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.
I know the year can now no longer be considered new, but as this is my first blog post for 2020, I thought I might be able to get away with calling it new.
January in Australia wasn’t great … and for many people it’s still not great. The media spotlight has moved on, but that doesn’t mean those impacted by bushfires have had an end to their misery. There is still much work to be done in many communities to rebuild and rehouse and rethink decisions about how to live. And that goes for all of us, not only those directly impacted by the fires.
It felt like the longest month – January – and now I imagine the rest of the year will zip along speedily and we’ll be saying ‘Christmas carols already? How can that be?’. That’ll be April with the way things seem to go in the retail world!
But I digress.
A brave new year.
I stumbled across this (I don’t even know what it’s called – poster, meme, soundless soundbite, bit of fluff from the internet …?) a little while ago and it spoke to me. Loudly.
I desperately wanted this to be my year. I didn’t want another year like last year where it started poorly and didn’t seem to get better. The year ended, for me, with a trip to Caboolture hospital in mid-December after fainting for no reason, hitting my head on the table as I tipped off my chair, ending in an untidy heap under the table. I felt for Hunter, one of my grandsons who’d come to spend some time with us before we headed home. A fainting grandmother is not something any 10-year old needs to see.
A CT scan revealed a tonsular herniation and a brain scan when I came home revealed it was within normal limits. But that was no reason for fainting. Apparently, I just did. And apparently that’s of some concern.
I also had what will now be an annual mammogram and ultrasound and received the all clear. Yay! Things were finally looking up.
Christmas was spent in Sydney with good friends, Mum and Tim, and a few days after returning home we had the delight of having two of our grandsons come to stay for five days. Toi is 6 and Korbin is 4 and both were an absolute joy. I took an extra week off work and it was a wonderful additional break.
Then back to work … and somewhere along the way I read the words above and thought to myself “yes, I do want this to be my year”.
I determined to say yes to things, to do things I might ordinarily be cautious about doing, weighing up the risks and benefits and deciding that it was too outside my comfort zone or too expensive or of little pratical value.
And so to being brave and doing things that challenge me.
Last year sometime, I read a journal article in which the author mentioned The College of Extraordinary Experiences. I was so intrigued I looked it up. It’s a conference that happens once a year in a 13th century castle in Poland. Five days with around 80-100 people from across the globe, all from different walks of life, all learning about and engaging in designing experiences of one sort or another. Unlike a regular conference, this was one you had to apply for.
I didn’t do anything about it for months.
And then I thought ‘why not? If other people have a shot at attending, why not me? I can learn as well as anyone and even if it’s uncomfortable sometimes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.’
I had an interview.
I was accepted.
You cannot imagine how excited I was.
But then I had to see if the university would support me in attending something that is far outside the bounds of a regular conference and would have no easily communicable benefit.
I put in a proposal in which I outlined as many benefits as I could bring to mind.
Late last year we were having lunch with Alison in North Melbourne. A very cool little car pulled up out the front of the cafe and I instantly admired it. We went to a car yard and sat in one and kicked the tyres. We talked about why we might buy a second car but none of the arguments were compelling enough to convince me. We didn’t do anything about it.
But then Tim said something that provoked me to think differently. He does that a lot.
And so I bought a car.
Well, not bought, but leased.
Not the kind of car I had originally admired outside the cafe, but one that had a much better safety rating and more of the features I was used to.
Two years ago, Tim (husband) gifted me a photography workshop in Sydney with two fabulous photographers. I learnt a lot and it changed the direction of my photography from that weekend on.
Last week, Tim (one of the photographers who facilitated the workshop), wrote to me saying that he’d watched my progress with interest over the intervening two years. He then invited me to a 5-day photography retreat in New Zealand in late April. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have even responded, but the words ‘be brave’ were still thumping around in my head, and so I said ‘yes, I’d love to attend’. And so I’m heading to NZ in late April to learn more about photography from two very experienced photographers. I know it’ll be a challenging five days, but one that’ll be filled with learning and opportunities to develop my photography skills some more.
I am getting off the couch.
I decided I needed to move more, regain some fitness, lose some weight, get stronger and so I signed up for a weekly Friday morning physio rehab session. Rob, my physio, said it would be challenging.
I went to the first one last Friday. It was challenging, but I’m already beginning to feel better.
I asked Tom, my trainer, if we can get back to doing deadlifts – something I’d had to stop last year when I was told to do gentle exercises only. Deadlifts are not a gentle exercise. I deadlifted 45kgs on Monday and am keen to become strong enough to lift my body weight. Of course, that’ll be easier if I weigh less!
My manager called late on Monday afternoon.
She’s accepted my proposal and so I’m off to Poland in September to participate in The College of Extraordinary Experiences.
I am beyond excited.
I’m not sitting on the couch. I’m not waiting for things to happen. I’m making them happen. I’m saying yes more. I’m more positive. I’m extremely grateful that I have opportunities and the means to make the most of them. I’m making changes.
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.
Wednesday. 9:38pm. I arrive home from photography class and Tim is home.
I hadn’t seen him since Sunday night – he’d left for Sydney at 5:00am on Monday and being a bad wife I hadn’t woken up to say goodbye.
He says, not as soon as I walk in the door you must realise, ‘you have an appointment with your breast surgeon on Monday’.
My hands start to pick at non-existent fluff on the couch and I feel my insides begin to wobble like a poorly set jelly.
Are you okay, Tim asks.
I am discombobulated, I reply.
I don’t know the dictionary definition of that word but it feels like it fits. Discomforted, uneasy, thrown for a loop (is that even an expression?), discomposed.
I’d obviously made the appointment some time ago, but had forgotten. And in the being reminded of it I felt discombobulated.
Is it a check-up, Tim asks.
Yep, I reply.
Yep. It’s a check up. But it’s also a reminder, one I obviously hadn’t prepared myself for, of cancer. Of having had breast cancer earlier this year. Of having had surgery and radiotherapy treatment, and of being horrified that this had happened to me.
Yes, my breast is still discoloured and there’s a bruise-like stain where the lump was removed, and under my arm is still numb, and my breast hurts when I walk, so yes, there’s the constant reminders. But I can/have disassociated them from having had cancer. They’re just part of life now.
But seeing the breast surgeon – the reminder of that – is different somehow.
It’s not over.
This cancer – and I really don’t want to call it a journey – but this cancer thing isn’t over. No, it’s more than that. The fear is there because it happened in the first place. And more than fear, there’s a horror that it happened at all.
The fear/horror lurks somewhere and I’m never sure when it’s going to make itself known.
Driving to photography class for the first class back after the break, it made itself known. I’d continued attending class all through my treatment and I hadn’t realised there was an association in my head/body/gut between class and treatment, but anxiety crept over me as I headed to class that first day back. I was stuck in traffic and couldn’t pull over to settle myself, so I called my sister instead. She provided a good distraction.
I couldn’t go to work on Thursday – couldn’t settle, the fear again making itself known as I thought about the appointment with the breast surgeon. Deb noticed I was home and called me. Was I okay?
I called the surgeon’s office on Friday to ask if the appointment was real – although I didn’t ask that particular question – and I was assured it was.
It’s a post about ideas … or maybe not ideas so much as thoughts.
Or threads, but not of the clothes variety.
As an introvert I have a very quiet outer world – I’m not the ‘greeter’ – you know the one, the person who exuberantly says hello to everyone in the office each morning, or the one who bounces up to each person at a party to welcome them even if they aren’t the host.
I’m going out on a limb there you realise. I’m such an introvert that I don’t go to parties – apart from the one I’m going to today. But that’s different because that’s my eldest granddaughter’s birthday party and the only other people there will be my children and grandchildren. Maybe an odd friend or extended family member as well, but ostensibly a family party.
Family parties, when everyone there is an introvert, are interesting, particularly when there’s so much family.
Only three of my five children will be there, but between the three of them they have 10 children, plus four steps. It makes for a lot of people – who, yes, are all related, but who have more conversations going on in their heads than from their mouths.
I’m making it sound as though we stand aroung not talking, and that’s not the case at all. We talk non-stop. We’re just all so worn out at the end of it from talking so much that we need alone time to recharge.
But I digress.
My sister wrote a comment on my previous blog post along the lines of ‘you have so many ideas’ and she also wrote, in her own blog, ‘I might look like I’m doing nothing, but in my head I’m very busy!’
I completly resonate with that sentiment – it’s a hallmark of an introvert – the quiet on the outside but busy on the inside thing.
And that called to mind this image I saw on social media a while ago.
I love those opportunities to have deep conversation with someone in which the scramble of thoughts/threads gets unscrambled.
I usually pay for those conversations, but that’s okay because the person I’m paying knows how to take the tangle and unravel it a little. Or maybe it’s because they listen so that I do the untangling myself, just by getting the threads out of my head and therefore out of the ravel.
[If you can unravel something, does that mean you can ravel it?]
When my students didn’t know where to begin in writing a university assignment, I’d tell them to just start, to put something down on the page and keep tugging gently at the idea/thought/thread through writing, so that eventually there are lots of ideas on the page and you can re-arrange them as required, throw some out, develop some further, add new ones, so that eventually you have a piece of writing that is as clear and unscrambled as you’d want a university assignment to be.
[Unlike that paragraph, which had too many ‘so that eventuallys’ in it. I could edit it but I like the forceful movement forward it implies.]
Deb’s right. I do have lots of ideas/thoughts and I’m getting much better at recognising when they’re in a tangle and knowing how I might go about untangling them.
It’s exhausting. But ultimately far less exhausting than having the thoughts continually scrambling around my mind.
If you want some clarity – talk to someone trained to listen.
An unscrambled mind is so much less exhausting and far less heavy to carry around.
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 stopped listening to Enya some time ago, without making a conscious decision to do so. I guess I just didn’t need her anymore. Her music had seen me through a few challenging and difficult months, but I’m through them now and so no longer need the calming effect she had on me.
I woke up on Monday morning two weeks ago and immediately felt a different sort of energy in my body. It was a really interesting experience; I just knew that something had changed. My breast was still discoloured and peeling but the fatigue I’d been experiencing was gone. Just like that.
Then it was Easter and I had 10 days off work, travelled to Tumbarumba to visit family, then came home and faffed around home for the rest of the week. It was fabulous. Lots of time spent taking photos and deciding which ones to include in my developing portfolio; lots of time talking photography with Tim, discovering, then almost obsessively watching, Sean Tucker’s videos on YouTube; seeking out others’ work to draw inspiration from; doubting my own capacity as a photographer then coming across an image that causes me to catch my breath and think that maybe I am okay at this, then doubting myself again.
I went back to work on Monday and just about every colleague I ran into said how well I was looking. Many of them also commented on how fabulous my hair was looking, with one woman telling me I looked 400 years younger! All because I was wearing it down, rather than tied up to keep it off my face. There’s less grey when it’s down!
So spending time with Tim, my mother, sister, brother, uncle, neice, nephew and great neice over Easter, spending time at home in the week after Easter, realising I don’t need to listen to Enya anymore, and being complimented on how good I’m looking has meant the last two weeks have been great.
Much, much greater though is the fact that I’m a grandmother again. Yes, grandson number 9 (aka Byron) is now 9 days old and I’m heading north at the end of the week to introduce myself to him. I’m feeling as excited as I did when my first grandson was born just over 20 years ago (and just in case you didn’t know me then, that’s VERY excited).
Tim and I had been talking just days before about how we have so many grandchildren, yet there are no double ups with birthdays. That is, until now. Byron was born on Tim’s birthday, making it an extra special day! At least I think that’s the way Tim’s viewing it.
The year so far has been difficult and challenging and confronting, but I feel like I’ve reached the end of the tunnel and I’m happy to announce that the light at the end of it isn’t the headlight of an oncoming train!
I’ve learnt to listen to my body, to rest when I needed to, to exercise when I can and not push myself too hard, to not be too bothered about what I eat, to give myself a break and know that if I didn’t get to something one day, I’d get to it another day. I’ve learnt to not feel guilty about taking the time I needed to get well, to let my body and mind recover from the trauma of surgery and treatment, and the fears and uncertainties that come with a cancer diagnosis.
And I’ve had reinforced for me how fortunate I am to be surrounded by incredibly generous family and friends who have done all they could to support me.
I am indeed blessed.
All I need to do now is sort out the pain in my chest caused by the scar tissue. Any ideas for how to do that?
Here are some of the photos I’ve been taking over the last few weeks … most of them are a long way out of my comfort zone, photographically speaking, but I’m enjoying the challenge.
I finished my radio therapy treatment on Thursday last week. The final four treatments were ‘booster’ treatments, which I found quite terrifying. No goggles, no holding my breath, just a really big machine zapping a very targeted part of me at close quarters. I almost asked for the goggles back, then realised I could just shut my eyes to avoid being confronted by the bigness, closeness and scariness of the machine.
Each treatment was over quickly though and Emma would drive me home while I felt a little more shell shocked each time. I have no idea what I would’ve done without her.
I’d somehow forgotten about, or perhaps thought I was immune to, the side-effects though. Apart, of course, from fatigue.
I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Karen, my radio oncologist, told me about the potential for them, as did the breast care nurses, and others I’ve spoken with who have gone through similar treatment. I even wrote about them on this very blog a few weeks ago, yet I was still caught off-guard.
A sunburn type response.
I wrote in that earlier post: ‘I might get all of these, some of them, or none.’
I got the jackpot – all of them.
The good news is that they probably won’t last more than a week or two (or maybe three or four).
And the other good news is that I’ve had company since halfway through my treatment – others to share my daily annoyances with. Probably not good news for them, but I’ve appreciated having Emma (who stayed an extra week with me) and now Deb to whinge to.
I also had the foresight to take some sick leave and I’m very pleased I did. I couldn’t have coped with going to work on top of everything.
But this is getting boring now. And if I’m bored by it all, I’m sure you are too. So I’m not going to write anymore about it.
On Sunday, Alison (aka Number 6) decided to spend the day with us, celebrating ‘me’ – my birthday earlier in the month and the end of my treatment.
Alison knows that I love to photograph flowers and so we went to the Queen Vic Market and bought loads: carnations, daisies, bluegum leaves, wheat that had been spray painted, and others I have no names for.
The outside table was strewn with flowers and leaves and twine and special scissors for cutting the stems and ribbon; palings from a fallen-down fence were put to good use as a backdrop and a surface; a tabletop was perched on the backs of kitchen chairs so we could shoot against the white wall under the clothes line; a shiny black tile and a sheet of black cardboard was set up in the kitchen as a different kind of photographic space … in amongst this chaotic space Alison managed to create a beautiful bouquet, and a delicious dinner.
It was a fabulous way to spend an afternoon!
These are just some of the shots I took – and if the wind stops I might take even more.