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.

Tenet

The Latin word is from PIE root *ten- “to stretch” (source also of Sanskrit tantram “loom,” tanoti “stretches, lasts;” Persian tar “string;” Lithuanian tankus“compact,” i.e. “tightened;” Greek teinein “to stretch,” tasis “a stretching, tension,” tenos “sinew,” tetanos “stiff, rigid,” tonos “string,” hence “sound, pitch;” Latin tendere “to stretch,” tenuis “thin, rare, fine;” Old Church Slavonic tento “cord;” Old English þynne “thin”). Connecting notion between “stretch” and “hold” is “cause to maintain.”

1

What are the things that we hold to be true? What are the tenets of our time that arouse conviction, that we stretch towards, that we grab hold of and hold dear?

Sometimes we hardly know what we believe. The state of the world is manipulated from a village in Macedonia. Everything is crooked, and rigged. The algorithm has misled us and continue to stumble. Powerful forces. What is trustable, if we don’t have faith to guide us? Like many unbelievers I’m in the world with a compass of secular hope. I trust in the safety offered me by others, and I accept the risk that this could end poorly. I know that the life in front of me, the face that is not mine, is part of the vast archive of human data that exists well beyond our capacity to track—all life, ever—and that is what defines me as separate, myself, mostly coherent in my sense of how to proceed.

Travelling round the world I realise there are also some practical things I take as being trustable: air traffic control; the safe interval programming of walk/don’t walk; subway maps. It’s how we function at all: we flourish because we know how to learn, trusting signs and faces and evidence, and making evidence based decisions.

Yesterday in the subway I was standing with my daughter when a tiny girl came by, just learning to walk, in that bowlegged tiptoeing way, holding her tiny arms above her head to the adult she was leading by the finger. They walked on together very slowly and intently, turned back and passed us again. The astonished delight on her face at seeing my daughter’s bright yellow coat—again!  right there where it was! —that’s how humans learn, by memorising it, walking it, storing it away, coming back to it.

We all laughed.

This is the life-defining skill that we are trying to hand over to computational learning. I think it’s both possible and probable that machines will get better at something that approximates to human thought. But I can’t care about this as much as I care about whether humans will inadvertently in the process deprive ourselves of the same capacity.

It is fundamental to the joy of being human that we learn how to process the data of our world, to recall and rearrange the evidence, to think.  I am here for this. I am here for the slowness of thinking, the cognitive complexity that inhabits every gesture that we make, for the greetings, the avoided glances, the votes, the clicks, the sentences that end properly, the thoughts that half fly up.

2

I’ve been thinking this while walking the streets of Brooklyn waiting for the marathon US election cycle to finish up at last. Yesterday, in bright Autumn sunshine, New Yorkers took a breather from it all to stand on their pavements and sit on their front steps and sing in gospel choirs and wave signs and hang out of windows yelling encouragement at the other kind of marathon, the one that involves actually running.

Sport is what it is: business being made out of the spectacular performance of the most exceptional and highly developed human bodies, that are pressing right up against the skin of what’s possible, turning time itself into something measured in shavings of seconds. But what’s so great about marathons is all the rest having a go: all ages, so many different bodies, running with help, barely running at all, costumed, underprepared. It’s a camino of sorts, a pilgrimage, a passage of faith.

#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016
#blacklivesmatter, taken by Kate Bowles in Brooklyn Nov 6 2016

We stumbled into it and stayed the course, buying cupcakes from bake sales and chatting in a neighbourly way to people from all over the world. And along with these complete strangers, we ended up cheering the strangers sweating past us. “Don’t give up! You’ve got this! Go Sweden!” Runners grinned, waved, jogged, slowed to a walk uphill. Wheelchair athletes, blind runners, runners for charity and for personal bests and for each other and for the sense of being in the spectacle and just getting to the end, in any shape.

We loved the man who shuffled by wearing a sign that said “34 finishes”. That’s not competition, it’s not even sport. It’s the project of being a person, showing up, making it to the finish of the thing, and coming back next year.

3

I’m in the US because I attended the OpenEd 16 conference in Richmond VA. It’s a conference that encourages warmth, commitment and solidarity among its regular participants. “Is this your first time?” I was asked (see Sundi Richard’s beautiful post on this). It was a little disconcerting, and describing it as a family reunion didn’t entirely help because, you know, families. But there is something important to the prospect of achieving change in higher education around the world that relationships of care grow and develop over time. And until now, conferences have been as obvious as marathons as a thing that people do to express their solidarity with this ideal.

But I’m worrying more and more about the carbon cost of this, and the food waste, and the endlessly discussed problem of conference schedules being stacked with presentations so that people can attend at all, when what we most need is time to confer. There are far better ways to encounter and process other people’s research, and I think those of us who are committed to openness as a tenet need to lead on this one.

What if we shifted the content of conferences into asynchronous distribution; and treat the opportunity be in place together as the discussion, as a literal practice of conferring? What if we took out all of the sessions, and made the corridors the central venues, as many do (and thanks to Alan Levine and Sean Michael Morris for so many thoughts on this.) What if we built in time to write together, to share quick thoughts with others, to use all our networks as a central platform for conferring on key ideas and questions, not a conference backchannel? (See this link for the “big ball of conversations around OpenEd16“.)

A few things would need to happen. First we would need to acknowledge that the nature of long-term friendships within communities make it easy for cliques to form, newcomers to be missed, and sameness to roll on. Northern hemisphere events and associations of this kind in education technology and open education have a whiteness problem and a gender problem, and we need to say it this plainly. (See posts by Martin Weller and Tomo Nagashima.)

Second, we can all take a step towards undoing the cult of community stars and heroes, of deciding who matters and who is marginal. Keynote stars, corridor celebrities: none of this makes education more open. Let’s focus on the ideas whoever has them, and celebrate all the runners with the same joy. We’re in it together.

Thirdly, those of us with institutional positions need to lobby hard against the hyphenation of conference presentation to research outcome to career uplift. This is doing enormous harm to the quality of thinking at environmentally costly events like academic conferences. (And don’t get me started on conferences doubling as hiring fairs. Stop with that.)

And finally, we really need to think about placedness. There is a real privilege of being in the same place as other people, but that’s not the only way to be with people. So this is a cheer to the tireless Virtually Connecting team. I’m not always on board with the way they select and promote their hallway conversations, as I’m concerned that this in itself is sustaining the prestige hierarchies that we most need to get shot of. But they have been really significant in reminding everyone that a professional conference can and should include those who don’t trash the planet to be in the room.

This really is a tenet—a stretch goal—that we can’t afford to avoid any longer.

More to read

There are many blogs coming out of this conference, and I will post the link to the David Kernohan’s archive when I find it. Update: OK, found it. What a resource this is: go there.  But if you have less time, please read this on the need to pause, from Autumm Caines, and this from Laura Gogia on stories as a way of being.

For now, our own

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

Maha Bali, ‘Reproducing marginality,’ September 2016

We so easily forget our bodies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chorus of voices

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

Mike Caulfield, Choral Explanations, May 2016

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

Amazing Flashmob (Library Singing)

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

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

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

Here, listen to this.**

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

Here, listen to this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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. 

Unleashed

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.

Listening

The home to be lived in generation after generation, the violin passed down … we cultivate the disciplines of care and attention in small, pivotal ways that have large, far-reaching effects on ourselves and others. Out of what is hidden we make the visible and then call it work; work that makes sense of the hours we are privileged to live.

David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Storytelling is for an other just as much as it is for oneself.

Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller

I’ve come back from Palo Alto thinking hard about what it means to attempt to make sense of a complex, troubled and large system by listening to the stories of people who thread their lives through it. At the closing #dlrn15 panel on Saturday, George Siemens began a process that has continued in many people’s writing and thinking since: a scrupulous and thoughtful self-critique that I think is quite rare for events like this. So now people who were there or were following along online are debating what could have happened differently, and what needs to happen now. I’m still turning this over in my hands, but it seems to me a really important and hopeful sign that there’s something asking to be taken seriously here, that involves a will to slow down, to stay with an idea until we have settled our score with it, to advocate for our skills and expertise as thinkers, not just as content generators and citation scouts.

For me, some very unexpected conversations about exploring narrative as a way of making sense of higher education were a highlight, so I was interested to hear George say in the closing session that we use narrative as a way of communicating what we researched, rather than as research itself. That’s not exactly where I sit. But I also heard Mike Caulfield say, in the same closing session, that it feels as though we have reached the end of something in higher education, and I’m paying attention to the way that sounds.

Could it be that we have reached the end of our romance with data sufficiency?

Over the last little while, higher education institutions have become the grandest of data cathedrals. Data parses all the mysteries for us, and data directs our thoughts and guides our choices. We turn to data hoping for better news. Data is both moralising and weirdly malleable. We can get different answers with different questions, without ever seeming to compromise data’s impression of hygiene. And so we keep investing in both computing and human resources to expand the cathedral, to make room for more of all of it: business analytics, learning analytics, web analytics, citations, outcomes, grades, performance indicators, rankings, ratings, evaluations, and all the indexes of this and that. Data is our panopticon: we keep an eye on it keeping an eye on us. We adjust ourselves, and calculate, and strategise because we’re always thinking two steps ahead to what the data will show. In fact, some days it seems like all we do is appease the data yet to come.

The stories of higher education experience are more tentative, and their meaning is unfixed. They contradict each other. They contradict themselves. They’re compromised from the moment they’re first handled: our fingerprints are all over them. We retell the same stories and they change. Their priorities rise and then recede. Stories are unreliable, furtive, slippery, unsettling. They seem loose, lazy, undisciplined, as if we’ve all become a bit unbuttoned in public.

And yet when they’re told—as we saw in Marcia Devlin’s beautiful keynote talk about cultural capital in higher education—things become suddenly clear. We have so much in common. And even when we don’t, still we have a capacity to listen to each other, and to honour what is particular in the experience of another person.

Arthur Frank, sociologist of illness, engages with all of this in his advocacy for the stories that emerge from the “narrative wreckage” of illness and other identity shocks. Over several books, Frank develops ideas that he finds in Levinas about the way in which narrative represents our capacity to pay attention, and on this basis to form a relationship of care to the strangers around us. For Levinas, and so for Frank, listening is the moral act at the heart of this relationship, and I was reminded of this today in a post that popped up from health blogger Marie Ennis O’Connor:

When your story is received and witnessed by others, the stories themselves change as they are told and heard, creating a social fabric around which we care for each other. Through sharing stories, we create empathic bonds between ourselves and our listeners. Those who listen to our stories, tell others, and in this way the circle of shared experience widens.

Arthur Frank hooks this up to an idea about the postmodern that makes sense for me, and makes a strong case that without these stories, our understanding is not as sufficient as we thought:

The postmodern experience of illness begins when ill people recognise that more is involved in their experiences than the medical story can tell.

This is where we are now in higher education. The story data can tell about what we have done, and what we should plan for, is revealing itself as incomplete. Data itself is becoming fatigued. Sure, we might go up or down six places in the rankings, but we’re now openly unconvinced that this crude measure tells us something valuable about the complexity of work going on all around us, in the hours we are privileged to live.

This is my first step towards thinking about what I learned at #dLRN15, and the beginning of some thoughts about how exactly we can advance the practice of narrative research. There’s plenty of implicit and explicit narrative work nested inside ethnographies of higher education, and there are many projects that value the ways that students and university workers (not only academics) narrate their experience. But we haven’t yet found the capacity to examine the structures and systems of higher education itself in these terms, and I think Frank’s models will be useful to us, especially his sense that when a narrative is disrupted—as ours certainly is—our sense making is shaped by the search for a new story.

Telling an interrupted life requires a new narrative. … The stories are uncomfortable, and their uncomfortable quality is all the more reason they have to be told. Otherwise, the interrupted voice remains silenced.

Thanks to everyone at #dLRN15 and beyond (and afterwards) for helping shape these beginning thoughts.