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Image result for same sex marriage postal vote

International readers will find themselves happily distant from the ridiculousness of same sex marriage postal vote here in Australia. At my university, Academic Senate issued a carefully worded statement:

The Academic Senate respects the diversity of opinions in relation to the issue of marriage equality. The Academic Senate encourages and advocates respectful debate around the issue and supports LGBTQI students and staff of the University, particularly at this time. The Academic Senate affirms its support for marriage equality

This statement attempts to simultaneously acknowledge dissenting views, advocate for debate, support staff and students and affirm a position. That’s a lot of baggage for three sentences!

Our VC issued the following message, which avoids an explicit positional statement:

Over the coming weeks I expect that we will see increased discussion about marriage in Australia. This is an emotive issue for many, and positions will be expressed passionately and firmly. At [our University], we expect that all members of our community will be respectful and courteous, regardless of their views on the issue. Staff and student Codes of Conduct apply at all times; these prohibit harassment or discrimination including on the basis of sexual orientation. We all have a right to learn, live and work in an environment free from prejudice and discrimination.

Our work together to strengthen the communitarian spirit of [the University] over many years is tested at times when societal issues which are divisive and polarising are on the table for discussion and decision across the nation. It is at such times that every member of the community of this University can contribute by ensuring the interactions and discourse are conducted in a way which recognises the great value that every student and staff member brings to [the University].

Other universities have issued similar statements. You can read various examples, more or less prevaricating, here and here and here. Clashes at (at least) one university provide some context for the multiple aims of these statements. And here are interesting cases of a retracted statement and pressure from a VC to vote yes.

I was frustrated by these equivocations, but I have had thoughtful discussions with colleagues and friends that have interrupted my thinking on whether, and how, institutions should make statements inviting debate about same sex marriage.  My usual inclination in politics is to favour constructive dissent—which is easy to say when it is not my life being debated— but I am now wondering what we gain (or lose) by framing same sex marriage as a debate, and reflecting on the contradictory discourses evident in these statements.

In so many areas, I want universities to have a stronger political voice (one example is Australia’s treatment of refugees, another is fossil fuel divestment). As always, @acahacker put it well in a tweet:

The unevenness of what is opened up for debate (within and beyond universities) and what remains unquestioned is thought-provoking.

Enabling dissent

Last week I attended the annual Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference. I really appreciated the sustained and vibrant  participation by students across the conference. Over three days I attended sessions on peer review, teaching induction, research-informed teaching and quality curriculum; collected a wealth of resources and ideas; planned research with interstate colleagues; gave a paper; was interviewed for a podcast; and had excellent conversations. For those interested, here are some of the things I am following up or using in my work: Andrea Carr and Jo-Anne Kelder’s Curriculum Evaluation and Research (CER) Framework; Kym Fraser’s teaching induction MOOC Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching; Kathryn Sutherland’s exemplar development for early career academics; and the Student Wellbeing resources for staff.

Alongside many others, I tweeted and retweeted furiously throughout the conference.


Thanks to Stuart Palmer for this visualisation. (My 4 year old looked at it and said, ‘there you are on the blue train, Mama’).

The Twitter hashtag #HERDSA17, with over 1000 tweets, was one of the aspects of the conference I enjoyed most. Not only did I find it an effective way of taking notes for the sessions I attended, it offered a glimpse of presentations I missed (and with 12 concurrent sessions, I missed more than I saw). Many of the sessions I attended did not allow time for questions, and here Twitter flourished. Twitter became a space in which  counter-views were aired and critique was voiced openly. This can be uncomfortable.

Here are some examples (click on the tweet to see the full conversation):

(SAP = Students as partners)

And a meta-tweet:

While many of the voices on Twitter were also present at the conference, the conversation felt different. Twitter was more critical, certainly – perhaps more troublesome – but also stimulating.

At an individual level, it is hard to hold two (or more) competing ideas in mind, to entertain differing viewpoints, to passionately believe something and consider alternatives. These challenges are compounded at a community level. But, at least at academic conferences, asking questions, offering critique and inviting dissent is crucial. I think it defines scholarship.

Today I enjoyed a workshop on assessment with Chris Rust, one of HERDSA’s keynote speakers, and was delighted to hear that, not only had he attended my presentation at HERDSA, but he disagreed with a lot of what I had to say! It only made our conversation more enjoyable.