasters, an emerging virus, university change management and a tree-felling storm that left us without power for several days.

In March, I started a new job in academic development. The beginning of the university semester was marked by an empty campus as Sydney entered lockdown. In April, we continued to work, school and holiday from home. By May, we’d got the hang of teaching, researching and entertaining via Zoom.

In June, we enjoyed the little things: conversations, food, being outdoors and books. I returned to campus a day or two a week in July, and celebrated the “goopy mess” of feelings with Nina Pick’s poem ‘School of Embodied Poetics’. I walked the campus in August.

I wrote fewer blog posts in 2020 than in previous years but, thanks to enrolment in a Master of Creative Writing course, practised more creative writing. In October, I oriented my reflections toward hope in a context of political change. As always, reading offered solace but was at a slower pace than previous years.

The year ends with now-familiar feelings from the emotions wheel: fragility and helplessness. But we are also finding ways to be peaceful, playful and excited. The Christmas tree went up early. We are enjoying the illusion of control enabled by the board game Pandemic. We spent yesterday at the beach. Our ears are still ringing—the cicadas are very noisy this year—and we were awed by Pete Rush’s large driftwood wolf artwork:

We have much to look forward to: presents, swimming, cake and (of course) books. My favourite reads this year included fiction—Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds, Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss— and non-fiction—Tegan Bennett Daylight’s The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, Tara Westover’s Educated and Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow. I hope to add others to the list before the year’s end. Later today, I will start Sophie Mackintosh’s dystopian Blue Ticket. The epigraph is an extract from a poem by Lorine Niedecker:

Fog-thick morning —
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
    my clarity
with me.

Thank you for reading The Slow Academic this year. I hope your final days of 2020 are peaceful, and that 2021 brings good tidings.

Notes while reading

I sometimes keep a notebook of ‘notes while reading’. This was crucial during my PhD, but has become an occasional rather than disciplined practice. At any time, what I am reading shapes my thinking. Regular readers of this blog will know that in most posts I share excerpts from journal articles and academic books. I also frequently post on the books I am reading outside of work; for example: memoirs on mortality, dystopian fiction, a year in books and reading about time.

I find one of the joys of reading is the way in which the mind makes connections between disparate texts: a page-turning novel by Mira Grant about scientists searching for killer mermaids had me thinking about the ethics of research funding. Another example: Susan Carter’s (2020) Academic Identity and the Place of Stories: The personal in the professional starts with the wonderful analogy of a “fruitcake imaginary”:

To defuse how risky and ambitious [the] introduction of stories into an academic argument felt, I joked that this would be “one fruitcake of a book” …. The fruitcake imaginary is an extended metaphor that tries to span the intellectual richness of academia and kitchen-table homeliness of a family recipe, with a whiff of quirkiness from working across these zones. There’s the literature and framework of academic thinking, rich with accumulations of research, and flavoured by theory. Game theory is here, and, with it, a penchant towards play as a deliberate method. Stories from life persistently wind through academicity to textually enact the interconnections between extramural life and academic career. Life experience is valued. A fruitcake is an inclusive cake. It is solid by merit of all that goes into it.

There was a connection for me with the novel Gillian Polack’s The Year of the Fruitcake, in which a mind-wiped gender-switching alien anthropologist inhabits the body of a perimenopausal woman on Earth.

Here is a crop of readings that are currently stretching my thinking. The list spans academic articles in higher education, academic books, and fiction reads, and I am presenting this selection intertextually.

Reading about sharing food and ideas

I enjoyed Alison Phipps and Ronald Barnett’s (2007) article Academic Hospitality:

It takes material form in the hosting of academics giving papers. It takes epistemological form in the welcome of new ideas. It takes linguistic form in the translation of academic work into other languages, and it takes touristic form through the welcome and generosity with which academic visitors are received.

The article speculates on the giving and receiving of hospitality in academic life, who is welcomed or otherwise, rules and ceremonies and the roles of hosts and guests. It refer to a dependence on travel and crossing borders, but I read this at a time in which academic hospitality during COVID-19—changes to how we welcome and celebrate students and colleagues, limitations on travel and border closures, restrictions on shared meals and informal gatherings, and the opening up of virtual spaces.

I gobbled up two young adult books recently that focus on shared food and (sometimes dangerous) ideas: Elizabeth Acevedo With the Fire on High, about a black teen mother who is a magical cook (including sensory recipes), and Asphyxia’s Future Girl, which tells the story of a deaf teen artist in dystopian near-future Melbourne challenging food shortages (including artworks and info-graphics).

Reading about identity and emotion

The title ‘The emotional knots of academicity: a collective biography of academic subjectivities and spaces” put this article by five women (Jennifer Charteris, Susanne Gannon, Eve Mayes, Adele Nye and Lauren Stephenson) on my must-read list. What kept me reading (and thinking) were the interconnections of academic identity, higher education spaces and affect revealed in three narratives. These were written in a collective biography workshop, “where participants constructed accounts of the physical, social, material and imaginative dimensions of subjectivities in the ‘academic-city’ of higher education spaces.”

In the first story, a casual academic travels to unpaid meetings in the hope of a job, comparing “thirsty Australian landscape of meadows and scrawny looking sheep” to the “verdant pastoral belt of … home.” In the second, an academic is schooled in the hierarchy of office locations and parking spaces, and in the third story a PhD candidate finds a feminist community in a “fiery women’s cottage”.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is on my list of favourite reads for this year. For a story about mental illness and the end of a marriage, narrated by a sometimes unlikeable character, this book is strangely hopeful: “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change, usually on their own.” Another of my favourites, which resonated for ideas about community and disconnection is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.

Reading about bodies and refusal

This autoethnography from two (Ab)original academic women, Lauren Tynan and Michelle Bishop, is an unconventional and powerful piece of writing. It offers a collaborative account of working for their communities within the systems and structures of whiteness:

Refusal is empowering – it’s about learning to say ‘no’. Not in an arrogant way, but learning to see exploitation, and learning to avoid it. Sometimes saying no feels like a mistake; a missed ‘opportunity’. But who ultimately benefits from my continual acquiescence? I check myself, learn
to trust my gut and listen to the messages from Country and our Old People.

There were many corollaries with my recent reading: on hierarchical systems and power, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; on remembering and refusal, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police; and on rising to the challenge of writing against white conventions, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.

And happy NAIDOC week! Books are a great way to reflect on the theme “Always Was, Always Will Be”. We have enjoyed these kids books (via a school subscription to Storybox Library):

Tell me: what have been your favourite books this difficult year? And do you have any higher education articles to recommend that share the themes of community, connection, identity and power?