I was attending a conference on teaching and learning in higher education earlier in the month. I was only half listening because I was on my way out of the academy – one week away from my final day after my position was made redundant.
I am a dinosaur, an academic who clings to the idea that universities are places of learning. I don’t just mean the formal curriculum, but universities, no matter whether you’re a student or a researcher or an administrator or a teacher or a learning designer, are places that, to me, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, are places for exploring ideas … and to me, exploring ideas is learning.
Ideas can be extended upon, challenged, engaged with, debated, thought about, written about, performed, reflected on, explained, discussed, acted upon, reinforced, extended, justified. They can be tested – literally/actually/physically as well as intellectually. Ideas aren’t, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, things that are only ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ or ‘cerebral’ or ‘abstract’ – words often used perjoratively. They can be made concrete and real and are always worth our time and attention.
Exploring ideas can be tough – intellectually and emotionally.
It can be tough intellectually as it requires knowledge and thought and the capacity to see from a multitude of perspectives. It requires us to seek out more information, to analyse and synthesise, to create new ideas from existing ones. It requires the development of our capacity to explain the idea, to communicate it in ways that have meaning for others (verbally, spatially, graphically, amongst others).
It requires us to sit in ambiguity, to not know.
And the not knowing and the ambiguity can lead us to feelings of vulnerability, and that’s tough emotionally.
It’s tough emotionally, particularly when you’re in an environment in which your knowledge and your ideas are being tested or assessed. In which you feel that *you’re* being tested or assessed. Judged. Do you know enough? Do you know the right things? Can you communicate what you know in a way that aligns with the rubric? Can you justify your ideas and the outcomes/consequences/recommendations that result from those ideas?
I learnt in the higher ed conference I attended earlier in the month that ‘justify’ is a “triggering word for students”. That “while it’s a word academics like to use, students don’t like it”.
The academic, a unit chair in an allied health course, said that she’s changed the triggering word to ‘explain’ or ‘describe’. “It’s a change that’s been well-accepted by students”.
Students no longer have to justify the recommendations they make in relation to a client’s treatment, they just have to explain and describe them.
What are we doing in higher ed? Are we so concerned with student satisfaction that we infantalise them to the degree that rather than supporting them through the challenging aspects of their course, we instead remove any challenge?
I watched my six-year old granddaughter trying to do a headstand recently. She placed her hands carefully, ensured her head created the third point of the triangle, switched on her core, and pushed her feet off the floor. Something in her technique was wrong, and she did not manage to do a headstand. She tried again. And again. And again.
She cried in frustration because she could not do a headstand ‘properly’. Despite her tears, she kept practicing. I didn’t watch the whole session as I was on FaceTime but her mother told me later that she tried for three hours and cried each time she couldn’t do it. Finally, she was successful.
Learning is hard. I was once told I wasn’t allowed to say that to students as it’s a negative message. To me, it’s also a truth. Coming out of our comfort zone to sit in a space of not knowing, of being unsure, of reaching for understanding and not quite getting there (yet) is challenging.
It puts us in a place of vulnerability and that’s uncomfortable. But if we don’t move from our place of comfort, then we don’t grow or develop. We don’t learn.
Learning is hard. The teachers’ role is not to make it less hard, but to support students through the challenges.
We infantalise students when we remove the challenge rather than helping them overcome it.
There’s a conference happening as I type. It’s a conference on teaching and learning in higher education … and a student’s comments bring to mind a snippet of everyday life I heard about many years ago.
Annie lives in a small country town. She is married, has three children under the age of 7, and does not work outside the home. The eldest child catches the bus to and from school.
The family has one car and as Annie’s husband works in the bigger town 30 minutes away, and there is no public transport (apart from the school bus), he drives most days. That leaves Annie without a car. There are no shops or parks within walking distance and the hills and narrow roads make taking a four-year old and a baby for a walk a challenge.
The four-year old has discovered she likes mangoes. The enchantment with mangoes extends beyond the mango-growing season, which she does not understand. She wants a mango. She lets Annie know she wants a mango. She lets the neighbours and the sheep in the front paddock know she wants a mango.
No amount of explaining that mangoes are not available will convince the child that she cannot have a mango. She argues that they could go to the shop to buy one. But even if there was a shop that sold mangoes, they don’t have the car that day and the shop isn’t within walking distance. This is something that is beyond her comprehension. She thinks of herself and not of the wider system of which she, and mangoes, are a part.
Annie takes some frozen mango from the freezer, but the child is adamant it isn’t real mango and so does not want it. She takes it outside to feed to the sheep in the front paddock.
I am reminded of this snippet of everyday life while listening to the conference presenter – a student who wants to attend classes on campus when “I feel like it” and to attend classes online when “I’m not able to attend in person”. She doesn’t want to have to tell her tutor when she’ll attend on-campus and when she’ll attend online or when she won’t attend at all.
The other adults in the conference agree that that’s a reasonable position to take. No one mentions the wider systems of which the student is a part but which are outside of her immediate attention.
Ignore, for now, the administrative processes and the technological systems at play here. Let’s focus on the student experience.
Louise is a student at a university in a major city in Australia. In Week 3 she decides to attend the weekly 2-hour tutorial on campus. The tutorials are recorded so that students who cannot attend synchronously can have access to the material covered and the questions and provocations explored in the tutorial.
They’re also live-streamed so that students who cannot attend on campus can attend synchronously from a place of their choosing (home, work, the train, a holiday house at the beach, a cafe, a hospital room …). The university is known for providing opportunities for students to learn at any time, from anywhere, and at any place.
Louise arrives to find the teacher and three other students in the classroom. The official enrolment for the tutorial is 25. The tutor has connected to the live-streaming software allowing all enrolled students who attend synchronously to interact if they choose. Those who attend synchronously online have indicated that they like to feel part of the class, even if they’re not there physically.
The tutor has planned an interactive session where students have opportunities to actively engage with the ideas being discussed and hear others’ views. She has planned for students to work in small groups and in that way learn with and from each other. They will share their ideas, take a variety of stakeholder perspectives, formulate solutions to problems they’ve identified and justify which of those possible solutions they would recommend if they were working in a professional setting.
Nine students have joined the live-stream. They don’t have their cameras on and so show up as black boxes or initials on the screen. The two cohorts do not interact with each other, as those online keep their microphones off and while they talk when put into breakout rooms, they don’t interact with the four students in the physical room.
Louise finds the experience unsatisfying, personally, socially and intellectually. She had wanted to be part of a dynamic group of learners all seeking to explore this highly interesting and relevant area of the course. She wanted to share her ideas and was keen to hear others’ ideas. She had questions of a technical nature of the tutor but her voice sounded too loud in the near-empty room and so she kept quiet. Those who attended via the live stream interacted with each other but not with those in the physical room, and while those in the physical room contributed to the discussion and shared their ideas, the lack of a diversity of views, ideas, solutions and recommendations left her feeling flat.
The following week Louise finds she cannot attend the tutorial and listens to the recording. She finds the experience unsatisfying. She does not have the opportunity to share or discuss her ideas and is not able to hear others’ conversations as the recording cuts out when the students engage in small group conversations.
In Week 5, Louise attends via the live-stream. There are two other students attending in this mode, and two students in the physical classroom. When it comes time to join the breakout room, Louise logs off. It is an unsatisfying experience all round.
At the end of semester, she completes the unit evaluation and scores the tutor poorly. She did not have a good experience and wants the university, and her tutor, to know.
The situation is complex. Louise wants to be free to choose but is unaware, when making her choice, of some of the outcomes of that choice. She wants the choice to study when and where she wants and the capacity to make that decision on a weekly basis, unaware that choice has consequences for her experience.
There is nothing like a room full of students talking, discussing, playing around with ideas and of coming to better understand the skills and abilities they’ll need to be better financial advisers, or engaging and compassionate teachers, or architects who can play with shape and form and functionality. The feel in that room – whether it’s a virtual or physical room – can be energising and motivating.
When teachers create space for students to engage intellectually and socially and professionally, learning is enriched and empowering.
But those enriching and empowering learning experiences can’t happen in the absence of learners. Deciding not to attend has consequences that go beyond the individual.
I fear we’re headed towards an impoverished system of higher education that caters to an individualisation which sees decisions made on what individuals want (more flexibility to do things my way) without thinking about the wider consequences for learning and social and profesional interaction.
Flexibility has enormous benefits to students. It provides many with the only way of studying as they juggle the many other aspects of their lives. It is crucial for students to have options for when and how they study.
But, is there ever a point when we have to accept that just because we want a mango now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can have one?
Is unbounded flexibility possible? And if it is, will it lead to the desired outcomes?
One final question, though perhaps for another time: Whatever happened to asynchronous learning?
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?
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 🙂
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!
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.
Metaphorically speaking, that is; there was no harm to a literal horse in my ‘getting back on’.
Okay, I’ll be clear. I know some of you don’t work well with metaphors, so I’ll be like, ‘literally’ all over this blog.
I haven’t taught on-campus (as in students in the same room as me) since semester 1, 2014.
Yes, that was two years ago. And yesterday I did it again.
And you know what? It felt good.
I was prepared, planned, organised, ready … I had even practiced smiling (although when I practiced in front of the mirror I scared myself, so I determined to only smile when absolutely necessary).
The students were lovely; responsive and mature in their attitude, willing to share their ideas and discuss meaty concepts.
After 18 months in the professional wilderness, of trying to determine who I am professionally, it felt good to be able to think of myself as a teacher again. To act as a teacher again; to be a teacher.
And the best thing? I get to do it all again next week.
Oh, and one other thing … by the end of class my face hurt.
A pirate sits in his car, texting with his eye patch up, while the news blares from his radio.
A silver and a pink balloon float above a fencepost at a house around the corner.
A car does a U-turn outside the house, crunches against the curb and comes to a complete stop. It seems perplexed.
My dress is ready. I’m on my way to the dressmaker now. I’d been walking past the Red Cross shop a few days ago and felt compelled to go in. There it was. A grey wool dress with a touch of black satin at the neckline and cuffs. Simple. Elegant. Beautiful.
I tried it on anyway.
Max Mara, the girl with the German accent told me.
It needed a little re-stitching.
It’s ready now. I try it on.
I sit in the downstairs section of the library. I’d ignored the signs saying staff and students only. I am neither a staff member nor a student of this particular institution but I figure that if I look confident no one will notice me.
I find a table in the group learning section. I don’t have a group. I sit at the table alone, surrounded by groups of students, with my laptop open, marking.
Conversations swirl around me. Ideas, concepts, understandings, clarifications, possibilities. Multiple languages. Multiple disciplines. Maths. Graphic design. Nutrition. Engineering. A glass wall covered in formula. Portfolios scattered across tables. Laughter. Swearing. Questions. Comprehension. Propositions.
Intellectual and social and professional engagement.
I wonder about the spaces we create for online students to engage in these rigorous conversations.
Tim says: I’m going to the city with my camera.
I let other thoughts go. They are puzzles for another time.
This year I took on a new identity … not, I hasten to add, in a witness protection kind of way. Nothing that dramatic! … but a new identity nonetheless.
I could say that I took on a new role … but with new roles comes new identities. We can choose to define ourselves by our new roles/identities, and thus think about ourselves differently. Being an academic means particular things. Being an under-graduate student means almost the polar opposite. We may choose to act in ways that are consistent with our new role and that might lead to inconsistencies in how we portray ourselves to the world. Will I be student today, or teacher? What does it mean to be a student in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my teacher or my peers; when I don’t get to hear their voices or even see what they look like? It’s a disconcerting experience. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a teacher in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my students, when I don’t get to hear their voices or see what they look like? Experiencing that as an online student heightens my awareness of that ‘disconcerting experience’ as a teacher of online students.
In addition to thinking about myself in a different way and considering if I will act differently to signify this new role/identity, others see me in that new role and make different kinds of connections with me, or think about me in particular ways and so have their own view of who I am (which might not bear any relation to who I am when inhabiting a different identity/role).
My university tutors do not see me as a colleague; as someone who, like them, teaches in an online environment. They see me as a student – a distant one, it has to be said: one who doesn’t appear to be very engaged, who forgets to read her unit outline, who leaves assignments till the last minute, who doesn’t follow the requirements of the task as closely as she should, who doesn’t engage in conversations online, who hasn’t made connections with other students in the online environment.
For those of you in the know, why didn’t you tell me it would be like this? 🙂 If only you’d told me to read the unit outline carefully and repeatedly, or that I’d need at least 10 hours per week per unit to do full justice to the work I needed to do, or that learning to use new software is time-consuming and requires a great deal of independent learning and commitment and energy, or that coming home from work and having to study till late is exhausting, or that trying to find information when it’s in ten different places in the online environment is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole experience (it really isn’t all that difficult to put all the information required for weekly activities in the one place), or that reading all the other students’ posts can be mind-numbing and take up all the time I’d set aside for study (and seriously, do 18 year olds really like talk in that like annoying way where they like say a lot without like saying anything at all, you know, sort of, I guess, do you get me? Despite my student status I am still a teacher and despair over the abominable use of language on public discussion boards).
Not that it’s all bad of course. In one subject (Writing Professionally – actually I don’t know if that’s the name of the subject because for some reason I haven’t looked at the unit outline properly to even know what the unit is called), the tutor gives general feedback on our ‘writing watches’ (which are assessed) and on two occasions has encouraged other students to read my work for its ‘quality and depth’ (you have no idea how embarrassed I feel writing that). We had to do three ‘writing watches’ across the course of the semester – responding in a systemically functionally linguistic way to something we’d read. I chose to respond to:
1. an article in a photography magazine
2. an essay by Richard Flanagan which appeared in The Monthly (the article was on David Walsh and MONA which I’d just been to, so it seemed fitting)
3. a blog post titled The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y” from the Oxford University Press’s blog. It was interesting. Seriously!
These writing watches were practice for our exam. Yes, you heard that right – exam. I had to sit an exam.
Why didn’t someone tell me how stressful that is?! That you spend days and nights thinking about what the questions might be, what the text choices might be, what you know (or rather, don’t know) about systemic functional linguistics and how you’re going to write “pages” on it in two hours?
But I did it and wrote (typed) five pages of blather about an advertisement for Income Protection titled Confessions of a financial adviser. An interesting way to spend a day, particularly when you’re at home and the phone keeps ringing just as you think you have the modality worked out!
We also had to do weekly ‘word watches’ (which were assessed). We had to find two unfamiliar words each week and write about them: what they mean, where we’d read/heard them, their derivation, and we had to use the words in a sentence.
At first I found this difficult. I don’t want to sound like a pompous git (unlike some people I know), but in the everyday, normal, regular reading I do I don’t come across too many words which I don’t know. So I determined to try harder.
Here are my words (you, clever reader, are quite possibly aware of their meanings and already sprinkle them through your everyday conversations. I, on the other hand, did not).
Eupraxis (thank you David M)
Conation (actually, I did know what that meant because I’d written about it in a journal article published last year, but until I wrote about it I didn’t know what it meant)
Prevaricate (actually I wavered on this quite a bit)
Mendicant (it had been in the news – Tasmania is a mendicant state apparently)
Noetic (nothing to do with Christmas)
Rendering (a word from my Graphic Design unit)
Misandry (its opposite had been much in the news)
Contumacious (if my mother had known this word when I was a child I’m sure I would have heard it a lot!)
Whovian (my sister is a mad one of these)
Gonzo (I’d been to MONA and learnt this word while wandering the subterranean halls. Tim already knew it. He’d read Hunter S. Thompson apparently)
Metaredound (don’t ask me)
Analogous (I actually had heard this word, but I wanted to use it in a way I hadn’t used it before and that was in relation to colour: analogous harmony)
Indigent (thanks Germaine)
Calumniated (and again)
Etic (yes, they are related)
Ratiocination (I had to listen to this a number of times to get the pronunciation right. Thanks YouTube!)
Contingent (used in a way I didn’t understand – of all people, by my husband, in a journal article we wrote some time ago. I hadn’t told him I didn’t understand the way he used it as I didn’t want to look stupid!)
Hegemony (with a soft ‘j’ sound for the ‘g’)
Ludology (nothing to do with Ludo as it turns out … although …)
So there you have it. New words to pepper through my dinner-time conversations. Feel free to use any of them, particularly in ways that are inventive and thus deeply satisfying.
I am a student and I am learning things. That’s what students do isn’t it? Isn’t that the purpose of being a student? It’s why I decided to be a student: to learn something/s. And even though I’ve said ‘the message’ countless times, it’s always different when you’re on the receiving end of it. The message is: learning can be hard. And it isn’t always fun.
But it is satisfying.
Being a student not only challenges my own identity (I have to flip between student and teacher on a regular basis and I am very conscious of not being a teacher in my student role – which is partly why I don’t engage on the discussion boards: I don’t yet have the student language down pat. I’m too caught up using teacher language and saying teacher things and I don’t want to do that as a student).
Being a student also challenges how others see me.
Some people, on first hearing that I am a university student again, thought (and said) “are you mad?” and other equally dis/en/couraging words. My new role was something they wanted to reject – it was ludicrous, or unnecessary (especially at your age), or just plain silly. I have a PhD, why would I want to be an under-grad again? That’s something young people do. I should do some serious study, not a bachelor degree in an area I potentially know a little bit about. Why, for instance, am I doing Professional Writing (that’s its official title – I thought I’d better check) when I have had a number of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers published?
I guess I feel that I can always learn more – and I did. Heaps in fact, and that’ll help my writing when next I write something for publication.
On hearing that I am a student again, other people saw me differently. They made a different kind of connection with me. Some, because of their own identity as ‘student’ (or perhaps, student-in-the-not-too-distant past) applauded my decision – I was now one of them, a member of a community of adults who are (or were) university students. For those whom I’ve taught – who have been my own students – the connection is even closer. Their teacher/lecturer/colleague is now in the same position they recall so clearly and thus our connection is strengthened. There’s a shared understanding … and as I give advice quite freely about being a student, I also imagine there’s a little bit of mirth around my stumbling attempts at student-hood.
But I have finished the semester, completed teaching and learning surveys (and been very honest – in a professional way – as all students should be), and am eagerly awaiting my final results.
I have also determined to be a better student next semester. I have already created folders for my two new subjects (one is Production Planning; the other is Visual Storytelling), downloaded the information from the course and unit handbook, looked up information about textbooks (I don’t have to buy any), and worked out what I do when I procrastinate (I work … yes, on my study days!).
Being a student: challenging, stressful, but ultimately satisfying.