We need (to be) poets

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to hear Ronald Barnett, emeritus professor of higher education, talk at the University of Sydney. Based on his trilogy of books, he spoke about the university as a feasible utopia in an age of supercomplexity. One of his comments has stayed with me and I have pondered it, on occasion, ever since. ‘We need to be poets’ he said.

Being a University book cover  Imagining the University book cover  ‘Understanding the University’

In each of these books, Barnett talks about the imaginative and poetic task of thinking about universities. In Being a University (2011), academics are poets:

The researcher thinking about tomorrow’s experiment; the scholar planning a book; the course leader engaged in designing a course: these academics live in their own created zones of time and space. These academics are academic poets, imaginatively bringing into being new worlds (p 79).

In Imagining the University (2013), he explains why we need poetry:

There is a thinness in our contemporary thinking about the university … The imaginary landscape of the idea of higher education is rather empty at the present time. That is to say, the general ideas in broad circulation, and through which we might carry a tacit understanding of the university, are impoverished or inadequate (p 13) …

The poetry of the university being sought here would enable new ideas and new metaphors of the university fully to be realised (p 32).

In Understanding the University (2016), he shows poetry at work in the university:

The university holds within itself, often hidden from view, subtlety, delight, extensions of human being, wonder and even mystery. These may be fleeting moments, and cast into shadows by dark interests, but they are there, obdurately persisting against the university’s malevolent presences. Such a situation is dauntingly difficult to capture in conventional prose. Poets may legitimately be called for (p 131).

Much of the scholarship in higher education is dominated by particular research perspectives and agendas; relies on narrow range of methodologies; and is presented in critically, theoretically and textually similar ways. Playful and speculative poetic writing  offers a way out of the boundaries of conventional or traditional scholarship. Poetry can capture the affective, intimate and inspiring aspects of teaching, learning and research. It may also offer a chance to write outside of (or against) defined output metrics.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard (1964) writes that the measure of poetry is its reverberations:

In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own.  The reverberations bring about a change of being.  It is as though the poet’s being were our being … To put it more simply, this is an impression that all poetry-lovers know well: the poem possesses us entirely (p xviii).

There are examples of poetry about universities and academic work: PhD haiku in a recent Thesis Whisperer post, and this new book of poems and analysis about how higher education feels (this is in my to-read pile, so likely to be the subject of a future post). There is also writing that is simultaneously scholarly and poetic. One of my favourite examples is Alison Phipps’ (2007) paper The Sound of Higher Education:

Our world in modern languages is an altered world and it is more than my hunch that this is the same for other areas of higher education and its research. I know this to be the case if the disciplines are those, as in my own institution, which go on a journey with students in such a way as to show that other worlds are possible: History of Art, Classics, Archaeology, Languages, Anthropology.

And the sounds of this altered world are those, primarily, of grief:

We’ve a little time before the meeting begins. I don’t know my colleague well, but she looks tired, we all do these days, and I ask how she is. She begins to tell me she is fine, but her eyes fill with tears and the real story breaks through. She can’t do this any more. They have increased her hours, closed down her most successful course, taken away her dignity, told her that the language she speaks with such love and inspiration, is worthless here. And the room is full of the sound of weeping.

In the face of the grief, and it is palpable and often overwhelming to those of us who listen to it regularly and who are part of its tears too, we witness the constant selective deafness of management systems and higher education research which closes its ears to this sound in pursuit of capacity, strength, safeguarding.

This reverberates. Poetry offers consolation and hope.

Small talk

Small talk is, by definition, unimportant, inane and non-functional. I’m actually a big fan. In large organisations such as universities, informal networks—fueled by everyday social interactions—have a greater influence on roles, responsibilities and behaviours than formal structures (Dabos & Rousseau, 2013). Small talk matters.


(Image from Errant Science – the flow chart guide to academic gatherings is fun).

Incidentally, it is my four year old’s most frequent form of conversation:

4: ‘Are you a koala?’

Me: ‘No, I am not a koala.’

4: ‘I am not a koala either. I am not many animals. What animals are you not?’

This can continue indefinitely, especially for the ardent reader of an encyclopedia of animals. (And if this conversation starter doesn’t get the small talk flowing for you, then I recommend the Thesis Whisperer’s posts on conference dinners and points for conversation).

Last week, I attended a peer review of teaching workshop. I found the morning sessions especially useful and tweeted some of the resources:

But it was the small talk that made the day for me.


I caught up with colleagues dispersed by the closure of our university centre last year. We had been used to sharing morning tea every day, talking about learning and teaching, research and the intricacies of our everyday lives. These people were connected with the emotional landscape of my life, and I with theirs. I miss them keenly. Our conversation was small, but valuable.


Over coffee and lunch I chatted with an ex-student and met new people. Talk turned to time, reflection and mindfulness. Regular blog readers may remember a previous post on aspirations for the year, in which I focussed on how I want to feel calm and confident. I recently realised I should have added challenged to this list, so am working on ways to prompt more thinking and learning. In conversation, I shared this realisation and learnt about some exciting initiatives to bring contemplative practices into university settings.

UNSW has a meditation lab for students and staff, which includes  a list of useful links. I have added a short guided meditation to my work day once a week. (I am going to start with the free versions of Stop, Breathe, Think and Headspace. If the practice sticks and I find it beneficial, I will post a follow up).

And the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney is doing some wonderful work on health, wellbeing and creativity. Author Charlotte Wood, winner of last year’s Stella Prize for The Natural Way of Things, is writer-in-residence there:

“The whole place is a curiosity generator,” she says. “Steve Simpson, the boss, says it is all about risk and experimentation. The big shake-up for me has been to be as open as possible to ideas that are not even related to my work” … “It has certainly influenced the details of my three women,” she says. “A gerontologist told me that among these women in their mid-70s one will have a parent still alive. A professor of nutritional ecology doing work on animals and ageing made me think that one of the women could have a really old pet. I went to a seminar about sleep and dementia, which opened a new area for my characters.” The scientists are enthusiastic about Wood’s presence: “I met a guy on the stairs who is a researcher into sunlight and he said, ‘It’s fantastic you’re here’.”

I can’t wait to read the novel—featuring three ageing women—that she writes in this space!


There was a lively back-channel discussion on Twitter. I love the nuance this type of small talk adds to conferences and workshops. As with many events I attend, the elephant in the room was casualisation:

One Twitter commentator queried whether peer review of teaching was taking time away from teaching and learning (I have kept this anonymous as this off-the-cuff comment was reconsidered and the tweet later deleted). I responded that I have some sympathy for this view, but hold hope that academics talking to each other can have positive outcomes. The Twitter conversation continued, with the colleague commenting on the value of informal rather than formal conversations. I agree, as do others:

Bring back the tea room!