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.

Vampires or zombies

Having finished Playing Beattie Bow (1980) and  Anne of Green Gables (1908), my daughter and I are now reading Natalie Bobbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1976), an American novel the explores the idea of immortality. Reading two American books in a row was unintentional, but enjoyable for the conversational idiosyncracies such as starting every sentence with ‘Well now…’

Next on our reading list is Victor Kelleher’s young adult dystopian novel Taronga (1986). Best to start dystopian fiction young, I think. For even younger children, I suggest the picture books The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard, and Sonya Hartnett’s The Boy and the Toy.

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This is an extract of a conversation in Tuck Everlasting between immortal Tuck and ten year old mortal Winnie:

“Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?” said Tuck, his voice low. “Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together … Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping … The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is
“Stuck. That’s what us Tucks are, Winnie. Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel anymore … But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born … Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are … it don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got.”

Growing, moving and changing has been on my mind lately. My daughter is on the cusp of young adulthood, my son on the cusp of starting school, and we, their parents, are on the cusp of middle age. It’s heavy work, as Tuck says, but it’s a good feeling, mostly, being a part of the wheel.

As a teenager inclined toward a gothic sensibility and aesthetic, I used to want to live forever. This was fanned by what was I reading at the timeCamilla (1796), The Vampyre (1819), Dracula (1897),  Interview with a Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Tapestry (1980). In my final year of school, I wrote a personal interest project entitled ‘The Fangs of Feminism’, and even commissioned a friend of a friend to take photographs of me in a cape.


Truth be told, as a middle-aged academic mother, I now feel a greater affinity with zombies. I am not the first to make a link between zombies and the lived experience of the neoliberal academy. At the 2012 Academic Identities conference in Auckland, Peter Wood gave a paper entitled Audit identity: Or, how the PBRF turned me into an ambitious zombie. The Performance Based Research Fund is the New Zealand government’s research excellence initiative, which Wood described as a ‘viral bite’ for the ways in which audit culture has infected the everyday practice of academic work and redefined academic identities. To quote an archived article from The Australian, academic zombies in Australia can be similarly identified by their “affectless references to DEST points, citation indices, ERA rankings, ARC applications, esteem factors, FoR codes, AUQA reviews and the like.”

Describing academics as zombies seems to be contagious. In Whackademia, Richard Hil (2012) refered to the “zombification of academic life in which scholars shuffle dolefully around campuses” in compliance with neoliberalism. And in Australia Universities’ Review, Suzanne Ryan (2012) suggested that academic zombification is a form of adaptation to “governance; audit; workload; workforce; and an acquiescent leadership.” My favourite in the academic zombies genre is the edited collection Zombies in the academy: Living death in higher education which examines the synthesis between academic life and living death.

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I no longer want immortality.

Almost every year—this is not a digression—my family visits the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. This year marks its tenth anniversary, and it is already in the calendar for September. There are usually around 30 sculptures, and there is truly something for everyone, a mix of the joyful, macabre, and curious. A couple of years ago, there is was a sculpture of a time meter (Buying Time by Graeme Pattison). Modelled on a parking meter, it allowed the user to purchase time. I was not tempted. Immortality was inviting as a teenager because I was only beginning to live.

Now, half-way around the wheel, more or less, I don’t want more time. I want to use the unknowably finite time I have better. At work, that means spending less of my energy chasing metrics that make me feel deficient, and more time on work that matters in the company of colleagues.

Academic bodies

The disciplinary shift I made post-PhD from corporeal feminism to higher education has made me aware of the embodied practices of teaching and presenting in front of others. I was reminded of this when I read Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body over the weekend.

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The good thing about school is that students have been trained, from an early age, to follow the rules. They come to class and generally sit and behave in an orderly fashion. When you tell them to do things, they do those things. I walked into my first classroom, my heart pounding, sweating everywhere, my head ringing with all of my fears and insecurities … When I stood at the front of the classroom, they hushed, and realized I was the teacher. I took attendance, my legs rubbery with anxiety, and then went into discussing the syllabus, the nature of the class and what would be expected of them … When I was done discussing the syllabus, I actually had to teach and my anxiety rushed right back through me. At the end of that first class, as the students filed out of the room, I wanted to collapse with relief because I had survived those fifty minutes of being fat in front of twenty-two eighteen-and nineteen-year-olds.

I vividly remember teaching my first tutorial at university seventeen years ago. One of the first things a (mature-age male) student said to me was “I don’t want to be taught by a chick”. I suggested he request another class, but he decided to “hang around” for the semester and test my knowledge of theories of postmodern subjectivity.

In a guest blog post on Conference Inference last week, the wonderful Barbara Grant wrote of her experiences of anxiety at conferences:

I suffered the most disabling and shaming attacks of panic before giving my papers. To this day I don’t know how I made it through the presentations … I am an intensely self-conscious person, so I have experienced excruciating times hovering on the edges of that animated crowd … Mercifully age has softened that feeling: whatever drove the acute self-consciousness of my adult life from adolescence onwards has waned considerably. Maybe it’s the invisibility that comes with being an older woman; maybe it’s something about not caring about such matters any more. (It’s true what they say – you don’t!) But maybe, too, it’s an effect of becoming more senior and more recognised as an academic.

I was reminded of how I worried about my appearance as a young tutor. How laughable this seems now, when a greater concern should have been the substance of my presentations. I was mercifully unaware of how little I knew. I now worry less over how I look, and more over what I say. It’s true that age softens self- consciousness. (I like this post from Nicole Avery on things her 40 year old self would tell her 30 year old self: let go of busyness, it’s ok to fail, use your good things, meditate, read, move). I am comfortable in my skin at 40 in a way I could not have envisaged in my teens and 20s (although I do imagine that the past me would look at the present me and wonder why I look so tired).

One of the most thought-provoking essays I have read on this topic (although it seems dated now) is Jane Gallop’s (1994) The Teacher’s Breasts on feminist pedagogy. It’s impossible find a neat paragraph that encapsulates the piece, but Cynthia Franklin’s (2010) Academic Lives includes this anecdote:

In 1992 prominent feminist theorist Jane Gallop was charged by two of her women students with sexual harassment. A highly publicized case that her students lost … Shortly after … Gallop cam to UC Berkeley, where I was a graduate student at the time, to give a talk on Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. True to form, Gallop appeared for this talk in full cowgirl regalia—red cowgirl hat and frilly red cowgirl shirt, red leather boots, and spurs. At the podium before a room packed with humanities faculty and graduate students, Gallop pulled her text from her briefcase and blushed furiously, explaining that she had brought the wrong talk. Instead of the Spurs talk she had in hand “The Teacher’s Breasts”, an essay exploring teacher-student erotics, which she then indeed read.

There is a lot in this post that I have not commented on: fat and sexual harassment, for example. I will leave this discussion for a future post, but this is some of my recent reading: James Burford’s article Dear obese PhD applicants and this review of Unwanted Advances (I am undecided whether to read the book). I will be presenting at a conference this week, and although I won’t be wearing spurs, I’ll be hoping to capture some of the fun of Gallop’s style, and the way in which she puts her body on the line.