Storytelling

I’ve had little to blog. Work has been a constant stream of meetings, and complex and challenging, but uninspiring, tasks. I’m listening to Classical Music for Reading while doing this work. I’ve been wondering: where’s the story in that? This highlights a recent preoccupation of mine: the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what we do.

This year I am studying creative writing—a wonderful, yet daunting, experience but one that is solely mine and not in service to other people’s needs and wants. It is only week one but it is already priming me to notice how we craft stories.

I recently read Australian songwriter Clare Bowditch’s You Own Kind of Girl about her experience of overcoming debilitating anxiety. We have posted her mantra on the kitchen wall: Face, Accept, Float, Let time pass. Bowditch found this in Claire Weekes’ 1960s work Self Help for Your Nerves. (Books follow books: I am now reading Judith Hoare’s The Woman who Cracked the Anxiety Code).

Above all, Bowditch tells a good story. In a podcast with Wil Anderson about writing her book, Clare used the word story many times (and turned attention to Wil’s own stories, to his seeming discomfort).

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Clare. My daughter and I listened to her songs a lot during a tough year. ‘Your Own Kind of Girl’, ‘People Like Me’ and ‘You Make My Happy’ buoyed us. In response to an open call for correspondence, my daughter emailed Clare to tell her this, and received an affirming letter in return.

While writing this post, I was reminded of an example I used when teaching visual narratives many years ago. It was an extract from Robert Winston’s BBC series The Human Body which showed the life story of ‘Charlotte’ from birth to death. (Note to self: I must rewatch the Raging Teens episode). The series was made in 1998 (!) and I’ve been unable to find a good quality copy online. The scene I was thinking of was a statistical version of a life in fast forward—6 months on the loo, 2 weeks kissing, 28m of fingernails, eight years at work, 150 friends,  sex 2580 times, 12 years talking, and only 2 of her 8 great-grandchildren remember her name.

I’ve been thinking about the stories we tell in academic contexts, beyond what can be quantified. I have just started reading The Positioning and Making of Female Professors—some great stories in this edited collection.

I continue to reflect on Tamson Pietsch’s excellent blog post on rewriting her academic biography. She writes:

[My academic biography] says little about where I come from and the forces and belongings that fashioned me. It does not reveal my values, my obligations or my commitments, and it speaks in only the most minimal terms about where I live, why I do what I do, and how that is connected to the community in which I make my home.

She re-narrates her story, noting that it was an uncomfortable experience.

Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle illustrates a similar discomfort in ‘Academic career construction: personnel documents as personal documents‘. This journal article is a great read (and includes ‘don’t be driven by stories’ as advice given to early career academics). Ortiz-Vilarelle tells a story:

I felt discouraged by my department from applying for promotion to Full Professor because conventional advice about my publication gap of more than two years and the language of ‘continuous’ scholarly publication … I applied anyway … I had a choice to make. I could let the gap stand as a ‘trace,’ a story not told, and risk that at each level of review, it would somehow speak for itself … Or I could ‘get personal’ and explain the reasons for my gap … I included two lines, just two lines, that read: ‘Obstacles which have impacted the trajectory of my scholarship are two medically complicated pregnancies following tenure, one of which required leave time, and the care and passing of my terminally ill mother shortly after my promotion to Associate Professor. More recently, I required a medical leave in Spring 2017 for several necessary surgeries.’ That’s all. Not very elegant. Not much at all in terms of word count, but such a trace.

I haven’t yet condensed my story as well as those told above—regular readers will know this blog is itself a story in progress.

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Distractions

You want to escape from bushfires, coronavirus, university restructures, tragic news stories, wild weather, power outages, uncertainty about the future, politics on social media, other people’s gloom…

Your strategies for working during tough times and staying hopeful seem shallow or forced. You feel increasingly fragile, combative, anxious, or worn out to the back teeth…

You compulsively check apps and websites for bushfires near you, air quality measures, power outages, water quantity in dams, virus infection levels, weather reports…

You look for healthy ways to cope. You try new recipes (Maggie’s Recipes for Life promise to stave off dementia), exercise, meditate, get a massage, laugh, focus on what you can control, increase your step count, vent, plan a day off…

You think longingly of running away, being quarantined comfortably at home, having a head transplant, falling asleep for one hundred years…

Your internal monologue has shifted from ‘You’ve got this’ or ‘Done is better than perfect’ to ‘Decentre yourself’ and then the extreme: ‘I am murderbot’ (after Martha Well’s cyborg character who has hacked its governance protocols and stopped working for the Company)…

You wake at night, or too early in the morning, caught in a loop of what you could or should say and do and be. You overthink the human condition, Western individualism, academia, or middle age. Your 2am escapist fiction has become Why we can’t sleep: Women’s new midlife crisis

Why not choose your own version of the following:

  • music that transports you: Skinner’s The Cradle Song, the Run Lola Run soundtrack
  • a strangely compulsive video game (even for non-players): Dear Esther
  • a podcast that makes you laugh out loud: Ladies, we need to talk (Yumi, a mother of four in her 40s, tells her mother ‘It hurts when you call me a dingdong.’ Her mother replies, ‘Why? You are a dingdong.’)
  • a movie or tv show that takes you into another world: the uncomfortable, angry and funny Fleabag

And when your street looks like this, and you are without power and road access:

You enjoy: playing games by candlelight; sandwiches for dinner; the camaraderie of neighbours; and the simple unspeaking company of a sleepy dog.

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Recharge yourself ready for what comes next.

To my future self

It’s an anxious time in Sydney (and beyond) right now. With dam levels falling, water restrictions are starting to bite, and the skies are apocalyptic with bushfire smoke. Asthmatics (like me) are gripping puffers for dear life. Children are not allowed to play outside at school. This article by Mark Mordue in the Sydney Morning Herald put it well: “My experience of the city and its skies feels like an omen. I fret for my children getting home from school and the world that is coming for them.”

At my university, in the midst of a large university restructure (the disestablishment of a successful faculty), the feeling of uncertain dread is pervasive. The sky mirrors our unease. It looks like we are living in a dystopia. This photos was taken at 1pm on Tuesday.

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In an act that is deeply personal, and yet entirely political, I write a letter to my future self. It is hard to imagine past five years or so. In it, I worry over the future, and focus on what gives joy right now. As I write, our new puppy Esko (named by the kids), sits at my side.

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Dear Future Me,

I wonder what work and home look like now? I hope that I am happy with the balance between these domains of my life.

At home—have we managed to do the renovations we dream about? I imagine spaces that will be better for entertaining (18th birthdays and beyond) and look forward to hosting family Christmases. How has Esko settled into the family? I hope she is giving and receiving so much love.

[My children] are my greatest worry and hope for the future. They are my future. How has H navigated high school and the teen years? I would like us to have remained close, but to have allowed her to grow into independence.  I pray her epilepsy is well-controlled. How is T going in primary school (and beyond)? What interests and hobbies has he developed? I hope we travel again as a family and that, as the kids grow older, J and I enjoy more time together.

Writing to you, I worry over the shape of the future—the health of family members and friends, the unanticipated events that change lives irrevocably, the state of politics and uneven quality of life. I hope any dark times have not dimmed our love and hope. I want to imagine that everyone is still with me, well and whole and shining, that the world is optimistic.  I hope you are not sad.

At work—where are you and what are you doing? I hope there are familiar faces and new colleagues who are like-minded souls. What have we created? And what do we want to do next? Have you done the things you want to do—kept blogging, written a book, studied creative writing, got through the pile of books next to the bed?

This year, 2019, has been a difficult one at work in the university. I’m very tired right now and hope you don’t feel the same way. Whatever work looks like now, I hope it has some of my favourite ingredients: listening, speaking, reading and writing with humour and activism in the mix.

I have said ‘I hope’ a lot in this letter. There is so much uncertainty right now—at work, in the news, in the sky—yet I continue to hope. There are things to look forward to—Esko getting house trained, Christmas holidays, books to read, starting a Master of Creative writing, PhD candidates near completion, an upcoming writing retreat, and so much more…

With love, Agnes.

Today the sky is slightly bluer, and we can finally open the windows.

Things I’m learning

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In my previous post on questions for this year, I asked: What have I learnt from what went well, and what felt uncomfortable or difficult, in 2017? I learnt a hell of a lot last year, and here are some of the lessons I have been reflecting on.

That work matters a lot to me

My daughter has been back at school full-time for five days. We are reorienting ourselves—adjusting to the rhythms and tensions of school life again having got used to differently paced days in and out of hospital. I also need to recalibrate at work. It’s interesting to experience the shock of change in reverse. My ability to focus and undertake deep work has suffered. Nevertheless, throughout this slow and stressful time, work has continued to be important to me. Sometimes it has provided the distraction of shallow work. Sometimes it has offered an intellectual and creative outlet (writing, reading, talking and listening). I have achieved things I am proud of during this time, and I am looking forward to so much this year. At the very top of the list is attending the 6th International Academic Identities Conference, and (because work isn’t the only thing that matters) having a family holiday in Japan afterwards.

That I value care and community

I realised when I wrote my list of work that makes me proud that it looked very similar to the list of people I enjoyed working with: higher education scholars, PhD candidates, co-authors and co-teachers, and academic activists. I’m sure to have left several people or groups off that list! It’s impossible for me to separate the work I enjoy doing from the people I enjoy doing it with. I have several collaborative projects on the go at the moment: looking at community and care with Academic Identities conference project colleagues, collaborative writing and speculative work for future research and teaching projects. One of the great things about connecting with colleagues is the exquisite care they have shown when work has not been my number one priority.

On a related note, this week I am reading Robyn Barnacle and Gloria Dall’Alba’s paper Committed to learn: student engagement and care in higher educationThis conceptual paper, using the work of Martin Heidegger and Nel Noddings, explores how we can create learning environments that build students’ capacity for care. The article has now been recommended to me by two colleagues so I am keen to read more.

That it is difficult to live with uncertainty

While my daughter has been sick, life has been uncertain. We have not felt in control or able to make plans for the future. It’s an uncomfortable space to occupy. In an academic context, this is articulated by participants in my early career academic research with colleagues:

I’m not sure I have academic career plans anymore after more than six years of semester-length sessional teaching appointments. My earlier dreams have been shattered

I would like a permanent position because without it I am crippled. It’s very hard to explain to outsiders like friends and family and this has led to a certain isolation.

Quite frankly it is impossible to make plans … This situation is clearly absurd, and I know I am not alone.

I am doomed. Don’t know what’s gonna happen. Scary.

I don’t know whether the capacity to live with uncertainty improves. I guess it must, but it feels more like something that must be endured. I’m still learning. I’m not very good at meditating but, on a colleague’s recommendation, I bought a modern bed of nails, and have found this discomfort means I am better able to focus on a guided meditation.

That reading never stops giving

I have just finished reading Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius. This book has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize (writing by Australian women). It’s an uncomfortable read at times, but I learnt a lot from it. I will highlight one passage:

Robin Hood, Jandamarra, Yagan … all fought with whatever small resources they had, all became thorns in the sides of the administration they were fighting. All became legends in defeat.

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I must confess I needed to look up these Aboriginal leaders—Jandamarra, who organised an armed resistance against Europeans in the late 1800s and Yagan, a warrior who resisted European colonisation in the early 1800s.

With my 5 year old (and sometimes 11 year old), I am reading the ABC of Mathematics—so many concepts I don’t know or don’t remember— and with my 11 year old (and sometimes 5 year old) I am reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls—so many amazing women, many of whom are new to me.

I still have much to learn.