So long 2021

Thank goodness we have reached the end of 2021! I am taking a longer break than usual and looking forward to no Zoom meetings for a month.

The greatest accomplishment of the year was getting through 105+ days of lockdown and simultaneous schooling and working from home. The week that school returned on campus, I tweeted: I cannot overstate how much better my working week has been with my children back at school. I have managed complex tasks requiring concentration and uninterrupted thinking. Still catching up but the seven things on my list marked urgent are almost finished.

Despite the interruptions, there is much collective work to be proud of and I am fortunate to be part of an accomplished team (pictured below on Zoom). We made a fun video to celebrate the highlights of the year. These included: a Beginning to Teach professional development program, Spotlight on Practice interviews, iLearn (learning management system) drop-in clinic, Bite-sized Learning and Teaching podcast, supporting 23000 online exam sittings in second semester, and facilitating Zoom for Teaching workshops.

I am also proud of: the work of the Teaching and Leadership community of practice (I presented these slides summarising the CoP at the Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) conference), co-leading the Contemporary Approaches to University Teaching MOOC with Marina Harvey, and publishing an autoethnographic journal article on parenting and promotion in Life Writing.

Outside of work, the pandemic made the world feel small. Walking in our local area helped.

A special shout-out to my father who facilitated weekly Zoom lessons for his grandchildren, individually crafted according to their interests: time, water, chess, The Great Depression, maps, left-handedness, food, money, computers, building a house, book publishing, inventions, family history, electricity, and colonisation among other topics.

Finally, no yearly wrap up would be complete without sharing some of my favourite books of the year: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (a novel about a Ghanian American PhD candidate’s family), Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days (a novel about a pregnant teenage Korean Australian detained by her mother), Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (fictionalised account of gay Vietnamese American son writing to his mother), Sara Foster’s The Hush (dystopian fertility fiction), Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird (an Australian Aboriginal YA mystery novel by award winning Wuilli Wuilli author), and Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (oral history of Russian women in WW2).

So long 2021!

Edited to add: in my rush to farewell 2021, I forgot to share the news that the Slow Academic will have a new look next year thank you to the talented Fidel Fernando. I commissioned him to redesign the blog after the success of his artworks for the Over a Cuppa reflection series this year. Sadly he is leaving my team for a great opportunity at another university, but said farewell with this lovely image:

Tending to reflection

This is the 16th post in Over a Cuppa, a series which prompts you to reflect on learning and teaching during the time it takes to make and drink a cuppa. Cross-posted from Teche, original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

What a year! As it closes, I hope you have the opportunity for a reflective break in whatever form most nourishes you. I will be spending time with friends and family, visiting the beach, gardening, cooking, reading and ruminating. Thinking of the sensory immersion of the upcoming holidays – especially the beach – I can already feel my shoulders loosening.

While relaxing, I will be idly considering questions such as: What have been the most memorable experiences of 2021? What have I learnt? How have I spent my time and energy this year? Is this how I want to continue using these finite and precious resources? What am I  grateful for this year? What am I proud of accomplishing?  What would I like to do differently in the new year?

This is a different type of reflection from the learning and teaching prompts I have written about in previous posts. The aim of these posts has been to ask questions (what are your teaching intentions? What are your memories of learning? What makes your teaching shine?), build a reflection toolkit of readings and resources (lenses for reflection, go to resourcescircular reflection), and share ideas that develop reflective practice: put on your teaching cloak, make your learning visible to students, and use your senses.

I believe reflection during the holidays still fits within what Harvey, Coulson and McMaugh (2016) call the “ecology of reflection” which they describe as the “situational, contextual and complex … setting … for reflective practice.” They write: “Ecology is used in its broadest sense of an holistic, interconnected system such as those used in human ecology, social ecology and systems theory … which examine the bidirectional interrelationship between humans and environments.”

Hence the prompt for this post: tend your reflection garden. By this, I mean focus your reflective skills towards yourself. If you are fortunate enough to have a break, what activities will allow you to renew your energy? How can you recharge in order to continue the work of caring and connecting with students and guiding their learning? What keeps you in balance?

This will be the final post in Over a Cuppa, at least for now. In the process of writing these posts, I have read (or reread) several books, including Schön’s (1983) The Reflective Practitioner; hook’s (1994) Teaching to Transgress; Brookfield’s (2017) Becoming a critically reflective teacher; Carter’s (2020) Academic Identity and the Place of Stories, and, most recently, Ashwin et al’s (2020) Reflective Teaching in Higher Education. For each post, my colleague Fidel Fernando created an original digital artwork. Sadly (for us), he is leaving Macquarie University for an exciting opportunity at the University of Technology, Sydney.

There is still more reading and thinking to do about reflection, but this will take different forms. Over a cuppa will be replaced with a new series on the ABCs of pedagogy, designed to give teachers the language to describe their practice. This may be for the purposes of reflection, but can also encompass scholarship, career progression and recognition.

Harvey, M., Coulson, D., & 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). https://doi.org/10.14453/jutlp.v13i2.2

Connecting through reflection

This is the 15th 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. Cross-posted from Teche blog with an original artwork by Fidel Fernando.

As anticipated, Over a Cuppa reflection posts have been sporadic this session. The previous post, Continuing to reflect (or how full is your cup?) was written in August, in lockdown while working and learning from home. After 106 days, we are slowly emerging. The intensity of this time has changed what reflection looks like, with limited air and light and time and space (to borrow Charles Bukowski’s words).

This post is a shout-out to many colleagues across the university, and is inspired by a comment from Rex di Bona in a post on tips for online teaching : “I found that the students were lonely [during lockdown].”

On our university blog, in a series of Spotlight on Practice interviews, teachers reflected on what worked in the transition to teaching fully online, and the value of connection was a recurring idea:

Janet Dutton summed it up well: “The notion of connection and care … is really a core dimension of my work as a teacher. I found that was heightened in the shift to online learning – the students really needed that connection.” Others echoed these words, with Andrew Burke emphasising the importance of “just really caring about the students.”

Shifting online changed the ways in which teachers connected. John Knox saw Zoom as a valuable tool but noted “the lack of non-verbal feedback from students is challenging – you can’t ‘read the room’, and you miss all those subtle clues.” Max Harwood spoke of “trying to replicate the physical presence of the teacher/student dynamic as best you can.”

There were also advantages to Zoom, as Fay Hadley revealed: “I really feel that as a result of COVID I got to know those students so much better than I’ve ever got to know them in the past. It is so wonderful with Zoom; their name is there – it’s just so good.”

For Yi Li, building an online learning community was critical: “I show students that I pay attention to them. Students easily feel left out, alone, and invisible in the online environment.” John Burrt’s performance students reimagined group work online, creating videos “where they were passing objects from one frame to another, or juggle in patterns, or do hand stands together. They explored things like connectedness, identity, and how they felt because they were all in isolation.”

With twenty years’ experience teaching in distance mode, Phil Chappell’s “golden rule … is regular communication with the students, and a flexible approach to their circumstances.” Similarly, Zara Bending discussed the importance of “connections in the room; you read expressions, gestures, emotions” and saw the role of teachers to “meet our audience where they are (and that includes their headspace).”

Connecting with colleagues is also important, as Nathan Hart reminded us: “My suggestion would be to reach out to your colleagues and find out how they are doing things because that sort of combined knowledge can be really useful.”

Today’s prompt is to practice reflecting in company with students and colleagues.

I’ve been doing my own connecting through reflection by meeting with the Reflection for Learning Circle (an invitation prompted by this blog series): Marina Harvey, Kate Lloyd, Kath McLachlan, Anne-Louise Semple and Greg Walkerden.

Their work includes a YouTube channel of exemplar videos guiding online reflective practice for student learning. There are 32 videos (and counting) available, and they offer ways to practice reflection in company.

The exercises are readily adapted to engage with concepts in various disciplines and offer prompts for students preparing for exams, moments of calm during challenging times, and some novel approaches to connecting with students.

Invite your students to ‘Give your brain a break’ and move away from the computer.

Reflect on learning with ‘five main points’

Ask ‘how mindful am I?’

More detail on the research behind these exercises is available in Reflection for learning: a scholarly practice guide for educators from AdvanceHE.

As we transition out of lockdown, socialise more and return to campus and face-to-face learning, finding opportunities for moments of calm will be important.