Subject outline

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

Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality

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

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

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

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

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

No one can say they weren’t told.

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

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

2

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

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

This feels familiar.

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A post for Kris Christou.

Connectedness and learning: an invitation

How much capacity for empathy do we have, for ideas and people whose worldviews are very different from our own? How much hospitality do we have in ourselves, beyond mere tolerance, for this kind of difference?

Maha Bali,  ‘Whom do you listen to? And why I’m hoping to go the US this August

At Mary Freer’s compassion lab last week I learned new things from systems researcher Fiona Kerr. Fiona advises large corporations on social neuroscience, and is a robust and articulate critic of the ways in which technology investment seeks to substitute face to face human interaction with AI, VR and robots. She speaks persuasively about the evidence that nurturing connections created between humans who trust one another transform our capacity to think, to innovate, to navigate risk and to plan with discernment. All of these are core benefits to any environment concerned with learning, so you would think that universities would be first in the line to be fostering empathic and collegial workplaces. Connectedness makes us better at the things that universities are here to do, literally.

jewellery links
Linked spirals: network diagram, photograph by Kate Bowles

There are practical problems, however, with applying these lessons to universities, first because we are hierarchical institutions with power issues; and secondly because we are naturally global organisations. The problem with the neuroscience of empathic connection is that the two activities that offer the greatest benefit in terms of brain responses are prolonged touch, and retinal eye lock. Neither transfer well into virtual environments; and prolonged touch doesn’t transfer well into many workplaces, so bear in mind that Fiona was speaking primarily to people involved in therapeutic patient care. (And even eye contact doesn’t generate such positive brain outcomes in Skype meetings as in face to face contact, which I found useful to know.)

So if we’re putting more effort into online communication (and universities really are burying themselves in email, at every level); and if we’re also positively encouraging online collaboration because it offers a wider horizon beyond collaborators who are local to us, then we need to figure out what it is that builds connection in online or virtual environments. All of us who teach also need to understand how students who are skilled in using technology to connect to others may still need support to develop those connections to a level that stimulates their capacity to empathise and then discern, in the same demonstrated way as eye contact and touch.

This has me thinking about what it means to teach empathically in diverse online environments, where we can’t always see or hear from the people we’re learning with, and we can’t assume in any fundamental way that they experience life as we do. We can take nothing for granted about the strangers we don’t meet, except through the words they offer in writing or when they talk to us through our screens. To remember to teach inclusively is to engage our own brains in thinking about the world as it is for others: over there, in that body, at that time of day, in that season, during that cultural festival, under that government, in that family structure, with those religious hopes.

The challenge of working inclusively and generously in online environments is impressive, but the opportunity that it opens up for us is something that we can’t leave to chance in this difficult world. So I am really glad to be heading to the US with my friend and colleague Maha Bali, to lead a section of the Digital Pedagogy Lab to be held at the University of Mary Washington in August. You can read more about our track here. We wrote that post together knowing that for very obvious reasons, Maha may have a tough time even entering the US as an Egyptian Muslim woman. But this is precisely why we’ve both chosen to try to show up:

we are coming to the US to lead this track because we both believe that the practical exercise of global citizenship is more important than ever. We believe that inclusive intercultural digital pedagogy is not a luxury, and can no longer be an afterthought. This time of walls and travel bans demands conviction and ingenuity from critical digital educators concerned with gestures of openness and hospitality. To change the landscape on both sides of the walls that are being built to keep us apart, we need to show up and collaborate wherever we can.

We are honoured to be making this complicated journey together. Above all, we are looking forward to working with participants at DPL Fredericksburg to shape new practices of witness, justice and empathy, and to advocate without compromise for a pedagogy of respect to the stranger, the migrant, and the refugee.

And after listening to Fiona Kerr and thinking about how our brains actually work, I’ll be asking specifically whether narrative practice in digital pedagogy is the missing dimension that enables us to form a profound sense of each other, in the absence of eye contact and touch. I’m thinking about stories that have been shared with me online, and how I retain a sense of that person through the lens of their story. To me this opens up a new way of looking at tools, platforms and practices to find those that are most likely to honour listening, without simply defaulting to likes and hearts and thumbs up. Which platforms are best to let someone know that they have been heard in this world? Which digital tools enable us to maintain a rich sense of the storied life being lived elsewhere?

So with all this in mind, I can’t say enough about the beautiful essay Sean Michael Morris has written about his practice of writing about teaching (Sean will also be leading a track at DPL in August, on this very thing.) As he puts it, all of of us who teach do so for reasons. It’s not always obvious what those are; it’s not always the case that we have been inspired by being taught formally or informally. Sometimes, we just found ourselves in the room, and stayed. That’s certainly what happened to me.

Sean’s story about his father covers so much ground; it’s a love story without romance, delivered reverently, candidly and carefully. It’s a story of connectedness and frailty, that gives space to what we learn about a person after they have passed from our life. About working with learners, who are at the core of this essay and at the centre of his practice, Sean has this to say:

We are not dealing with students, but people with dreams, people who will fail and people who will succeed, people who may end up alone and people whose high point of the day may be a conversation with us. Being kind may seem counterintuitive to the academic ethos—especially when being kind can sometimes mean being wrong—but we owe it to ourselves to think outside our setting, to see past the artificial boundaries of generation, expertise, and authority. And while we’re at it: race, gender, sexuality, religion.

This is how we should write about teaching. From a place less studious and a place more generous.

He could just have said this, but it’s the story that he shared around it of his relationship with his father that expanded the possibility of connection, and helped me to concentrate on and recall what he thinks about students. The gift of Sean’s story, the small details that are still in my mind, opened a space in the present for me to imagine my own storied life as a person who teaches, especially online. So I’d really like to know more about how this sense of connectedness and this intensity of recall might show up on an MRI. But for now it’s enough that this essay (and many others, by others) was shared online and I found it.

And if you can make it to Fredericksburg August 7-11, come and join us all. We’d love to see you.

Details are here.

In our own hands

To offer consolation is an act of generosity.

Arthur Frank, The Renewal of Generosity

ANZAC Day: dodging the memorialisation of war by gardening, trying to distribute worm casts without ripping handfuls of living worms to bits. I’m feeling the dirt packed under my fingernails, and suddenly hearing Thom Gunn’s poem that skids to a stop on the matter of our cellular form: when we die and fall into the earth, we become dirt, and there is no intention in this, it just is.

This poem ends with the plants that consume and grow from what’s left of us. It reminds me of Sharon Olds’ meditation on the Challenger shuttle explosion (“What I want / to do is find each cell, / slip it out of the fishes’ mouths, / ash in the tree, / soot in your eyes’ ; see this post). These are the similar words I hear from Gunn’s poem while gardening with worms:

Cell after cell the plants convert / my special richness in the dirt: / all that they get, they get by chance / and multiply in ignorance

Thom Gunn, ‘The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of His Death

My hands
These are my hands

Seeing ahead to the material plainness of what comes after our own dying should change the way we live and work, not just for people of faith, but for all of us. We’re here for a short time, and our priorities should be our own. But it’s not a simple thing to untangle ourselves from the visions and imperatives imposed on us by institutions, families and culture, to create sufficient thinking space that we can understand what choices we can make, what agency we have, in the time we have left.

To develop our agency, our capacity for generous action, in institutional contexts that Arthur Frank describes as cultures of “menacing possibility”, we need to find and care for others who are thinking similarly.

In his book The Renewal of Generosity, Frank talks about the stories shared in healthcare as gifts that expand this space of possibility.

The resonance of stories is what they give beyond what they ostensibly tell. Stories of the generosity of ill people, doctors, and nurses can show what is possible for any of us at any time. That is their consolation.

He’s using the word consolation deliberately, in a passage of his thoughts on generosity. To Frank, the climate of demoralization in stressed organizations is one that invites us to find and care for one another through specific practices of generosity, hospitality and consolation. To console is to comfort, and in its origins there is a sense of withness. To this extent, it resembles empathy, but there’s a subtle difference in consolation. To console is to recognise otherness as the basis of suffering that is separate from our own, to care without the hubristic claim of empathy.

Stories shared do this precisely: they invite us to approach others with humility. They don’t demand reciprocity; to receive a story, it’s enough to listen. You don’t need to offer a story in return. Stories are occasions for hospitality: to receive what comes, to listen without judging, without necessarily joining in, but in the discipline of full attention. Stories don’t fool us into forgetting who we are: however moving they are, we never fully experience them as the person telling them. In accepting the gift of a story, we recognise and respect that the other person is who they are because of a singular and also politically shaped set of experiences that are not our own. Listening well teaches us that what we do share is a matter of process: the values of others are drawn from their living, just as our own are.

Two days ago I had the opportunity to think a bit about where stories sit amongst the principles of compassionate leadership, at a #compassionlab retreat organised in Victoria by Mary Freer. In 2016, Mary won a Westpac Fellowship to find out about how empathy and compassion are changing workplace cultures and organisations around the world, and now she’s back with ideas and energy to share. Mary is a visionary and gifted leader, passionate about our capacity for change, and highly persuasive: in her company, and the company of the friends she brings to training events, a good world not only seems possible, but likely.

On the way to the retreat, I spent quite a bit of time in the company of a young man driving a taxi. He told me his story, of coming to Australia from a rural Punjabi village, on the values that he lives by, and the values he admires in others. He told me about his family, the way older people are valued in his home community, his hopes for the future. He seemed to me to embody the “pragmatic optimist” that we learned about at #compassionlab—someone whose sense of hope for the future has a good grasp of resources, constraints and opportunities, who can take steps to act to bring about the future in intentional ways. Along the way he explained to me why temples offer free food, and about the cultural values behind feeding those who need feeding. He mapped out a cultural framework for continuous learning, and told me stories of other Sikhs who made him proud of who he wants to be in this world.

The gift he left with me, in his own words: that if there is to be a good world, a good future, it’s one we will make with our hands.

2

Two years ago this weekend. Another year.

Over the past days, Sister Helen Prejean has been actively campaigning on Twitter to protest the rushed executions of men on death row in Arkansas. I came across Sister Prejean during the time that Myuran Sukumaran was still living, and I came home from the retreat watching  Australian death penalty activists sharing on Twitter the reminder that it’s two years ago since he was executed.

Sister Prejean’s tenacity is extraordinary. She is a skilful, articulate social media user, and she uses these channels unflinchingly to keep in public view the lives of those facing premeditated state killing, and the harm done to their families facing violent bereavement, often after years and years and years of delay. She uses faith and scripture, and generosity and hope, and every other thing available, to campaign until there isn’t a breath left. I don’t know how she holds herself up, but there she is, arguing exhaustedly and with conviction that the future can be remade at any moment, precisely because it’s in our hands.

I have a copy of a self-portrait by Myuran Sukumaran on my office noticeboard and I look at it every day. It reminds me to keep the future calmly in view, and in this way to try to meet it while still caring about something, believing that there is something to care about, whatever turns up.

And to meet it making something, growing something, with my own hands.

So much thanks to Mary Freer, Helen Prejean, and Jag, driving someone somewhere today, making a good world

As ever, thoughts with Mrs Sukumaran and the Sukumaran family.