What’s your university story?

This is the 6th post in a regular feature Over a cuppa: prompts to reflect on learning and teaching to prompt you to reflect on your learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

Did you start an undergraduate degree straight from school, complete in minimum time and go on to further study? Or was your pathway more rocky? If so, you’re in good company. Your classroom has students who are first in family, underachieved at school, have had interrupted education, manage learning difficulties, are studying part-time, and a myriad of other factors that make up a university story. Your story shapes your implicit understandings, and questioning these is Schön’s (1983) definition of reflection.

Another way of framing this question comes from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: what is your educational capital? Rowlands (2018) defines it as the “various inherited and acquired resources that students bring to bear upon their education” (p 1824). Are you aware of a gap between your education capital and that of your students, or between students in your classroom?

I have previously shared this checklist on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh (1989) which focuses on race, but can be adapted for class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, age, employment, indeed any social, cultural or symbolic capital.

Here are some of those statements applied to privilege in the university:

  • I will be given curricular materials written by and representing people like me
  • I feel welcome in this institution/ discipline/ department/ classroom
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps professionally
  • My chief worries at university do not concern others’ attitude towards me
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations/ groups/ teams I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

Take some time to reflect on your responses, your university story and your educational capital. Enjoy your cuppa!

Rowlands, J. (2018) Deepening understandings of Bourdieu’s academic and intellectual capital through a study of academic voice within academic governance. Studies in Higher Education, 43(11), 1823-1836.

Schön, D. A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

A reminder to play

Two seemingly unconnected things: My six year old son has taken to referring to himself as his thirteen year old sister’s imaginary friend. (I find myself half believing him). And a couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of Higher Education Scholars.

I have previously posted about these events (The spirit of research, Yarning circle, Thoughtful citations, Staying in place), a roughly tri-annual gathering of Sydney-based researchers in higher education. The most recent session was hosted by Vanessa Fredericks, Lilia Mantai and Elaine Huber at the University of Sydney. The theme was Mind the Gap: Contemplating power, privilege and pedagogy:

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the ways higher education (teaching and research and academia as a whole) might be restricted by oppressive pedagogies. We consider what value we might add to higher education if we dared to free our minds and bodies from colonial, neoliberal, Western and masculine ideas … We begin by positioning ourselves as being-in-the-academy. We reflect on our positions and acknowledge that the space which we occupy, speak and write from is a privileged space. We open the introspective space to think more broadly about research and the University – itself a product of colonialism, and a space which is influenced by neoliberal practices and policies. We invite you to slow down and be ‘lazy’ (Shahjahan, 2015), to engage in ‘tactics of resistance’ (Shahjahan, 2015, p. 489). We consider the ways in which slowing down and re-embodying our approach to research and pedagogy, can lead to a practice of being-in-the-academy that is ethical
and responds to the other.

The organisers provided a thoughtful reading list, including:

Throughout the day, we talked, we listened, we thought and we played. We introduced ourselves and found commonalities through a web of connections:

Image

We had loosely structured, wide-ranging discussions about our bodies in relation to research, teaching and leadership. We breathed. We listened to music, drew, played with play-doh and lego:

Image

Image Image

Why such frivolous, unscholarly behaviour?

Jane Gallop in Anecdotal Theory (2002), refers to playfulness in a research context as “an attempt to theorise from a different place” and to speculate around ideas that have a tendency to “disable thought”.

Here is the connection with my my son’s imaginary selfhood and our playfulness as scholars: both offer ways of reflecting on our subjectivities and positionalities.

Play occupies a liminal space that invites a suspension of disbelief and relishes possibility and transformation. When playing, we suspend disbelief; we create unreal or quasi-real spaces; we tend towards extravagance and exaggeration; we move away from seriousness to nonsense and foolishness; and we value emotional responses (Bulkeley 1999, p 62).

Slowing down as scholars, taking time to play, allows us to ask ‘what if?’ and to imagine what might be possible.  We can recreate the space of the university and our places in it.

In thinking about playfulness, I revisited the work of Johan Huizinga (1950):

A play-community … tends to become permanent even after the game is over… The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

I am already looking ahead to future gathering of these folks, and have been inspired by the work of Tamson Pietsch, Where I stand, on recrafting academic biographies and research narratives.

Notes on privilege

I had much of this post sketched out when I saw that the roguelinguist Alison Edwards has published a thoughtful thesiswhisperer post (and excellent round-up of links) on the privilege of slow academia:

Slow academia represents privilege, they say: it’s for those who can afford it, who have already reached the scholarly summit, and it comes at a cost to those below them on the academic food chain … Slow risks acquiring the stink of self-righteousness.

I edited this post in response, because I think the conversation should continue, and there is much nuance and complexity to consider. The value of slow academia lies in its emphasis on care and well-being; its risk lies in reinforcing the inequities of academia.

One point I want to make: much of the slow academia I blog about here is the experience of navigating academic work while caring for a sick child. Having my daughter unable to attend 20 weeks of school over the last year has enforced slowness on the entire family. I am privileged to be an academic, which has made combining work and care more manageable than many other professions, but my view of slow academia is not one of unmitigated privilege. Sometimes slow sucks.

I recently read Helen Hayward’s A Slow Childhood: Notes on Thoughtful Parenting. There were aspects of this book I really enjoyed. Its vision of unhurried parenting was  tantalising in what has been, frankly, a bit of a shouty week. Here’s an extract:

I wanted [my children] to build towers from wooden blocks, fly kites, make cubby houses, play tricks, have adventures, tease each other, roll down hills, be tickled, make cakes, get bored, read picture books, ride scooters, climb trees and make sandcastles … Before this comes over as a rosy, have-it-all, guilt-inducing story of family life to make the most relaxed working mother seethe, there was always one hitch … I never found work-life balance. I’ve never reconciled my personal ambitions with love for family. They were always chalk and cheese. Thankfully what I have found is a small still voice that guides me through family life.

I struggled with parts of the book, and the author’s unacknowledged privilege was a factor. (This book review by Nicole Avery captures the mixed feelings thoughtfully). At one point, the author refers to her time as a student observing psychiatric patients:

Most of the patients had been damaged—by themselves, by life, and too often by both. Many of them were disadvantaged both materially and emotionally. Yet none of them were wholly damaged. The light still shone through.

But the vast gulf between her ideas about childhood, and the experiences of others, is only alluded to in passing: “I don’t think that I’d have been as loving and responsive with them, if the world hadn’t been loving and responsive to me.” She also talks of feeling overwhelmed with family life, but was able “to climb out of the Heffalump trap all by myself”.  And two other comments gave me pause, for the distance I felt from my own ideas and experience:

I didn’t just welcome my children into my life. I invited them into my mind as well. From their earliest days they’ve inhabited my deepest self, taking up residence there.

Being sick was a sanctuary away from the hurly burly of daily life. It was a chance [for my children] to let go of what they were supposed to be doing—an island they stepped off the moment their temperature came down or sore throat vanished … Spending time in bed sick is good for the soul—children grow strong from the experience of getting better slowly. The world really can wait.

Writing about slow academia risks similarly alienating readers. I have previously posted on the privilege and slow academia—how it can shut down dialogue, the difficulties of  casual or sessional employment, and the imperative to act. A couple of years ago I had a (white middle-aged male) professor tell me that the university was not hierarchical because he could call the Vice-Chancellor by his first name. First names aside, I think universities are among the most hierarchical of institutions.

(This image is the ceremonial mace at my university, a symbol of formal authority at graduation ceremonies.)

And that’s the thing about privilege: it’s far easier to see other people’s than be aware of your own. (An example:  I was talking about reading with a friend, and mentioned my love of dystopian fiction. She said: ‘I can tell you had a happy childhood.’ She doesn’t need to read dystopian fiction; she’s already lived it).

This checklist on white privilege by Peggy McIntosh is a helpful tool for reflection. It focuses on race, but can be adapted for class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion, age, employment, indeed any social, cultural or symbolic capital. Here are some of those statements applied to privilege in the academy:

  • I feel welcome in this institution/ discipline/ department/ classroom
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps professionally
  • My chief worries at work do not concern others’ attitude towards me
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations/ groups/ teams I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

I want to keep thinking about this and have recently signed up for this Cultural Competence – Aboriginal Sydney MOOC, which aims to “bring to light marginalised narratives of Aboriginal presence in Sydney”.