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.

Transformative learning

I am in two minds about transformative learning. Try this definition:

Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self” (Elias, 1997, p 3).

Or this:

“Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world” (O’Sullivan, 1999, p 237).

Such grandiosity wakes up the (admittedly lightly sleeping) cynic in me. There are moments when I want to believe in the transformative power of education: reading bell hooks’ (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom, the drive to learn shared by Professor of Indigenous Studies Bronwyn Carlson (“It still blows my mind I have a PhD”) and this student panel at the HERDSA conference earlier this year:

Part of my resistance may be my own (very slow) transformation.

I taught undergraduate subjects in postmodern subjectivity/ post-humanism for many years. (In a nutshell, subjectivity or your sense of selfhood is anything but stable, distinct and autonomous. It is constantly shifting, relational, and performative). But I didn’t really believe in this idea. I had a sense of myself as, in essence, constant and unchanging.

Until my daughter was born.

I returned to lecturing unexpectedly when she was four months old. I expressed milk for her morning and afternoon tea, and my mother brought her to me for a lunchtime breastfeed. One week the topic was postmodern subjectivity. As I lectured, I was aware (and preoccupied with keeping my students unaware) of my breasts becoming higher and heavier and starting to leak. I experienced a radical insight: I was a completely different person from the lecturer who had stood in this place one semester earlier. I said as much to my students: I didn’t believe in the postmodern notion of subjectivity until right now.

When I read in Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography that foetal cells circulate in the mother’s body long after the birth of a child, I felt recognised. Yes, I had changed at a cellular level. I was a different person. I had been studying, and subsequently teaching, theories of postmodern subjectivity for over a decade by that stage. It took a long time for “an altered way of being” to result in “an expansion of consciousness”.

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I recently read Out of the Forest by Gregory Smith. It is difficult to sum up this memoir of ten years living in the bush: a traumatic childhood, a reclusive escape, mental illness, addiction, and the redemptive power of education. Such a seductive idea—to leave the world for the deep work of the self (Thoreau: “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately”) and how truly awful the experience when Smith recounts it!

Having left the bush, and sobered up, he describes his first foray into higher education—a free six week computing course (“I learned two very important things … One was that I hated—utterly hated—computers. The other was that I loved to learn”). He writes about the life-changing impact of studying:

I could feel a touch of wonder coming into my life … I picked up a pristine bird feather that was lying on the grass. I marveled at its green and yellow hues, and later that night I twirled it between my thumb and forefinger and contemplated what an education night mean. What might my future look like?  ‘A bird can fly anywhere it wants,’ I thought. ‘That’s freedom’ … And that’s what I figured an education might give me—the freedom to go where I chose and be who I wanted to be. I slipped the feather into my TAFE diary as a bookmark and a constant reminder of a yearning to spread my wings and fly with whatever birds I chose …

Smith is now an academic, having progressed from a TAFE tertiary readiness course to a doctorate. It’s an inspiring transformation. Western Sydney University’s campaign featuring former child soldier and refugee lawyer Deng Adut is similarly powerful. You may have seen it (along with 17,000 others on YouTube):

When we teach, we pre-define learning outcomes and their assessment for the assurance of learning within a unit in a semester and across a degree. Sometimes we attempt to measure transformative learning in this way. I wonder: what might teaching and learning look like otherwise?

Hacking academia

Hack is an interesting word. Both verb and noun, it contains multiple (seemingly contradictory) meanings:

  • to cut, notch, slice, chop, or sever
  • to damage or injure by crude, harsh, or insensitive treatment; mutilate; mangle
  • to deal or cope with; handle
  • to circumvent security and break into (a network, computer, file, etc.)
  • to make use of a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing (something)
  • to cough harshly
  • a writer or journalist producing dull unoriginal work
  • a person who does routine work
  • a worn out horse

If you have been catching public transport or driving around Sydney lately,  you may have seen a government sponsored advertising campaign aimed at reducing peak hour congestion on public transport and traffic on the roads. Presented as a series of “travel hacks” (presumably the tip or trick meaning) they include:

These suggestions have raised my ire. While waiting in the traffic, I thought about alternative hacks for a government intent on diminishing congestion and improving quality of life for commuters: create walk-able communities; minimise over-development; ensure employment opportunities close to affordable housing. I could go on.

These travel hacks made me think about advice for becoming a more productive, output-focussed, metrics-driven, impactful academic (an academic superhero, perhaps). The focus is entirely on the individual. Systemic change and collective action are rendered invisible. The same is  true for the academic superhero’s downfall: burnout. The cure is individual: mental health and resilience training, work/life balance strategies, mindfulness.  I am not saying these things aren’t good, I’m saying they are not enough.

I discussed systemic rather than individual change at a panel on Slow Academia this week, alongside inspiring colleagues Demelza Marlin, Andrew Dunstall and Michelle Jamieson (whose thoughts on sitting with failure I have previously shared on this blog). (Note that the links from their names were carefully selected to avoid the institutional profile that prominently displays H-index and a graph of citations). I hope to share a recording of this session and a summary of discussion points in a future post.

Thankfully my colleague, the pseudonymous acahacker, redeemed the notion of hacking academia for me with this definition:

How to be a scholar working in a university, regardless of your employment status or job title.

How to reshape the academy around you for you, despite the sometimes subterranean morale of colleagues, the audit cultures, the overwork, the overthinking, the desperate need for time and proper resourcing, the medieval hierarchy trying its hardest to be corporate …

Resisting and persisting.

How to be an academic when you’re not actually employed as an academic.

How to hack what academia has become, what being an academic has become.

A final thought (for now): I am currently reading Erin Gough’s novel Amelia Westlake for my young adult (for adults only) book club. A story of two lesbian teenagers fighting sexual harassment by a teacher at their private school, the front cover reads: Play the power, not the game. I am thinking about this phrase alongside ideas about the university as infinite game. But that’s a future post.

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Discomfort

This post expands on ideas from a book chapter on academic writing I have recently drafted. I was interested in thinking about where and how we write, the performance of being an academic writer and the imaginary spaces of the university. (At least) two ideas inspired this line of thought: Grant and Knowles (2000) call for academic women to explore the ‘imaginative spaces’ they inhabit as writers, and Barnett’s (2013) lament that “the imaginary landscape of the idea of higher education is rather empty at the present time” (p 13). I wondered (tautologically): how is this emptiness visible in our selves, on our campuses and in our writing?

I’ve worked, and walked, in this university for seventeen years. Before that, I was a student here. I know these grounds well. And yet they are constantly changing. Walking the campus is not always a comfortable experience. Right now the university is being unmade and remade around me. If the imaginary renderings of the artist’s impressions are anything to go by, there will be a lot to love in the new campus—but it is a difficult space to occupy until then.

 

 

 

Dozens of sixty-year-old lemon-scented gum trees in the central courtyard have been cut down. There is keen sense of loss on campus that is not acknowledged in jovial announcements about the university’s love of green space and plans for replanting. The Campus Hub has been replaced with a pile of rubble topped by bulldozers. Several buildings retain their concrete skeletons but have been hollowed out.

Even though it is well known to me, there are times this place feels far from homely.

Sometimes, like now, it is because the campus landscape is changing rapidly. Other times the changes are within myself. As a doctoral candidate and early career academic, I felt a fluctuating sense of belongingness to a discipline. I have experienced bodily discomfort trying to find places to breastfeed or avoiding stairs when recovering from surgery. The most dramatic experience of disruption and displacement was the closure of the academic development unit where I worked two years ago and consequent staff redundancies. (A recommend reading that ties together the ideas in this post: Manathunga’s (2007) “Unhomely academic developer identities”).

I am conscious that the unhomeliness (to use Bhabha’s term from his work on migrant workers) of this space has greater resonance because of the history of displacing the traditional owners of this land. Walking the campus, I am reminded of Padmore’s (2009)  “Telling Home Stories”, in which she writes as an English-born Australian who learns about the traumascape or ‘trauma trails’ of the country for Aboriginal people, marked by massacres and the separation of families. She is simultaneously at home and unsettled: “The places I’ve come to know as homely are also sites of sorrow, horror or displacement. The conflicting experiences are often ignored when we are comfortably settled in everyday spaces” (p 267). At meetings and at the bottom of emails, we acknowledge the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug people, but rarely do we let these acknowledgements discomfort us.

I am practicing the unpleasant feeling of sitting with discomfort in all sorts of ways, rather than ignoring the present to imagine a better future.