love, narrative and the academic conference

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Love is not something you would immediately associate with an academic conference.  For all their vigour they can also be lonely and brutal places, which is why I have been careful in deciding where, when, and with whom I want to congregate.  Below is a ‘non-report’ from a different kind of conference experience, and takes the form of a piece of ‘flash fiction‘ written during an 8 minute window in a workshop run by Shauna Gilligan (who you can find here and here – depending on which identification suits you).

This was at the 2nd Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference, held at Maynooth University.  I might write something on my experience of the conference but for now I just want to preface the flash fiction with a short observation: rather than a series of monological deliverences, the kind of ‘look at me’ style so redolent of the academic conference, this event (for me) was more akin to community building, of nurturing existing connections, found connections, renewed connections. Sure, there was a certain absence of intellectual interrogation, but that’s fine as such conversations can occur after the event, in more negotiated spaces.  It was a sharing that, in conversations in the conference ‘between spaces’, allowed folks to reflect there (and then and then and later again) without posture.  It was a moment outside the managed CV or the managerial strategic alignment to institutional objectives.  And neither was it about boundary setting and gateways.  There was a sense of free roaming – free range academia?

So, it seems fitting that my first response to this event is to share the flash fiction, the 8 minute novel (thanks Shauna for the opportunity):

I think I hadn’t quite noticed it, Spring.  The blossom on the cherry tree caught my eye as I made my early morning coffee.  How you worried over that tree, the westerly winds blowing in from the sea.  You would rush to the kitchen window and just smile quietly when you saw the pink and white bear up.  And me? The tree was just there; a feature; but easily ignored as I busied myself on whatever project I had in mind – and it usually was IN MY MIND.  How I neglected the delicate blossom; how I failed to catch the coming storm; how I failed to run to the kitchen and check on this beautiful thing.  I sip my coffee and think on all I have neglected and how I am left OUT OF MY MIND.

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The place of love in open and engaged scholrship

TJC

 

The other day I took part in my first ‘Twitter Journal Club’ (#TJC15) facilitated by Laura Gogia from Virginia Commonwealth University’s AltLab.  The experience was exciting, disruptive, thoughtful.  Lots of things.  You can see the various streams here.

This TJC event occurred at a moment when I am re-thinking my sense of being an academic.  Indeed, the term academic sometimes feels awkward, especially, as Pat Thomson forcefully notes, at a time when scholarship as inquiry is increasingly being forged into the language of ‘brand’, and particularly the way academic CVs are ‘managed’ so that they contribute more directly to the (business) strategy of our institutions.  Like Pat I am about to work with a group of colleagues on developing research career strategies.  She asserts that she is not a BRAND and in doing so is working against the current flow in higher education.  Let Pat talk for herself:

Brand, narrative, what’s the difference really? Yet it still feels that the idea of a narrative is not the same as the idea of a brand. The terms come from somewhere different, and that matters. A narrative doesn’t emanate from a market even if it’s been put to work in one. And a narrative is perhaps not simply a one-thing, but is able to hold together in some tension different aspects of an academic life. It’s not homogenous. It doesn’t represent a singular product or self, if you like. And maybe the idea of narrative opens up more room for the interpreter too – the listener or reader who makes their own mind up about what a narrative means. Maybe a reader is a bit different from being a customer who buys something – or not. Maybe the interpreter is a role description which encompasses broader social and institutional politics and personal idiosyncracies.

Let me step back to the Twitter Journal Club for a moment.

In this space we co-created, we engaged in practices that were not bounded by the culture of ‘managed CVs’.  Yet, the practice was scholarly.  Indeed PRACTICE is the key term here, both in relation to the content of the paper we were discussing (such an interesting verb when used in relation to Twitter) and the activity we were engaged in.

Journal Clubs are part of ‘normal’ academic business, particularly within certain disciplines in the sciences.  One key rationale for such an activity is to bring doctoral students and faculty together around a number of central academic functions such as:

  • keep up to date with research within the discipline/field of study
  • assess students’ competencies in key academic skills
  • create a sense of belonging to a scholarly community within the institution and with a wider scholarly community.

But there was something refreshingly NOT NORMAL about our venture in the twittersphere.

Talking to some colleagues about how journal clubs are used in their disciplines/departments one theme often emerges – that it confronts students with the ‘reality’ of scholarly practice, of the “cut and thrust” of debate, of having to “defend oneself”.  Admittedly some colleagues refer to this culture as one that is not conducive to producing the kind of graduate attributes that they value, especially notions of openness and sharing of work.  Others, though, see it as a necessary part of the socialisation of students into ‘normal’ scholarly practice.

So let me focus a little bit more on PRACTICE in this context.

There is an interesting strand within scholarly reflections on PROFESSIONAL EDUCATION that are framed by sociocultural perspectives.  Again, it is best to let folks speak for themselves on this, then I will add my own spin on it:

It avoids treating material things as mere appendages to human intention and design, or as traces of human culture. Among perspectives that seem to be part of this pervasive shift, the material world is treated as continuous with and in fact embedded in the immaterial and the human. Therefore in this discus- sion, the term ‘sociomaterial’ is used to represent perspectives that are argued to form part of this shift.

Tara Fenwick , Monika Nerland & Karen Jensen (2012) Sociomaterial approaches to conceptualising professional learning and practice, Journal of Education and Work, 25:1, 1-13, DOI:10.1080/13639080.2012.644901

The idea of practice as the site of knowing questions the prevailing over-rationalist view of knowing in organisations by undercutting the idea that “individual subjects [are] the source of meaning and normativity” (Schatzki 2001, p. 12)…..Moreover, the inherent focus on knowing as a collective and heterogeneous endeavour establishes interesting connections between the site-based view and other approaches that understand cognition as a distributed phenomenon

Davide Nicolini, (2011) Practice as the Site of Knowing: Insights from the Field of Telemedicine. Organization Science 22(3):602-620.

What I take from these discussions is the idea of LEARNING as embedded and distributed in and across a wide array of practices, and that knowledge is accomplished or enacted in the contexts of practice rather than as something we transmit from our brains to our eyes, mouths and fingers through language – such as reading an academic article, writing notes, and speaking to the paper in a journal club.  Also, knowing, learning and practice are inherently collective endeavours.  Knowing as a distributed phenomena is enacted with and through the material objects our human bodies are entangled in and with.

For me, there is something distinct about the way we were coming to KNOW in the context of practice that was the Twitter Journal Club compared to how I understand journal clubs to often run.  Different kinds of knowing are constituted, different assemblages of practice cohering around the collective activities, different potential ‘selves’ enacted.

There was a beautiful symmetry in the enactments we were engaged in the other day and the content of the paper we discussed.  The paper, ‘Teacher Experiences and Academic Identity: The Missing Components of MOOC Pedagogy‘ dealt with the troubled identifications of a team of scholars in the context of what they call a hybrid MOOC.  In the paper they discuss the way they negotiated their presence in the MOOC environment; of experimenting  ‘with an ethos of scale, and with a notion of the teacher as present, but radically outnumbered’ (62); of being caught between being positioned as the locus of authority and of being lost in a distributed network of knowledgeable participants. They became aware that the teacher did not suddenly become invisible simply because the educative activity was taken out of the classroom to digital space.  Contrary to connectivist theories they saw that learning and knowledge did not simply arise out of the network, but was always and necessarily situated.  All participants came with histories, philosophies, dispositions.  The ‘network’ was a network in a particular space at a particular time, and involved a specific arrangement of concepts, theories, algorithms, terminology and material objects (that constitute the physical structure and organisation of the digital).  The specific positionings of ‘teacher’ or ‘student’ could not be prefigured by a theory but were enacted in the practices of logging in, typing, reading, as well as the keyboards, screens, cables, etc.  Our identities are performed and accomplished in the doings and sayings (including text) of the MOOC environment.

For the purpose of my discussion here, though, it is important that the paper discusses the way the practice of teaching was disrupted by the specific context of enactment – a hybrid-MOOC.  While the teaching team approached the practical task of running the hybrid-MOOC on the basis of collective knowledge (the inherited knowledge of what to do in this kind of situation – know-how), the hybrid nature of the enterprise and their particular philosophical approach (which inserted them as visible if uncertain actors in the MOOC) disrupted the usual ‘ongoingness’ of their practice.  Suddenly the know-how was not so un-thought; they had to think about what they were doing and why.

Similarly, our Twitter Journal Club was disruptive of the collective knowledge we brought to the event.  We constituted new or revised practices in-situ, in the actual typing-reading-thinking-scratching- sitting-watching; in the computational power of the algorithms that make tweeting possible.  Though each individual would bring different sets of experience of tweeting and ‘reviewing’ academic texts, we brought some collective knowledge of the core tasks.  However, the situation was different enough to make the process of doing very evident.  We were, I would suggest, making it up as we went along.  Our ‘learning’ to DO the task (a Twitter Journal Club) was distributed across a range of concepts, physical actions, and material objects that were brought together in a relatively unique arrangement.  And, of course, we will get better at it, because the more we DO it, the more certain tasks become un-thought, become part of the ongoing condition of accomplishing a Twitter Journal Club.

But what about LOVE?

Well, it just so happened that parallel to me engaging with the Twitter Journal Club I was reading a Hybrid Pedagogy article that spoke directly to the practices of ‘normal’ academic reviewing.  This led to reading HP’s policy on Collaborative Peer Review.  While some of the process, in particular making it up in-situ, was demanding, there was a real sense that all the participants CARED for each other.  We weren’t dismantling the paper.  Instead we mobilised it to generate discussion and lots of questions about PRACTICE.  While we did not make it explicit, there was a sense in which we cared for the authors of the paper, we respected their endeavour and their invitation to think.  It was  a PEDAGOGICAL activity.

I give the closing words to the authors of the HP article ‘Love in the Time of Peer Review‘:

Just as in pedagogical spaces, where we learn through peering review and peer reviewing — peer review is an opportunity to learn and teach simultaneously. In this way we transform scholarship into pedagogy and pedagogy into a form of love.

(Marisol BritoAlexander FinkChris FriendAdam Heidebrink-BrunoRolin MoeKris ShafferValerie Robin and Robin Wharton )