This is the first in a series of daily photos capturing the many moments of #AcademicLife as part of my exploration of the materiality of academic practice.
Love is not something you would immediately associate with an academic conference. For all their vigour they can also be lonely and brutal places, which is why I have been careful in deciding where, when, and with whom I want to congregate. Below is a ‘non-report’ from a different kind of conference experience, and takes the form of a piece of ‘flash fiction‘ written during an 8 minute window in a workshop run by Shauna Gilligan (who you can find here and here – depending on which identification suits you).
This was at the 2nd Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference, held at Maynooth University. I might write something on my experience of the conference but for now I just want to preface the flash fiction with a short observation: rather than a series of monological deliverences, the kind of ‘look at me’ style so redolent of the academic conference, this event (for me) was more akin to community building, of nurturing existing connections, found connections, renewed connections. Sure, there was a certain absence of intellectual interrogation, but that’s fine as such conversations can occur after the event, in more negotiated spaces. It was a sharing that, in conversations in the conference ‘between spaces’, allowed folks to reflect there (and then and then and later again) without posture. It was a moment outside the managed CV or the managerial strategic alignment to institutional objectives. And neither was it about boundary setting and gateways. There was a sense of free roaming – free range academia?
So, it seems fitting that my first response to this event is to share the flash fiction, the 8 minute novel (thanks Shauna for the opportunity):
I think I hadn’t quite noticed it, Spring. The blossom on the cherry tree caught my eye as I made my early morning coffee. How you worried over that tree, the westerly winds blowing in from the sea. You would rush to the kitchen window and just smile quietly when you saw the pink and white bear up. And me? The tree was just there; a feature; but easily ignored as I busied myself on whatever project I had in mind – and it usually was IN MY MIND. How I neglected the delicate blossom; how I failed to catch the coming storm; how I failed to run to the kitchen and check on this beautiful thing. I sip my coffee and think on all I have neglected and how I am left OUT OF MY MIND.
Last month we buried my daughter’s boyfriend.
As she celebrated getting her place at college he took his own life.
So I have had no appetite for blogging, planning for the new semester has been delayed, dealing with outstanding issues from last academic year shelved, and as for my own academic writing – that has been well and truly dismissed. We struggle to make sense of the tragedy and all else seems pointless.
I have struggled with myself about the ethics of writing about such a painful and personal matter for a public blog. He was not my son, so what right do I have to write of his death. But this tragedy is our tragedy. Ours in the sense of a societal tragedy. It is the scale of male suicide that make these personal issues public concerns.
This wonderful young man is part of a phenomena that rips open the hearts of families and communities on a scale resembling that of an epidemic. The biggest killer of young men under 24 in Ireland is suicide. 8 out of 10 suicides are committed by young men, and men are more likely to use violent forms of self-murder.
Our region, economically and geographically ‘marginal’ is viewed as a suicide blackspot for male suicide. Indeed, it is a fact that out there, in this region, there is another young man who sees in this awful event a cue to his own act of self-murder. The terrible pain we are all feeling will not be a deterrent. It is likely he will barely see this, instead focusing on suicide as a final escape from a daily horror of emptiness and mental anguish. It is also likely that he is self-medicating in some way, self-medication that hardly registers as such as high levels of alcohol consumption are socially sanctioned, indeed expected at such events as Christenings, birthdays, weddings, and of course funerals.
It is my daughter’s boyfriend’s place in this litany of youthful death that makes it a legitimate item for this blog.
It is probably no coincidence that he took his own life when he did. He was about to return to university, but with little apparent appetite for it. All around him were young people who had just received news of their exam results and about to take up places at college. As my own daughter celebrated this with him his mind was already turned towards providing a permanent solution to a temporary pain.
[As a sufferer of depression myself I know all too well that such phrases mean little when, having been happy, you again find yourself dipped into another anguishing period of bleakness. There feels nothing ‘temporary’ about it.]
With all this ‘hope’ around him, his own sense of hopelessness was most likely amplified. We know the end point of that amplification.
But I know from talking with many of these young people that alongside the sense of success and achievement at having ACQUIRED the grades, and GOT their place on a preferred course of study, there is a doubt. There is a doubt about the societal path they have followed all these years. A path lined with ‘cheerleaders of success’ – parents, teachers, politicians. To GET the grades, to GET the place is held up as the pinnacle of their young lives. While their school and college SUCCESSES will be regarded as evidencing the good work of education, their FAILURE, indeed their DEATHS will be viewed as failings of the individual, the family. As parents we know that we are hardly ever called into school to share in our children’s achievements, only ever their misdemeanours.
There is a doubt carried by many young people about the wisdom and truthfulness of the narrative that tells them that all this learning, all this acquiring of grades and college places is worth the personal and psychic cost. There is a doubt about the ‘opportunity bargain‘ – they are to play their part in increasing national economic advantage by participating in higher education, and as a result they will have better, more lucrative lives.
But there is a doubt.
Paul Verhaeghe has written recently about the neoliberal fetishisation of consumption, of the construction of societies where the the constant acquisition of SUCCESS through education, jobs, love is the total measure of a persons value. Elsewhere, at at a different time, Erich Fromm analysed modern Western society as one dominated by a particular mode of living characterised as ‘having’ as opposed to ‘being’. A soulless society. A society where we are haunted by hungry ghosts, tormented by never being satisfied. Always seeking more and better.
Just BEING somebody’s son, or BEING somebody’s boyfriend could never be enough in our society, not when society said that the QUALITY OF BEING was measured in such external and ephemeral things as qualifications.
I can’t help but wonder whether this young man, in whatever inchoate sense it appeared to him, also confronted this doubt. At the heart of mental health issues is a deep sense of disquiet. All around you see a world that demands success, but success framed by HAVING – money, fame, power, qualifications, authority. The idea of doing something well simply to do it well, for no external validation, is anathema to this culture. You look around at this, and then at yourself, and realise that HAVING SUCCEEDED at school, and SUCCESS at getting into college, you sense an emptiness, a LACK OF BEING.
I look out of my window here at the university and see all of these new first year students. I feel the tears rise up as I am consumed by a sense of dread. Which of these bright, energetic, wonderful people will be so consumed by emptiness that they will take their lives. This area has seen over 20 suicides this year alone.
Does the University take care of them? Well, we know that they don’t take care of us. CARELESSNESS seems to be the hidden (and perhaps not so hidden) reality of our universities, something Kathleen Lynch has written so eloquently on.
So is it time to reconsider what this is all for?
Is it time to reconsider what the role of the university is when confronted with a society whose young men wish to die. Will we TRULY look after the young people who enter our gates?
Can we put CAREFULNESS at the heart of our work?
And if not, is there any point in working here?
There is nothing so practical as a good theory.
So said Kurt Lewin, claimed to be a founder of social psychology and action learning.
This statement expresses itself as a paradox because it works with the apparent duality between theory and practice, or to put it another way – education and the ‘real world’. In this binary construction the ‘real world’ is the location of practice, of life, in contrast to the world of education and theory which takes on a deathly pallor. Theory, then, is seen to have little use to life. Lewin’s inversion of this makes it paradoxical, subverts the ‘common-sense’ character of the original binary opposition.
So, how then to make sense of Max Van Manen’s claim that phenomenology, that exquisite family of theory emanating from German idealism, is concerned with the ‘practice of living’?
Van Manen states this in his article titled ‘Phenomenology of Practice’. In this fine piece of prose Van Manen lays claim to the usefulness of theory, simultaneously asserting the practicality of theory AND challenging the usefulness of a common-sense view of practice:
Thus, we wish to explore how a phenomenology of practice may speak to our personal and professional lives
For Van Manen theory is eminently useful and practical, enabling us to gain purchase on what our ‘practice’ may be BECAUSE phenomenology is intimately concerned with how we live, how we experience life. But, theory is not useful if it simply promotes ‘instrumental action, efficiency or technical efficacy’.
Rather, a phenomenology of practice aims to open up possibilities for creating formative relations between being and acting, between who we are and how we act, between thoughtfulness and tact.
There is an ethical content to this that can often be missing from ‘theory-lite’ modes of thinking and teaching. Here I have in mind some aspects of Action Research and Action Learning.
As noted in some earlier posts I have been engaging with these literatures in order to enrich my own professional knowledge and practice in academic development. In one sense, our colleagues want something useful – new techniques for teaching or assessment, new skills in learning technologies, tips on how to supervise more effectively. And yes, we try to do this. But we also encourage them to critically reflect on this, and to some extent to deconstruct the normative content of what they claim to ‘want’.
But much Action Research and Action Learning would claim the same. Its just that in reading some of this material I sometimes get a feeling, and it often presents itself as a feeling, of uncomfortableness. Its almost as if I want to say: “It sounds fine in practice, but what use is it in theory?”. What I really mean by this is that the variations of ‘reflection-on-practice’ and ‘reflection-in-practice’ bracket the social world, the world of power and politics. There is often a distinct absence of political economy, of gender, social class and race. This is partly an effect of the location of the practice of much of the AR/AL I have been reading – management education.
For the purpose of this entry I need to put to one side the issue of the hyperbolic claims for critical theories of education that I have been embedded within all my professional life. I do want to say that there is a rigorous discussion within management education scholarship about issues of power and privilege. Its just in reading about ‘how to’ do it (AR/AL) this is not so apparent. It kind of speaks to me as the victory of practice over theory, of unconsidered life over the considered life.
And that is why this article by Van Manen is appealing to me.
Thinking of the importance we give to reflection as a methodology of professional education, Van Manen directs attention to the fact that reflection was an object of theoretical interest to Husserl. Our ‘experience’ of the world as temporal, as linked, as coherent, is an effect of perception – that is we do not ‘experience’ the world as a series of ‘now’ which we can then differentiate in terms of past, present and future. In asking our colleagues to ‘reflect’ on their experience of academic practice we are actually (if I understand Van Manen and Husserl correctly) asking them to bring objects into their perceptual field, to make aspects of practice intentional objects of our consciousness. In doing this aspects of what might be considered experience ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’ are already changed. This is because we do not retain images of past events as fixed. In attending to a direct event or object (lets say our use of presentation software in large class teaching) we are already framing it in relation to ‘past’ (retention) and anticipated (protension) events. And what memories (if indeed these actually ‘exist’) we may have of previously using presentation software is transformed by brining an immediate object within our intentional gaze. Got it? I am not sure I have quite got it yet.
Let me try this again.
In asking our colleagues to intentionally focus on their use of presentation software now, in the past, and in the future we appear to be asking them to perceive these practices as somehow discrete entities. For Husserl and Heidegger and other phenomenologists we (as observers of temporal time) do not actually stand outside of the experience of time. There is no separation between ‘us’ and time. Time is a ‘taken-for-granted’, something we experience primordially and through our bodies. The pedagogy of reflection (using learning journals for instance) jolts us out of the ‘taken-for-granted’, makes the past-present-future of using presentation software an ‘object’ that we can some how interpret ‘as if’ it was something outside of the normal flow of practice. This is rather similar to Bourdieu’s argument that in research (as a particular social practice) we wrench events out of the flow of life and make them ‘objects of study’). But this flow of practice is full of interpretation, or pre-understanding (of what teaching is, of what learning is, of what learning technologies are); understandings that are often unarticulated. The jolt to the ‘taken-for-granted’ can (and I emphasise ‘can’) make us more aware (bring into consciousness) these pre-understandings and therefore the potential for creating new meaning. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ arises from the narrative or story in which it is situated. This might be a narrative that places learning technologies within a person’s sense of themselves as a particular kind of educator; or within a story of career progression that necessitates (for that person) getting ‘such and such’ a skill or certificate under their belt; or perhaps in a narrative of being ‘out-of-place’ in academia and so needing to ‘prove’ oneself through taking up a professional development course. It will always be this learning at this time for this person. There is never experience in a general or objective sense. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ therefore depends on what matters at that moment for that person. Therefore, phenomenological theory directs us to the central importance of ‘practice’ shorn of its ‘taken-for-granted’ garb.
Is this the lesson from phenomenology?
From the phenomenological perspective there is no me and then the world I engage with, I am in the world; there is no learning technology with which I engage, me and the technology and my use of it are all incorporated in my practice. My practice, my sense of self in this practice, cannot be captured adequately by the language of cognition alone. Teaching, as any of us will testify if we are honest, is about mood, atmosphere, relationships – it is what Van Manen talks of as pathic (as in empathy or sympathy). The local or private knowledge of the practitioner and the public (abstract) knowledge valued by academia are melded into one experiential, lived sensibility of ‘doing’ teaching, of ‘doing’ learning technologies. The ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in the practice rather than (cognitive) observer of that practice.
In conclusion, Van Manen says:
To reiterate, we may say that a phenomenology of practice operates in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act. And these formative relations have pedagogical consequence for professional and everyday practical life.
[Does that make sense? As you can see I am working this out as I go along.]
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.
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: