Monthly Archives: June 2013

Breathing life back into a fragile bird

Recently I wrote a post about being an editorial intern and about the process of reviewing papers and the ways I tried to give care and attention to the papery birds people sent to me to read. More recently, one of my own papery birds came back to me after having been on its maiden flight. It sailed back into my email inbox, rejected, battered and bruised around the edges. As I opened the email and scanned through the reviewers comments, my eyes, like a vulture, picked put key words and criticisms, where it seemed feathers had been ripped from the bird and all that remained were bare patches of fragile, sensitive flesh. I looked at my papery bird and thought it was too bruised, too injured, and not capable of flight. Letting it rest seemed like the best option. 

I put it away and I haven’t looked at it since. 

I’m writing this on a plane, high up in the clouds as I wind my way from one continent to another. A song lyric pops onto my head, ‘I’ve got nothing but time on my hands, do you want to hang around with me?’ Trapped in this iron bird, I’m thinking of my paper, I’ve got nothing but time on my hands to unpick the edges of my story and see where it was that my bird failed in its flight. Like Icarus was I too ambitious with this paper, did I try to make it soar too close to the sun without enough of a framework to fall back on. Is this what happened? 

As I sit here, noise cancelling headphones drowning out the sounds of life around me, I’m left to my thoughts and to the bruising my ego feels at having my paper rejected. I think I’d had an easy run with some of my publications, a co-authored paper was accepted by an international journal within a day and in print within three months, and then a book chapter appeared in print without any major drama. ‘It won’t always be like this’, I told myself. Rationally, logically I knew that I was due for a flat out rejection, that this golden run had to end. The odds were not likely to continue in my favour, the law of averages suggested that soon as an early career researcher I would encounter a hurdle. Despite this reasoned argument I was telling myself, I was not prepared for the rejection. Crafting papers and sending them out for review is an intensely personal process and both my personal and professional self is tied up in the papers I produce. The blow, when it comes, therefore feels personal. Perhaps it is not the papery bird who is exposed, pale pink flesh fragile and puckered, but me instead? 

This paper was a co-authored piece, the resulting paper from a conference presentation that had drawn a huge crowd. We’d started the paper with narrative and tried to weave aspects of our story throughout, the rejection email criticised us for not following the convention of an introduction, a review of the literature, description of methodology and so on. When I first read this, I was both wounded and angry, ‘surely there is more than one way to structure a paper?’I argued. Looking back at our paper now, I don’t think it is one thing or the other. I don’t think I was brave enough to write the story of our research in its entirety and so I tried to trod some safe middle ground, weaving elements of narrative, while loosely trying to include elements of a more traditional structure. A hodge podge  of writing styles, this attempt to traverse a middle ground became a field littered with landmines. 

Thinking back on the paper now, I think we fell into the classic mistake of trying to tell too many stories, of trying to cover too much. There were lots of ideas that we examined and teased out in the conference presentation and we tried to cram all of them into the one paper, stuffing it full of ideas loosely explained, until its seams threatened to burst. I was in a hurry, conscious of the need to tick the box on my travel funding that said I’d write a paper based on the conference. Driven by the need to ‘get output’, I released ideas half-formed, ideas lurching on spindly legs.

For me, though the central point I keep coming back to is that perhaps we weren’t brave enough to write the paper we wanted to write. Sitting here I know my co-author will read this post and I wonder if she will agree with me. Perhaps I shouldn’t use we, instead I should use I. I wasn’t brave enough to write the paper that was asking to be written. The problem lies in the  ideas that are in that unwritten paper, the ideas that are in the silences that speak between the lines of the written and rejected paper, these ideas are controversial and critical and I worry about the impact of that paper on my colleagues. In my braver moments I think I’d be happy to write that paper, and in other moments when I think of my position as an ECR, I know I can’t write that paper. Yet. I fear the repercussions of the silent, unwritten paper. There is a danger it would feed a negative rhetoric and culture of derision about teacher education which is not my intent and so the paper lies unwritten still. I believe the ideas are important, but given the context of education at the moment I fear the ideas would be used in ways that are counter to their intention, and hence, I am not brave enough to write the paper I really want to write. 

What does all of this mean for the rejected paper? The reviewer’s comments are thorough and detailed, they are intended to help us shape our paper into something much stronger and tighter. Yet, I still can’t quite face them. I think I’m equivocating about the whole paper now and I don’t know if I can return to it. 

Instead I’m going to give it a bit longer to rest and I’m breathing life back into the fragile bird that is me as a writer. I’m going to walk through Hyde Park under grey London skies. I’m going to read the unread books on storytelling that are on my kindle. I’m going to present on something entirely different in Belgium and immerse myself in a sea of ideas and colleagues.  I’m going to write, every day for the next two weeks, whether on blogs or on my ipad or on napkins pilfered from my Eurostar meal tray. Maybe then, the quiet, little, fragile bird will begin to heal. 

Crossing boundaries

 

Sometimes the invisible line that separates the junior and the senior school seems impenetrable, at other times it seems fluid and malleable. Students know not to cross from one playing area to the other and teachers pass through the boundary as they move from one set of buildings to another but it’s not often that we get the chance to stray into the other’s territory and spend some time living and learning in someone else’s classroom. When I walk through the junior school yard at recess I often think that it’s like a packet full of small children exploded all over the yard. There are kids everywhere, playing games, running, laughing, throwing balls, talking fervently and passionately about all sorts of things. When I go into the senior school, the students seem more relaxed, sitting back on the grass, leisurely, talking and there seems less intensity in their interactions.  I wonder if this is a good thing and I wonder where the passion and fervour of primary school has gone?

I wrote a while ago about a cross age tutoring experiment I was planning with my Year 7 students and a Grade 1 class (Bonjour and Bienvenue) and last week I was finally able to make the timetable collide in my favour to take my Year 7s down to my friend Ros’ classroom. Ros and I worked together in a rural secondary school when I was in my first year out and despite moving in different directions, ended up at a different school together again. A couple of years ago Ros retrained as a primary teacher and now she has crossed that invisible line from secondary to primary teacher and has her own class full of excited, enthusiastic Grade 1s. My Year 7s had made little picture storybooks, with basic French vocabulary in them, things like bonjour, salut, ca va, je’mappelle. Some of the storybooks looked ‘prettier’ than others, some had elaborate illustrations and English and French translations, while others were like tiny flip books with stick figures and speech bubbles on jaunty angles. In the classroom we paired up 2 Year 7s with 2 Grade 1s and watched as the Year 7s read the books and talked about what the language meant. Ros and I smiled at seeing our kids together in this way, and we smiled at once again being able to be together in a classroom – we’d been together in a classroom many times, but this was a new way of being together in a classroom for both of us.

Each of us were interested most of all in the sharing and talking that might occur between the students and we were pleased to see some students slipping easily into conversation with someone they had just met. The Grade 1s were excited to have visitors in their room and the Year 7s were talking about their own memories of primary school. Some conversations were stilted, with others ran over with enthusiasm. We joined all the students together and Ros and I began to ask the Grade 1s what they had discovered. A sea of hands burst into the air as they shared the vocabulary they had found out, telling us the French word and what it meant in English. Like sponges, they were soaking up the new words that the Year 7s had shown them. We left some of our books in the reading stand for the Grade 1s and Ros and I hatched plans to make this happen more often. While it’s not revolutionary, it’s something we have to fight to make time for, to bend and reshape the boundary that exists between our classrooms and to create classroom experiences that bring our students together.

The art and science of small talk

 I hate parties. Ok, generally I hate all sorts of social or work related social gatherings with large groups of people. There, I’ve said it out loud and possibly proudly. I don’t say it much as when I say it people look at me as if there is something fundamentally flawed with me for not liking these kinds of things. Although the questions are not verbalised you can read them all over peoples faces,  “What’s not to like?” “What kind of person doesn’t like chatting, drinking, eating with others?” “What kind of person doesn’t want to meet new and interesting people?”

 Well, that kind of person would be me. Don’t get me wrong I don’t mind meeting new and interesting people, but I don’t like social gatherings that require me to stand around and make polite chit-chat. I don’t like the posturing, the inane conversations about things that don’t matter, the fake laughter, the faux introductions and connections. Small talk. I LOATHE small talk. In gatherings where small talk occurs I am so uncomfortable that you can see it leeching out of my skin.

 I am bewildered by small talk. So bewildered am I by it, that I googled it. I’m wondering what the art and the science of small talk is. Going to the source of all relevant, pertinent and rigorous information, I went to Wikipedia and this is what I discovered:

 Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_talk)

 Suddenly, all is clear. This is why I loathe small talk. It does not cover ‘any transactions that need to be addressed’, it ‘does not cover any functional topics’, and hence, I don’t care enough about it to engage it. In social gatherings I want to rip all the semblance of polite chit chat away and just get to the heart of what matters. That is why I found myself last night at a book launch asking (interrogating?) my principal about what lay at the very heart of his decision to take on the role and what sustains him in it. While other people no doubt had polite, fleeting, small talk moments, I was towards the back of the room trying to dig through the façade of small talk to something that is meaningful and something that is real. It was a great conversation. I learnt a lot about a man who has been part of my working life in one way or another for the past 11 years.  Then I moved onto my Vice-Chancellor, following up on the same question I asked him earlier that day, a question he said he doesn’t get asked a lot – a question about what is it that has been at the core of what drives him.

 Maybe you’re starting to understand what doesn’t match with me and small talk. Small talk at parties doesn’t normally involve asking VC’s or Principal’s what are the core values that sustain them in their work and get them out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t ask them to think about what led them to this point, what series of fortunate accidents, or what serendipity, combined with motivation and ambition, got them to where they are. I don’t care and don’t want to know about the weather, or your travel plans, or the latest film you saw. I care and want to know about what matters to you, what drives you forward, what led you down one path and not another.

 Being bad at small talk is probably a career flaw for an academic. There are lots of conference dinners, social gatherings, launches, events, lots of opportunities for small talk. Everyone tells me this is where the connections are made, this is where building blocks for collaborations, grants, research groups emerge. I’m always intrigued by this, intrigued by the fact that deeply reflective people find themselves in situations and interactions that barely scratch the surface. Maybe I need to take a remedial course in small talk, surely there is some “Dummies guide for small talk” out there on the internet, surely I could learn some stock standard phrases and questions. Even typing that though makes me want to rip off my own face.

 So, how about it? How about we just skip the small talk? Let’s get right to the story. You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.

That sounds like a much better plan.