Staying optimistic

When I mentioned to my kids last Friday morning that it was board game night, they both cheered. This response kept me happy all day. Playing together has been enjoyable for all of us. There have been other benefits: I am finding it easier not to win, something I have enjoyed most of my life. I emphasise that I am not letting go of winning (merely biding my time).


I am playing Junior Scrabble and Junior Monopoly with a different primary goal in mind: how to help the youngest player (6) compete against a determined-to-win older sister (13). (Hint to other players: order of play and seating arrangements are key, but two players working cooperatively can undermine a single player whose strategies include hoarding the ‘good’ letters. Note that once I shared this insight with the teen player, she combined strategic cooperation with a determination to win, an unbeatable combination).

Is this an analogy for academia? Isn’t everything? To name just a few on social media: broken chairs, lego, vending machines, and Game of Thrones.

The spark of joy that lasted all day (my cheering kids) matters this week. My usual joie de vivre has been fleeting and delicate. Hence this post: I have needed to work at optimism. Call it what you will—optimism (not the cruel sort), resilience, durability, perseverance, grit (as it is named on the Australian Qualifications Framework review discussion paper). I mean the thing that keeps me feeling, on the whole, more positive than negative about my work, myself and my university.

For a more academic version of this, with lots of references, here is how colleagues and I describe engagement with work in a recent paper on early career academics:

Engagement is a state characterised by vigour, dedication and absorption (Schaufeli,Bakker, & Salanova, 2006), opposite to burnout, which is characterised by reductions in motivation and productivity, as well as cynicism and exhaustion (González-Romá, Schau-feli, Bakker, & Lloret, 2006). The extent to which workers perceive their organisation cares about their wellbeing and values their contribution, both now and in the future, influences engagement in workplaces (Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Vandenberghe, 2009). Support can be demonstrated through a range of rewards, benefits and flexible work arrangements, along with a supportive culture with clear and reasonable expectations for workers (Castelló, McAlpine, & Pyhältö, 2017; Kurtessis et al., 2017; Panaccio & Van-denberghe, 2009; Saks, 2006). In addition to increased engagement, job satisfaction and wellbeing, perceived organisational support also increases workers’ affective commitment to their organisation along with objective performance (Kurtessis et al., 2017).

Universities are not always caring institutions. So what did I do to re-engage myself, to renew my ‘vigour, dedication and absorption’ in work and my ‘affective commitment’ to my university? First, I disengaged. I took a day off work. Mid-week, I spent a day alone doing things I like. I loved it, and would like to do it more often.

On my return to work, with colleagues commenting on how relaxed I looked, I arranged future coffee and lunch meetings to catch up with people whose company revives me. I focused on tasks I enjoy. I looked for the positive and I read Humans of Macquarie on Instagram. Here are brief excerpts. You can read the full posts, and see photos on Instagram.

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I never knew why; I felt really bright in primary school but it kind of faded into dullness when I hit high school and I just kind of drifted for a few years. I struggled a lot with mental health and identity issues. I was finally able to open up, and I started developing into my own person when I found real, meaningful relationships with other people (Sam, Psych & Education)

 I suppose my biggest fear was just being a filler person. You know, that kind of person that although in every practical sense lives a decent life, untimely ends up as just another tally on the population counter. University I feel has been able to subside that fear by exposing me to opportunities and incredible people, giving me some direction in my otherwise messy life. (Alysha, Anthropology)

My mother was barely in adulthood when she decided to go to New Zealand from Fiji and pursue further studies, against the wishes of her conservative Hindu family. She’s now one of the most high-ranked Registered Nurses at her hospital. Here’s where I come along: a cheeky brown kid in year 6, about to conclude my ‘About Me’ speech. I told my class that I WILL become a Barrister. The teacher chuckled, for according to her I had many imperfections. Like my mother, I refuse to accept the perceptions of others. (Krishna, History, English & Law).

These stories are nourishing.

Postscript: My teenager told me to write this: she is growing into a strong, determined-to-win, brave and courageous hero. Her greatest strength is her ability to creatively ‘ship’ Harry Potter characters. (Here’s Urban Dictionary on shipping for the uninitiated).

Transformative learning

I am in two minds about transformative learning. Try this definition:

Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self” (Elias, 1997, p 3).

Or this:

“Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world” (O’Sullivan, 1999, p 237).

Such grandiosity wakes up the (admittedly lightly sleeping) cynic in me. There are moments when I want to believe in the transformative power of education: reading bell hooks’ (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the practice of freedom, the drive to learn shared by Professor of Indigenous Studies Bronwyn Carlson (“It still blows my mind I have a PhD”) and this student panel at the HERDSA conference earlier this year:

Part of my resistance may be my own (very slow) transformation.

I taught undergraduate subjects in postmodern subjectivity/ post-humanism for many years. (In a nutshell, subjectivity or your sense of selfhood is anything but stable, distinct and autonomous. It is constantly shifting, relational, and performative). But I didn’t really believe in this idea. I had a sense of myself as, in essence, constant and unchanging.

Until my daughter was born.

I returned to lecturing unexpectedly when she was four months old. I expressed milk for her morning and afternoon tea, and my mother brought her to me for a lunchtime breastfeed. One week the topic was postmodern subjectivity. As I lectured, I was aware (and preoccupied with keeping my students unaware) of my breasts becoming higher and heavier and starting to leak. I experienced a radical insight: I was a completely different person from the lecturer who had stood in this place one semester earlier. I said as much to my students: I didn’t believe in the postmodern notion of subjectivity until right now.

When I read in Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography that foetal cells circulate in the mother’s body long after the birth of a child, I felt recognised. Yes, I had changed at a cellular level. I was a different person. I had been studying, and subsequently teaching, theories of postmodern subjectivity for over a decade by that stage. It took a long time for “an altered way of being” to result in “an expansion of consciousness”.

Image result for out of the forest

I recently read Out of the Forest by Gregory Smith. It is difficult to sum up this memoir of ten years living in the bush: a traumatic childhood, a reclusive escape, mental illness, addiction, and the redemptive power of education. Such a seductive idea—to leave the world for the deep work of the self (Thoreau: “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately”) and how truly awful the experience when Smith recounts it!

Having left the bush, and sobered up, he describes his first foray into higher education—a free six week computing course (“I learned two very important things … One was that I hated—utterly hated—computers. The other was that I loved to learn”). He writes about the life-changing impact of studying:

I could feel a touch of wonder coming into my life … I picked up a pristine bird feather that was lying on the grass. I marveled at its green and yellow hues, and later that night I twirled it between my thumb and forefinger and contemplated what an education night mean. What might my future look like?  ‘A bird can fly anywhere it wants,’ I thought. ‘That’s freedom’ … And that’s what I figured an education might give me—the freedom to go where I chose and be who I wanted to be. I slipped the feather into my TAFE diary as a bookmark and a constant reminder of a yearning to spread my wings and fly with whatever birds I chose …

Smith is now an academic, having progressed from a TAFE tertiary readiness course to a doctorate. It’s an inspiring transformation. Western Sydney University’s campaign featuring former child soldier and refugee lawyer Deng Adut is similarly powerful. You may have seen it (along with 17,000 others on YouTube):

When we teach, we pre-define learning outcomes and their assessment for the assurance of learning within a unit in a semester and across a degree. Sometimes we attempt to measure transformative learning in this way. I wonder: what might teaching and learning look like otherwise?

Valuing teaching

Image result for herdsa 2018

I spent last week in Adelaide for the Higher Education Research and Development Association of Australasia (HERDSA) conference. As far as Australian higher education conferences go, it is the largest, with a choice of seven parallel sessions. I was deep in decision fatigue, so stuck closely to the ‘academic work’ stream rather than move between sessions. This post is heavily condensed, patchy and subjective. Full program and abstracts from the conference are available. (This post includes embedded tweets so is best read on the website rather than through blog readers).

The conditions of casual academic staff and teaching-focussed academics were front and centre of discussions at HERDSA. Listening to findings on working conditions, the numbers of staff in insecure work, and the perceptions and experiences of teaching staff was heavy emotional work.

  • Scholarly Teaching Fellows: Drivers and (Early) Outcomes (Brown)
  • Scholarly Teaching: The Changing Composition of Work and Identity in Higher
    Education (Dados)
  • How much is this number worth? Representations of academic casualisation in
    Australian universities (Yasukawa)

Scholarly Teaching Fellows (STFs) are continuing Level A academics with a teaching focus (80% – 90% teaching workload). Based on data from interviews with 80 STFs and their managers, this project team are asking: Is STF likely to be a genuine career path for new academics? Are appointments reducing casualisation? How sustainable is STF workload and classification?

So far, despite some silver linings, the findings seem pretty grim:

I have registered for their one-day conference in December in Sydney: The Future of Academic Work: a Deliberative Conference, and am looking forward to more in depth discussion of these findings

  • Undervalued teaching and its impact on academics who prioritise teaching

The theme of valuing teaching continued in Cathryn McCormack’s longitudinal ethnographic study of nine academics dedicated to teaching:

This led to an amusing exchange on Twitter:

  • Casual Teaching Staff – Identity Crisis and the uberification of academic work (Kelder)

The ‘uberification’ of academic work is widespread and encultured in universities. There is hope.

There was affirmation of the value of care, optimism and hope in higher education – on the student panel, in keynotes and sessions and in conversations.

  • If we care about the quality of students’ learning then we must care about quality of teachers’ teaching (Chalmers)
  • Responding with optimism: developing academic leaders in times of change (Readman)
  • (Re-)Valuing on ‘Otherness’ and ‘Caring’ in Universities (Orrell)

This was one of my favourite moments:

The keynotes affirmed the importance optimism. In a presentation on the crisis of climate change, Tim Flannery asked: how can we give our students a sense of optimism and a feeling of hope? He suggested that the university should be a model for how we want the world to be.

Barbara Grant encouraged hope for the future which is now. In a separate post I will reflect on her brilliant keynote A Thousand Tiny Universities, which rewards slow thinking. While I am mulling, here are some images from a chilly grey early morning walk along the River Torrens. Adelaide is half an hour behind Sydney time which gave me an early start to each day.

Curricula la la

Fresh from three plus days (and nights) of discussions about the curriculum architecture of the university, this post is a chance to gather my thoughts about understandings and assumptions of curricula in higher education. (Although I note that the plural form ‘curriculums’ seems to be increasingly in use across the university). About fourteen years ago, I was fortunate enough to be a research assistant for Sharon Fraser’s project exploring academics’ conceptions of curriculum (part of her second PhD!). A portion of this study was reported in the Fraser and Bosanquet (2006) paper ‘The curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it?’  These are some of the things academics had to say about curriculum back then:

I probably think of the curriculum as a piece of paper, to be honest. I don’t think of it as the experience.
It is basically the content of the course, what you are going to be covering in the course and how you cover it and in what depth. It is basically like a course outline.
When I talk about curriculum in my department, most people think that I mean content, syllabus. They talk about a list of topics … And it’s very frustrating … The structure of the university … [is] very hung up on content … and the way degrees are structured … even timetable constraints … are real constraints on curriculum development.
The curriculum is … a dynamic process for me … something that emerges from the interactions of the students and the materials, and the readings they have done … The students learn a lot from each other … I don’t see curriculum as a structural thing.
I would never use the word curriculum, but I guess the reason I’m not interested is that I think it has a content notion attached to it … So unless the word curriculum can incorporate notions like a community of scholars then it is not a term that interests me.

Last year I was interviewed by Jason Lodge and Mollie Dollinger for their podcast Beyond the Lectern. This 45 minute unscripted conversation about curriculum was a chance to reflect out loud about how academics’ conceptions and experiences of curriculum have changed. In a nutshell: the term curriculum is in more widespread use than ten to fifteen years ago. My feeling is that a product notion of curriculum still dominates discussions in higher education. I wondered out loud whether modularised teaching and micro-credentialing were examples of curriculum as a product.

Using the example of graduate attributes, I talked about the challenges of curriculum as something that is trying to be both market-driven and a force for social reform. I talked about students as partners in the co-creation of curricula, and noted that sessional staff are often excluded from the creation of curricula. Universities do not always recognise the excellent curriculum work that is happening between teachers and students. I also talked about the balance between flexibility and quality assurance. (With some editing to make sense of my lack of preparation) I asked:

How high a tolerance do our institutions , our teachers and our students have for uncertainty? … How can the university enable [teachers and students learning together] to happen really well with the recognition that that is where … curriculum happens? It is very scary as a leader of learning and teaching to … hand over control to people in the classroom.

These words come back to haunt me as I take a more defined leadership role. Quoting them here is a way of reminding myself of the importance of relinquishing control and giving people space to play. Visiting Student Administration earlier today (the engine room of the university), I was delighted to see that they are taking inspiration from the Lego Academics and mapping the new university curriculum in lego.

Start of term.

— Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) September 27, 2017

Dr Black questions the efficiency of the committee to evaluate the efficiency of department evaluation committees.

— Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) April 29, 2016