Academic Life#1 #AcademicLife

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.


Techniques are what teachers use until the real teacher arrives a #cel260 story


Balthasar van den Bosch – A.M. Koldeweij, P. Vandenbroeck en B. Vermet (2001) Jheronimus Bosch. Alle schilderijen en tekeningen, Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers [enz.], ISBN 9056622196, ill. 131, p. 150. The Conjurer

We welcomed a new intake on our Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course.  Over Tuesday and Wednesday evening 36 lecturers and post-doctoral students arrived with a range of expectations, hopes, and concerns.

Whether career progression was a motivating factor or not, all sought some support to develop their teaching skills and knowledge.  Some would arrive explicitly aiming to grapple with theories of teaching and learning.  All would hope to leave the course with new ‘tricks and tips’, practical techniques that they could employ in their classes NOW.

But ‘tips and tricks’ is a misnomer, since it suggests a separation from theory (and that theory is somehow separate from practice).  Kurt Lewin, a scholar of very practical inclinations, is reputed to have said that,

there is nothing as practical as a good theory

In outlining the curricular intention of the course we exposed the underlying constructivist philosophies of learning, modeling the method we hoped our colleagues would adopt in relation to their own practice.  Why?

The title of this post paraphrases a comment by Parker Palmer about the nature of teaching.  In his inspiring book ‘The Courage to Teach‘ he espouses a manifesto for a heartfelt practice of teaching – teaching as service (as distinct from service teaching).  Part of his thesis is that technique alone is never enough.  We can deploy the most sophisticated or engaging methods, but if they are devoid of a wider purpose they are likely to fail.  The reality is that when we experience a good teacher this wider purpose may not be clearly articulated (to us or to themselves).  So this is not a call to theory dominated teaching.  Rather it links to the questions I think Gert Biesta asks when he seeks to reprieve the language of teaching that seems often neglected by constructivist philosophies.  He asks us to think seriously about what it is we think we teach.

Because our license to practice as university teachers is the PhD (or other similar qualification) we are actually licensed to research.  We are comfortable with our domains and communities of knowledge.  Consequently, we can be mistaken in thinking that what we teach is our subject.  But, Biesta and others suggest, what we teach are views of the world and how we engage with that world.

On the course we expose the underlying constructivist beliefs in order to demonstrate how these weave in and through the techniques we use in class.  The fact that we construct the course around a small number of key concepts (rather than a list of content); that we privilege reflective modes of inquiry; that we promote dialogical engagement are all enactments of the underlying view of knowledge and the knower.  We do not do this in order to recruit them to these philosophies.  Instead, we want them to consider the authenticity of what they do.

What is meant by authenticity here?

Going back to the way we try to model the practice we encourage our colleagues to adopt, we are also hopefully modeling an authentic practice.  Its authenticity does not derive from its proximity to constructivist approaches to teaching, but to an openness to being questioned.  If we want our students to conceive of themselves as makers of the world rather than mere consumers, to be open to different perspectives, to be attentive to the values that underpin and guide their behaviours, then our teaching needs to model that in some way (and in imperfect ways).  We need to teach in ways that show the limits of our practice.


What does it mean to know a place?

I have just overseen the removal of the final bits and pieces (21 boxes to be exact) from the office in my previous employ.

Such events are significant, they mark a passage from one location to another (in this case to a different country).

The institution itself invokes a host of feelings from nostalgia, to regret, to horror, to ambivalence.  But what exactly is an institution?

Yes, there is the building itself – the stairs, carpeted corridors, the lift that was always breaking down forcing a healthy walk on all and sundry.  There is the particular quality of the light at different times of day and year and face of building.

But, while physical places, the geography of a place, can imprint themselves on you, actually it is people that fix a place, and more importantly, frame the quality of place.

The academic literature, in its usual abstracting manner, talks of the way academics identify with their disciplinary tribes, of how our disciplines feature more strongly in our imagination than our institutional location.  So, the theory goes, we identify more with other mathematicians, or historians, or educationalists than with the particular employing institution.

That may be so.

But again I would suggest even here it is the quality of interactions with particular people within the ‘discipline’ that really counts and defines ‘discipline’ for us.

To say I remember a certain institution really what I am saying is that particular interpersonal interactions occurred that animate my pathic memory of that place.  It is the friendships that are important, the folks we continue to think about fondly, to email, to arrange to meet at conferences.  It is also the pain, the hurtful behaviours.  It is the excitement you gained from working with students.

To say I belong to this or that ‘discipline’ is to say something about the social spaces I frequent where I meet particular others, and hope to meet others who I can form qualitatively positive relations with.

The boxes are packed and taken away.  Next week they arrive in a new location.  And in this location I am forming new relations that will be captured by the short term – place, institution.

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.

Every Ghetto, Every City

Great critique of how ‘colour blind’ policies produce racial outcomes

The Disorder Of Things

Really insightful video on displacement in Washington DC from Al Jazeera English. This piece traces a dynamic that is seen across the US and around the globe – including example of residents fighting for a human right to housing and featuring One DC.

And some tunes to go along with the news…

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Migration, the University, and What the Hell is a Knowledge Economy?

I tend to go to work relatively early – not out of any conscientiousness, simply because I wake early and get bored.  While much of the day the corridors and stairways thong with students and faculty going about their ‘knowledge work’, the early morning presents a different kind of labour.  I greet the cleaners, the silent bodies of our public buildings, clearing away the debris left by student and staff alike, making the place ready for another day of knowledge-intensive activity.  There is a sense in which my articulated identity as a knowledge worker, of an academic identity construed in large part by identification with epistemic communities, is quite separate from that of the cleaners I say hello to.  I am forced to contemplate the nature of this encounter, and in particular my privileged position.  I encounter something more than just different functional roles – after all there is a symbiotic relationship here whereby their work makes my work more feasible and comfortable and my work makes it possible to employ them. I find myself entering into an international division of labour, and a very hierarchical one at that.

It has become a truism of late capitalism that we are ‘in’ a period of the ‘knowledge economy’.  The engine of economic growth is seen to be characterised by the ‘added value’ that accrues from human capital, particularly in the form of continuous innovation.  At its most sexy the knowledge economy is represented by bright young things working in high tech companies.  Look at the image below:


The photo is taken from the Google website and comes with the following caption:

We think Google is a great place to work, but don’t just take our word for it. Fortune awarded Google the number one spot in its 2013 list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” This marks our fourth time at the top and the honor reflects our ongoing efforts to create a unique workplace and culture.

We are used to these images.  Bright young things excited and animated, often clustered together in open plan spaces, thinking ‘beyond’…But we do not see the invisible workers that make all that brightness possible.

Office Cleaners

Higher education (and often the term ‘university’ is used) is identified as both a major contributor to the development of the knowledge economy and as a beneficiary of the knowledge economy discourse.  Documents such as Ireland’s ‘Building Ireland’s Knowledge Economy‘ position higher education as a major site for basic research that contributes to an innovation environment.  The ‘Hunt Report‘, which still frames the reform of Irish higher education, contextualises the need for systemic change in terms of the NEED for Ireland to develop as a knowledge economy and innovation society.  Therefore Irish higher education MUST become more aligned with economic goals.  Universities and other institutes of higher education are corralled into a national mission of increasing the stock of human capital and producing the research that will lead to innovation and economic growth.  We are all familiar with the narrative.

Semiotically higher education seeks to achieve a careful balancing trick.  It wants to allude to the status that comes from connections with ‘heritage’ whilst also projecting themselves as leading edge.  But that will have to wait for another time.

We can perhaps view higher education as not just producing knowledge and skill-rich workers but as KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE ORGANISATIONS, indeed KNOWLEDGE-INTENSIVE COMPANIES.

I think this is appropriate for many reasons:

  • Higher education is increasingly positioned as a kind of service industry for the wider economy
  • The policy thrust for greater academic-industry links constructs higher education professionals as involved in using their disciplinary knowledge to support product development and problem solving in industry and wider society
  • There is often a kind of ‘client’ relationship at play
  • The ‘knowledge’ that higher education often deals with, produces, and applies is expert, specialist or esoteric in character.

In conceptualising higher education in this way I am particularly influenced by Mats Alvesson’s discussion of ‘knowledge intensive firms’ and his more recent look at higher education in his book “The Triumph of Emptiness: Consumption, Higher Education, and Work Organization” (I am currently reading this and may write on some of its themes).

Alvesson warns us that apparently self-evident terms such as ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge work’ (let alone ‘being’ a knowledge worker) are ambiguous.  So if the terms by which we seek to portray ourselves are problematic, what about the things we do, the activities we engage in?  To what extent can we be secure that they ARE knowledge (let alone knowledge-intensive) activities.  He suggests that the language and the actions take on a persuasive character, that they work to both convince ourselves and wider publics of the importance and specialness of what we do and who we are.

Work by Alvesson and others resonates with the wisdom expressed in Buddhism about the non-essential nature of all phenomena.

As I walk through the doors and encounter those cleaners I am clear that ‘I am because they are’.  My status as a knowledge worker requires that there are others who are designated as non-knowledge workers. In a kind of zero sum game my fortune is directly at the expense of somebody else’s lesser fortune.  These cleaners are an effect of the expansion of the European Union, the partial welcoming of ‘workers’ (units of human capital) from Poland, Latvia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, places poorer than here.  So, despite being relatively well educated they take on cleaning jobs, they keep our hotels and cafes and restaurants going.  They are (in this ‘service’ position) because I am (able to accrue symbolic and monetary benefit from my association with ‘knowledge’).

When I think about my job, what do I actually do?

Knowledge work is made up of non-knowledge activities especially as imagined in the knowledge economy.  It is made up of the cleaners who maintain my office space, the cooks who prepare my dinner in the canteen, the bus drivers, the shop assistants, the porters, the builders who constructed this building, the workers who make sure that clean water arrives in my tap each day, the often third world children who probably sweated away to make my clothes, the Bangladeshi sailors who made it possible to ship goods across the world for me to consume.  I am because they are.  I make tea and coffee – all of which requires the labour of people I will likely never meet and who often could only dream of the luxury I call normal living.  They are because I am.

They are because I am – I am because they are.

What exactly is this thing called ‘knowledge’ that makes my work, my identity and the institutions I work in so special when it and I are so completely dependent on non-knowledge activities?  There is a deep ethical quality to these questions.  What should my role as a knowledge worker be in the face of the fact that ‘they are because I am’?

A Right To The World: On Syria and an Idea of International Public Order

This thoughtful and thought provoking piece can be seen as an invitation to those of us across academia to reflect carefully upon how our little worlds (our disciplinary and pedagogical concerns, our research and writing plans, our personal and organisational ambitions) relate to larger socio-political movements. In particular I feel it invites us to de-parochaliase our concerns, and to understand the intimate interconnected nature of the world – that my preparations for teaching on Monday afternoon has some connection to the framing of ‘international concern’ over Syria, over Africa. The challenge for me is to figure out how that realisation can be manifest in my daily practice as an academic. Read and enjoy.

The Disorder Of Things

P1 aniang

A guest post from Amy Niang on the contours of ‘international community’, following previous interventions from Siba Grovogui in relation to Libya, Robbie on provinciality in International Relations and John M. Hobson et al. on Eurocentrism in international political theory. Amy teaches international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and she is affiliated with the Centre of Africa’s International Relations (CAIR). She gained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2011. She has taught International Relations, political theory and African history in South Africa, Scotland and Japan. Her research interests are in the history of state formation, political theory and Africa’s international relations, and she has commented regularly on democracy, civil society and Western intervention in Africa.

The Syria crisis has sparked many debates in scholarly and media circles, not least around the way in which the ‘international community’ should exercise its responsibility to Syrians and to…

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