The questions weren’t interesting but I worked hard to find the interest in them

Clem Bowles, Little Boxes

I went dark because I didn’t know where I belonged or where I was going, and I had nowhere to direct the words.

Bonnie Stewart, The long dark tea-time of the soul

It’s been a week for noticing the stories that get told in higher education about satisfaction. How do students feel about the experience of being students, and how do they look back on this later?

Higher education is already an entanglement of stories about what students think, how they feel. There’s the marketing story where all the students are young and clear-skinned and laughing together in culturally diverse groups as they hug their laptops against scenic campus backgrounds. There’s the story we frighten ourselves with in meetings where we huddle around the spreadsheets, and we can see the trends but we don’t really know what’s causing them. There’s the defensive gossip that comes out when we think we know why students haven’t done a thing, or seem not to be paying attention, or seem not to care about deadlines or details until it’s too late.

Then there’s the story we accidentally overhear, in the corridor or on social media, where students tell each other what’s really going on for them, and how we come across to them, and we can’t back away fast enough. So we grab hold of the comforting story, the one that makes us all feel good, when students tell us about something that was meaningful or someone who was kind.

Listening very selectively to these stories, there are days when it feels as though we’re ok at this, we’re keeping it all safe.

In 2015 I took my daughter to a higher education conference in the US. She was fifteen and hanging on in high school, just by her fingernails. Listening to her on that trip I realised that leaving school very early was the risk she needed to choose. Here’s what I wrote at that time.

Listening to Clem as we travel around, I’m thinking of many university students I know for whom higher education is also abrasive, demoralising, and marginalising, in ways that don’t trigger any kind of protection or support for them, because what they really need is for us to change the way we do the things we do.

Nearly three years later, through a collision of appointments in the past few days, I’ve been listening intensively to the stories of students like her: the student who quit high school to challenge herself and travelled the world; several students who left uni at the first attempt because they’d picked the wrong course or the wrong time; the student who’s technically on the books but committed to a sporting career that needs his full attention; the students who care about a project or an idea sufficiently that actually being a student has become a background chore—part cleaning the bathroom, part putting the bin out.

All week, I’ve been impressed by the stories of their creativity, resilience, inventiveness or ambition that have not yet found a home in the way we teach or ask them to learn.

But there are other stories that are now sitting with me like a bag of stones. There are students who don’t really want to be here, or to be doing what they’re doing, or who sense that they have no choice about how a degree is to be completed. They’re deep in the sunk cost of having got this far. The experience of passing in and out of the gates of our maze, trading more or less the same assessments for more or less the same grades, isn’t convincing them that they’re becoming more employable. Time is carrying them along; time will tell.

Their expertise in employability is actually pretty formidable. Most have been working since their mid teens; they come to class in their work uniforms. Meanwhile, they’re looking at graduate recruitment that says “entry-level” and “must have 2 years experience” in the same breath, and they’re not fools—they know that this experience has to come via an unpaid internship that they fund themselves by taking on more shifts at the jobs they’ve had since high school.

This week I was asked if I thought blogging could help international students overcome obstacles to local media employability. That’s a good question, and I’m looking forward to reading what this student has to say about it. I’m glad it’ll be on her blog where I can read it, as I’m not the person who will be grading this work.

In general, I think this is the value of student writing in public. The audience is larger, something worth saying has more chance of starting a conversation, of raising awareness of human struggle and creating the opportunity for change.

So student blogging isn’t about finding a different platform for the same old thing, it’s not blending the learning. It’s the incentive for all of us who write in public to maintain the network that helps new writers find real readers.

As Andrew Rikard makes absolutely clear:

If no one wants to read the hastily constructed blog post for a class participation grade, then what is the purpose of making it public? If assignments are going to live online, don’t they need to be connected to a public dialogue? Don’t they need to be oriented at the proper audience? The web is a network for conversations, and if students still see their audience as a teacher with a red pen, then nothing changes.

Then nothing changes.

But there’s one thing I can’t settle, that keeps coming up. I’m not sure where future employability fits in this assessment v conversation scenario, even as the shadow of the imaginary future employer falls on everything we do.

What if student blogging is just the long unpaid internship to a gig in the threadbare economy of online clickbait generation? What is the future of writing, if this is the result?

Robin de Rosa is a powerful and radical scholar of open pedagogy. Last week, I was startled out of a writing slump when she fished up an old post from here and shared it in a talk. I am beyond grateful for this care.

What does it mean to be a writer in this world? What does it mean to teach?

In 2017 my daughter left high school. She was 16. She negotiated her exit independently, and I signed a form.

At the moment she works in our local supermarket and intermittently studies at the local TAFE. She wasn’t exceptional in wanting to leave, she says; she was unusual only in being supported to do so.

I recognise myself as an educator in the way that I reacted to her decision.

This week she wrote about her current student experience of not fitting in the boxes of a piece of assessment. And in that piece she reminded me what this blog is for me. It’s where I re-learned how to write, in my own voice, about things that I care about in this short life.

Blogging is a practice I defend, and that defends me. And like Bonnie Stewart, who writes beautifully about the relationship between employability and writing and loss of voice, I understand this writing as a stealing back of the self that is otherwise left hostage to the banal performativity of “career”.

Writing is the gift we give to ourselves. It’s the soul work of our agency, our refusal, and our choice.

It’s that important.


Featured image: Tim Green 2007, What Else Could You Be?, shared via Flickr/SmugMug, CC BY-2.0

9 Responses

  • Thank you for this! Finding my way to writing a blog has me feeling a bit like a student again in many ways. I have struggled with writing for 40 years, despite whatever successes I have had. But when I read, and write, in this new way (for me), I feel liberated to write about new ideas I don’t know a lot about or things I have been working on for a long time. As a librarian I always like to talk with students about thinking and writing even when they don’t have a lot of content knowledge yet. The public face of writing for a blog, for me, is about the many conversations I now feel apart of. Now if we could only find more ways to continue those conversations over coffee!

    • Kate Bowles

      Celia, welcome, it’s lovely to have you here. Your thoughts on writing and voice were very influential in this post. I’d been sitting with Bonnie’s thoughts on how we can be silenced by what feels almost like shaming — shaming for not being employed, or productive, or whatever. And suddenly we forget that we know how to put words together, how to build a cairn, as Adrienne Rich puts it in A Mark of Resistance: “A pile of stones: an assertion / that this piece of country matters / for large and simple reasons / A mark of resistance, a sign.” I’ve come to think of writing like this: as marking resistance, stone by stone.

  • As ever your post makes me think of all sorts of things. I was someone who started and completed an undergraduate degree course that wasn’t the right one for me. Lack of courage and concern for recently widowed mother prevented me from making the leap to a different subject. When I became an academic 14 years later after a much more satisfying post-graduate experience, I was alert to student stories that revealed the lack of fit for their degree subject. In the grant/ pre-loans era there was a cutoff point in the academic year when students could withdraw from their course without financial penalty (grant). I tried to be open as a Year 1 tutor to listen to and refer troubled students but also inform them about timing implications. I suspect that no longer operates in commercial student loan environments.
    It also plays into something much bigger. That students emerging from school education paid for by the state or their parents into a university degree, are taking on a huge debt for an experience that is opaque to them and as it becomes more transparent, the best way out for those who don’t fit is to play the game of succeeding and getting a job that will enable them to pay off the loan. What hath we wrought?

    • Kate Bowles

      I was someone who started an undergraduate degree and quit. I had been travelling the world and working, and racing back to live in a university dorm and go back to thinking about assignments just did not work out. I fled, and didn’t come back until I’d got things out of my system. Looking back, I think this was a formative decision for me, and I can remember clearly how it felt. I’m not sure we have wrought, as you put it, the same opportunity for students now. So their agency is placed at risk, and in tension with our objectives, and this really does matter.

      • I realised that I made the wrong choice albeit for a kind reason. I think that I had more options in the 1970s than students since the loan system was introduced and I am glad for you that had the courage to quit based on your life experiences. At 18, I was too traumatised by illness and bereavement to be adult enough to quit (as returning home seemed like my only alternative) but I did manage to grow up a bit as I did a course that I wasn’t particularly successful on. So for me learning from under-performance was a good life lesson and I regained my confidence in a job I did well as a graduate. For some graduates in recent years, it’s difficult to take a different route as jobs that aren’t on the ‘high-flyer’ tracks rarely command a living wage or even a proper contract. If I felt trapped then, how trapped do twenty-somethings on a zero hours contract with few rights feel? You are right – this really does matter.

    • Kate Bowles

      Also, WordPress just sent me a nudge to this older post from 2013:

      So one way and another, this isn’t a new worry. But the question now stuck to my shoe is whether the situation is changing, either for people who work in higher education, or for students? It’s like environmental change: signs are subtle, slow, deniable, and then if we’re not careful, they’re suddenly irreversible.

  • One of the paradoxes here, for me, is that on the one hand, writing in my blog is something I can do on my own terms away from my employer’s control, permission, assessment. On the other hand, writing on my blog is an essential dimension of who I am and what I do and my academic identity dammit and I feel like I need it to be recognized, that I am something *more* because I do this… But it’s a more that doesn’t fit those assessment boxes. Nor do I want to fit the boxes. But then where do you go? Where does/should affective labor go, so that we can keep nurturing our souls without selling it?

  • Kate Bowles

    Maha, I’ve just shared this article on Twitter (and I’m sure you’ve seen it a few times already) and its conclusions are really discouraging:

    Essentially, the author of this study found that academics didn’t expect to be valued for writing on their own platforms. I think we have to sit with this reality, and understand how best to engage with it. Like so many other issues that you have confronted with practical responses (exclusion from conferences etc leading to VConnecting) this one asks us all to maintain clearsighted navigation towards change. The current situation is just hopeless.

    Here’s a long quote:

    “We also asked the academics in our study about their use of digital technologies, including whether they engaged in any forms of online writing by, for example, contributing to blogs, tweeting or other emerging means of digital scholarship. Some refrained from these new forms of writing on the grounds that they were perceived to be trivial or self-aggrandizing. Others expressed interest and enthusiasm but nevertheless did not devote much, if any, time to these digital platforms. Their comments about lack of time were often qualified by reference to the belief that such writing did not count or was not valued, as seen in the comment below:

    ‘A lot of the work is grey literature where people have written blog pieces. I think that’s opened my eyes to what’s possible in that area but yes, if there’s time – I think it’s always a question of time. Again, that work is not valued by the university as far as I can see.’ (Professor in Mathematics)

    Non-traditional genres of academic writing were not perceived to meet the criteria departments have in mind when they stipulate that, for career progression, an academic needs a track record of ‘good publications’. Understanding of what counts as writing worth doing does not stretch to emerging online genres, despite the increased attention paid by universities to public engagement and dissemination of research findings to a wider, non-academic audience.”

  • Giverny Witheridge

    I’m just popping in here to say that the idea of writing as being a gift to the self has really stuck with me. Reading this post has made me realise how much of my time as a student has been spent writing for others – for teachers, examiners, the imagined future employer. I feel that I’m only just beginning to understand what it means to write for myself. Looking back to when I was first introduced to blogging as a first-year student, I wish that there was less emphasis placed on our blogs as spaces for curating a professional identity and for writing up assessments that fit those “little boxes”, and more on our blogs as spaces to write about the things that matter to us; to communicate with real audiences; to give pause for thought and distraction; to make sense of the world and what we might have to give. From a student’s perspective, there’s something really appealing (and freeing) about thinking of blogging in this way. Blogging really is about re-learning how to write.


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