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.

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.

Great.

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?