Unconverted

Once you have a conversion, that doesn’t mean game over. Your first exchange with a prospective student is only just the beginning. Nurturing leads through the enrollment funnel is a complex process.

Christina Fleming, ‘4 Quick Stops on the Road to Increase Student Enrolment

Marketing funnel diagram
Marketing funnel, found on flickr at https://flic.kr/p/9TpTcX

Colleagues in university sales and marketing, we need to talk about the language that we use when we talk about student recruitment. I work alongside you, and I’m writing this respectfully and appreciatively: you are trained and experienced, and the language that you use is part of that. So I’m writing in the hope that we can come to an understanding of what I hear when you say “conversion”. (See also: conversion rate optimisation. And win-loss analytics. And funnel. So much nope.)

First, let’s get some things out of the way. I’m genuinely comfortable that universities are run responsibly and accountably with good business practice at the forefront of our thoughts. We use public money, which is scarce, and we must use it in ways that are efficient, effective and ethical. To do what we do at all, we need students to show up, which means we need them to know we’re here and what we are trying to do. I appreciate this is why everywhere I go in my community, or when I’m browsing online, and even when I’m watching television in my own home, local universities are coming at me with messaging.

I’m not afraid of data, large or small. I’m up for analysing complex situations with measures other than anecdote and hunch. You can’t be too evidence-based for me. I’m all for tools and perspectives that genuinely help us with the complex particulate matter of our working environment, and enable us to plan and deploy our scarce resources with better outcomes for everyone. The lives of university students are tiny floating fragments of human data in the sea of university operations, and sometimes by standing back at a great distance from this we can get a sense of the directions they’re floating in, the patterns they form, the future they project. I’m here for this.

I’m also in that peculiar window: I’m both the product that you’re marketing, and the parent of someone you’re marketing at. She’s finishing high school, she’s potentially a university student of some sort in the next calendar year, she has the results and the extracurricular and the attitude you’re after, she’s attended marketing events, and actually she’s been on our campus the whole of her life since she was a tiny thing walking the corridors holding my hand and looking at names on doors of people she knows, people who come to our house. She’s an insider, a natural, a sure thing, a home run. And while we’re at home watching TV with cups of tea, she and I, I know that converting her and hundreds like her keeps me in a job. It’s a loop, it’s capitalism, it’s how things work, at least for now.

I get this.

But I’m currently working in an area of university operations, internationalisation, that needs to be especially mindful of care in recruiting. International students make our universities smarter, better places to work and learn. They bring the world forward, including for local students who haven’t had the opportunity or resources to travel. Enrolling at an Australian university comes at a cost that’s different from many domestic students. International students are living away from home, under visa conditions that make it hard to vary their pattern of enrolment if they come unstuck; they’re learning in an unfamiliar language, tangling with the social rules of an unfamiliar culture, managing a new climate,and often dealing with the rougher edges of exclusion and isolation in our communities. They have tough stories for us to hear about workplace exploitation, health problems that they’re managing without family support, and a sense that they’re not sure how to reach out to fellow students or to the staff teaching them.

Sometimes we don’t even know what their names are.

And yet they’re here, and they’re doing great things. It’s honestly good to work in this area because of the students, and because of the colleagues I work with who are committed to their wellbeing. This week I had the privilege of a conversation with a student who has come to our university from somewhere else. I asked him why. He told me: the person who held this position before me, showed up at his high school and talked to him. She listened to him. She was enthusiastic about what he would have to offer, and what he would have to gain, by enrolling in this university. Just as I am now so glad that he is here.

I believe we can hold ourselves to this standard: in listening properly to students; in remembering that the prospect of their taking on major debt to enrol at this university or another one binds us to them ethically; in insisting that the way we reach out to them must be uncompromisingly relational, respectful and open to the possibility that other choices could also be good for them. And for me it’s also about how we talk about them when they’re not in the room, and how we refer to our own processes of inviting them to join us.

Here’s the thing. The quote at the start of this blog isn’t from an Australian university, for reasons of courtesy. But we’ve all heard this language where we work. It doesn’t intend harm, it’s just a label. But in most areas of university work, especially in the humanities, we argue that language matters, and that the words we choose suggest something about the beliefs that we hold. So for me, when we speak about prospective students and their families using the borrowed e-commerce language of conversion, we slip into the trap of converting student recruitment into a competitive game that we’re seeking to win. When the language of this game descends to nurturing actual humans as sales leads through a funnel, this isn’t just complex: we have lost our way entirely.

And a final thought about how language works. Any word means what it means to you when you use it, sure. But words are also given meaning by the company they keep. So recruitment colleagues near and far, that word you keep using, it does not just mean what you think it means.

[and every trigger warning ever on that link]

Who we are to each other

We are not in a place the way a tree or a rock is in a location.

David Kolb, Sprawling Places

1

I’m at Heathrow, standing in the line of non-EU nationals with my EU passport in my pocket because my daughter is only Australian, although I’m a dual national. I’ve filled out the arrival form with my usual sense of awkwardness about what I do, and as usual I’ve said it’s “academic”. Academic, as in moot. Academic, as in “the rest of the world thinks we are complete wankers.”

Here I am, home/not home.

Welcome to Terminal 3 (2015), by Michael Summers [details below]
Marc Auge describes airports as non-places, transactional zones in which we’re stripped down to function: arriving passenger, Australian, academic, travelling with child, visiting family, two weeks, nothing to declare, no stowed fruit or live birds or more than $10,000 in cash. In his maze-like hypertext/book on contemporary place making, David Kolb recasts Auge’s idea in relation to roles. For Kolb, non-places are thin, not in the Celtic sense, but thin in that they are the places in which our roles are made thin. We become what we are reduced to by the function of the space. He quotes this passage from Auge:

A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver. . . . The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude. There is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts. (103)

But it’s not that simple. Like every other person in the line, I’m shawled in my own history of standing exactly here, over many years: coming home for the first time, coming home after a break-up, visibly pregnant, pregnant without knowing, coming home to surprise someone, coming home for a funeral.

And just ahead of us in time is that other part of the airport story: friends and kin and professionals with signs, the whole Love Actually  of the arrivals hall. They’re fidgeting, slumped, waiting to perk up at the sight of the person they’ve come for. Everyone who’s ever stood there for me is there, but not now. And when we all finally make it into the same zone of being together in time, place is remade, thinned out roles thicken into human form again, citizenship falls back into its latent state.

2

Just before travelling, I participated in a week of talking about digital hospitality, across Twitter, mastodon and blogs. I was invited to do this by Maha Bali as part of #digciz, a month long online event curated by Sundi Richard and Autumm Caines. (Read their concluding reflection here.)

I went in with misgivings. In airports, citizenship is not a language game, or a virtue, or a goal of being a better person; it’s not a state of mind or a way of acting towards others. Before any of these metaphorical layers can be added, citizenship means belonging to a limited-membership group, being subject to its laws, gaining access to its conditional privileges. Alan Pelaez Lopez writes about citizen privilege in the US, that critical attention to citizenship is not aimed at better understanding citizenship or addressed to the hope that citizenship can be made just. The goal of rebuking citizen privilege is to put an end to citizenship itself, because the functionality of “citizen”, in both its emotional meaning and practical application, is fully shaped by the existence of the non-citizen—the alien, the undocumented, the stateless, the refugee. The experience of belonging is given meaning by those from whom the privilege of belonging has been withheld.

This is why I still can’t work with citizenship as a metaphor for way we are with others online. But we shouldn’t stop thinking about this being together just because it’s difficult to name. Something is trying to get heard among the metaphorical limitations of language and its tethers, an appeal for better ways of treating friends, strangers, fellow travellers, when we meet them online. And to do this, in a world of talk, we need words for common places and shared hopes, for ways of bettering the world, as Kevin Hodgson puts it.

Ideally, a word for citizen-ness might do this well. But it can’t while it also has to delineate our fraught and exclusionary political relationship to the states that have us as members, shaped by the violence those states impose on those they force out, subdue or incarcerate. For me the usefulness of digital citizenship is only that it keeps in view our equally fraught dependencies on the real gatekeepers of our relations with each other: Silicon Valley’s data mining corporates, who will always design the platforms that connect us for maximum extractive value. Citizenship as a metaphor for digital engagement reminds us how flawed things are, not how good they could be.

So what else could we say? Lora Taub shared Kate Reed Petty’s article in the LA Review of Books on retiring the word “citizen” where she notes the tendency for citizen to be used generically to mean something like person to whom we have some sort of relation of obligation. For Kate Reed Petty, who works with a wide range of organisations, the word is “difficult to give up”, precisely because of this more elastic meaning, that applies regardless of “technical nationality”. But replacing it (subject? resident? person? human? denizen? denizen, really?) without changing the intended function of setting up a category of actors that can be interpellated into acting well, doesn’t address the primary problem of regulating membership. And it certainly doesn’t address the issue of what happens when implicit membership expectations aren’t met.

Thinking about alternate words asks us to think hard about what we are trying to say, and this is really about what we are trying to do, or change. This doesn’t have to be about setting up ground rules, of sorting out who belongs and who doesn’t. This will lead us again and again to the cul-de-sac of group norms. In the end, we can only decide how to take responsibility for ourselves and how we choose to act; and try to do this personal thing in a way that acknowledges something like a relationship to a common place, a place we make by the way we meet one another there.

3

During this week, I also learned that sometimes talk looks like a failure to act, even on the internet where talk is both the currency and medium for action of any kind. This is not my view. I believe we have to champion dialogue, and trust each other also to be acting, based on what we learn from listening.

But the belief that talk is just talk has to do with a resonant stereotype, that’s making things worse. Academics have a public reputation for self-interested, obscurantist talk. It’s not helpful to respond defensively to this: #notallacademics. In his blog on not being an academic jerk, James Arvanitakis gets stuck in to why we should acknowledge it instead:

Seriously most of them see us as a bunch of privileged, spoilt brats swanning around the world attending talkfests. They have the right to think that until we show them otherwise: so what are we doing to change that?

And if this stereotype isn’t deserved individually, the institutional context that generates academic talk really needs calling out: impact gaming, rankings chasing, productivity measures that lead to vanishingly unproductive outcomes in any real sense, vanity careers (and travel) for the few, and precarity for most. These are the conditions that many people outside academia don’t see, and the expansion of talk is their symptom.

What are we doing to change that?

Image credit: Welcome to Terminal 3, Michael Summers, shared on Flickr CC BY-ND-NC 2.0

 

Kith

Kith originally meant native land or country, not just in the sense of one’s place of birth or ancestry, but in the sense of a loving, intimate, friendly relationship with the landscape of home, the place you come from and the people and things that share it with you. Kith is not only the place you know and love, but the place that knows and loves you back.

Susan Beal, A Place of Love

We’re watching the UK election, and my daughter says: can you still vote there? It’s been so long, I’m not sure. I don’t think so.

Home 2017, image by Kate Bowles

But I know that in the background of every news shot, I’m watching the summer light in the sky and thinking about long evenings, and chalk and flint farmland. This is the practical condition of homesickness: at the sound of a thrush or the thought of a real beer in a proper pub, it flares up like a headache.

In the small community where I live I can drive past three homes I’ve lived in as an adult, and the ghost of another. Above the surf club there used to be a rundown weatherboard beach house that has been replaced by a showy oceanfront mansion. It was the first house I stayed in when I came here to work. It was rambling and unrenovated, filled with someone else’s Australian childhood furniture. I could walk out in the morning and drink a mug of coffee sitting on a low wall watching the sun come up over the ocean. I really loved it.

Since then we’ve moved around within a very small area, street hopping, trying to stay close to the ocean. Each of our three daughters was brought home from the local hospital to start life in a different house; finally when the older ones were very little, one and two, we stopped rolling and settled in the home where we now live. They all learned to ride scooters and bikes in this street, and then skateboards, and now two of them drive cars, more or less.

Our street, 2011, Kate Bowles

This morning I drove my daughter to her work, and then dropped off a friend of hers who had stayed overnight. We talked about how we each appreciate living in this place. She’s 17, she’s been away for six months and come back, and can’t believe her luck at still living here. I drove and listened, and didn’t say: I remember you when you were five years old. But what I was really thinking was that I didn’t grow up here. This is not my home. And everyone who was a child here, learned these streets by walking with small feet, will have a different way of seeing the big sky and the escarpment and even the wide Pacific ocean, than I do, because I still see it with a shock of not belonging, every day.

I have no kith here, and I shouldn’t. It’s not my place. It’s not my place to love, to ask it to love me back.

2

In March 1797 at Ninety Mile Beach in Victoria, five British and 12 Bengali seamen swam ashore after their longboat was ripped apart in a storm.

Sydney, a town of barely 1,500 people, was over 700 kilometres to the north. Meanwhile, their fellow-survivors from the wreck of the Sydney Cove were stranded further south, on a tiny island in the Bass Strait.

I listened to historian Mark McKenna tell this story on the radio as I was driving through this country that I see as beautiful, and where I didn’t grow up.  The seventeen sailors washed up on a stretch of coastline still described today as “untamed”, and set off to walk. They walked for two months, running out of food and leaving people behind. On May 15, three survivors were seen from a fishing boat, crawling along a beach just north of here. They had walked 800 km. One was from Scotland, and one was Bengali. The other, I don’t know. They had foraged and swum and climbed and been poisoned by eating the wrong things, and interacted regularly with Aboriginal people without whose help and guidance and foodsharing they would not have survived.

What did they make of any of it? When they were rescued and made it to Sydney Cove, how did these three sailors feel about where they had arrived, where they had been? How did they come to terms with the fact of the people who had shared resources and knowledge with them, who had showed them where to go and what to eat and how to overcome their own fundamental unfitness to be in this country?

What did it mean to each of them, different as they were, to be so far away, to be so kithless?*

3

This week I’m part of a rolling conversation on digital citizenship as a metaphor for thinking about how we manage our aspirations, responsibilities and resources in creating an online environment that works. It’s an annual conversation curated by people who think and care about citizenship, and this year it’s run into trouble with the idea of citizenship as a metaphor for anything, in these times of walls and borders and sinking boats and offshore processing centres of astonishing cruelty and even, really this is a thing now, calls for a return to internment.

I’m one of those who feels that citizenship can’t work as a benign metaphor now, and perhaps it never could. I hold two passports and I can only see citizenship as a bureaucratic exercise in which I don’t know if I can vote in one place, but voting is compulsory in the other. I have bank accounts and pay tax in both; I have healthcare rights in both, just about. The apparatuses of both states treat me well, and recognise my children as connected to me. But none of this suggests to me that citizenship is anything other than the grounds of our refusal to care for others as we’d like to be cared for if misfortune tore us from our homes and threw us onto the mercies of others.

I’ve been helped in my thinking about belonging and statelessness by Amy Collier’s recent post on the hidden immigrant, the immigrant who passes in two places but is at home in neither. Amy asks whether this idea of belonging and not belonging helps us get beyond the difficulty of applying citizenship as a metaphor for what we do online (especially as this is far more obviously regulated by capital than by any state). At the end of her post, Amy raises the question of digital kinship, a term I’m drawn to because of the way it sits with ideas about kindness. Kindness (kin-ness) has ancient origins that connect us both to nature and to relationships, and took me back to kith (as in “kith and kin”), and the importance of knowing the place where we are, the way that knowing place nourishes our capacity to belong.

Where can we experience anything like kith online? Are there places that we love online, environments where we feel at home, that seem to love us back? Is this about user experience, or ethos? Is it about the trust we’re willing to place in design, in what data is kept and what is done with it? Can we feel at home under conditions of continual digital surveillance? Can we love a place that is manipulating us for business or political gain? Is it ever possible to experience kith when the whole thing is set up, controlled, regulated and organised in service of values we don’t share?

For the moment, it seems to me that these questions are worth asking, and move us beyond a narrow dispute about citizenship as a metaphor.

#digciz

Last week’s #digciz conversations came to rest on the question of belonging, and next week with my colleague Maha Bali I’ll be taking up the organisers’ invitation to think about what comes next. There’s a separate post coming about that. But in the meantime, we both hope you will join us next week on Twitter and other places where you feel at home online. You can read some of Maha’s thoughts on citizenship here.

*(kithless: not knowing anyone, having no acquaintances or family.)

 

Unbroken

If we don’t sit with the rough edges of our journey, we forget how we made it.

Kevin Gannon, The Tattoed Professor, ‘On being broken, and the kindness of others

1

It’s Friday at the end of a long week of being trivially unwell. Trivially in the not-cancer sense, but disruptively in the whole-family-down-with-it sense, the “Oh, everyone has this, isn’t it dreadful, have you got the cough yet?” sense. Whole days in bed, shivering and sweating. And coughing.

Having to cancel a large lecture and now being very late with grading, I’ve been struck by the kindness of students who sent messages of sympathy when I said I was sick. These are the ways we all work together to shape workplaces worth working in. (And if you feel cynical about the contribution students make to this, please go back to Liz Morrish’s account of students comforting staff at times of workplace distress. Or anything by Sean Michael Morris, but especially this post.)

The students where I work are easy going, understanding, and when they need to complain, they’re constructive and tactful. They want things to be less awful, and that includes for the people who are teaching them. They know what it’s like to have a bad day at work, to be dealing with difficult people, to juggle work, study, illness, stress and exhaustion. As Kevin Gannon says in his beautiful post on disclosing our own brokenness in higher education:

We’re not sending graduates “out into the real world”–they’ve been there for their entire lives, and most of them know at least implicitly how the deck is stacked against people regardless of how hard they’re bootstrapping. We have given our students a wide array of tools, and tried to prepare them to use those tools well for themselves and for their communities. We teach in the hopes of a better, more compassionate, and more just world. But then we tell a graduation-day story that assumes our graduates will go out into a broken world riven by hate, fear, and inequality but also that it’s their fault if that world beats them down.

Fault is the shadow thrown by the magic bean we sell as the means of clambering up to a future in which not everyone can win. This bean is something to do with making an effort, toughing it out, following the rules. Resilience, grit—we peddle all sorts of qualities demanded when the world is harsh. And I think this is why we monitor attendance as a kind of minor virtue, a practice of grit. But when we make showing up compulsory, then we have to have a system of checking it, and penalties, and some means of managing something we call “genuine” adversity, and the whole thing has to be insulated against complaint. (And if you want to know more about how this goes down, this forum is an eye-opener.)

Where I am we have a fixed tolerance for not showing up 20% of the time, which has the rat farming perverse incentive effect of causing every sensible student to calculate that they have two free tutorials they can plan to miss. And I’ve written this all over the place, so just bear with me while I haul out my soapbox one more time: we then ask students to get a GP certificate for every single additional missed class over the two free passes, which means that we are clogging up the waiting rooms and schedules of our overworked public health bulk billed GP clinics in order to sustain a rigid and penalty-driven policy that doesn’t prepare students for their professional futures, while they’re sneezing all over the really sick people around them.

(University business data divisions currently measuring every passing cloud over the campus, why not measure this? How many GP certificates for trivial illness have your attendance policies generated? How much public health time have you wasted pursuing this?)

Just quietly, I take a different approach. We talk about modelling attendance on the professional experience of attending meetings, including client meetings. If you can’t be there, you let people know in advance. If you can’t be there a lot, this will impact on your client’s confidence in you, or your manager’s sense that you are doing a good job. It may come up in performance management. Your co-workers may start to feel that you’re not showing up for them. Opportunities may dry up a bit, if people think of you as someone who won’t make a reliable contribution.

And at work there won’t always be a form, but you will need a form of words. You need to know how to talk about what you’re facing with the relevant people comfortably and in a timely way, ideally not after the fact of the missed project deliverable. If hidden challenges are affecting your participation now, you can expect some of these to show up again when you’re working. University should be the safe space to develop confidence in talking about the situation you’re in, and what helps you manage it most effectively. You need a robust understanding of your rights in law. And, sadly, you also need to understand that sometimes the human response you get will be uninformed, ungenerous or unaware of your rights, and you’ll need either to stand your ground or call for back up.

To me, this is all that’s useful about expecting attendance. It’s an opportunity for us to talk with students about showing up as a choice that may be negotiable if you know how to ask; about presence and absence as ethical practices; and about the hardest conversations about times when you just can’t, and at that point need to accept the kindness that’s shown to you, just as you would show it to others.

2

Thinking about how important it is to learn to have these conversations, I’m watching the rise of automated employee mood tracking with unease. Attempting to track employee mood over time is a natural consequence of discovering that we can track other physical health indicators, and that wearables (or implantables) give HR an opportunity to track health as one of the predictors of both absenteeism and presenteeism in teams. The Global Corporate Challenge (now owned by Virgin) is all over it. They even have a Grit In the Workplace Report (“Research shows that grit is a significant factor in success. Employees who have it help their organisations achieve better business outcomes”) which I can’t bear to read.

This morning someone was telling me about a Slack bot that could be set to enquire about my mood, and I know there are plenty of apps that can do the same. I’m all for journaling my own thoughts about this, but we do need to notice that these apps are now also being pitched at HR. My friend wondered if this was about our failing capacity to listen to each other, to ask how someone is feeling and really wait for the answer. I think it’s that organisations are starting to perceive all human interactions as potential data points, and conversational care as wasted data that evaporates uselessly into air. We’re affronted by our own forgetting: surely it would be better to remember that over the last six months, Thursdays have been good days?

The problem with this is that mood is far more nuanced than any algorithmic system can be bothered with. One I saw this morning offered a happiness scale of 1-5, and three mood choices: Great! Stressed! Or Tired! The Slack bot has a menu of five options, with emojis.

Screenshot 2017-05-12 13.04.43.png
Screenshot from http://oskar.hanno.co

But really, life is more complicated than this. To sustain compassionate workplaces, we’re going to need to do more than dashboard our moods in these simplistic ways and hurry on. We’re going to need to “sit with the rough edges of our journey”, as Kevin Gannon puts it, to understand how we each got here differently, in different states of mind, and to hold each other up with care.

This will take time.

Shared values

It happened because our corporate policies were put ahead of our shared values.

Oscar Munoz, United Airlines CEO

It happened: a passenger hauled by his arms from a plane to enable airline staff to get from airport to airport. His reaction to being grabbed out of his seat seemed to take everyone by surprise, and from the moment he refused to go along with things, every mistake was made. He was physically harmed, mentally harmed, and then further abused by media and social media investigations of his personal and professional life. His identity was publicly debated and he was shamed, in crude and judgmental ways.

Speaking to the media, his lawyer proposed that this is not just about the harm from an isolated incident. It’s that corporate culture as a whole has shifted decisively in favour of profit, efficiency and compliance, and away from dignity, care and respect. Far from producing better outcomes, competition has introduced unsustainable levels of aggression towards consumers, backed up by corporate policies driven to protect profit, and soothed by corporate euphemism.

Mostly this aggression is contained in backstage planning; occasionally, we catch sight of it in unintended ways. We learn that planning focused on the capture of market share, the reduction of labour costs, and the shaving of resources to the bone is covered for by marketing that focuses on superior customer experience, softer blankets, fresher food in supermarkets. What’s really at stake for businesses feeding their shareholders:  how can we win, and how can we win cheaply? And above all, how can we manage the obstructions and interruptions to our winning strategy introduced by the very people that we’re here to serve?

Universities see themselves in this greasy mirror. Under increasing budgetary pressure, we’re actively investing in policy and technology that will let us serve more passengers with less. We’re thinking like airlines: shrinking seat pitch, charging a premium for the extra inch that enables passengers to sit comfortably, and then finally adding seat overbooking as a further layer of profit-protection. Specifically, we’re increasing class sizes, casualising labour, cutting contact hours, and burbling about “blended learning”. And behind it all we’re building big data telescopes through which individual students are glimpsed only as tiny, tiny dots on the landscape of market, demographic and behavioural analysis. Analytics in higher education are instrumentalising the way we develop the environment in which individuals come to learn. Through this lens actual learning is the pea that disappears under the cup of measurement: it’s the diversion, the misdirection that makes the whole trick possible.

What can we do? It’s easy to complain and feel defeated, but here’s the plan. We can tell each other stories, and listen well.

I’ve had the opportunity to deliver professional development training recently, on narrative practices that help leaders identify and defend their own values rather than simply promoting the institutional vision hammered out in brand, policy and threat. Narrative practice has the potential to reframe academic professionalism as an expression of what we care about, what we choose to stand for. It lets us bring a fuller sense of self to decision making, and challenges the “shared values” of reputational vanity, market capture, or whatever we’re currently chasing.

Development, future, strengths: a note from a workshop, image: Kate Bowles

I developed this training with students (in a class which I’ve written about before here). We learn from stories of professional experience that work is a continuous practice of relational ethics, demanding skilful and intentional ways of navigating challenges. We learn that to work well and sustainably is to be protective of good climate: to moderate the impact we are prepared to have on the lives of others, and to contribute in mostly quite modest ways to the creation of workplaces worth working in.

The best thing that’s come from this was to hear from a student that she had been successful in her first graduate interview because she was able to take her insights from this narrative class and talk about herself in ways that felt authentic to her. They chose her—but that wasn’t the best thing. A bit later, she wrote and told me that narrative insights also helped her to react quickly and confidently when it became clear that the job was a gift she needed to return. After observing how often the things she was asked to do made her feel uncomfortable at a deep level, her confidence in her own values helped her to work constructively with this discomfort, and separate from the job calmly and professionally.

Fun fact, as my daughters like to say: it’s easier to work in this narrative frame with students than with staff. The students who come to this class are open-minded and curious about their futures. They are interested in being heard, and in listening to each other. They are open to uncertainty and risk. Workplace leaders, on the other hand, have more on the line; they’re watching the rising tides of redundancy and job casualisation around them, and hoping that by clambering to higher ground they can stay one step ahead of what’s coming. On top of this, they’re increasingly seeing colleagues being dragged from the plane, and responding with helplessness and loss.

And this is the climate in which they have to lead.

In The Renewal of Generosity, which I’m currently mentioning in everything I write, Arthur Frank identifies the presence of menacing possibility in our workplaces as one that leads to demoralisation. By this he literally means the sapping of moral capability, the ability to stand for our own values, rather than the supposedly shared values of the strategic plan or the corporate vision. I agree: to restore the climate of our workplaces through practices of hospitality, generosity and consolation, we need to create space and support for leaders to listen to the stories that they’re hearing every day. The consolation of small stories, these ways in we keep in touch with each other as humans through the day (“How was your weekend?” “How’s your mum doing?” “Have you got plans for the holidays?”) aren’t trivial, or unproductive. They’re the ways in which we offer each other the gift of appreciative listening, and learn what matters to us.

And as it happens, they’re a win for organisations too: leaders who make space for storytelling in teams are building capacity to last over time, to work cooperatively through the most adverse circumstances, to be able to articulate and argue for their values, and to maintain their ethical focus. This is at least as useful as the current corporate fad for paintball-style team building, or team-based wellness challenges, all based on the myth that competition is healthy, fun and a win for all. (Which can’t possibly be true, when you think about it.)

Values-centred narrative practice on the other hand actually strengthens the “shared values” claim in corporate culture. But it does this by challenging the logic of chasing profit (or survival) through aggression towards consumers, service users, clients, students and staff. Having recently learned how empathy developed through touch and eye contact expands our neural capacity, I’m proposing that we also need to look more closely at story work in teams, and treat this as real, productive work. Narrative practice has taught me that small stories shared in a climate of trust create the conditions for innovation. Storied values expand our imagination of how others see the world; and they develop the generous, hospitable and empathic culture we need if we are going to learn from failure, risk, slow progress and small gains.

In other words, this is exactly how universities should be working. We’re not low-cost airlines, and even low-cost airlines don’t seem to like the way things are going.

Connectedness and learning: an invitation

How much capacity for empathy do we have, for ideas and people whose worldviews are very different from our own? How much hospitality do we have in ourselves, beyond mere tolerance, for this kind of difference?

Maha Bali,  ‘Whom do you listen to? And why I’m hoping to go the US this August

At Mary Freer’s compassion lab last week I learned new things from systems researcher Fiona Kerr. Fiona advises large corporations on social neuroscience, and is a robust and articulate critic of the ways in which technology investment seeks to substitute face to face human interaction with AI, VR and robots. She speaks persuasively about the evidence that nurturing connections created between humans who trust one another transform our capacity to think, to innovate, to navigate risk and to plan with discernment. All of these are core benefits to any environment concerned with learning, so you would think that universities would be first in the line to be fostering empathic and collegial workplaces. Connectedness makes us better at the things that universities are here to do, literally.

jewellery links
Linked spirals: network diagram, photograph by Kate Bowles

There are practical problems, however, with applying these lessons to universities, first because we are hierarchical institutions with power issues; and secondly because we are naturally global organisations. The problem with the neuroscience of empathic connection is that the two activities that offer the greatest benefit in terms of brain responses are prolonged touch, and retinal eye lock. Neither transfer well into virtual environments; and prolonged touch doesn’t transfer well into many workplaces, so bear in mind that Fiona was speaking primarily to people involved in therapeutic patient care. (And even eye contact doesn’t generate such positive brain outcomes in Skype meetings as in face to face contact, which I found useful to know.)

So if we’re putting more effort into online communication (and universities really are burying themselves in email, at every level); and if we’re also positively encouraging online collaboration because it offers a wider horizon beyond collaborators who are local to us, then we need to figure out what it is that builds connection in online or virtual environments. All of us who teach also need to understand how students who are skilled in using technology to connect to others may still need support to develop those connections to a level that stimulates their capacity to empathise and then discern, in the same demonstrated way as eye contact and touch.

This has me thinking about what it means to teach empathically in diverse online environments, where we can’t always see or hear from the people we’re learning with, and we can’t assume in any fundamental way that they experience life as we do. We can take nothing for granted about the strangers we don’t meet, except through the words they offer in writing or when they talk to us through our screens. To remember to teach inclusively is to engage our own brains in thinking about the world as it is for others: over there, in that body, at that time of day, in that season, during that cultural festival, under that government, in that family structure, with those religious hopes.

The challenge of working inclusively and generously in online environments is impressive, but the opportunity that it opens up for us is something that we can’t leave to chance in this difficult world. So I am really glad to be heading to the US with my friend and colleague Maha Bali, to lead a section of the Digital Pedagogy Lab to be held at the University of Mary Washington in August. You can read more about our track here. We wrote that post together knowing that for very obvious reasons, Maha may have a tough time even entering the US as an Egyptian Muslim woman. But this is precisely why we’ve both chosen to try to show up:

we are coming to the US to lead this track because we both believe that the practical exercise of global citizenship is more important than ever. We believe that inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality. To change the landscape on both sides of the walls that are being built to keep us apart, we need to show up and collaborate wherever we can.

We are honoured to be making this complicated journey together. Above all, we are looking forward to working with participants at DPL Fredericksburg to shape new practices of witness, justice and empathy, and to advocate without compromise for a pedagogy of respect to the stranger, the migrant, and the refugee.

And after listening to Fiona Kerr and thinking about how our brains actually work, I’ll be asking specifically whether narrative practice in digital pedagogy is the missing dimension that enables us to form a profound sense of each other, in the absence of eye contact and touch. I’m thinking about stories that have been shared with me online, and how I retain a sense of that person through the lens of their story. To me this opens up a new way of looking at tools, platforms and practices to find those that are most likely to honour listening, without simply defaulting to likes and hearts and thumbs up. Which platforms are best to let someone know that they have been heard in this world? Which digital tools enable us to maintain a rich sense of the storied life being lived elsewhere?

So with all this in mind, I can’t say enough about the beautiful essay Sean Michael Morris has written about his practice of writing about teaching (Sean will also be leading a track at DPL in August, on this very thing.) As he puts it, all of of us who teach do so for reasons. It’s not always obvious what those are; it’s not always the case that we have been inspired by being taught formally or informally. Sometimes, we just found ourselves in the room, and stayed. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Sean’s story about his father covers so much ground; it’s a love story without romance, delivered reverently, candidly and carefully. It’s a story of connectedness and frailty, that gives space to what we learn about a person after they have passed from our life. About working with learners, who are at the core of this essay and at the centre of his practice, Sean has this to say:

We are not dealing with students, but people with dreams, people who will fail and people who will succeed, people who may end up alone and people whose high point of the day may be a conversation with us. Being kind may seem counterintuitive to the academic ethos—especially when being kind can sometimes mean being wrong—but we owe it to ourselves to think outside our setting, to see past the artificial boundaries of generation, expertise, and authority. And while we’re at it: race, gender, sexuality, religion.

This is how we should write about teaching. From a place less studious and a place more generous.

He could just have said this, but it’s the story that he shared around it of his relationship with his father that expanded the possibility of connection, and helped me to concentrate on and recall what he thinks about students. The gift of Sean’s story, the small details that are still in my mind, opened a space in the present for me to imagine my own storied life as a person who teaches, especially online. So I’d really like to know more about how this sense of connectedness and this intensity of recall might show up on an MRI. But for now it’s enough that this essay (and many others, by others) was shared online and I found it.

And if you can make it to Fredericksburg August 7-11, come and join us all. We’d love to see you.

Details are here.

In our own hands

To offer consolation is an act of generosity.

Arthur Frank, The Renewal of Generosity

ANZAC Day: dodging the memorialisation of war by gardening, trying to distribute worm casts without ripping handfuls of living worms to bits. I’m feeling the dirt packed under my fingernails, and suddenly hearing Thom Gunn’s poem that skids to a stop on the matter of our cellular form: when we die and fall into the earth, we become dirt, and there is no intention in this, it just is.

This poem ends with the plants that consume and grow from what’s left of us. It reminds me of Sharon Olds’ meditation on the Challenger shuttle explosion (“What I want / to do is find each cell, / slip it out of the fishes’ mouths, / ash in the tree, / soot in your eyes’ ; see this post). These are the similar words I hear from Gunn’s poem while gardening with worms:

Cell after cell the plants convert / my special richness in the dirt: / all that they get, they get by chance / and multiply in ignorance

Thom Gunn, ‘The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death

My hands
These are my hands

Seeing ahead to the material plainness of what comes after our own dying should change the way we live and work, not just for people of faith, but for all of us. We’re here for a short time, and our priorities should be our own. But it’s not a simple thing to untangle ourselves from the visions and imperatives imposed on us by institutions, families and culture, to create sufficient thinking space that we can understand what choices we can make, what agency we have, in the time we have left.

To develop our agency, our capacity for generous action, in institutional contexts that Arthur Frank describes as cultures of “menacing possibility”, we need to find and care for others who are thinking similarly.

In his book The Renewal of Generosity, Frank talks about the stories shared in healthcare as gifts that expand this space of possibility.

The resonance of stories is what they give beyond what they ostensibly tell. Stories of the generosity of ill people, doctors, and nurses can show what is possible for any of us at any time. That is their consolation.

He’s using the word consolation deliberately, in a passage of his thoughts on generosity. To Frank, the climate of demoralization in stressed organizations is one that invites us to find and care for one another through specific practices of generosity, hospitality and consolation. To console is to comfort, and in its origins there is a sense of withness. To this extent, it resembles empathy, but there’s a subtle difference in consolation. To console is to recognise otherness as the basis of suffering that is separate from our own, to care without the hubristic claim of empathy.

Stories shared do this precisely: they invite us to approach others with humility. They don’t demand reciprocity; to receive a story, it’s enough to listen. You don’t need to offer a story in return. Stories are occasions for hospitality: to receive what comes, to listen without judging, without necessarily joining in, but in the discipline of full attention. Stories don’t fool us into forgetting who we are: however moving they are, we never fully experience them as the person telling them. In accepting the gift of a story, we recognise and respect that the other person is who they are because of a singular and also politically shaped set of experiences that are not our own. Listening well teaches us that what we do share is a matter of process: the values of others are drawn from their living, just as our own are.

Two days ago I had the opportunity to think a bit about where stories sit amongst the principles of compassionate leadership, at a #compassionlab retreat organised in Victoria by Mary Freer. In 2016, Mary won a Westpac Fellowship to find out about how empathy and compassion are changing workplace cultures and organisations around the world, and now she’s back with ideas and energy to share. Mary is a visionary and gifted leader, passionate about our capacity for change, and highly persuasive: in her company, and the company of the friends she brings to training events, a good world not only seems possible, but likely.

On the way to the retreat, I spent quite a bit of time in the company of a young man driving a taxi. He told me his story, of coming to Australia from a rural Punjabi village, on the values that he lives by, and the values he admires in others. He told me about his family, the way older people are valued in his home community, his hopes for the future. He seemed to me to embody the “pragmatic optimist” that we learned about at #compassionlab—someone whose sense of hope for the future has a good grasp of resources, constraints and opportunities, who can take steps to act to bring about the future in intentional ways. Along the way he explained to me why temples offer free food, and about the cultural values behind feeding those who need feeding. He mapped out a cultural framework for continuous learning, and told me stories of other Sikhs who made him proud of who he wants to be in this world.

The gift he left with me, in his own words: that if there is to be a good world, a good future, it’s one we will make with our hands.

2

Two years ago this weekend. Another year.

Over the past days, Sister Helen Prejean has been actively campaigning on Twitter to protest the rushed executions of men on death row in Arkansas. I came across Sister Prejean during the time that Myuran Sukumaran was still living, and I came home from the retreat watching  Australian death penalty activists sharing on Twitter the reminder that it’s two years ago since he was executed.

Sister Prejean’s tenacity is extraordinary. She is a skilful, articulate social media user, and she uses these channels unflinchingly to keep in public view the lives of those facing premeditated state killing, and the harm done to their families facing violent bereavement, often after years and years and years of delay. She uses faith and scripture, and generosity and hope, and every other thing available, to campaign until there isn’t a breath left. I don’t know how she holds herself up, but there she is, arguing exhaustedly and with conviction that the future can be remade at any moment, precisely because it’s in our hands.

I have a copy of a self-portrait by Myuran Sukumaran on my office noticeboard and I look at it every day. It reminds me to keep the future calmly in view, and in this way to try to meet it while still caring about something, believing that there is something to care about, whatever turns up.

And to meet it making something, growing something, with my own hands.

So much thanks to Mary Freer, Helen Prejean, and Jag, driving someone somewhere today, making a good world

As ever, thoughts with Mrs Sukumaran and the Sukumaran family.

Enhancing life

When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person’s likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.

John Berger,  ‘Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible’

It’s been hard to write, evidently. It’s March. This morning I was over on Plashing Vole’s blog reading this top quality piece about lefty academics (there’s no short version, just make a pot of tea and sit down, you’ll be glad) when I noticed from his sidebar of followed blogs that there hadn’t been so much as a chip wrapper blowing among these deckchairs the whole of this year.

Writing is slow, tricksy and always already falling behind. Why write, when you can shout? Why write, when the situation needs much more urgent action? Why write when the swamp of words is filling faster than we can bail it out? Placards, tweets, slogans: the US administration bellows #MAGA, and on Twitter—suddenly so America—the hashtags of the resistance come flying back. It’s like the worst Marco Polo ever.

And all of our efforts to grapple with what’s slithering about in this water with us have to be formed in actual words in our own mouths, in the languages we learned as children to talk about the world. Our mother tongues. Fake news, alternative facts: we’re trying to figure out what should be thinkable about any of this. Someone’s on television—surely we’d still call that “media”?— saying that the news is fake. Turn over the card. The statement on the other side is false. It’s like a drinking game. Something as intense, as intimate, as our own speaking is coopted to try to make sense of things that seem both obvious and entirely opaque, that reveal themselves only as we stare at them. What colour was that dress?

Words fail. Words fail. Words fail.

But the craft and practice of writing is more than an effort to try to get a hold of this, to nail it. It’s also a practice of grieving: the search for likeness, a feeling out and a pencilling in, it’s trying to represent and learn from the face of the thing that confronts you what it is that you have lost. Writing is the first attempt at getting it down on paper in a sketch, a snapshot, a sentence, because we’re all looking for someone who has died, some past self, who might not have existed, who might again.

And honestly there are days, even in this time, when it seems about right. But there are more days when your fingers are fused together and you bang at the keyboard with your fists and all you have is gestures and words that don’t sit right, that say nothing and convey nothing except how stupid this is making us all.

2

Back in January, knotted up and bad tempered with the effort of abandoned writing, I went to the Campbelltown Arts Centre to see ‘Another Day in Paradise’, the first exhibition of Myuran Sukumaran’s paintings, curated by his friend and teacher Ben Quilty. These paintings are at some level so familiar; we all saw them carried out of Nusakambangan still wet, still bleeding paint, still living.

Now here they are in a gallery on a hot day, with maybe ten or twelve of us walking around quietly looking at them. He painted his predicament relentlessly: the bullet, the scaffold, the AK-47, the politicians, the fellow prisoners, the body, and above all the face. He painted himself looking at the near future in which his paintings would immediately outlive him, because of the implacability of the judicial decision that his living had no value except in being kept alive to be brutally killed as an example to others.

Think about what it takes to keep trying to refine a practice of painting, writing, speaking, under that kind of duress. What are we doing letting the world silence us?

And now here we are, his paintings have done exactly as he intended and survived, cared for by his family and all those who loved him. And look: this likeness is not a photograph, this is an actual brushstroke in a self-portrait made by a person living under extraordinary pressure when he made it, and now he isn’t, and yet here we still are, and the marks made by his hands are still with us, as with any artist who has died.

Time bends around the then-and-now of all this. There are other pieces of writing on this blog about Myuran Sukumaran written at the time, and I still remember how it felt to lie awake thinking that if was me, if it was any of my kids in that kind of trouble, I would want the whole of Australia to stay awake all the time until my child was rescued.

Having sat with the paintings for a while, I came around a corner into a dark room and there was a large video installation by artist Matt Sleeth of a close up of Myuran’s face, blinking, not looking away, and laid in front of it a single bird of paradise stem. I thought the flower was part of the exhibition, but the next day I saw this:

3

There are always personal reasons why it gets a bit hard to write. Family life presses in. Stuff happens. Health happens.

But I think I’ve also been silent because this blog lost a reader. One of the people who really anchored me in the world, who knew me well, and knew where I came from, who taught me how to prune a rose, love a succulent, be an unsentimental gardener, try hard to respect botanical names, drink sherry in good glasses, and remain vigilant to questions of justice without ever wanting to be known for it, has gone. At her memorial, this was said of her:

She was deeply affected by the injustices she felt were being suffered by the Palestinian people, and was continually inspired by their unfailing resilience in the face of them; and she would take part in pilgrimages that were designed, not to visit holy places, but to cement friendships with Palestinian families. This went along with a deep concern for other major ethical issues in public life, as when she went to Scotland to join a protest against the nuclear submarine base at Faslane. Not that she could often be induced to talk about these things. Her naturally self-deprecating manner always meant that if one heard about them at all they would be recounted as negligible contributions to widely accepted causes. There wasn’t the smallest hint of pride or self-advertisement. But this modest self-deprecation concealed a character of startling determination.

This character of startling determination was my cousin, my friend, my fellow cancer patient and chemo expert, someone I confided in and listened to and looked up to and learned from. I was enormously proud to know her and be loved by her. We went through thick and thin together in the last few years, and when I said goodbye to her, I finally found the proper words to part from someone you know you won’t see again, which is the hardest thing migrants need to learn. (Really, my last words to my mum were awful and don’t bear thinking about. Long story.)

So after a rainy afternoon sitting in her home making plans for her to seek hospice care (“I just want to be with other people who are dying, and I need to be able to talk about this,” she said) we stepped into the driveway and had to figure out how to honour everything we’d been talking about and yet find a way to say goodbye.

“You are life enhancing,” she said. And I said back, “And you are life enhancing.” And that was it, we hugged, and I drove away.

I miss her every day, especially when gardening and fuming at the world. She was 89. She had an iPad. She followed Palestinian bloggers and read Alan Bennett. We were John Berger fans together. She read this blog.

With love to you, M. You are still enhancing this life. It’s time to get back to it.

Lenses

There’s a lot of things that we have to look at critically that might have been useful at one time that are no longer useful.

Myles Horton

What is the space between the orchid and the wasp?

Jacques Abelman

1

In the third chapter, “Ideas”, of Myles Horton and Paolo Freire’s We Make The Road by Walking (1990), there’s a moment where the conversation suddenly looks right at us.

The [electoral] system that we have in the United States was set up at a time when the total population was the population of Tennessee. We’ve stretched it to try to make it work for different kinds of problems and in stretching and adapting it, we’ve lost its meaning. (p137)

Myles Horton suggests that there are always things that we need to look at critically, that have outlived their usefulness. In higher education, we’re used to this: the college lecture, the three or even four year degree, the textbook, the exam, the peer reviewed closed publication system, secure employment, shared governance—all under the hammer of disruption.

But can a whole electoral system lose its meaning in this way? When we look, can we see what needs defending, what can be lost?

2

Something about what happens when we talk.

Here’s a brief glimpse of the book’s origin, from the preface. Horton and Freire met and talked late in 1987 at the Highlander School that Horton had built, and that is now an education and research centre still focused on grassroots organising.

They could relax, explore their histories, and feel the texture and depth of each other’s experiences as they grew closer as good friends. Their conversations soon became like a dance between old companions accustomed to the subtle leads and responses by one, then the other.

Myles Horton was 83 and Paolo Freire was 66. They came to this meeting from different personal and educational starting points, with a shared interest in what radical pedagogy could contribute to social justice. They had worked across government and activist roles; they had lived as husbands and fathers and teachers; they had each experienced loss and grief and illness. The book exists at all because Horton’s collaborators at the University of Tennessee (Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters) felt it was “time to let the world in on what each man, whose work was already well known, had to say to each other.”

3

While I’m in this #HortonFreire reading group, I’m still working with others to fathom the potential to critical pedagogy of the open source network mastodon.social. The group of us who are looking at this, both uncertainly and with bursts of optimism, have shown up inside a refuge that’s still under construction. We’re trying not to get in the way of the host community for which the protections of this social space are evidently intended, and whose safety is important to us.

And yet we’re co-evolving something, working in the space between the orchid and the wasp. Outlier members of each community are passing round each other’s ideas and comments, making design or server hosting suggestions, with nothing much in common except that we are all humans living in these times. And the copresence of two such unlike demographics is probably helpful in constraining the tendency for anyone to succeed in defining the whole project. It’s more than usually obvious in that neither “we” can imagine for others who are their own “we”, with all their own conventions and hopes for the future.

In this context, Jim Luke suggests that viability for a growing online community hosting many overlapping conversations relates to what people can see, what they choose to pay attention to. To Jim, this is a matter of lenses. What you see depends on the lens that you bring to the seeing. Some of this is an issues for system design; more that matters is derived from personal and social history, and purpose.

My glasses. They're how I see.
My glasses. They’re how I see.

The etymology of the lens is literal. Lens is the Latin form for the word that forks in English to become lens because it resembles lentil. It turns out that many languages share the same or proximal words for these two things, based on their similar lenticular shape.

The purpose of a lens is to bend the light that passes through it, one way or another, to enable things to be seen.

4

The idea of the lens has become newly fraught since the US election. For critical educators, for those of us following Foucault or Gramsci or any thinker on the mutability of what is thinkable according to who is thinking it and what power they wield, this is a tough time. Postmodernism has sedimented into the high school curriculum, and the post-truth presidency is on the horizon in the US.

We always said that facts were made things, polished lenses, ways of seeing the world. And now here we are.

This is a time for critical educators to work together in new ways to address what’s newly at stake. To me it’s encouraging to be reminded by Horton & Freire that activists have always collaborated, that conversations have been the basis of growth as much as harm, that ideas come into focus when we talk. And maybe we’ve forgotten in the turmoil of bitterness, malice and panic that our online networks are there to let the world know what we have to say to one another.

It’s not a reason to re-assert a modernist faith system, to shore up an imaginary pre-post-fact era when things were truer than they are now. It’s more that accepting the relativism and mutability of perspective doesn’t give us the right to silence at this time.

4.

Book club part: the risk and promise of efficiency.

Horton and Freire draw a distinction between the kind of education that has the courage to be open to purpose, to what will turn up; and schooling which suffers (from) the same imperative as activism, to get stuff done. Between these two poles, there is something they call efficiency.

That is, efficiency, without being an instrument of enslaving you, is something that is absolutely necessary. Inefficiency has to do with the distance between what you do and what you would like to get.

Nearly 30 years later, we need to revisit this point. What can we wish for, when efficiency is the genius of the enslaving instruments of data management, of automated labour, of the market, of capital itself?

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the things people say about their navigational experiences in mastodon. Relative to other platforms it doesn’t smooth the paths. Wayfinding is sometimes hard. Conversations break apart and reform. We lose track, back up, follow branching paths, calling out to each other. Learning is hard and in every sense, time is short. Our human bandwidth is at capacity.

Other platforms know exactly how to use design to exploit this sense of informational fatigue. Cashed up social networks have got us used to being led to content, like we’re in IKEA. Algorithms make paths for us; algorithms even make our shortcuts.

Look, here is the significant content you missed while you were away, here is the gap in the hedge for you to catch up, here is the moment that matters.

We fall on this efficiency with relief because Twitter is the firehose, and the world that’s on fire. It’s the crowded pavement where everyone is running.

Mastodon feels to me like something slow, rough edged, inefficient. It requires us to stop, to concentrate, to think more carefully. In every way, it reminds me of Mike Caulfield’s earliest federated wiki in design and purpose, and in the ideal that I discovered there of uncluttered co-working for the collaborative extension of complex ideas.

It’s good to remember that we still know how to manage in these spaces, as we try to name all the things the lenses of the powerful are asking us not to see.

5

It’s not too late to dip in or join #HortonFreire, in your own time. Thanks to Bryan Alexander there’s a trove of links and the backstory all here. The front readers have reached chapter 4 but plenty of us are tarrying, and there’s no deadline at all. Maybe we’ll all just read this book together until the end of days..

On chapter 3, I really appreciated Amy Collier’s thoughts on broken heartedness of leadership. Adam Croom has made a quote generator from his own notes on chapters 3 and 4 which will put something in your day.

And Bonnie Stewart has opened up an extraordinary discussion about the potential to make a new thing, remembering instead of forgetting our history. Go there.

Update

If you’re on mastodon, we’ve been following up Laura Ritchie‘s idea about using #lenses as a hashtag to gather up branching threads, and have run into a design feature that makes this awkward. Entirely unlike Twitter, this has led to an exchange with the developer about how things might work better.

 

The roads we make

We all agreed we had to start learning from the people we were working with, and that we had to learn from each other.

Myles Horton, #HortonFreire , We Make the Road by Walking

So I’m in a pop-up book club, which is probably the only kind of book club I can manage, as I’m a terrible reader. I have a vision of book clubs that is part Oprah, and part my friend David the philosopher who tells me stories of Melbourne book clubs with wine and erudition and sustained relationships over time. I harbour unfair conclusions about both, and “join book club” is not on my bucket list. Worse, my own practice of opposing assigned readings when I teach makes me a peculiar candidate for synchronised reading even in a professional context. I can barely bring myself to read the agenda.

But I came across a group planning to read the transcribed conversations between critical educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, published in 1990 as We Make the Road by Walking. And this is a book I actually read, and care about, and keep by the bath, and go over and over like a well-thumbed bible of sorts. Bryan Alexander is at the head of the line, and you can follow his thoughts here. Beyond that there are posts by Adam Croom, Amy Collier and Ben Scragg that are extraordinarily rich companions to the first couple of chapters. There’s a schedule and a Twitter chat. As a demonstration of what group reading can do, it’s compelling.

So I’m in, figuring that if I have only one book club in me ever, this could be the one. And of course, Bryan is on chapter 3 so I’m already running behind. But I’ve been here before, thinking about how we learn from walking together, especially with people who don’t walk the way we do, or the way we think is right. This is from 2014:

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Freire.)

Horton and Freire’s conversation about their shared histories of becoming educational activists begins with their own experiences as children, learning to read. In the chapter “Formative Years” (see, I’m really book clubbing it now) Freire talks about learning at home, sitting among mango trees, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Horton doesn’t remember how he learned to read, but recalls the transition from know-how reading to reading for meaning.

I remember learning to know-how read, my mother’s finger running along the words, the picture covered over with a brown window envelope so I wouldn’t guess. Next she was big on flash cards, and stuck them onto the appropriate items around the house, so we lived briefly in a labelled environment like people who might at any moment lose their minds and forget which was the door and which was the window.

Then my dad, the trained teacher, came home one day and switched all the labels around — Semiotics 101.

I did all right.

2.

“If I need a road, then I’ll make a road!” says Toad.

Start over.

When our older kids were little, my mother loaded us up with the Usborne phonics reader series. Slim little volumes of incredible tedium introduced us to phonics, rhymes, flattened cartoonish illustrations, and some modest relief hunting for a little yellow duck on every page, The girls loved them.

But there was one I also loved. Toad Makes a Road is the story of an enterprising and independent character who hops happily into her new house on a hill (brought to you by the h sound, get it?). Time ticks on (I’m quoting now, from ground in memory of those long nights) and the removalist truck can’t get up the hill, so (short version) Toad carries all her furniture up by herself, and then waits for her friends to appear, teapot in hand. One by one, they all tell her that her hill is too steep, and that she needs a road. She tells them brightly that she’ll make one, and is of course dismissed as a fool.

Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books
Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books

So I inwardly cheered every time when we turned the page and found Toad with her fully provisioned road building machinery—the really big earth movers, in the proper shade of yellow—laying the road, making it flat, and putting up a big billboard of welcome to all comers, all by herself.

Sometimes we make the road by making it. And this is hard work too.

3.

Why do we try new things? Very often it’s because of a recommendation. We’re social learners, it’s a survival skill. And so it is that this week I followed a pilgrimage of travellers led by Paul Prinsloo to try a new kind of social network. The result has been heartwarming, surprising, and something that will take more than this post to explain.

Here’s what I have learned briefly. There’s tremendous energy in the open source community to build social alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. There are some quite niche reasons why particular groups are drawn to these alternatives at the moment, and like any communitarian energy, it’s generating a lot of work thinking about boundaries and rules and ways of getting along. If you’ve watched enough post-apocalyptic survival fiction, you’ll know what this is about.

Entering one of these communities, even accidentally, is about practising the reciprocal hospitality of the guest, and I’ve been watching colleagues and friends manage this with real care and respect, engaging with a host community that self-represents as marginal and in many ways at risk. We’re not the only ones thinking about how to act well in relation to strangers, how not to trip or trigger. It’s going on all the time.

Many small technical things that Twitter has made (suspiciously) easy are harder in this space. It navigates like Moodle, and looks like a darkened cave. But what has really surprised and engaged me is the rewarding labour of learning from strangers–the time that people give to one another to work in collaboration. It’s reminded me of many things about the cooperative, curious, clunky internet of 1995, animated with the urgency of figuring out the paths we need to make in the swampy ground of 2016.

You can read more about it here and here (Daniel Lynds and Sundi Richard on its potential for higher education users) and here (Maha Bali in ProfHacker) and here (“Everything changed when the marxist anime twitter arrived”).

And I’m truly glad to be involved in thinking about the world we might make by learning from each other.