Thinking together

I am a bit behind recapping the Philosophy and Theory of Higher Education Society (PaTHES) season on slow academia. I am blaming covid fog — it is no joke — on everything I have left undone, half-done or poorly done, but it does seem to be improving. The fourth session focussed on intersubjectivity, or how we theorise our connections with others and how we think together. We were a group of people from several places — Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, South Africa, England and more — who had not met as a group previously. You can access the slides below.

We started slowly with an active listening activity (based on this Reflection for Learning Circle video). Listening is always a challenge for me (I hope I am getting better) and I think often of Maggie Nelson’s comment in her memoir The Argonauts about talking too much and redirecting student discussion as a teacher: “I’m not saying this is good pedagogy. I am saying that its pleasures are deep.Barbara Grant, who chaired these sessions, shared a story of putting aside her reading (Stephanie Dowrick’s In the Company of Rilke, which sounds fabulous) to enjoy the physicality of being in place. She described the weather, the birds, and the quiet of a New Zealand morning immersed in nature, sensation and thought.

The discussion continued to meander through ideas from previous sessions on slow, self and place: the ”sensory mingling” of research, multiple accounts of the self, and encounters on university campuses. We followed the idea of the self as constituted socially — thinking with Merleau-Ponty (1968) about subjectivity as the threshold or fold between the other, the world and the self. In The Visible and the Invisble, he wrote:

“We must accustom ourselves to understand that ‘thought’ is not an invisible contact of self with self, that it lives outside of this intimacy with oneself … It is the invisible hinge upon which my life and the life of the others turn to rock into one another, the inner framework of intersubjectivity.”

We talked about collaborating with colleagues and collaborating with students. Book and article recommendations were exchanged, and my to-be-read (or re-read) collection grows ever larger. These readings were highlighted:

  • Feldt, J. E., & Petersen, E. B. (2021). Studying as Experimentation: Habits and Obstacles in the Ecology of the University. Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education, 3(3), 55-67. [13].
  • Gill (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In (Eds.) Ryan-Flood & Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, pp 228-244. London: Routledge.
  • Grant, B. M. (2010). Improvising together: The play of dialogue in humanities supervision. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(3), 271–288.
  • Henderson, L., Black, A., Garvis, S. (eds) (Re)birthing the Feminine in Academe. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  • Kelly, F. (2020) ‘Hurry up please, it’s time!’ A psychogeography of a decommissioned university campus, Teaching in Higher Education, 25(6), 722-735.
  • Kern, L., Hawkins, R., Al-Hindi, K. F., & Moss, P. (2014). A collective biography of joy in academic practice. Social & Cultural Geography, 15(7), 834–851.
  • Lynch (2010) Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 54-67.
  • Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W. (2015). For slow scholarship: a feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), 1235-1259.

There were many book recommendations spanning diverse disciplines and eras. All contributed to a rich conversation about our relationships with others.

Emily Ogden’s On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays (I have not yet read it) stimulated conversation. This interview with Ogden is rich and thought-provoking. She is asked: How did you organise the essays in the book? And answers:

“With great difficulty. I would have liked the reader to read all the chapters simultaneously. But I knew it began with an antithesis between minnows and whales, ended with Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), and told — among other stories — the story of my children’s birth in between. So, I started with a few fixed points and went from there. In the composition, many of the essays posed a question that a subsequent essay would then try to answer. So, I tried to keep some of those in their composition order … The most important notion about the genre of the essay, for me, was … the idea that an essay should send the reader back to their own thoughts. I wanted to prompt thought, not solve problems.”

In our discussion, we considered what we ask of students’ essays, and speculated about writing and reading essays to prompt thought, and what grading and feedback might look like.

We wrapped up with a discussion of collegiality in academia, challenged by Giedre Kligyte & Simon Barrie’s (2014) article in which they discuss collegiality as a governance and decision-making structure, allegiance to disciplinary knowledge communities and/or a behavioural norm:

“The idea of collegiality is tinged with nostalgia for the idealised harmonious past, where, it is imagined, academics had the time and opportunities to engage in significant research, excite and inspire bright young minds through teaching, participate in and contribute to institutional and disciplinary academic communities, think, reflect and, generally, do self-determined meaningful work … This idealised imaginary is contrasted with the well-documented confusion, isolation, anger and dismay that many academics feel when experiencing competing demands in universities today.”

We didn’t linger with the bad feelings for too long. As one participant summed it up: “We’re exploring a certain form of being together that’s not merely the ‘Being-with’ (Mitsein) in Heidegger — which is neutral and almost like an environment or furniture (but it’s people) — so I sense a joy and kindness in the being-together.” As Rilke put it, “Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.”

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.

Heterotopias in higher education

The wonderful thing about calling myself the slow academic is that it gives me permission to publish a post that has been a long time coming. I started this post after a November 2020 gathering of the Higher Education Scholars Network, a loose collaboration of Sydney-based higher education researchers that went online during the pandemic and opened to a wider audience.

Last year, Karina Luzia, Vanessa Fredericks, Tai Peseta and I organised a session called ‘Doing things with theory in higher education research’. Participants joined ‘Team Butler’ or ‘Team Foucault’ and read two texts. We noted that these are challenging theoretical works to think with, so the session was intended to explore the limits of our understanding, and collectively think through our unknowingness and the uses of theory in higher education research. You can read my PowerPoint presentation that gives an overview of working with theory (apologies, more text-heavy than I would like!)

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Team Butler:

In the chosen primary text, Judith Butler argues that sex and gender are performative. The gendered self, and subjectivity more broadly, is an illusion, a stylization of the body, a regulatory fiction, a strategy for survival, reinforced through repetitive practices. In the secondary text, Emily Henderson analyses academic conferences using Butler’s (1997) work on naming and vulnerability to language.

Team Foucault:

In the chosen primary text, Michel Foucault conceptualises subjectivity through power relations (to be self-aware and to be subject to) and resistance. He offers a useful list of five considerations for analysing power relations. In the secondary text, Farzaneh Haghighi uses Foucault’s concepts of heterotopia and the will to know to examine university lecture theatres.

You can read the questions that guided our discussions on the website.

In the second half of the event, our international participants presented their higher education research (including work in progress) that uses theory in interesting ways. You can read the abstracts here.


The idea of heterotopias in universities lingered long after the discussions ended. I return to the concept as we look forward to campus after months of lockdown and working from home. Think of heterotopias like this: Do you have events or places at your university that are a bit different/ special/ transforming/ strange in some way? Do you participate in or create social or learning spaces like that? That mirror the university but at the same time challenge its conventions? That invite you to think otherwise or to dwell in your own “tiny university”? You might call them universities within universities.

Michel Foucault described these spaces thus:

First there are the utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of Society. They present society itself in a perfected form, or else society turned upside down, but in any case these utopias are fundamentally unreal spaces.

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places — places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society — which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.

For those who want to dive into the theory, the archived website Heterotopian Studies is a fantastic resource.

An excellent example of a university heterotopia was presented by the Jindaola Team: Jade Kennedy, Lisa Thomas, Alisa Percy, Janine Delahunty and Catherine Moyle. In their words:

Jindaola is a grants program led by an Aboriginal Local Knowledge Holder that takes invited interdisciplinary teams on an 18 month journey to experience an Aboriginal way towards reconciling Aboriginal and disciplinary/ western knowledges on Country. Jindaola can be understood as a kind of heterotopia because it attends to the university’s policy imperative to embed cultural content into curricula in the ‘wrong’ way … Jindaola [operates] as a counter-site within the western academy, creating and holding space in a sustained way for participants to experience intersecting and incompatible ways of being, doing, knowing and relating (ie. juxtaposing the colonial, transactional and performative regime of western approaches to curriculum development with an Aboriginal way of coming to know) …

Read more about Jindaola on the website and in their 2021 article ‘Holding space for an Aboriginal approach towards Curriculum Reconciliation in an Australian university‘.

Conferences can be another heterotopia as many posts on the blog Conference Inference attest. The periodic gathering of Higher Education Scholars has become its own heterotopia, a space where we think differently about ideas of the university and higher education research. The tweets of the event give an insight:

I look forward to more gatherings of the Higher Education Scholars (online for now) which I have blogged about before: Virtual scholarship, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. And I can’t wait for the opportunities that returning to campuses offers to enjoy tiny heterotopias.