Work-for-Benefits – some lessons from the 1930s

We suffer from historical amnesia at our peril

thelearningprofessor

The idea of demanding work in exchange for benefits crops up repeatedly. We therefore know quite a lot about how work-for-benefit schemes operate in practice. Looking back at the various schemes of the interwar years, it is possible to draw a number of conclusions that are worth considering before any such initiative is adopted today.

  1. Expect to spend a lot of money. The British government work camps system, which ran between 1929 and 1939, processed around 200,000 long term unemployed men. This might sound like a lot, but it was a tiny proportion of the total unemployed. And although successive governments considered a significant expansion, they decided that they could not afford to do so.
  2. Supervision is very challenging. Even at the best of times, the British Ministry of Labour supervisors found it difficult to keep everyday order in the camps, and in some respects they didn’t bother, but rather…

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this teacher as student – course task – poll

what on earth can i ask people to vote on?

i know this is a task where the content is not that important, but…

a nonsense poll?

how about a poll about polls?

 

Gallery

this teacher as student – course task – gallery

grade point averages and the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon

marking

i picked up a tweet earlier today from @mike_rat concerning the possible/probable introduction of GPA (Grade Point Average) scores.  this emanates from the UK’s Higher Education Academy facilitating a discussion on the introduction of GPA in the UK.

alongside this a number of UK universities are considering introducing GPA unilaterally (i think).

i am not sure why this particular item caught my attention, and why it ‘troubled’ me.  i paused, and tried to locate where the feeling for this piece of news resided.  i felt my heart pounding – like a flight/fight response.  for a moment i wondered whether this was just an effect of the viral flu i have been suffering and/or the tinnitus.

for reasons i am still unsure of (and mike was very accommodating to my strange intervention) i tweeted these lines from the Tao Te Ching:

“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.” Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

what on earth did i mean?  more properly, what on earth did these words mean to me and how did i think they related to the introduction of GPA?

the tweet appeared just after i had sent a student a very strongly worded email detailing how their draft dissertation would not pass the grade.  all the way through reading and commenting on their work i struggled with what we ‘scientifically’ call formative and summative evaluation.  how NEUTRAL these words appear. 

i wanted to ENCOURAGE the student’s efforts, enthusiasm for the topic, commitment to social justice.  i wanted to coach her in skills and tricks of the trade that could enable her to communicate her meaning more clearly.  i still hold to what i said, to those nurturing comments in bold.  as i wrote those comments, thought those thoughts, offered my own experience, i thought of what this degree might mean for her.  i thought about the personal-emotional-financial investment, how this could be more than a private act as much as a family and communal act.  i thought about my responsibility in enabling her to SUCCEED. 

and then i thought about the network of texts into which she was now inserted – application forms, grade sheets, dissertation cover sheets, applications for extension, student progress reports, etc.  i felt the weight of this.  i knew she would be judged harshly and that i had better get in first so that she had some chance to get through with something that would affirm her.

so, she was attempting to pour nourishment into her bowl.

i contemplated grading her according to our 100 point scale, index her successes and failures according to percentage points against each descriptor.  

i contemplated, in other words, to dehumanise what was an absolutely human endeavour.  

i contemplated reducing her fears and hopes, anxieties and dreams to mere numbers.  

i contemplated asking her to fill her bowl to the brim rather than choose carefully the food that nourishes, because filling to overflow appears more valued than the wisdom that might arise from her educational engagement.  

and the knife that is blunted?  the GAP perhaps; every technology of division and discrimination.

i know how students (i am one now myself) may welcome the detailed gradation offered by GPA systems.  i know for myself how attracted i am to the descriptors and 100 point scale offered by our masters courses compared to the pass/fail on our professional doctorates.  i know how as a teacher they help me direct attention to specific areas for development and to make my job of commenting easier when i am tired and find ‘creating’ hard.  but surely these things come AFTER.

they come AFTER the relationship that is at the core of learning (relationship between teacher and student, between student and knowledge collectively produced over millennia).

they come AFTER the creation of knowledge that is the product of the uncertainty inherent in those relationships, the fact that we come to KNOW because we realise we don’t know, or see things as new, or come to KNOW what was formerly FELT.

they come AFTER we contemplate the WHY.  why is this (degree, topic, writing, etc.) of value to THIS PERSON in the fulness of their living.  all else is simply the games we play or are inclined to play in the context of ‘globalisation of higher education’.  we know that the GPA will not change the basic discriminatory structure of global higher education.

“Every day, priests minutely examine the Law

And endlessly chant complicated sutras.

Before doing that, though, they should learn

How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,

    the snow and moon. 

Ikkyu, “Rain, the Snow, and Moon

before we get caught up in how best to grade we should consider how we read the love letters!

feeling the pressure

marking

the pressure is on and i am definitely feeling it.

i am taking a short break to gather myself before i get back to my work.  this ‘work’ comprises marking draft Masters dissertations, which follows immediately on marking module assignments and what feels like a mountain of second marking. there is nothing remarkable about this.  its bread and butter stuff as far as academic life goes.

and, to be honest, its what i actually enjoy (much of the time). TEACHING is very much at the core of my scholarly or academic identity. the interactions between students and myself, the mutual, though differentiated, engagement with knowledge, ideas, thoughts. i am excited by that space in the interactions between students, teacher, knowledge, knowledge communities where LEARNING happens.  not the learning captured by matrices, student satisfaction surveys, end of module reports, etc. i mean those moments when it, whatever it is, becomes clear, or new in some way. the ‘knowing’ it is new or clear may still be inchoate, but it is there, a pleasant kind of troubling, almost like an itch at the base of the skull.  often, this learning makes you smile. and it may come days, weeks, months, even years after that interaction.

so, what is getting me down enough to want to write about it?

is it the institutional pressure to deliver the marking on time – that ‘time’ determined not by pedagogic purpose but administrative necessity? yes, but not just that.  the exam board looms and i still have a lot to do.  there is much, potentially, at stake here.  yes, there is my reputation to think of.  i don’t want to be thought of as the awkward, or slow colleague. of course, i suffer from that continual desire to be ‘liked’, to be seen as the ‘good’ colleague.  but actually, i had let go of much of that baggage – i had to.  i do take collegiality and professionalism seriously.  collegiality, a word banded about by academics, is a scarce commodity in academic life, and probably always has been.  teaching, including in higher education, is often an intensely private matter, a matter between you and your students. you don’t actually want any colleagues seeing how you teach, or how you mark, or how you supervise.  its bad enough that we are required to share what we write through academic publishing. collegiality can be code for ‘leave me alone’.  ‘professionalism’ can act in the same way.  for me, though, they denote responsibility.  i have a responsibility towards my colleagues.  i might believe the academic horse is being wagged by the bureaucratic tale, but i have colleagues who are invested in these procedures and time tables.  that is their job.  they don’t get to sit at 8.58 am in their kitchen listening to the birds outside and fresh coffee brewing on the stove while they ‘work’.  no, they have to be IN THE OFFICE, AT the desk, and ORGANISING the detail of the exam board.  i have a responsibility.

i have a responsibility towards the students.  there will be many reasons why they do these programmes of study, and those reasons often change over time.  but i feel a responsibility to do my work on time.  if i don’t, i can rehearse all the ‘pedagogic necessity’ stuff all i want, i do not have the responsibility to dump anxiety on the students.  i have a duty of care, as it were.

so, the pressure is on.  the clock ticks.

but there is an added pressure here. two added pressure points.

  1. this is the ‘second arrow’ syndrome. in Buddhism there is a teaching story that goes something like this: i feel under pressure to get my marking done, but i know that i could easily have sorted this earlier.  there were days when i didn’t attend fully to what was needed, i diverted myself onto other tasks, or just plain and simply lost track of the examination clock.  i COULD have avoided the pressure i now feel.  that is the first arrow. that is hard enough to bear.  but it is the ‘second arrow’ that hurts most. this arrow is the critical one, and i mean ‘critical’ in all of its nasty judgemental sense.  the internal narrative turns up the volume and shouts: AGAIN?  haven’t you been in this situation, this exact same situation before?  don’t you learn anything?  you are a FRAUD. you are not a proper teacher at all.  do us all a favour and just GO.  the second arrow.  the most painful arrow that both pushes the first deeper into the wound and twists away causing immense agony.  the fact that i have been battling the flu for two weeks and that some days i can hardly eat or drink seems lost in this self-critical excoriation. 
  2. the other ‘pressure’ is more philosophical.  as i sit and comment on these students’ work Ronald Pelias’s words in ‘Methodology of the Heart’ keep coming back to me.  his commentary on how, as academics, we live and breath evaluation – constantly.  we are judge (am i a reliable colleague who can get his marking in on time?), but we judge.  i sit judging these students, with the knowledge that my words, my comments in the text, my annoyance that basic grammatical errors are still present in the FINAL draft before submission, that my grading, could really hurt somebody.  but should that worry me?  isn’t there a higher ideal here, of KNOWLEDGE? the fact that these students may feel put out by my comments should not deter me from acting as a gatekeeper to STANDARDS.  but, BUT, am i really so confident about this thing called knowledge?  am i so confident about standards?  this comes home most starkly for me when i am working with students from across the globe.  when ‘marking’ a dissertation from a student located in the Caribbean what does ‘standard English’ mean?  do i dismiss the ACTUAL language of the students that is perfectly capable of communicating meaning and insist on the institutionally powerful ‘standard’ against which they will be judged by the academy?  of course, i HAVE  to dismiss, and cajole, and nudge, because they WILL be judged against the ‘standard’ of the former imperial centre. perhaps that partly lies behind my desire to find a different kind of academic life.  

so, i will get back to the marking.  i will fend off those second arrows.  i will, for the moment, bracket my philosophical doubts, i will make a cup of coffee and get on with the task in hand.  BUT – i won’t be taking it so seriously.  i know its a game.  maybe my job, in this instance, is to let my students in on the game and help them play it successfully without buying into it.  

when a teacher becomes a student

 20130920_103621

S:  so, what you up to?

me:  this teacher has become a student.

S:  what, like you are trying to see the world through your students’ eyes?

me:  this is not a philosophical point.  i have registered on a programme of study, have a student card, student email account, access to an online learning environment, and a timetable. 

S: you what?

me:  i’m a student.  actually, i am in my first session, and we are tasked to set up a blog as part of a module on ‘new media’. yipee!

S: but you have a blog.

me: i know, so i was momentarily thinking of setting up another one just for the course. but, no, i couldn’t manage two blogs like that.

S: so, you’re going to use this blog?

me: yes.  why? do you think i shouldn’t?

S: well…

me: i know, i know, ethically it could be a problem. but i wouldn’t want to comment on my teachers or fellow (sorry for the gendered nature of that) students.  the blog is a vehicle for reflecting on my identity as a teacher, to work out what teaching as service means in practice, to work through what teaching for wisdom might be like, what contemplative pedagogy is – for me.  i have no wish to evaluate others, but i do hope that my reflections are of some interest or use to others who may come across the blog.

S:  and you don’t mind your teachers and the other students seeing what you are thinking, what your ‘mission’ is?

me: no.

S: and you are on the course to pursue contemplative pedagogy?

me: no, not really.

S: then why?

me: well, for me mostly.  just for FUN.  i was just reading Ronald Pelias’ book “A Methodology of the Heart“. its a poetic contemplation on academic life. in one chapter, or essay really, he was considering how as an academic we spend so much time evaluating others – we evaluate our students (sometimes harshly), if we have managerial roles we evaluate our colleagues, our scholarly activity might involve evaluating policy makers (in my case) or other academics’ ideas or methodologies.  yes, we are evaluated, but mostly we evaluate ourselves, and quite brutally at times.

S: and?

me: well, its nice to be on the other side, as it were.  i want to engage with something mostly for its own value, enjoyment and not because it will help me write this article, teach that course, etc.

S: but this is aimed at teachers, right?

me: yes….OK, its also something that can help me with my new job, but that wasn’t really why i want to do this.  i do want to enhance my pedagogic skills, but what i really want is to reinvigorate my artistic and creative angles.  you know, i haven’t sketched in nearly 15 years or more.  i have just started getting back into reading and writing poetry and it really makes me happy. the blog is part of that creativity i want to revive and make much more part of my academic me.

S: so what’s it like being a student?

me: great. 

S: but?

me: what do you mean, but?

S: there is always a BUT with you.  its the way your mind works, it is always interrogating, always trying to get under the surface, you know what i mean.

me: well….the but is nothing to do with the course, its me.  i always want to be the ‘good’ student, the ‘good’ colleague’ or ’employee’.  

S: authentic?

me: certainly not.  not authentic at all.  anyway, i think that’s enough ‘private’ me for one blog post.

S: so what do you have to do?

me: we have homework.

S: homework?

me: yeh, setting up a blog (done), read the module blog and add a comment.

S: cool.

me: better get going.

me: by the way, why am i talking to myself?

book shelves and emotional de-cluttering

Image

recently i was sat in my home study.  i was worrying (what a surprise) about my preparations for a job interview and presentation.  in fact, it is more honest to say that i was worrying less about the event than whether i would go for the interview at all.  i had been contemplating the matter of academic authenticity.  how would i present myself (my ‘self’) to the interview panel; what story about ‘me’ did i want to relate; was i really up to it anyhow? these are not just doubts about performance but go right to the existential problem of authentic living.  i wondered whether i should re-read some kirkegard, i was sure he could tell me something about authenticity, after all he chose not to marry in order to live a particular kind of authentic life.  choices.  not supermarket choices, but real, substantive, existential choices.  it was while reflecting on this question (no, worrying is much better a word here – i was WORRYING) that my eyes browsed my book shelves.  for an academic book shelves say a lot about who you think you are.  they are a semi-public display of your external identity, your intellectual and professional persona.  obviously this is more true in the context of the institutional office, but the home office is a reflection back on yourself of who you are trying to BE publicly, a particular kind of ‘being in the world’.  

i started to note one book after another that had remained unread, indeed unopened, for over a year.  

why were they there?  

i had bought them during my ‘year of a recovering academic’ (more on that when i am ready to share that particular story).  they had been bought as an attempt to carve out a distinctive and authentic me, me as academic.  the books were bought to bolster, to provide an epistemic bedrock for, a me i thought i wanted to be and who had been resisted by institutional requirements.

all very interesting books.  

all books i KNEW i wanted, NEEDED, at the time.

but they lay there untouched, not utilised in any academic endeavour.  money that could and perhaps should have been spent on other more useful items.  it was. after all an expensive year. recovery is expensive.

they were bought alongside setting up a website and a blog.  all of these would make quite clear who I was – wouldn’t they?

no.

but i worried that the job i had applied for, was now preparing to be interviewed for, would take me further away from this authentic me. however, it became quite clear that the me i had so diligently sought to construct, had put ‘effort’ into making, had invested ego into – was not really there.  what was it that i spent my time reading?  what really animated me as a person, as an academic, as a teacher scholar? 

the books, blogs, websites, magazines were telling me, but i wasn’t really listening. they were telling me that what took my attention on a daily basis concerned matters of spiritual contemplation, the phenomenological experience of ‘being’ an academic, the nature of learning and knowledge, of Buddhist philosophy and psychology.  how many retreats had i been on?  how many times had i sat? how much mindful attention had i cultivated? this mount fuji of experience was transparent to me as i ‘worked’, ‘struggled’, put ‘effort’ into constructing a credible, authentic academic me. 

it is not that issues of migration are not of importance.  these remain heartfelt issues for me.  but i was called to attend to other things.

all of a sudden my worrying stopped.  i had mentally emptied the shelves of this excess matter; put them in boxes labeled “if not opened in a year share with others”.  

as i had hoarded these books so i had hoarded discontent.  as long as those books remained on my emotional bookshelves they would shout insults at me, telling me what a failure i was, that i hadn’t written that article, hadn’t sought funding for that research project.  if i allowed, and it is allowed because i can choose otherwise, to be deaf to what my heart was telling me then authenticity would forever be unattainable.  so i had to un-clutter my academic mind and heart, allow myself the treasure of pursuing what i felt called to do.

the books are still on the shelves. i might get round to boxing them up.  if i don’t it will be less a worrying doubt in my mind as laziness.

Aside

what’s in a name? or, coffee, contemplation and the meaning of this blog

Imagei

i am sat in one of my favourite places, a coffee shop where care, attention, and respect for the beverage are paramount.  this sounds ‘up your own arse’ or pretentious, but it really isn’t.  i have recently read a lovely piece by the minimalists, actually by joshua fields millburn, about the relationship between care, attention, single-minded attention, and the complex nature of simplicity.  there is chatter around me (some of it annoying), music (perhaps a little too loud, for the staff rather than the customers).  i am here for two things – great coffee, and to decide on a title for this blog.  in front of me is my journal.  i take care with my journaling.  it is a central part of my daily happenings.  it is leather bound, and i write with a fountain pen.  i hope that the care i take with the tools of my writing feed into and reflect the care of my reflections.  what is in a name?  that is the central issue confronting me.  the feel of this place, i hope, will help me attend to the purpose of this blog.  that is what i hope the name will convey.  i am writing it for  myself, a record of my reflections on the art of teaching in higher education, on teaching AS service, on the struggle for authenticity.  but i know that these are issues that resonate with many others.  so, i am writing this with a certain amount of self consciousness, a knowing that others might (hopefully will, what kind of ego is attached to this?) read it also, might reflect on my words, my sentiments, may even respond.  i don’t want to go for ‘authority’.  this is not about expressing an authoritative voice.  indeed, it is against this urge for authoritative voice in academia that i am partly against.  we seek more and more authority by carving out smaller and smaller niches of knowledge.  we speak to fewer and fewer people.  we take public money but then pretend that publishing articles that few people will ever see is meeting our public obligations for dissemination of knowledge.  what folly.  what aggrandisement.  so, i hope a blog can be one way of engaging with wider audiences, wide publics.  back to the page in front of me.  back to the absence of pen marks on the paper.  

ok, what have we?

well, i know that what i want to do is:

– i want to think about teaching and scholarship AS SERVICE in a Buddhist sense

– write a blog dedicated to ‘contemplative inquiry’ – a minimalist, Zen-like style

– reclaim my mornings, reclaim my meditation practice, of which the blog will be part (some of the reflections might take place in the morning and be written later) 

that’s the inspiration.  what about a title?

CONTEMPLATIVE INQUIRY/INQUIRER

– well, yes, inquiry, and me as the inquirer.  that makes some sense. but it makes it sound ‘academic’. i don’t want it to be academic.  serious, yes, but not ‘authoritative’. 

– contemplative? what is the purpose of this term in the blog’s name? 

CONTEMPLATIVE TEACHER

– i think i want to signal the orientation of my thoughts, that i am coming from a place of contemplative thought.

– but this doesn’t quite capture my feeling about the blog, my intuitive sense of what it is about for me. but it is about teaching, about teaching and learning, about pedagogy.  those things that are central to my identity as an academic but which are not the means of academic adulation.

THE WISDOM OF SOLOMON

– where did that come from?  

– no. diverts from my wish to attend to teaching as service, teaching for wisdom, but a catchy title all the same.

THE WISE TEACHER

– no.  i don’t want to suggest that ‘i’ am the ‘wise teacher’.  doubt and not-knowing are the base for all good worthwhile knowledge.  the ‘i’, the ego, the ‘small mind’ all get in the way.

CONFESSIONS….

– maybe. this foregrounds an openness, revelatory feel.  it is important to be made vulnerable in an important sense.  not the ego-filled vulnerability of academic publishing writing.

CONFESSIONS OF A THOUGHTFUL TEACHER

– nearly there. but thought?

CONFESSIONS OF A WORRIED TEACHER

– much closer to the intuitive feel. this would allow me to link it to my proposed study on mental health and academic life. i like this.