Memories of learning

This is the 7th post in a regular feature Over a cuppa: prompts to reflect on learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

What are your memories of learning? How have your assumptions of learning been shaped?

This post follows closely from the previous reflection on your university story. It is another approach to reflection based on storytelling. In the AdvanceHE guide Reflection for Learning, Marina Harvey and colleagues call these reflectories.

I still think about a conversation I had in 2018 at the International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. It was prompted by a presentation by Susan Carter from the University of Auckland called Pushing Academic Identity Development Further: imagination, creativity and ensoulment.

Carter asked a series of questions which she has published as a reflective exercise in her 2020 book Academic Identity and the Place of Stories:

Review your own childhood learning story: what troubled, bothered or eluded you, and what did you like about learning in your early years at school? … What did you misinterpret at school? What did you really like, understand and enjoy doing? Remember playing as a child: what games did you play, and what did you learn from them? Were the rules well established, or did you and your family or friends make them up or alter them? How did you agree about the rules (or did you)? How do these childhood experiences underpin who you are now?

In response to this prompt, a colleague and I discussed schooling, childhood games, the spaces we occupied, the games we created, and the rules we followed and refused to follow. His memories of learning as a sole child of older parents involved a lot of team sports and board games. This has prompted him to always look for the rules and follow them in order to succeed. My memories were less rule-based and more immersed in imaginary play. With two bothers close in age (my parents had three children under three), playtime was loud and continuous.

We carry these assumptions about rules (and their bendability) into our learning as adults. What can your reflectory teach you?

Carter, Susan. (2020). Academic Identity and the Place of Stories: The personal in the professional. Cham: Palgrave MacMillan.

Postscript – my father read this post and pointed out my Freudian slip – bothers instead of brothers!

An attentive walk

I was very taken with the methodology of the ‘attentive walk’ that Fran Kelly took in her article Hurry up please, it’s time!’ A psychogeography of a decommissioned university campus. I included some detail in my previous post: “Although I had walked the same paths before, this time I walked with intention and attention, taking photographs and making notes of objects and places and the effects of processes of time.”

Here is some more detail about the methodology in a quote Fran provides from MacFarlane (2005):

Record the experiences as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets: the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Catch the sign. Log the data stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street.

Fran is walking through a decommisioned university campus, which adds pathos to her noticings. She refers to it as ‘critical nostalgia’: “This moment in time—on the cusp of the faculty’s transfer and the site’s disestablishment—is opportune to critically reflect on this place and its ideas, practices and work of teaching that have shaped and infused its material form.”

The focus of my own critical nostalgia—which has “a political aim to insist on the humanity of places”—was to explore the university through my children’s eyes. My children are growing up (now 14 and 7), but I have worked at this university campus for throughout their lives in many different roles. We lived close by for many years. My mother brought my daughter for breastfeeding in the breaks between lectures. My children attended childcare on campus and had swimming lessons at the pool. On the weekends, we used the campus grounds, filled with interesting plants and sculptures, for walking, scooter riding and kite flying.

Like Fran, I am aware of the imprint of time on the university space. Many parts of the campus that my children enjoyed no longer exist—hills have been flattened to make way for new buildings, holes under buildings that housed feral kittens have been patched, trees have been lopped, and sculptures relocated. There are new spaces to explore. I took this walk alone, but had my children’s voices and histories in mind.

My son asks whether this is a machine for teleporting:

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My daughter attempts to use this staircase every time we pass:

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There is a large stick on the ground:

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This reads like an instruction:

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We all love a street library (note the feminist dystopian fictionLouise Erdich’s Future Home of the Living God):

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Along the way I bumped into several colleagues, and stopped for brief hellos. I plan future attentive walks, on and off campus, alone and in the company of others.

Always interruptible

I’m halfway through reading Sarah Knott’s Mother: An Unconventional History (published elsewhere as Mother is a Verb). This was initially homework for the academic identities cultural history project—each member of the team read a different book (there’s a cultural history of almost everything you can imagine: sex, food, weather, places, objects, actions)—but I have become deeply immersed in this book.

The author Sarah Knott is an academic, historian, feminist mother. The book combines history, specifically motherhood in the UK and US from around the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and memoir (Knott had her first child while researching and writing the book). This is history with a ‘small h’ based on anecdotes, incomplete texts, traces and fragments. The focus is very much on the sensory, the “tactile experience” of caring for infants in the past. I can almost smell the close four-room house during the Depression era, where wet nappies were dried in front of the fire without being washed.

One of my favourite children’s books, now sadly out of print, is Marion Halligan’s The Midwife’s Daughters. I bought it over twenty years ago at Better Read than Dead in Sydney’s Newtown (when the bookstore, and I, were young).

“When I was a girl,” says the midwife, “back in the Old Country, the mothers took the nappies off the babies and hung them in front of the fire to dry.”

“What!” say the daughters. “Didn’t they wash them first?”

“No they didn’t,” says the mother. “Back in the Old Country”—she means England—”it was damp and cold and hard to wash things and harder still to dry them so you took the nappies off the babies and hung them on the guard in front of the fire to dry and put them back on. Not the pooey ones of course.”

“Yuk,” say the daughters of the midwife, wrinkling their noses. “The smell! The smell of old pee!”

And the poor little babies, wearing those stiff and stinky nappies! Their poor little bottoms got red and raw and they cried in the damp, dark houses, they yelled and screamed and roared, and the houses got smaller and colder and darker for all the noise of the sore-bottomed babies howling in them.

In Mother, Knott’s narrative follows the experience of pregnancy, birth and early infancy. A chapter on the hidden history of mothering in the middle of the night, traced through bedding, nighttime arrangements and sleeping patterns, ends with this sentence: “8.20. 10. 11.45. 2. 5. 5.40. And then we are up.”

My son was small when he was born full-term: five and half pounds, or not quite two and half kilograms. I tracked his feeds on an app: time awake, left breast, time taken, right breast, time taken, time back to sleep. He fed slowly and, it felt, continuously. He doubled his weight in six weeks. I deleted the app about eighteen months later when, still exhausted, I looked back and realised that in his early days I had spent over eight hours in every twenty-four breastfeeding. Six years on, and far from those nights, I wish I had kept the record.

The book invites these recollections. Reading it brought back the experience of caring for newborns in a visceral way.

Image result for mother: an unconventional history   Image result for The Midwife's Daughters halligan

Of interest to readers of this blog, Knott also documents the intersections of academic work and pregnancy. On planning to have children:

The clock tower outside the window shows ten to the hour. University students hurry to late summer classes, their feet flattening pathways across the parched grass. I’m in a heated conversation with a colleague, a close friend, about life and work.

If I have children, I am not sure if I’ll have one or two, I announce, a little too brightly.

This is slightly fraught territory. We both know—or at least, I think we both know—that surveys suggest men with partners and children, like him, progress very well in our workplace. Women with children, not so much. Their success rate slows, falling behind those of childless men and women,

His retort is bemused and a touch impatient: You choose to have one first.

Indeed. The baby or babies don’t always follow your plans.

On the slowing success of academic mothers, there has been much written. Challenges for academic women, and mothers in particular, include maintaining research trajectories during career interruptions; proportionally higher teaching workloads; concentration at lower levels, in casual and contract positions; and contributions to university service, academic and domestic ‘housekeeping’, emotional labour and care within and beyond the academy. Further reading: Young and Wright, 2001; Williams, 2005; Grant, 2006; Toffoletti and Starr, 2016; Amsler and Motta, 2017. Titles include “I’ve worked very hard and slept very little” (Fothergill and Feltey, 2003) and “I just couldn’t fit it in” (Probert, 2005).

In Acker and Armenti’s (2004) “Sleepless in Academia”, Canadian women academics reveal late nights, obstructive institutional practices, and feeling “frenzied, fatigued and malcontent” (p 13).  In an article that was surprisingly vexatious to many, Australian academics Klocker and Drozdzewski (2012) ask: “How many papers is a baby worth?” The answer, after some deliberation, is approximately 2.4 depending on previous output. Ward and Wolf-Wendel (2004) sum up the experience of American academic mothers at research-intensive universities with the phrase “dark clouds and silver linings”. They identify four commonalities: (a) joy in professional and personal roles, (b) the “greedy” nature of academic and family life, (c) watching the clock, and (d) that having children puts work into perspective (2004, p 241). Oh, yes, watching the clock.

But the story is complex.

In an international comparison of research output, Aiston and Jung (2015) found that women average fewer publications than male colleagues; on the issue of motherhood, however, academic mothers produced more research output than women colleagues without children (although this differed across disciplines and countries). Examining why this data seems counter-intuitive, they suggest that one explanation for women’s under-performance as a whole lies in inequitable workloads.

Workload in academia is more complex than it first appears. In a study of Australian academic women, Dobele, Rundle-Thiele and Kopanidis (2014) demonstrate that workloads are equitable between men and women, but inequity is evident according to academic position. That is, women “outperform” men within their academic ranking suggesting that “women are not getting promoted on the basis of workload performance” (p 465).

While pregnant, Knott writes of work sliding away:

I am still working: sitting on the table at the front of the lecture hall, seemliness gone. Work is sliding away from me. There is a last set of students essays to evaluate. I stir myself to deduce final marks even though my ind shrinks away from the narrow lists of numbers and into the expanse of my trunk.

I never want pregnancy to be over. We defy mathematics: one plus one equals one. I am myself and not myself; I am eating for two. The relation I have to this extra life is not unlike that I have to my dreams and thoughts, which I can tell K or a friend, but which cannot be an object for us in the same way. I am happier than usual, though I cry easily.

I cannot wait for pregnancy to be over so I can feel normal again: hug my sweetheart, cross my legs. I bump crossly into older habits, only to find the way blocked by my body sticking out before me—hard belly on my thigh as I lean to tie a shoelace, a pull from my side on turning to check the front door is properly shut.

This is a luxurious tangle of feelings.

Finally, the title of this post. Always interruptible. I wrote this post, on and off, interrupted by the tasks of looking after children in the evening of the last day of a long school term. The relentless and formative interruptions of maternity constitute its main condition, suggests Professor of Psychosocial Theory Lisa Baraitser. Her books Maternal Encounters: The ethics of interruption (1989) and Enduring Time (2017) are now added to my reading list. But first to finish Knott’s Mother, after I’ve found some missing size six pyjamas and read some bedtime stories.

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