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.”


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.


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.


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.

Service as a Service

There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice.

Martin Weller, Scholarship Can’t Afford Itself, July 2015

But after what happened at the Tour, I need to prove myself on a bigger scale.

Tejay van Garderen, 2015

Two stories about the glue that holds together the whole scholarly practice.


It’s 2007. I’m in my office. I’m always in my office. Looking back, I don’t remember much else about that time. I have three primary school kids, and a partner who’s done the heavy lifting of being there for them when they were very small, but now he’s working too. The phone rings, while I’m trying to keep as many windows open as possible, and it’s my daughter’s school.

Now what, how can I possibly … ?

A teacher whose name I don’t recognise introduces herself, and then asks if I’d like to speak to my daughter, who’s 8.

“Is she OK?” I ask.

“Yes. She won.”

Won what?

It turns out that she stood up in front of a large crowd of teachers, kids, and parents, and delivered a small speech we’d been preparing at home. So far so good. I knew about that bit, although I hadn’t taken in that it was a Big Thing involving other schools and a sea of strangers’ faces.

And she found herself in the final round, where the winners were asked to talk off the tops of their 8 year old heads about their favourite animal.

“My favourite animal is … humans.”


Except not really.


It’s 2014. At the worst possible point of the chemotherapy cycle, a whole other 8 year old says “It’s the athletics carnival, do you think you’ll be OK to come?”

Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away. We gather me up into the car, where I sag against the seatbelt sweating cytotoxins out of every pore, wondering what it will mean to show up among all the other parents at this time.

runningPrepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.

And then I see her. She’s running her whole race sideways so that she can scan the stands to see if we made it, and she’s coming a triumphant and celebratory last, because she can see me and there we all are together.

Actually winning this time.


One of the sadder sights of this year’s Tour de France was the retirement due to illness of third placed rider Tejay van Garderen, who collapsed and was led weeping from the race by his team management. In technical terms, he abandoned the race.

Now that I’m back at work, I’m trying hold on to everything I learned when I abandoned work for cancer, including about the value of time spent doing things other than work. And it’s clear that thanks to what Anne Boyer brilliantly describes as “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying“, the prospect for my colleagues of finding time that does not always, already belong to the scholarly work that hasn’t been finished—that might actually be unfinishable—is rare.

How do educators teach, and what do we model, when this is the case? On Wednesday I spent a challenging, invigorating session with students looking at ways of grounding everyday professional choices in personal rather than institutional values. This is one of the things I teach, based on a fair bit of study and training in the field of narrative practices. Together we began the process of thinking about how work actually works, and what it will take for them to adapt capably and optimistically to the pressure of employment scarcity.

They are experienced long-term casual workers, so they know what this is about. They know the importance of giving just a bit more than the person next to them, in the hope of being remembered when next week’s shifts are organised. When work itself becomes scarce, when whole professions vanish into the sinkholes of technology and automation, then the power to limit expectations of service shift decisively. These students will graduate right back into the culture of outperforming the person next to you that characterises their existing casual work in call centres, retail and coffee shops.

And the skilled and successful graduate role models they’re most exposed to are those teaching them at university. Casual academics are hired under the same conditions as their students, but work under the same expectations of uncompensated overtime as their securely hired colleagues like me. This is the worst possible combination. They’re driven into hours of volunteerism because they are genuinely conscientious; because they know they won’t be hired again if evaluations of their performance dip; and because there is no guiding intelligence holding back the whole academic peleton from hurtling forwards at a pace that only a very few can sustain.

This is precisely the nature of “Capital’s inventive temporal bullying”. Choices about what invitations to accept, what tasks to take on, which calls for help to prioritise, are evaluated only in the narrowest context of personal capacity, and sometimes not even then. No one has yet worked out how to look at the systemic cost in physical and mental health of the entire thing going too fast.

This week Martin Weller, who I seem to be stalking, suggested that the rise and rise of service costing in universities has missed the fundamental value of the generosity and inventiveness with which academics manage time’s assumed porosity. If we costed the glue holding universities together, he says, we would find that scholarship can’t afford itself.

I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing.

I don’t share this view, not least because describing humans as glue is a little too glue factory for me.

Frankly, I think we need to apply the same critique that we’ve brought to the unpaid internship, to the culture of uncosted service. The capacity to offer your own time to service is grounded in the privilege of having that time in the first place. It’s hardest for those with other responsibilities, and although at higher salary levels there might be some opportunity to claw back bits of time by outsourcing domestic work, this isn’t a solution for those in early career and casual work. And academics working evenings and weekends shouldn’t just be seen as a problem for working parents. Everyone loses.

We need to recognise that service time that isn’t costed is human time that isn’t valued. So until we properly cost all the services that universities have committed us to delivering, we’re going to be sprinting over the mountains in a broken peloton, endlessly trying to prove ourselves against those nearest to us.

Let’s keep thinking together about what it will take to slow this down. Even professional cycling costs the labour of the domestique.


Lee Skallerup Bessette has consistently influenced my thinking about counting what counts. Check out her excellent post on social media as academic service, over on the lovely Hybrid Pedagogy blog.

Liz Morrish has written an outstanding piece on the management of productivity and performance in universities, and with colleagues will be participating in a seminar in September at which the death of Professor Stefan Grimm will be remembered.

George Siemens, who I think is probably more optimistic than me, has recently given an important keynote in which he explains why he expects technology to liberate time from routine work and expand opportunities for quality of life. The slides are here.

One of the best writers on labour and productivity in higher education is Canadian blogger Melonie Fullick. Typically when I’m curious about something I find her already on the case, as in this excellent 2011 post on counting the labour value of graduate students. Among other points, she says this:

Grad students aren’t paid for the time we spend writing conference presentations, or for the presentations themselves; nor are we reimbursed for the travel costs. It’s all considered part of the investment we make in our own careers.

In fact, budding academics do a lot of unpaid work, including peer reviewing, writing book reviews, and producing journal articles (we even hand over copyright to the journals, who then profit from our labour)..

Raul Pacheco-Vega, who curates the #scholarsunday hashtag (which is exactly caught in the dilemmas about work time referenced here), has just written a fantastic post about slowing scholarship down, with links through to some important new feminist work on slow academia.

And on domestiques, a metaphor for service work in universities that’s so obvious it makes your head spin, read the story of Canadian cyclist Michael Barry.

On personality

A reply to Martin Weller

But then along come MOOCs, and they’re all about the personality.

Martin Weller,  ‘The role of personality in education

Martin Weller, Professor of Education Technology at the Open University, is asking important questions about about the pros and cons of stripping authorial personality from higher education course and content design.

In a sector shaped by the persistent anticipation of audit, personality is a bit of a handful. The hallmarks of personable teaching—improvisation, creativity,  anecdote, all the idiosyncratic connections that an individual gets to make between one thing and another—are flatly at odds with the ideals of standardisation and repeatability that assure the student experience. These ideals matter, especially when the same course is franchised to external partners. On the other hand, even connectivist MOOCs lean hard on celebrity as a selling point. But then again, too much creative personality, too much popularity, introduces a kind of cultishness to learning that we really have been trying to move beyond.

MOOCs hothoused this dilemma, but didn’t invent it. We already have celebrity academics with their own TV shows; there’s no end of scholarly charisma being retailed across small islands, archaeological digs, and in TV science labs. And on campus, we struggle with personality across student surveys and intellectual property policies: we haggle over the idea of the individual as creator of educational content whose expertise is the guarantee of student experience, while setting up procedures to assure the depersonalisation of content production so that students are protected from the vagaries of charm.

Personality: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

As it happens, Martin was himself the personable frontman for one of the many MOOCs I’ve failed to complete. And I’m using the term “frontman” carefully here, because this was the question I asked on his blog: what does gender have to do with personality in MOOCs in particular? (At least one answer, shared by Pat Lockley: “Online Students Give Instructors Higher Marks If They Think Instructors Are Men.”).

In 2013, Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed totted up the numbers of xMOOCs led by male and female faculty. The difference was exactly as you would expect. When the world’s elite institutions first hustled to get their star talent up on the small screen, just in case there was a rankings bounce to be had, the faces that appeared were male. Women showed up in team-taught MOOCs, but as with television news reading, it took a while for women to be allowed to front the cameras alone.

The article wasn’t immediately popular with IHE readers. Here’s a comment:

As the article notes, there are likely numerous reasons for the gender disparity, none of them pointing to persistent discrimination in the way faculty are selected to teach these courses. That more men than women win Nobel prizes doesn’t mean that the Nobel selection committee practices gender discrimination.

And another:

The first sentence is histrionic, you didn’t even get the headline right (the courses aren’t masculine), and the author has his own gender gap in the ratio of females to males quoted. This is not a very auspicious beginning to today’s edition.

And yet another:

“More female professors are experimenting with MOOCs, but men and STEM classes still dominate course offerings.”

So? And this is a problem why?

Women dominate in the student body, admin, staff, programs like psych, education, nursing, dentistry, english, anthropology, veterinary science, biology, microbiology, theater, music, film, etc. Since women dominate almost all aspects of higher education, doesn’t the principle of “diversity” demand that men dominate at least one, or maybe two, of the hundreds of programs found in higher ed? This may be a naive and is there no room for men in higher ed anymore?…

These comments tell us something about the struggle that higher education still has with gender. We tend to examine this problem through outputs and consequences—how many women make it to senior levels, how many are stuck in long-term casual work, how the historic feminisation of some low paying professions results in the underrepresentation of male academics in those disciplines, and so on.

But the part we find hard to explain is how this persists in such a systematic way–how anyone, let alone a whole marketing team, gets to imagine faculty as typically male, or how we still end up with all male conference panels. It’s much easier to make an example of Tim Hunt or Matt Taylor than it is to recognise the discrimination that’s engrained in the norms we associate with professional success.

There are two parts to this discrimination. The first is that higher education rewards chronic overwork because it makes good business sense to use competitive recruitment and selective promotion to motivate everyone to work longer hours than they’re paid for. This is exactly the message of a ghastly bit of career advice that popped up in Science Magazine this week, that has been deservedly criticised for its valorising of overwork and family neglect as the price that higher education is entitled to demand. Here’s how Eleftherios Diamandis did it:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

My colleagues and I managed to publish numerous papers, and I was invited repeatedly to present at national and international conferences. I was able to demonstrate, in the department’s annual report, scientific productivity comparable in quantity and quality to the full-time academics in the department. I made sure these activities were noticed.

I made myself visible by participating in every research seminar—not easy, considering the hour-long drive and how busy I was at the company. Each time I entered the lecture room, I made a point of passing in front of the department chair before sitting down. At the end of every seminar, I made sure to ask a carefully crafted question or two.

Quite apart from how awful all of this is, the high school maths is that a full-time employee working 16 to 17 hours a day is saving their employer the cost of hiring a second employee, and someone doing this as an extended job audition while hired only as an adjunct really is handing over the candy.

And although both men and women are driven to overwork in higher education, Diamandis’ example slots tidily into 2014 research by Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weedon showing that familial caring responsibilities still make it much harder for women with children or other dependents to exploit overwork culture to further their own careers. As Cha and Weedon map out with great care, this means that the rise of highly compensated corporate overwork (including in academia) therefore contributes directly to the gendering of the pay gap in the labour market as a whole.

Research metrics drive the culture of academic overwork, since research performance is the sweet spot where institutional and individual self-interest converge. But Australia and the UK are now actively developing measurement frameworks to boost the status of university teaching, and this is where we get back to Martin’s problem with personality. If we are going to include peer observation of teaching in an evaluation framework—and as a peer reviewer of teaching, I think we should—we need to be really scrupulous in critiquing the association of charismatic performance and apparent popularity with effective teaching. Otherwise, as Martin suggests, “we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one.”

As Martin demonstrated, accidentally but usefully, there is every chance in the current situation that the A-list charmer who gets highlighted first will turn out to be male. And further, it turns out that there are things that we say and believe about men who are highly successful leaders of large teaching enterprises like MOOCs, including in the way that we joke about their appeal (“loveable, cuddly“), that we simply don’t say about successful women.

If we’re going to measure the art of teaching with any kind of sophistication, we need to work out urgently why this is still the case.