Lost in thought

I love those moments while reading when the mind drifts, when the reader’s thoughts flow towards other ideas and become untethered from the text.

In The Pleasure of the Text (1975), French literary theorist Roland Barthes writes of the experience of reading: “[A text] produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else.” He refers to drifting, when the reader is “driven about by language’s illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves” but chooses to “remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)” (1975, p 18).

These inner reveries of drifting and returning to the text reveal something of the self. In this post, the drift of thoughts I had while reading Raewyn Connell’s The Good University are also revealing of what Barbara Grant calls my ‘tiny university’, one of a thousand possible versions of the university held individually and collectively.

In The Good University, Connell writes about the lies universities tell themselves. At least, that was how I remembered a section of the book. That’s the direction the drift had taken me. On rereading, the text was different. Recollecting the renowned 88 year old jacaranda tree in the quadrangle of the University of Sydney (a tree with its own wikipedia entry), Connell writes:

Around 2013 [the university’s corporate advertising] featured a tutorial or discussion group of students, sitting in a semi-circle on the grass in front to the jacaranda tree in full bloom, talking earnestly together in the bright Sydney sunshine. Marvellous image!

But the picture was lying to us. No class or discussion group is allowed to convene on the quadrangle lawn. It is therefore redundant to observe that jacarandas in Sydney bloom mainly in November, after tutorials are over. The tree died in 2016.

This is a small example, which I noticed because I was fond of that tree. The point is, this kind of falsification has become routine. Every managerial university now puts out a cloud of imagery, text and sound intended to misrepresent the way the way things really are.

File:Jacaranda carpet, Sydney University.jpg

Image source.

I  considered the lies universities tell in advertisements to be one version of a thousand tiny universities (some admittedly less tiny than others). I connected these marketised visions of the university with artists’ representations of buildings under construction, the utopian visions that occupy an imaginary landscape of a university and the people within it:


Image source.

For Connell, the marketing reads as falsehood or deception. I was thinking imaginary. In my tiny university, I was holding the utopian image alongside a counter-image. The jacaranda tree is simultaneously alive and dead. The campus hub will be better than before, after it is worse than before:


Image source.

Image source.

I started thinking about our complicity with the stories universities tell. And I think Connell captures that with her comment ‘Marvellous image!’ In the final chapter, Connell offers the following criteria for a good university: democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable. Interestingly, these values are espoused by institutions around the world: social justice, academic integrity, innovation, shared governance, equity, student engagement, scholarship, and building better futures.

There is a tangle of thoughts here: where is the truth? Who is telling lies? Can goodness be used for bad? Or vice versa?

My son has recently watched the three original Star Wars movies, and is very taken with Darth Vader’s redemption. We are having lengthy conversations about Darth Vader’s goodness.  He’s for, I’m against. Before I can think too long about what my stance on Darth Vader suggests for universities, the drift has taken me into different waters.

If you keep reading Roland Barthes, he writes this about drift: “Drifting occurs whenever social language, the sociolect, fails me … Thus another name for drifting would be the Intractable—or perhaps, even: Stupidity” (1975, p 19).

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