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.

Thinking and forgetting

I have had a few forgetting incidents in the last couple of weeks: a word (artifact, thanks to Kylie who reminded me twice), names (sorry Adwar!) and scheduling mistakes. Perhaps it is the heat (it’s scorching in Sydney right now, with a forecast of 38ºC in my suburb today), age (the oldest I’ve ever been), holiday mode or cognitive overload.

In a discussion about superpowers on a family bushwalk, although tempted by flight and shape-shifting, I picked ‘remembering everything I’ve ever learned’. (We were then allowed a bonus superpower: I can also turn into a bird!)

So much forgetting! In the interests of remembering, here are some ideas previously blogged that I want to revisit. For the theory buffs, this is an example of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic thinking: non-hierarchical, random, multiple, interconnected, breaking apart and reforming in different places and directions.

Tseen Khoo’s reflections on not going for promotion and Barbara Grant’s keynote at HERDSA last year (in which she described stepping back from positional leadership)  have been rattling around my mind. When is it worth taking on leadership roles? Are gendered factors at work here? Can a drive to effect change be sustained? What are the interconnections between leadership and activism—both affordances and limitations?

In my co-authored paper with Cathy Rytmeister on academic activists, our eponymous Rosie exhorted her colleagues to be brave. It is worth re-quoting her words, which continue to give pause:

Be brave. Be brave Sometimes speaking out is your best defence. Passivity allows you to be pushed around … Get as involved as you can and don’t give up hope. Spend time with people who you feel believe the same things as you do, because that’s affirming and strengthening, but balance that with spending time talking to people who don’t, because that grounds you in reality … Keep people around you who will challenge you. If you move into a position of power, if you have any power, own that power …

In a recent discussion, colleagues and I talked about the importance of being constructively disagreeable (something like virtuous naughtiness, I think). One of the problems of leadership (and this, perhaps especially, includes good leadership) is that those in charge are rarely interrupted. Musing out loud, thought bubbles, flights of fancy, anecdotes—take note of who is allowed to do these things in meetings you attend.

Take particular note if that person is you! I am reminded of Maggie Nelson’s comments in The Argonauts:

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.

A rhizome: How can leaders resist the high of talking in any direction they want? How can they let go of that deep pleasure and listen more? How is constructive disagreement made possible?

Another rhizome: Keep people around you who will challenge you. I often wish I could hire a heckler to make challenging comments and ask difficult questions at events and meetings.  Less often, I want to be that heckler.

Still more: Be brave, especially when you are a ‘woman who makes a fuss’ (as Niki Harré, Barbara M. Grant, Kirsten Locke and Sean Sturm describe in The university as infinite game). To read: Women Who Make a Fuss (2014). The blurb reads:

Virginia Woolf, to whom university admittance had been forbidden, watched the universities open their doors. Though she was happy that her sisters could study in university libraries, she cautioned women against joining the procession of educated men and being co-opted into protecting a “civilization” with values alien to women. Now, as Woolf’s disloyal (unfaithful) daughters, who have professional positions in Belgian universities, Isabelle Stengers and Vinciane Despret, along with a collective of women scholars in Belgium and France, question their academic careers and reexamine the place of women and their role in thinking, both inside and outside the university. They urge women to heed Woolf’s cry—Think We Must—and to always make a fuss about injustice, cruelty, and arrogance.

These rhizomes are ideas I am looking forward to hearing discussed at Making ShiFt Happen next week, a 36-hour virtual conference for academic women. (Note that the conference follows AdaCamp and Geek Feminism in seeing women as an inclusive term, and  trans-women, genderqueer women, and non-binary people are welcome). My session, with Catherine Manathunga and Janet Hope, focusses on slow tiny acts of resistance (STARS).

I’m certain that at the beginning of this post there were other ideas I wanted to remember, other rhizomes whose trajectories I wished to follow; but for now, I will sit with partial remembering. I will enjoy a few days leave, and from next week, will discover what it feels like when a slow academic starts working full-time.

ETA: Jamie Burford has recommended the following reading

Sounds good: “Judith Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.” The sample now on my Kindle.

Shock to thought

This is a continuation of the previous post, reflecting on the 6th International Academic Identities Conference at the University of Hiroshima. The four papers I discuss here were among the highlights of the (too few) sessions I attended. (I plan to email several participants whose intriguing-sounding presentations I missed, in the hope they share slides or notes). Here is a brief wrap up of some of the ideas.

  • Pushing Academic Identity Development Further: imagination, creativity and ensoulment (Susan Carter, University of Auckland)

The abstract read:

I draw on imagination theory for an approach based upon how as individuals we make and have worlds (Johnson, 1987). How firmly can we each acknowledge the strengths of our individual experience and resulting imagination in order to have compassion without despair and to model generosity in an age of often mean-spirited accounting? The paper folds theory around academic development for the purpose of scaffolding inner growth a s a deliberate resistance strategy.

Carter structured her presentation around a series of questions, which prompted one of the most enjoyable discussions I had at the conference. For example: Think about your own childhood learning: what troubled, bothered or eluded you, and what did you like about learning in your early years at school? Our discussion spanned childhood games, the spaces we occupied, the games we created, and the rules we followed and refused to follow.

  • (Un)becoming academics: stripping down and laying bare, to story spaces of hope (Ali Black & Gail Crimmins, University of the Sunshine Coast; Linda Henderson, Monash University & Janice Jones, University of Southern Queensland)

This was a pre-recorded video presentation, which I think is a difficult thing to get right. In this case, it was very successful. From the abstract:

We are four women from three Australian universities in various phases of (un)becoming academics. One of us has moved from casual to “permanent” in the last year only, one is awaiting a probation review to secure permanency, one has been in academia for more than twenty years with “very little to show for it”, and one has recently walked away choosing voluntary retirement.

Their video, which included drama and visual/poetic representations, as well as oral vignettes of experiences in academia, was described by the audience as delicate, vulnerable, beautiful, trusting, bold, strong. The autobiographical accounts were heartbreaking: 11 years on probation, applying for lower level positions, devastating inequalities, redundancy, emotional collapse.

  • Academics ageing (dis)gracefully: pleasures and pains (Claire Aitchison, University of South Australia; Cally Guerin, University of Adelaide; Anthony Paré, University of British Columbia & Helen Benzie, University of South Australia)

This was an excellent companion to the above video. The authors described it as follows:

In this round table a group of academics share end-of-career stories, rich in passion, disappointment and new beginnings. The stories are both hope-filled and hope-less, tinged with disappointment and loss, desire and inspirational reimagining of selves.
End-of-careerers, with their lengthy contribution and deep disciplinary knowledge, should, potentially, be amongst the most influential and valued members of an institution/discipline – but are they?

Short answer: no. The session ended with hope. Anthony Paré reflected on his career in academic activism (a subject which is close to my heart) through service and governance (“breathing life into otherwise lifeless forms”). He challenged the ‘us’ and ‘them’ often heard when talking about university management. “We are on the committees that ramp up requirements for academics and their work. We can change this. I became an activist … We are the university … I have loved the activist part of my academic career. Of all that I do, it is probably the thing I will miss the most.”

  • The Art of Generous Scholarship and the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Sally Knowles, Edith Cowan University & Barbara Grant, The University of Auckland)

This presentation was a joy to listen to, with a long-standing academic friendship on display. Knowles and Grant contrasted the imperfect work in progress presented at writing retreats with the imperfection of wabi-sabi:

When exposing one’s unfinished texts, showing the technical flaws and imperfection of our authorial selves, there is potential for harm and/or shame. The care-full structure of the work-in-progress process supports both writer and responders by appreciating the potential of the flawed quality of each other’s unfinished work …
Likewise, the tea ceremony ritual demonstrates participation and enjoyment through awakened sensibilities. It is based in the principles of wabi-sabi which include transience, imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness

Allowing imperfection requires “generous scholarship” which can be seen at writing retreats: gentleness of spirit, an inward feeling of soft-heartedness, tender-mindedness. Cecile Badenhorst and colleagues described a similar philosophy at work in their writing group (“soft eyes turned to wonder”) in their presentation On Being Reviewed: From ghosts that haunt in isolation toward connection and unexpected agency.

You may be curious about the title of this post. It is taken from the work of Deleuze and Guittari on the “shock to thought” of affective experience. I was thinking of two things: the conference presentations I attended and the ways they stretched my thinking, and the experience of travelling to Japan with my family. A different country full of new experiences—the shock to thought, the challenge to everyday-ness, is what we came for and enjoyed in abundance.

Hacking academia

Hack is an interesting word. Both verb and noun, it contains multiple (seemingly contradictory) meanings:

  • to cut, notch, slice, chop, or sever
  • to damage or injure by crude, harsh, or insensitive treatment; mutilate; mangle
  • to deal or cope with; handle
  • to circumvent security and break into (a network, computer, file, etc.)
  • to make use of a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing (something)
  • to cough harshly
  • a writer or journalist producing dull unoriginal work
  • a person who does routine work
  • a worn out horse

If you have been catching public transport or driving around Sydney lately,  you may have seen a government sponsored advertising campaign aimed at reducing peak hour congestion on public transport and traffic on the roads. Presented as a series of “travel hacks” (presumably the tip or trick meaning) they include:

These suggestions have raised my ire. While waiting in the traffic, I thought about alternative hacks for a government intent on diminishing congestion and improving quality of life for commuters: create walk-able communities; minimise over-development; ensure employment opportunities close to affordable housing. I could go on.

These travel hacks made me think about advice for becoming a more productive, output-focussed, metrics-driven, impactful academic (an academic superhero, perhaps). The focus is entirely on the individual. Systemic change and collective action are rendered invisible. The same is  true for the academic superhero’s downfall: burnout. The cure is individual: mental health and resilience training, work/life balance strategies, mindfulness.  I am not saying these things aren’t good, I’m saying they are not enough.

I discussed systemic rather than individual change at a panel on Slow Academia this week, alongside inspiring colleagues Demelza Marlin, Andrew Dunstall and Michelle Jamieson (whose thoughts on sitting with failure I have previously shared on this blog). (Note that the links from their names were carefully selected to avoid the institutional profile that prominently displays H-index and a graph of citations). I hope to share a recording of this session and a summary of discussion points in a future post.

Thankfully my colleague, the pseudonymous acahacker, redeemed the notion of hacking academia for me with this definition:

How to be a scholar working in a university, regardless of your employment status or job title.

How to reshape the academy around you for you, despite the sometimes subterranean morale of colleagues, the audit cultures, the overwork, the overthinking, the desperate need for time and proper resourcing, the medieval hierarchy trying its hardest to be corporate …

Resisting and persisting.

How to be an academic when you’re not actually employed as an academic.

How to hack what academia has become, what being an academic has become.

A final thought (for now): I am currently reading Erin Gough’s novel Amelia Westlake for my young adult (for adults only) book club. A story of two lesbian teenagers fighting sexual harassment by a teacher at their private school, the front cover reads: Play the power, not the game. I am thinking about this phrase alongside ideas about the university as infinite game. But that’s a future post.

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