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.


On ‘boundary objects’, higher education and the knowledge economy

My Friday’s teaching was all sorted, or so I thought.

At the morning’s MA in Academic Practice/Higher Education Research Group session we were looking forward to a presentation on the use of phenomenography in exploring academic practice.  The afternoon’s workshop on ‘supporting postgraduate research student writing’ was organised around three guest speakers.  I could, so I imagined, put my feet up and just enjoy it.

Not quite.

There has been a nasty flu working its way around Galway and I was nursing my own version of it when I received a call from the colleague booked in to do the phenomenography session.  He was down with the flu and not able to present.

Feeling under the weather myself I seriously thought about just cancelling the morning and keeping my energy for the afternoon and the three hour drive home later.

As I sat in my chair feeling sorry for myself my mind kept coming back to this void on Friday morning, troubling me, not letting me rest.  Did I value the afternoon group more than the Friday morning one? Of course not.  I enjoy the quality of the discussions in this group and knew that if I stayed in bed then I would not relax anyway.  I started to think about my current writing project and wondered about talking about this.  But how to structure it?  I had a successful conference abstract but I wasn’t up (psychologically) for sharing my autoethnographic method just yet.  What else did I have.  I started looking through my Prezi folder and came across a presentation that brought a smile to my face.

It was a presentation I had given back in 2012 to a different group of students and explored the conceptual exploration I was conducting at the time that I hoped would lead to a publication.  But that was just before I became ill and ended up taking 2 years off work.  A life time ago it felt.  But I remembered how I had enjoyed the ideas contained in this presentation and wondered if I could share this now.

An hour later, and after a little polishing up, I had Friday morning’s session covered [http://tinyurl.com/palt84r].

The presentation examined the way discourses of the knowledge based economy, as applied to higher education, worked as a boundary object. I had come across the concept of ‘boundary object’ while reading a brilliant book by the Austrian academic Herbert Gottweiss.  In his book ‘Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States‘ Gottweiss discusses the way ‘boundary objects’ produce policy effects.  This captured my imagination.  I will come back to his argument but for the moment what attracted me was the way the concept could be related to the way discourses of the knowledge based economy appeared to be reformulating the structure and content of academic practice.

Gottweiss referenced the work of Susan Starr and Graham Griesemer in their 1989 article ‘Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and BoundaryObjects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39‘.  Starr and Griesemer propose that a central problematic of the scientific enterprise is how the different social actors can communicate effectively.  Using the Berkeley Museum as a case study they inquire into how a) scientific enterprise often involves a diversity of actors from different social worlds, and b) necessitates communication between scientific and non-scientific actors.  The work of higher education involves a range of social actors – academics, administrators, politicians, students, employers, civil servants, etc.  There is an inevitable tension between diversity and cooperation.  It is in this tension that ‘boundary objects’ operate to facilitate cooperation or communication across this diversity:

Boundary objects are objects which are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and the constraints of the several parties employing them,yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. These objects may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation (393).

For Starr and Griesemer ‘boundary objects’ work because they are simultaneously abstract and concrete.  Conservation of the flora and fauna of California became the ‘boundary object’ that enabled different social worlds (scientific inquiry, university administration, local benefactors, local naturalists, etc.) to cooperate, a point of convergence for their different and potentially conflicting visions.  Funds can be attracted for the establishment and running of the museum, benefactors and collectors alike can acquire prestige, academics can expand their knowledge.  Conservation, meaning quite different things to each social world, can be plastic enough to mean something substantial (concrete) to each.

Similarly, the knowledge based economy works as such a ‘boundary object’, allowing for an overlapping of economic, academic, administrative, and political domains.  So successful is it that when we use or read a term such as ‘the knowledge based economy and higher education’ we are not fazed by its originality.  It passes as common sense, it appears to us as a necessary articulation.  Its arbitrariness does not immediately stand out.  Yet, a moments reflection sees the apparent obviousness of the construction fall apart.  Its political nature becomes clearly revealed.  How are these separate words – ‘knowledge’, ‘economy’, ‘higher education’ put together, and how do they construct new meaning?

This is where Herbert Gottweiss came in.

Gottweiss picks up the concept of ‘boundary object’ and re-articulates it through a Foucauldian lens. In this way Gottweiss provides policy discourse with an active role.  The knowledge based economy therefore does important policy work.

This resonated with those at the MA session on Friday morning.  The knowledge based economy was full of significance and empty at the same time.  One contribution to discussion focused on the way we engage in funding applications.  In many respects the particular formulations and key terms are meaningless, and we know it, but they are essential and act as points of obligatory passage.  As such they force us, if we are to engage in the funding game at all, to take them seriously.  We gear our research concerns around their fundability.

Of course, at a more profound level ‘boundary objects’ such as the knowledge based economy re-structure our working practices and our identities.

The conclusion to my presentation sought to capture the profundity of this.  I argue that the discourse of the knowledge based economy and higher education produces three main effects:

  • it creates new objects of higher education – innovation, commercialization, and knowledge transfer
  • it creates new subjects of higher education – students acting as consumers, academics as product innovators, and managers delivering against performance indicators
  • it creates new social relations – academic work is seen as servicing economic activity

It is not that higher education has never been involved in innovation, commercialisation or knowledge transfer before.  Academics have always been innovative, but we are increasingly being required or judged against particular constructions of ‘innovation’ that are determined by their immediate application to commercial activity.  As well as funding for the humanities and social sciences being cut in favour of the STEM subjects, we see basic scientific research sacrificed at the alter of applied science.  The same with commercialisation (of which the tradition of academic publishing is a feature) and knowledge transfer (another name for teaching?).  I raised the prospect that if these criteria had been applied to the revolution in physics that revolved around quantum mechanics we would not be living in the digital age we are.  There is an irony that the simplistic economic rationalism driving current  higher education reform could have prevented the amazing applications we now take for granted, micro-computers, iPhones, and the internet.

Similarly, it is not enough for academics to be involved in the business of knowledge production, we need to be ‘product innovators’.  This happens when we loose grip on the ideal of the free flow of knowledge and see knowledge as a commodity that requires increasingly restrictive intellectual property rights.   Would Peter Higgs (who received a Nobel Prize for his work on the ‘God particle’) have lasted in the modern university with its obsession for ‘key performance indictors’ such as research publications?  Many of those present on Friday morning attested to the way such KPIs were affecting what and how to conduct research, questioning whether this was driven by ‘scientific inquiry’ or bureaucratic aspiration.

And finally, while education has always had an economic function, I have deep concerns about the way this is conceived in policy thinking.

I left the session excited about this earlier conceptual work and a desire to get back to it soon.

Should Academics be Licensed?


This question was raised in the context of a session on ‘Evaluation of Teaching’ on a postgraduate course on teaching and learning in higher education.  The ‘students’ are all academics who have chosen to do this course.  And this aspect is important because in a way they are a self-selecting sample of those who are interested in developing their practice as university teachers.  So, it is of note that this question should arise in this context.

Another aspect of the context was the immediate focus of the afternoon – evaluation of teaching.

In a way this focus of attention could have produced a good deal of defensiveness, of complaints about unfair student commentary.  Sure, there was some discussion of the difficulty of interpreting student feedback on teaching, of contradictory statements.

But what would provoke the above question?

Well, it arose in a broader discussion about the ethics and politics of institutional systems for collecting student feedback on teaching.

The question was asked whether it was ethical to collect such feedback if it was not going to be used improve teaching and learning at an organisational level.  In other words – why bother, why should students or educators bother if academic managers do not use this information wisely?

Why, it was asked, were incompetent teachers allowed to continue?

It is important to remember that this question came from university teachers about university teachers.  It did not come from a tabloid journalist or populist politician.

This led to a further question: in what sense are academics a ‘profession’ like others?

If we are not required to undertake regular professional development then in what sense can we claim to be professionals like clinical psychologists, or medical doctors, or nurses and midwives – all of whom are require to demonstrate engagement with continuous professional development (CPD)?  Indeed, in Ireland over recent years, Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians have been required to undertake CPD in order to continue practicing.  So, why not university teachers?

One defence could be that the gaining of a PhD is a suitable proxy for a license to teach.  But is it?  It might be a requisite qualification to join the ranks of academic researchers, but teaching?  In many respects, as academics, our identities are formed around knowledge and acceptance by an epistemic community.  But teaching?  Is a PhD an adequate proxy for a license to teach?

I leave this as an open question because I don’t know.  I say I don’t know because I am not necessarily trustful of university managers (who are also academics) to act wisely in the face of a possible call for this particular form of professional license.

However, governments and academic leaders turned higher education business leaders may lead the charge towards such licensing as a way of achieving other objectives, such as greater managerial control over academic labour. There is a growing trend in the UK of promotion for early career academics being requisite on completion of training in teaching and learning in higher education courses, membership of the Higher Education Academy, and possibly achievement of a Higher Education Academy teaching award.  This was not planned.  It has emerged.

So, the current situation is not stable.  To paraphrase Marx, the only constant is change. The question is – who will determine the direction of that change?

What is the value of academic identity?


A recent post by the Thesis Whisperer dealt the the issue of academics living in one place but working in another – or ‘fly-in-fly-out’ academia.

The post dealt positively with this phenomena in the sense that it offered suggestions for how to use the enormous amount of travel time experienced and how best to reduce stress and boredom.  Much related to my own experience of #fifoacademic life.

But, and this is a big BUT, the post made me really wonder what value we place on academic identities that would compel us to live such dispersed, displaced and torn lives.  Many people in the world are forced into such measures due to poverty and discrimination, a phenomena often referred to as ‘forced migration‘.  But, as academics in the global north we are privileged.  We are not displaced due to conflict, disaster, or imposed development (such as those being ‘removed’ in order to accommodate the World Cup in Brazil).  We CHOOSE to live these lives.

When I say ‘we’ I mean me.

I am about to start a new job that will see me travel hundreds of miles from my family and close friends to work in another city.  At my age (52), and having entered academia late in the day (and having been highly ambivalent about the career path thing), I find that I have few choices open to me in order to stay in this – and lets be honest here – relatively well paid and extremely pleasant occupation.

Most of my academic career has seen me work ‘elsewhere’.  I have only ever spent 2 years working in the same location as my family.  What a strange way to live.  What a strange choice to make.  Its not that somebody forced me into that situation.  I chose it.  I choose it again.  In choosing it I lived many lonely nights where I pretended that the pay-off was worth it, the ‘pay-off’ being career progression, or pension, or…  There was always an excuse.  For 8 years I even worked in a different country.

That is until the stress of that and my ambivalent relationship with academia resulted in a massive breakdown, a complete disintegration of the ‘self.

Which begs the question: Why am I doing it again?

In all honesty, I am not quite sure.  Now is not then.  There is the fear that I will end up in the same distress.  But, were it not for the unbelievable psychic pain and despair that accompanies depression, I would recommend a breakdown to anyone.  The learning that can come from such experience is invaluable, if you are lucky and wealthy enough to get the right support.  I was.  I have learned a lot that should make life ‘away from home’ less dangerous and toxic.

Depression is one term but I have come to the conclusion that what I, and many others experience, is better understood as ‘existential disruption”.  Such ruptures in our lives caused by choosing lives if displacement the #fifoacademic a curious phenomena indeed.

But existential disruption brought with it a re-centering of identity around more substantial things than publication record, committee work, conferences, and the like.

I hope it sustains me.

I plan to write about my experience of existential disruption and academic life soon.  But I would be interested to know how other people have ‘lived’ with FIFO.

The (im)possibility of Academic Credibility

Science Reporter Spoofs

A recent post on the retractionwatch website ‘revealed’ that a journalist was able to successfully submit a ‘spoof’ article to a series of open access journals despite the article containing glaringly obvious errors.

Depending on who you are (the editors of said journals not being one) this is entertaining reading.  But is it news?  Is it revelatory?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because I feel it misses crucial points.

The unprofessional acceptance of such obviously bad scholarly ‘work’ should be a note of serious concern for the academic community, especially in an age when governments are all too happy to micro-manage our work.   As the UK media are now realising, the regulatory bargain whereby professions regulate themselves is a precarious ground upon which to establish oneself.  The more public scandal attached to professions the less self-regulation will be acceptable.  The key term here is ‘public’.  This does not mean an authentic public voice.  Public here means whatever is heated up in the fire of 24/7 news (including blogs).  If something can gain enough traction to be noticeable then the chances are the degree of self-regulation accorded a profession will be diminished.  We see this everywhere.  In the UK social workers and the whole social care field have been under intense public scrutiny because of yet another ‘failure’ to secure the wellbeing of a child, ending in their death.

Yes, there was systemic failure.

Yes, systems and training need to be improved.

But politicians and media comment on these tragedies as if they are not related to the wider political environment, to the dominant political ethics.  It is as if all of those decisions to cut or privatise public services have no consequence for the lives of those who should be served well by such professionals.

And so back to academic publishing.

The ‘scandal’ of online academic journals accepting hoax articles fails to note the true nature of the political economy of higher education.

It would be nice to think that academic publishing was primarily about the free exchange of scientific knowledge, whereby our peers could scrutinise our findings, assess our methodologies, and through collegial critique improve the lot of scientific inquiry, and by implication, improve our contribution to society more widely.  That is the myth.

The reality is rather different, and to me, is the real scandal.

Career progression and performance related funding are intimately linked and form the bedrock for such publishing scandals that ‘retractwatch’ deal with.

The particular elements that contribute to academic career progression will differ from one system of higher education to another.  But ‘publish or die’ is a key aspect to academic practice, and therefore job security, worldwide.  Where this works well the publishing record reflects an academic’s contribution to their field of study.  But, even here, it is not uncommon to see the same basic content distributed across a range of academic outputs in peer reviewed journals.  A little can indeed go a long way. In the social sciences for instance, a piece of work conducted in education could conceivably be written up for journals in a range of disciplinary areas – education studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy.  The motivated and ambitious academic could strategically place the same text in a range of journals on the understanding that they are unlikely use the same reviewers.  Of course, such strategists can come a cropper and be found out.  The reputational damage can be severe, and reputation is everything.  But there is an imperative to  publish, and the newer you are as an academic, the more pressure there is.  Another side to this is that acting as journal reviewers, indeed sitting on editorial boards, is good for the CV.  Taking short cuts can seem appealing when securing tenure is your main objective.  This pressure can increase when managers put pressure on you because they too are measured by the productivity of their staff (no matter how much the term ‘collegiality’ is used).

Linked to this is performance related funding.  It is increasingly the case that governments can nudge higher education into line through funding.  Although a degree of central funding is still quite normal around the world, some governments have also introduced elements of performance related funding.  Two areas where this is becoming increasingly evident is teaching and research.  By teaching I don’t really mean the evaluation of quality but rather the move towards student satisfaction surveys in determining levels of government core funding.  The good side of this is the attention it gives to teaching quality.  But in the real world Harvard, Oxford or Yale don’t really have to worry that much about how their teaching is judged because the fact you went to Harvard, Oxford or Yale counts a lot more on your CV that the poor teaching of Professor X.  Where this does impact the most is lower down the academic food chain, on intermediate institutions.

Alongside this is the rise of research as a quality judgement on academic institutions.  High research reputation attracts a lot of money.  It can attract a lot of money from governments looking for a good return on public investment.  We all teach.  We all do administration.  What differentiates one institution from another is research – both quantity and quality.  High research reputation can also attract the brightest faculty and students – and international student fees.  This leads to investment decisions within institutions and therefore what academic life feels like at an individual level.  If you are lower down the ranks this can be experienced as getting pressure from both ends – increased teaching, increased scrutiny of your teaching, and increased pressure to publish and attract research grants.  This can be pretty punishing.  You don’t want to have anything as frivolous as a young family while doing all that.  But, if you are reasonably successful as attracting research funding you can move all of that troublesome teaching and marking down the supply chain to part-time staff and post-graduate students.  In other words you can simultaneously reduce the unit cost of teaching and increase your own time to publish and conduct important scholarly activity such as editing and reviewing.

So, lets imagine a situation where an academic is fielding increased teaching due to the rise in student numbers; is conscious of needing to please their students (this doesn’t actually have to do with quality teaching as such which might not be necessarily pleasurable for students if it takes them out of their comfort zones); is dealing with pressure to publish; is trying to secure research funding; and is conducting their scholarly responsibilities by taking on the role of reviewer for a number of academic journals.

Is it really any surprise that poor, incorrect or bogus articles get published?

We, as a community of scholars, should do what we can to minimise such systemic errors.  But, the real scandal is that education, and higher education, has been made a commodity.  Any sense of the wider purpose of education in the cultivation of a whole person, an ethical citizen, is lost.

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


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


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


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


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?


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.