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.

Gathering online

My blogging has been sluggish during a time of relentlessly bad news about job losses across the Australian higher education workforce (my customary solace of reading has been hard too). I wanted to look back on what has been collegial and nourishing during the last few months at work. As I started making a list, I realised that there was a common thread: online gatherings. With face-to-face meetings restricted, academics generously opened up events for free registrations. I have participated in several: Missing Conferences, Higher Education Scholars, Whisperfest, Council of Australasian Leaders of Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) Conference, and the History of University Life seminar series. (For those who are wondering how I found invitations, most were advertised via Twitter. Also note these were held in Australian Eastern Standard Time. I missed a lot of fantastic sounding international events).

This post is dedicated to the meta-conference Missing Conferences: Academic gatherings in a time of limited mobility which has shaped a lot of thinking about online conferences this year.

James Burford, co-founder of the wonderful Conference Inference blog (blogging the world of academic conferences), organised this Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) sponsored gathering back in September. I neglected to post about it at the time. Looking back at my Passion Planner diary (not a paid endorsement, just a tool I have found helpful for lightly journaling through a tumultuous year), my retreat from blogging makes sense: in September, I co-facilitated an intensive teaching development program, evaluated institutional teaching awards, had two creative writing assessment tasks due, celebrated four birthdays in our extended family, and took time off for school holidays.

The focus of Missing Conferences was asking questions about academic conferences in 2020:

The first question that we consider is whether conferences have gone missing at all? Is it possible that the routine work of face-to-face conferences has been distributed across new platforms for gathering academics and disseminating knowledge? What affordances do these new forms of gathering promise? What are their limits?

The second question we consider is this: conferences may be missing, but are we missing conferences? How do we feel as we erase plans from the calendar, cancel tickets and ask for refunds? When conferences go missing do we miss our geographically distant friends and colleagues? And when face-to-face conferences are missing what else are scholars missing out on?


International presenters included (with links to relevant blog posts on Conference Inference):

  • Judith Mair – Conferences: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
  • Agnes Bosanquet and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Embodiment
  • Tai Peseta and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Keynotes
  • Omolabake Fakunle – The Impacts of Doctoral Students Missing Conferences
  • Emily Henderson – Care and Missing Conferences

The hashtag #MissingConferences captured some of the stimulating discussion:

Catherine Manathunga and I presented work in progress as part of a cultural history of the Academic Identities Conference.

Our research draws upon visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Fitzgerald & May, 2016; Jütte, 2005; Grosvenor, 2012; Classen, 2012; Reinarz, 2014; Smith, 2004 and 2007; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017). These methodologies allow us to explore the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of attending the Academic Identities Conference series that has been running for 10 years. Using these techniques of cultural history (Burke, 2008; Marwick, 2006; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Rubin, 2002), this research project gathered oral histories from conference convenors, keynote speakers, delegates and PhD students and a range of visual and tangible artefacts such as conference programs and abstracts, photographs, twitter feeds and other memorabilia in an attempt to capture an intimate history of the embodied experience of travelling to conferences in England, Scotland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Japan. We have explored the themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience as they played out in the data we collected on each of the International Academic Identities Conferences from 2008 to 2018.

You can see our slides here:

Missing Conferences affirmed the value of scholarly gatherings, but also showcased the affordances of attending virtually (and how much we all enjoy sharing our working lives with pets).

Next post will recap the recent Higher Education Scholars gathering on Doing things with theory.

A year of books and questions

Far from winding down, the year seems to have upped its frenetic pace. My kids are enjoying an advent calendar chocolate a day, so we know the holidays are near, but there is a lot happening. At home, it is a time of transition as my son gets ready to start formal schooling and my daughter looks forward to high school. We have end of year events, farewells to preschool and primary school, and orientations for new schools. At university, there are examination meetings across disciplines, departments and the Faculty; Information Day for prospective students; students submitting grade appeals; offers to next year’s students; and many end-of year meetings (and Christmas parties).

My thoughts are turning to the year that was, but I will save challenging reflections for later, and turn to books. Here were some of my favourites, in fiction:

A Superior Spectre The Art of Taxidermy Home Fire

Plum Rains The Hate U Give Beneath the Mother Tree

Left to right: A Superior Spectre, The Art of Taxidermy, Home Fire, Plum Rains, The Hate U Give, Beneath the Mother Tree.

And in non-fiction: Ghosts of the Tsunami, Bad Blood, I Am I Am I Am.

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

In another bookish highlight of 2018, I read Du Iz Tak? to a group of preschoolers for Book Week. The experience has encouraged me to make school reading groups a priority for next year. Here is how it was described in the newsletter by one of the educators:

I think my strongest memory from book week was joining the [3-5 year old] children for a story [read by Agnes]. I loved watching [their] eyes wander the pages … written in an imaginative insect language. In fact, all of the children were transfixed and taken away to this magic insect land. I was surprised by how quickly the children adapted to the different language and were engrossed in the story. The subtle nature of the seasonal changes was noted and the children were all able to share their understandings of the changes at the end of the story.


Last year, I wrapped up blogging with a year in first lines. This year I want to end the way I started—with questions.


I mused on the following questions over a year of posts, and they will carry forward into 2019.

  • What did I achieve that I feel proud of? What are my goals and priorities for next year?
  • What have I learnt from what went well, and what felt uncomfortable or difficult?
  • What were my most valued relationships at work? Who do I want to work with next year?
  • What did I enjoy reading and writing? What do I want to read and write next year?
  • How did I spend my time? What did I most enjoy? What am I looking forward to?


Thinking about what felt uncomfortable or difficult, I asked:

  • How is what Barnett calls the emptiness of the “imaginary landscape” of higher education visible in our selves, on our campuses and in our writing?

I was reminded of this watching university advertisements recently. This emptiness renders universities as non-places, interchangeable, without distinctiveness, populated by anonymous citizens of anywhere or nowhere.


In Slow Philosophy, Boulous Walker describes institutionalised reading (hasty, shallow, for information extraction, to simplify, skimming).

  • Do I read institutionally?

To my shame, yes; sometimes it seems necessary and strategic. I don’t want it to become my default mode of reading. I am trying to break away from it by reading theoretical texts that demand contemplation, developing methodological understandings and building my intertextual knowledge library.


I didn’t ask a lot of questions in April, so here is a bonus one from March, when I was thinking about frugal hedonism:

  • If someone walked three days to be in your class, would you teach the same way you do now?

I have found this almost impossible to contemplate.


At a presentation on values and leadership, the Vice-Chancellor asked:

  • What do you have control over? What do you want to influence? And what do you need to know about?

I have been thinking about career planning, the illusion of control and letting go recently, so may return to this question in a future post.


Being challenged on Twitter to post a black and white photo every day prompted me to ask:

  • What moment of today do I want to remember?


My academic identities co-researcher Catherine Manthunga prompted the project team to ‘notice’ while reading our interview transcripts:

  • What jumps out at you, resonates, irritates, or jars? What surprises, delights, repulses, angers you while reading? Why?


Focussing on the senses offers an embodied way of noticing:

  • Can you describe the features of x? What did that (event, person, setting) sound like? Is there a smell that particularly reminds you of that time? What was the sensation of that movement? What did that food remind you of?


The Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima asked:

  • How can we envision a ‘peaceful’ future higher education and academic identities? What are we aspiring after as dwellers of the university and how are we going about it?


In the midst of a curriculum transformation project with a focus on course learning outcomes, I read Out of the Forest and wondered:

  • What might teaching without pre-determined learning outcomes look like?


  • How to spend the gift of time that a cancelled meeting offers?

I drank tea and read. I could have done something more ‘productive’. I read about time management, despite disliking most of the suggestions. I rarely organise my to-do list by urgency or importance, for instance. This article in The Guardian offers a useful counter-suggestion:

Don’t divide by urgency. Figure out when in the day you feel most creative, when you feel most physically energetic, when you feel most plodding but effective. I ordered tasks by the mood they required. In the space of a single day, I had noticed the difference.


And so the year comes full circle; I think about what has been achieved, learned, valued, read, written and enjoyed. And I look to next year, and these questions in the future tense. What am I looking forward to? Right now, idle days of summer, time with family and friends, and the pile of books next to my bed:

Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back Scrublands  Catching Teller Crow Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment 36330018