Troubling Reading – Troubled Reader

I’m on holiday, hence all the posts.

I have a number of thoughts that still need thinking through and had hoped to write a few posts to do this while taking a break from work.  However, it is the nature of my reading over the past week that forms the basis of this entry.

Basically, the stuff I have been reading has disturbed me.

No, I haven’t been sat in the corner of the sofa reading Stephen King.  Instead, I have been reading some books on Action Research.

Action Research?  And how is that disturbing?

Of course, as a topic it isn’t disturbing at all, though I have had some interesting discussions with colleagues recently about the difficulty of getting action research projects through institutional ethics committees.

It isn’t the topic itself that has proven disturbing, more the reflection on how I see myself as an academic that has proven disruptive and uncomfortable at times. And it is the reading that has prompted this reflection.

The ‘culprits’ have been ‘Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization‘ by David Coghlan and Teresa Brannick and ‘The Action Research Dissertation: A Guide for Students and Faculty‘ by Kathryn Herr and Gary Anderson.  Having completed my first semester in the new job I wanted to spend some time reflecting on how things had gone, think about how I might want to develop the role, and catch up on weak areas of knowledge.  Given that much of the teaching and learning philosophy of the programmes we run involve active learning, and given that our ‘students’ are academics involved in various forms of developmental reflection on their professional practice (that is insider researchers) there were two fields I wanted to become more familiar with – action learning and action research.

My reading began with Action Research because I am supervising students who are conducting forms of insider research, though not specifically adopting action research methodologies.  So, there is a pragmatic element to this reading.

But, there is a synergy between the reading, my current reflections, and taking this job in the first place.  And this is where my current sense of disturbance arises.

Over the past few years I have had occasion to reflect on my role as an academic, indeed to re-think what being an ‘academic’ means to me.  This has induced a dispositional shift away from what Jacque Rancière would call the ‘master explicator’.  We all know the ‘master explicator’, and indeed have been such a person, perhaps often.  The ‘master explicator’ is comfortable in their command of the knowledge they expound, and usually engage in ‘delivering’ this knowledge.  It implies a process of ‘transmission’ from one who knows to one who does not.  I am not arguing against transmission in all instances.  I am simply directing attention towards a mode of being an educator and the social relationships it carries.  It directs attention towards a particular configuration of power and knowledge.

At the level of disposition I have been moving away from this mode.  My own practice as an educator has increasingly been defined by the centrality of ‘learning’ more than ‘teaching’, and of ‘active learning’ as a preferred mode. I have written here about one such example of this approach and how it can be disruptive of assumed social relations.  This dispositional shift made me open to the job I now have.  Also, the dispositional shift is conducive to a positive engagement with action learning and action research.  So, why is it disturbing?

While there has been a dispositional shift this has not, I have found, been accompanied by a cognitive shift.

The sense of myself as an academic has been more bound up in certain knowledge and knowledge communities than I realised.  I was very comfortable inhabiting  the role of ‘critical scholar’ where that critical stance was conducted through the mode of ‘master explicator’.  Rancière makes this point in his own critique of the critical theory tradition. This tradition, which for me was framed by my alignment with the work of Bourdieu and Foucault, enables the critical scholar to take on a special role in relation to wider society.  As a ‘critical’ scholar I can see the world in a way that others cannot.  And it is my role to reveal the true nature of power. I do not deride this function of critique.  But I am perhaps much more aware of the desire inherent in this role, of the ‘honorable’ role it places on the scholar – we can see what others can’t; and our role is to help them see more clearly.  But, I asked myself, apart from speaking from such a lofty position, what does this clarity of vision lead me to DO?

I know that I my explication has had positive effects on students.  I know that I have influenced students to generate new knowledge in their professional fields that have drawn on this tradition of critique, that enables them to act in terms of raising disturbing questions.  And this questioning may lead to change.  I do not reject this.  I do not reject the role this tradition can play.  But I am aware that the ‘change’ that it can effect is often personal, and if institutional is usually small and incremental.

And yet, the ‘small’ and ‘incremental’ change offered by most practitioners of Action Research (an Action Learning) was something I often looked down upon as inadequate in face of the inequities of the world.

Sober reflection on my actual effect on the world due to my role as educator has led me to be more humble in my ambitions.  And my recent reading has made much clearer to me the dissonance between my often lofty claims for my theory heavy approach to education and my desire for education to matter, to effect change in the professional practice of my students.

I still feel that some of what I am reading lacks philosophical content.  The challenge for me is not to jettison the critical theory tradition, but rather to expand my intellectual and practical repertoire so as to induce a more creative dynamic between my cognitive and dispositional orientations.

There is much to be unpicked here.  For instance there are the obvious connections between some strands of Action Research and critical theory, in particular the influence of Habermas on many action researchers, and obviously the role of Paulo Freire in the development of Participatory Action Research.  Perhaps, more troubling for my sense of cognitive self is the pragmatist orientation of much Action Research, and perhaps the way aspects challenge my previous dependence on propositional knowledge and deductive reasoning.

I will write more on how this develops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taming My Inbox or Taming Myself – a follow-up to Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance

My recent post “Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance” created a little flurry of interest on the Twittersphere (thanks I think to a friend and colleague – thanks Catherine).  It also attracted a couple of comments (I am never really sure what to do in relation to comments, revealing an certain ambiguity on my part about the ‘public’ aspect of my blogging).

One comment made reference to my use of a Calmbox signature on my emails:

This is a Calm Inbox: email is checked once in the AM and once in the PM. Learn why at http://www.calmbox.me

 

I have used this for a few years now and apply it to my work and personal email boxes.  Why?

Before I answer that question I want to briefly reflect upon how people have responded. While there has been some jokey and not so jokey dismissals of it, or scepticism about whether I actually practice what the signature apparently preaches, there has been an overwhelming positive response from folks.  This has not led to an increase in observable use of the Calmbox signature but perhaps it has encouraged some thoughtful reflection on how we relate to email (particularly work email), the boundaries between work and home life, and our capacity to do our work in effective ways.

But my use of the signature is primarily personal.  It is a daily reminder to be mindful about how I relate to email, and more broadly to the quality of my professional practice.

I came across Calmbox while searching for ideas and resources that would encourage a more mindful and contemplative engagement with computing.  This was partly driven by an experience of a problematic use of email in a professional context.

This happened a while back in a previous employment.  Like many academics I was not very good at maintaining good boundaries between work and home life.  I sold myself the story that this was a necessary consequence of the relative autonomy that can be enjoyed by academics (though certainly not all).  If I wanted some flexibility in how I did my job outside of those periods that required direct contact with colleagues and students, then I had to accept that the ‘job’ would bleed into my weekends, evening, etc.  And, to be honest, this is not such a bad deal.  Being an academic is a pretty good thing.  Of course, this blurring of professional and private life can also be a result of the passion that we can often have for our subjects and our teaching.  In a very real sense the boundary between professional requirement and personal interest can be very obscure.  And, if one is in any kind of management role you very quickly learn that the day job can’t be done without also working evening shifts and weekends.

This has always been the case.  One question to ask, though, is whether the ubiquitous presence of ‘instant’ communication whereby we can receive our work emails on our smartphone means that the blurring of boundaries can become intensified and possibly toxic.

The incident I referred above went something like this:

I was checking my work emails one Sunday evening.  I came across a discussion thread that related to an issue raised at the departmental Teaching and Learning Committee the previous week.  Were this simply a continuation of discussion or reflection amongst a number of colleagues I would not have felt so concerned.  However, this exchange between senior members of faculty was of a qualitatively different kind.  While cc-ing all members of the T&L Committee (good?) the discussion was mostly confined to about three people and they were actually trying to make decisions.  They were in effect holding the T&L Committee meeting on a Sunday evening when most members of that committee were not visibly joining the discussion, and were not actually invited.  The ethics of this immediately flared up in front of me.  I felt compelled to intervene in this discussion and point out the ethical problems it raised.  There was nothing urgent about the decisions that were being sought.  So why the compulsion?  In the following week a number of colleagues agreed with me about the ethical problems of that misuse of email.  While the central players in this issue did not really see what the problem was there certainly a diminution of such types of email exchange at weekends.  My argument to one colleague was that while I might ‘choose’ to ‘work’ at a weekend, it should not be presumed that I would.  Any email exchange, any writing activity, any planning or communication with students at the weekend should be viewed as ‘voluntary’.

I felt though that what I had just witnessed was emblematic of a wider malaise in academia.  The instantaneous nature of communication, the technological capacity to access emails from anywhere at anytime can work to diminish our individual agency and entice us into a world where we feel compelled to be accessible or gain access at all times.

Where is the boundary between an individual voluntarily choosing to access their email at 2 am on a Sunday morning and a working assumption that colleagues will access their emails at the weekend?

When does voluntary action become compulsion become requirement?

To me this is not the flexibility to do my ‘thinking’ when most effective.

To me this is not the flexibility to write when it is most conducive to do so.

Does this constant chatter, this constant noise of email communication make us more effective at what we do? I think not.

sabbath-manifesto

I could criticise others for their use or misuse of email, and the wider uses of computing technology.  But what about me?  What was I doing?  How could I change my relationship with this culture of continuous and instantaneous communication?

The Calmbox signature is a means by which I discipline myself.  It means, for me, that I give a definite period of time to managing the flow of communication that comes through my email.   There is a degree of necessary flexibility in that when saying I check my email once in the morning this could last for a few hours.  But what is most important is that it introduces a pause into the process of communication.  I sort the emails rather than just respond immediately (as many people do) and deliberately pause, asking myself how I should respond, whether some need more thought before I reply. I like to think that my responses tend to be more considered.  There is a small, subtle resistance to the demand for instant responses, believing that considered ones are preferable.

Does this mean that my emails back up?  No.  If anything I think I am much more efficient than I used to be when my email was constantly on.

Importantly I do not have my work emails going to my phone.  This is for two reasons.  Firstly, I think it is immoral for organisations to assume that we are ‘on call’ constantly (there is more that could be said about that).  Secondly, I think there is something wrong in me subsidising the organisation by utilising my personal phone for work communication.

Most importantly though this more disciplined approach to engaging with email communication means that I can give attention to many of my core tasks.  I give myself a ‘digital sabbath‘ as it were.  I can be more attentive to planning activities, to responding to students’ work, to writing letters, to reading, to academic writing.  It gives me time to meet with colleagues.  Its not radical.  Its not intrusive.  But it does help cultivate attention.  It helps me work in a mindful way, being attentive to the task in front of me rather than distracted and scattered in my approach. I am less stressed.  My response to things are more measured.

For some interesting thoughts on this topic check out Megan Miller’s discussion on “Mindful Media: A New Culture of Immersiveness” @BuddhistGeeks:

 

Zen and the Art of E-mail Maintenance

When you send an email to somebody do you expect an answer?

If you send an email to colleagues at work do you expect an answer?

If you send an email to colleagues at work asking them for help do you expect an answer?

I can’t speak for others, only for myself, and the answer to the above questions is YES.

 

My current reflection arises from an observation about the ethics of email etiquette in professional settings.  Some time ago I sent an email to a colleague in another institution offering to provide a workshop on contemporary policy developments.  This wasn’t just any random person but somebody responsible for professional development.  Hopefully I am not so arrogant as to presume that simply because I made this offer that it should be picked up joyously.  But, I had run a number of successful seminars on this topic so it wasn’t complete fantasy to think that my offer might be at least considered.  That was three years ago.  I am still to receive even a confirmation of having received the email.

I would like to say that this was unusual.  But it isn’t.

When you have been successful in applying for a job then it is normal to spend some time in communication with the prospective employer’s human resources department.  And it was for me recently.  Except that email after email went unanswered.

It doesn’t stop there.  As an Academic Developer my job is to work with other academic colleagues in the development of their academic practice.  So it is not unusual for me to request support from academic colleagues in this endeavour.  And so it was a few weeks ago.  I sent an email to a group of colleagues who had graduated from one of our courses asking if they would participate in a workshop to guide their own colleagues on the assessment aspects of the course – colleagues supporting colleagues.  Out of the 10 emails I received one reply.  That means that the other 9 colleagues did not even reply to decline the invitation.  This scenario was repeated again more recently and in relation to an identical request for support.  And the response?  The same.  Many emails posted, one positive reply, lots of completely unanswered requests.

What is the issue?

On the one hand there is the matter of simple courtesy.  I might be naive but if a colleague sends me an email containing a direct request I answer it.  Now, there are plenty of times when I miss an email and reply late, or have to be reminded – but 9 out of 10?

There was no expectation that people would say yes simply because I asked them.  The expectation, though subdued and implicit, was that there would be some reply.

I have to say that, unlike some years ago, the lack of collegial response did not upset me.  I didn’t go away feeling that I had been rejected, that I was discounted, that I – and that is it, I.  And so it is to the ‘I’ of this concern that I must turn.

A while back this series of mini-events would have caused me much pain, even if only temporarily.  The fact that it doesn’t now (though obviously it plays on the mind as a curiosity) is what I want to think through here, because it has something to do with the ‘I’ and the Buddhist concept of ‘no-self’.

The terms ‘academic identity’, ‘identity’, and ‘identity work’ can be found in scholarly discussions of how we see ourselves, of our struggles for authenticity, of battling with ‘managerialism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, of ‘reform’.  The language can often conflate our personal identities into that of the ‘academic’.  And often it can feel like that.  Who, on reading their students’ feedback, doesn’t zoom in on the one or two negative comments, blind to all the positive ones?  Its no surprise really.  Academic life is often isolating and vulnerable.  We are vulnerable in the face of our students, asking ourselves if we are good enough, if we are failing our students.  We are vulnerable in the face of academic publishing – remember the deep psychic pain when you receive a rejection from a journal editor?  We don’t even need a rejection.  Suggestions for revision can feel like a public declaration of failure.

It is as if my fundamental self is bound up so completely in the day job.

This reminds of Art Bochner’s wonderful piece on the divided self, “It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self“.  In this article Bochner recounts how he was confronted with the chasm between his personal and professional selves.  Importantly he talks about how the ‘academic self’ rejected the affective self, pushing emotion into the private shadows of the personal.  So, we often feel, on a day to day basis, that hurt caused to our professional self is an attack on our deep self, on us as a PERSON.  Yet, the academic sensibility often negates the affective, the felt.  We struggle with an ‘I’ as if it were one and the other, the personal AS the professional.

And this is where ‘no-self’ comes in, and why, I think, I felt a healthy detachment from the lack of collegial response; why I was able to observe it as a phenomena, but not as something that caused pain.

Faced with the lack of collegial responses I was confronted with the possibility of seeing this as a comment on ‘myself’, as an evaluation of ‘me’ by my colleagues.  There is a moment, then, when I have to consider the ‘I-ness’ or ‘me-ness’ of my emotional responses.  If I see that what I call ‘me’ has no real substance, then there is no ‘me’ to be hurt.  This is not a lack of emotion, or a lack of identity.  Instead, what this notion signals is that what we conventionally refer to as ‘me’, as ‘I’, as ‘identity’ is of such a composite nature that it is finally difficult to identify with it in such a way that the normal slights visited upon us by social interaction can really touch ‘me’.

The feeling of love, of rejection, of course arise.  We, I, do FEEL them, sometimes intensely.

But what I have in my power to do is respond to them.  There is a moment when I can pause, and allow the mind and body to observe these rising feelings, a pause where the understanding that ‘I’ am a complex composite of inherited dispositions (like Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’).

In that pause before inherited emotional responses take over, I can see that it is the attachment to an essential and substantive self that causes the pain.  It is the desperate clinging to the idea of myself as an independent entity that causes me anxiety.  The ‘me’ that my colleagues might or might not reply to is not ‘me’ at all.  If there is a ‘me’ to which they are not replying (and there is an arrogance in assuming that there is a ‘me’ that prompts their not responding) then it is a phenomena of their mind.

A brief reflection on the substantial nature of ‘me’ can reveal that it is largely a narrative through which I seek to construe a sense of coherence  in the midst of impermanence and change, a coherence that carries me from a linear past to a distinct future.  In this narrative of self is a hint of the emptiness of this phenomena – ‘me’.  Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’ I can see myself as a condensation of history, of family, social and cultural location, historical events, chance happenings and meetings.  I am ‘me’ only so far as the conditions of my existence allow.  And those conditions do and can change.  In what sense does this composite of elements make me a coherent and substantive thing?

The empirical self is actually composed of a flow of mental and physical states that are co-dependent on history, on the different environments within which I exist and move.  While ‘I’ or ‘me’ are relative terms, phenomena of the mind, this does not mean that there is no ‘sense of self’, of a ‘me’ that is in the world.  Recognising that much of what I regard as myself is a composite of inherited dispositions, these do not wholly determine me.  Devoid of an essential self, I am faced with a different reality.  Faced with the lack of collegial response I have only that moment.  And in that moment I have power.  I have the power to respond in line with inherited dispositions that might see the lack of collegial response as something personal, OR I can respond otherwise.  I can accept the variety of feeling responses that might arise, but I do not have to identify with them AS IF THEY WERE ME.

I may still feel upset.  My feeling of worth may be rattled (as when we receive negative feedback from students).  But, if I do not attach too strongly with an essential sense of self that subsumes all of me into the professional me, then I can avoid much of the pain of those moments.

I am bemused by the lack of collegial response.  But my responsibility is not that, it is my ethical being in the world.  And that is another post.

Is the Curriculum Information Rich but Knowledge Poor?

brain

 

Two events this morning lie behind this entry.

The first was feedback on a student’s learning journal entry for an academic development course.  The student (academic) was raising the perennial problem of how to develop authentic assessment techniques while also delivering the required content.

The second was a symposium where similar students (more academics) were presenting the work they were doing on the use of learning technologies to enhance learning.  These technologies included the use of podcasts to provide feedback on student assessments, wiki’s to engage students in process-heavy tasks, videocasts to enhance skills development, etc.

These events prompted in me a line of reflection about academic identity, knowledge, and teaching.

As academics we are largely defined in terms of knowledge, of the epistemic tribes we belong to, our knowledge communities.  We variously describe these as disciplines and they are structured by core concepts, epistemological debates, conferences, peer-reviewed journals.  Our ‘license’ as academics is the doctorate, a training in engagement with particular knowledges and recognised knowers.  But, this is not a license to teach.  Teaching is something different all together.  Indeed, one can construct a very successful academic career without ever engaging substantively in issues of teaching and learning.

If our academic identities are sou bound up in knowledge of particular kinds, and our standing in our academic tribes often based on our successful performance with these knowledges, it is probably not surprising that our ‘teaching’ should often be described in terms of delivering knowledge.  We talk about curriculum as if it were coterminous with content, and that content was the same as knowledge.

But what passes as ‘knowledge’ is actually INFORMATION.  We throw bits of information at students, telling them that it is required content, that their professional competency, for instance, is dependent on their mastering of this content.  We do this despite the experiential and scholarly knowledge that it doesn’t work.  Students do not really come out of this process knowledgeable and certainly seldom wise.

But we continue in this vein.

So, we state, with apparent, authority, that we can’t really develop authentic assessment because it comes up against the primary need to ‘deliver’ the curriculum.

One of the many inspiring things about the symposium this morning was the fact that there are people from across all disciplines who quietly and diligently develop their craft as educators, thinking, reflecting, risking, changing, in conditions that are not always conducive to this endeavour.

So, experiencing directly the reality that students were not taking in the information and methodologies that they did REQUIRE, this colleague imagined how it could be if students used a research mode instead of the usual lab work, imagined what the possibilities would be if the classroom was flipped and students actually engaged with the information so transforming it into KNOWLEDGE.

This was just one example out of a number I witnessed this morning.

I makes me honoured to be part of such a community of scholarly educators.