Virtual scholarship

A couple of weeks ago—is time slippery for you now too?—I participated in a virtual Higher Education Scholars meet-up.

Regular readers will know that this is a frequent gathering of (until now) predominantly Sydney-based academics, doctoral candidates and professional staff interested in research in higher education. I have posted about our previous meetings, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. You can read more about the mob here.

This session was themed Keeping our researcher identities alive and our research community connected. The description of the day read:

Remember to choose yourself: your researcher self, your researcher identity, your flailing research project, the bit of writing you have left to the side for too long, and to bring that part of you to a conversation … [This] is a chance to resuscitate it: pick it up, dust it off, remember its merits, to present it, to get feedback, and to take the next step with it.

It was our first online meeting, ably hosted in a team effort, which brought with it the benefit of participants from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and one stalwart from the National University of Ireland, Galway (well done on staying awake, Jan!)

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We read:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

I joined a discussion on the Ashwin piece, which poses a challenge to higher education scholars to produce theoretical work. His analysis of higher education journal articles published in 2008 showed that in the majority of articles, theory was implicit rather than explicit.

He prescribes a way of “making the development of theory through empirical research more common in higher education journal articles.” In a nutshell: be explicit about theory, conceptualise your research and analyse your data using different theoretical lenses, and do more mixed methods research.

We had interesting discussions—both positive and negative—about these ideas.

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In the works in progress session, I relished the opportunity to present my work with Catherine Manuthunga on Conferences in the flesh: a multi-sensory cultural history. 

Debate about whether physical conference attendance is necessary or desirable predates COVID-19. Noting the importance of equitable access, conferences serve a multitude of purposes. Conferences may offer retreat from ordinary workdays and domestic routines. Collectively gathering in a specific geographical location, and experiencing diverse cultures, climates and cuisines, opens up opportunities for place-based learning and enriches academic relationships.

Only recently have conferences been recognised in higher education research (Henderson, 2015). This paper gathers literature dispersed across fields including geography (Derudder and Lui, 2016), psychology (Carpay, 2001), sociology (Dubrow et al., 2018) and education (e.g. Hart, 1984; Skelton, 1997; Walford, 2011). It also explores visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Jütte, 2005; Smith, 2007; Grosvenor, 2012; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017).

We analyse empirical data from a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference (2008-2018), including interviews with thirty-two conference organisers, keynote speakers and participants attuned to sensory details: the sights, tastes, sounds, touch and smell of the conference experience. Following cultural history techniques (Burke, 2008; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Marwick, 2006; Rubin, 2002), transcripts were analysed for themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience.

The focus of our discussion is place, a layered location that is temporal, spatial, political and personal (Lippard, 1997). Multisensory, embodied, place-based conferences enable academic relationality to flourish, and innovative and transcultural knowledge to be produced. Our rich data set offers a specific and intimate history of a particular conference community through the lived experience of academic identities scholars. This provides insights into the institutional and sectoral contexts in which participants work, and universities as places that are both physical and imagined sites for the expression of values, highlighting what Phipps (2007) calls the sensory work of the university as a body of scholars.

For those who are interested, here are my two slides: HEScholars

The discussion focussed on these questions: This research began before COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Is there value in work on embodied, place-based, sensory academic conferences right now? How can we ensure this is a thoughtful and constructive piece of work, while remaining true to data collected in a different time? It was affirming to receive feedback from scholars who recognised place-based, sensory, affective, embodied research as more important than ever.

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.