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

Academic bodies

The disciplinary shift I made post-PhD from corporeal feminism to higher education has made me aware of the embodied practices of teaching and presenting in front of others. I was reminded of this when I read Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body over the weekend.

Image result for roxane gay hunger

The good thing about school is that students have been trained, from an early age, to follow the rules. They come to class and generally sit and behave in an orderly fashion. When you tell them to do things, they do those things. I walked into my first classroom, my heart pounding, sweating everywhere, my head ringing with all of my fears and insecurities … When I stood at the front of the classroom, they hushed, and realized I was the teacher. I took attendance, my legs rubbery with anxiety, and then went into discussing the syllabus, the nature of the class and what would be expected of them … When I was done discussing the syllabus, I actually had to teach and my anxiety rushed right back through me. At the end of that first class, as the students filed out of the room, I wanted to collapse with relief because I had survived those fifty minutes of being fat in front of twenty-two eighteen-and nineteen-year-olds.

I vividly remember teaching my first tutorial at university seventeen years ago. One of the first things a (mature-age male) student said to me was “I don’t want to be taught by a chick”. I suggested he request another class, but he decided to “hang around” for the semester and test my knowledge of theories of postmodern subjectivity.

In a guest blog post on Conference Inference last week, the wonderful Barbara Grant wrote of her experiences of anxiety at conferences:

I suffered the most disabling and shaming attacks of panic before giving my papers. To this day I don’t know how I made it through the presentations … I am an intensely self-conscious person, so I have experienced excruciating times hovering on the edges of that animated crowd … Mercifully age has softened that feeling: whatever drove the acute self-consciousness of my adult life from adolescence onwards has waned considerably. Maybe it’s the invisibility that comes with being an older woman; maybe it’s something about not caring about such matters any more. (It’s true what they say – you don’t!) But maybe, too, it’s an effect of becoming more senior and more recognised as an academic.

I was reminded of how I worried about my appearance as a young tutor. How laughable this seems now, when a greater concern should have been the substance of my presentations. I was mercifully unaware of how little I knew. I now worry less over how I look, and more over what I say. It’s true that age softens self- consciousness. (I like this post from Nicole Avery on things her 40 year old self would tell her 30 year old self: let go of busyness, it’s ok to fail, use your good things, meditate, read, move). I am comfortable in my skin at 40 in a way I could not have envisaged in my teens and 20s (although I do imagine that the past me would look at the present me and wonder why I look so tired).

One of the most thought-provoking essays I have read on this topic (although it seems dated now) is Jane Gallop’s (1994) The Teacher’s Breasts on feminist pedagogy. It’s impossible find a neat paragraph that encapsulates the piece, but Cynthia Franklin’s (2010) Academic Lives includes this anecdote:

In 1992 prominent feminist theorist Jane Gallop was charged by two of her women students with sexual harassment. A highly publicized case that her students lost … Shortly after … Gallop cam to UC Berkeley, where I was a graduate student at the time, to give a talk on Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. True to form, Gallop appeared for this talk in full cowgirl regalia—red cowgirl hat and frilly red cowgirl shirt, red leather boots, and spurs. At the podium before a room packed with humanities faculty and graduate students, Gallop pulled her text from her briefcase and blushed furiously, explaining that she had brought the wrong talk. Instead of the Spurs talk she had in hand “The Teacher’s Breasts”, an essay exploring teacher-student erotics, which she then indeed read.

There is a lot in this post that I have not commented on: fat and sexual harassment, for example. I will leave this discussion for a future post, but this is some of my recent reading: James Burford’s article Dear obese PhD applicants and this review of Unwanted Advances (I am undecided whether to read the book). I will be presenting at a conference this week, and although I won’t be wearing spurs, I’ll be hoping to capture some of the fun of Gallop’s style, and the way in which she puts her body on the line.

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.

Unusual archetypes

It is the beginning of a new school year across Australia. Navigating primary school with my daughter – who is in her second week of Year 5 (upper primary) – has been a learning experience for everyone. School has not been an easy fit for her. The title for this post comes from a conversation I had with a mother at school last year about her son’s challenges as he prepared to start high school this year. Overhearing us he said: “It is because I am an unusual archetype.”  We laughed; with that statement, he showed us his uniqueness.

My daughter is also an unusual archetype. As well as epilepsy, the complications during her birth have impacted her working memory, concentration and information processing. She does well enough – exceptionally well, I would argue, given the daily challenges she faces – but performs poorly in complex time-limited test situations. She has had some wonderful teachers at our local public schools who have helped to make school enjoyable.

Image result for little lunch

(Image from ABC’s Little Lunch – a favourite tv show in our house)

I recently read Lucy Clark’s Beautiful Failures:

I want to tell you a story about my daughter, my beautiful failure. Every day of her high school life was a struggle. She woke up in the morning and the thought of going to school was like an enormous mountain to climb. ‘Nothing will ever be as easy as your school years,’ well-meaning adults told her, but I knew for my daughter, and for many kids who have struggled as square pegs trying to make themselves round, this was dead wrong. When Lucy Clark’s daughter graduated from school a ‘failure’, she started asking questions about the way we measure success. Why is there so much pressure on kids today? Where does it come from? Most importantly, as we seem to be in the grip of an epidemic of anxiety, how can we reduce that pressure?

My favourite parts of this book are her descriptions of her daughter’s experience. In the first five minutes of this video, she reads from the book:

Lucy Clark’s phrase “She wanted to take flight” really resonated for me. There are positive and negative meanings to this phrase – panic, escape, freedom, growth. I wrote in my PhD about my daughter’s epilepsy using French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s concept of the angelic (for those who like that sort of thing, here is a journal article version). My daughter wants to study Science at university (I hope she finds high school science more engaging than I did) and we are doing all we can to make this dream possible. As I have said about academia, universities should not be the sole domain of those who are stable, functional, powerful and unimpaired. We need to make space for unusual archetypes at all levels of education.