Never let me go

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

Jean Amery, ‘Torture’

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

Executions are scheduled for tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Julian McMahon


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

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

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

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


What you cannot accept

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

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

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

Raji Sukumaran, letter to President Joko Widodo, July 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-07-27 11.04.35

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

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


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

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

We would rescue them if they were drowning.

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

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

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

for Maha


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

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


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

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

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


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

Dear Kate,

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

Dear Alice, I worry about sincerity in your hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Content, it’s us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Networked professionals

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

– Bill Henson, Oneiroi

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

Richard Hall,  ‘On the HE White Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Morrish,  ‘Care in the Virtual Community’

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

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

So what is our version of this action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 for Paul

Making kin

A purpose built hospital can be an act of kindness. The politician spoke about a hospital she visited in Oslo that was built with the intention of making everyone there feel good to be a part of it.

Lea McInerney, Join the Gathering of Kindness in Creating a Better Healthcare System

A couple of months ago I was included in a two day event designed to create a better vision for Australian healthcare, that is safer for patients and offers a more sustaining working environment for staff. I sat in a big tent with healthcare planners, policy makers, artists, musicians, politicians, medical students, playwrights, frontline healthcare staff and a handful of patient advocates, and together we went over what it means to try to make public health happen—in our hospitals, in our communities, in our selves.

It was a courageous, generous company of strangers encouraged to try new ideas and to listen well. The organisers brought in all the big contingencies for consideration: constraints, traditions, professional habits, new and emerging risks. I could see that the freewheeling schedule was occasionally stressful for outcome-oriented executives using departmental budget and time to be there. But when things are difficult, when the concrete is really set, new ideas have to be allowed to emerge without an agenda, and without immediate prospect of a fix.

Initially I wasn’t sure where the emphasis on kindness had come from, especially as we didn’t spend much time on what kindness might mean. This is important as there are specific interpretations of kindness that are built into different faiths and ethical systems, and there are other assumptions among those of us without faith. One interpretation that makes sense to me is etymological: in practising kindness, we are seeking to widen the circle of those whom we think of as kin. So while there’s a separate etymological case for connecting kindness to nature, the association with kin speaks of our capacity to overcome instinct, and to extend ourselves to the care of strangers as though they were among our own family and loved ones.

This means that kindness has something to do with both generosity and hospitality, two ideas I’ve been sitting with for a while. I suspect kindness practices may also be at the heart of ideas that Dave Cormier is discussing in relation to resilience, what Liz Morrish is writing about in relation to care, and the questions Viv Rolfe is asking in relation to corporate wellness programs that are emerging in universities as a response to academic stress. We’re seeing care for strangers all over the place: in political protest, in crowdfunding, and in the network itself.

Lea McInerney went to the Gathering of Kindness event on behalf of Australia’s health-focused Croakey website; she has just written a meticulous narrative of what we did over the two days. And here’s the thing: the event wasn’t originally intended to be about kindness at all, but was commissioned to attend to problems caused by bullying:

Around the same time, the Victorian Attorney-General’s Office had been conducting an audit of data from three reviews of bullying in healthcare settings. The findings were alarming – the incidence of bullying was high, it was poorly dealt with, many workers were caught up in an escalating cycle of poor behaviour, and they had little confidence that anything could be done about it.

This is why the event launched with a compelling piece of verbatim theatre, drawn from real critical incidents. Alan Hopgood’s play ‘Hear Me’ shows how staff in steeply hierarchical organisations create situations of escalating risk when they feel unsafe to speak out about what they see. When kindness in healthcare fails, it really fails.

At some level, this story should have been more unfamiliar to someone who works in a university. Critical incidents for us, even those that lead to protracted cases of grievance, rarely place lives at risk. I can enter the wrong grade in a spreadsheet, and no one dies. With our much lower stakes, surely we shouldn’t also see capable, productive professionals come to feel that they can’t continue to work?

And yet even though we aren’t mishandling medication or missing a diagnosis of disease, we are elevating the stresses involved in just doing our jobs by continually having to prove that we deserve these jobs at all. Far more than public health, public universities are tested by the entirely made-up demands of inter-institutional competition, to which our actual jobs are subordinated. Crucial to this is the ramping up of precarity, that pits us all as each other’s primary competitors for scarce resources and career survival. Liz Morrish says this:

In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain. Universities keep us marching along, forming and reforming in response to multiple restructurings, reviews and revalidations. There is a reason the word ‘tradition’ is rarely uttered in UK universities, except in the most elite. We are all newly precarious and we are not supposed to look for permanence.

The anxieties of precarity are intensified by conditions of continuous institutional self-review demanded by external accreditation cycles. So while being urged to focus only on productive work, we are also compelled into complex routines that we are know are only marginally productive. We jump through hoops and then design new hoops to jump through. Everything is urgent, and nothing can happen without three levels of committee review, and so this week’s emergency decision-making still won’t be implemented for two years, if at all. Meanwhile we go on chasing the relevance puppy all over the park.

But it’s OK because there’s a new building, a new brochure, a digital campaign that cost hundreds of thousands, and another consultant bustling out of the executive suite on the way to the bank. The hustle is on, a protracted and unreflexive confidence trick designed to persuade the market that we’re on the up. But inside, in confidence,  we’re driven by the spectre of always-imminent downturns towards a weird brew of opportunism and thrift, that seems the only remedy for a kind of pervasive scarcity that no one can really account for. The contradictions between the brand and the budget seem significant. How did we end up committed to so much without resources in place? Why did we set things up to sustain only a few careers at the expense of so many others? Who is served by this?

And in these situations, small and harming critical encounters do happen, and cascade, and get escalated. Exhausted people entangled in the weeds of precarity fail to meet each other’s needs — not by much, not with much at stake, but enough to fire off an email that takes a tone, or to threaten some kind of something, if things aren’t fixed, things aren’t done properly, or as promised. Grievances rise up and are cajoled back into a kind of accommodation, for now. People don’t seem able to hear one another properly, to notice that the other humans around them are doing their best, that no one has enough of anything to do well what they came here to do.

This is really why I loved the Gathering of Kindness, because it was a sign that even entrenched and budget-driven problems can be thought about as capable of being changed. I loved seeing what our nearest kin in organisational terms—public health to our public education, two big engines of employment and hope in our local communities—are trying to transform about their culture. The event’s extraordinary organisers, entrepreneur Mary Freer and surgeon Catherine Crock, have a vision for change that is specific and achievable, and the commitment to make it work.

And so I really want to ask: if we could hope for an institutional vision of kindness as an essential component of higher education, what would that look like? How would students experience it? What would industry partners or government stakeholders notice us doing and saying if we had it? What would we be able to achieve with it, that we’re prevented from doing now by the conditions we’ve set for ourselves? What new opportunities in research or teaching would kindness itself generate?

What would we build, like that Oslo hospital, with the intention of making everyone feel good about being part of it?


I think about the day a person dies, how the morning is just a morning, a meal is just a meal, a song is just a song. It’s not the last morning, or the last meal, or the last song. It’s all very ordinary, and then it’s all very over.

The space between life and death is a moment.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, ‘Yahrzeit


The internet is curled in on itself with grief, again. Someone loved and admired and puzzled over and copied and with a place in so many hearts through songs we sing in the car and lost times in our own lives, our own gone selves, that someone has gone and died. In a last blurry photograph of an out of the way moment, there he is right in the act of being ordinary, walking back to his car outside the pharmacy. What does he know? Does he know that it’s today?

The best piece I read was Tressie McMillan Cottom getting right to the core of why this death holds our attention, and how even someone beyond the circle of our own kin and people, can still rip into skin.

We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.

Celebrity death fills the space after loss with wild-eyed explanations and suggestions, as one thing gives way to another. The scene of death is explained again and again, events gather together and take on significance. The day that could have begun and ended like every other, ended differently.

And look, there they are, big pharma’s gleaming fishhooks. Percocet. Oxycodone.


Stephanie Wittels Sachs writes about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and the Jewish tradition of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the memorial day at the end of a year of mourning, that burns for 24 hours. Two months later, and it’s his birthday. In a beautiful essay on the struggle to sustain empathy among strangers online, she tells this story:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.

This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

Hard as it is to imagine from here, her essay becomes a powerful defence of empathy as the recuperation of our capacity to care for strangers, even those we feel most secure in shaming.


But. And.

In his writing on generosity, Arthur Frank calls on Levinas for the concept of alterity, as something fundamental to being human. We are not other because of location or opportunity or type, or because of any of the big markers of diversity (however important these are for other reasons) or any of the particular things we have gone on to do. Alterity—being other—is the condition of being a person in the first place.

For Frank, this is a useful way of approaching the symbolic violence of medical diagnosis and treatment, that tries to discipline alterity, to bundle it into thinkable categories. All the institutions we work in depend on this kind of classificatory busywork: tagging, sorting and ranking of humans like it’s a good thing that we can do this. We add a little science and call it analytics, but what we’re doing here is profoundly social and shot through with tiny fears: we’re trying to sort out the confronting alterity of the human crowd into patterns we can tolerate, so we know who to join up with, who to work on, who to exclude.

In Frank’s reading of Levinas, this poses an uncomfortable question about empathy. When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own. Empathy places alterity under strain.

Empathy tends towards unification: either my projecting what would make me feel better onto you, or my fusing with your suffering. … Seeing the face requires alterity. I must recognise that there are aspects of your suffering that I can never imagine and I can never touch.

Restraint: it’s a tough standard for times of social grieving, when it feels as though we’re all keening and wailing through our common loss of faith. But maybe getting straight with this loss of faith might be a way that we can build something new together.


It’s been a year. Many of us stayed awake all night, keeping candles in our windows and our thoughts, while the rusted machinery of state killing—that has no place at all in this world, none—cranked into action and flung itself on the bodies of people who were already as subjugated to the forces of the world opiate market as anyone else.

When Myuran Sukumaran died, Australia lost a courageous, graceful and visionary thinker, someone who was actively making a better world.

I can’t imagine his mother’s loss. It’s beyond anything I could claim to touch.


All this was meant to be gone long ago,

votive lamps, lighting candles,

bowing towards some holy centre of the earth,

yet sometimes we have to

gather up the four corners of our lives,

like the corners of a tablecloth,

to shake out the crumbs;

sometimes we need light

for a journey,

sometimes we even need to bow.

Moya Cannon, ‘Midday at Stockholm Airport’

I’m not a person of faith in any religious sense, not at all, but reading this beautiful poem I wonder if maybe mortality itself can stand in for faith at times like this. It gives us a sense of scale, after all, and a reason to stay awake.

for Tressie

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. 


As international mobility increases, competition for the best academic and professional staff will also intensify. This is why we’re unleashing our staff’s performance, reducing complexity and optimising professional achievements.

This week the university that employs me released its new Strategic Plan with accompanying changes to our brand identity, vocabulary and collateral. Tucked into this bundle is a video that I can’t stop watching. There are images and sounds I genuinely don’t understand, and a faintly audible sigh about halfway through. (What is that?)

And then suddenly there it is: the context and strategic approach to staffing in graphic form. There’s a crowded screen of huddled moving white dots among which a smaller number of apparently superior red dots start to vibrate, and then the scene implodes into a giant red superdot: human complexity agitated, reduced and finally upsized to a single ball of unleashed performativity.

I’m not making this up.

The video is here to tell us who we are and what we stand for, and it kicks off with a cliche we’d plead with all student writers to rethink:

In this time of unprecedented change …

The conceit of epochal change is a reliable headline. Here’s the Australian Prime Minister late last year on becoming the leader that unprecedented times demand:

There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

OK, but saying it’s so doesn’t make it so. And even the claim to unprecedentedness itself isn’t unprecedented. It’s a normal, regularly appearing way of romancing what we’re going through. It’s a strategic move, that demands that we abandon modest efforts and incremental, careful practices; it mobilises us to the barricades of whatever—innovation, disruption, competition—trampling each other as we go.

And it’s more or less a cliche in return to point out that history’s filled with times just as unprecedented as this one, dressed up as both novelty and emergency in order to muscle forward someone’s agenda. Things are new. Action is demanded. We are living in a way that no one has lived before, and we need extraordinary, heroic measures to respond. Resistance is not only futile, but in itself—like a protest against the existence of God that only proves believers have a point—sceptical thinking sustains the case that this is exactly why we need to act quickly and without question. Didn’t we tell you academics are resistant to change? Q.E.D.

Sometimes we don’t really understand what was happening until later. Here’s Wordsworth, famously, on the French revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
          In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
          Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
          The attraction of a country in romance!

The problem with a country—or a sector—in romance is that we lose sight of something important: change is a wide, muddy current, and some parts move slowly while others appear to race. Catastrophes at the level of epidemic, global war, and climate disaster somehow share time with artisanal breadmaking and notes written on the backs of beer mats and the sun rising steadfastly every day. We don’t live in any one time, but many times, all happening together, all amounting to something.

And in each life lived in these unprecedented times we have to figure out what is enough for us, and enough to give, so that we can get on and survive the encroachments of big claims on our attention, our action, our loyalties to each other’s care. Figuring out what is enough is how we each hold on to the clover of our own values, and protect the thing we’re trying to protect, the small and hopeful thing we came here to do.

So after a day of thinking about what I find exasperatingly cruel about the vision for higher education exposed in this video, I’m stuck with the problem of how to speak about it without collapsing into a sort of snark. It’s easy to get cranky with cliche, and to feel righteous about what’s absolutely wrong with this representation of a university. But the video isn’t intended to be watched closely or pulled apart, and from its opening words it’s making no pretence at all to be in the deep end of anyone’s pool. So it’s fair game at one level, and yet truly it should be left alone if we are all to stand for any kind of generosity in these times.

This is a focus for me at the moment. In a couple of weeks I’m off to attend an event that’s bringing together about a hundred people who have an interest in building a healthcare system in Australia based on valuing kindness to both patients and staff. I’m there because I’m following a research line of thought about how patients and staff in long term treatment relationships (in chemotherapy, for example) ease the stress and anxiety in the encounter by telling each other small stories about themselves. In taking the time to greet each other by name, to ask after family, or even how the day is going, people make hospitals and clinics better to be in for everyone. Humane gestures make humane workplaces.

I’m working on this project with a radiation technologist who treated me, and a narrative professional working at the same hospital, who interviewed me as part of a review of cancer services. Together we’re examining very closely an everyday treatment incident and its aftermath, and on this basis we’re learning how to use critical incident reflection techniques to help both staff and patients respond to one another in stressful situations.

So with this commitment in mind, I’m trying to shift my response to this video. The culture of higher education staffing is desperate for many at the moment, and is often directly implicated in serious illness (to read more about this see here and here and here and here and anything to do with casualisation). Richard Hall has just pulled together many notes on academic overwork here, and he writes this:

I see the recounting of how the ongoing pain of academic reproduction, the constant reinvention of the academic Self in Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, is obliterating a meaningful life. This is overwork that obliterates the possibility that the academic might reproduce herself socially, because there is no time for care of the Self. That time is academically unproductive; unproductive for a life that is for work. And yet it also demands a level of productivity that is never enough. That can never be good enough.

In the climate of harm that Richard and many of us are now calling out, I do think that it matters that videos like this get scripted, and funded, and produced, and launched, and slapped onto university webpages. Real human damage is done when we describe employment as if it’s a sporting contest that only the best can win. It’s not even terrific business sense given that we actually need to unleash quite a few more people than this stellar minority for the shop to open at all. And this talk that ranks humans doing beautiful, capable, ethically committed work as “best” or not? It’s shaming and demoralising, and it completely underestimates the irreducible complexity of universities as harbours of human thought.

But it’s no good just complaining, even to sympathetic audiences. To change this culture, we need to do as the healthcare system is doing, and advocate for an alternative. We need to hear from one another, including from the people who think videos like this are helpful. Simply saying competition is divisive won’t raise standards for collaboration, and won’t create the grounds for hope. To do this, we urgently need to start collecting new stories and evidence of a different culture forged in kindness, that we know we can build together.

Then maybe we need to start making our own videos.

Standing room only

What do you stand for? Who are you? How can you know that—and operate from that position of power?

bell hooks

There are times that it’s hard to know what to say. Things seem to ask for a response, even just a raised hand to say “Here”. But how to start with this world?

This week I discovered that the place where I work has a new brand tagline, and this is it:

Stands For Purpose

(It’s not that bad. My daughter’s primary school has Strive to Excel. Although this one’s apparently on the back of buses, which is about as funny as it gets.)

While I was still trying to figure out my own misgivings, let alone whether it’s legitimate to express them publicly (because brand) I came across a widely shared clip of bell hooks explaining how as a feminist she doesn’t find herself able to support Hillary Clinton’s run for President. In this one minute explainer, drawing down the powerful words of James Baldwin, she nails it for me: there are these identities we’re meant to embody with force and conviction, and yet they may not in any given situation represent the values that we stand for.

Values aren’t corporate mission statements or brand collateral because they’re personal. I suspect this is even true of people with faith, which I’m not. Values aren’t practices of compliance with institutional rhetoric, they can’t be. Values are who we are, and the only reliable source of our power to act in this world because they’re earned, through difficult experiences that make us proud of ourselves. Values separate us from machines and the stars. Our values make it possible to operate with intent, to think independently, to settle for ourselves the big question of how to live, what counts as enough.

So while I respect that this standing for purpose is the mission of my institution, and that it’s standing room only all the way to our chosen destination in the world university rankings, something else is tugging at me, something closer to what I’m learning that I stand for.

At the end of last year, I was asked a big question by someone whose thoughts are really precious to me. Are things getting worse, do you think? he said. And it’s complicated. The mood swings towards pessimism. Will children exposed to television ever play in cornfields again? Will the economy ever pick up? Will the planet survive our occupation of it? And because hard times have come again before, no one wants to get caught naively thinking things are different now. So we muffle our disquiet, because we’re not sure if our moment in history is a landmark or a decisive moment, or just another weary day.

But I think he’s really asking something about us, not just about what’s happening: are we the crowd applauding, whistling, cheering as the ice bridge caves in to the sea?

For me, the question is about work. Is it getting worse, and are we at risk of applauding as it does so, because we’re so busy standing for the spectacular, when we should be sitting and thinking very carefully about what it tells us about environmental cause and consequence?

I take this to be a question about employment as a whole, but the case study I understand best is employment in higher education. And because our role is to educate, it really matters how we manage our own working. Whatever we speculate in marketing or curriculum about the future of work, the practice we model to students everyday is how we occupy our own jobs now. Every time we meet, students learn from us how we sustain a critical professional voice as we go about our careers—and how we do this constructively, pragmatically and optimistically.

So let’s do this openly, and see what happens.

This week Liz Morrish has written an extraordinary post about breaking the code of silence in conversations with students about academic stress, and what systematic and structural pressures are troubling the people teaching them. She told them the story of Professor Stefan Grimm, who committed suicide in December 2014, and left clear advice for his professional colleagues about the particular workplace pressures that took him to that point. Several of us committed to keeping his name in our thoughts and our writing, and we have done so. But surely we shouldn’t talk about these things with students?

And yet, here’s what happened:

I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than institutions with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful.

Two more writers have since responded. The peerless Plashing Vole detailed his 13 hour working day (and playlist, if you need one). And Siobhan O’Dwyer mapped out very carefully why even job security and a genuine appreciation of career privilege doesn’t remove the sense of personal unsafety that so often accompanies academic work.

Both Siobhan and Liz make clear that what prompts them to speak is the worsening health—and mental health—of colleagues. And this is also haunting me at the moment, for a whole range of reasons, not least the story of Fergus McInnes. In September 2014, he disappeared, and has not been found. His family are still waiting for some sense of what happened to him. With care and caution, his story was shared recently on the Matters Mathematical blog, and I found myself reading through his spare and beautifully written website, Fergus’s Brain Online. It’s just a big page of links like it’s 1996, but this is the story of a real human who was a colleague of all of ours, who carefully explained his struggles with depression, and his search for a way to manage it better. He had a stellar academic career.

What is a university’s responsibility if someone takes up an academic position and also has a disability of some kind, especially a mental health condition? Let’s make this simple: surely we should all be standing together for a safe mental health culture for everyone at work, just as there are wheelchair ramps into every building? If the expectations of academic pace and productivity are making work unsafe for some, shouldn’t we look harder at the values of the institution that causes these pressures to seem reasonable to anyone? Anyone?

Or have we really created a culture where, as I learned this week, a research executive who was told the story of Stefan Grimm responded that someone who enters a university career should understand what it takes to succeed. Is this how we persuade academics that it’s normal to push themselves beyond their own limits, without hope of care in return? (And is this relentless commitment to productivity at all costs the reason that academic job applicants who disclose hidden disabilities don’t get jobs?)

These are the values of an aspirational, purposeful economy in which everyone from students to whole institutions is lined up by rank, and the logic of measurement is used to allow the weakest performers simply to fail. It’s a brutal culture in which the competitive lucky ones get careers, and the rest get uberised or not employed at all.

Let’s stop standing for this.

Thanks to many influences here: Liz Morrish, Aidan Byrne, Siobhan O’Dwyer, Will Littlefield, Andy Clarke, Melonie Fullick, Mark Drechsler, Richard Hall, and the students and colleagues I get to sit down with every day.