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 read the abstracts on the website.

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

Valuing teaching

Image result for herdsa 2018

I spent last week in Adelaide for the Higher Education Research and Development Association of Australasia (HERDSA) conference. As far as Australian higher education conferences go, it is the largest, with a choice of seven parallel sessions. I was deep in decision fatigue, so stuck closely to the ‘academic work’ stream rather than move between sessions. This post is heavily condensed, patchy and subjective. Full program and abstracts from the conference are available. (This post includes embedded tweets so is best read on the website rather than through blog readers).

The conditions of casual academic staff and teaching-focussed academics were front and centre of discussions at HERDSA. Listening to findings on working conditions, the numbers of staff in insecure work, and the perceptions and experiences of teaching staff was heavy emotional work.

  • Scholarly Teaching Fellows: Drivers and (Early) Outcomes (Brown)
  • Scholarly Teaching: The Changing Composition of Work and Identity in Higher
    Education (Dados)
  • How much is this number worth? Representations of academic casualisation in
    Australian universities (Yasukawa)

Scholarly Teaching Fellows (STFs) are continuing Level A academics with a teaching focus (80% – 90% teaching workload). Based on data from interviews with 80 STFs and their managers, this project team are asking: Is STF likely to be a genuine career path for new academics? Are appointments reducing casualisation? How sustainable is STF workload and classification?

So far, despite some silver linings, the findings seem pretty grim:

I have registered for their one-day conference in December in Sydney: The Future of Academic Work: a Deliberative Conference, and am looking forward to more in depth discussion of these findings

  • Undervalued teaching and its impact on academics who prioritise teaching

The theme of valuing teaching continued in Cathryn McCormack’s longitudinal ethnographic study of nine academics dedicated to teaching:

This led to an amusing exchange on Twitter:

  • Casual Teaching Staff – Identity Crisis and the uberification of academic work (Kelder)

The ‘uberification’ of academic work is widespread and encultured in universities. There is hope.

There was affirmation of the value of care, optimism and hope in higher education – on the student panel, in keynotes and sessions and in conversations.

  • If we care about the quality of students’ learning then we must care about quality of teachers’ teaching (Chalmers)
  • Responding with optimism: developing academic leaders in times of change (Readman)
  • (Re-)Valuing on ‘Otherness’ and ‘Caring’ in Universities (Orrell)

This was one of my favourite moments:

The keynotes affirmed the importance optimism. In a presentation on the crisis of climate change, Tim Flannery asked: how can we give our students a sense of optimism and a feeling of hope? He suggested that the university should be a model for how we want the world to be.

Barbara Grant encouraged hope for the future which is now. In a separate post I will reflect on her brilliant keynote A Thousand Tiny Universities, which rewards slow thinking. While I am mulling, here are some images from a chilly grey early morning walk along the River Torrens. Adelaide is half an hour behind Sydney time which gave me an early start to each day.

A gift

I received this poem in an email from a colleague last week. It was a wonderful gift, and I want to share it:

Keeping Quiet 

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

 Pablo Neruda


Why not count up to twelve, and send a poem to a colleague today?

Frugal hedonism for academics

Over the weekend I read the delightful book The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb.


Essentially a list of strategies for spending less money while enjoying life, it was the juxtaposition of frugal hedonism that grabbed me and the quirky tone that kept me reading. (Here’s a great podcast conversation with Annie on Slow Your Home that gives a taster). The authors describe frugal hedonism thus:

The truly savvy hedonist avoids blunting her capacity for pleasure against a barrage of constant stimulation. He knows that the rewards of the journey frequently trump instant gratification. She shuns that level of convenience and indulgence that insidiously erodes her mental and physical vigour. He makes non-monetised sources of pleasure his first port of call, so that he’s not trapped into shaping his life around earning. Far from being acts of martyrdom, such frugality-compatible behaviours can in fact be your best ticket to enjoying everything more on both the deeply fulfilling and sensually satisfying levels.

I started thinking about what these strategies might look like for academics. While I like the idea of spending less money in order to work less, the currency that matters for many academics is time and energy. How can I spend these wisely and enjoy work more? Many of the strategies Raser-Rowland and  Grubb suggest resonate: create your own normal, have lots of things you want to do with your freedom, undercomplicate things, give something. Here are a few of their ideas reimagined for those aspiring to slow academia. In a nutshell: frugal hedonism means time for contemplation, positive relationships and friendships with colleagues, and finding pleasure in work and beyond.

  • Relish

The authors recommend musing on the word relish “with its suggestion of immoderate sensory intensity.” What have you relished at work today? How have your senses been engaged? In a day unusually free of meetings—as though I had been given the gift of time—I relished conversations with colleagues and the start of semester buzz. There are students everywhere. It’s crowded, noisy, and finding a parking spot is near impossible. I tend to prefer quiet days on campus, but this bombardment of the senses provides music, colour, movement and opportunities for people watching. It’s exciting.

  • Indulge your curiosity

The thrill of discovery is a great motivator. I am always keen to know more. One of my most valuable conversations today was inspired by asking a colleague a question which required a longer answer, so we talked over coffee. This week I am indulging my love of learning by taking the time to attend a public lecture for International Women’s Day by Cordelia Fine, author of Testosterone Rex (which is currently in the reading pile next to my bed). I also indulge my curiosity through reading. Perhaps Producing Pleasure in the Contemporary University might be a good companion to this post—I’ll move it to the top of book pile.

  • People who need people are the luckiest people in the world

There are hashtags for this one: #academickindness #circleofniceness. I am part of collaborations with colleagues that feel rich and generous. These have been the highlights of my working life—research and writing teams, doctoral supervision, co-teaching, conferences. If you haven’t yet found like-minded souls, don’t despair. Indulge your curiosity, talk with people, seek out and relish experiences, read and write and you will find points of connection with others. This academic kindness notebook sharing initiative by Ellie Mackin Roberts is a great idea. I have just signed up!

  • Look up, think about constellations. Look down, think about magma.

I think the authors articulated the grandness of everything beyond the self well:

Look up. There is so infinitely much more matter than you out there, hurling forth glowing plumes, imploding into vortexes, converging into gaseous balls, the shattering into incandescent rain…

Look down. There is the great grinding, shifting, melting foundry for all the yawning canyons and toothed peaks and rift valleys. There is the alchemical trinity of moisture, mineral and organic debris that has the power to birth new life…

Remembering where and what you are should not be to the end of feeling like an insignificant speck. You are woven of this stuff, this starlight and magma, let it extend you and make you feel endless amongst it … Then scan what feels important to

(Here’s the children’s version in a picture book). The message for academics: you are stardust, so how much does your H-index really matter?

A final comment inspired by some boxed text the book: “We knew a man who spent some time teaching agricultural workshops in Peru, and he described how grandmothers would show up for class in this mountainous location, having thought nothing of taking a three day walk to get there.” If someone walked three days to be in your class, would you teach the same way you do now?