Universities as places

The third session of the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia focussed on theorising place. You can access the slides below.

When this session ran, I was isolating with covid along with my family (we all tested positive in quick succession). Being unable to leave the house changed my sense of place, so I started by locating myself in my neighbourhood with a virtual dog walk.

Our discussion looked at various theorisings of place: Augé’s (1995) non-places (transient, interchangeable, without distinctiveness, where people are anonymised) and Nørgård and Bengtsen’s (2016) call for the ‘placeful’ university:

“Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa. The university space/place is a particular form of invitation that supports and promotes particular beings and becomings in education while stifling and preventing others.”

We discussed Foucault’s (1984) heterotopias (counter-sites that are special or transformative in some way, that mirror the university but challenge its conventions). I have previously posted in my experience of heterotopias in higher education. We finished the session with a discussion of sensory noticings and minglings, in which Barbara Grant (who is chairing the discussions) shared her research experience:

“When I think of myself as a human sensorium, a picture of Star Wars’ R2D2 snaps into my mind’s eye … [As an academic woman interviewing academic women, researching with mingled bodies] is so much more relevant … Taking account of familiarities and minglings speaks to me of the difficulties I have had with being anything like that ever-vigilant, noticing, sensing, critical research machine of my fantasies. Instead I have struggled with feelings of sleep-walking: the sounds, the smells, the colours, the shapes of the rooms, the layout of departments, the taste of coffee and scrambled eggs – the echo and imitate and ghost one another.”

A highlight of this session was the further reading suggested by participants:

This week, I am looking forward to celebrating National Reconciliation Week (‘Be brave, make change’) at my university on Dharug Country with a Smoking Ceremony, truth telling discussion and art and performance.

Use your senses

This is the 9th 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.

Today’s reflection prompt is: consider the five senses in your teaching.

This morning, I joined colleagues for breakfast and a campus walk guided by the work of an interdisciplinary research team Go Slow for a Mo. As a living lab for evaluating the benefits of spending time in nature, our campus offers an invaluable resource for staff and students. Over the coming months, we will be sharing ways to incorporate this Stress Regulator Trail in your teaching and research practices. I still have grass on my feet and birdsong in my ears.

Last year, I attended two virtual seminars on Learning Through COVID that focussed on embodiment and experiential learning: Why we need our body to learn and work and Rethinking embodied learning. Via Zoom, the presenters prompted participants to use their whole bodies during the sessions (take a look at the pre-readings and videos via the links above).

Over the last couple of years, I have been working on a project that takes a sensory and place-based look at the higher education conference experience. We are drawing on the methods of cultural history research to analyse the experience of conference participation and the themes of place, sociality, embodiment and sensory experience. This led me to pick up Chatterjee and Hannan’s (2015) edited collection Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education which discusses the pedagogies of artefacts, artworks, materials and matter.

On Friday, I will be teaching a seminar on the evolution of higher education, and want to engage students across the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains (based on Bloom’s taxonomy for learning and revised by Anderson and Krathwohl). How are you being attentive to the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch of learning experiences?

Anderson, L., & Krathwohl, D. A. (2001). Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Chatterjee, H. J. and Hannan, L. (2015) (eds.) Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education. London and New York: Routledge.

Virtual scholarship

A couple of weeks ago—is time slippery for you now too?—I participated in a virtual Higher Education Scholars meet-up.

Regular readers will know that this is a frequent gathering of (until now) predominantly Sydney-based academics, doctoral candidates and professional staff interested in research in higher education. I have posted about our previous meetings, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. You can read more about the mob here.

This session was themed Keeping our researcher identities alive and our research community connected. The description of the day read:

Remember to choose yourself: your researcher self, your researcher identity, your flailing research project, the bit of writing you have left to the side for too long, and to bring that part of you to a conversation … [This] is a chance to resuscitate it: pick it up, dust it off, remember its merits, to present it, to get feedback, and to take the next step with it.

It was our first online meeting, ably hosted in a team effort, which brought with it the benefit of participants from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and one stalwart from the National University of Ireland, Galway (well done on staying awake, Jan!)

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We read:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

I joined a discussion on the Ashwin piece, which poses a challenge to higher education scholars to produce theoretical work. His analysis of higher education journal articles published in 2008 showed that in the majority of articles, theory was implicit rather than explicit.

He prescribes a way of “making the development of theory through empirical research more common in higher education journal articles.” In a nutshell: be explicit about theory, conceptualise your research and analyse your data using different theoretical lenses, and do more mixed methods research.

We had interesting discussions—both positive and negative—about these ideas.

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In the works in progress session, I relished the opportunity to present my work with Catherine Manuthunga on Conferences in the flesh: a multi-sensory cultural history. 

Debate about whether physical conference attendance is necessary or desirable predates COVID-19. Noting the importance of equitable access, conferences serve a multitude of purposes. Conferences may offer retreat from ordinary workdays and domestic routines. Collectively gathering in a specific geographical location, and experiencing diverse cultures, climates and cuisines, opens up opportunities for place-based learning and enriches academic relationships.

Only recently have conferences been recognised in higher education research (Henderson, 2015). This paper gathers literature dispersed across fields including geography (Derudder and Lui, 2016), psychology (Carpay, 2001), sociology (Dubrow et al., 2018) and education (e.g. Hart, 1984; Skelton, 1997; Walford, 2011). It also explores visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Jütte, 2005; Smith, 2007; Grosvenor, 2012; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017).

We analyse empirical data from a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference (2008-2018), including interviews with thirty-two conference organisers, keynote speakers and participants attuned to sensory details: the sights, tastes, sounds, touch and smell of the conference experience. Following cultural history techniques (Burke, 2008; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Marwick, 2006; Rubin, 2002), transcripts were analysed for themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience.

The focus of our discussion is place, a layered location that is temporal, spatial, political and personal (Lippard, 1997). Multisensory, embodied, place-based conferences enable academic relationality to flourish, and innovative and transcultural knowledge to be produced. Our rich data set offers a specific and intimate history of a particular conference community through the lived experience of academic identities scholars. This provides insights into the institutional and sectoral contexts in which participants work, and universities as places that are both physical and imagined sites for the expression of values, highlighting what Phipps (2007) calls the sensory work of the university as a body of scholars.

For those who are interested, here are my two slides: HEScholars

The discussion focussed on these questions: This research began before COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Is there value in work on embodied, place-based, sensory academic conferences right now? How can we ensure this is a thoughtful and constructive piece of work, while remaining true to data collected in a different time? It was affirming to receive feedback from scholars who recognised place-based, sensory, affective, embodied research as more important than ever.