the neglect of ‘things’ in university learning – an initial inquiry


Models, illustrations and diagrams serve, together with mathematical signs, as basic epistemological tools in science

(Cathrine Hasse 2008 Postphenomenology: Learning Cultural Perception in Science)

Recently I had the pleasure of observing a pharmacology lab practical.  As a neophyte academic developer I felt that it was important to familiarise myself with what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines, and so not rely solely on my own disciplinary perspective and theory.  And this is where pharmacology comes in.

My own academic background is in education, and more specifically the sociology of education, and in recent years in the study of higher education. Although my move into academic development is requiring a re-forming of my structure of knowledge and practice, I am still operating in familiar landscapes.  Recognising that many of my colleagues who participate in our courses do not approach this domain with familiarity – of concepts, language, genre of writing, etc., I wanted to put myself in situations where I had to struggle to become familiar.

And so, I found myself in a crowded chemistry laboratory, a guest of the pharmacology department.

As I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory & posthumanism.  I have written previously about my interest in practice theory and  how this could inform academic development.  So I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive.  Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the lab activity.  That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds.

As I observed the way pairs of students sought to align each other and align themselves with the apparatus, technology and chemicals, an idea slowly emerged.  And this idea is taking the form of some ‘continuous publishing‘ whereby I will use this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking with the intention of writing an article over the coming weeks.

I begin by sharing with you some initial notes from my research journal.

Snippet 1:

My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation.  As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education.  It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning which are distinctly humanist.  As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference.  Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related.  I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human.  In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice.  Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.

Snippet 2:



Over the coming days I attempt to clarify my understanding of the two main literatures of posthumanism (as related to science and learning) and practice theory.  The entries will, of necessity, be disjointed, provisional, EMERGENT.

That’s Fine in Theory – But What Use is it in Practice? More contemplations on ‘Troubling Reading’

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.]



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 Being a Student – When Lecturers Become Students

What IS  a student?

Seems an obvious answer to say somebody who participates in a programme of study.

For me the possible answers become many and complex if we reconsider such terms as ‘programme of study’.  Despite the long history of universities, surprisingly little academic study has been done on the nature of teaching and learning, and the attendant subjectivities of ‘lecturer’ and ‘student’, and even less on the nature of ‘curriculum’.

The problematic meaning of curriculum, and therefore learning and teaching in higher education are the focus of my current ‘teaching’.  Working on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education this semester’s theme is Curriculum Design & Assessment.  We kicked off with a contribution from Dr Kelly Coate (King’s College, London) where she discussed, amongst other things, a framework for inquiring into curriculum. Continue reading

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.

Have you ever had a student walk out of your class? I did, but should I feel good about it?

Empty classroom in 56 St. building


I have recently finished a busy weekend of teaching on a doctoral study school.  When asked how it went my immediate response is to state that a student walked out.  This is met, so far, with a little hesitation as the recipient of this news struggles to find an adequate response.

Possible responses might include:

  • Oh dear, what went wrong?
  • What did you do to make her leave?
  • Are you OK?

As they pause, ever so slightly, perhaps looking for a polite way to comment on this extraordinary revelation, I have added: “..and I take it as a badge of honour”.

That really sets the internal narratives going awry.

Of course, I say this a little tongue in cheek, but only a little.

It’s not that I am actually proud that a student felt so frustrated that they walked out.  It was certainly not my intent to irritate and annoy.  But irritate and annoy I did.  But disrupt, upset?  Well, in part, yes.

It appears that the first rumblings of discontent began early in the weekend.

It is at this point that I need to state that I had this group of students for the whole weekend.  This is rather unusual in our programme.  The study schools are for working professionals undertaking a professional doctorate in education.  Normal practice is for students to experience a series of one-off lecture type sessions within an overall theme.  The module I co-ordinate is modelled differently.  On paper there is a more explicit coherence to the structure, flow and content.  Built around the thematic title of ‘Approaches to Educational Policy Research’, the stated aim of the module is to introduce students to the field of education policy studies.  The students are provided with a smaller set of pre-readings than usual.  These readings have a dual purpose of providing them with subject content whilst also signposting different ways of approaching the study of education policy.  The structure of the weekend is primarily organised around a set of linked and guided activities through which it is hoped students enhance their understanding of a number of key research approaches and appreciate the role of policy in their forthcoming research.  Apart from the initial introductory session, the remainder of the weekend entails structured student inquiry and tutor facilitated reflection.

What perhaps makes this module different is that there is very little ‘content’, and hardly any ‘delivery’.  This is deliberate.  It is also what appeared to cause some upset.

The first news of possible discontent arrived at my door on the Sunday morning, that is following a full day of activity on the Saturday, and just before the students delivered their presentations.  As with the overall design of the module I made clear that the presentations themselves were less important than the discussions that the students engaged in the process of working towards the presentations.  Similarly, some of the ’empirical’ material for the weekend (a particular piece of English education reform) was a vehicle for engaging with a number of important strands in educational research thinking.   I was informed by a student that some of their colleagues had registered an unhappiness with the seeming lack of ‘content’ in the module.

I felt unsettled by this.  My internal narratives immediately began accusing me of ‘failing’ the students, of not being a ‘good teacher’, etc.  I had to pause, disrupt the flow of mental agitation.

In this pause came to mind a Zen story that I felt spoke to the situation.  The story goes something like this:

A university professor came to a great Zen master to learn about Zen.  The Zen master invited the professor to take tea with him.  The Zen master began to pour the tea into the guest’s cup, and continued to pour, and pour, the tea overflowing and spilling on the floor.  Eventually, the professor could hold back no more and called on the Zen master to stop pouring the tea.  Thinking, perhaps, that the master was inattentive the professor asked the master to recognise the error he had made, that “the cup is full, no more will go in”.  In response the Zen master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and pre-conceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”.

At the time I saw this as referring to the students wanting to be ‘filled’ with content.   A number of questions then formulated in my mind, questions I thought I could use in response to what I anticipated as a chorus of complaints about the ‘lack’ of content:

  • How much content would you require to feel full?
  • Is information the same as knowledge?
  • Is knowledge the same as understanding?

My speculations and anticipations were to be confounded.  No questions about content arose during the student presentations.  All seemed well after all.  The final session involved a structured activity to guide the students to think and plan for their module assignment.  They had already been provided with an assignment brief.  Again this differed slightly from practice in the programme where students were often provided with suggested assignment questions or titles.  As an indication of my pedagogic stance I made clear that I would not field questions that asked for direct guidance, that such questions were a matter for discussion between students and their assignment tutor.  Instead, having gone through the guided activity I invited them to share their initial thoughts on their assignment.  The first student outlined their plan and suggested how it might help them build towards their thesis research.


Then the next student asked the following type of question: ‘Should I do this or that?”.

I tried to reflect the question back by reframing it so that it directed the student to the dilemma they felt in relation to the task – that is, what did the assignment brief ask them to consider and did they think their initial ideas helped them address that brief?

“But should I do this or that?”.

Again, another round of attempts to reframe or redirect the dependent question.

I thought that maybe it was now clear that I would not answer dependent questions.  But no.  It was as if I had actually said: “Please. please, let me tell you what is right and what is wrong”.

Even though a number of students started to intervene to suggest ways their colleagues might reframe their questions there was still this insistence to pose dependent questions.

My frustration grew.

Faced with another dependent question I eventually called a stop.  I made it clear that I would not answer such questions.

At this point a student stood up stating that if I wasn’t going to tell them anything she might as well go.  In this statement she claimed that I was saying that they could do whatever they wanted.

She left.

There was a pause.

What would I do?

Would this anger spread and a mass walkout occur?

What an interesting construction of the pedagogy.  By not telling students what to do to ‘pass the test’ then anything counted.  But of course, that logic is incorrect.  Let me explain, as I did to the remaining students.

I felt I needed to make explicit my pedagogic stance.  So let me go back to the Sen story earlier and use it to explicate what I thought was going on in that weekend.

A university professor came to a great Zen master to learn about Zen.

It could be argued that there was a presumption on the part of many students that weekend that ‘doctoral’ study was matter of ‘learning’ from a ‘master’ explicator (as Jacques Rancière would put it).  That is, enter a relationship structured around one who knows and one who lacks such knowledge.  You could say that most education enacts this social arrangement.

But what is the problem with ‘learning’ in this context?

The Zen master invited the professor to take tea with him.  The Zen master began to pour the tea into the guest’s cup, and continued to pour, and pour, the tea overflowing and spilling on the floor.  Eventually, the professor could hold back no more and called on the Zen master to stop pouring the tea.  Thinking, perhaps, that the master was inattentive the professor asked the master to recognise the error he had made, that “the cup is full, no more will go in”.

In refusing the role of ‘master explicator’ not only was the presumption of the social order challenged but by explicitly refusing both this role and the relational ‘other’ – the student as unknowing, this placed back upon students the burden of freedom – the reality that a certain ontological choice was made, a role identified.  There are times when learning, when doctoral education, is and perhaps should be uncomfortable.  Perhaps it is those moments of existential disruption that the most powerful learning occurs.

 In response the Zen master said: “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and pre-conceptions. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”.

What is our responsibility then as educators?  Is it to ‘satisfy’ students as customers?  Is it to validate ourselves by seeking their approval, even love?  Or is it to invite them, in all its uncomfortableness, to recognise the presumptions they bring on entering the classroom (to recognise our own presumptions both pedagogic and psychic) and to empty them and open themselves to understanding and wisdom?

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.