That holiday feeling

I’ve been back at work for a couple of weeks and school starts this week, which offers a welcome return to routines. In Australia, children have a six week (or longer, depending on the school) break over Christmas and January. It was a challenging time for many this year—bushfires across Eastern Australia constrained travel (at best), ruined air quality, put emergency services under pressure, devastated country, took properties and lives (at worst). That holiday feeling—certain smells that signal summer, blue skies, a loosening of the shoulders and release from responsibilities—remained elusive. It was not a time for “enjoying the flourishing of who you are” as Dessaix writes in The Pleasures of Leisure.

Returning to work and school can be difficult at the best of times (from the existential ‘Is this my life?’ to the mundane ‘I hate this uniform!’).  At my university, a new curriculum has increased workloads, especially for administrative staff. Organisational restructures are well underway, with redundancies and new roles to be navigated.

In a vain attempt to hold onto a holiday feeling, I am making time to ruminate, to follow idle trains of thought. This is an emotional time, so I have been thinking about how we recognise what we are feeling.

This emotion wheel from Geoffrey Roberts has prompted interesting conversations:

I Feel - Emotional Word Wheel - The Feel Wheel - American English

The emotions that describe the holiday feeling for me: eager, sleepy, free, joyful, and thankful. The return to work and school: pressured, overwhelmed, worried and hopeful.

How do we read the emotions of others? A pop culture example is  ‘resting bitch face’ (you know, when someone’s neutral expression is read by others as mean or critical). According to researchers who have developed a computer program to read faces, those with ‘RBF’ have a subtle contempt expression. I was able to load my own face into the reader. Turns out my neutral face is slightly angry, at least in this moment in time.

So how can I hold on to that holiday feeling? Today it is having breakfast at a cafe before I re-apply my lippy and head to a meeting. And deliberating over which book to start reading tonight:

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The edge of knowing

Several times recently I have become aware of the limits of knowledge, and what it is  like to feel uncertain and unknowing.

In writing group, I gave feedback on a paper about teaching grammar to young children. Unfortunately, I came of age in an era of Australian education that refused to teach grammatics. The limit of my knowledge: a verb is a doing word; a statement I have subsequently discovered to be false, or only partly true. At the risk of stating the obvious for some readers, verbs can be doing words AND saying words, sensing words, relating words, or existing words.

I have an excellent tacit knowledge of grammar, but reading a paper on its teaching made me aware of the limits of my understanding. To familiarise myself with linguistics terminology, I looked at first year lecture notes. (My university has an online learning commons—that is, lecture notes for most courses are open to staff across the university). So much I have not learned.

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Once a week, I volunteer at my son’s school for 45 minutes of individual reading with children in his class. The five and six year olds guess words more often than not. From week to week, their learning is palpable, as is the pleasure in their achievements. It’s amazing to witness their progress after only 15 weeks of school.

My daughter’s high school recently hosted an evening program on adolescent development. The teenage brain is a truly frightening place! (The raising children website has a good summary of the back-to-front development of the brain during adolescence). Referencing Dweck’s work on growth mindset, the school psychologists reinforced the power of ‘yet’ (for our children and ourselves).

I can’t do this … yet.

I don’t know this … yet.

This week I read some new (to me) theoretical work. I am impatient. I want to gulp it down and regurgitate it for a paper I am writing. I want to perform an institutionalised reading. I need to slow down and sip the reading. I don’t understand it … yet.

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‘Threshold concepts’ is Meyer and Land’s well-known phrase for how learners navigate difficult or troublesome knowledge. As they describe it in their seminal (or should I say oeuvral?) work:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

This ‘portal’ or liminal phase of learning is marked by unknowingness and uncertainty.  It is a transformative time during which shifts in subjectivity occur. The learner is a different person on the other side of the portal. As Kiley and Wisker (2009) characterise it in the context of doctoral education, the liminal state is defined by change and oscillation:

This altered identity often comes after a liminal period of uncertainty, confusion, or doubt, something akin to the transition within a rite of passage … Liminality involves wavering between two worlds, after the separation from the previous identity but before the point of incorporation into a new one … It is while in this state that doctoral students are often likely to feel ‘stuck’, depressed, unable to continue, challenged and confused.

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My colleague Jayde Cahir and I wrote about our experiences of liminality as doctoral candidates (‘What Feelings Didn’t I Experience!’: Affect and Identity in PhD Writing, published in Cecile Badenhorst and Cally Guerin’s edited collection Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers).

Did you experience any identity shifts during the process of writing your dissertation?

Agnes: Becoming a mother completely changed me as a person. It consequently changed my research – in fact, my whole orientation towards feminist theory changed … [It] meant a great deal of change and uncertainty. I felt completely different … I think this was an element in my subsequent transition to a different discipline – one dominated by a practical rather than a theoretical orientation.

Jayde: At the beginning of my candidature I felt that I was ready to ‘become’ an academic but as time went on I found that I was asking myself questions like – do I want to be an academic?  And why am I ‘doing’ a PhD? Looking back this was most likely due to the anxiety that I experienced while writing my dissertation but in saying that, the process of writing and research during my doctoral education made me seriously question who I was and where I was going career wise.

What became apparent to us in writing about our learning experiences as doctoral candidates and early career academics was that liminality was ongoing. We never reach a state of complete knowingness.

What did you learn during the process of transitioning from doctoral candidate to early-career researcher?

Agnes: This was a huge learning curve as I changed disciplines. I became a student again, enrolling in a higher education qualification, which prepared me for the shift to a new discipline. Three years on, I still feel that I am establishing myself as a researcher and a writer.

Jayde: I think the key thing that I learnt … was how much more work there was to do. Even though I had spent four years developing and improving my skills, I was really only at the beginning – again.

Photos in this post were taken on a recent family bushwalk; same spot, camera pointing in different directions.

We cross one threshold, only to encounter another. I am keenly aware of this, once again, as an academic and as a mother.

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Ragged schooling

My 11 year old daughter has missed six weeks of school this term as a result of her uncontrolled epilepsy. We are slowly getting there and hoping for a gradual return next term, starting with one hour and working up to half days. It will be some time before she is able to renew the frenetic pace of after school and extra-curricular activities. In the meantime, she is having regular tutoring from a generous neighbour and we are spending a lot of time in each other’s company. (She is next to me as I write this post).

Together we are reading one of my favourite childhood books: Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow. (Written over thirty years ago, it tells the story of 15 year old Sydney resident Abigail who travels back in time to The Rocks in 1873). Here is a glimpse into the history of The Rocks in a 360° video (use your mouse or tracker pad to rotate the view and see ragged children in the streets):

This passage about Beatie’s schooling struck me:

The younger child was such a fierce homely creature, the eyes so bright and intelligent, the small thin hands crooked as though they would claw the eyes out of life itself.

‘You’ve got plenty of brains,’ said Abigail.

‘Aye,’ said Beatie suspiciously. ‘And what brings you to say that?’

‘Because I think you want to do other things besides learn how to feather-stitch and drop curtseys to rude rich old hags at the Ragged School.’

Beatie’s tawny eyes glittered. ‘True enough. I want to learn Greek and Latin like the boys. And geography. And algebra. And yet I’ll never. [My brother] Gibbie will learn them afor me, and he’s next to a mumblepate!’

‘But why?’ asked Abigail.

‘Why, why?’ cried Beatie. ‘Because I’m a girl, that’s why, and girls canna become scholars. Not unless their fathers are rich, and most of their daughters are learnt naught but how to dabble in paints, twiddle on the painoforte, and make themselves pretty for a good match!’

I did some further reading about Ragged Schools, including this fascinating history (which challenges Park’s representation—apparently boys would not have studied Greek, Latin and algebra). The term ‘ragged school’ was adopted from the British model—I would love to visit this museum!—but also served to ensure only the neediest students attended:

The Ragged Schools by their very name were somewhere to be avoided if at all possible. The term ‘ragged school’ was used as a deterrent to those who could afford to avoid its associations of dirt, filth, poverty and disrepute. Accordingly, there are no ex-student organisations, or proud school histories, and records are scarce. Despite the chances that a Ragged School education may have given them, or the practical help they may have received, it remains an experience that some would rather forget (Henrich, 2013, 62).

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(Image source)

Reading Playing Beatie Bow inspired conversations about educating girls, Malala’s story and our family history.

My paternal grandmother did not attend school past 12 or 13 (nor did my paternal grandfather). As family lore has it, her teachers cried to lose such a clever girl. My grandparents became strong advocates for education; both their sons (and their grand-daughter in turn) went on to get doctorates.

In a neat intertextuality, my grandmother’s name, like Ruth Park’s heroine, was Beatrice (and by some accounts she could be described as both intelligent and homely). She certainly had small hands—and I am thankful to have inherited them—as this was my Christmas present last year. My grandmother’s watch (a “nice Swiss made aspirational middle class watch” according to the repairer) restored as a bracelet with her photo and a necklace with the (now working) movements visible at the back:

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My daughter is incredulous and indignant that girls could be denied an education. She is desperate to return to school. (She is also quite taken with ‘mumblepate’ as an insult).

Teaching and mortality

I’ve been thinking about my approach to teaching lately. Several things have prompted this: I was recently awarded Senior Fellowship of the UK’s Higher Education Academy (which involved writing a reflective teaching philosophy), and I am co-editing a special issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy (with teaching as activist practice a focus of at least one of the forthcoming papers). (I will post on academic activism in future as the special issue is prepared and published).

I was also inspired to think about teaching after reading Cory Taylor’s powerful Dying: A Memoir, shortlisted for the Stella Prize, written after she was diagnosed with melanoma-related brain cancer at the age of sixty. It follows a mortality theme in my recent reading (and this list is  longer than I had realised!): Being Mortal, When Breath Becomes Air, Wasted (longlisted for the Stella Prize), Disaster Falls, Undying: A Love Story, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination and Wave.

Tangentially, Disaster Falls was written by an academic after the death of his 8 year old son on a family rafting expedition. It is heartbreaking account of how we endure, together and apart, the most difficult experiences of our lives. One paragraph that particularly struck me was the intersection of his grief and a rejection at work:

Other things continued to feel meaningless: political debates, intellectual questions, and my work, too. I still could not muster much interest. But when I learned that a book contract with a leading publisher would not come through, I bent over in my office. I actually bent over because of the setback, and because I realized right then that experiencing one tragedy does not mean that more hardship will not come your way. At that moment, I had to admit that somewhere within me material strivings remained strong enough to make me bend over in disappointment. After all this?

Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End When Breath Becomes Air WaveDisaster Falls: A Family Story  Undying: A Love Story An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination Dying: A Memoir

Mortality and teaching may seem tenuously connected, but the link goes to the heart of why slow academia is important to me. One of the most insightful teaching evaluations I’ve had came from an 18 year old first year student. At the time, my daughter was critically ill in hospital, and I was teaching then rushing to her bedside (as a casual, I had no access to paid leave). In his feedback, this young man wrote: ‘I loved this unit, but I got the impression that Agnes didn’t really want to be here.’ He was right. (Soon afterwards I moved into a project role for a couple of years, before returning to teaching).

Dying is a curiously uplifting book, and Taylor’s descriptions of discovering the pleasure of writing are delightful. Her first school (in Australia) inspired “considerable bodily anxiety” in its students, but when her family moved to Fiji, she found school a joyful experience:

Stationery had been one of my earliest glorious discoveries. I had loved it since I could remember. I was a particular fan of coloured pencils in box sets or tins … They were best when new, of course, when everything lay ahead of them, and before any mistakes and erasures had occurred. Which is no doubt why I loved them, because they were promise made manifest.

On my first day in class, I was allocated a magnificent desk. Made of solid timber, its hinged lid opened up to reveal a spacious cavity where all my stationery could be arranged … I remember sitting there, watching our teacher shape letters of the alphabet in cursive script for us to copy on the board, and sensing a shift in my consciousness … It had to do with the act of writing, which suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world to practice and master, not for its meaning—that would come later—but for its mystery.

I remember two teachers who prompted a similar feeling of discovery for me: Mrs Graham in Years 5 and 6 of primary school, who gave positive feedback on a poem I had written about fairies, and Mr Brauner in Years 7 and 9 of high school, who dressed as the ghost of Shakespeare and brought his plays to life.

As an undergraduate at university, I was inspired by teachers in Critical and Cultural Studies who challenged the ways I saw the world and raised awareness of the taken-for-granted in everyday life. Starting as a tutor 17 years ago, I followed this lead and focused on developing students’ thinking processes by asking questions rather than delivering content. After I finished my PhD, I shifted discipline to Higher Education, but this approach to teaching travelled with me. My professional development of academics and teaching in postgraduate education units has a social reform agenda. I see learning is a collective process rather than an individual pursuit.  I believe the role of the teacher is, as Skelton (2006) puts it, to “disturb the student’s current epistemological understandings and interpretations of reality by offering new insights.”  To put it simply: I want my students to make their world a better place in a small way.