Unbroken

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

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This will take time.

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?

Access to care

The Site is owned, operated and/or provided by RateMyProfessors.com LLC (“RMP”), a subsidiary of Viacom International Inc., which offers television channel or programming services (such as Internet websites, applications or other interactive services) and offers other products and services under various brands, such as those Viacom Media Networks brands listed here.

RateMyProfessors.Com LLC Terms and Conditions

He always has a piece of paper in front of his mouth when he talks which makes it hard to hear. He also hisses like a vampire a lot. I would not recommend this class.

Rate My Professors, actual comment

The consumerisation of student opinion: there’s gold in those hills, for sure. In 1999, a Californian software engineer created teacherratings.com to aggregate college student reviews of individual college professors, and the site became ratemyprofessors.com in 2001. In 2005 ratemyprofessors.com, was sold, and then sold again in January 2007 “for an undisclosed sum” to mtvU, a Viacom subsidiary. This wasn’t the only item in the shopping cart. Recognising the captive commercial value of the campus student market, Viacom were hunting channels, brands and products that would enable them to bracket the social and consumer dimensions of being a student to their other entertainment investments. mtvU promotes among its popular shows Professors Strike Back, redirecting users back to RMP (click!) to see video clips of academics reading their reviews aloud, where they can also take a moment to rate their favourite professors from the movies (click!).

It’s feedback, on $tilt$.

So at one level, RMP is a story of extraordinary personal success. Patrick Nagle (Internet Enthusiast, Dealmaker), who bought and sold RMP and also owns Rate My Teacher (“helps students, parents and teachers make informed decisions by promoting transparency within education”), is 33 years old. He has been buying and selling internet real estate since he was 16. He’s a role model for young entrepreneurs and innovators. He makes stuff, and makes stuff happen. It’s just that in Rate My Professors, what he has made happen is complex at the human level, and ethically fraught.

Let’s get the big distraction out of the way: Rate My Professors leans on Likert scales like they’re going out of fashion, and true to its current corporate home in the entertainment world, rate my professor screenshotit still rates professors on their hotness. Yup, this is what you think, with a chilli pepper. And even if you’re OK with this as a harmless bit of internet lint, RMP is now such big business that its annual rankings of the top college professors in the US pop up all over the place, including through cross-promotion via other Viacom products. So if you link back into the site (click!) from a seemingly serious national ranking of professional standing and start browsing, there it is: you’re staring at a professional colleague’s hotness rating, and that’s an actual thing now.

And suddenly you remember everything about the sophomorish social origins of Facebook as a hot-or-not student rating site, and the hopeless commentary on women as sexual distractions in science labs, and everything we know about role congruity perceptions in the evaluation of performance, and every comment you’ve ever read that’s focused on appearance not performance. It’s tiring, and sad, and dealing with it is exactly what Audrey Watters recognises as the affective labour of higher education that won’t be replaced by a machine any time soon.

(The three professional factors that are included in the rating itself that are more obviously about teaching are helpfulness, clarity and easiness. Some comments valiantly defend the idea that a thing that’s hard isn’t necessarily what you came to college to avoid, but there’s a powerfully visible aggregation of sentiment around fairness that mentions how easy it is to get a good grade from this person.)

And wait, there’s more. The rating of individual professors has now expanded to be the basis on which RMP rates whole colleges. Hello, college rankings! What we have here is an uncontrolled brand situation, that will draw in the social media teams who keep a very close eye on this kind of malarkey. And when they get there, what do they see but the very professors who are holding up the averages, and those who Rate My Professors screenshotappear to be holding them back. Suddenly those who are hissing like vampires, or grading too harshly, or are difficult to contact because they have 400 students in a gen ed class, or are working three teaching jobs across town while holding office hours in their car, or who have an invisible disability, or a kid in hospital, or a class that was dropped in their lap because someone else pulled out, are right there in a handy list.

And if it turns out that one or two have a red grumpy face by their name, how could you possibly not remember that when hiring comes around?

Because this is really what bites about both formal SETs, and informal but immensely powerful and profitable reviewing platforms like RMP: in a majority casualised workforce, the reform of service delivery that disappointed consumers seek is simplest to achieve by not hiring a person again. US higher education is only patchily unionised which makes not hiring of an adjunct pretty easy; even in Australia it would be very hard for a casual academic to prove that not being hired was the direct result of an unfavourable evaluation, when the labour market is at saturation point, and then some.

What can we do better? This week while worrying generally about the ethics of customer service reviews in higher education, I’ve been thinking about good examples from healthcare, and a heartbreaking but really important example from Veterans Affairs.

There are several organisations working to solicit and pass on patient feedback, on both good and bad experiences. The best of these, I think, is Patient Opinion, and the Australian site is here. A recent example of how effectively and thoughtfully they reflect on whether they serve organisations or patients is in their blog here. They argue that organisations solicit service user feedback in part to limit risk; while patients are cautious about being labelled difficult if they complain. As an intermediary in this often confronting environment, Patient Opinion is focused on doing better—on building a reflective relationship around critical care incidents, not just a complaints forum. It’s a really good model for higher education.

But there are no short cuts to this model. Real change doesn’t come from one-sided feedback, but from negotiated relationships built on trust and reciprocal respect, and this is a point made in a useful post from the Cancer Geek blog, “Does Healthcare Need Cooperation or Collaboration?

Collaboration requires all involved stakeholders to listen to one another, define the problem together, and understand the expectations and requirements for what a successful outcome will look like upon completion. Collaboration takes time, effort, and commitment.

Time, effort, commitment.

What would it take in time-impoverished institutions like public universities or hospitals for their service users to be fully and respectfully included in the story of what is being done to provide the service? How can our reputation-mad institutions take the risk of sharing with students the way that they’re cutting service costs? How can academic staff conscientiously and professionally deal with the affective cost of austerity budgeting while trying to do a good thing in the room, in the grading, in the vanishing time for consultation?

While you’re thinking about this, and perhaps while you’re thinking of reviewing a service incident—either as a patient, or a student—take one minute and listen to a VA employee and a veteran break down together on the phone over access to care. They’re both exhausted, and weeping, and neither of them is wrong, and everything is wrong, and at the end, this is what the veteran has to say about what happened:

“I want to give that fucking woman a hug. I just want to tell her that I know it’s not her fault. I wish she hadn’t hung up the phone.”

Think like this.

Words for the way we talk

1.

January 28th, 1986 the Challenger Space Shuttle finally took off after many delays and concerns about safety. The parents of female astronaut Christa McAuliffe were watching from the stands, news cameras trained on their upturned faces as the shuttle explodedScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.44.49 am

Etched forever” is a meticulously pieced together account of the reactions of all those who prepared for the launch and then witnessed the explosion, from the NASA ground support to the families to the President to all the bystanders. So many stories woven together by a technical malfunction with its own story, that had been assembling itself over time while all the human stories came together.

This is “For and Against Knowledge (for Christa McAuliffe)” by US poet Sharon Olds

“If you don’t have to ask it,
Fine, but I have to ask it.
If I were her mother or husband, I would
Have to go through the center of it.
What happened to her? As long as it was she,
what did she see? Strapped in,
tilted back, so her back was toward
the planet she was leaving, feeling the Gs
press her with their enormous palm, did she
weep with excitement in the roar, and in
the the curve of her tear did she see for an instant
the first blush of fire?? If she were my daughter,
I’d want to know how she died–was she
torn apart, was she burned–the way
I wonder about the first seconds
of our girl’s life, when she was a cell
a cell had just entered, she hung in me
a ball of bright liquid, without nerves,
without eyes or memory, it was
she, I loved her. So I want to slow it
down, and take each millisecond
up, take her, at each point,
in my mind’s arms–the first brilliant
shock hit, as if God touched
her brain with a thumb and it went out, like a mercy killing,
and then, when it was not she,
the the fire came–the way we burned my father
when he had left himself. Then the massive bloom un-
buckled and jumped, she was vaporized back
down to the level of the cell. And the spirit–
I have never understood the spirit,
all I know is the shape it takes,
this wavering flame of flesh. Those
who know about the spirit may tell you
where she is, and why. What I want
to do is find each cell,
slip it out of the fishes’ mouths,
ash in the tree, soot in your eyes
where she enters our lives, I want to play it
backwards, burning jigsaw puzzle
of flesh suck in its million stars
to meet, in the sky, boiling metal
fly back
together, and cool.
Pull that rocket
back down
surely to earth, open the hatch
and draw them out like fresh puppies,
sort them out, family by family, go
away, disperse, do not meet here.”

2.

Michel de Certeau concludes his chapter on the paradox of dying and writing like this:

To write, then, is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails, beyond the protected domain that had been delimited by the act of localising death elsewhere. It is to produce sentences with the lexicon of the mortal, in proximity to and even within the space of death. … In this respect, the writer is also a dying man who is trying to speak. But in the death that his footsteps inscribe on a black (and not blank) page, he knows and he can express the desire that expects from the other the marvellous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention that it alters.”

That.

4.

This is from a three minute excerpt of a slightly longer documentary made with Myuran Sukumaran in conversation with educator Ivar Schou, in 2014

You think about all these tangents that your life could have gone on. And you think how could I have got there, how could I have got this, if I had done this differently, you know everybody does this when they’re sitting in their room with nothing to do for five years, you know you do a lot of thinking. … I accept what I did was wrong and I know that I should be punished for it but I do think the death penalty is excessive and I should be given a chance. I have demonstrated that I can do good and be good. I think I could do a lot of good in the outside if I ever did go free. It’s not like I’m just going to just go back after all this and just sit.”

4.

Every day this week fresh, wet artworks have been ferried from Nusakambangan in the hands of Myuran Sukumaran’s family, frienScreen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.42.48 amds and lawyers. Along with other prisoners on death row, he refused to sign the papers for his own execution. Instead, he painted this picture, inscribed “Satu hati satu rasa didalam cinta – (one heart, one feeling in love)”, and the other prisoners signed it, including Mary Jane Veloso, who wrote “keep smiling”.

When the family representatives brought to the island as part of official proceedings heard the volley of gunshots just after midnight, no one had told Mary Jane Veloso’s sisters that she had been removed from the list. In the Phillipines, the woman who took her to Malaysia, and organised for her to be given a suitcase, has been found.

Mary Jane Veloso is still living, and will be returned to her original prison.

There are still over 40 prisoners sentenced to death execution for drug-related offences in Indonesia, including Mary Jane Veloso.

5.

The Roy Morgan company has surveyed Australians every year since 2008 to discover which professions are held in the highest and lowest regard for ethics and honesty. We like nurses and, oddly, pharmacists. We really don’t like people who sell us things. University lecturers come in around the middle, with lawyers.

We hold journalists and television reporters low in our esteem; in 2014 they were ranked 18th out of 30, a consistent downward slide.

Australian journalists who worked this long, painful shift in Indonesia, living alongside the families of the prisoners in Cilacap’s hotel, deserve better. Their words have often been all we’ve had, and their exhaustion and trauma must be extraordinary.

And now, where do educators go with this? What do we do with what we learned about ourselves, our world, its rapidly changing media infrastructures and networks, and the thoughts of others around us? If our attention were to be truly altered, as de Certeau puts it, by all the words and paintings that this burning puzzle flung out—what would we see, what should we do?

Writing and dying

This weekend the situation in Indonesia has escalated. It shouldn’t have come to this, and yet here we are. Networks and timelines are filled with expressions of horror and sadness that the executions are going ahead. Families and loved ones are racing to get there in time; governments all over the world are appealing and protesting. The lawyers are giving last minute radio interviews, exhausted. A consignment of plastic chairs being ferried to the prison is photographed and worried over. Who are these chairs for?  

Those who are still cheering on the executions as Indonesia’s decisive move in the war on regional drug distribution have a real problem in Mary Jane Veloso. Mary Jane is a 30 year old single mother, and her sons are just 6 and 12. Her own account of the events that led to her arrest has been published unedited online. In 2010, she left her children at home with her parents in their village, and travelled to Malaysia because she was promised domestic work that would enable her to provide for her family. There, someone she trusted gave her an air ticket and a brand new suitcase for a week’s holiday in Indonesia before her work started.

“We were so poor,” Ms. Veloso’s older sister, Marites Laurente, recalled of their time growing up. “We were just picking up bottles and plastic in the road to sell to make money.”

The suitcase contained 2.6 kilograms of heroin concealed in the lining. At her trial she was assisted by a student translator who didn’t speak much EnScreen Shot 2015-04-26 at 2.57.22 pmglish, and she didn’t either. There is a last minute worldwide social media campaign underway to try to save her.* As the stories of the others scheduled to be killed on Tuesday with her make clear, drug transportation is a business that’s managed as much by improvisation as organisation. People end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, having a go at making something better.  Read this:

Jamiu Owolabi Abashin was living on the streets of Bangkok in 1998 when a fellow African living there took pity on him and brought him home. Shortly thereafter, according to Mr. Abashin, his new friend asked whether he wanted a quick-paying job, in which he would get $400 for bringing a package of clothing to the friend’s wife in Surabaya, Indonesia, where she sold used shirts and pants.

But what do these stories have to do with us as educators, if we’re not legal experts, or researchers in drug policy? What should be our investment in this, if we’re not family or friends? What if our attention is just a variant on the prurient fixation with moment-of-death videos that Jade Davis calls out in her excellent piece on the street killing of black men in the US? As she says, it’s increasingly effective in prosecution that bystanders had the courage and presence of mind to record what they could see, but this is also the decision that puts the very moment of dying on the nightly news and all over the web, where their mothers and children can’t possibly turn away in time.

I have no idea how long it took for the announcement that the police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott would be charged with murder to make it to social media. What I do know is that I learned about it on social media, which is when I also learned what Walter Scott looked like as his feet hit the ground those last few times. I know exactly what his last step looked like.

That was when I closed my browser and walked away, because I couldn’t take seeing the rest over and over again.

Some of the same dilemma plays out here. How much do we need to know about the way Indonesia manages the business of execution, given that our knowing it inevitably exposes their mothers and sisters and their children to these details? There’s no respite from it: we have eye witness accounts, and stories from those who have participated, and the newspaper articles have illustrations, and the stories have details, and if I was their mother you couldn’t burn that stuff fast enough for me.

French philosopher Michel de Certeau, who died of cancer in 1986, wrote about the problem we have with the management of imminent dying. It is because we can’t accept our own mortality, he writes, that we put the dying away, out of sight. Literally, we make the dying person into something ob-scene: off the scene, can’t be seen. Humane killing is carried out at midnight, with only the minimum number of legally required witnesses. (Who are those chairs for?)  What he calls “the immoral secret of death” is written back in, “in all the procedures that quarantine death or drive it beyond the limits of the city, outside of time, work, and language, in order to protect a place.”

But deCerteau’s point is more complicated than this. It’s not because we close the browser and walk away, but precisely because we hold in our minds the details of someone’s dying, whether that someone is ill or is waiting in a cell or is right in the moment of being shot in a park, that we’re keeping their death in a place that is separate from our own. “I am participating in the illusion that localises death elsewhere, in the hospital or in the last moments: … by identifying this image with the dying person, I make it the place where I am not. Through the representation I exorcise death, which is shut up next door, relegated to a moment that I assume is not mine.”

For deCerteau all this is confounded in the end by the practice of writing. Writing itself invites death right back into the room because we write in anticipation of being read, later. Writing only exists because of what has been written—the traces and after effects of the moment of writing itself, which is more or less nothing in the scheme of things. And it’s through writing that we resolve the trick of locating death elsewhere, by producing it right out of ourselves, out of the mental calculation and physical gesture of putting words together. Look, we say, as the sentences appear, here I am in the very moment of living my life, and that moment has always immediately passed. Here is my dying, and now it’s bound up with yours, because this is the condition that we share.

So if “death is the necessary condition of evolution”, as deCerteau points out, and “the law of the species is that individuals must lose their place”, then why care so much about those who are leaving us? Why are so many taking to the streets and calling radio shows and expressing their anticipatory grieving online as we wait through these terrible two days?

Firstly, it’s because dying is the most precious thing that we do, the most important and generative capacity that we share, and it’s the one thing that should restrain our chasing of productivity, status and stuff. We need to learn to live with it better, for sure, but we don’t do this by letting it become a bargaining chip in a political war on this or that. And secondly, dying entangles us intensely with the lives of others; we are all woven together and one life can’t be neatly picked out without severe, sometimes not-survivable, damage all around it. This violent and premedidated bereavement, including of children, can’t be made civilised, no matter how many forms are signed.

The stories from all those waiting to be executed on Tuesday tell us that this world isn’t a safe place for most of the people in it. The least we can ask is that the state recognises this simple thing: dying belongs to the individual, and is the most fundamental human capacity that the state is there to protect.

There is still time to speak

Please read this article and take a moment to sign this petition to appeal for clemency for Mary Jane Veloso. The Mercy Campaign petition for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran is here. What difference will it make? Maybe nothing in relation to the outcome, but maybe also something really critical for those who love them. It’s all we can do, and it’s not nothing.

Appreciation

This post owes a lot to others who have helped me think about an educator’s place in relation to death and dying, but especially to Paul Prinsloo, Bon Stewart, Melonie Fullick, Jesse Stommel, Jade Davis, Frances Bell, Anna Notaro, Audrey Watters, Rachel Duke and Tressie McMillan Cottom. And there is nothing adequate at all that can be said to those who love Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and Mary Jane Veloso and the others on death row tonight, except that our heartsick thoughts are with you all.

End in sight

I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.

–J M Barrie, Peter Pan

It’s highly probable that somewhere in the world today a child has been born that’s going to live to 150

–Joe Hockey, Treasurer

Two thoughts.

1

Australian politics is frozen in mid backflip over the shark, and I’m still stuck on the Treasurer’s claim back in January that we need to shore up our public health system to prepare for Australians living to 150.

The precision of the Treasurer’s belief is relevant. It comes from longevity research, where 150 is indeed the number thrown about. There are strange characters in this field, and probably the strangest of them all is the bearded British eccentric and self-taught biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who’s one source of the idea that the first human who will live to 150 is already alive today. He’s the “Chief Science Officer” and co-founder of the SENS Foundation (“Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence”), and also co-founder of the Methuselah foundation. His TED talks are mesmerising.

The goal of engineered negligible senescence is to reframe age-related deterioration as a disease that can be targeted, and a problem that can be solved. Regenerative medicine isn’t short of cash, or hubris. The Methuselah Foundation has given “over $4m in funding … From tissue engineering to stem cell science, we’ve seen explosive progress in the industry, and we’re more convinced than ever that regenerative medicine will transform health care in the 21st century.”

Google has also invested heavily in longevity research through the California Life Company initiative, Calico (“We’re tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries”, although “as we make early progress on our research and goals, our capacity for handling press inquiries is limited.”). Despite not having time to talk to the press, Calico is now in a $1.5b partnership with pharmaceutical research company AbbVie; extending life makes sense to the markets.

Because extending life is still medically speculative, the Palo Alto Investors LLC has set up a $1m prize focused on proof of concept. For now, the prize is hung out for those who can prove it’s possible to extend homeostatic capacity in mammals. Homeostatic capacity is the natural ability to repair after damage and recover well from illness, and if we could only stop it degrading over our lifetimes, we’d be able to kick on for much longer.

150 year old Australians turn out only to be a modest target in this startling field; the chief investor in the Longevity Prize, Dr Joon Yun, seems to have set his sights on death itself:

A normal 25-year-old has a one in 1,000 chance of dying from outside forces in a given year. If declining homeostatic capacity were not a factor, a 1,000-year healthy lifespan is theoretically achievable. The mortality rate of a healthy 15-year-old is 0.01 percent in a given year, which could theoretically translate to a 10,000-year lifespan.

To be sure, immortality is not the explicit goal of the Prize, but the successful abolition of aging would certainly make death the next target.

“We hope that, if we are successful … sustained homeostatic capacity will have the consequence of making death a statistic rather than an inevitability,” Yun said.

The ethical questions here don’t need underlining. This is the meat and potatoes of science fiction: when research succeeds in abolishing aging (or “curing death”, as Google puts it), not everyone will have access to negligible senescence technologies. There will be industries and markets and scarcity, and price will be manipulated by the usual corporate hoarding of patents. Not everyone will be a winner.

So this is why extended longevity of the 150-year kind should feature in Australian healthcare planning. It’s not because frail centenarians will be clogging up the public health system, but because the prospect of living to 150 is the kind of thing that ratchets up demand for private health solutions, puts the fear into financial self-management, and widens the gap between Australians who can pay for upmarket services, and Australians who can’t access the basics.

In other words, it’s exactly why we shouldn’t be stripping down our public health services as we wait for the miracles to come.

2

It’s been a terrible week for contemplating the horror of dying by execution, as we’ve all not looked away quickly enough from the blunt evidence of human cruelty. Suddenly our social networks are filled with images and videos of bleak and lonely deaths driven by a simple calculation: that because humans want to stay alive, and are loved with intensity by others, then human life itself can be exploited, weaponised, haggled over, and finally thrown down in the war on one thing or another.

And now two Australians are waiting to be executed in Bali for organising an attempt to shift heroin into Australia in 2005, that failed spectacularly when all nine involved were caught. They have been in prison for ten years, living their lives and waiting for this shoe to fall. One has become a pastoral leader, and the other a painter who runs art classes for other prisoners.

The apparent justification is that shooting them now, after all this time, will make others think twice about participating in the distribution of illegal drugs. Prominent Australians who have used heroin and lost children to heroin have argued against this with compassion and respect. There has been a wide and concerted campaign across the Australian media asking for clemency. Artists, musicians, lawyers, senior clerics and writers have spoken up, and are continuing to call for hope.

And yet there they are, waiting to be killed for decisions taken 10 years ago.  Their mothers are with them. I don’t know how they’re still putting one foot in front of the other, knowing the separation that’s ahead. I would not. Even the most tough-talking death penalty proponent hasn’t put forward a justification for this extreme punishment of their families, whose distress and dread is overwhelming.

So that’s why I’m in furious agreement with everyone writing, singing, speaking, holding vigils for mercy for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. It’s because they’re human, and because human mortality shouldn’t be exploited to punish or terrify, any more than it should be trivialised as a medical problem waiting to be fixed.

* the title of this post comes from ‘Nothing is Made New‘, a poem written by John Kinsella and delivered to the President of Indonesia as part of a plea for clemency for Chan and Sukumaran.