A reminder to play

Two seemingly unconnected things: My six year old son has taken to referring to himself as his thirteen year old sister’s imaginary friend. (I find myself half believing him). And a couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of Higher Education Scholars.

I have previously posted about these events (The spirit of research, Yarning circle, Thoughtful citations, Staying in place), a roughly tri-annual gathering of Sydney-based researchers in higher education. The most recent session was hosted by Vanessa Fredericks, Lilia Mantai and Elaine Huber at the University of Sydney. The theme was Mind the Gap: Contemplating power, privilege and pedagogy:

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the ways higher education (teaching and research and academia as a whole) might be restricted by oppressive pedagogies. We consider what value we might add to higher education if we dared to free our minds and bodies from colonial, neoliberal, Western and masculine ideas … We begin by positioning ourselves as being-in-the-academy. We reflect on our positions and acknowledge that the space which we occupy, speak and write from is a privileged space. We open the introspective space to think more broadly about research and the University – itself a product of colonialism, and a space which is influenced by neoliberal practices and policies. We invite you to slow down and be ‘lazy’ (Shahjahan, 2015), to engage in ‘tactics of resistance’ (Shahjahan, 2015, p. 489). We consider the ways in which slowing down and re-embodying our approach to research and pedagogy, can lead to a practice of being-in-the-academy that is ethical
and responds to the other.

The organisers provided a thoughtful reading list, including:

Throughout the day, we talked, we listened, we thought and we played. We introduced ourselves and found commonalities through a web of connections:


We had loosely structured, wide-ranging discussions about our bodies in relation to research, teaching and leadership. We breathed. We listened to music, drew, played with play-doh and lego:


Image Image

Why such frivolous, unscholarly behaviour?

Jane Gallop in Anecdotal Theory (2002), refers to playfulness in a research context as “an attempt to theorise from a different place” and to speculate around ideas that have a tendency to “disable thought”.

Here is the connection with my my son’s imaginary selfhood and our playfulness as scholars: both offer ways of reflecting on our subjectivities and positionalities.

Play occupies a liminal space that invites a suspension of disbelief and relishes possibility and transformation. When playing, we suspend disbelief; we create unreal or quasi-real spaces; we tend towards extravagance and exaggeration; we move away from seriousness to nonsense and foolishness; and we value emotional responses (Bulkeley 1999, p 62).

Slowing down as scholars, taking time to play, allows us to ask ‘what if?’ and to imagine what might be possible.  We can recreate the space of the university and our places in it.

In thinking about playfulness, I revisited the work of Johan Huizinga (1950):

A play-community … tends to become permanent even after the game is over… The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

I am already looking ahead to future gathering of these folks, and have been inspired by the work of Tamson Pietsch, Where I stand, on recrafting academic biographies and research narratives.

Learning about dragons

This post was inspired by a recent tweet from Lilia Mantai:

When I was studying a Masters in Higher Education, I used an interview-style conversation with my daughter at almost four years of age as part of a reflective learning activity. This is how it went:

Q: What is a teacher?
A: Well … a grown up who teaches kids how to spell their names. Like this [spells out name]. And they give them a stamp.
Q: What is learning?
A: Well … I learn about dragons.  You teach them how to fly … Like that [points to words I am writing] says ‘dragon’ and ‘fly’.
Q: What else have you learnt about?
A: Books.  My animal books.  I’ll show you [brings over ‘The Human Body’].  Here’s a heavy book about bones.  The book teaches blood cells how to go ‘beep beep’ and fight something if you are hurt by ants or sick or when you bump yourself.  I learn how to eat and talk and how to make my bones walk when I am going home … [When I was a baby] I cannot walk.  I need to learn how to read.  I could rip things.  But I have big bones now.  I learned about sniffing flowers.  I learned not to rip things.  I learned not to be a baby.  If I play, it makes me happy.
Q: What did mummy and daddy teach you?
A: Mummy and Daddy taught me how to walk and smell things and listen and sit in my own chair.  And about my different bones.
Q: Who else teaches you?
A: My teachers [at preschool].  Sometimes I say, ‘I need to go to the toilet’ to my teachers.  They teach me how to do that.  And I learnt to say to dragons, ‘Don’t eat me, don’t eat me’.
Q: What do you still need to learn?
A: I need to learn how to eat tomatoes.  I don’t eat them now.

I attempted to have a similar conversation with my son at the same age, but he refused to answer any of my questions.

Here are some possible lessons for adult learners based on my daughter’s answers:

  • Avoid teachers who present themselves as those with absolute knowledge or books that claim to be repositories of absolute knowledge (Richardson, 2000) e.g. The book teaches blood cells.
  • Focus on how your knowledge has grown and look to the future and anticipate lifelong learning (Tennant, 2008) e.g. I need to learn how to eat tomatoes (she still hasn’t).
  • Situate learning in your own lived experience, however limited this reservoir might be; demonstrate the immediate applications of knowledge by applying it to problems; and use your imagination and curiosity for divergent thinking (based on Knowles, 1984) e.g. Don’t eat me, don’t eat me.


Depending on your preferences, here’s an alternative reading list, based on my son’s bookshelf of hand-me-downs from his sister:


She is still learning about dragons, as shown by this gift she made me last year:

And she is still teaching me the wonder of divergent thinking.

Impressions from the peaceful university

Greetings from Japan! I spent three days last week at the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. The theme was The Peaceful University: aspirations for academic futures – compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation. 


This post offers impressions of the conference, its location, the theme and the presentations. The theme was described as follows:

Peace is a concept that invites us to imagine, restore, create, construct and interact. It is not only the absence of violence, but something more sustainable and empathetic (Galtung 1996). Peace building can take place at different levels and often starts to bear fruit only after years of everyday care, which must continue even after seeing the fruits. This conference starts with an invitation: 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?

The location in Hiroshima, site of the first atom bomb attack in 1945, challenged the definition of peace. Conference organiser Machi Sato, Associate Professor in the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, defined peace as a process of having difficult conversations and collectively imagining a better future. I took some photographs of the atomic bomb (Genbaku) dome, the only structure left standing at the bomb site, which has been carefully preserved as a memorial.

Presenters at the conference did not shy away from asking critical questions about compassion, generosity, imagination, and creation in university contexts. As with most conferences, I missed more sessions than I was able to attend. This was compounded by presenting too many papers myself, something I hope to guard against in future. Those sessions I did attend were thought-provoking, discomforting, enjoyable and challenging.

The keynote speakers ranged across complex ideas.

I have presented ideas from the keynotes in tweets because I use Twitter as a condensed form of note-taking. You can see the Twitter discussion at #ACIDC18.

  1. Professor Emeritus Takashi Hata, Hiroshima University & Tohoku University,
    Issues with Identities of Japanese Academic Professions – Who are they?

2. Dr Swee Lin Ho, National University of Singapore, Asian Universities’ Pursuit of World-Class Status and the Social Cost of Ignoring Difference and Diversity Among Academics

3. Professor Bruce Macfarlane, University of Bristol, Restoring the freedom of students to learn in the peaceful university

Here is a taster of some of the presentations I enjoyed, which will be the subject of future posts:

  • Pushing Academic Identity Development Further: imagination, creativity and ensoulment (Susan Carter, University of Auckland)
  • (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)
  • The Art of Generous Scholarship and the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sally Knowles, Edith Cowan University & Barbara Grant, The University of Auckland)
  • 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)

You can read the abstracts on the website.

You can also watch a 20 minute video on the history of the conference on YouTube. Here is a short trailer:

Daily moments

On Twitter last week I was challenged by  to take a black and white photo every day for a week. This opportunity came at just the right time for me. In the midst of the learning curve involved in starting a new role, it gave me a chance to pause (at least) once a day and look around me. The brief was to take a photo of my life without humans. I found myself asking: what images reflect my life? What moment of today do I want to remember? Most days I took only one photo. On Twitter, there were no explanations; here is a brief description of each image.

Day 1 – my reading pile on a tower bookshelf

Day 2 -reserved parking

Day 3 – my son’s swimming lesson

Day 4 – the view from my bedroom window

Day 5 – building a marble maze

Day 6 – spinach pie for dinner

Day 7 – a grey day on campus