Voices from the living past

“I think that a mother owes this to her children: to keep in contact with the rest of the world.”

This is the comment of a woman university student that was aired on Australian television in January 1961. My father shared the re-released recording from the ABC program A Woman’s Place. Questions include: Do the two lives of working and caring for children go together? Should women get the same money for doing the same job? Do you expect to find prejudice against the career woman? Could a woman be head of a large organisation?

The answers of the students vary — it wouldn’t be good television if everyone agreed — but their realisation of the challenge of “two lives” is evident. (One thing that has changed, at least to my ears, is the Australian accent, itelf a topic on RetroFocus with responses to Do Australian have a bad accent? in 1961 and 2019).

In another snippet of 1960s television from ABC’s RetroFocus, Australian passersby respond to a (male) university professor’s claim that housewives lead a dull life. One woman replies: “I don’t think it is dull at all … [They] invariably enjoy their game of tennis, bowls or golf.” More than one man suggests there’s a bit of “fun and games on the side.” In response to the question, “Never considered going to work?” an elderly woman replies, “God heavens no!”

A few years after this aired, when my university was new, an article entitled ‘The Mums of Macquarie’ appeared in The Australian Women’s Weekly on 19 July, 1967. The article read:

More than 150 married women have gone back to study at the new Macquarie University … taking up courses that had been interrupted by family life … There has been many a resignation from neighboring tennis groups and lunch clubs, a Girl Guide captain has abandoned knots and hikes and returned to books, and it is not uncommon to see women with grocery shopping on one arm balancing a basket of books and papers on the other.

The magazine included this image of children at a lecture:

One of my favourite book bloggers, Whispering Gums, recently posted her reflections as a 1970s feminist, and commented about attending Macquarie University:

I chose to go to a new, progressive university (Macquarie) … in my experience women were treated well, there. It had no baggage of “traditions” that the older male-dominated universities had, and its academics seemed invested in creating something new. I think that made a difference. Macquarie’s motto is Chaucer’s “and gladly teche” (from the lines “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”). I always thought it a bit strange that the motto focused on “teaching” more than “learning” but now I think it’s inspired, because it reminds the academics that “teaching” is where it all starts.

Whispering Gums finishes her post in a way that is apt here, by quoting Germaine Greer: things have changed, but not enough.

For a bit more on the history of learning and teaching at Macquarie, I recommend listening to this audio recording by my colleague Karina Luzia (the transcript is available here).

I have already blogged about the article Vanessa Fredericks and I co-authored, Tracing the feminist contribution of HERD over 40 years. We highlighted a Burns, Scott and Cooney (1993) article called Higher education of single and married mothers, also focussed on Macquarie students. They wrote:

As university teachers, we are well aware that many of [our] students are single and married mothers, who face the particular problem of integrating study demands with family responsibilities and often, with the demands of paid work as well. The present study was triggered by the experience of the first author in teaching a third year unit, in the course of which I became aware of the life crises being endured by two single mothers, one a sole Parent Pensioner, the other self-employed. As well as financial and child care difficulties, both had health problems, one had an adolescent son in trouble with the police, the other had major responsibility for a seriously ill parent, and both were in litigation with apparently vindictive ex-husbands. Students other than mothers do not usually suffer from this kind of constellation of problems (p. 189).

You can read the full article (open source) here, but for the purposes of tracing the voices of university student mothers, I will highlight the voice of one participant:

Well I have three children. I felt I owed it to them whilst attending college to still give them the same amount of attention and support in both their sport and education areas and maintaining the home. And I was very determined I would never be later for an assignment. And I never was, not one day late. But it was a great strain. I got by on four hours sleep at night some nights. For a long period there five hours was a luxury. I never started to study until the children had had some quality time, which meant I wouldn’t open a book to rewrite lecture notes (and I always wrote every lecture again when I got home, so I’d understand it) so it was probably ten o’clock at night when I started, sometimes midnight … I got very tired. Quite cranky, actually.

For the voices of contemporary student parents, I recommend the work of Marie-Pierre Moreau in which students discuss a lack of time and money, and the challenges of balancing family, study and housekeeping. Tired and cranky. That’s something that hasn’t changed!

Recharging

When I tell my family I am going to recharge, they know that means I will be plugging my neurostimulator into the wall and getting the battery back to 100%. I’ve mentioned the neurostimulator for pain management in previous posts, and here’s how I described it in my article Details Optional:

A neurostimulator is an implanted medical device that delivers electrical stimulation directly to the nerve, interrupting pain signals before they reach the brain. It is a small metal box with two leads emerging from it, fine insulated wires that conduct electrical impulses along either side of the nerve. You can feel it through my skin. Stroke your hand across my abdomen—flesh, flesh, and then recoil in shock at the hard metal underneath. No, it doesn’t hurt. It tingles. I recharge it regularly with a hand-held programmer against the skin. My mum is a cyborg, my son says.

Over the last month, I have had the opportunity for recharging of a different kind, despite the shocking covid case numbers in Sydney that have impacted family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The outbreak made for a quiet holiday spent walking, swimming, reading, napping, watching, eating and playing. Here are my favourites of what we enjoyed:

As always, I want to take the holiday feeling into the working year. This New Yorker article on slow productivity offered a timely caution against inflating workloads and the role of managers. And, on management, Sandra Jones and Marina Harvey make the case that living with covid makes distributed leadership imperative in higher education. At a farewell for a colleague who is moving to another university yesterday, I was reminded of the importance of collegiality, critical thinking and constructive dissent. My goal for the last couple of years has been to amplify others; I plan to continue this and make these values to my priorities. I will keep you posted on what it looks like in practice.

So long 2021

Thank goodness we have reached the end of 2021! I am taking a longer break than usual and looking forward to no Zoom meetings for a month.

The greatest accomplishment of the year was getting through 105+ days of lockdown and simultaneous schooling and working from home. The week that school returned on campus, I tweeted: I cannot overstate how much better my working week has been with my children back at school. I have managed complex tasks requiring concentration and uninterrupted thinking. Still catching up but the seven things on my list marked urgent are almost finished.

Despite the interruptions, there is much collective work to be proud of and I am fortunate to be part of an accomplished team (pictured below on Zoom). We made a fun video to celebrate the highlights of the year. These included: a Beginning to Teach professional development program, Spotlight on Practice interviews, iLearn (learning management system) drop-in clinic, Bite-sized Learning and Teaching podcast, supporting 23000 online exam sittings in second semester, and facilitating Zoom for Teaching workshops.

I am also proud of: the work of the Teaching and Leadership community of practice (I presented these slides summarising the CoP at the Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) conference), co-leading the Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching MOOC with Marina Harvey, and publishing an autoethnographic journal article on parenting and promotion in Life Writing.

Outside of work, the pandemic made the world feel small. Walking in our local area helped.

A special shout-out to my father who facilitated weekly Zoom lessons for his grandchildren, individually crafted according to their interests: time, water, chess, The Great Depression, maps, left-handedness, food, money, computers, building a house, book publishing, inventions, family history, electricity, and colonisation among other topics.

Finally, no yearly wrap up would be complete without sharing some of my favourite books of the year: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (a novel about a Ghanian American PhD candidate’s family), Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days (a novel about a pregnant teenage Korean Australian detained by her mother), Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (fictionalised account of gay Vietnamese American son writing to his mother), Sara Foster’s The Hush (dystopian fertility fiction), Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird (an Australian Aboriginal YA mystery novel by award winning Wuilli Wuilli author), and Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (oral history of Russian women in WW2).

So long 2021!

Edited to add: in my rush to farewell 2021, I forgot to share the news that the Slow Academic will have a new look next year thank you to the talented Fidel Fernando. I commissioned him to redesign the blog after the success of his artworks for the Over a Cuppa reflection series this year. Sadly he is leaving my team for a great opportunity at another university, but said farewell with this lovely image: