Staying in place

I taught my first tutorial at my current university eighteen years ago. In academia, there’s something shameful in admitting you’ve stayed in one university. Being deeply rooted is an anathema in higher education. I have been on the receiving end of this advice many times: if you want to succeed/ thrive/ stay employed, you must move/ be mobile/ remain unfettered.

The precarity of employment in higher education makes moving a necessary choice for many. (Although I disagree with the framing, this piece from Stylish Academic includes questions to evaluate your mobility: Am I healthy enough to live a mobile academic life? Do I enjoy living alone for long stretches of time? Can I live without pets?) Staying in one place may well mean re-evaluating your ideas about success in academia. It is not always the comfortable choice but, in my experience, rarely means staying still. I have had countless jobs in the one university: tutor, research assistant, project manager, lecturer, teaching fellow, and now associate dean. I started working in the coffee shop as an undergraduate!

On the weekend, I attended a beautiful memorial service for a colleague, Linda Kerr, who recently died, too early, after living with cancer for many years. Linda was strongly connected to Macquarie University and the National Tertiary Education union. She called the union the soul of the university. She had planned the memorial herself, which ended with fireworks overlooking the water at Clarkes Point Reserve, Woolwich. The photos below were taken by Nikki Balnave. Along with family and friends, our colleague Cathy Rytmeister spoke about Linda’s commitment and generosity.

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fireworks

I’ve been thinking about our connections to places, people, and universities in particular, since Linda’s memorial.

Last year, I missed a meeting of the Sydney-based informal higher education scholars network on ‘Making place in higher education research’ hosted by Geidre Kligyte and Jan MacLean at the University of Technology. They defined place as being about ‘a space that has been made meaningful’ and shared Ilaria Vanni Accarigi’s website on Place-based Methodologies:

We can think of place with art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard as ‘latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there (Lippard 1997, p. 7).

This has also been a prompt to catch up with some reading I set myself, including a call for a ‘placeful’ university (Nørgård and Bengtsen, 2016):

Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa.

Vanni Accarigi’s extended definition of place is worth pondering. I love geographer Doreen Massey’s term ‘throwntogetherness’ (the way in which different elements, human, non-human, social, environmental, cultural and political come together to define a here and now) to think about the experiences of being a part of a university.

Here and now, I take a moment to remember Linda, and look out the window while eating lunch—sumac orange chicken, chickpeas in tomato sauce and couscous—before walking through the drizzle to a meeting.

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Learning to listen

I love reading memoirs. I enjoy the intimacy of an encounter with the defining event(s) of someone else’s life. I recently read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on her experiences of becoming a mother at the same time as her fluidly gendered partner, artist Harry Dodge, underwent surgery and testosterone treatment. As someone who enjoys talking, this paragraph resonated for me:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

Interestingly, I found this paragraph more resonant than Maggie Nelson’s descriptions of motherhood. She mentions only in passing that her son was critically ill. I found this difficult as I wanted to read more:

I’m not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin; it is not precious or rich to me. All I will say is that there is still a loop of time, or there is still a part of me, that is removing the side of a raised hospital crib in the morning light and climbing into it beside him, unwilling to move or let go or keep living until he lifts his head, until he gives any sign that he will make it out.

This feeling of missed connection with writing also happened to me during my PhD, and I mourned the loss of pleasure in feminist theory when it didn’t match my lived experience of mothering a sick child. (I will post on this and other unexpected consequences of becoming a mother while completing a PhD in feminist philosophy in future).

The Argonauts   The Rules Do Not Apply

I also recently read Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. I had a lot of points of connection with her story, including the experience of placental abruption. My birth story had a happier ending—I took home a live baby, whereas Levy birthed her son alone at 19 weeks gestation and watched him take his first and only breaths. It’s a harrowing story, but I found the reviews disheartening: on Goodreads and in the press, Levy is criticised for her privilege, narcissism and for writing about ‘just’ a miscarriage and a divorce. In this review Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement, I agree with just one point: Levy “stays contracted around herself” in her memoir. Grief —not just privilege—can do that. Levy does indeed write from a wide field of options, and grieves the loss of entitlement and control she imagined for her life. Reading her memoir, I didn’t need to hear a universal story. As with all the memoirs I read, I appreciated its specificity; there were moments of both connection and disconnection.

Like talking, the pleasures of writing—my thoughts, my trajectories—run deep. I suspect this is also true for Levy. One of my favourite methodologies is autoethnography, which tends to focus on “epiphanies” or “remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life … times of existential crisis that forced a person to attend to and analyse lived experience … and events after which life does not seem quite the same” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011). There is a space for listening here too. As Ellis et al. (2011) put it: “The questions most important to autoethnographers are: Who reads our work, how are they affected by it, and how does it keep a conversation going?”

I want to learn to listen better, to relinquish the deep pleasure of talking, to keep a conversation going. I am currently writing a (slow) paper with a colleague on the role of listening in writing groups. Interestingly, no one in our writing group considers themselves a good listener. We all struggle to listen well.

My listening ability is often dependent on my mental state or the kind of day I’m having … Sometimes, such as when conditions are challenging, listening requires a more conscious effort than at other times when it is more automated.

It is hard to quiet my internal voice and listen actively. It is also hard to quiet my external voice and allow enough time for other people to speak. A lot of busyness and activity detracts from listening. So much of what I do is about completing tasks, rather than taking the time to share ideas. This is very unfortunate in an academic context!

And here is a taster on the role of listening as part of a writing group:

When I listen to feedback I have received during writing group, I feel some distance between myself and my writing because I am seeing it through the eyes of others. This provides me with the opportunity to reflect on what I have written, why certain sentences or paragraphs require further clarification and how I need to tackle revisions … I have developed the capacity to ‘think alongside of others’ instead of just imposing my opinions on their writing.

Following Lloyd’s (2009) work, we are reflecting on the importance of listening as a labour of care. I like the way in which she calls for ‘good enough’ listening to dissenting voices. This makes a space for listening through the moments of disconnection, not only enjoying the times we are in furious agreement with one another.

Teaching and mortality

I’ve been thinking about my approach to teaching lately. Several things have prompted this: I was recently awarded Senior Fellowship of the UK’s Higher Education Academy (which involved writing a reflective teaching philosophy), and I am co-editing a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy (with teaching as activist practice a focus of at least one of the forthcoming papers). (I will post on academic activism in future as the special issue is prepared and published).

I was also inspired to think about teaching after reading Cory Taylor’s powerful Dying: A Memoir, shortlisted for the Stella Prize, written after she was diagnosed with melanoma-related brain cancer at the age of sixty. It follows a mortality theme in my recent reading (and this list is  longer than I had realised!): Being Mortal, When Breath Becomes Air, Wasted (longlisted for the Stella Prize), Disaster Falls, Undying: A Love Story, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination and Wave.

Tangentially, Disaster Falls was written by an academic after the death of his 8 year old son on a family rafting expedition. It is heartbreaking account of how we endure, together and apart, the most difficult experiences of our lives. One paragraph that particularly struck me was the intersection of his grief and a rejection at work:

Other things continued to feel meaningless: political debates, intellectual questions, and my work, too. I still could not muster much interest. But when I learned that a book contract with a leading publisher would not come through, I bent over in my office. I actually bent over because of the setback, and because I realized right then that experiencing one tragedy does not mean that more hardship will not come your way. At that moment, I had to admit that somewhere within me material strivings remained strong enough to make me bend over in disappointment. After all this?

Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End When Breath Becomes Air WaveDisaster Falls: A Family Story  Undying: A Love Story An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination Dying: A Memoir

Mortality and teaching may seem tenuously connected, but the link goes to the heart of why slow academia is important to me. One of the most insightful teaching evaluations I’ve had came from an 18 year old first year student. At the time, my daughter was critically ill in hospital, and I was teaching then rushing to her bedside (as a casual, I had no access to paid leave). In his feedback, this young man wrote: ‘I loved this unit, but I got the impression that Agnes didn’t really want to be here.’ He was right. (Soon afterwards I moved into a project role for a couple of years, before returning to teaching).

Dying is a curiously uplifting book, and Taylor’s descriptions of discovering the pleasure of writing are delightful. Her first school (in Australia) inspired “considerable bodily anxiety” in its students, but when her family moved to Fiji, she found school a joyful experience:

Stationery had been one of my earliest glorious discoveries. I had loved it since I could remember. I was a particular fan of coloured pencils in box sets or tins … They were best when new, of course, when everything lay ahead of them, and before any mistakes and erasures had occurred. Which is no doubt why I loved them, because they were promise made manifest.

On my first day in class, I was allocated a magnificent desk. Made of solid timber, its hinged lid opened up to reveal a spacious cavity where all my stationery could be arranged … I remember sitting there, watching our teacher shape letters of the alphabet in cursive script for us to copy on the board, and sensing a shift in my consciousness … It had to do with the act of writing, which suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world to practice and master, not for its meaning—that would come later—but for its mystery.

I remember two teachers who prompted a similar feeling of discovery for me: Mrs Graham in Years 5 and 6 of primary school, who gave positive feedback on a poem I had written about fairies, and Mr Brauner in Years 7 and 9 of high school, who dressed as the ghost of Shakespeare and brought his plays to life.

As an undergraduate at university, I was inspired by teachers in Critical and Cultural Studies who challenged the ways I saw the world and raised awareness of the taken-for-granted in everyday life. Starting as a tutor 17 years ago, I followed this lead and focused on developing students’ thinking processes by asking questions rather than delivering content. After I finished my PhD, I shifted discipline to Higher Education, but this approach to teaching travelled with me. My professional development of academics and teaching in postgraduate education units has a social reform agenda. I see learning is a collective process rather than an individual pursuit.  I believe the role of the teacher is, as Skelton (2006) puts it, to “disturb the student’s current epistemological understandings and interpretations of reality by offering new insights.”  To put it simply: I want my students to make their world a better place in a small way.

Why slow?

Last week I listened to Kate Harris, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia, present on courageous leadership to a group of early career academics. She shared this image (from startwithwhy) and asked people to think about why they do the work they do:

Image result for startwithwhy

Kate made herself vulnerable and shared her purpose, motivation and inspiration. Her grandfather’s dying words to her were: Make peace in this world. And she dedicates her life to this goal. Her words inspired me to think about why I wanted to start this blog, and why I value slow academia.

Earlier in the day, I bumped into two colleagues – one whose partner recently died, and one who is in the early stages of cancer treatment. Both were at work, and working through shock and grief. Work can be distracting and colleagues can be nourishing … but something more important is going on for these colleagues. This, I realised, is why I consider slow academia crucial.

I recently read Being Mortal, a surgeon’s account of how medicine struggles to cope with dying, and it is a book that has made me think more than any other this year. Gawande writes about the way in which the perspectives and priorities of those close to the end of their lives changes:

When you are young and healthy, you believe you will live forever … And you are willing to delay gratification—to invest years, for example, in gaining skills and resources for a brighter future … When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid—achievement, creativity, and other attributes of “self-actualization.” But as your horizons contract—when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain—your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.

Two experiences in particular during my formative years as a PhD candidate and early career academic shifted my focus.

I have already mentioned the birth of my daughter ten years ago. What I didn’t mention, and what sometimes seems the most defining aspect of the last decade, was what happened. As a result of placental abruption during birth, and after repeated life-threatening seizures as a baby and toddler, my daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy. We live with the consequences of her illness daily.

I also live with a chronic pain condition, following complications during surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. I now have a neurostimulator implanted in my abdomen, which runs an electric current alongside the damaged nerve and replaces pain with tingling. I have it on 24/7 and my once constant and immobilising pain – which severely negatively impacted everyday living – is now manageable.

These experiences are why I advocate for slow academia. When I finished my PhD, and when I became an academic, other things already came first. Work matters – it has to matter because sometimes it takes me away from what matters more.

A recent Twitter exchange illustrated this:

‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ is among the top five regrets of the dying. The future is finite and uncertain. My focus is the here and now, everyday pleasures and the people closest to me.