Staying in place

I taught my first tutorial at my current university eighteen years ago. In academia, there’s something shameful in admitting you’ve stayed in one university. Being deeply rooted is an anathema in higher education. I have been on the receiving end of this advice many times: if you want to succeed/ thrive/ stay employed, you must move/ be mobile/ remain unfettered.

The precarity of employment in higher education makes moving a necessary choice for many. (Although I disagree with the framing, this piece from Stylish Academic includes questions to evaluate your mobility: Am I healthy enough to live a mobile academic life? Do I enjoy living alone for long stretches of time? Can I live without pets?) Staying in one place may well mean re-evaluating your ideas about success in academia. It is not always the comfortable choice but, in my experience, rarely means staying still. I have had countless jobs in the one university: tutor, research assistant, project manager, lecturer, teaching fellow, and now associate dean. I started working in the coffee shop as an undergraduate!

On the weekend, I attended a beautiful memorial service for a colleague, Linda Kerr, who recently died, too early, after living with cancer for many years. Linda was strongly connected to Macquarie University and the National Tertiary Education union. She called the union the soul of the university. She had planned the memorial herself, which ended with fireworks overlooking the water at Clarkes Point Reserve, Woolwich. The photos below were taken by Nikki Balnave. Along with family and friends, our colleague Cathy Rytmeister spoke about Linda’s commitment and generosity.

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I’ve been thinking about our connections to places, people, and universities in particular, since Linda’s memorial.

Last year, I missed a meeting of the Sydney-based informal higher education scholars network on ‘Making place in higher education research’ hosted by Geidre Kligyte and Jan MacLean at the University of Technology. They defined place as being about ‘a space that has been made meaningful’ and shared Ilaria Vanni Accarigi’s website on Place-based Methodologies:

We can think of place with art and cultural critic Lucy Lippard as ‘latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there (Lippard 1997, p. 7).

This has also been a prompt to catch up with some reading I set myself, including a call for a ‘placeful’ university (Nørgård and Bengtsen, 2016):

Rather than considering the university as physical architectural spatiality (concrete) or imagined articulated space (concept), it might be fruitful to approach the university as place, considering the ways people may dwell within institutional settings, bringing values, concerns and forms of engagement of a broader societal character into the academic context, and vice versa.

Vanni Accarigi’s extended definition of place is worth pondering. I love geographer Doreen Massey’s term ‘throwntogetherness’ (the way in which different elements, human, non-human, social, environmental, cultural and political come together to define a here and now) to think about the experiences of being a part of a university.

Here and now, I take a moment to remember Linda, and look out the window while eating lunch—sumac orange chicken, chickpeas in tomato sauce and couscous—before walking through the drizzle to a meeting.

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Generous scholarship

Yesterday morning I received the gift of time—a cancelled meeting due to systemic technical problems which also meant tasks on my to do list could not be completed. How to spend this time? Drinking tea and reading. Thanks to a birthday present from my children, and books received as payment for a proposal review, I can now enjoy colour-coded reading and sipping.

 

I put aside the books until next time, and picked up Tseen Khoo’s (2018) chapter ‘The Right Kind of Ambition’, recently published in Mindfulness in the Academy. (I would love to own this book but—ouch—the price; over $160 Australian dollars is the cheapest I have seen). Tseen, also known as The Research Whisperer (with Jonathan O’Donnell), sent a copy of the chapter to colleagues whose work she cited, with a note: “Thank you for doing the research that you do. Your writing was very useful to me, and helped me think about and create this chapter.”

I have happily adopted the practice of sharing published chapters in this way. It offers an opportunity to thank influential authors, share a piece of writing, and to make citation practices more meaningful than a google scholar alert. It is a great example of the generous scholarship that Sally Knowles and Barbara Grant spoke about in Hiroshima.

I’ve been reading around the topic of generous scholarship, including Ruth Barcan’s (2013), Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices, which is cited by Knowles (2017) in a book chapter on writing retreats entitled ‘Communities practising generous scholarship’. Barcan is a Cultural Studies academic who has turned her critical gaze to academia. In the final chapter “Feeling Like a Fraud: Or, the Upside of Knowing You Can Never Be Good Enough”, she discusses the connection between the private affect of fraudulence (imposter syndrome), and the “structural features of the contemporary university that can contribute to the feeling of not being good enough” (p 195). These features include the “productivist imperative” of academia which is marked by:

… increasingly instrumental relations to thought, to writing and to time itself; a reduction in the types of intellectual endeavour recognized as ‘counting’; a concomitant disincentive to participate in unrecognized or undervalued university, community or scholarly activities, like writing book reviews or socializing with students; the slipping out of sight of non-instrumental or non-monetized ‘outcomes’; and pressure to take low-risk teaching and research options (p 199)

The hope in Barcan’s book is a bit hard to find. In the conclusion, she describes it as “a depressing book about universities with hope in the title”, but she argues that hope emerges from worry, doubt, melancholy or despair. She concludes by urging academics to “contest the ideal of ceaseless productivity”:

What … theory of creativity, economics, let alone embodiment could be supported by an ideal of ceaseless productivity? There are no bodies that can do output without sufficient input; no outbreath without the pause after inspiration. I don’t want to live in a work world in which people become prompts for jobs—a world in which you bump into a colleague and they don’t say ‘Hello’, they say, ‘Oh sorry, I haven’t replied to your email’ … (p 218).

That hits a tender spot. I must stop seeing people as prompts for jobs, and apologising for all the tasks I’ve yet to do.

Finally, to my reading over a cup of mauve tea—Khoo’s chapter, ‘The Right Kind of Ambition’, which offers a reflection on research productivity and work/life balance. This is a lovely counterpoint to Barcan’s descriptions of feeling like a fraud whose work is always in deficit. Khoo writes about the trajectory-changing impact of having children, shifting between professional (administrative) and academic roles, and not applying for promotion.

Khoo is satisfied with her work/life balance, as a full-time teaching and research academic with two primary school age children, an ageing parent living with her and a 3 hour daily commute. She details her practical strategies to cultivate reasonable work hours (auto-declining work events outside standard hours, not attending international conferences). The chapter is refreshingly clear-sighted about the consequences of maintaining strict work boundaries:

I have achieved my goal of ‘doing’ academic on my terms with minimal after-hours and weekend work … This quality of life comes at a price, and that price will be the rate of career progression (in the sense of academic promotion). I do not think of my career as only successful if I am moving from level to level, but I recognise all too well that an academic woman’s ability to enact change and influence larger activities requires the signalling authority of a higher academic rank (p 243).

This is an important point. Khoo mentions  activism in the opening sentences of her chapter (as in balancing work, family and activism) so I read her desire to enact change in relation to academic activism. Now my teacup is empty, but Khoo’s ideas about the costs and benefits of career progression, and the choices she has made, will linger.

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When a presentation bombs

I gave a short presentation last week that was not as awesome as I had intended. In fact,  it would be fair to say it bombed. I have (mostly) recovered, but have been reflecting on the experience of not presenting well. More often than not, my presentations go well enough, but sometimes they (I) go wrong. I am thinking mostly about live presentations of one sort or another—a talk, a lecture, a pitch, a viva, an interview—the type of thing that gives you no second chance to revisit the unfinished business of stuffing up.

The title for this post came from the comment of a participant in the Academic Identities Conference cultural history research project, who described the experience of giving a paper that did not feel successful (“a bit of a bomb I thought”) and said: “I didn’t really know how to meet the audience.” Jeanette Fyffe and I are thinking through this wonderful idea of ‘meeting the audience’ for a symposium paper at this year’s conference in Japan.

I still flush with shame at the memories of some poor presentations I have given during my academic career—an early conference paper where I read from my carefully prepared script but had minimal interaction with the audience, a more recent conference presentation that I rushed through, an interview where I spoke for too long—this list could go on.

While writing this post, I popped down to the kitchen and encountered some inspirational posters on success and preparation (which always seem to read as non sequiturs) alongside hazard notifications:

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As with failure or rejection, much of the discussion about presenting poorly is framed around how to do better next time. There seem to be a finite number of reasons given for a failed presentation—lack of preparation, anxiety, lack of confidence—that can be ameliorated for next time.

I am more interested in the reasons why a seasoned presenter, who has presented well in the past, does not do well. Here’s the list of risk factors I came up with from my own experiences:

  • presenting in a new context
  • more formal or less formal than anticipated
  • time pressure (particularly shorter or longer than usual or expected)
  • a new mode of presentation
  • an unknown audience
  • not caring enough or caring too much
  • being distracted by external stressors
  • trying to do too much other stuff in the lead up to the presentation

I reread Michelle Jamieson’s article Sitting with Failure (which I linked to in a previous post on failure) and this resonated:

Rather than thinking in terms of success and failure, I encourage you to relate to your work as a practice…  In this sense, there is no point of arrival or ultimate goal outside the experience you are currently presented with, and present to. From here, it easier to accept mistakes as something to be with, rather than something to overcome.

I have another presentation to give this afternoon, and can certainly tick some of the risks on the list above—school have just called to say my daughter is in sick bay (shout out to my parents who are picking her up). But I am more practiced than last week, and will aim to sit with this experience, come what may.

Enjoying the little things

Last year, listening to the radio on the way to work, ABC Classic FM played a piece of music that was performed only once during the composer’s life. It might have been Rachmaninoff’s first symphony, which was difficult to write, had a disastrous first performance and triggered an episode of severe depression. Of his symphony, Rachmaninoff said:

I’m not at all affected by its lack of success, nor am I disturbed by the newspapers’ abuse; I am deeply distressed and heavily depressed by the fact that my Symphony, though I loved it very much and love it now, did not please me at all after its first rehearsal.

It got me thinking about what makes us happy with an achievement and what feels personally satisfying. It’s an easier to answer this question in the negative. (For example, I am not particularly proud of my PhD, nor especially pleased with some of my published work and professional achievements). But in my questions for 2018, I asked: what did I achieve in 2017 that I feel proud of? Answering this question reveals not only what I enjoy and value, but how I measure my own success.

I am proud of these achievements in 2017:

This special issue opened up space for scholarship on activism in academic contexts. I appreciate the papers for their mix of micro-activism (small acts of generosity or everyday refusals) and larger gestures of organised protest.  I enjoyed co-editing with Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles, and writing a paper with Cathy Rytmeister was inspiring. I continue to be stimulated by conversations with contributors and readers on Twitter. Liz Morrish deserves a special mention.

The way in which academia quantifies PhD completions for supervisors feels off, but I love the intellectual intimacy of PhD supervision (waves to Louise, Gayle and Christa) and celebrating Lilia Mantai’s PhD submission and graduation was a highlight of the year. I was privileged to learn alongside her. We have both missed the connection of our regular meetings—Barbara Grant’s description of the end of the PhD as a time of mourning resonates—but I am looking forward to peer mentoring and co-authoring a paper this year.

Another piece of work with Cathy Rytmeister. This feels important: sharing our knowledge about the history and context of higher education in Australia, and highlighting the power relationships that shape practices of learning and teaching. The MOOC starts on January 22 and is particularly aimed at early career academics. It’s entirely free so consider enrolling!

Much of the other work I have enjoyed has intangible outcomes or has not yet come to fruition. These things will be focus of my goals for 2018: developing strategies for peer review of teaching and research-enriched teaching; supporting teaching-focussed early career academics; collaborating on the Academic Identities conference cultural history; and directing a large undergraduate program. I am also excited, and daunted, by the writing I want to do: finishing up some end-of-project papers, and establishing new research that will guide my work for the next several years.

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This all feels like big stuff, so for now I want to take pleasure in the little things: the smell of my office thanks to this mushroom oil diffuser, a stack of journal articles to read (including Doing Academic Writing Differently: a feminist bricolage and Positioning ourselves in our academic lives: exploring personal/professional identities, voice and agency) and the sounds of Rachmaninoff.