Heresy and kindness

There’s too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what’s possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don’t just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.

The Plashing Vole, Good enough

Here’s a tale. When I first started thinking about how to write in public about the experience of working in a university, I looked around for models that seemed to me to do it well. I found Dean Dad and Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and from both of them learned a lot about writing about college leadership. But I wanted to find people who were figuring out how to write higher education from below. And because I’m generally a lucky type, I stumbled in short order on Bon Stewart, Jonathan Rees and the Plashing Vole.

I was really struck by how prolific, gifted and funny these writers were, and how they used their online writing as a way of reaching beyond the everyday of where they were to struggle with issues that were recognisable to me, all the way down here in Australia. But I also learned new things: refrigerators! fencing! NUFC! credit transfer! And all five of them made space in their comments for others to learn how to write publicly. For me, this was essential as I was still writing anonymously and worrying whether critique of my own employer’s business culture crossed some kind of line in terms of professional conduct.

So the first important lesson I learned from these five is that online writing is a practice of scholarly hospitality. In these hands, writing handled itself differently from the slugfest of competitive self-advancement that I had seen writing become in universities, a chronic depletion of purpose for most people sucked into it.

In these hands, writing showed itself as a gesture of welcoming curiosity. Online writing in particular offered a new way of handling lightly the big tickets: citation, evidence, reputation, impact. Online public writing allowed itself to be tentative, to let unfinished thoughts hang, to engage with difficult issues without fixing prematurely on solutions. Scholarly writers shepherding their ideas in public without benefit of editors and peer reviewers, and without the protection of a ten metre paywall, turned out to be intelligent, capable and accountable managers of their own intelligence: who knew?

And so writing for me was gently rescued from its service role in generating outputs for measuring, and returned to a closer relationship to enquiry. I learned how to write in order to think. Here were scholars producing a couple of thousand words a week without distress, contributing timely, relevant expertise to the history of human thought and if you had a question or objection, you could just bowl up and ask them, and they replied.

Isn’t this what we all think the academy is supposed to do in the world?

From this small group, who didn’t necessarily all cross paths with each other, I grew an online network that has been a rich and sustaining professional culture for me. Their links and citations have led me forwards and outwards into other conversations where new evidence is continually turning up, new ideas are continually in the act of forming, and critical reflection is the (mostly) welcomed response. This week one of the radiating circuits of this network in action brought me a question about how to frame academic event management with a rigorous commitment to postcolonial theories of self and subjectivity; another asked how kindness and diversity co-habit in academic teams and organisations. All of these questions develop me as a thinker and a teacher.

So I want to take a moment and thank the Plashing Vole for his beautiful and widely circulated post on kindness, struggle and modesty. His championing of ethical mediocrity is a heretical proposition in higher education at the moment, but like all his writing, it’s a disarming bit of very smart thinking disguised as a chat. PV tells a story about an everyday logistical failure (a room not booked, a class underprepared) and he does it with such generosity and detail that I can still easily picture his students trudging from campus to campus with him, trying not to think about the Duchess of Malfi. We’ve all been there.

But his larger point is that all organisations need to cultivate a culture of kindness if these errors are to be bearable, and to do this we need to accept that rhetorical focus on 4* publications and the stellar careers of the few won’t sustain the culture that actually supports both. To keep universities operating, not only those universities with convictions about educational equity, we need to accept, and model, failure as a fundamental part of the innovation curve. We need to learn, and model, the kindest way of giving feedback if something seems awry.

And to do this, we need to create and then militantly protect practices of interpersonal safety and care across the higher education system. This means that we do need to ask our institutions to mind their language as they describe our thrilling futures, and we need to be especially vigilant during times of “change management”, whose very language is now doing harm to many. But PV is very specific—and I agree—that this isn’t just a problem that managers can fix.

We all need a little more humanity.

So I don’t think it’s just because I’m off to Mary Freer’s gathering of kindness for healthcare reform, but because I’m watching an extraordinary response to PV’s post, and to the ones that others wrote just before it, especially Liz Morrish. There is a will to value kindness in higher education at the moment, as a better culture for generating ideas, proposals and critical thought for the world we’re in.

I’m watching events and collaborations developing all over the place (looking at you #digpedlab and #indieedtech), and while I’m not sure any longer that we can or should try to fix higher education, I’m really optimistic that by working together, educators and learners at every level, we can develop a sense of purpose about how to care for this planet.

In a hundred years, we won’t be here, but we are all here now.

Plashing Vole, this one’s for you. 

18 thoughts on “Heresy and kindness

  1. Hello! I’m becoming increasingly interested (as is Richard Hall, I think) in alternatives to HE. cMOOCs are very strong in this realm. What other forms of cooperative practice are emerging? There’s an obviousness to the huge surplus of trained educator capability currently squandered by casualisation of higher education, a “talent pool” that is on the verge of turning to its own purposes. And from the other end in edtech there are some robust solutions for managing evidence of learning.

    There is a future for education, but like you I’m really sceptical about the future of our current system. I’d really like to see more models for new practices, and new ways of taking learning into the open air.

    The test for me would be what I’d think of my own kids entering alternative systems. And to be honest, seeing what I do from the inside of the current HE system, I’d be delighted if there was something available to them that was far more open to what they can bring, and make for themselves.

    1. I’m interested in and skeptical about the same…and have been encouraging casual cohort to learn more about options and how to use them — and resist being used by them as tools of exploitation.

  2. Thank *you* Kate, for your hospitality, your kindness and your generosity, and for the sharp, clean, fresh air you and your writing bring.
    Nobody does it better.

  3. Like the future, kindness, love etc are unevenly distributed, which means you can find beautiful rewarding pockets of it sometimes by a random link click.and its out there, more than we might know (glass fullness activated).

    It’s interesting to me that the people like you describe, and yourself, do their primary out loud thinking in their own digital spaces. It seems in the various blue colored spaces and the newest middle size named spaces, people are jockeying and playing to be seen, instead of just being who they are. Maybe I generalize.

    1. One of the things that I watch with some misgiving is the push by people in universities to have work like this, work in the fresh air of our own spaces, count for something. I’m sympathetic to the idea that it is real work after all, and if counting is the thing, why not count this? But I think it’s precisely by being beyond the reach of the laser measure that we make a space to think unselfconsciously.

      I take your thought here, Alan, to be about why do this here and not on some more public/common space. For me, this blog has been quite a personal space, where things more or less make sense to me—and yet all these people come by and I am just so pleased that you are here.

      1. I am sure someone can measure and apply data analytics to serendipity. Surely 😉

        Which leads me to remember a story… In 2011 at the EDUCAUSE ELI conference, I was in the room with Gardner Campbell being interviewed for a podcast (that was never published); when he was asked about the potential of learning analytics he went on this poetic rant about why are we not applying analytics to love.

        There were more than 4 people in the room. I was experimenting with live radio streaming via DS106 radio, and our friend @noiseprofessor in California was listening, and generated/tweeted this lovely Photoshop remix before we left the room

        http://www.noiseprofessor.org/love-analytics-is-the-new-bags-of-gold/

        How do you ever measure this experience? Why does the electric excitement of it remain with me 5 years later than I can still visualize the room?

        I understand the dilemma- this writing.thinking we do is related to work, but not strictly all work. We are beings that strand these boundaries, and when I started in the field, my place of work placed a lot of trust in the individual to explore things not explicitly assigned in the understanding that activities out of scope often did reward the ones in scope. That kind of organization trust in the individual may have been unusual, though to me that is the kind of trust we do when we teach, but seems quaint/archaic in an age where everything needs to be put into a ledger.

        I believe I have wandered off topic. It happens.

        The kind of individual writing we do helps us as a whole person try to make sense of the world; I am one person, not a pie chart split into work/personal/whatever.

        1. Amy Collier brought Gardner’s love talk up today in her #DigPed keynote in Cairo and made me cry. i’d never heard of it before.

  4. Reading your lovely post cast my mind back to a union meeting about 16 or 17 years ago where I asked a plaintive “but what about the students?” type of question and the delightful old school union branch officer replied that we should remember that we can only work within the resource envelope provided and the responsibility for resource lay with university management. Reflecting on that now, I think that the tendency to pit students against staff is worse now – more kindness from staff being at the cost of kindness to self.
    I agree that some good work is being done on alternatives to HE, particularly by Joss Winn and Mike Neary. I read a shortish but very thought-provoking article by them last week https://twitter.com/francesbell/status/710578017068777473 I struggle a bit with Marx and I am still processing their ideas against academic identity but I think that there is something there. I am not yet ready to join my dots in public but I’ll get there – slow learning.
    I am not a big MOOCer, started many but only ‘completed’ CCK08 and rhizo14 but I do think we should look beyond them for alternatives for 2 reasons. MOOCs in general fall prey to the ahistoric approach that Audrey Watters skewers so well for edtech in general. They rarely acknowledge what went before eg Web Heads in Action and lots of what used to be called virtual communities that preceded them. There is a lot of research and practice to learn from I think and not just online.
    Sorry for the long comment but you really have made me think – as usual:)

    1. Frances, the article does sound interesting but I can’t read past the first page. It is behind a paywall, effectively keeping out anyone not a member of the club.

      Although cMOOCs are very different from the x models and for that perhaps (I hope) somewhat less susceptible to the same temptations, the two models seem to be, if not converging, adapting features from each other other. They are evolving — perhaps spawning TNG. I’m intrigued by the possibilities but hope for the best without being entirely optimistic. Academics and their institutions are more opinion holders than change makers, let along boat rockers or tradition breakers.

      The power is less in the institutions of learning than in the ones of measuring and credentialing. Still, I keep an eye out for alt.highered pathways, collect examples.

      Cultivate a culture of kindness but extend it beyond the clubhouse doors of the Ivory Silo™

      PS One blog leads to another. I have been reading/sharing the bloggers Kate mentions and would also recommend Bryan Alexander. I discovered Kate through Jonathon — and him in via Werner Herzog’s Bear, who left higher education and closed the archives to his original blog. I still follow the blogger who led me to the Bear.

      1. Sorry about the paywall – check your Twitter Vanessa 🙂 I don’t have access since I escaped the Ivory Silo but was lucky enough to get one the few ‘free’ copies.
        I tried to create a chronology of MOOCs and found like you it was less and less possible to draw a line between C- and X-MOOCs.
        I also struggle to remain optimistic – just today I have seen some really petty and unpleasant use of noble new web service by people who probably see themselves as on the side of the angels.

  5. Thanks to you I read that article too. I’ve also just written a long piece with Richard Hall which had more Marxism in it than my usual diet, so that was a learning curve of the slowest, steepest kind. I found it particularly challenging to learn to use familiar words as though they were not as I knew them, a bit like relearning how to walk.

    You’re so right about MOOCs (all varieties) and the tendency to forget what has happened before, but I think there is also a tendency among those of us who are historically minded to miss some of what is actually a bit different with each fresh variant.

    And yes, and yes, and yes to the point about treating kindness as a finite resource, that we must preserve and police. There is enough.

  6. This is a post that will leave traces long after I have shut off my computer and gone to sleep. I am struck by the notion of online writing as “a practice of scholarly hospitality.” THIS!
    As an educator operating on what feels like another planet (K-12 Ed), I have very mixed feelings about engaging with the HE crowd. (Has anyone explored the irony of abbreviating Higher Ed with the male 3rd person pronoun? Just wondering.) I love the conversations, the people, the topics and at the same time wonder again and again about being enough – good, smart, well-read enough. But I am here and feel especially grateful when I encounter a post like this which not only welcomes me but also sends me hither and yon to explore and meet and discover more goodness and some affirming “enough-ness”. “Scholarly hospitality” is real and doable and a practice within our immediate reach. Thank you for modeling that here so beautifully.

    1. I think you’ve identified something important that’s also often experienced by people who work alongside higher education faculty, in tech or design or services: who is welcome inside the scholarly conversation. This is a discussion I’ve had intermittently with Raul Pacheco-Vega about his #scholarsunday appreciation project on Twitter. I love the appreciative dimension, but I question both “scholar” and “sunday” as it seems to me to risk narrowing our appreciation to those formally defined as scholars; and entirely to go along with the idea of “Sunday” as scholarly working time. So this then tangles with the whole idea of thinking as identity practice, which is of course practiced at any time, but in reality serves up big doses of volunteer labour to academic employers.

      My sense of the conversation we’re all having here is that we come at this from many different employment perspectives, but with a common appreciation of the problem that kindness is being underestimated as weak and uncompetitive all over the economy, all over the planet. In many ways, higher education is just a small instance of this global problem. How do we imagine our capacity to care for one another and how do we balance this with care for ourselves? So lovely to see you here, Sherri. You are really welcome.

Conversation welcome here