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

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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.

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.

Tenet

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

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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.

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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.

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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.