Late last year I spoke with about a dozen small groups of Year 9 students from a local high school. It was part of a program called Future Me; a program designed to help Year 9 students develop a range of ‘enterprise skills’, one of which is communication. In groups of 4 or 5, students spoke with a range of university staff, asking the staff questions about their schooling, their jobs, their career pathways.
A few of the groups asked me what had been my favourite subject at school. That really made me stop and think.
I ended up being honest with them and told them that I hadn’t liked high school much and I didn’t have a favourite subject. They were surprised that someone teaching at university didn’t like high school; hopefully it helped them realise that high school experiences don’t necessarily define your whole life – although in Year 9 it sure feels like they do.
If I’d thought about it some more, I may have said that English was one of my favourite subjects. The problem with it wasn’t the subject, but the teacher. I didn’t like my English teacher. He was punitive and I didn’t like his attitude. For the record, he didn’t like mine either.
Art was good because we sometimes got the opportunity to travel to Sydney to the Art Gallery of NSW – as well as other places – and I enjoyed that. But I didn’t like my Art teacher. She was punitive and I didn’t like her attitude. She really really didn’t like mine!
One of the times I was thrown out of Art class, I saw a boy being caned by a punitive woodwork teacher.
We had weekly assemblies and one of the teachers would patrol around the assembled students checking to see if the boys were wearing the right sort of socks. There were consequences for those who weren’t. Punitive ones.
It was the 1970s and I guess punitive was an educational fad back then. I like to think it isn’t one anymore …
It’s easy to be punitive though, and some still think it’s better for children and young people if their teachers are punitive, if they rule through fear. I read a comment on a ‘tell us about your favourite teacher’ blog from a man who said that getting the cane ‘certainly kept us focussed on doing the right thing’. I wonder if it helped with his learning?
Even back then schools weren’t only about learning – well, not in the academic sense. We sure learnt stuff, but lots of it wasn’t part of the official curriculum. Boys learnt to wear the ‘right’ socks, girls learnt that to get ahead they had to be ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘compliant’. Boys learnt not to cry; in fact, many boys learnt not to have emotions at all, or that some emotions were bad and therefore shouldn’t be part of their repertoire. Happy was a legitimate emotion as long we you didn’t have too much of it, and if you were tall and good looking and a favourite with the teachers, you could have pride and conceit in your bag of emotions as well, but others, like sadness or disappointment, were to be internalised or just avoided altogether.
Boys learnt that if you did the wrong thing, you were hit by an adult weilding a stick – and your parents generally thought that was an okay thing to do too. Girls learnt that if you spoke up about things that didn’t feel right – like boys being hit by stick-weilding adults – they were sent out of the room, or to that space behind the classroom door where your only companions were spiderwebs and dust.
I would have thought that these days punitive was gone from schools – but it seems to be alive and well. My 13-year old grandson said ‘hello mate’ to the school principal through the year and was then forced to sit outside said principal’s office for almost 2 hours. I’m not suggesting that saying ‘hello mate’ to the school principal is the correct way to address the principal, but sitting outside his office for almost 2 hours didn’t teach Ronan a more appropriate greeting. What a great lesson he could have had in levels of formality and when it’s appropriate to refer to someone as ‘mate’ and when it isn’t. Instead, Ronan felt aggrieved and angry and now feels more negative towards the principal than he otherwise might.
We know that learning in schools is, in large part, about relationships. Being punitive doesn’t help build good ones.
What other lessons might we teach if we stop being punitive?
A number of years ago I was feeling stuck in my academic work. It seemed there was no end to what I was doing and no capacity for change on the horizon. As often seems to happen, I stumbled across a journal article that expressed exactly what I was feeling and also presented a way of thinking I hadn’t thought of for myself. That’s one thing I love about reading – you learn of other ways to think, other mindsets, other perspectives.
This particular author suggested that one way to look at the situation was to think about chapters – this is the teaching chapter of your academic life and the next chapter might be the research chapter or the leadership chapter or the something entirely different chapter. It helped me realise that my situation wasn’t going to continue in the same way for the rest of time. And sure enough, over time, the teaching chapter finished and I was able to start a new chapter.
I like metaphors and their capacity to explain a concept, though of course there’s the danger of pushing a metaphor too far. Any good author will know that there are other ways to structure a narrative than in a straight line. It’s the same with our lives, which is, in some ways, a different form of authoring. Our lives don’t travel in straight lines despite the chronology that suggests we take a straight line from one point to another.
We are born, get to be five, head to school, emerge more or less damaged by that experience some years later, and tumble into adult life. We work, we get married, we have children and so on and so forth. Or so the story goes.
But some of us combine highschool with motherhood, either as a teenager or an adult or both. Some of us don’t move through the ‘stages’, the ‘chapters’, of our lives in the right order. We have a baby and then some months later, get married. We have another baby and then finish high school. Some of us don’t do things at the ‘right’ age, and by ‘right’ I mean ‘standard’, ‘accepted’, ‘proper’, but we do them anyway.
We don’t live linear lives.
Our stories get woven around other stories, stories that have already happened, stories we thought we’d shed the skin of, stories that get tangled in our memories and in our retellings. Parts of our lives connect with other parts in ways we don’t necessarily expect; some things we thought we’d finished with re-emerge and take up space again. The re-emergences push us in directions we hadn’t ever expected and we circle back and find we’ve picked up threads of an older story and the newer threads give it added depth.
We change and develop and grow through the chapters of our lives. We cook and clean and harangue and clean and cook and nothing changes. Is it always going to be like this? A sense of hopelessness. Going through the motions. But deep within, a reluctance to accept that this is all there is. Change. Unsettling. Upsetting. Challenging. Difficult. The transition from one thing to another, from one chapter to another.
And then another.
We teach – about language and tone and purpose and audience. About human emotion expressed through movement and words and no words and space and silence. We study and learn and develop, and another new chapter starts, full of more learning and challenge and motivation and no motivation. And struggle. Personally and professionally and we feel stuck. Is it always going to be like this?
With each transition from one chapter to another, we build up who we are. In one chapter we’re a teacher, in the next we’re a teacher-educator, but then there’s the chapter that weaves research with teaching and the two parts sit uncomfortably with each other. There’s no time to do both properly and compromise is unsettling. And then the next chapter adds leadership and it’s difficult, challenging, upsetting. We feel stuck in our academic work. Is it always going to be like this?
Some chapters are so long we can’t see the end of them. The PhD chapter of our lives can be like that .. it goes on and on and on. Our energy flags, we can’t see a way through; there’s work and kids and your supervisor saying ‘just get it done’. If only it was that easy. It drags. It’s intellectually tortuous. It’s mentally draining. There’s no ounce of motivation left. It becomes a grind. Will it always be like this?
Robyn, one of my PhD candidates, was at that point this time last year. It was intellectually tortuous, mentally draining. It was a grind. Scraps of motivation lay on the ground at her feet. “Sharon, will it ever end?”.
It ended. Robyn submitted her thesis, it was examined, accepted and just last week, Robyn’s doctorate was conferred. All those years. All that work. And now she’s a doctor, by virtue of having a doctorate.
Will she use her title in the next chapter of her life?
That might not come as much of a surprise to those who know me well, but it comes as a surprise to me.
It remains a surprise, given that the realisation hits me every ten years or so. In the intervening times I simply forget.
Do you do that? Flashes of realisation about yourself, then forget, only to be reminded a year, or ten, later that, oh yes, that’s right. I forgot. I’m an idealist.
My latest revelation came after dinner at my sister’s place a year or so ago*. We got to talking about schooling and after chewing over certain parts of the conversation over the next few days, I had my flash of self-awareness.
I can’t think of any other way to say this than: for me, education (formal education) is about learning.
There. I’ve said it. That’s what it means to me.
And I’ve realised that that’s an idealistic way of thinking about formal education.
To me formal education is not primarily about:
a score on a NAPLAN test
a grade on the end of year exam
marks, and whether you get enough of them to get into university
whether you pass or fail an assignment, or a unit, or a course
To my way of thinking, formal education – whether you’re in Prep, or Grade 3, or Grade 11, or first year university – is primarily about learning.
Not grades, not marks, not passing tests, not learning enough to do well in spelling bees or at trivia nights at the local club.
Learning is challenging and requires thinking and changes of perspective and knowledge and understanding and questions: posing them as well as answering them. It requires reflection and resilience and determination and discipline.
And the bonus? Learning leads to test passing and success in spelling bees and impressing your mates at the local pub trivia. And a host of other, much more important things besides.
But it seems that schools and universities are not in the business of learning.
They are simply in business.
That’s how the education system seems to see it – and the politicians who enact educational policy. The education system is about students getting a good score in NAPLAN so that we (the rest of us outside of the education system) can hold teachers to account, so that we can hold schools to account; so that students – education’s ‘customers’ can move from high school to university, and from university into the workforce for the purpose of ensuring Australia is “internationally competitive”, economically strong, part of a culture built on consumption. That’s where growth comes from – from more of us consuming more.
There are implications of this thought process for what is taught, how it’s taught, who is taught and who does the teaching. It has implications for the kinds of expectations educators have of students and the level of responsibility given to students for their own learning.
And in this blighted landscape of education as business, education is something that is consumed. It’s a product we purchase. Universities don’t have students anymore; they have customers. And customers demand satisfaction for the goods they purchase. And customers’ purchasing should require as little effort as possible.
Customers don’t want to work for the goods they purchase. I mean, when was the last time you paid for a lipstick you had to then build from ingredients you had to source yourself, or even ones that were given to you? When was the last time you had to fry the chips you’d just paid for at the fish ‘n chippy, before taking them home to lavish with tomato sauce and consume?
Many customers of universities don’t want to have new ideas or perspectives to consider or to experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. They don’t want the pain of not doing well, of being uncertain, of not knowing. Some of them don’t even want the fuss of having to craft their own assignments.
Education is a business with customers to satisfy and a national economy to help grow.
It’s idealistic to cling to the idea that it’s about learning, and all learning’s attendent benefits.
And yet, I find the older I get and the more experience I have in formal education, the more I cling.
Perhaps I’ve turned into an anachronism … if I have, at least I’m an idealistic one!
* I came to my blog to write about something else entirely, and found much of this in the ‘drafts’ folder. I had the ‘I’m an idealist’ revelation again, finished the post and thought I may as well publish it.
Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world has answered a big question for me. One I’ve been seeking an answer to for years. The way he answered the question was humbling, but it was an answer nevertheless and I was instantly calmed by it.
It made sense.
Existential crises are nothing new for me. My first memory of said crisis was in Year 7 (first year of high school – called first form back then). High school was big and scary and I was introverted (called shy back then) and felt bewildered. So many people, so much movement and action and interaction and confusion. So much talk, so much noise filling my head. Finding my way and fitting in. Or not.
A steel door slamming shut in my mind. The familiar refrain ‘so what? so what? so what?’ bouncing around the walls of my newly closed mind.
It was a refrain that ran through my adolescence. And beyond.
From the outside, it might have seemed like an attitude of not caring, but it masked a deep desire for meaning. For understanding the experiences of high school. For understanding myself and my place there, and how I fitted in. Or not.
It’s a fundamental question that can tie you in knots if you linger on it; if you seek an answer that has meaning for you and for your life to this point and for your life into the future.
It’s a question I ask a lot. I try not to because of the damage it can do, but it pops into my mind stealthily, when I least expect it.
We’re born, we live, we die.
Far beyond high school the question continued to plague me. There were times when I’d bounce from one existential crisis to another. None would bring any answers, or at least none that I was happy with. None of the usual answers made sense to me.
I tried Googling it. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t help.
But then I read Sand Talk and that did help. Enormously.
Yunkaporta says “Some new cultures keep asking, ‘Why are we here?’. It’s easy. This is why we’re here. We look after things on the earth and in the sky and the places in between” (p. 109).
We’re custodians. Of things in the places between earth and sky: People. Animals. Ourselves. Each other. Knowledge. Ideas. The processes through which we generate and share knowledge and ideas.
Humans, according to Yunkaporta, are a “custodial species” (p. 102). It’s a slightly different rendering of the ‘man has dominion over …’ we learnt in Sunday school; it has a different quality. A nurturing quality. A caring quality. A quality that works against exploitation.
The idea of being a custodian is a powerful one for me. It makes sense as no other response to the ‘so what?’ question ever has.
There are many other insights in this book that have made sense to me in ways nothing I’ve read or heard have done before. For me, it’s an important work that helps make sense of my thinking – not necessarily what I think, but most certainly how I think.
‘I have previously talked about civilised cultures losing collective memory and having to struggle for thousands of years to gain full maturity and knowledge again, unless they have assistance. But that assistance does not take the form of somebody passing on cultural content and ecological wisdom. The assistance I’m talking about comes from sharing patterns of knowledge and ways of thinking that will help trigger the ancestral knowledge hidden inside. The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own’ (Yunkaporta, 2019, p. 163).
Perhaps this book has helped trigger [my] ancestral knowledge. Whether that’s the case, it’s certainly making a lot of sense for me.
It’s been a tough few months. Not anything health related I hasten to add.
Although before I venture into the toughness, I’ll give a brief update.
If you’ve been following my journey, you’ll know that around a year ago I found a lump in my breast. It was cancer. I had it removed in January and then in February through March had radiotherapy. It wasn’t pleasant and I’m still feeling the after effects. Last week I had a checkup with my medical oncologist. My breast tissue is still swollen and still very tender. Of course I already knew that as I feel it every day. What I didn’t know is that it’ll continue for another year or so – both the swelling and the tenderness.
Other than that, everything is fine. I still get days of exhaustion – I went to work on Tuesday last week, worked for an hour or so, went to attend a meeting and just couldn’t. Instead, I went home and spent the day in bed. And that might have had to do with the toughness than any lingering after effects of radiotherapy.
So, to the toughness.
Tim started a new job in late June and in the time between jobs we spent a week in Tasmania, touring around to places we’d been before and places we hadn’t. It was cold and wonderful and punctuated with moments of family just to make it even better.
When I got back to work, I was asked to work on an undergrad ethics unit for financial professionals.
You’re right. I know nothing about financial professionals, but had taught ethics some years before and so knew some of the basics.
‘Work on’ initially meant working with the unit chair to develop materials to ensure students were more active in their learning during the seminars. I’m very familiar with the principles of active learning and with unit design and so this was something that spoke to my skillset.
Not so the unit chair.
He couldn’t fathom why you’d want to teach in any other way than through lecture.
He couldn’t fathom how you’d teach in any other way than through lecture.
I became unit chair.
And learning designer. And developer of the materials – both online and for the on-campus seminars. And the builder of the online site.
I had help of course. A colleague would send me ‘content’ which equated to discipline-specific information on things like fraud and tax evasion and fiduciary duties.
I asked lots of questions (beyond the obvious: ‘what’s a fiduciary duty?’).
The question I asked most often was ‘what are students going to do with this information?’ Providing students with information is important. Learning doesn’t happen in the absence of information, but there are ways and ways of presenting information, some more effective for learning than others. And then there’s how students start to make that information real for them – for their personal and professional lives.
We’ve recently had a Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry in Australia. It identified a lot of unethical – and illegal – conduct. It was a gold mine in terms exploring ethical issues, but it was outside the range of interest/thinking/relevance for many of the 662 second-year students in the unit, many of whom were international students.
So making ethics personal before we thought about professional ethical responsibilities was important to me. We started with a case study on ‘what she makes’ – a campaign involving comedian Sammy J and Kmart. He asked, through the medium of comic song, what the women who make the garmets Kmart sells make. Are they paid a living wage and was it ethical if they weren’t? We moved on from there. Some students couldn’t see the point of it and struggled from the start. These are, after all, mostly accounting students.
I’m not quite sure what I’m saying there, but I think my point is around the idea that they’ve been trained in a particular way to think about how university learning is done, and this wasn’t it. Some said it was ‘nonsensical’.
This work took all of my time, all of my energy, all of my intellectual capacity. I had to learn about the finance profession, about governance structures, executive and non-executive directors and organisational culture, the differences between tax minimisation, tax avoidance and tax evasion (which ones of those are il/legal and which are legal but unethical; which one is a tax agent obligated to do?); I had to learn about the ethical hierarchy and the AAA decision-making model, Baird’s four ethical lenses (apparently I sit squarely between the responsibilities lens and the results lens meaning I get the best of both of them, but also the worst), how deontology and teleology relate to ethical decisions in the finance sector; I learnt about APES110 and Chapter 7 of the Corporations Act, and I now have a much better understanding of the role ASIC and APRA play in regulating the finance sector.
And so much more.
SO much more.
I designed seminars the nine male tutors baulked at. This isn’t teaching. Where’s the lecture? Where’s the space for me to talk to students – to tell them what I know? Our students don’t/won’t work/learn this way.
It felt like a fight the whole time. A fight to get the materials up in time, a fight to wrestle some sense out of the information I was given, a fight to record videos and to see myself on the screen without wanting to get a professional makeup artist in to turn this old woman into someone others could stand to watch. It was a fight against time, against my own ignorance, against others’. It was 14 hour days and most of each weekend. It was responding to students’ requests for extensions – when there are 662 students, there tend to be a lot of extension requests. It was finding markers to mark student assignments and providing markers with ideas for giving feedback that was empathic and supportive rather than punitive. It was students coming to see me to ask about how to do a mind map (something I’d mentioned as a potentially useful tool for determining the links between the various bits of information they were engaging with). It was students emailing me to say they couldn’t see the point in what they were doing and ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning’. It was emails asking if [this] was going to be on the exam, even after I’d written in the unit materials that everything was going to be on the exam.
And then there was Charles.
Charles, a 24 year old international student, came to see me late one afternoon. He was struggling, not only with the unit but with life in general. He sat down, started to tell me his story and cried. His business had gone badly, he owed an eye-wateringly large sum of money, his girlfriend had dumped him. He felt that life wasn’t worth living. I sat and listened and thought, I don’t know how to help this young man, but it seemed all he needed was someone to listen. I could do that. He came to my office regularly after that, always just as I was packing up and we’d sit and he’d talk and cry. Over time, his voice began to change – there was more energy and more life in it. He’s back in China now and still writes to me. Life is still tough for him but he says I made a difference.
And then there was Rohit.
Rohit, a 22 year old international student, asked lots of questions in the online seminar. So many that another student asked him if he’d even engaged with the materials. He asked more questions via email. Eventually, I asked him to come and see me. He burst into my office, full of energy, and just as full of questions as he’d been online. He told me, quite proudly, that he was ‘immature’. I asked him how that was working out for him. That question stopped him in his tracks. He wrote that question down, and said how it was an important question for him to consider. He showed me a photo of his mother, who he loves dearly. I asked what he does to make her proud. He wrote that down too. He told me that the exam was on his birthday and so I sent him a happy birthday email the morning of the exam. He came to my office one day last week to give me a box of chocolates. He said that I had had a profound impact on him and that he felt blessed by God to have had a teacher like me.
Before the end of the trimester, when I was still trying to finish the ethics unit, under mounting pressure as the days ticked down to get the work completed but feeling like I was getting close to the end of the tunnel, I was asked to work on another ethics unit. This one was for those who are financial advisers. Sharon, you’ll be academic lead on a unit, taught in two different ways (so, effectively two different units). Please work with the learning designer and the subject matter expert to complete the work by the end of October.
The learning designer and subject matter expert did very little. My workload, which had been easing slightly (I was only working 12 hour days and fewer hours on weekends), skyrocketed again.
But it’s come to the end of November – or close to – and I can start to see a little light at the end of what’s felt like a long tunnel. I only have a few rubrics to write now, and some development work to do on one of the units – and I have my unit chair duties to do, but they don’t take too much time.
Was it worth it? Spending all my time and energy working on the development of the ethics units?
And that’s not being as blunt as I could be about it. I’ve enjoyed some parts of it, don’t get me wrong. I had a great day on Thursday for instance. I had no meetings and sat at my computer and put together resources on the ethics involved in organisational culture and whistle blowing, and that felt satisfying.
But I haven’t been to Tasmania since June – unless you count the day I went down for Emma’s birthday in October. I did manage to get to my 40 year high school reunion and spend the weekend with my 40-year friend Michelle. I also managed to fit in a quick trip to Deb’s. But I haven’t seen Byron since he was a week old and now he’s just over 6 months. I haven’t seen Mum since July. I haven’t been north to see my sons and grandkids since April.
I haven’t written a blog post since August. I haven’t taken a photo of a flower in months. I haven’t been enjoying the little bits of photography I have been doing, and I wouldn’t have been doing any except that I’m doing a part-time photography course and that requires me to take some photographs.
I click on the ‘add new post’ button and a blank page opens, with the blinking cursor sitting in the ‘Title’ box.
The word ‘confluence’ pops into my mind, so I type it in, then quickly check the dictionary definition to make sure it’s the right word for what I want to say.
A title is important. It helps synthesise our ideas in a way that suggests there’s a core idea the author wants to communicate and the author knows, at the start of the writing process, what that idea is.
Sometimes when I start writing a blog post I have no idea of the core idea I want to communicate, and so I leave the title blank. The act of writing helps distill my idea and it’s at that point a title emerges.
But not this time. In this moment, as I sit writing, I know the core idea I want to communicate and so the title is easy. Plus, I’ve been thinking about this for over a week now and that thinking has acted as a distillery.
Over a week ago I saw this on my Facebook feed.
I remember being struck by the sentiment because we mostly hear ‘you only live once’ as an exhortation to make the most of things.
I’m currently, with lots of support from others, developing an ethics unit and am constantly on the lookout for case studies, resources, stories of ethical misconduct in the financial services sector (which is not hard to find at the moment), but when you search online for something, you enter into a rabbit warren of ideas and perspectives and views and things the internet believes you might be interested in.
One of those things was an interview Charles Wooley did earlier this year for 60 Minutes. I don’t ever watch 60 Minutes, but on this occasion, when the video was in my ‘Up next’ menu in YouTube, I decided to watch it because I was interested in who Charles Wooley was interviewing: Ricky Gervais.
The interview opened with them both walking through a cemetery and at one point, Gervais says something like, “you don’t exist for billions of years, and then for 70 or 80 years you do, and then you don’t”.
It’s a cosmic view of life – a long-range look – one that perhaps brings a different perspective to our lives.
And as I sat thinking about his comment, Carl Sagan’s video ‘Pale Blue Dot’ sprang into my mind.
Consider that dot … on it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. ~ Carl Sagan
I could feel the confluence starting – ideas beginning to merge.
The idea that we don’t only live once, we live every day of our lives.
The idea that we’re here for such a small part of all time.
The idea that we’re all together, on this one tiny planet.
How am I living each day? How am I making the most of the opportunities my being here allows? How am I caring for others and for the only planet we can currently call home?
I don’t have answers; I rarely do.
But the questions are a starting point.
A confluence has to start somewhere and it may as well be here, as I sit, musing from the cold.
I finished the workshop (I’d like to say to wild applause but that would be an inaccurate representation. It was ‘polite’ rather than ‘wild’ but I’ll take polite any day), packed up my things, and could see that one of the participants wanted to speak with me.
We stepped out of the seminar room, and he spoke to me about his Plan B for teaching in the upcoming trimester. I assured him that ‘talking more’ was not necessarily the best Plan B for an unresponsive class. Allow the silence to linger I said, and then our silence lingered as he physically squirmed at the idea of allowing silence to pervade the classroom.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that many teachers don’t like the silence. They ask a question, seem to expect an immediate response from students, and if isn’t forthcoming they jump in to provide one.
This particular workshop participant is going to be teaching into the unit I’ve just been appointed Unit Chair of. A unit of around 700 students, 100 of whom will be online. I have warned the tutors that the teaching will possibly be different from what they’re used to, but I’m not sure how ready they are for how different it’s really going to be.
I’m also not sure of how ready I am for the challenge of convincing these tutors that teaching differently is a worthwhile endeavour.
They’ll be pushed, I’ve been reliably informed by a number of reliable sources, that they’ll feel out of their comfort zone.
I know something about being out of a comfort zone.
In the last month I’ve had two men push me further out of my comfort zone than I’ve been pushed in some time.
Both men put their hands on me.
Neither of them are my husband, my personal trainer or my physiotherapist or my doctor or anything to do with my health and wellbeing.
It’s okay for Tim, my husband, to put his hands on me because … well, because he’s my husband.
It’s okay for Tom, my personal trainer, to put his hands on me because he helps ensure my shoulders are in the right position for whatever exercise I’m doing.
It’s okay for Rob, my physiotherapist to do some manipulations of my shoulder or neck or knee or whatever body part is currently undergoing some issue that needs manipulation of some sort.
I don’t have any males on my medical/oncology team, so that’s not something I have to deal with.
In the last month though, two men, both alike in age and in not formerly knowing me in any way at all, felt it was okay to put their hands on me.
Now, I seem to be suggesting that they touched me inappropriately. If by ‘inappropriately’ we mean sexually, then that’s not what I mean at all.
There was no sexually inappropriate touching. Nor, I hasten to add, was there any sexually appropriate touching because I don’t know that there is such a thing between work colleagues.
From the outside, it could be seen as benign. One patted me on the shoulder a number of times, the other hugged me from the side.
Man A walked into my office for our second meeting and told me I had a lovely smile. He even told me that he’d thought that when he saw my profile photo (you know the one that shows up when you send or receive an email from a colleague?).
It might have looked benign, but it felt yukky. I didn’t ask either of them to touch me, I didn’t give any signals that touching me was okay, I didn’t touch them.
Did I invite their touch? Did I somehow give a signal that it was okay?
Is it okay to touch a colleague you’ve just met? To pat them, tell them they have a lovely smile, hug them?
It might be for some people, but my body is a no-touch zone.
I’m not for one moment suggesting they were doing something sordid or out of line.
Except it crossed a line for me.
I’m conflicted about this.
They were two well-meaning men who show their gratitude or appreciation in small, physical ways. They are exuberant characters and this sort of touching, much like a handshake, is part of who they are.
But it isn’t like a handshake, is it?
A handshake seems to be more equal somehow. If Man A had shaken my hand as an expression of his appreciation for the support I’d provided (for doing my job, basically), would I have felt/thought differently about it?
Yes, I believe I would. It would have seemed to have given a different message. A shoulder pat while saying ‘you’ve done a great job’ seems a bit off. I felt like I haven’t felt in a long while, and that’s like ‘the little woman’.
It brought to mind an incident that happened many years ago. I was at a dairy industry dinner (in the time I was married to Kim who worked in the dairy industry) and the man sitting next to me asked me in that horribly patronising tone some men spoke to women in those days: ‘And how much did you spend today Sharon?’
You see, while the men had been discussing important dairy industry things at a conference, the women (the wives) had been encouraged to spend the day shopping, or whatever wives did in those days. I hadn’t spent my time with any of the other wives, and I certainly hadn’t spent my day shopping. We had four young children and only one wage and shopping wasn’t something I did a lot of (apart, of course, from food shopping and I certainly wasn’t going to do that while I was away from the children for a day or two).
I had, on that day, actually made about 50c. Someone who had parked behind me asked if I had change for the parking meter. I did and so he gave me one dollar (it may even have been a note) while I handed over my 50 cents in a mix of coins so that he could feed his meter. I could have just given him the 50 cents, but he insisted on giving me a dollar.
I told my somewhat underwhelming story, while thinking ‘condescending pig’ (which I may have thought a bit too loudly), and my dinner companion soon found someone else to talk to.
But I had thought that between 1987 and now things had changed; that women weren’t ‘the little woman’ any longer. Yet that’s exactly how I felt.
And, quite frankly, I don’t need a man hugging me, even if that is from the side, and telling me how much he’d enjoyed the seminar.
Actually, tell me you enjoyed the seminar, but keep your hands to yourself while doing so.
We are asked to introduce ourselves. Most people give their name, title and something about the work they do. It’s my turn and I say ‘Hi, I’m Sharon. I do stuff.’
People laugh and then the next person introduces himself, gives his title, says something about what he does, and that continues around the table.
But … what?
Why did I respond in that way? Why didn’t I give my title and say something about what I do? Particularly as the people around the table are my colleagues. Most of them – if not all of them – know my title and what I do.
Even weirder, now that I think about it some more in the cold hard light of day. And when I say ‘cold’ I mean freezing. It’s so cold today I’m sitting inside with a woollen hat on, a buff (a scarf without ends) around my neck, a warm cardigan, while the heater dribbles out heat in the background.
I went to see Cornelia (not her real name) yesterday afternoon. Cornelia is my onc-psych (yes, apparently there is such a thing) and I told her about this because I thought it was interesting and it fitted in with other things we were talking about.
Cornelia challenged me to describe what I do and the value of what I do to an imaginary audience of Grade 5 kids. Or Prep kids. Or people who aren’t in the same industry as me.
So here I am. I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to do this on my blog, but as you’re my audience and might be good enough to give me your time and possibly some feedback, I thought I may as well describe what I do and the value of what I do to you – a real, rather than an imagined audience.
Or perhaps you are an imagined audience. I’ll imagine you’re out there, sitting in the warmth, scrolling through your emails, finding one from Musings on the Cold, and saying to yourself ‘what the heck. I may as well see what Sharon has to say today.’ And here you are.
Grab a cuppa, this is a seriously long read.
What do I do in my professional life and what is its value?
I’m a Senior Lecturer (Student Engagement) in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.
I work with academic staff (those who teach undergraduate and postgraduate students) to help further develop their teaching practice. I also work with those who work with academic staff to help them further develop the work they do in working with academic staff in further developing their teaching practice.
That sounds a little convoluted, even to me. Hopefully, it will become a bit more clear as (if) you read on.
Academics have three main parts to their role:
Research (that includes writing grant applications, conducting research – writing ethics applications, designing surveys/questionnaires/interview schedules, gathering and analysing data, writing peer reviewed journal articles …)
Service (engage in committees that make decisions about important initiatives, take on leaderships roles …)
Teach (prepare unit guides, design the structure of an 11 week unit/subject so that it has a coherent thread, design assessment tasks, record lectures and podcasts and be animated and lively as you do it, align assessment with learning outcomes, develop learning resources to scaffold student learning, determine ways of engaging students and tapping into their personal motivations and interest for studying this subject, liaise with library staff about library resources, liaise with language and literacy advisers on the best way to support students’ academic development, liaise with the work integrated learning team to determine how to incorporate some employability education into the unit, ensure compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of discipline knowledge and also how to teach and assess, present information, meet with those teaching into their units to ensure there’s consistency in the information provided to students and in the ways students are being taught, respond to student requests for extensions, comply with standards for online learning (accessibility, etc), respond to student requests for information that was in the Week 3 notes but that the student hadn’t accessed, respond to student queries about whether this particular nugget of information will be in the exam, wonder why many students don’t turn up to class, mark student assignments, give feedback to students saying the same thing over and over ‘your work could be strengthened if you accessed the materials and attended more regularly’, conduct moderation meetings to ensure all markers are marking consistently and are providing positive and constructive feedback, write a unit review at the end of the semester to justify the high fail rates, ensure there’s a spread of grades consistent with a bell curve even though we do criterion-referenced assessment to which bell curves don’t apply, read student evaluations that often say hurtful things of a personal nature (Sharon is fat, Sharon has no sense of humour, Sharon’s hair is ridiculous), respond to student enquiries within 48 hours, ensure the unit is inclusive of those from rural and regional areas, those from a low socio-economic demographic, those who have a disability, those who work, those who have children and elderly parents, those who don’t really want to be in this subject, this course, this university, this country but they have to because their parents’ expectations are high, engage students in active learning, teach them about teamwork and self management and critical thinking and problem solving and global citizenship as well as disciplinary-specific content knowledge, be familiar with a range of technologies, pretend you can do all this … and more …).
A ‘balanced’ workload is 40/40/20. That is, an academic will have 40% of their workload allocation devoted to research, 40% to teaching and 20% to service.
Many academics come to universities as experts in their field. They are expert accountants, or financial planners, or foreign exchange traders. They are keen to undertake research. Research builds your profile nationally and internationally. Research builds a university’s profile nationally and internationally. There are university rankings and all universities want to be at or close to the top. You get close to the top primarily through research, although teaching evaluations from students plus success and retention rates are also part of the equation. But research is important.
Most academics have a PhD and so come to the academy knowing how to do research. Once at the university, they often get onto research teams and are mentored and supported by more experienced others in how to write grant applications, how to write ethics applications, how to write journal articles, how to get published (or they mentor and support those who are newer to academia). They publish in teams and so an academic might have their name on a dozen papers, along with a dozen other academics, all of whom contributed in some way to the research, although not necessarily to the writing of the paper. It’s very important to have your name on the paper. It’s how you and the university builds a national and international profile.
Not many academics come to universities knowing how to teach. They’ve been in school, they’ve spent time in universities as students, but just as going to the dentist regularly doesn’t mean you know how to dentist, being a student doesn’t mean you know how to teach. Teaching is often something that is done individually. A unit chair will do much of the work I mentioned in point 3 above. On their own. Often with limited time, particularly in the initial stages of unit design and development.
Many academics come to teaching with the idea that teaching is about telling students what they need to know and then testing them on that at the end of the trimester to see how much they’ve ‘learnt’. Not many academics build their national or international profile through teaching. Not many universities get to the top of the league tables through teaching.
Teaching is often evaluated on the basis of what students have to say and when what they have to say is unhelpful (Sharon is fat. Sharon has no sense of humour. Sharon’s hair is ridiculous) then it’s difficult to know how to improve. Teaching tends not to be a team activity. There’s little mentoring and support from more experienced others. Research into your own teaching is called ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ rather than research and isn’t valued as highly as ‘real’ research, even though there are grant applications to write, ethics applications to develop, data to be gathered and analysed, writing of a journal article that will be peer reviewed … it’s just like research but it’s called scholarship and so doesn’t count as much.
So for the academic who comes to university primarily to engage in research, teaching can be an uncomfortable space. An often unsupported space.
Universities provide support for the technological aspects of teaching: how to record a lecture (as in, which buttons to push) but not so many resources on how to record a lecture (as in, how to engage students in the ways you present information, the structure of the lecture, ways to be your authentic self in front of the camera); how to develop a rubric (as in, which buttons to click to ensure it’s in the right place within the learning management system and that the numbers add up accurately) but there are fewer people employed to support academics in how to develop a rubric (as in, how do you develop criteria that align with the learning outcomes, what language do you use to differentiate between someone’s capacity to communicate at a Distinction level rather than a High Distinction level; how to assess quality rather than quantity – how well the references were used to suppport the writer’s argument or analysis rather than how many were used).
I am a teacher. I’ve been a qualified teacher since 1997. I’ve spent over 22 years in classrooms of one sort or another and/or supporting those who teach. I started out teaching English and Drama to senior secondary students. English teaching (and preparing to be an English teacher) meant that I learnt about language and purpose and audience and structure and communicating in writing as well as verbally. It taught me about nuances in language and about the formalities of language – about register and tone and semiotics and syntax. And about deliberate communicative structures and when it’s okay to break rules and why apostrophes are important.
Drama teaching (and preparing to be a Drama teacher) taught me about embodied learning, about authentic learning, about experiential learning, about giving feedback, about being in the moment, about jumping in and doing rather than sitting back and thinking, about experiences and ways of communicating them through real and imagined events, about emotionality and how to make a scream with your body rather than your voice, and about experimentation and trying things out, about flexible and creative thinking, about the importance of reflection to the learning process, and the importance of breath and movement and of voice – of using it and supporting it.
And for many years I worked in radio. Working in radio taught me about time – time management, time use, how to fill it, how to structure it. It taught me about audience – communicating with the audience, listening to the audience, speaking to one person rather than to many, imagining your listener and speaking directly to that person. It taught me about structure, how to use music to carry the program through an hour of ups and downs, of melodies and rhythms; how to use pace, when to speed up and when to slow down; how to edit an interview and to structure it to make it flow; how to present information, how to ask open questions, how to encourage people to tell their story, how to build relationships quickly, how to use humour to add light and shade to an interview (Sharon has no sense of humour), how a smile warms up your voice. It also taught me the importance of preparation, whether that’s preparing for a music program, a talk program, a panel interview, an interview with a member of parliament, for talkback with Peter Cundall, for dealing with technical issues in a dignified way on air and ensuring your microphone is off before you fall to pieces.
For many years I was a teacher educator, teaching those preparing to become primary and secondary school teachers. Teaching and learning, assessment and planning, curriculum and pedagogy were what I taught – they were my disciplines. I was teaching people about teaching – asking them endless questions about the role of schools in society, the role of teachers, the reason we teach what we teach in schools. I encouraged students to think about who they were as teachers, why they were teaching, why they were teaching in the way they were teaching, encouraging them to think about how they use their time, how they structure it in the classroom, how they plan for learning, how they know that learning has happened. I was also teaching about self-management – about planning, monitoring and evaluating your own learning, critical thinking, communicating to diverse audiences, working as a member of a team, ethical practice. In addition, I taught Drama and Literacy and encouraged students to keep their teaching real and authentic and embodied and experiential. I developed as a teacher-educator over time, just as, years before, I had developed as a teacher over time.
And so now I know something about teaching and learning and engagement and assessment. About how to structure the presentation of information, how to communicate with an audience you’re not in front of, how to ask questions that elicit responses that go beyond yes/no answers. I know about unit design for oncampus and online teaching and learning; I know what strategies will encourage active learning; I can use language effectively in the development of rubrics; I know how to design a unit to encourage intellectual engagement as well as professional and academic engagement. I have written articles and conference papers about teaching and learning, I have developed my knowledge and understanding and practice from a myriad of authors who engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I attend conferences and listen to how others enact their teaching and how they encourage students to engage in learning. My ideas about teaching are built on experience and reflection and scholarship and research and reading and interacting with others. And, if I’m honest, my ideas about teaching are also built on my experience as an educational leader.
And so, I do more than ‘stuff’. I work with academic staff (those involved in teaching) to further develop their teaching practice. I encourage them to reconsider the ‘teaching as telling’ approach; to think about teaching as an embodied, experiential, authentic endeavour that leads to students being more effective communicators and critical thinkers and team members and problem solvers.
And I work with those others in the team (colleagues employed as learning designers or educational technologists or educational developers or project managers) who also work with academic staff, to further my colleagues’ understanding of teaching and learning and how best to work with academics in helping them further develop their practice.
As well as the many failures I’ve had, I’ve also had some successes. My office is littered with Teaching Merit Certificates from my years at the University of Tasmania. Last year I was awarded Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. HEA Fellowship ‘demonstrates a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education’. Senior Fellows need to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, and so it was an honour to be successful in my application.
Most recently, I was part of a team awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) ‘Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning’. Only 30 were awarded across Australia and again, I felt very honoured to have been part of a successful team.
So perhaps I need to acknowledge that I do know stuff, and that it’s quite valuable stuff to know, and that I can add value to others’ practice and ultimately to the student experience.
I tend to think I lost the Prep audience some time ago, and possibly the Grade 5 audience too.
But what about you? Did you make it this far?
If so, do you consider what I do to have value?
Any comments are most welcome, apart from the ‘Sharon’s hair is ridiculous’ type 🙂
I was already a grandmother by the time I started teaching at university in 2000. Phil, who turned 20 earlier this week, and his brother Scott were my only grandchildren till Ronan arrived in the world eight years after Phil. Then Jordan and Hunter and Sakye – and then more and more and more!
As my list of grandchildren grew I started to think more and more about the student teachers I was teaching and I’d often say to them ‘You never know, one day you might be teaching one of my grandchildren – they’re scattered all over Australia – and that might mean me popping into your classroom to have a chat and see what the grandkids are up to’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s come to pass. Some of my grandchildren have had the pleasure of being taught by some of the very special people I taught at university and it’s always lovely to wander into their classrooms and see them as teachers now, after seeing them as students. I don’t pretend to have any influence on who they are as teachers, but it’s lovely to see them nonetheless.
I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now. Being a teacher was something I never imagined I’d do. Debbie, my sister, had always wanted to be a teacher, but it hadn’t been on my list of career choices.
I no longer teach those preparing to be teachers in primary and high schools; rather I find myself running workshops for academic staff who are teaching university students studying for degrees in commerce and accounting and information systems and business analytics. While I know nothing about accounting and commerce and business analytics I do know something about teaching.
And, what’s more, after running six workshops in the last week I’ve been reminded that I love it. I love teaching. I love asking questions that generate thinking, I love putting ideas out there and seeing how others develop them, or consider them, or debate them, or draw insight from them.
Those who know me in person, know that I’m not a dynamic person in ordinary life, but I seem to get another sort of energy when I’m teaching and as I get older and therefore more comfortable and confident with my teaching persona I find I turn into a warm and funny and energised person who is enthusiastic and passionate and insightful.
Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told.
I’ve had a few positives in terms of my teaching and supporting teachers over the last twelve months. I (successfully) supported a team of academics in their application for a VC’s award for outstanding contributions to student learning, and on the back of that award the team was encouraged to apply for a national award.
We found out earlier in the week that we’d been successful at the national level and so, as part of a team, I now have an AAUT (Australian Award for University Teaching) citation for outstanding contributions to student learning under my belt. They only awarded 60 across the country this year, so I’m pretty chuffed with that.
Last year I was successful in applying to become a Senior Fellow of the (UK) Higher Education Academy. Being a Senior Fellow means I ‘demonstrate a thorough understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as a key contribution to high quality student learning [and] impact and influence on other colleagues through, for example, responsibility for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas’ (www.heaacademy.ac.uk).
It was a 6,000 word application supported by two referee statements (thanks Robyn and Sharon B) and required a lot of evidence to support my claims.
The awards are great – even though they require a lot of work and the collection of a lot of evidence from over my 20 years of teaching and are a great recognition of the work I’ve done.
But much (much) more meaningful than the awards and fellowship came in the form of a text message from one of my daughters-in-law last week.
It turns out that Jada, one of my granddaughters, is being taught this year by someone I taught at university. Here are the messages I received:
Met with Scott [teacher] for a parent-teacher meeting this evening. He may have lit up like a Christmas tree when Jada mentioned your name (we had to go through the “Do you know Grandma Sharon” *blank look* “my grandma Sharon Pittaway” dance before he twigged).
He said you were his all time favourite lecturer and that you allowed students to give their own perspective on things and that you never just read or regurgitated information from a textbook. He said this made you inspiring. He also asked for me to pass on his regards.
He ALSO said that Jada no longer needs to come to school as she is now an A+ student because she knows ‘Grandma Sharon’.
I’m glad he took the no school rule back-Jada would have run with that! I made Scott out as being kind of excited, he was more yelling “oh my god” and “really??” He was flailing his arms around a little and slapping his thighs haha. Congratulations to you on making such an impact on people and allowing them to filter their enthusiasm for learning and growing through to the next generation. I’m especially grateful they are our kids!
He said the way I taught made me inspiring.
That’s worth more (much much more) than a VC’s award or a national citation or a senior fellowship.
Tim messages me late on Thursday afternoon: We can get to Tassie for $750. Will I book it?
I thought for a nanosecond and despite not having been to Tasmania so far this year, and despite my usual ‘nothing will keep me away from Tasmania when I have a few days off’, this time something was different. I simply didn’t want to go.
Tassie is known and familiar and I wanted, desperately needed, intuitively knew I needed to be somewhere unknown and unfamiliar. And somewhere a long way away. As far as it was possible to go in the six days we had available to us. Somewhere we hadn’t been before. Somewhere where all the people were strangers and all the roads new.
I wanted to go to Broken Hill.
Tim turns to me late on Thursday night: So. What are we doing over Easter?
It’s 9pm. I mention Broken Hill for the first time. Tim doesn’t blink an eye. It’s no wonder I love this man!
By 11pm our trip is organised, accommodation booked, distances calculated.
By 9am we are on the road, bags packed, keep cups full of tea/coffee, water bottles full, lunches tucked into the cooler bag along with a rudimentary first aid kit, snacks, tea bags and a tea towel – just in case!
I drive out of Melbourne – our usual arrangement – and then over the next six days keep driving.
Driving means I’m present, aware of ‘now’, focussing only on the road not on writing rubrics, determining how to publish the children’s stories I’ve written and had illustrated, responding to online discussion threads, reporting on how many law academics I’ve worked with, drafting journal articles and performance objectives, organising photo shoots, exercising, keeping up with social media …
… all left behind, all fading into the increasingly hazy distance as the road unwinds ahead of us.
Importantly we have a bag of CDs, all compilations we put together for my radio shows over 10 years ago. It’s only on day 6 we have to replay a CD. We have music for every part of our journey, even if it means pressing pause on Damien Rice’s Eskimo until we’re out of Wentworth because it’s a song that deserves space and the open road.
I drive and am present, focussed on this moment, on seeing new landscapes, new combinations of colours, new horizons, new destinations.
I drive and keep my eyes looking forward, into the distance, into the immediate future. I shed the city like a skin by the second day and there’s only the road and the wide-open spaces to contain me. I can feel myself expanding under the warmth and width of the bluest of blue skies.
The ribbons of road shimmering into the distance are my favourite – endless horizons full of possibilities and discovery, full of newness and unfamiliarity. Roads without curves, one line on the map, taking us to the edge of the outback.
The road stretches out before us. The compass says west and then north and they’re the only directions I want to head.
Warmth, colour, distance, the unfamiliarity of the landscape … the only place I want to be.
Away … so far away … into the desert where the hills gently whisper, and where, right before sunset the silence is audible. The desert where the horizon sits in some distant space way, way over yonder and where time and space mean different things. The desert where my grief for Dad pales against the vastness of the landscape, and I can drop it here, knowing threads of it will return to the city with me but also knowing that it’s safe out here in the warmth and almost limitless space between the far horizons.
It’s a hard reset on a hard start to the year – a chance to stay in the ‘now’, to not think beyond the next bend in an arrow-straight road, to simply be.
Away … so far away … and then home.
A few days after we came home, we made a book about our journey and published it on Blurb. You can see a preview here if you’re interested. I wrote the blog post above for the book, which also features essays Tim wrote and a selection of our photos from the trip.
It was one of the most significant and important trips I’ve ever taken.