For now, our own

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

Maha Bali, ‘Reproducing marginality,’ September 2016

We so easily forget our bodies.

Mary Freer, ‘This body goes to work,’ August 2016

Over the last week I’ve been skirting a significant conversation begun by Maha Bali (“I don’t own my domain, I rent it“) and continued by Audrey Watters (“A domain of ones own in a post-ownership society“). Never far away is Andrew Rikard’s Edsurge post “Do I own my domain if you grade it?”

The question for me is how the idea of “own” works as a metaphor. It’s complicated enough as it is: my own, to own, owned, owned. We own our mistakes, we own our work, we own our politics, and none of this is quite like the way we own our homes—which for most of our working lives means some version of renting, in a funhouse world in which access to credit, like debt itself, has become an asset.

Conceptually, home ownership makes an ironic pass at all this, promising dominion over property that is actually quite a temporary thing in geohistorical time. Home ownership offers a misleading sense of permanence in relation to our provisional space in the world. A home that’s owned is always haunted by both its past and future. Far from sheltering us against the churn of things, it’s a daily reminder that we’re not here for long.

And inside our own homes where we might think of ourselves as free to do as we please, we remain legal subjects, subordinated to the local laws or ways of being to which our citizenship is bent. We house our human bodies, our social selves, our presentability. Our houses face the street; and behind the scenes, who knows what.

As legal subjects, we have modest rights to allow our homes to fall into disrepair, although these are limited by heritage considerations, public health and safety and so on. Zoning laws fence us in. Meanwhile there are all the social obligations of habitation to keep up: from the pragmatics of rent, rates, taxes, body corporate fees and utilities, to the labour of being a considerate neighbour, maintaining a yard, planting a tree that will outlive you. All this takes some skill, some literacy. No one really remembers how we learned to pay bills, or manage our garbage, but we do.

The implication that ownership of things is the beginning of practice of civic participation is something we both assume and overlook when we use ownership as a tech metaphor, without thinking ahead to use. It’s as if the ownership of a domain becomes an end in itself. Domain names are fetishised, like novelty license plates. They’re collectable and tradable, despite having no inherent functionality except to indicate an empty lot where something might be built, or a lot where something has been abandoned, that might be recaptured at a price for a new project. But achieving naming rights in the use of a domain doesn’t come with the skills you need to know what to do next, how to build what people will find if they search at those coordinates.

This is where I’ve come to in the conversation about whether personal domain ownership is a useful or socially equitable project for higher education. Maha’s post set off a deep and thoughtful exchange among some of higher education’s most experienced and engaged champions of student and personal blogging. Really, go read through those comments, they’re a model for the conversations we should have when we think about bringing tech innovation as a requirement into the lives of others.

As companion pieces, I read Maha’s further post on how things get paid for in Egypt; Audrey’ post on the impact of student debt on credit score; and two articles by Tressie McMillan Cottom, on the $20 principle and on preferential student recruitment as reparations for slavery (spoiler: it’s not reparations.) Then I fell into this exchange on Twitter about the critical importance of making small barriers to educational participation visible, kicked off by Robin deRosa reminding her students  to bring a credit card and working laptop to class.

To lower these barriers while keeping them visible, which is very much Robin’s project, we have to get much better at noticing them. We need to be scrupulous in attending to the assumptions that lie behind our metaphors, our proposals, our sense of being agents for change largely on the side of the good. We are teaching people with different life experience than our own–different educational capital, cultural capital, actual capital. I teach students for whom a missed shift at work may mean a lost job in a sinkhole local economy; a required online textbook with a digital key may prevent joining the class at all; a credit card may already be maxed or cut up; a laptop may be both so cheap and so broken that it’s hard to see through the cracked screen. All of these are actual barriers to participation that actual students have discussed with me in the last four weeks.

And it’s easy to say that we have policies or options for students who can’t do what we expect, and measures to show that they are in a tiny minority; but in reality we rarely check what disadvantage and/or risk comes with our Plan B. We don’t think nearly enough about students for whom the language of digital making is unfamiliar, or the demands of content generation are disempowering and demoralising. We don’t adequately accommodate the students who have poor internet access, exhausted data plans, or have to do everything through a second hand phone.

So when we say that it’s a good thing for students to own their domain, we need to ask what we mean by owning, and what we think home might be as a metaphor–especially given that the metaphor for our times is not home ownership, or even post-ownership; it’s homelessness.

It’s the global political scale of this homelessness, the mobility of whole populations for whom the modern projects of both nation and property have entirely fallen apart, that presses an anxiety of ownership on the rest of us. Having a home is more than a matter of shelter, it’s the presentation of a certain kind of survivorship, assessed in cultural competence, the assertion of literacy, the visible privilege of know-how. And like home ownership, domain ownership is the practice of insiders, survivors, using the skills and languages that flex their cultural power by asking to be taken entirely for granted, not just in terms of what appears on the screen but increasingly in terms of the coding that lies beneath it.

This weekend I walked past a house that I like. It’s in a gentrifying Sydney neighbourhood, defying the trend. It’s been taken over by an unpruned wisteria draped over its rotting balcony; curtains are never pulled back from its verandah doors. Who knows what’s inside? Who lets their property, in Sydney of all places, fall into this unproductive, vegetative state? But now there’s a notice stapled to the fence. Development is planned. The house will be demolished and replaced. There will be a plunge pool. This abandoned property will retake its place in the proper, and properly owned will become an asset to the whole neighbourhood in house price uplift.

Ownership can never be less of a public spectacle than this. It’s whole point is to be knowable by others, to turn exclusivity of access and control towards a model of social order and a vision of security that will miraculously extend to all, including those who are most obviously excluded. Owning and gentrifying are inseparable economic forces. So when we talk about securing a domain of one’s own, we’re also talking about this privatising vision of the proper—and we’re at risk of missing the fragile, important lesson that just as with homes, the security of ownership is always measured against the temporality of the bodies walking past.

Note: This blog is parked with Reclaim Hosting, for whom my admiration is unreserved. None of the questions I’m asking here are a criticism of their model.

US/not us

We need to have more conversations with people who are not us.

Chris Gilliard, #DigPed, August 2016


It’s 5am. It’s dark outside, and cold inside. My daughter’s in the kitchen banging cupboard doors and making coffee. She’s up to watch the Olympics, and she wants company. Blearily we straggle out to join her and slump on the couch under blankets, trying to figure out what’s happening. Skeet shooting, what is that?

Divers fall from the sky in apparently perfect synchronisation. They enter the water like needles. Judges manage to find something wrong. We marvel at the judges.

The television advertising of Australia’s major Olympic sponsors relays us back to ourselves over and over. Look, it’s us, up in the dark, our sleepy faces lit by the television screen, watching what’s happening on the other side of the world.

We show up.


It’s 5am. I’m up early to be part of a time-sychronised workshop for the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I can’t point to Fredericksburg on a map, so I look it up. Wait, it’s that  Fredericksburg.Screenshot 2016-08-12 09.48.23

I grew up near that  Stonehenge so I know what it means to live in a place that has an overbearing past. In thick places, the tourist economy alibis history, sustains its double bluff: that we’re both done with its troubles, and so vigilant about it that we won’t repeat it.

Except until we do, in some form or another.

The workshop participants are collaborative, generous, thoughtful. They make time in their lives for us all to put our thoughts together, to try to understand what we think we know when we know where someone is from, and guess where they were born, and double somersault from there to the impressions we have about places, countries, cultures. They write their hopes for the workshop left-handedly to get a sense of what it feels like to be using techniques and technologies designed for (and by) a dominant culture.

People who are left-handed recognise each other at this moment, like two Australians at a northern hemisphere conference.


In a Google document we crowdsource knowledge of South Africa, Egypt and Australia, where we three facilitators work. The Australian field fills up in a familiar way:

Coral Reef, Great Ocean Road, Rabbit Proof fence,Kangaroos, outback, Vast and funky landscape, PY Media, the Opera House, Sydney Island


Crocodile dundee

But that’s not all. Because someone knows about the Nauru files, and that the Australian government we have just re-elected are destroying a generation of already homeless refugee children, on the grounds that this might save others from drowning at sea. Australians have seemed to go along with this lesser-of-evils calculation. But the details are becoming too much to bear.

This is the report of a witnessed assault by a guard on a 5 year old child because she was running through a tent.

With his left hand he hit her across the back of the head. It was very forceful – he hit her so hard it lifted her off her feet and sent her crashing to the ground.

Our Minister for Immigration responds to the stories contained in the Nauru Files with a lack of compassion so astonishing that our mouths fill with sand:

People have self-immolated to get to Australia.

Clearly never having met a fourth degree burn survivor, that is what he said.


Back in the workshop, we raise questions of power and silencing. We think about whether we need more rules, or fewer rules, for international online learning. We wonder if organically forming communities have an inherent tendency to marginalise the unexpected visitor—and not just in spite of the diligently inclusive language they use to value all their members, but because whenever belonging is made visible in the formation of a community, it is always coded by those who control the invitation to belong.

Derrida’s conditional hospitality is never far away, when we speak about what we can do to make others feel included.

Last week a brief exchange on whether a call for papers on the experiences of women of colour in education meant to say “US education” or was really open to others, sent me back to Barthes’ discussion of exnomination. In his essay on the function of myth in distributing power, Barthes points out that the most powerful in any situation will not need to name themselves, and indeed will seek to demonstrate their power by reserving for themselves the default position. The most powerful are those who can establish their own status as the one that never needs to be qualified.

President. Woman president.

There, you saw it.

Barthes’ focus is the bourgeoisie, the class who do not wish to name themselves. His idea was picked up in 2000 by linguist Robin Lakoff, who expanded it usefully to look at dominant groups in general, and the tactical unnaming of privilege.

If you are a member of the dominant group, your attributes are invisible, as your role in making things the way they are is not noticeable.

For all of us who work as educators, and especially those of us who work in edtech, the American college system has fully achieved this status. It is the default that doesn’t have to name itself. I have sat in LMS demonstrations watching a video of everyday US college life as the roadmap for vendor planning for us. And no one raised an eyebrow, because we’re used to this across every surface of soft cultural power, where the US dominates to the point that we forget we’re not thinking our own thoughts.

Hi Professor Bowles,

I hope your summer is going well! 

I wanted to reach out to invite you to participate in our ‘Professor Pulse’ study. This project aims to collect data and insights into professors’ sentiments on current issues and topics in higher education – everything from tenure, to student apathy, to school administration.

Hi Lauren. It’s winter here. Our professorial system is entirely different to yours. You don’t mean me, you really don’t.

But if Nauru teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t change global power by wrestling a bit of it for ourselves, and then punching down.


Here’s the hopeful part. International online networks are becoming a new kind of everyday, and they sensitise us all to the defaults we each use, and impose on others. This morning’s workshop was followed by a conversation about identity and difference in digital pedagogy with educators Sherri Spelic, Annemarie Perez, Miriam Neptune and Chris Gilliard. I asked Chris what he expects US educators to learn from the presence of others in their workshops, their conversations, their sense of the scope of “education” when they say it.

Chris’ answer went to the heart of how we achieve change by showing up. So if we want Americans to stop thinking of the rest of the world as the exotic, the underserved market, being present is the place to begin. We need to make time to hear from each other in workshops like this, at a scale that we can work with. We need to promote listening well as an activist practice. And as educators we have to lead this process, and centre it in our teaching.

We need have more conversations with people who are not us.

Warmest thanks to all the workshop participants, co-facilitators Paul Prinsloo and Maha Bali, and Chris Gilliard, activist educator.

Sit down

An update on being white in Australia, racist cartooning, and whether we can stop it, and step in.

Update: #IndigenousDads

Because things go on happening.

So our leading national newspaper publishes a cartoon that makes absolutely no sense without being overtly and purposefully racist, because that’s the core of the point that it’s making: that delinquent parenting is a racial predisposition. There is no other interpretation of it because that is what the cartoon itself is intending to say. That is its whole punchline.

Across many channels including Twitter, people protest. The cartoonist, who is also hostile to social media, trends on Twitter, drawing a small crowd to the event of this cartoon.

The cartoon is immediately defended by the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Paul Whittaker, who writes that “confronting and insightful cartoons force people to examine the core issues in a way that sometimes reporting and analysis can fail to do”. He mentions prominent Aboriginal leaders who he claims will agree with him about cartoons like this. There is no sign that they do or that he checked with them before making this claim.

The cartoonist himself then doubles down on it with a fresh cartoon about a cartoonist telling the truth about race and being funny at the same time, facing a kicking from a weirdly bearded thug in a Twitter logo t-shirt. As an aside, if you’re looking for a simple illustration of the process by which racial bullying gets redefined as race victimhood, this second cartoon will do it for you. But I’m not going to link to it.

The cartoonist then pops up on television explaining that he can’t possibly be racist, and that anti-racism is the worst form of racism. You couldn’t make this up.

The cartoonist is the clickbait gift that keeps on giving, especially for the newspaper that makes space for his contorted thinking and calls it “insightful”. He’s got form for exactly this on many topics, including Muslim Australians, and he is as insightful on race as a drunk white Australian on a tram or in a footy crowd.

But if his racism isn’t insightful, Paul Whittaker’s right about a thing: it is confronting. It’s the everyday racism that confronts people who are not white in this country, and this everyday racism draws us all in, including those of us who are never confronted by it, and those who can choose to be offended by the idea that we should have legal standards to protect others from being obstructed by it.

The cartoon has been protested by many organisations and writers.

New Matilda has published a list of companies advertising in The Australian, with clear, practical guidelines on how to ask them to reconsider their support of a newspaper that makes space for this material and then defends its sledgehammer racism as insightfully superior to actual journalism, you know, the kind that involves actual research and evidence-based analysis. This is an extraordinary position for the editor-in-chief of a surviving print newspaper that employs, you know, actual journalists.

One of the listed companies, Suncorp Bank, has cancelled its advertising in The Australian. You’d hope that the National Australia Bank would do the same.

Political leaders have spoken up, although it’s hard not to suspect that some are glad of something else to focus on than what’s actually happening in Australian prisons, or the Australian Senate.

The leader of the Australian Greens also suggests a complaint to the Press Council:

All of this is what you’d hope for from national leaders. It’s the professional political class stepping up to do the things that they claim in electoral campaigns they will do: stand for something decent, something worth following, ideals worth defending.

But for white Australians this is really a time to sit down, in sorrow. We have to admit that if this cartoon and every other racist bus rant like it is still out there, and we still need explicit defence in our Racial Discrimination Act against hateful speech—because we do—then we haven’t got this. We have screwed this one, historically and continuously, and we have no realistic plan for making a meaningful dent in it.

Graffiti: listen
Listen (2009), Emily Flores (CC BY-ND 2.0) – details below

So instead of talking about what we think we should do, it’s time to sit down and listen to people who know exactly what this situation means, and how it has to be acknowledged before it can be improved.

Luke Pearson, @IndigenousX founder, fired up on the NITV website:

It appears as though White Australia also doesn’t need to acknowledge those Aboriginal people who actually work to address these issues or take into account that their job is made infinitely harder by government funding cuts and policy changes – it can all just sit back, laugh and absolve itself of any role in creating these problems and more importantly, of being a part of the solution.

And that is the take home of simplifying these issues to ‘parents are drunks, and they are responsible for all of this’, and adding the caveat of ‘and it’s funny’ not only removes Australia of any agency or culpability in the conversation, it actively encourages the ridicule and hatred of the people being laughed at.

Read the whole thing. Read about how he sees this as a leader, and as a father.

Chelsea Bond wrote this in The Conversation:

Leak’s cartoon reminds us of the need to interrogate and scrutinize what white men are saying and doing to black Australia (men, women and children) and the lived consequences of these commentaries, caricatures and policies on the lives of black people in this country. This abuse at the hands of white men has so often been hidden beneath a rhetoric of “protection” and “truth”.

Read the whole thing. Read about how all this feels to someone who is raising her family in the teeth of this racism that thinks of itself as insightful.

Sure, it’s humiliating for us to feel this powerless and stupid just because we’re white, and to admit that from invasion to yesterday white people have brewed this up, and stood by, and let it steep. But let’s not expand on our stupidity by being indignant in this moment.

We have else nothing now to offer except to sit down, show respect, and listen well.

photo credit: “Listen” (2009) by Emily Flores, shared on Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

Stop it, step in

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in.

Colleen Lavelle, Subversive Racism, Aug 2016


I’m sitting in the rain in my car listening to the radio, waiting for my daughter. There’s a senior corrections officer from the Northern Territory on the phone to the radio station explaining why restraints are used on “challenging prisoners”. He’s talking about Malcolm Morton, an Aboriginal man who has an intellectual disability and has been strapped to “the chair” 17 times in four years.

He has all the words in the right order, the rehearsed explanations of safety and benefit and conscience and proper governance. He’s trying to make “the chair” into something that sounds like good practice, a practice of care. These are words that have been put on his tongue.

Tressie Mcmillan Cottom taught me the phrase “cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

He says it’s the worst week he’s ever had.

Until the last couple of weeks, Australians could be sorted into those who knew about “the chair“, and those who had no idea.

Now we can sort ourselves into those who are still shocked, angry and disbelieving, and those who are exhausted by their fellow citizens’ ability to keep being surprised by the reality of what’s going on in this country. We’re playing the stupidest game of catch-up in the world. We are barely on the map of this continent’s history and we keep claiming that we’ve arrived, we get it, we’re in this. We take to the streets again, or Twitter, or wherever it is that we express our concerns.

We have no idea.


Colleen Lavelle is a blogger who has entirely reshaped my sense of what it means to be an Australian with cancer. She has shared her own story of living with a brain tumour with extraordinary generosity: working with cancer, living with cancer, being a parent with cancer, managing debt with cancer, dealing with cancer drugs and cancer professionals and setbacks and fears and anger.

Time and again I’ve gone to her blog when I just need to hear the voice of someone who knows that there are days when all of these things are messed up.

But I also go because I’m a narrative researcher and Colleen does this incredible thing: other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share their cancer stories with her, and she puts them out on her blog. Thanks to her, there’s a platform where the hidden voices of cancer care get heard, where people get to speak about having cancer while Black, having cancer in a country and healthcare system that is entirely failing to get to grips with structural racism.

Because cancer patients don’t just have cancer. We do other stuff. We drive cars and rent homes and stand in lines at the shops, and absolutely every one of these simple, self-affirming efforts at keeping it together while having cancer is messed up for Colleen in a way that it will never be for me.

How do you fight the system that leaves you out? How to you gain real equality when you are profiled and stereotyped? As a patient, I have been denied pain relief because of the colour of my skin. I have had medical professionals assume that I drink and take drugs. How do you fight against an entire health system? How do you deal with the police that pull you over because you are a black person in a new car? Don’t think it doesn’t happen because it does, it has been happening for years.

Please read the rest of what she has to share.


In her last blog, ever practical, Colleen suggested that she doesn’t need white Australians to march or tear our hair or feel bad. She needs simple, practical, direct action.

If you are white, you can make sure where you work, doesn’t do this, look around you and if you see something happening stop it or step in. It’s not hard to say ” That lady was first” when shopping, When you vote, ensure that you are not voting for a bigot. Read about Aboriginal people and I am not talking just the negative stuff in the papers but positive and novels. Get involved in local activities to show your support and be willing to learn.

I work in higher education. And on the days where I wonder how print newspapers survive, I know that one way is that large institutions like the university where I work have multiple subscriptions to the daily papers. I wander round offices and there they are, put out and tidied away at the end of the day. I respect and admire many journalists who write for these papers, and I know it’s important that we try to keep some kind of national conversation going, for which national newspapers are still pretty well set up.

But The Australian, our most national newspaper, which to be honest rarely fails to disappoint on some level or another, has today responded to the national crisis in Indigenous incarceration with a cartoon so awful that for me it takes down the whole proposition.

I’m not linking to it. If you read one thing about it, read “Here We Go Again” by Luke Pearson, founder of @IndigenousX, who’s absolutely right that the problem this cartoon represents is way bigger that one individual, one editorial decision, one issue.

But there it is, and I look at it with tears in my eyes and I think about Colleen going about her work, having to step out into her community and know that this newspaper is in cafes and bars and homes and universities and concerned white Australians all around her are saying with a shrug “Oh, that’s too much”, and turning the page and moving on.

If you see something happening, stop it or step in.

“You Are The System”. I found this written on a whiteboard where I work in May 2016.

Here’s what Australia’s universities could do: cancel your many subscriptions to The Australian, and explain why. We are Australia’s peak organisations for fostering ethical and critical thought, and that still has to mean something. So take a stand and say that even though this is the only national newspaper where there is anything like coverage of Higher Education issues, if this cartoon represents their editorial standard then the price for getting our sector’s news from them is too high.

And to the leading journalists working there who are so important to our understanding of higher education issues: I am so sorry, I know this is about your jobs and not mine.

But if the place I worked published something like this, I would not walk in the door.

Stop it.


And if cancelling your subscription to The Australian is too much to contemplate (although do think about that for a moment, given the standard of this cartoon), then here’s a second thing you can do.

At the end of 2014, when I was beginning to pull myself together after chemotherapy and radiation, I came across a video in which a woman who looked to be about my age spoke to the camera with a fierceness that made me sit up. She talked about her struggle with chronic illness and for her the symbol of her determination to be well was to be able to walk up a hill that she found particularly tough. I was walking up a similar hill every day, trying to bring my damaged self back into some kind of order. So I contributed to the Hope4Health campaign that was fundraising to help Dianne Biritjaluwuy and other women from her community to develop a model of healthcare in harmony with Yolngu principles of culture and nutrition.

They have made it work, and they just met their target of raising the next $80,000 to run “a world-first, indigenous-led health retreat”, with their own meaning. You can follow them on Twitter @OurHope4Health, and read about their journey here.

So if what The Australian has done today makes you despair for this country, then don’t. There’s hope about, and you can help: read here and contribute to what these extraordinary women are doing.

Step in.

Chorus of voices

The chorus not only results in a more complete understanding, but properly conceived and executed encourages more participation as well.

Mike Caulfield, Choral Explanations, May 2016

This flashmob can catch you a little off guard. The song is sung with such heart.

Amazing Flashmob (Library Singing)

Screenshot 2016-08-02 12.20.38
Image by Pat Demassy, details below

Back in May I read Mike Caulfield’s long post about the social architecture of participatory thinking. I can’t do justice to it in a snapshot, so just make a pot of tea and go read it. It’s really great. I felt myself get smarter with each paragraph, including the ones I had to go over several times. Why does Quora work? How do we explain things to ourselves and to each other? What happens if we have multiple explanations for a thing? How do use these handholds in understanding to lift ourselves up to the level we can achieve in grasping things? And of course, Wikity.

For me, the first thing is to understand is what brings us to the foot of the climb. There’s a world of difference between how you pursue something under obligation to a deadline, whether as a student or a scholar; and getting to grips with something because you really want to know. You want to know—or remind yourself—what a thing means, or how to do it, or how it turned out, or how to say it in French. Curiosity is an itch: for two days I’ve had a song in my head, and couldn’t place it beyond two words, a key, and a trace memory that it was sung by a chorus of voices. Because I was searching for it, I thought about it more intensively than I will now I’ve found it, although finding it taught me at least three new things about its history. (Bob Dylan, who knew? Most people, probably, but I didn’t.)

Here, listen to this.**

What happens next in the participatory web is that our solitary and wandering search trails can become visible, shareable and open. Of course, they also get fed into the algorithmic mincer in the hope that a drop of profit can be squeezed out of enthusiasms we might be part of. And of course, open is also always open to abuse. But whatever predatory or corporate interests have an eye on our pathways, the fact is that we make them first by ourselves, and then we make them socially. We answer one another’s questions, generating spin-off curiosities of our own. We follow another person’s line of thinking. We’ve always done this in conversation, in a way that leans on presence and familiarity, and we’ve always done it as scholars (at least, until we took a wrong, wrong turn into the citation farm). Now on the open web we do it asynchronously with strangers:  leaving a book on a bench, lemons on a fruit stand, a message under a bridge, a comment on a blog post, all for someone else to pick up.

Here, listen to this.

This is the third step, where we organise our thoughts in collaboration with others. We write together and release an idea that has more than one voice behind it into the world. And very often this emerges from having the time and capacity to have a conversation among those other voices in the first place, so that you learn how they sound, and how you sound in their company. There’s much more backstage work here as everyone gets used to their part, to the thing they’re going to say. Collaborative writing is delicate, skilled, and really hard work. (As an aside: writing together is a practice that humanities research quantification calculates as representing less of an achievement than single authored work. It literally weighs less on the scale. Just ask musicians how ridiculous this is.)

So finally, the thing I wanted to share, that took me back to Mike’s post and this lovely passage:

It reminds me that the origin of “chorus” is thought by some to have been derived from the Ancient Greek for “enclosed dancing floor”, and although that’s just an accident of etymology, I can’t help but thinking of a chorus as individual agents we push into a bounded space; it’s really the bounding of that space — whether through harmony, melody, implied chord progressions, whatever, that allows us to see both the connectedness and the difference at the same time.

We write in bounded space, and in writing we make a bounded space that is bounded in the sense of bond, not border. We make a bonded space held together by thoughts that are working in collaboration with one another. We write ourselves into bonded spaces all the time, and we spin from one space to another. There’s chance, there’s intention, there’s call and response, and sometimes there’s full blown orchestration.

Here, watch this. Watch this bonded space get made. Watch the faces of the surprised, and the glances shared among the singers. What was this for, except to generate joy for others? What did it mean to be present, except to be astonished by the accident of timing? This chorus of voices, this profound gift of surprise and joy to strangers who happened to be there—it’s everything a library is meant to be.

Some things are dark, difficult and stuck just now—but just wait. We’re all here, and we know it.

(Thanks to you, Mike Caulfield. **And thanks to Frances Bell for letting me know that the first version of this song I linked to has been taken down. The web: so fragile, so quick to be respun.)

Image credit above: P4304311m (2011) is by Pat Demassy and shared on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Never let me go

In an interrogation, blows have only scant criminological significance. They are tacitly practiced and accepted, a normal measure employed against recalcitrant prisoners who are unwilling to confess.

Jean Amery, ‘Torture’

The perverse bureaucracy of a well-mannered killing is cranking up so fast in Indonesia. Plastic chairs, fresh paint, name tags to sort out family members from spiritual advisers, coffins. Again.

Executions are scheduled for tonight.

Fourteen people, their families and loved ones are slowly sinking into this pit. They can’t save themselves from what is coming.

The Guardian has published a page from the journal of Nigerian youth pastor Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke, and although I’m not a person of faith, I just keep thinking: don’t we all have a version of this prayer, that we’ll be cared for, and not let go?Screenshot 2016-07-28 21.05.17

The stories of the other prisoners are here, and one detail quickly becomes relentless: “also beaten and tortured in custody”, “detained in his home for three days by officers who beat him until he signed a confession… later had surgery for stomach and kidney damage allegedly caused by the assaults”, “coerced into making the false admission”, “genitals were repeatedly electrocuted to elicit a confession under duress”.

In At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities, Jean Amery describes the experience of being tortured as one of amazement, and the beginning of a permanent foreignness in the world. The tortured stay tortured, and can never return to a sense of safety, of being at home.

Amery’s torture “contained everything that we already ascertained earlier in regard to a beating by the police: the border violation of my self by the other, which can be neither neutralised by the expectation of help, not rectified through resistance.” And he is really candid about what happened next:

I talked. I accused myself of invented absurd political crimes, and even now I don’t know at all how they could have occurred to me, dangling bundle that I was.

This is why torture isn’t trusted to produce sound evidence. Its whole purpose is to destroy the coherent self, the self who can say anything true. The logic of torture is that a disciplined world must reject the humanist contract under which we take some responsibility for each other’s safety and care. Torture is implacable, and the destruction of the social is its mission. But the culture of torture then introduces its own destruction, because under torture, confession must become tactical, situational and entirely unreliable: “the nonsense I had foisted on them”, as Amery puts it.

Amery is really clear that secular torturing practice was not confined to the Nazis, even though he concluded that they had a special and pathological anticipation of the efficiencies they could create through the annihilation of hope. He doesn’t suggest either that we should see torture as an exceptional practice narrowly reserved for war or emergency. In fact, the bleakest conclusion from his essay is that torture is the tacitly admitted companion to incarceration in all circumstances.

Australian journalists Jewel Topsfield and Samantha Hawley are once more in amongst the families of the 14 victims in Cilacap, reporting with conviction and compassion in the worst circumstances. Julian McMahon, lawyer for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran and now President of Reprieve Australia, is arguing passionately for the principles of law and human rights that are harmed at every step of this process. The Chan and Sukumaran families are speaking up, appealing to the President with the particular authority he bestowed on them by executing their loved ones, to recognise execution as doing lifelong harm to others.

Earlier this year I was privileged to attend a family memorial for Myuran Sukumaran. Death penalty advocates—or even those who shrug and say that what’s happening in another country isn’t our business or is beyond our reach—should spend five minutes in the company of the families left behind. Because you really cannot argue either for the justice or the inevitability of state killing until you have faced what it does to others.

It’s not a national matter, it’s part of our world, and so it’s part of all of us. The principle of social hope which both torture and execution are designed to destroy is grounded in our capacity to value the lives of strangers, and not to let each other go.

For Julian McMahon


In bad weather, only four of the fourteen prisoners were executed, for unclear reasons. This group included Humphrey Jefferson Ejike Eleweke. He was 43, and had maintained his innocence for 13 years, finally refusing to sign the document for his own execution on the grounds that he had not committed a crime.

The prisoners still living include Pakistani national Zulfikar Ali who also maintains his innocence, with strong evidence that he is right, including a statement from the person who testified against him that the testimony was coerced. Zulfikar Ali is the severely beaten prisoner who was transferred from hospital in order to be executed. What will happen to him now?

“We don’t know what will happen next because I was not allowed to meet with my husband. I hope he will be fine because I took all his clothes including his oxygen tank.”

Australia’s Jewel Topsfield reported throughout the night, and from the press conference, after which she said this:


What you cannot accept

So, how can we productively guard space upon terrain where agency is constantly affronted?

Sean Michael Morris, ‘The Place of Education‘, Hybrid Pedagogy July 2016

I pray you find the courage to show mercy, as one day you will no longer have the power and will be looking back at your choices and your mistakes and the decisions you have taken.

Raji Sukumaran, letter to President Joko Widodo, July 2016


Over the last two weeks we’ve turned like sunflowers, all around the world, to face the extraordinary spectacle of the US political convention. Our own hustled yet protracted Australian Federal election seems so trivial compared to this fiesta of disruption, and even more so in relation to the knock-down roller derby that followed #Brexit in the UK. We changed almost nothing, and found nothing much to celebrate. Where were our balloons, our celebrities, our tears of pride? We had policy announcements in place of speeches, and so largely missed out on the moral purpose of being a nation in the first place. Americans seem to be able to go on for months and months in a glassy state of political devoteeism; after complaining that eight weeks is too long, Australians vote like bored shareholders at an AGM.

It’s a passionless, bureaucratic bit of box-ticking; but it’s also how incremental change works, as pollsters and policymakers get a fresh sense of the national mood and shift their plans according to what they think will fly. Thanks to this sharp piece of writing by Bon Stewart on why Debord’s Society of the Spectacle has something to offer us, I’ve gained a better understanding of how this driest of political processes actually works. Bon introduced me to the principle of the Overton Window (also called the “window of discourse”), concisely explained by Adam Lee at Big Think:

This is an idea first conceived by the political scientist (who else) Joseph Overton, which holds that, for any political issue, there’s a range of socially acceptable positions that’s narrower than the range of possible positions. Positions within the Overton window are seen as mainstream and uncontroversial, while those outside it are viewed as shocking, upsetting, and dangerously radical. The key point is that, with social pressure, the Overton window can shift over time, and today’s radicals may be tomorrow’s moderates.

Lee is interested in how the Overton window moves, and his conclusion is that it’s moved by people standing outside of the mainstream that it represents. This locates the struggle over what’s thinkable within practices of radicalism, and Lee identifies this willingness to do the work of shifting the window with acts of political courage. At some level this isn’t problematic, but I’m interested in the implication that those on the inside, those whose views are the Overton window, are just milling about like sheep waiting for a dog.

It’s easy to fall for this when faced with so much vision of actual crowds with placards, weeping, believing. The American convention crowd itself becomes the spectacle of global political power. But if we think that the only people who can shift the boundaries of socially acceptable thought are the people outside this crowd, we’re missing something. Like any peloton, the political crowd is an unfolding compromise: of individuals in relation to others, of synchronised manoeuvring around momentarily shared goals, of slogans that are troubled and settled again by individual beliefs, histories and hopes. Crowds fall apart, detour and regroup suddenly, with changed priorities and new directions. It happens all the time.

This isn’t always the work of outside agitation. There isn’t always a dog, or even a dog whistle. What looks like consensus about what’s socially acceptable can be held in place only by the slimmest of civilities, the most puzzling of inertias, even a misunderstanding. And so change becomes possible because as individuals—as ordinary faces in mainstream crowds—we’re called by a detail that troubles us, and we figure out how to make a small move. We can’t rely on anyone else to move with us. And sometimes the candidate you back is in the crowd right next to you, figuring out how to stand for herself, where to draw a line.

Screenshot 2016-07-27 11.04.35

Both Sean Michael Morris and Bonnie Stewart are asking what it means to be educators in this world of flows. I was thinking about this when Mark Carrigan shared a beautiful photograph on Twitter. To put this message right here in this awkward place, someone clambered down this bank with a spray can, some anonymous fellow human for whom this message was urgent and with purpose. Mark photographed it and shared it. And I saw it, and here it is.

This is what it means to be part of a shared practice of learning together in this world. Individuals decide and act, in even tiny ways, and as we hear from each other, we adjust our sense of what’s to be done, what we can accept, and what we can’t.


The Indonesian government have issued the 72 hour warning to governments of the next group of individuals to be executed for drug crimes. Included in this group are prisoners who confessed under torture (including one who has had to be transferred from hospital by ambulance in order to be executed), prisoners who have had no or poor legal support, and Merry Utami, a woman whose story suggests strongly that she is a victim of deceit and coercion. Read about them here and here and here and here. Screenshot 2016-07-27 18.32.04 (There’s no good standard in any of this, but among the worst is the situation of Humphrey Jefferson “Jeff” Ejike Eleweke, a Nigerian youth pastor whose story of being set up is meticulously and authoritatively detailed here. Please don’t let him go without knowing why this has happened to him.)

After the serious diplomatic consequences of the last executions, the Indonesian government seems to be hoping for a lack of international media attention to the ending of these lives. They are avoiding the diplomatically sensitive French and UK prisoners, not to mention Filipina Mary Jane Veloso who is, incredibly, still on death row despite the strongest possible evidence that she had no idea what was in the suitcase she was asked to carry. The prisoners are Nigerian, Chinese, Pakistani, South African and Indonesian, and today they are facing the immediate and brutal ending of their lives, with everything this involves in relation to the fundamental human right to die well, the hope we all hold for ourselves.

We would rescue them if they were drowning.

And knowledge of their transfer to Nusakambangan has refreshed the terrible injuries done to the families and loved ones of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in April last year. This is why the courage and conviction of Raji Sukumaran in writing directly to the President to appeal for clemency for these prisoners is as compelling to me as anything any political leader has said this week, on pretty much any subject.

Please don’t let those families go through what we have gone through. As a father and now a grandfather you would understand how much love you have for them, no matter their mistakes. You want to protect them but you feel so helpless. I hope you understand the desperation, anxiety, hurt and the burden you will inflict on to the families of the people you send to their death. … Please do not kill these men and women. They are someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, sister, brother, friend.

This is what Raji Sukumaran cannot accept, and I’m with her.

for Maha


University participation has risen spectacularly. The target of 40% participation should be comfortably met by 2025. The nation has quickly moved from an elite to a mass higher education system. The second equity target has proven more challenging, but progress is being made. The relative proportion of low-SES undergraduate students rose from 16.2% to 17.7% between 2009 and 2014. In the same period, the overall number of undergraduate low-SES students increased by 44%, while other cohorts increased by 30%.

Andrew Harvey, ‘Uncapping of university places achieved what it set out to do‘, June 2016


It takes a while to notice something’s wrong. There’s a sound that doesn’t quite belong, although not by much—it’s not like a siren right in your street, or a breaking window. So you catch yourself noticing it, and forget to look up. But five, ten minutes later it’s still there, and look, it’s a helicopter hovering, hanging in the air like a kite. Then it’s looping out in a wide arc and coming back to exactly the same spot. Round and back, round and back, all morning.

Rescue helicopter, 2012, elleneka102, shared on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Once you’ve seen it, you don’t unhear it. Explanations start unspooling, tumbling over each other, tangling up. It’s hovering over a major intersection, it’s scanning the escarpment where a hiker might have fallen, it’s following a car chase, it’s filming something, it’s hunting for someone. Neighbours come out of their houses and look up. How long have you been hearing that sound? When did it start?


In the past few weeks I’ve exchanged thoughts with people about the rise of analytics in higher education, and especially the arrival of personalisation. What separates personal from personalised? This email came:

Dear Kate,

Hope this email reaches you well!! Hurry up, Don’t miss SAFe AGILEST Training Program … It is our sincere hope that this new version helps you and your enterprise achieve the benefits you all deserve.

Dear Alice, I worry about sincerity in your hands.

Personalisation is the endgame of consumer analytics. It’s the point at which wide surveillance morphs into individual care, without the actual cost of staff. In universities, social data about students layers over all their tracks and patterns as learners, their collisions and intersections, all the half-cooked queries and false starts that no one much intended to share; personalisation lets us zoom in with an unmanned drone to drop off a map to a journey, crafted just for them.

And if we notice they’re drifting from the trail, how could it be a bad thing for us to use our insights to recover them, adjust their progress, set them straight?

It turns out learning analytics is a field where people say “intervention” without unease. We intervene like good people stopping a fight, like bystanders who step in and rescue someone. We come between someone and what fate seems to have stored up for them. It’s a salvationist theology: we know what’s best for others, and we can see when someone’s tilting, and possibly falling right off the wagon.

The problem is that this is exactly the kind of reformism that drives the other kind of intervention, the tough love kind, the governmental kind. We intervene out of faith, prejudice and self-interest. We intervene to help failing students become their better, more successful selves in ways that worked for us. We intervene because we’ve gone on selling the graduate earnings premium like a cheap watch despite all the evidence that the labour market is falling to bits. And we’re hardly disinterested. Our intervening zeal has a grubby side: students can’t be left alone to fail, to make a plan that doesn’t involve us, because their completion has a dollar value, and their success grows our reputation and our market for the future.

So we also intervene because we’re sandbagging our business plan, and our revenue stream. We intervene to ensure that every student who enrols in year X sticks around until year Z, all doing the exact same amount of stuff, at a foreseeable unit cost that enables us to plan. And in service of our interventions, a well scaffolded curriculum works for us like a movie of standard length works for a movie theatre: a business efficiency sold as a unique and transforming experience.

This is why we’re seeing whole divisions appearing whose role is to hover over learning, to track all the things that learners do, to gather data so that our interventions are precisely targeted. This is also why so much effort in the governance of digital learning is focused on getting more students doing more things in the LMS, even though this is one of the least engaging environments for actual learning; it’s why there is increasing policy focus on placing data capture points in curriculum, assessment and feedback; and increasing responsibilities for staff in managing the digital records of student learning.

Behind all this local busywork, there’s a powerful and well-funded research effort that’s being sustained by these changes, and that’s constantly searching for new action. What new data can institutions recruit? What new insights can be drawn out of fresh combinations of things we’ve always known? If for example we can pinpoint the exact moment when attrition risk begins and we can personalise the perfectly automated intervention, can we enrol more and weaker students in better conscience? With sufficient personalisation, and perhaps some upfront investment in digital resources, could more students self-manage their learning, and could someone still be prepared to pay for their experience? What if those students were in large and underserved education markets in developing economies? 

This is the lesson that MOOC pioneers have left behind for us to think about as they pivot into the next phase of their business plan: that analytics, automation and personalisation are the basis of a low-cost and skeleton staff educational experience that can be rolled out anywhere, and that only needs a modest fee-for-access to cover its costs, providing the market reach is wide enough.

But the patterns that analytics can make visible are those that should be starting human conversations, not replacing them. This is why we need to be far less sanguine about twinning analytics with cheap labour—let alone tutor bots—because if this human conversation is going to help students personalise their own learning (and they are surely the right ones to be doing it), it needs staff who are resourced with time, stability, experience and the confidence to hear what students have to say.


No two students who quit university do so for the same reason. The decision to leave is part of a complicated story that began long before they arrived, and will go on to deliver future outcomes none of us can see. It involves families, friends, and a muddle of hopes and fears that are political, social and contradictory. This semester I’ve had the privilege of listening to students who left and came back, who are on the verge of leaving, who have changed direction and changed again. The toughest stories to hear are from those who are staying because the risk of leaving seems worse, in this employment market, in this region, at this time, with those family hopes backed up behind them.

Thanks to the data we hold on enrolment, retention and completion, we know these students only as the basis of our claims of policy success. They’re here, they’re meeting all the deadlines and earning grades and moving through the curriculum right on time. Analytics based on tracking failure and discontinuation won’t help them, because their problem isn’t in this terrain at all, but in messier zones of self-doubt, fatigue and anxiety. To understand more about the experience of the student who detaches without leaving, and why this should matter more to us, we need to show up in person, to listen fully, and to let each story stay a whole one.

There are challenges and opportunities facing social and narrative researchers in education: scale, replicability, transferability are all troubled when the focus is on the stories learners tell rather than the observable things they do. But there are explanations that can’t be found by any other means, that can’t be seen by hovering. So let’s have this conversation openly and optimistically, and see what we can add.


Content, it’s us

I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it.

Dave Cormier,  ‘Content is a print concept‘, June 2016

So the narrative course ended, and while students are writing about it, I’m writing to thank two people who have shaped the way that I approach things.

First of all, my edtech mentor Jonathan Rees. No, really.

Last year, Jonathan wrote a short staypiece about his digital lightbulb moment at the Digital Pedagogy Lab summer institute, that led to this:

I’ve been using Slack in my hybrid Introduction to Digital History class for three weeks now. The class is centered on group projects and the Slacking has already begun.  … There is just something so darned friendly about this set-up that I think it promotes communication. Learning is occurring (including learning how to use Slack) and I’m not at the center of it at all.

I’d been exposed to Slack only in conference organising. It did seem a friendly environment for banter and backchannel, but I couldn’t think what else to do with it. Jonathan urged me to reconsider, emailed me to explain his reasoning, and invited me into his course Slack. He’s outspoken about the hot mess that edtech has become, he’s scrupulous about good history teaching, and you can see how he’s pulling it all together here. So I filed it away under #thinking.

Then this semester, the remarkable students who signed on to think about critical narrative professionalism with me said: oh hey, what about Slack? I said: mumble, mumble, banter, GIFs, backchannel, can’t we just tweet and blog like old times, or words like that. So they set it up anyway, invited me in, and turned me into the person whose skates suddenly point in the right direction..

Here are the reasons Slack has worked for me, with these students, in this context.

First, they’ve owned it, and Slack makes this easy. Anyone can set it up, anyone can create channels or private conversations. This means the group can easily decide how to handle chit-chat, where to keep critical information, how to bundle things so they don’t get lost. There are spaces to vent, and spaces to think, and spaces to deal with admin.

Second, Slack handles sharing and finding content particularly well. URLs unfurl like tiny flags to show you what you’ll see if you follow the link; files behave as they should; everything does what you want it to. I finally started using IFTTT properly and now when I save something relevant from Twitter into Bottomless Bucket Pocket it skips on to Slack where it sits in the right spot, sending a notification to let everyone know it’s there.

Which leads to the third thing. The app works. Notifications work. Everything works across devices. So provided everyone takes the time to get themselves sorted out at the start (this bit is important, as not all students will know to do this), Slack resolves the increasingly messy issues involved in using Twitter as a course communication channel. It saves us from the great leap backwards of using the LMS, the internal student messaging system or email—all of which are awful—to communicate. And it does all this without being Facebook.

But the real gain has been in pedagogy, particularly in relation to content. I’ve argued against the curriculum-as-bookclub model of weekly readings before:

The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond.

I invited students to work together to thicken up the ideas around which this course has coalesced: whether Michael White’s work in narrative therapy can extend to professional self development. Thanks to training from Maggie Carey at Narrative Practices Adelaide, I’m using White’s models for narrative conversations to explore ways of thinking about decision-making and personal agency in the junk labour market. This means that the relevant literature is all over the shop: social work, family therapy, psychology, nursing, theatre, organisational communication.

After some workshop exercises to introduce Michael White’s work, I asked students to find three credible sources on narrative to use in a short piece of writing. Fairly organically, and easily supported by Slack, they pooled what they found, creating a small and diverse collection they could all use. They found things I wouldn’t have chosen, and things I didn’t know about. They repurposed things that were familiar to me, and brought people who matter to me —like Elan Morgan—right into the room.

Road sign saying Synergy
Synergy, San Francisco, 2015. photo credit: Kate Bowles

And then they shared their writing, creating a new collaborative practice that directly addressed the way we treat student writing as the waste product of assessment. 

I think Jonathan’s right: there’s something about this environment that encourages agency, and that’s the basis for its promotion of communication. Not only did Slack encourage participants to lend each other found content from the start, but as writers and thinkers they became resources to each other, and to me. I cannot look back from this moment and say that anything I’ve been involved in previously has been more effective than this.

Which brings me to the second overdue thank you, to Dave Cormier. In 2008, Dave put forward ideas about community as curriculum that remain at the heart of how I work:

Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of “I can” and “I recognize.” If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

I’m neither persuaded nor antagonised by the rhizome metaphor that became the more well-known consequence of this, but I believe in community. Like Dave, I think that a course is something continuously remade by the people who come along. This year’s narrative professionalism course wasn’t the same as last year’s, and next year’s will be different again. Each time, I have been profoundly changed in my own thinking by what students have done, and I’ve been really honoured to share this journey with a teaching colleague who feels as I do.

At the institution level, the course isn’t successful. It’s still new and small. Nothing much meets the test of our internal audit processes, and nothing we did is visible to our analytics systems. No content has been accessed, no online lecture watched, no quiz attempted, no forum participated in. But stories have been exchanged, interviews have been shared, guests have come in and talked to us about their values and their lives, and they’ve asked to come back because they were so surprised by what came up for them too. (If you’re following the work of Michael White, you’ll recognise the idea of the pivotal moment here.) I believe it’s helped the group develop a more confident sense of how to move forward to the kinds of work that will work for them, but I’m not here to make them more employable, or claim credit for what they go on to do. That’s on them.

So this is a thank you story. But it’s also a story about the everyday nature of artisanal change in universities—slow, handmade, sometimes bumpy looking, always worth trying again—that I want to advocate for whenever the options put to us belong in car commercials. Innovation isn’t always about technology, efficiency, speed, scale; remediation isn’t always about targeted interventions. Far more often, change emerges in small experiments that we try with our own hands, encouraged by colleagues near and far. And at its most radically disruptive—of every business and audit model—change becomes visible in the content we make together uniquely, transiently and compassionately, in that passing moment in our lives.

Thank you to Courtney, Paul, Angus, Olivia, Oliver, Liz (and Will), Trent, KK, Primrose, Paris, Amy, Charlotte and Michaela, Jonathan, Dave, Elan, Sue, and above all to Maggie Carey.

Networked professionals

Ambiguity is always at the centre of an interesting experience because this causes us to question, to wonder why a thing holds our attention.

– Bill Henson, Oneiroi

How will the professional identity or professionalism of academics be supported, rather than eroded as the University is proletarianised?

Richard Hall,  ‘On the HE White Paper

I can’t pin down when I started to say “professional” so much. Maybe I’m gesturing towards something that might help students think outside of the frame we place around them. What if not student, if not casual worker? Future professional. A professional, I want to believe, is someone who manages frustration, responds to challenges with equanimity and not spite, who keeps it together. Be professional,  I say. And for good measure, I add that all this is sure to be helpful to them in their graduate professional future.

But Bill Henson’s right, we should stop and think when a thing holds our attention. In the era of the employability mantra, values are on the fritz. So I wonder if I’m trying to keep something on side, or whether I’m just trying to get a fix on a moving horizon.

I catch myself noticing, in much the way that Kathleen Stewart describes her ethnography in her beautiful 2008 essay “Weak Theory for an Unfinished World”:

A noticing that gropes from a haptic space in the middle of things. The objects of such a practice are things noted obliquely, as if out of the corner of the eye, but also, often, as punctums or punctures. Things that have impact. Things caught in a circuit of action and reaction.

Workshop poster on noticing details
#dlrn15 workshop on change in higher education, 2015

Professionalism: I’m noticing it everywhere. It’s in the inflight magazine, it’s in conference codes of conduct, it’s in the recruitment toolkit and the career planner. It’s in songs. It’s ironic, and hopeful, and thrown into disarray by the current condition of work. What is our professionalism within this labour market that has come so spectacularly unstuck? Who is exploiting our professionalism, and what business models are glued together by it?

I find other people using “professional” to mean two things. One is about the boundaries that keep us apart from one another. A nurse educator told me that she felt it was unprofessional for nurses to share any detail about their lives with patients, even if this made patients feel more comfortable and trusting. She explained to me that this practiced professionalism also kept nurses safe from the risk of empathy with patients who might, you know, that. Both sides are protected when the behavioural boundaries are clear.

Something similar sidles into this assertion about how university staff and students are supposed to get along:

Victoria Bateman, fellow and director of studies in economics at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, believes that “the relationship between a student and an academic needs to be a professional one, rather than something more informal.

Nina Kelly, ‘Should academics avoid friendships with students?’, June 2016

The idea that the opposite of “professional” is “informal” gets some academics worked up about the value of titles, the way that students write emails, the need for standards to be unyielding, and things to be done properly. It seems we’ve awarded ourselves the contract for the moral education of students, all managed under the shingle of employability (“And, let’s not forget, any increased laxity in marking, deadlines and attendance will not help students prepare for the reality of a career after university.”) There’s something defensive and sad in all of this, as though a levee has failed and the water’s coming in.

But there’s a second meaning that Liz Morrish brought out recently in a post I’ve already cited, that’s not threatened by students calling us by our first names, and that holds itself accountable to something other than the expectations of compliance and self-management set up by the first meaning:

In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain.

Liz Morrish,  ‘Care in the Virtual Community’

What is this professional self, that holds itself together, that is opposed to casualisation and fragmentation? How does this professionalisation connect us to each other, and enable us to go on making community, both inside and in refusal of the perverse project of transforming higher education into a sporting contest? Can we prise it away from the ruses and routines of our credentials, our legacy of vocationalism that is suddenly transitioning into chronic volunteerism, and then notice something principled, enduring, and trans-institutional that is not fully subordinated to the market anxieties and brand vanities of our sector?

There are ideas emerging around us. When doctors refuse to return children to offshore detention centres because they have a professional commitment not to place children in harm’s way, we get a look at something beyond the ordinary verticals of career and employability. This isn’t about getting on and getting up, but about standing up for something that goes beyond self-interest.

So what is our version of this action?

At least one model showed up in Australia and internationally this week as academics responded to La Trobe University treating a Facebook comment about Australia’s flag as “serious misconduct” — and a cheer to the Thesis Whisperer for her fierce intervention on this case. It turns out Twitter isn’t just cat pictures (looking at you, Baroness Greenfield) but is some kind of professional community prepared to speak out for one another, who quickly recognised something symptomatic in this case—something really demoralising about universities playing social media gotcha with their staff without the faintest idea how the network actually works.

Mulling all this over, last week I finished delivering two courses. The first has been with a generous, creative and inspiring group of students who came together with me to use narrative methods to think about how professionalism might become a critical practice. The second has been a values-centred examination of the role of research in our cultures and our working lives, which closed on the topic of professionalism itself.

I shared things that are personal to me, especially on the predicament of human time. In return, students shared with me their experiences as casual workers. I heard about professionalism as something you make for yourself even when work doesn’t offer much in the way of status or appreciation. It’s not how you put up with the customer that’s hassling you, but how you speak up for yourself, how you ask to be treated properly. Professionalism, they told me, is a potential for conduct in all circumstances, but it’s a contract: an expectation of dignity, integrity and a right to be engaged.

When I asked if they have the opportunity to rehearse this professionalism as students, the answers were discouraging. To conduct yourself, you have to have some choices, some range. You have to be able to see yourself setting a course of action, exercising judgment, appraising standards, reflecting, and being open to change. And more or less everything we do—with increasing force as we dig deeper into the error of treating rules as qualities—prevents students from learning these skills. We deprofessionalise students as we herd them around, organise their time for them, set their tasks according to inflexible internal standards, grade their work according to rubrics that leave no room for surprise, claim credit for their employability, prize ourselves for their graduate salaries, and bolster the competitive durability of their qualification by minimising creative tinkering with its curriculum.

So it’s not surprising that our own sense of professionalism has become imperilled as we become the functionaries to these shallow procedures. Not to mention that we’re so busy contributing two unpaid working days of our lives every week to keep our chocolate factory running at a competitive pace relative to the one up the road, that we should have no time to sustain ourselves as ethical professionals. But we do, and increasingly we do it in the network, in the things we write, share and debate online.

So this is really why universities are starting to monitor social media more closely. It’s the space to which our professionalism has escaped and regrouped. It’s where professionalism correlates as much to care as it does to competition, where despite the occasional misstep there is a resilient community of purpose, making a network of our better selves.

And perhaps because of all this, it’s also the one space where we get to welcome students who choose to join us as our collaborators, already building their own professional futures, alongside ours.

 for Paul