Don’t be the wizard behind the curtain

This is the 8th post in Over a cuppa, a series which offers prompts to reflect on learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. I have set myself the challenge of keeping these posts to 300 or so words. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

For those who recently had a mid-semester break in teaching, I hope it offered a chance to refill your cup. Sit down and take a sip.

Today’s prompt to reflect on your learning and teaching is based on an anecdote. Anecdotes are one of my favourite pedagogical tools. Stories, musing out loud, thought bubbles, and flights of fancy can offer powerful ways of learning—but take note of who is allowed to do these things the classroom!

I am reminded of Maggie Nelson’s comments in her 2015 memoir The Argonauts:

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.

I often use this quote as a prompt to stop talking and listen.

I’ve watched the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz countless times. I have taught it in a visual culture course, it was my daughter’s favourite film as a toddler (I was the wicked witch at her third birthday), and I celebrated my PhD with a plaque of Scarecrow’s qualification. The Wizard awards Scarecrow (who doesn’t have a brain) a “Doctor of Thinkology” sign enabling him to ‘think deep thoughts”:


There’s a wonderful scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the “great and powerful” Oz is just an old man pulling levers.

As a reflection on teaching: don’t be the wizard shouting behind the curtain! Make your learning visible to students, and demonstrate that it is ok not to have all the answers. Teachers and students can come to knowing together.

Goals for today

This post is simple. Perhaps too simple for these complex times; and written from a place of safety and privilege as I watch and listen to the turmoil of the world.

Every day—weekday or weekend, work day or holiday, ordinary day or significant in some way—I hold on to the same goals.

These quotidian goals offer a means of self-care, and resist a productivity mantra that suggests looking years ahead and working backwards through the achievement of daily tasks. They are also a way to challenge myself to listen to others and to read from different perspectives, and offer an chance to reflect on our complicated and delicate lives and world.

1. Join an interesting conversation

Still working from home, I am missing informal and impromptu social interactions. With most of my communications happening via Zoom (or Teams or Skype or FaceTime or phone), I am also missing conversations where people can interrupt or talk across the top of one another! (Those who know me well know my love of interrupting, to my shame).

On the positive side, I have needed to focus on listening. Some of the conversations I am finding my way into are via social media, podcasts and webinars. In a time when our lives are contracted and closer to home, viewpoints such as Listening to the City in a Global Pandemic, which shares the voices of academics in various countries, open up the world. From a non-academic perspective, the BBC’s The Documentary podcast tells powerful stories of isolation and togetherness.

Today I listened to presentations from my university’s Widening Participation team about the impact of COVID-19 on student learning.  Perspectives included charity, government and university, with a focus on vulnerable students. The insights about student experiences of food insecurity, racism and domestic violence were frightening, yet the speakers were hopeful activists.

2. Eat something good

Right now, I am eating a scone my daughter cooked at school in food tech, with a cup of Earl Grey tea.


3. Spend time outdoors

On many days, being outdoors is as simple or as brief as the walk to school or time in the garden. On bad or impossible days (few now), I enjoyed the view out a window or the pine cone on my desk (a gift from a colleague—thank you Linda).

We regularly walk together as a family—bushwalks in and around Sydney are truly wonderful. A fortnight ago, we took the Callicoma Track with friends. Last weekend lasted three days in some parts of Australia; we visited the coast an hour out of Sydney and enjoyed a windy clifftop walk to the sound of the waves (thankful for our puffy jackets).

4. Enjoy reading

I typically read multiple books at once: a 2am book (a page-turner on Kindle when sleepless in the middle of the night), a memoir, a daytime novel, a poetry collection and an audio book (as a podcast alternative). Right now, I am focusing on black writers, in response to National Reconciliation Week in Australia (which had the theme In This Together for 2020), NAIDOC week (postponed this year) and international Black Lives Matter protests.

My 2am book is the zombie boarding school book Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. The memoir is Frank Byrne’s Living in Hope, winner of the Most Underrated Book Award in 2018, a short and powerful story of a boy taken from his mother in the 1940s. The daytime novel is Alexis Wright’s Plains of Promise (after reading the first chapter for my creative writing class). The poetry is Kirli Saunder’s Kindred, a book I won in a giveaway on ANZ LitLovers blog, including poems on self-care, motherhood and country. And the audio book is Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, on precolonial agriculture, engineering and building construction by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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Next on my list (on my Kindle and in the pile next to the bed): On the Come Up (for young adult book club), Tara June Winch’s The Yield and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti. Any other recommendations?

This month I am adding an extra goal: write for 25 minutes every day (or thereabouts) as part of Helen Sword’s 30 day Show Up and Write challenge.

What are your daily goals?

A to-do side list

I am at Sydney Airport awaiting a flight to Melbourne for a few days of thinking and writing together with the Academic Identities project team. I am committing my waiting and commuting time to tasks that are never achieved at work. This list is far too ambitious for a 90 minute flight to Melbourne, but will serve as a reminder for the future.

What does it mean, and what does it cost, to make a complaint? In 2016 the acclaimed British-Australian academic resigned from her prestigious post as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her resignation was in protest against the university’s failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. Ahmed – whose work embraces feminist, queer and race studies – has since embarked on a new research project, outside institutional academia, that was sparked by the bruising experience of trying to improve the university’s complaints process.

  • Catch up on sessions I missed from Making shiFT happen, in particular a keynote from Trina Hamilton on ‘The life of slow scholarship’ and a panel by the Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective on ‘Living slow scholarship’.
  • Continue the Aboriginal Sydney online course I started last year (having reset my deadline for completion again).
  • Read books. On my Kindle, I have Mindfulness in the Academy, Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times and Women Who Make a Fuss.

Mindfulness in the Academy by Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough    Qualitative Inquiry in Neoliberal Times by Denzin, Norman K. (EDT)/ Giardina, Michael D. (EDT), Michael D. Giardina (9781138226432) - HardCover - Education Tertiary

  • Read articles and chapters. On my laptop, I have Biesta et al’s (2019) editorial ‘Why educational research should not just solve problems, but should cause them as well’ and the first chapter of Starting with Gender in International Higher Education Research (Henderson, 2018).
  • Listen to podcasts: I have heard very few episodes of Changing Academic Life and those I have heard have been thought-provoking
  • Watch Professor Michael McDaniel speak at the launch of Allens’ Reconciliation Action Plan, as discussed by Kate Bowles in a recent blog post on Music for Deckchairs.