This is the third post in a regular feature Over a cuppa: prompts to reflect on learning and teaching. Once a week during Session 1 and Session 2 I will publish a short post (250 to 300 words) which prompts you to reflect on your learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

You’ve put on your teaching cloak and taught your first class for the semester. How did it go? What did students enjoy and what did you enjoy? Is there anything you would do differently? Your students are on track with learning outcomes and assessment tasks, but what are your intentions for teaching?

Setting intentions is a type of reflection for action (recollecting the modes for reflection covered in the first sip). Harvey, Coulson and McMaugh (2016) define reflection as:

A deliberate and conscientious process that employs a person’s cognitive, emotional and somatic capacities to mindfully contemplate on past, present or future (intended or planned) actions in order to learn, better understand and potentially improve future actions.

I feel like an imposter writing about planning since this is not my superpower. (Take a look at Janet Dutton’s post on lesson planning). In fact, every day—weekday or weekend, work day or holiday, ordinary or significant —I hold onto the same goals: Join an interesting conversation, Eat something good, Spend time outdoors, and Enjoy reading. Most of the time this works fine, but 2020 prompted introspection (and triggered a craving for novelty). To my daily goals I have added two intentions which I integrate in my teaching: amplify others and practise self-care.

Your intentions might look very different. Focussing on teaching: are you seeking to improve your online lectures? Experiment with something new? Create informal evaluation opportunities? Practise feedback strategies? Apply for a teaching award? Focus on embedding Indigenous knowledges? Connect with practitioners? Something else?

Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  • What did you want when you were a student? How are your students similar to or different from you?
  • How are you feeling about teaching? What’s your top priority right now?
  • How will you gather evidence of your practice?

Harvey, M., Coulson, D. and McMaugh, A. (2016). Towards a theory of the Ecology of Reflection: Reflective practice for experiential learning in higher education, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 13(2).

Less-than-perfect capabilities

I have a love/ hate relationship with university graduate capabilities statements. You know, those ubiquitous institutional claims about the attributes of their graduates, and the skills, knowledge, values and dispositions their degrees impart. For example:

Our students will enter a globalising world of major environmental change and resource constraints, of scientific and technological advance and ethical challenge, of continuing political instability and possible international conflicts, of unlimited creativity and increasing social surveillance … We considered the capabilities the University’s graduates would need to develop to address the challenges, and to be effective, engaged participants in their world.

What I love about them (other than their dystopian vision): they have been a fruitful source of research with colleagues as we have gathered statements from forty Australian universities from the 1980s to now. We have written about graduate attributes in relation to social inclusion, student engagement, and global citizenship. We have some further analysis in progress, focused on employability and international comparisons. I have enjoyed this research more than expected, not only because it was an excellent collaborative experience, but because it enabled us to consider questions about the purposes of higher education. (For those interested in a philosophical approach to this topic, I recommend a new blog by my colleague Mitch Parsell The Conflict of the Faculties).

What I hate about graduate capabilities: their uniformity across institutions, compliance for the purposes of constructive alignment, and proliferation across all levels of education. Like universities, my daughter’s primary school promises to develop lifelong learning and global citizenship. Even my son’s preschool promises to develop lifelong learning and global citizenship. I don’t think that captures the best of learning and teaching at any of those organisations.

I have been reflecting on a recent conversation with a self-described perfectionist. This colleague has nailed the planning our university performance review system asks of people: a 5 year plan, a 3 year plan, a 1 year plan. She knows what she needs to achieve this month, this week and today in order to meet her long-term goals. Being a less-than-precise planner (as I have previously posted, I am better at dreaming than planning), my heart started palpitating as she described listing three daily goals that align with her plans.

I started thinking about what my daily goals might look like, and I have realised they would be the same every day of the week: have an interesting conversation, spend some time outside, enjoy eating and reading.

So far today, I’m achieving my goals.  I listened to an unkindness of Australian ravens from my balcony:

I read the introduction to No Friend But the Mountains over a delicious breakfast of strawberries, yogurt and muesli. More interesting conversations to come, but in the corridor this morning  we have already ranged across reading to children, insects, death, memories and cleverness. (Put all of these together and you get Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis, which I read to a group of 3-5 year olds to celebrate Book Week yesterday).

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If I were forced to align my daily goals with a long-term plan—and here you see I haven’t stopped talking about capabilities—I would use this list of competencies for performing life roles (adapted from Knowles, 1975):

Roles Competencies
Learner Reading, writing, computing, perceiving, conceptualizing, imagining, inquiring, aspiring, diagnosing, planning, finding help, evaluating
Being a Self (with a unique self-identity) Self-analyzing, sensing, goal-building, objectivising, value-clarifying, expressing, accepting, being authentic
Friend Loving, empathizing, listening, collaborating, sharing, helping, giving of constructive feedback, supporting
Citizen Caring, participating, leading, decision-making, acting, being sensitive to one’s conscience, discussing, having perspective (historical and cultural), being a global citizen
Family Member Maintaining health, planning, managing, helping, sharing, efficient and effective buying, saving, loving, taking responsibility
Worker Career planning, using technical skills, accepting supervision, giving supervision, getting along with people, cooperating, planning, delegating, managing
Leisure User Knowing resources, appreciating the arts and humanities, performing, playing, relaxing, reflecting, planning, risking

I like the integration of life roles here, especially the inclusion of family, friends and leisure and difficult-to-measure competencies such as imagining, getting along with people, being sensitive to one’s conscience, and loving.

When things aren’t slow

This post was prompted by my agreeing to take on a new leadership role with an estimated workload of one day a week. It was also triggered by a feeling of trepidation when a colleague asked what I was up to at the moment. I made a list of the things I am doing in July and August and collected the multiple notepads I had been working from (at work, in my handbag, and at home):


I am excited about a lot of things on my to-do list. To name a few: the forthcoming issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy; a peer review action research project; directing a growing undergraduate degree program; facilitating teaching inductions and workshops; conducting interviews for a history of the Academic Identities Conference; co-authoring papers on topics and with colleagues I care about; facilitating communities of practice for early career and teaching-focussed academics; and planning future research projects.

My challenge is to manage this busy period within part-time paid work hours.

Note I said ‘busy period’ — these strategies will not work if there is no end in sight. If your workload is unhealthy, unsustainable and unsupported, don’t struggle on alone. (I have made suggestions for finding like-minded souls before. Join a union. Also check if your university has a staff wellbeing program or counselling service).

Workloads in academia are not an individual problem. This recent Times Higher Ed article by Ruth Barcan makes the case for institutional responsibility for the “almost 40%” of academics who want to quit the sector. This figure is from a Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey. In my research with colleagues on aspiring and early career academics’ experiences at three Australian universities, the numbers were less alarming:

At the extreme, ECAs consider leaving academia. Of the participants, 16 (3%) stated this explicitly: ‘I want to get out of higher education and research as soon as possible’ and ‘I plan to leave academic at the end of my post-doc [because of] limited opportunities.’ Another 46 (9%) refer to moving into private or community sectors as an option: ‘I do not know whether I will stay in academia long term or move into industry.’ Others stated that they did not have career plans, with 57 (11%) respondents undecided about the future: ‘My career plans are fairly vague’ or ‘I will re-evaluate whether academic life is for me’ or ‘No fixed plan, but I would like to spend some time in academia at some stage.’ There were 89 (17%) blank responses to the question about career plans; by contrast, all 522 participants answered the questions about their ideal academic job.

This is a more telling result when the responses of women with caring responsibility for children are isolated. Of the 128 respondents in this category, 16 (12.5%) stated that they were considering leaving academia. That means everyone in our study who said ‘I want to leave, get out, or quit’ was a mother. (Ruth Barcan may not be surprised by this: 80% of the people who contacted her to discuss leaving academia were women). (Note we did not ask about leaving academia explicitly).

High workloads will be a familiar story for most of you. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to think aloud (or vent) and offered solutions, I am using a range of strategies (and there is slow privilege at work here):

  • I am working an extra day a week from home. This is taking pressure off the feeling that I was volunteering my own time for work activities. I am spreading this load over a few days so it feels manageable and, for the short term, being flexible with my self-imposed rules about not working nights and weekends (I recommend Tseen Khoo’s post about working weekends);
  • I talked through my current projects and activities list with my manager and was supported to stop, delegate and defer some things. This is extremely helpful if you have a supportive manager, supervisor or mentor;
  • I revisited strategies for prioritising work: what three things do I need to achieve today? What is the relative importance and value of these tasks?;
  • I scheduled everything into my calendar (which looks a little crazy with multiple things listed simultaneously, but keeps tasks in one place);
  • I let people know they might have to wait, and I asked for extensions where possible (if you haven’t heard from me yet, my apologies);
  • I put a pause on agreeing to new commitments. Or at least I told myself I would do this. To be honest, it hasn’t gone well and I agreed to a speaking gig today — but if anyone asks, then tomorrow I am saying no!;
  • I am allocating time to task (not task to time) because time is finite but tasks are infinite (this advice from here). Sometimes I have to remind myself that near enough is good enough, done is better then perfect, and aiming for 80% is ok;
  • I am continuing to practice self-care — exercising every morning, eating good food, sleeping enough. And for wakeful nights, I find reading on the Kindle is a good distraction from thinking about work, and soon sends me back to sleep.
  • I will give myself a reward at the end of this busy period. I am taking a week off in September. It looks like this might clash with my university’s Staff Wellbeing week. I think this is a great initiative, but I might not be participating this year. I have to consider my wellbeing.

What strategies do you use to manage intense times at work? And how can you ensure there are less busy times ahead?