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:

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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:

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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”.

Learning to listen

I love reading memoirs. I enjoy the intimacy of an encounter with the defining event(s) of someone else’s life. I recently read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on her experiences of becoming a mother at the same time as her fluidly gendered partner, artist Harry Dodge, underwent surgery and testosterone treatment. As someone who enjoys talking, this paragraph resonated for me:

Sometimes, when I’m teaching, when I interject a comment without anyone calling on me, without caring that I just spoke a moment before, or when I interrupt someone to redirect the conversation away from an eddy I personally find fruitless, I feel high on the knowledge that I can talk as much as I want to, as quickly as I want to, in any direction that I want to, without anyone overtly rolling her eyes at me or suggesting I go to speech therapy. I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.

Interestingly, I found this paragraph more resonant than Maggie Nelson’s descriptions of motherhood. She mentions only in passing that her son was critically ill. I found this difficult as I wanted to read more:

I’m not going to write anything here about Iggy’s time with the toxin; it is not precious or rich to me. All I will say is that there is still a loop of time, or there is still a part of me, that is removing the side of a raised hospital crib in the morning light and climbing into it beside him, unwilling to move or let go or keep living until he lifts his head, until he gives any sign that he will make it out.

This feeling of missed connection with writing also happened to me during my PhD, and I mourned the loss of pleasure in feminist theory when it didn’t match my lived experience of mothering a sick child. (I will post on this and other unexpected consequences of becoming a mother while completing a PhD in feminist philosophy in future).

The Argonauts   The Rules Do Not Apply

I also recently read Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. I had a lot of points of connection with her story, including the experience of placental abruption. My birth story had a happier ending—I took home a live baby, whereas Levy birthed her son alone at 19 weeks gestation and watched him take his first and only breaths. It’s a harrowing story, but I found the reviews disheartening: on Goodreads and in the press, Levy is criticised for her privilege, narcissism and for writing about ‘just’ a miscarriage and a divorce. In this review Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement, I agree with just one point: Levy “stays contracted around herself” in her memoir. Grief —not just privilege—can do that. Levy does indeed write from a wide field of options, and grieves the loss of entitlement and control she imagined for her life. Reading her memoir, I didn’t need to hear a universal story. As with all the memoirs I read, I appreciated its specificity; there were moments of both connection and disconnection.

Like talking, the pleasures of writing—my thoughts, my trajectories—run deep. I suspect this is also true for Levy. One of my favourite methodologies is autoethnography, which tends to focus on “epiphanies” or “remembered moments perceived to have significantly impacted the trajectory of a person’s life … times of existential crisis that forced a person to attend to and analyse lived experience … and events after which life does not seem quite the same” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner, 2011). There is a space for listening here too. As Ellis et al. (2011) put it: “The questions most important to autoethnographers are: Who reads our work, how are they affected by it, and how does it keep a conversation going?”

I want to learn to listen better, to relinquish the deep pleasure of talking, to keep a conversation going. I am currently writing a (slow) paper with a colleague on the role of listening in writing groups. Interestingly, no one in our writing group considers themselves a good listener. We all struggle to listen well.

My listening ability is often dependent on my mental state or the kind of day I’m having … Sometimes, such as when conditions are challenging, listening requires a more conscious effort than at other times when it is more automated.

It is hard to quiet my internal voice and listen actively. It is also hard to quiet my external voice and allow enough time for other people to speak. A lot of busyness and activity detracts from listening. So much of what I do is about completing tasks, rather than taking the time to share ideas. This is very unfortunate in an academic context!

And here is a taster on the role of listening as part of a writing group:

When I listen to feedback I have received during writing group, I feel some distance between myself and my writing because I am seeing it through the eyes of others. This provides me with the opportunity to reflect on what I have written, why certain sentences or paragraphs require further clarification and how I need to tackle revisions … I have developed the capacity to ‘think alongside of others’ instead of just imposing my opinions on their writing.

Following Lloyd’s (2009) work, we are reflecting on the importance of listening as a labour of care. I like the way in which she calls for ‘good enough’ listening to dissenting voices. This makes a space for listening through the moments of disconnection, not only enjoying the times we are in furious agreement with one another.

Slow privilege

Gosh, the beginning of semester is a busy time, even for a slow academic. This post comes to you late, and feels a bit rough, but ‘done is better than perfect’.

There have been some great tweets about the privilege of slow academia in the last couple of weeks:

In case you missed it, the entire thread on Twitter (and responses) is worth a read. Dr Lucia Lorenzi makes important points, including:

A warning in advance: my thoughts on these points may read like a series of non-sequiters. (I think they are contagious. My almost-4 year old son loves them. He frequently interrupts family conversations with pronouncements like “I sleep in trees”, or questions such as “Do you like juicy plums?”)

Many tenured and tenure-track academics have been casuals themselves, and I think they are keenly aware of their privilege. This is one of the reasons that luck has become a dominant way of talking about academic careers. (The ResearchWhisperer had an excellent recent post on research careers and serendipity which suggests that the value in planning is dreaming). Saying, ‘I got lucky’ is a defensive – and not particularly helpful – way of acknowledging the privilege of a secure academic career.

Acknowledging privilege can be important. I co-taught with a colleague – the wonderful and fiery Cathy Rytmeister – last week. She gave a powerful acknowledgement of country in which she said it is important to realise that we are able to be here – in this room, learning at university – because of the displacement of the traditional owners of this land.

Acknowledging privilege comes with an imperative to act.

https://i2.wp.com/blasst.edu.au/images/cartoons/Climbing_Ladder_hires.jpg

I want to reiterate some points I have already made in separate posts: slow academia is harder for casuals than those with job security, but I would argue that casual academics need it more. Addressing slow privilege, among other problems in higher education, is not an individual problem. In a previous post I wrote: the acceleration of academic work … is a systemic problem that requires collective work to change to the structure and organisation of higher education.

One of my suggested strategies for slow academia was to find like-minded souls. This is what it looks like for me:

  1. Join a union
  2. Join (or start) a network/ community of practice/ writing group
  3. Find mentors. And mentees
  4. Talk with people, ideally over food or coffee
  5. Interact on social media
  6. Share resources, celebrations, vulnerabilities, kindnesses, nourishment

When academics feel the pressure of scheduled time and contracted time, these are among the first things to go. But when I think back on the highlights of my career/ year/ week/ day, it is precisely these things: conversations, moments of connection and intimacy, the pleasure of thinking with others and creating something together.

Use your privilege. This is what I really liked about Australian children’s author Mem Fox’s recent article on being detained at Los Angeles airport. She writes:

They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulate English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?

That’s the heartbreak of it. Remember, I wasn’t pulled out because I’m some kind of revolutionary activist, but my God, I am now. I am on the frontline. If we don’t stand up and shout, good sense and good will not prevail, and my voice will be one of the loudest.

That’s what it has taught me. I thought I was an activist before, but this has turned me into a revolutionary. I’m not letting it happen here. Instead of crying and being sad and sitting on a couch, I am going to write to politicians. I am going to call. I am going to write to newspapers. I am going to get on the radio. I will not be quiet. No more passive behaviour. Hear me roar.