A reminder to play

Two seemingly unconnected things: My six year old son has taken to referring to himself as his thirteen year old sister’s imaginary friend. (I find myself half believing him). And a couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of Higher Education Scholars.

I have previously posted about these events (The spirit of research, Yarning circle, Thoughtful citations, Staying in place), a roughly tri-annual gathering of Sydney-based researchers in higher education. The most recent session was hosted by Vanessa Fredericks, Lilia Mantai and Elaine Huber at the University of Sydney. The theme was Mind the Gap: Contemplating power, privilege and pedagogy:

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the ways higher education (teaching and research and academia as a whole) might be restricted by oppressive pedagogies. We consider what value we might add to higher education if we dared to free our minds and bodies from colonial, neoliberal, Western and masculine ideas … We begin by positioning ourselves as being-in-the-academy. We reflect on our positions and acknowledge that the space which we occupy, speak and write from is a privileged space. We open the introspective space to think more broadly about research and the University – itself a product of colonialism, and a space which is influenced by neoliberal practices and policies. We invite you to slow down and be ‘lazy’ (Shahjahan, 2015), to engage in ‘tactics of resistance’ (Shahjahan, 2015, p. 489). We consider the ways in which slowing down and re-embodying our approach to research and pedagogy, can lead to a practice of being-in-the-academy that is ethical
and responds to the other.

The organisers provided a thoughtful reading list, including:

Throughout the day, we talked, we listened, we thought and we played. We introduced ourselves and found commonalities through a web of connections:


We had loosely structured, wide-ranging discussions about our bodies in relation to research, teaching and leadership. We breathed. We listened to music, drew, played with play-doh and lego:


Image Image

Why such frivolous, unscholarly behaviour?

Jane Gallop in Anecdotal Theory (2002), refers to playfulness in a research context as “an attempt to theorise from a different place” and to speculate around ideas that have a tendency to “disable thought”.

Here is the connection with my my son’s imaginary selfhood and our playfulness as scholars: both offer ways of reflecting on our subjectivities and positionalities.

Play occupies a liminal space that invites a suspension of disbelief and relishes possibility and transformation. When playing, we suspend disbelief; we create unreal or quasi-real spaces; we tend towards extravagance and exaggeration; we move away from seriousness to nonsense and foolishness; and we value emotional responses (Bulkeley 1999, p 62).

Slowing down as scholars, taking time to play, allows us to ask ‘what if?’ and to imagine what might be possible.  We can recreate the space of the university and our places in it.

In thinking about playfulness, I revisited the work of Johan Huizinga (1950):

A play-community … tends to become permanent even after the game is over… The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

I am already looking ahead to future gathering of these folks, and have been inspired by the work of Tamson Pietsch, Where I stand, on recrafting academic biographies and research narratives.

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.