Posted in Learning, Studying, Teaching

What I do and the value of what I do: A long read

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.

Weird.

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 woolen 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:

  1. 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 …)
  2. Service (engage in committees that make decisions about important initiatives, take on leaderships roles …)
  3. 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.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

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.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

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.

Here I am with fellow team member, Assoc. Prof Victor Fang and Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University Professor Jane den Hollander AO at the AAUT awards presentation earlier this month.

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 🙂

 

Posted in Life

A hiatus

Finally, life is back to normal.

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.

Absurd nonsense on the fridge

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.

Silence.

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.

In the meantime I’m enjoying the hiatus.

Photo by me

 

 

Posted in Life

Mind and body

Thursday 24 January 2019

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.

Source: https://weheartit.com/entry/66627527

 

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.

My mind finally believed!

 

Posted in Life

Living though not loving the reality

I can distinctly remember a phone call I received from a close friend in late March 2012. I was on my way to Launceston to run a weekend class for my online students when my phone rang. My friend rang to tell me she’d discovered a lump in her breast and after some investigation had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I cried all the way to Launceston and had to admit to my students that I was a bit distracted. Because my friend lived over 1500kms from me I didn’t see her live with the reality of surgery and the subsequent treatment. I saw her recently and almost seven years later she’s looking the best I’ve seen her in ages. But the intervening seven years have had their ups and downs and while she doesn’t talk much about her experience I know it wasn’t easy.

I’ve just received my own breast cancer diagnosis and the reality of the experience has hit me in a way I wasn’t at all prepared for. No one ‘expects’ to get breast cancer and I don’t imagine it’s anything but a shock to all those who hear those words but it was so far from my mind as a possibility that it’s taken a bit to be even able to say: I have breast cancer.

When I discovered the lump I decided not to tell anyone about it, not even Tim, my husband. He was going through a stressful time at work and didn’t need this added stress at home. I made an appointment to have an ultrasound but couldn’t get an appointment for four weeks. It was a long and difficult four weeks but with the help of a playlist I’d made some time earlier on Spotify – a playlist I’d called sleep songs which consisted mainly of Enya songs – I managed to keep my mind calm and my increasing stress and anxiety from Tim.

Or so I thought. He was worried about the times I’d come home from work and head upstairs to have a nap but figured that my gym sessions were wearing me out more than usual.

I went to work, tried to not think about it, not dwell on it, but every morning in the shower I was reminded of the lump’s presence. A little voice in my head told me to go to the doctor, but I was convinced the process was that you go to Breastscreen first and if they find anything a process is then put in place. Over time, the physical discomfort grew, adding to the emotional and mental discomfort I was feeling. It wasn’t pain, but the discomfort was certainly increasing.

I asked Tom, my trainer, if muscle went that low in your chest. No, he said, it doesn’t. He looked at me a moment then asked ‘are you getting it checked out?’ I nodded. ‘Have you told Tim?’ I shook my head. We talked about it sporadically at my twice-weekly sessions. It helped, but talking sporadically didn’t get it off my chest. Figuratively or literally.

Finally, the day came. I went to the Breastscreen appointment on a Friday afternoon, turning my phone off so Tim couldn’t locate me through find my friends. If you’ve already found a lump, we can’t do a mammogram I was told. You have to go to your doctor and she’ll organise a more thorough examination. Four weeks of waiting, I thought ruefully. If only I’d listened to that voice in my head.

Luckily my doctor is easy to get to see and I made an appointment for Monday afternoon. I raced out of my second meeting of the day, turned off my computer screens, grabbed my bag and headed to the appointment, pleased I have a level of independence at work that didn’t require me to account for my whereabouts every minute of the day.

My GP is quietly spoken and calm. Yes, she said. It’s a lump. I’ll make an appointment for you to have a mammogram and ultrasound. She called one imaging place. Friday? I shook my head. She called another place. Tomorrow at 9:30? Yes please. Booked.

When Tim came home that evening I told him. It was much, much harder than I thought it would be.

Next morning he finished his early morning meeting in half the allocated time – due to being super organised – and was able to come with me.

Mammogram.

Ultrasound.

She lingered for quite a while over the lump.

We were out of there by 10:30. We were quiet on the way home and waited nervously for the result, not sure how long that wait would be.

Two hours, as it turned out. My GP rang and said she was sorry but she had potentially bad news. The radiologist’s report indicated the lump was ‘suspicious’ and that further investigation was needed. She’d made an appointment with a breast specialist for Thursday – I liked that she was super organised. Take someone with you, she said. Two sets of ears are better than one.

It meant a day and a half of waiting, of excruciating uncertainty, of tears and hugs and it’ll be alrights. Of possibilities flooding my mind, of endless what ifs. None of it helpful, but all of it normal I guess.

My request for sick leave was approved and I could at least relax a little knowing I didn’t have to worry about work as well.

Off to meet Alison in the city to watch the taping of The Yearly with Charlie Pickering. It was a good distraction, but dinner afterwards was difficult. We went to our usual place, but the food tasted like sandpaper, and our dribbles of conversation always came back to what-ifs and wonderings.

Wednesday. I called Deb, my sister, in the morning. She told me she’d dreamt about me the previous night and her sleep was so disturbed she’d had to get up and read at 4am, something she never does. If I hadn’t called her, she would have called me. It’s comforting to know our connection is still so strong.

Tim found a patch of rainforest in the Otways and we packed our lunch and headed there for the day. We always find consolation in trees and these trees were particularly consoling as they were very similar to the deciduous beech trees we were so familiar with from our many years in Tasmania. Little fagus-like leaves scattered across the forest floor took me instantly back to Cradle Mountain and I felt some of the tension dissolve from my body.

We drove home via the Great Ocean Road, so I had the double delight of trees and ocean on the same day. It was beautiful, all those trees and all that ocean, but the anxiety didn’t ever go away and potential outcomes flitted through my mind all day.

Thursday. My appointment with the breast specialist was moved from 9:30 to 11:20 – not long in the scheme of things, but the delay felt much more like 24 hours than slightly less than 2. I was instantly put at ease when we met her though. She exuded confidence and compassion, and patiently answered our questions. If the result was positive, I would have surgery to remove the lump on January 15. I’d have an overnight stay in hospital, some weeks recovering, then further treatment starting six weeks later depending on the status of my receptors. A good outcome was to be oestrogen positive and HER2 negative. That would most likely mean radiotherapy but no chemo. 

But in the meantime, given the suspicious nature of the lump, I needed a biopsy – my super organised GP had organised that too, for 2pm that afternoon.

We wandered to a nearby cafe for lunch feeling more relieved than we’d felt in a few days. At least we knew what the process would be, even if we didn’t yet know the outcome. We had information – something objective and real to hold on to. And I had a glimmer of hope.

A mini-faint after the biopsy but otherwise it was a no fuss, though not at all pleasant, procedure. The nurses, Nina and Athena, were lovely. Very caring, one rubbing my ankles as the biopsy was being performed and the other noticing the pain on my face when the needle went beyond where the anaesthetic had reached. Two samples would have to do. A wet washer for my forehead, a fan to cool my body, the sheet off my feet, the blood pressure cuff wrapped around my arm, an icepack on my breast and after a few minutes all was right again. Athena went to get Tim and we went home to wait some more. The specialist had said she’d call on Monday with the result.

Friday. I stayed in bed for most of the day, Enya playing through my headphones, my mind not at all calm, but the music did help. Tim swapping the icepacks regularly – one warmed on me while the other cooled in the freezer. No phone call, no matter how desperate I was to hear. By the afternoon I’d convinced myself I was going to get the all clear.

Saturday. No run club for me this morning. No swelling or bruising from the biopsy though, so that was good. I’ve learnt to rest properly and not feel bad about spending time in bed. My two hospitalisations in the last two years have convinced me of the importance of rest for proper recovery. We had some last minute Christmas shopping to do, so slowly ambled down to the Hawthorn shops. Tim went for a coffee while I let my eyes wander over the books in Readings. My phone rang. It was the breast specialist. The report was in and she told me the result. It wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear. Did I want to come in to see her that afternoon? Yes please, I did, very much.

Again she was all compassion and confidence, answering our questions patiently. The surgery was booked in for the 15th. It meant I could still go to Tassie for Christmas, then to Queensland for the first week of January with one of my granddaughters to visit family.

I remember snatches of what she said as we drove home: my receptors are the ‘good’ ones, the lump is slow growing, it’s not life threatening, I won’t need a mastectomy, it’s treatable, I’ll have a radio oncologist and a medical oncologist, I’ll have a sentinel node biopsy meaning they put radioactive material into my chest and track it with a geiger counter to know which lymph nodes to remove, the second week of recovery will be worse than the first week, take as much time as you need/can to recover, hormone therapy, radiotherapy, possibly no chemo … if you’re going to get breast cancer, this is the one to get.

I feel fortunate.

And not.

At least I know now, the uncertainty is over. I know the process, I know that the cancer will be removed from my body, that I’ll have a good medical team providing excellent care, that I won’t lose my breast, that I may not lose my hair, that the cancer will be gone.

Fortunate.

I’m fitter and stronger than I’ve ever been in my life before, I have a tremendously supportive and capable husband, I have an excellent specialist, and I have a beautiful array of family and friends who will do what they can to care for me.

Sunday. I decide to tell the children. They all live in different states to me so that means five phone calls. It’s interesting how differently they reacted to the news. I let them know there’s a little bit of bad news but then some better news. None of them were expecting this particular piece of news. Ben makes me laugh by telling me about something he’d supposedly read in a medical journal last week. Daniel’s voice deepens with concern and I know to tell him as much information as possible. Rochelle is shocked into not being able to say very much at all. It’s hard for her to take in and she goes quiet in that way she does when she’s processing difficult information. Chase tells me he loves me through his tears. Emma offers to come over to support me through my recovery, cries when it’s time to say goodbye, and I hear ‘love you Mum’ before the phone hangs up.

I also tell Mum. It’s safe to say it came completely out of the blue for her too. She’s with my brother for Christmas and I’d warned him I was calling her with some news. He called me afterwards to let me know she’s okay and to get some more details. The telling makes it more and more real but also re-emphasises the positives. It’s not life-threatening. It’s slow growing. It’s treatable. The outcomes are good.

I am fortunate.

I am worn out by the telling and re-telling and admit to bouts of crying throughout the afternoon as my emotional energy dwindles.

It’s been a big week!

Stick with me over the coming weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll write more about this particular journey, but I just might. It might help me work through what I’m going through and it might help others too in the sense of coming to more clearly know it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not actually sure about that part of it, but that’s my hope.

I’m fine – tired but otherwise fine – and I know I’m in good hands. I have a great medical team, good access to all the services I need, and just as importantly, if not more importantly, I’m surrounded by warm, caring and generous family and friends.

 

Posted in Learning, Life

Because you are my Dad

Monday 22 January 2018

Dad lies completely still apart from the rise and fall of his chest, his breathing regular though shallow: a quick breath in, a just-as-quick breath out, count to four, another breath in. On the odd occasion his body misses a breath my heart races and I watch closely for the rise and fall of his chest.

Music wafts gently around the room Dad’s called home for the past 18 months and despite the scurry of nurses outside in the corridor there’s a sense of peace and calm here in this room.

I never imagined keeping watch over my dying father, but here I am, sitting on the hospital bed the nurses brought in and placed next to his, thinking about what I know and who I am because Noel Pittaway has been my Dad.

I know the importance of spit-clean shoes – polished and buffed till they shine. People notice shoes, Sharon, he’d say as I’d present them to him for inspection. Make sure they’re clean.

I know how to spell by breaking words into pieces and sounding them out.

I know that it annoys Mum when we do that (you’re just like your father, she says in that tone she has that indicates she thinks we’re clever but a bit show-offy.)

I know to eat my vegetables first before even touching anything else on my plate.

I know it’s best to eat cauliflower and cheese sauce while it’s hot.

I know how to swim because Dad insisted I stand in the shallow end of the Nowra pool and while all the other kids got to muck around I stood there and practiced my strokes and my breathing. I was never a fast swimmer but I had a nice style (just like your father, Mum used to say in that tone she has that speaks of admiration).

I have an eclectic musical taste because Dad had an ever-expanding record collection that ranged from Rachmaninov to Ray Charles via Ravi Shankar.

I know how to be comfortable with silence; that I don’t have to fill it with words and that in the silence there’s still warmth and togetherness.

I know that reading fiction opens up worlds I would never have been able to imagine on my own. Some of those worlds were beyond the comprehension of my 11,12,13-year-old self, but I discovered that being stretched imaginatively is important and immensely beneficial to a teenager’s developing mind and spirit.

I know the thrill of the rollercoaster, big slippery dips and rides that spin and whirl and fling you upside down and inside out and the added thrill of experiencing that with your granddaughter. Again and again and again.

I know it’s wrong for a girl to swear.

I know how to snorkel. And not to be afraid of the ocean. And the delight of walking on the squeaky white sand of Jervis Bay.

I know that travel is an adventure to be indulged in whenever possible and part of that adventure is the spontaneity of a detour or an unplanned destination or heading down a one-way street the wrong way.

I know that creative expression is an important part of life, whether that expression is theatrical, literary, artistic, musical or photographic – and the importance of taking the lens cap off.

I know what love for your wife(husband) looks like because of the depth of love Dad has for Mum … and I know that romance is not dead.

I know that people are deeply complex and that an external quiet doesn’t necessarily mean an internal quiet.

I know that laugh-yourself-silly fun is contagious and being surrounded by your grandchildren and great grandchildren is joyous and delightful in ways that can’t be described in words …

and that when you’re in your 60s and you think you can still somersault off the 1 metre board at the Murbah pool and get up there only to find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, that a poolside cheer squad led by your grandchildren will push the fear down and turn you into a hero as you run along the board and somersault effortlessly into the diving pool.

I know that the rougher the sea the more you enjoy the ride. Just hang on tight and ride the swell.

And I know that while the taste of beetroot is a flavour they serve in hell, Dagwood Dogs are a tiny taste of heaven.

I know that what your dad teaches you can be hard to learn and that you can fight against it (and him) and that what you learn might not have been the intended lesson, but I also know that Dad has influenced my life enormously and I am who I am in big measure because my Dad is Noel Pittaway.

The movement of Dad’s body … the rise and fall of his chest … stops in the afternoon of Thursday 25 January … but the movement of his life and his legacy have transcended his body and spread through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren … it’s a legacy that moves invisibly yet steadily across and through the generations.

On February 14, 2016 Dad and I flew over Antarctica. It had been a life-long ambition of his. Here we are ready for our 14-hour adventure.

*Many thanks and huge appreciation to Alison Cosker for providing feedback on this post. It has been strengthened because of her input.

Posted in Life

Way better than never …

Life’s funny … and not always ‘funny haha’.

But funny, nonetheless.

In June 2014, I moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to live with my husband who’d moved here 5 months before. That move meant I stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.

I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.

And then, in 2015, I taught at university again – for one semester. And when semester ended I again stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.

I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.

And then earlier this year a former colleague from the University of Tasmania asked if I’d like to teach at university again.

I would. I did. It was great. One semester of interacting with students – students who were keen to learn, who were mature in their attitudes and capacity to think for themselves; some of these students I’d taught when they were in their first year of university. They remembered me, as I did them. It was great to reconnect, and interestingly, they thought so too.

And then the same colleague asked if I’d be interested in teaching the post-grad version of the unit in second semester.

I would. I did. It was great. Another semester of interacting with students – challenging their ideas about teaching, gently encouraging them out of their comfort zones, helping them see that they are more than deliverers of content, more than transmitters of what they know, and that students are more (much more) than empty vessels waiting to be filled.

I had marking to do, and I did it, and now I’m finished and the relief I feel is real and very (very) sweet.

So, am I a pre-service teacher educator? It appears the answer is ‘sometimes’ … and that’s way better than never!

Posted in Photography, Portraits

267

I didn’t sleep much the night before the portrait workshop – too much excitement (or something). But once I got there my nerves/anxiety fell away and I was able to fully engage with learning more about portrait photography.

We went on location to the Sydney Heritage Fleet, where each weekend one of the volunteers agrees to model for workshop participants.

John was the volunteer I was fortunate enough to shoot.

I learnt a lot and look forward to practicising over the next weeks and months.

p2110119

Posted in Flowers, Learning, Life, Photography

244

Realisation day (a long read)

If you’ve been following my blog (or even my Facebook feed) over the last few days, you’ll know I’ve been reaching for something … looking for some answers to questions about the type of photographer I am, what I do it for, what I find enjoyment in photographing, if I have any feeling or sensibility for it (notice I didn’t use the word ‘talent’ 🙂 ).

After much thinking and reflecting, and responding to questions Tim posed, I have come to some important realisations.

1. I don’t have to take the same sorts of photos that others take.
This might seem self-evident and hardly worthy of days of contemplation, but for me it’s an important realisation. When I first started taking photos I predominantly photographed flowers. Up close. I even had a few exhibitions of my work and lots of my photos are now hanging in others’ houses. That’s immensely satisfying now that I think about it. But along the way I lost confidence in my ‘style’ or didn’t recognise that I had one, so I started taking photos that looked like other people’s or photos that I thought other people would like … and then I stopped taking photos, or at least stopped taking photos I was really happy with. My realisation came in the shower – that place of many realisations – a few days ago, and it was an acknowledgement that it’s okay to take photos that reflect my way of seeing the world.

2. My way of seeing the world focuses on the detail, not on the environment in which the subject exists.
My portrait work can be slightly confrontational for those who are being photographed. I get in close. I am interested in faces, in the diversity of faces, and what a face can tell us when there are no clues about who the person is or the environment they’re in apart from their facial features; when we can’t see the clothes they’re wearing, or the way they stand or sit. What interests me is the detail. It’s the same in my flower images. The way particular petals curve slightly differently from the others, the variations in colour across a flower or even a single petal, the shapes, the perfectness … even when its dying. They speak to beauty and dynamism and decay and … and life. And my way of seeing the world also involves a process – a process of envisioning, of thinking, of reflecting, of experimenting, of playing, of looking at different perspectives.

3. I enjoy the process.
I started working in community radio in 1991. I was an on-air presenter as well as a producer, a news gatherer and newsreader, an interviewer, and eventually music director. After three years and a move to a new city I had the opportunity to produce and present programs on ABC Local Radio. Throughout my 16 years working in radio, one of the elements I liked the most was getting the technical details right: making sure there was no dead-air, knowing a piece of music well enough to know when to fade it in (or out), making sure there was variations in pace and tempo of the songs across the course of an hour and of the program, knowing how to edit an interview to ensure it was coherent and told a story, leaving space for breaths (my very first ABC radio interview had no breathing space – it wasn’t good to listen to), finding the right piece of music to fit with the mood of the interview … it was in the process of making radio that I found most enjoyment. When I was a drama teacher, I enjoyed the process of developing a production. I wasn’t a ‘find a script and put on a play’ kind of drama teacher. Rather, the students and I (and for one memorable production we engaged the help of the amazing Lisa Roberts) workshopped ideas, played around with images and sounds, how to create them, and how to add them meaningfully into the production. We played around with how to use the space, how to light it, how to confront the audience or how to keep it at arms length. We played and experimented and even if we didn’t know where we were headed at the beginning, or quite how we ended up where we did, we worked our way through a process of experimentation and play and ideas and representation.

When I started taking photos, I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed working out where to put the light, how to reflect it, how to shape it. I enjoyed the process of figuring out which part of the flower to focus on, where to put it in the frame, what else to include in the frame or what to exclude. It was a creative process, and I liked the process as much as, if not more than, the product. It was a deliberate process, one I had to think about because I was so new to it; over time I have lost the deliberateness of the process. One of my realisations was that I need to become more deliberate about my process, because it’s not just the product that excites me; the process gives me a real sense of meaning and purpose.

4. Meaning and purpose.
In some ways I am a very pragmatic person, although I am also an idealist. But the pragmatist side of myself is the one that often causes me to derail. The question ‘but what is it for‘ bounces around inside my head with sickening regularity. The big existential questions are one thing, but to bring that thinking to the little things in life can rob them, I’ve realised, of joy. For me I mean. I’m not talking other people here, just me. If photography is for a pragmatic purpose – if it’s to exhibit or to sell – then it’s important that other things happen: you get clients, you know how to engage with people and make them feel comfortable, you spend your weekends shooting weddings and then the days in between getting the photos ready for the happy couple. You bill people and have contracts and meet people’s expectations. But what if that’s not the sort of photography you want to do? What if you just want to take photos? But what for, was a question I would ask. Constantly. To what end? What will I do with these images? Why am I taking photos? Those questions nag at me, tug at the edges of my mind, wear me down. Why am I spending time and money on this pursuit? What is it for?

Tim asked me a question the other day and I answered “Yes I really should”. His immediate response was: “Don’t use should. Use ‘will'”. And that was enough for me. Just that change of thinking. ‘Should’ has an expectation attached to it or a judgement. For me, the final image isn’t the thing I find of most value in the photography process; it’s the process of creating that image. That’s what brings me joy and excites me about photography – about anything creative. It’s in the experimenting, the exploring, the playing with ideas, with ways of representing the world around me (a world primarily of flowers and faces) … that’s where the meaning and purpose of my photography resides.

I went through many years of not thinking that was enough, but if I don’t have that, then I find little joy in using a camera. As it’s my only creative outlet (apart from the occasional piece of writing I do) it’s a very important part of my life.

Last week, for the 52 Week photography project I’m involved in, our theme was photographer’s choice. I decided to photograph a flower and initially I took the kinds of shots other people might take (sunflowers against a white brick wall in a jar) and used one of them for the final image for the project.

Sunflowers and jar
Sunflowers and jar

I like it as an image. But the process of taking it didn’t excite me, there was little enjoyment for me.

So I decided to go back to what I find enjoyment in and took a series of close-up shots. I used light, natural and otherwise; I played around with positioning, with framing, with considering what was important. I was deliberate in my process. What surprised me, no it was stronger than that, what amazed me was the excitement that came flooding back. It reinforced for me that it’s the process that gives me meaning and purpose in my photography work.

So after all that, here is what I came up with. This is not about which is the ‘better’ image, or which one I like the most. This is about which one was taken in a way that gave me a sense of enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose.

p1140079

One final note: yes, it was a very long shower! 🙂

Posted in Learning, Life, Writing

2016 Writing Challenge: Day #2

Looking up

The topic for today is to dig through the couch cushions, your purse, or your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find, then share what you were doing that year.

The first coin I laid my hands on was from 1993. It makes me wonder how many pockets it’s been in in the intervening years, and what it’s been used to buy, but that’s getting off-track, and I need to focus on the task at hand.

In 1993, which was twenty-three years ago (in case you were trying to do the calculation) I was in my first year of university. It was an exhilarating time, scary to be sure, but exhilarating. I turned 31 that year, and had had many years of wanting to use my brain and here I was, finally doing it.

I’d been volunteering (full-time) at a community radio station the year before I started university, doing everything from gathering and reading the news (in the time before the internet), updating the music database, creating music playlists for 16 hours of programs (each day), recording and editing sponsorship announcements, interviewing ‘celebrities’ (some of them were even real celebrities: Jeanne Little springs to mind), producing and presenting a talk show in the after lunch timeslot, organising the Schools Out program, and a host of other duties. I loved every minute of it, except the part where the station manager told me that her prayer group were praying for me because I was living in a ‘sinful relationship’. But everything else was fabulous. It was real work, I was learning heaps, and surprisingly I was good at it all.

I was enjoying this work, even though it didn’t pay the bills, and not thinking of venturing into other things. But then an opportunity came knocking, and a deep-seated desire for learning reared its head, and you can’t ignore deep-seated desires now, can you?

The opportunity was in the form of a brochure which appeared on the front counter at the radio station. It was from the University of Tasmania and was promoting a teaching degree in English, Speech and Drama.

I had no ambition to be a teacher, but the English and Drama bits appealed to me (a lot).

I applied, went through the interview process, and was accepted. I can gloss over those moments now, but at the time each of those steps was fraught with self-doubt, what if …, how do you…, but …; agonising over whether I could/should, considering what the practicalities meant (one practicality was having to move to Launceston. I lived a two-hour drive away and it wasn’t possible to travel every day.) There were other, more important, considerations, but this isn’t the place to air them. Suffice to say that throughout the process I was feeling all sorts of trepidation but when the acceptance letter came through, excitement took over. For a time, and then, when the reality struck, trepidation made a return.

I enrolled, bought a house, moved to Launceston mid-February, found a wonderful woman to look after my three-year old daughter, Emma, and in the final week of February started university.

First day, Monday morning, 9am, Drama in the Auditorium. The class was relatively small, less than 20 students, many of whom knew each other, all of whom had studied Drama in college, all of whom were 17 or 18 years old. I sat on the edge of stage wondering what on earth I’d gotten myself into. I was struck by how much I was behind, before we’d even started. I had been in a theatre group in my teens, but that was around the time these young people were born. I’d completed senior secondary education, but that was 10 years before (we don’t have time for that story now) … I felt overwhelmed by my lack of experience, my lack of knowledge, my advanced age, my newness to Launceston, even by my lack of work experience. These young people had had more jobs in their 17 or 18 years than I’d had in my 31.

But they were generous and because we had all of our classes together, we got to know each other quickly. I don’t know if that was helped by having to get up close and personal in many of our classes. In Voice and Speech we spent time in the early weeks massaging each other, in Movement we had to choreograph, rehearse and present dance pieces together which sometimes meant rolling over each other on the floor (or eating cheezels off each other’s fingers), in Theatre we had to pair up to run seminars, which meant hours of working closely together, in Drama we had to devise performances and rehearse which again meant working closely with others. We were at uni a lot! We had 24 contact hours that first year and many (many) more spent in rehearsals of one sort or another.

The age difference wasn’t ever an issue; in fact it was an advantage. The others soon learnt that I knew when assignments were due, that I could bake biscuits, that I was reliable when it came time to rehearse, that I wasn’t scared of the lecturers, that I was prepared to negotiate on their behalf, that I would accompany them to meetings when they were worried about those meetings being at the lecturer’s house after dinner (that’s just creepy, Sharon/no it isn’t Ashley, he won’t hurt you), and that I had done the readings. I was worth getting to know!

That first year I studied Voice and Speech, Movement, Theatre, Drama, Tech Theatre, English Literature, and an Education subject. I spent my time outside of class in rehearsals, preparing for seminars and presentations, being an assistant stage manager for the third years, on a two-week placement learning what it was like to be a teacher, sourcing or making costumes and props, creating lighting plans, learning lines, learning how to use the library and how to write academically, reading, talking about plays and poetry and monologues, rolling my pelvis to release my breath, learning how to use my organs of articulation more effectively … learning, always learning.

It was the start of a learning journey that hasn’t stopped.

Do you have memories of 1993? Was it a big, risky, scary year for you too? Please feel free to share your memories in the comments section below.