Vampires or zombies

Having finished Playing Beattie Bow (1980) and  Anne of Green Gables (1908), my daughter and I are now reading Natalie Bobbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1976), an American novel the explores the idea of immortality. Reading two American books in a row was unintentional, but enjoyable for the conversational idiosyncracies such as starting every sentence with ‘Well now…’

Next on our reading list is Victor Kelleher’s young adult dystopian novel Taronga (1986). Best to start dystopian fiction young, I think. For even younger children, I suggest the picture books The Duck and the Darklings by Glenda Millard, and Sonya Hartnett’s The Boy and the Toy.

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This is an extract of a conversation in Tuck Everlasting between immortal Tuck and ten year old mortal Winnie:

“Know what that is, all around us, Winnie?” said Tuck, his voice low. “Life. Moving, growing, changing, never the same two minutes together … Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping … The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s the way it is
“Stuck. That’s what us Tucks are, Winnie. Stuck so’s we can’t move on. We ain’t part of the wheel anymore … But dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born … Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are … it don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got.”

Growing, moving and changing has been on my mind lately. My daughter is on the cusp of young adulthood, my son on the cusp of starting school, and we, their parents, are on the cusp of middle age. It’s heavy work, as Tuck says, but it’s a good feeling, mostly, being a part of the wheel.

As a teenager inclined toward a gothic sensibility and aesthetic, I used to want to live forever. This was fanned by what was I reading at the timeCamilla (1796), The Vampyre (1819), Dracula (1897),  Interview with a Vampire (1976) and The Vampire Tapestry (1980). In my final year of school, I wrote a personal interest project entitled ‘The Fangs of Feminism’, and even commissioned a friend of a friend to take photographs of me in a cape.

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Truth be told, as a middle-aged academic mother, I now feel a greater affinity with zombies. I am not the first to make a link between zombies and the lived experience of the neoliberal academy. At the 2012 Academic Identities conference in Auckland, Peter Wood gave a paper entitled Audit identity: Or, how the PBRF turned me into an ambitious zombie. The Performance Based Research Fund is the New Zealand government’s research excellence initiative, which Wood described as a ‘viral bite’ for the ways in which audit culture has infected the everyday practice of academic work and redefined academic identities. To quote an archived article from The Australian, academic zombies in Australia can be similarly identified by their “affectless references to DEST points, citation indices, ERA rankings, ARC applications, esteem factors, FoR codes, AUQA reviews and the like.”

Describing academics as zombies seems to be contagious. In Whackademia, Richard Hil (2012) refered to the “zombification of academic life in which scholars shuffle dolefully around campuses” in compliance with neoliberalism. And in Australia Universities’ Review, Suzanne Ryan (2012) suggested that academic zombification is a form of adaptation to “governance; audit; workload; workforce; and an acquiescent leadership.” My favourite in the academic zombies genre is the edited collection Zombies in the academy: Living death in higher education which examines the synthesis between academic life and living death.

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I no longer want immortality.

Almost every year—this is not a digression—my family visits the sculpture exhibition Hidden in Rookwood Cemetery. This year marks its tenth anniversary, and it is already in the calendar for September. There are usually around 30 sculptures, and there is truly something for everyone, a mix of the joyful, macabre, and curious. A couple of years ago, there is was a sculpture of a time meter (Buying Time by Graeme Pattison). Modelled on a parking meter, it allowed the user to purchase time. I was not tempted. Immortality was inviting as a teenager because I was only beginning to live.

Now, half-way around the wheel, more or less, I don’t want more time. I want to use the unknowably finite time I have better. At work, that means spending less of my energy chasing metrics that make me feel deficient, and more time on work that matters in the company of colleagues.

Uncertainty

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It is hard to write this week. The words come sluggishly and feel awkward. Nonetheless I have several writing tasks to complete—a module for a teaching development online course, a workshop on academic integrity—and dozens of works in progress. At the top of the list is a plan for two new research projects and a close-but-not-yet finished article. There is an uncharacteristic heaviness to my feelings about writing which makes these tasks onerous.

I recently read Nikki Gemmel’s memoir After following her mother’s death by suicide. Of the time before her mother’s death, she writes:

My mother [Elayn’s] despair seeped into my life; it was the harrower of my peace. This at a time I was struggling to keep everything on an even keel: four children aged four to fifteen, plus work, plus husband, plus household. It was a fraught time of failing at everything; of nothing having my full attention; of boxes-to-be-ticked completed in harried snatches and then every night around 3am I’d be harangued awake from a fitful sleep with the swamping of it all, too much in the head, too much…

‘You never stop,’ my father, Bob, said in horror once, from the perspective of a different, slower life. I know we have to develop defence mechanisms. The ability to pause, recognise the gifts of stillness, recalibrate. But they feel like essential life skills I don’t have.

After:

I’m not good at being alive right now. I’m not sure I can be pieced together in any way that resembles a former self. My brain is not working properly, it feels like I’ve had an axe blow through the head that will never completely heal. What is needed, a holiday from uncertainty. Instead, there is brittleness. Snappiness. With everything. As I walk the days, pick up kids, shop for groceries, drive. Nervy, jumpy, a collision in my head of too much. I cannot do gatherings, crowds, am abandoning commitments, forgetting to return emails and calls … I’ve lost my writing confidence, it no longer sings; the sentences won’t come; the brain will not grind into gear.

This grappling with subjectivity, the uncertainty and ‘too muchness’ of it all feels familiar. In the past few months, we have spent a lot of time waiting: for my daughter’s seizures to end (the longest has been fifteen minutes, an eternity), waiting in hospital, waiting for medications to work, waiting for tests to reveal something, waiting for things to get back to normal (by which I mean the way things were before). It hasn’t been a good week. I considered writing a post about something (anything) else but it felt contrived, and made writing more difficult.

In the past, I have prided myself on my high tolerance for uncertainty. It’s a valuable skill, especially for sessional and early career academics and those experiencing workplace change. Now, my tolerance  is tested to its limits. We do not know what the future will hold and we are not in control right now. I have an urge to write it out, even though the words are hard to find.

I have just started Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space on how successful academics write. The title is the opposite of how I feel right now, but I love her suggestions for changing writing habits: reflecting, reading about writing, and experimenting with time, space and style. While writing is difficult, reading offers joy and solace.

New to my reading pile this week is Michelle Boulous Walker’s Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution (doubtless the subject of future posts). I am looking forward to sinking into this. For non-academic reading, I have joined a young adult book club for adults only. Our next discussion is dystopian fiction, which is close to my heart and allows me to dwell in uncertainty. I have just finished Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn, am halfway through Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and have The Book of Joan, The Book of Dust and Future Home of the Living God to choose from next.

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Teaching and mortality

I’ve been thinking about my approach to teaching lately. Several things have prompted this: I was recently awarded Senior Fellowship of the UK’s Higher Education Academy (which involved writing a reflective teaching philosophy), and I am co-editing a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy (with teaching as activist practice a focus of at least one of the forthcoming papers). (I will post on academic activism in future as the special issue is prepared and published).

I was also inspired to think about teaching after reading Cory Taylor’s powerful Dying: A Memoir, shortlisted for the Stella Prize, written after she was diagnosed with melanoma-related brain cancer at the age of sixty. It follows a mortality theme in my recent reading (and this list is  longer than I had realised!): Being Mortal, When Breath Becomes Air, Wasted (longlisted for the Stella Prize), Disaster Falls, Undying: A Love Story, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination and Wave.

Tangentially, Disaster Falls was written by an academic after the death of his 8 year old son on a family rafting expedition. It is heartbreaking account of how we endure, together and apart, the most difficult experiences of our lives. One paragraph that particularly struck me was the intersection of his grief and a rejection at work:

Other things continued to feel meaningless: political debates, intellectual questions, and my work, too. I still could not muster much interest. But when I learned that a book contract with a leading publisher would not come through, I bent over in my office. I actually bent over because of the setback, and because I realized right then that experiencing one tragedy does not mean that more hardship will not come your way. At that moment, I had to admit that somewhere within me material strivings remained strong enough to make me bend over in disappointment. After all this?

Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End When Breath Becomes Air WaveDisaster Falls: A Family Story  Undying: A Love Story An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination Dying: A Memoir

Mortality and teaching may seem tenuously connected, but the link goes to the heart of why slow academia is important to me. One of the most insightful teaching evaluations I’ve had came from an 18 year old first year student. At the time, my daughter was critically ill in hospital, and I was teaching then rushing to her bedside (as a casual, I had no access to paid leave). In his feedback, this young man wrote: ‘I loved this unit, but I got the impression that Agnes didn’t really want to be here.’ He was right. (Soon afterwards I moved into a project role for a couple of years, before returning to teaching).

Dying is a curiously uplifting book, and Taylor’s descriptions of discovering the pleasure of writing are delightful. Her first school (in Australia) inspired “considerable bodily anxiety” in its students, but when her family moved to Fiji, she found school a joyful experience:

Stationery had been one of my earliest glorious discoveries. I had loved it since I could remember. I was a particular fan of coloured pencils in box sets or tins … They were best when new, of course, when everything lay ahead of them, and before any mistakes and erasures had occurred. Which is no doubt why I loved them, because they were promise made manifest.

On my first day in class, I was allocated a magnificent desk. Made of solid timber, its hinged lid opened up to reveal a spacious cavity where all my stationery could be arranged … I remember sitting there, watching our teacher shape letters of the alphabet in cursive script for us to copy on the board, and sensing a shift in my consciousness … It had to do with the act of writing, which suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world to practice and master, not for its meaning—that would come later—but for its mystery.

I remember two teachers who prompted a similar feeling of discovery for me: Mrs Graham in Years 5 and 6 of primary school, who gave positive feedback on a poem I had written about fairies, and Mr Brauner in Years 7 and 9 of high school, who dressed as the ghost of Shakespeare and brought his plays to life.

As an undergraduate at university, I was inspired by teachers in Critical and Cultural Studies who challenged the ways I saw the world and raised awareness of the taken-for-granted in everyday life. Starting as a tutor 17 years ago, I followed this lead and focused on developing students’ thinking processes by asking questions rather than delivering content. After I finished my PhD, I shifted discipline to Higher Education, but this approach to teaching travelled with me. My professional development of academics and teaching in postgraduate education units has a social reform agenda. I see learning is a collective process rather than an individual pursuit.  I believe the role of the teacher is, as Skelton (2006) puts it, to “disturb the student’s current epistemological understandings and interpretations of reality by offering new insights.”  To put it simply: I want my students to make their world a better place in a small way.

Vulnerability

I was sick for most of the holidays. In the space of a week, I had two visits to hospital, three visits to the GP, four lots of blood tests and four prescription medications. I am slowly on the mend. Turns out I had two different viruses and reactive arthritis. It was, by turns, messy, miserable and excruciating. Enough said.

A home-bound holiday was enforced on everyone, with less sun and more screen time than intended. I must acknowledge my wonderful family here – a partner who parented intensively and nursed surprisingly patiently; a brother who entertained and cooked meals; parents who chauffeured me to medical appointments; and other family members who phoned and texted daily to offer support and raise morale. Since I was too sick to read – almost unknown in these parts – I am also grateful for Netflix (image below from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries).

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It brought back a lot of emotions from my past experience with chronic pain – fear of interacting with my children (the way they bounce, bump and rock the fragile body in the sick bed), despair that pain and incapacity might be ongoing, and guilt at being outside of family life. It wasn’t pleasant to experience this vulnerability again – not only physical weakness, but the intense emotional burden of being unable to care for others. The other stark reminder was how slowly time passes when you are in pain. Day and (sleepless) night, you remain firmly rooted in your physical self for every excruciating minute.

Although she writes for a different context – single parenthood (and I ache for single parents struggling with illness) – one of my favourite bloggers Andie Fox (of bluemilk) writes this about the precarious structures of home life:

I am apprehensive about remembering just how exhausted and vulnerable I was. I can describe it no better than this: When you are a single parent, the home you build sits atop stilts and if the structure gets more than the smallest of shakes it begins to wobble in such a way as to pick up its own rocking momentum. A dangerously gyroscopic effect. In this way, even relatively moderate upsets can lead to a collapse in the entire thing.

And her balm? Poetry. So, here, an extract from Unmatching Legs Ode by Sharon Olds on her arthritic legs:

I don’t know why I am fairly cheerful
about my unmatching legs.
… I have always
liked my legs, the double stem
which lifts the big odd flower of me up
and up. It’s as if I fell in love
with them, when they and I began
to learn to walk together. The two of them were
best friends, who could press against each other
and feel the love, at the top of the stalks …
I’m sad they will rot. I wish our bodies
could leave us when they are done with us –
leave our spirits here, and walk away.