Subject outline

Above their heads, whether the visitors are sleeping, dreaming or making love, the laws keep watch.

Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality

Heather Paul, ‘Dead Body Outline’, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s that time of year when the deadline rears up for next year’s syllabus. Where I am, we call this a “subject outline”, and I’m momentarily stuck on all the ways we could take this. Who is the subject outlined here?  Whose subjectivity are we trying to confine?

There’s a template, of course. It’s there to assure compliance with codes of practice and national standards for quality in higher education. The template fixes the parts that have ridden the updraft of committee approval right the way to the top: descriptions, assessment tasks, subject learning outcomes mapped to course learning outcomes mapped to the appropriate level in the Australian Quality Framework. The very few sections that are open to change have been highlighted in yellow; and the rest is fixed.

It’s easy to chafe at it. The wording is, as someone said to me last week, “uncivil”. I’m sure it’s a singalong in the policy divisions, but to the rest of us the tone is one of deficit and threat. Its small aggressions are couched in the passive voice; it speaks of students in the third party as though they’re bystanders to the whole process; and the vocabulary is frankly unreasonable for anyone struggling with English. “Pursuant”? Really?

But at a busy time of year it’s also a very fair effort to speed up a process that requires every outline to be signed off. There isn’t time to read them all, now that they’re all so long. So there are about about ten closely typed pages worth of quality assured policy words that are exactly the same in every one. In fact, there’s a whole section covering nineteen separate policies and guidelines.

No one can say they weren’t told.

Thanks to this bulking up, we no longer print outlines to hand out to students in the first week of class, torching whole forests in the process. Our cunning plan is to upload each one separately as a 20 page PDF to a different subject specific LMS site—thus doubly missing the point of the internet as a place where information can be managed centrally, and accessed conveniently.

And the result is exactly as you’d expect. It’s not just that students don’t download them, let alone scroll through them. Our method of distributing them is actively training students not to read them. Compliance is satisfied by their having been written, approved and made technically findable; for anyone to read them is a perversion of their unreadable form.

2

In Of Hospitality, Derrida has things to say about the prospect of achieving unconditional hospitality in a world in which the encounters between self and stranger are already managed by hospitality’s conditional laws. He makes use of Les lois de l’hospitalite (1965) by French philosopher and de Sade translator Pierre Klossowki. This story involves house rules handwritten and hung under glass over the bed in the guest room of a home that anticipates a stranger who might—who would be expected to—substitute himself for the host in the most intimate way. (It’s not for the faint-hearted; Tracy McNulty has more details about the story in her 2005 essay ‘Hospitality after the Death of God‘.)

What matters to Derrida is the placing of these laws of hospitality. Because of where this manifesto is located, both hung above the bed in the story, and separately printed at the front of the book, “one ought to be unable not to make acquaintance with it, and yet one can always omit to read it.”

This feels familiar.

So if the laws of hospitality represent an inevitable failure of communication, where do they succeed? To Klossowski, and perhaps Derrida, they succeed transactionally by being written, not read; they work to codify the transformation of strangers into visitors. A bit like the Innkeepers Act that manages the legal transformation of travellers into guests for the purposes of staying in a pub, the laws of hospitality outline a space for the visitor to occupy. But precisely by accepting the invitation to sleep in the guest bed, the subjects of these handwritten laws also can’t comfortably remind themselves what’s on offer, or what’s prohibited, because the laws are literally hanging over their heads.

Inevitable and inaccessible, intangible, these “handwritten pages” are placed above the bed, like the law, certainly, but as threatening as an epic above your head, in this place where the guest rests, but also where he won’t have been able, where he wouldn’t have been able, where he won’t have had to fail to read the texts of a law of which no one is deemed ignorant.

It’s wordplay, for sure. But it’s also apt. It’s how we try to regulate our relationship with all the imagined strangers in our futures, whether through university syllabi, software terms and conditions, or border protection: the laws that are placed where you can see them but may avoid reading them outline the shape of a stranger to come who can only be anticipated in the most generic way.

3.

What Derrida lays out here is that even if this comes from a playful source, a libidinous story, it’s a game of the highest stakes. The rules of hospitality protect themselves by limiting the risk that we pose to each other in a classroom, at a border, in the street. In education, they codify the transaction we most need to understand, which is the transformation of stranger into student through the act of paying money (or taking on debt) in order to submit to being taught.

If we want to do this better, and write expressions of welcome and inclusion that students will actually read, what should we say?

Earlier this year, I heard Sara Goldrick-Rab speak about our failure to acknowledge the real living and working conditions of college students. Her focus on food and housing insecurity is framed by this exact moment where I’ve become stuck:

I thought the syllabus was finally finished, having just added the series of requisite College of Education policies (on things like plagiarism, attendance, etc.), when suddenly I realize that something was missing. And then I began crafting a statement on basic needs security, appending it to the set of policies. This was a first for me, but it felt necessary and internally consistent with the course. Here’s what it says:

Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

This has cheered me up quite a bit. The rules and policies are still there—Sara’s not pitching for Derridean unconditionality, and honestly, I’m not either. But together with Derrida, today she has really helped me think through the perverse unreadability of our usual outlines as not so much a failure to communicate, but as a successful covering of the transactional cost of college.

By exposing the possibility of students experiencing food or housing insecurity, Sara opens up a new and more respectful conversation about this cost, and about all the things that students have to balance in their lives. She imagines not just students in general but “any student”, whoever they are, and she redesigns her syllabus for a more generous pedagogy in doing so. She signals that she acknowledges and respects their identity, and she makes room for their agency (“if you are comfortable in doing so”).

In writing my own outline as an educator—which is really all this blog has ever been about—I realise I want to think much more carefully about pedagogy as a practice of compassionate hospitality. I want there to be a way of teaching that owes policy its due but also holds a space between the conditional and the unconditional. It’s a pedagogy that’s tentative, optimistic and governed by care; and it’s constituted in listening to all the strangers-as-students whose vulnerabilities might be shared with us if they are comfortable in doing so, but aren’t ours to outline.

A post for Kris Christou.

Day to day

Currently focused on the doorway of every lecture theatre, cameras record students as they enter, matching their faces to university records.

Using Hitachi Data Systems to improve student life at Curtin University,  in the black: leadership, strategy, business 

I’m really stuck on this article. I’ve read it over and over. I think about the world we’re making, and the world we’re mining, and I’m trying to process something that feels like grief at the way we speak about innovation. It’s not the innovation itself, entirely: it’s the claims we make for its use.

Surveillance itself isn’t new. We’re used to machine learning, and keystroke monitoring, and dashboards. Facial emotion recognition is front of mind for education researchers working on online student retention. And using the campus as a laboratory via the exploitation of students as research subjects has a long history; until Amazon Turkers came along, students were the obvious choice for surveys, experiments and observations. But tracking students in and out of lecture theatres is not fresh thinking; the most stubborn problem facing students continues to be the bit we take for granted, which is using lectures to deliver content in the first place.

So what is this about? At this level of investment, the “living laboratory” isn’t a philosophical inquiry. It has institutional weight and is getting marketing attention, because improving student life is a business matter. Students are the predictors of revenue: unless they drop out, they’re here for a fixed duration, at a mostly fixed price.

Unless they drop out.

This is why we end up here:

And specifically here:

The data allows us to generate contextual information about the lifecycle of the student, the day to day reality of the staff member, the activity pattern of a lecture theatre, and the dynamics and environmental health of a library.

But what allows us to do anything with data are the standards of our research protocols. University-technology partnerships introduce two unlike research cultures to one another, and there have been cases where the seemingly lower standards in commercial research have dragged university researchers into some wet sand. Facebook emotion manipulation study? Yes, that one.

So while it’s good to read that “[e]xcept where specific consent is given, data collected is not linked to an individual” this is quite an odd promise: surely the point of behavioural monitoring is to know whose behaviour you’re looking at? Because this isn’t just space utilisation surveying, whether by clipboard or thermal counter mapping. This promises to ticket a specific struggling individual and send resources to help, and that means somewhere in the system knowing who they are, and being able to track them over time.

Help button
At the University of Mary Washington, 2017.

And there’s a set of steak knives thrown in: insights about the “day to day reality of the staff member”, who is presumably also known as an identifiable individual somewhere in this system. Unless this project is suggesting that day to day reality is substitutable among different members of the same sample population, which is really not what day to day reality is, not at all.

So, trying to be fair, maybe de-identification is a detail that’s been poorly represented in marketing. Conceivably the project itself has robust consent standards that aren’t visible here. Possibly students and staff involved in its trials are keenly aware of the volume of data on their behaviour that is collected, and have been told where it is stored, and how and with whom it can be shared. Ideally all experimental participants are regularly reminded how to review, delete or use their own “living laboratory” data in whatever way is useful to them. You’d hope.

This bit, however, is unambiguously in the road map.

In the future, the system will identify students who live only kilometres from each other and drive to attend classes around the same time.

From there … the university can put those students in touch with one another for carpooling and study buddy reasons.

And truly, this is not trivial. This weird mix of Snapchat maps and the High There! hopper service is coming to a campus near you because no one at the executive level thinks it’s even slightly creepy to put students in touch with one another on the basis of their private data. So this should make us all sit up: in this world, digital privacy must quickly become a core literacy in every discipline at every level. (Happily, understanding the day to day reality of surveillance is a more work-facing graduate capability than mastering the passive voice so it’s a win-win, of some shabby kind.)

In her fine essay on the need for a digital sanctuary movement on US campuses, Amy Collier argues that as higher education becomes more intensively extractive, “we need to recognize and deconstruct our perspectives on the relationship of data to our understanding of student learning.” We need to unthink the assumption that when we measure visible actions like showing up, or logging on, we’re generating insights into what a student is thinking. We need to caution ourselves against data hubris and remember that watching what someone is doing is the most limiting way of learning what motivates them to do it.

This is the story digital ethnographer Mike Wesch tells in his beautiful 2015 video The Sleeper. Like many of us, he had the experience of teaching a student who regularly fell asleep in class. Students are shift workers, carers, commuters, overloaded social beings, and sometimes just tired with the day to day reality of their lives. He decided to learn more by taking the student out to lunch. He learned that his observational judgement, using the data visible to him, was wrong; he also realised that this misplaced assumption had real consequences for this student, and all students similarly written off.

Because that’s the real tragedy.  It’s not just that I saw David in a certain way. It’s that he saw himself that way too.

Like Mike Wesch, Amy Collier argues that we need to act with far more care, and attend conscientiously to the risk of unintended consequence as we hoard data on student behaviour and mistake this for their day to day reality.

We in higher education need to seriously consider how we think about and handle student data, and we need to respectfully and empathetically acknowledge where our practices may cause harm.

She’s right. It’s time to pause, and to reset our goals.

We have built the extractive technology to track students minutely. We can continue to invest in improving its efficiency and extending its range. We can boast and promise and envision the seamless world in which human gesture is all the window we need into human thought. We can forget everything we know about the history of surveillance and social vulnerability.

Or like the other mining industries in our world economy, we can start to think ahead to the risks and consequences of carrying on like this. This future is not inevitable, and our concerns are not naive. This technology is part of a business strategy thats trying to fight its way out of the bag of Baumol’s cost disease, by turning service into product. Counting students in and out of lecture theatres is not trying to improve student life or learning. It’s searching for solutions that will contain the labour cost of actually listening to students about why they come to lectures, or don’t.

All around us are troubling signs of the automation of educational care, from a future that we need to challenge. To live well with the technology we are developing in universities, we are increasingly going to need the courage and the humility to interrogate its use.

All this owes a lot to Audrey Watters and Chris Gilliard for keeping track of those who are keeping track of us.

All the routine jobs

All the routine jobs will eventually be replaced.

Someone talking on the radio one morning

1

It’s the morning routine. I’m driving to work, and thinking about my job, and all around me are the people doing their jobs as I’m on my way to mine.

Right there in the morning traffic, there are two men laying out bollards in a row, because something’s up and today’s the day. And beyond that the freeway and all its stuff that’s only there because people with routine jobs were sent out in all weathers to put road things in place: traffic lights, direction signage, concrete lane separators, small new plantings of suitably tough freeway trees.

But suddenly a voice on the radio is telling me we’ll all be better off when driverless cars reduce the possibility of human error and with it, presumably, the need for all this signage when vehicles are guided by satellite, and don’t need to know what the speed limit is.

Who will pay a premium, he asks, for a human driver? And maybe this won’t be the only road-based job that’s lost in the workless future he’s explaining to us.

2.

At Macca’s, people are the key to our success.

We’re taking a quick road trip break, and her eyes light up. We can do this, she says, and shows me how. We stab at a brightly lit board, like we’re checking in for a flight. It’s drive through, just indoors. While we’re waiting in line for the food to come, I point out to her that she’s a low-waged supermarket checkout worker and this is exactly the tech that’s coming for her. “I suppose it is,” she says.

Together we watch her peers and even younger doing the kind of routine minimum-wage work that disruptive tech can’t be bothered yet to replace: putting fries in a bag, calling out the number on the docket. It looks to be unsmiling work, requiring the minimum of customer engagement. The voice on the radio promised that factories are already competently staffed with robots. But service work is something else.

A tired looking girl who looks about fourteen calls out our number, and hands over our bag.

3.

I’m at my desk, filling out forms. The forms are all the same. If this isn’t routine, I don’t know what is. The voice on the radio promised that cognitive labour won’t easily be replaced, that computers aren’t coming for the thinking or emoting or analysing jobs, just the routine jobs. Computers can provide brief sports reports, he said, maybe a paragraph. But we will still be needed for the thinking work.

The voice on the radio is a professor. He works in my profession, and I can guess roughly what he earns for the cognitive work of writing books on the automation of labour, and talking about this on the radio.

To see if I’ve remembered his words properly, I stop filling in forms, look up the radio program, download the recording, play it back, and then search again to read about his book. It’s routine academic work to link from this blog to all of that, to play my part by contributing those unrecoverable moments of my human time and attention to his enterprise. (It’s much rarer to acknowledge this invisible labour in the academic attention economy.)

If I don’t do this routine work of citing the specific individual who put these words in a sentence and frisbeed them out into the public conversation, then I’m also eliding the work of their career building effort, their sacrifices, their hopes, their research and all the supporting labour that got them to the point where they could be on the radio in the first place. If I don’t do my routine job properly, they’re just an anonymous someone talking on the radio one morning. Because the most easily replaced part of any idea is the person behind it, once it’s out there.

The taken-for-granted routines of respectful academic practice are those that we don’t think about nearly enough in labour terms: making connections, citing, linking, building each other’s reputations, carrying each other along like a raft of fire ants in a flood.

4.

Last week I had the honour of leading a track at the Digital Pedagogy Lab in Fredericksburg with Maha Bali. Maha’s blog is titled “reflecting allowed”, and perhaps more than anyone I’ve worked with, she means it. She reflects constantly and compassionately and deeply, and you can see this in her two blog posts about the event, here and here.

Though the week I learned that we’re still struggling to centre professional development on the most urgent questions of labour in higher education. This event did touch briefly, and painfully, on the question of what it means (to Americans) to have tenure, and what it means to walk away from tenure and start a business instead, to become an employer instead of a cultural critic of capital. But the majority of workers in higher education, including in America, don’t have anything like tenure. This isn’t some dystopian future: most work in universities is already done by people who can be let go or replaced in a variety of ways, because there is both a labour surplus in our profession, and a politically-inflected funding crisis in higher education, and these two system failures converge to create the business conditions in which precarious staffing is a norm.

And at the same time digital pedagogy is significantly and continuously extending the ways in which we and our students volunteer our labour for large (American) corporations with every keystroke we contribute, every search term we fashion.

Labour is not an optional topic.

5.

The room that Maha and I worked in during the week was furnished with the kinds of seating designed for learning that irks Amy Collier.

These chairs rile me too, for so many reasons. They’re the fidget spinners of higher education. It’s not just the overblown claims made about their transformative potential by the vendors who are excited to sell them to us, but because of all the ways they normalise a particular body type, and in doing this prepare to humiliate any student who doesn’t fit the mould, literally.

And in Fredericksburg we quickly learned that a roomful of 30 of these chairs places a particular burden on cleaning staff who are required to restore room layout at the end of every day. Rolling them back into line, if you’re not sitting in one, is back-bending work.

rolling classroom chairs
So much transformation, taken by Amy Collier, DigPedLab 2017

To craft good pedagogy, we need more than fancy chairs. We need to be vigilant in keeping all levels of labour in view. The workless future that is purportedly going to free us up for more creative and engaging lives will not treat us all the same. And we need to be equally scrupulous in acknowledging all of the work of invisible hands that make digital pedagogy possible (and thanks to Audrey Watters for that link). This is essential critical justice work; without it we really are just putting fries in a bag.

5.

Automated cognition: a footnote

It’s lately seemed that updates to autocorrect have dialled up its intensity. It’s becoming either quicker to finish our half-formed thoughts, or we’re slower to notice.

Halfway through a conversation with a friend, I read back over what I’ve written and notice that Deleuze has been substituted with delouse.

When I back up to explain what I was trying to say, autocorrect jumps in to suggest that what I really mean is delusion.

And all the routine jobs will eventually be replaced. But not like this.

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.

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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?*

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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

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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.

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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.