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.
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.
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.
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’m driving again, I’m back at work (and actually doing work), back at the gym (even doing some upper body work and this morning I ran almost 2kms as part of walk club), and I’m attending a photography course two nights a week plus doing the requisite homework for it.
My scars are healing well – one of them is virtually invisible (and in a spot that no one besides me would look anyway) and the other one is still a little red but otherwise fine.
It’s been four and a half weeks since my surgery, I’ve been to the final post-surgery checkup with the breast surgeon and she’s happy with my progress.
It feels like normal life and that feels good.
Except … I now have a schedule of radiotherapy treatments covering some of the fridge poetry I composed last weekend. Beautiful poems of tenderness and fragility.
Okay, I lie. The poems are words flung together with barely any thought and consequently are absurdly nonsensical.
You can only imagine how horrid the ones being covered are!
But the covering – the sheet of paper obscuring the absurdity of my fridge poetry – reminds me that life is not yet back to real normal.
I’m living in a hiatus. And I like it.
I can pretend that this particular episode is over and normal life has resumed … apart from the times I venture to the fridge, and when I have other appointments. Like the one on Tuesday last week.
I received the schedule on Tuesday last week when I went for my radiotherapy consultation. It started with a meeting with the finance person who gave me a patient card and explained what I needed to do with it, a parking permit allowing me to park on the hospital grounds for free during my treatment, and a hefty document explaining how the treatment will be financed.
I was startled to hear that it’s amazingly expensive – $24,000 to be precise although there might have been a few cents added in just to make it look like that wasn’t a number plucked out of midair. Thankfully we live in Australia and Medicare pays most of it. The out of pocket expense is a lot less, but still a substantial amount of money. I signed the forms and then was introduced to Katrina, one of the radio therapists. Until that particular moment in time I had never realised that was an actual job title.
Katrina led us to a part of the hospital we hadn’t visited before – I don’t think there are too many of them left – then into a cubicle where I had to take my clothes off – from the waist up – and put on a gown (opening at the front please). I put my clothes into one of the blue patient bags, handed it to Tim and followed Katrina into a room with a big machine in it. I lay down, put my arms above my head and held the handle bars as instructed, I was wriggled into position, then drawn on, wriggled into a slightly different position, lowered, moved backward then forward, raised, had some sort of cube taped to my stomach, drawn on some more … I have to admit to feeling like one of the drawings on Mr Squiggle.
I put on the goggles as instructed, then watched as the yellow bar raised and lowered as I breathed. When I took a particularly deep breath the yellow bar went into the blue box at the top and turned green. I practised breathing and holding the green bar in the blue box (holding my breath), as instructed, then breathed normally. Okay, we’re going to start the first scan now, says a disembodied voice close to my right ear. Breathe normally.
I breathed normally watching the yellow bar float up and down, my arms starting to tingle from being held above my head for so long. The screen in the goggles went to a white square and static-like lines criss-crossed it.
I lay still.
We’re going to have to stop there, said the voice.
Apparently, the CT scanner had stopped working. They turned it off and back on again but then engineers were mentioned and I wondered if I could put my arms down. When it was decided that getting it going again would take quite some time, I was able to put my arms down, remove the goggles, but before I could get up they did a tracing of all the drawings they’d done on me. When I say ‘drawings’ I really just mean crosses. The tracing is in case the crosses wear/wash off between now and my treatment.
Can you come back in on Thursday morning so we can do the full scan? Sure.
The crosses had washed off by Thursday so the tracing proved its worth. Less wriggling, fewer drawings, scanner at full power the whole time, yellow bar turning green as it moved into the blue box, breathe normally again thanks Sharon. Apparently I’m very good at the breathing! Years of experience, I tell them.
There’s a blood vessel at the bottom of the heart that falls in the zone of the radiotherapy treatment, as does the bottom of the lung, so holding my breath means the blood vessel and lung are lifted out of the way. It’s a simple yet clever innovation in treatment which not every radiotherapy clinic offers.
Second scan complete, I pick up the new schedule, drive home and put it on the fridge, a reminder that it’s not quite over.
Because of the delay in doing the scan, my treatment will now start on Thursday 21 February at 8am. That’s the day I’m running a new staff induction day at work. The induction day is sure to take my mind off the beginning of treatment and plunge me back into work reality – at least that’s my hope.
I don’t really know what’s in store for me as I go through treatment, but I’ll find out soon enough.
Body and mind – mind and body. It’s a duality that’s been debated by philosophers and scientists for centuries. In many cultures the body and the mind are seen as separate entities … our bodies are public, perceptible by others whereas our minds are private and something we can choose to share. It allows for all kinds of beliefs and behaviours. I won’t go into the science or philosophy of it all, but our belief in this dualism impacts the way we live our lives. And that’s of interest to me, particularly at this point in time.
Today particularly I’ve felt in the centre of a battlefield with both my mind and my body fighting for the upper hand.
I have to admit to not having had a good day today. I stayed in bed till 5pm, only emerging because I felt sorry for Emma, who I’d left on her own all day. Enya soothed me through my headphones, and I alternatively read Richard Glover’s The land before avocado and dozed.
On Tuesday I’d had my stitches removed, and I’m not sure if it was the sticky stuff on the tape or something else, but my skin was so irritated and itchy it was driving me to distraction. The heat didn’t help and I was beyond irritated, irritating and irritable with the itchiness.
My surgeon had told me that this week would be tougher – more pain (yep), redness and swelling (yep and yep), fluid buildup (yep) and with a higher risk of infection (gosh I hope not).
I’d been doing more and more each day – walking further, staying awake longer, refusing pain killers before bed, even when I was groaning in pain. I even went to the gym yesterday – mostly to determine a plan for my return but I managed four and a half minutes on the exercise bike before my head started to spin.
My mind was insisting that my body recover as quickly as possible.
But my body wasn’t having any of it. And so I felt caught in the middle. My mind was frustrated that I was still in pain, not back to normal, that I was sitting around having others bring me cups of tea and breakfast, lunch and dinner, and doing all the chores.
And then, early this morning I remembered what the physio and the breast care nurse had said:
Listen to your body.
My body was saying ‘stop. Just stop. I need a break’ and finally my mind listened.
I have to admit that I feel so much better for the rest. While the itchiness has subsided, the redness, swelling and pain hasn’t, but I feel I can cope so much better because I finally remembered to listen to my body.