Tag Archives: academic life

How far can I go before I am lost?

I’m a mess of contradictions and contrast.
The greatest of them are these:
I grew up at the beach and yet I cannot swim.
I love boats and yet I am terrified of the water.
At night I dream of gliding through still seas and yet upon the break of day, I struggle to submerge my head.

Growing up at the beach and being unable to swim (and there are lots of reasons why I never learnt, but this is not a tale about them) meant that I was always jealous of those who could race from the shore and hurl themselves into the churn of the ocean without battering an eyelid. On torturously hot days though, I’d stand on the water’s edge, calculating my risk. How far might I wander out before I would be lost?

As I get ready to begin another year as an academic, part of me is standing here on the shore, wondering the same thing.

This summer I began to face my fears and learn to swim.
This is not a tale about that either.
But, when learning to swim, I’ve had to learn a few things. If I want to float, I have to relax. Each time I tense my body, I begin to sink like a stone. It’s only when I lay back and relax, eyes open that I can begin to take in my surroundings and to enjoy the feeling of floating, a world of blue above and below me, and me, weightless, suspended between the two.

If I want to move forward, I have to relax. If I’m all froth and bubble, arms and legs flailing wildly, I make no progress, it’s only when I breathe, when I think about the relationship between my arms, my legs and the stroke that I can begin to find the power to glide me smoothly and almost effortlessly through the water. Anything else is sound, fury, but it does indeed signify nothing.

So how can my swimming lessons inform my academic life this year?

I’m standing here on the shore and around me, people are racing to the edge and plunging in, I’ve been reading blogs where people write about the way they’re going to tackle 2015, the writing they will do and the lessons they learned in 2014. Some of them write about the need to find balance and yet to me, they still seem like the carefree adolescents I was jealous of at the beach. They are brash, confident, sure footed enough to believe that the ocean of academia won’t throw them up and under. Me? I’m not so sure. Much like the sea, I love academic life, but also, like the sea, I’m wary of it. If I turn my back, will it wash over me to the point where I’m frantically trying to swim against the tide?

And so, I stand on the shore and wonder, how far I can go into academia before I am lost?


Doing the right thing even when it’s wrong

So I found out that someone had asked a mutual friend if I ‘done the right thing?’ in dropping my academic load to 0.5 and taking on a 0.5 load in a school. Something about the question bugged me and so I’ve been thinking about it this afternoon. I wanted to work out exactly what it was that was irritating me, I needed to scratch the itch that the question had caused in the back corners of my brain.

After a bit of thought I think I’ve come up with the solution – the reason I’m irritated is that the question implies that there is a guidebook somewhere that gives us the rules on what are the right and wrong moves to make career wise, and as someone who hates the feeling of being trapped in a box, I don’t like this. I’m not convinced that what I’ve done is the right thing (especially not on the days when work is falling down on me from all directions), but all I know is that I am doing the right thing for me at this moment, even if that right thing may turn out to be wrong. Is it a mistake? Who knows, but if it is, then it is my mistake to make and my mistake to learn from.

It might sound ridiculous, but sometimes doing the wrong thing can be so right in so many ways.

I know that dropping a permanent ongoing academic position to 0.5 to teach 0.5 in a school might not be the conventional academic path. I know that a 0.5 job in academia is not really a 0.5 job (my research doesn’t stop just because I’ve worked half a week already, papers from my editorial internship don’t stop needing to be reviewed and my writing doesn’t stop).  Similarly, I know that a 0.5 job in a school isn’t 0.5 either. There are parents that need to be called no matter what day it is, there are classes to be planned, marking to be done, projects to be organized, and all these things creep out to fill up every waking working moment. Some days I look at my ‘to-do’ list and the very sight of it makes me want to crawl back into bed and hide under the doona.

Still if I had not decided to do this I would be sitting in my office at uni wondering if my place was there or at school. Now I have a better sense of what my place is (and I’m not telling you the final verdict yet…no spoilers). I get the chance to move between two worlds that I love and in doing so I see things anew.

Returning to school I am reminded of the relentless nature of teaching. Everything is rushed and there is never enough time to do the things that I would like to. More than ever I feel the pressure of implementing a curriculum that has been stripped and pared back to a series of parts, a sequence of identified skills that are decontextualized and which are then tested, categorized and filed away. I have ideas for projects that will enable students to link between big ideas and to represent their knowledge and understanding in creative ways, and I feel trapped by teaching schedules that confine thought and pedagogy to a pre-determined list of tasks to be ticked off and completed. I see parents of year seven students asking for an indication of where their child sits in the class ranking and I wonder when this became the key focus of educational endeavor.  When did ranking become more important than the child’s ability to form relationships, develop independent thought and develop their understanding of who they are in relation to the world?

Some days I wonder if I have changed too much to fit into the world of school teaching. There are things that once I would have accepted that I now cannot. I cannot stay silent. I question, I critique, I challenge, I wonder. I cannot stop myself, and nor do I want to. These things have become a fundamental part of me and I wonder why it is that on some days I work in an education institution and I feel that it would be easier to not think. Thinking makes things more difficult, it makes it harder to fit in with colleagues, with leadership and with the system more broadly.

I wonder if the teacher who asked if I have done the right thing asked this question because as teachers we can so often be forced into taking the paths that are safe, that are traditional, that are expected. In some schools we are advised not to challenge, to quell our voices, to adopt without question. In taking this path I am doing the unexpected. I don’t see it as particularly revolutionary and yet it is not the norm. It is not the safe, expected, required path. Some university colleagues say they ‘couldn’t go back’ and the words themselves imply regression. I have begun to use the word return, as it is indeed a re-turning. While the simplest definition of returning is indeed to go back, if we explore the implications of the term more deeply we can consider it as a coming and a going, a reoccurrence, a conduit for moving something again to the starting point. In turning again to my life as a teacher in school, I have returned to the starting point of my journey.

In school I find the focus of my research is sharpened. I am returning to concepts that emerged in my doctoral work about the ways in which teachers’ working lives are mediated by micro and macro social/political/cultural forces. I am returning to my questions about the ways in which teachers navigate their working world when the space for intellectual and pedagogical freedoms seems to be shrinking. I find myself questioning how it is that teachers find a sense of agency in this world, how they align their personal and professional values in a culture that is driven by standards for accountability.

I am reminded more than ever of the importance of the relational in teaching. The work we do with students in schools is fundamentally what drives me back to school and the connections I form with students as we undertake a journey of learning together is one of the things that is sustaining my professional practice as a teacher. My year 7 French class has been one of the highlights of my return to the classroom, a room filled with 28 students who are bursting out of their skins to learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of interacting and of being in the world. In teaching French I feel more freedom to experiment, to use creative pedagogies and to play with the system. There is no NAPLAN for my French teaching and so I feel less bound by the constraints of the schedule.

Have I done the right thing? Well it depends on what we consider right to be. I am finding what I am doing hard, it is tiring, it is challenging and yet, already, it has been rewarding. I move between teaching adults to teaching adolescents and in each of these spaces I interact differently as a teacher. I speak, move, relate and think differently. I am learning more about myself as a practitioner, as a researcher, as a thinker and a writer than I had imagined I might. I’m intrigued as I watch my year unfold into and onto itself and I wonder where the re-turning will lead me.

Whose reality?

Today I was walking through the staffroom at school when a colleague I don’t see much said ‘So what’s it like being back in reality?’ It wasn’t said with malice, or sarcasm, it was meant to be a conversation starter about how I was finding life in the classroom. 

Nonetheless – in the comment lies the gap. The us and them. The ‘real’ world of school teaching and the world of academia. I haven’t really felt the gap too much since I’ve been back at school, most people are interested in the fact that I’m working in both contexts, but no-one had outwardly suggested that one world is more ‘real’ than another. 

The statement though speaks volumes to me of the problems that still exist in education – and at a time dominated by neo-liberalism teachers in schools and teacher educators need to work together to articulate a vision for education that recognises the valuable work that we do. We need to work together to prepare pre-service teachers for their future careers in education contexts and we need to think about the things that unite us, rather than the things that divide us. The us and them construction isn’t helpful – it doesn’t move us any further in our understandings and it only detracts from the bigger issues about how we might speak back to agendas that limit our work to a set of standardised numbers. 

Perhaps it’s symptomatic of the fact that is difficult to understand another’s working life until you have lived it and walked in their shoes. Only yesterday a family member asked if I’d gone back to work yet (um, yes – on the 4th of Jan actually), showing surprise that I would be there as uni students were on holiday. The idea that one world of work is more ‘real’ than another might suggest a lack of understanding about the work of teacher educators and academics – and as anyone who works in academia knows, the pressures and tensions of academic life and teaching are many and varied. The interactions, problems and challenges of teaching at uni, while different, are as real as the interactions, problems and challenges of teaching at school.  Sure I’d forgotten about some of the pressures of school life (and I’m quickly remembering what they’re like), but until I began working full-time in academia I didn’t truly appreciate the pressures that academic life presents. 

When I was a year 12 English teacher I taught the context ‘Whose reality?’ as part of the Creating and Presenting unit – I’m hoping that we might be able to understand better each other’s realities and work to create an education system that brings the knowledge and expertise of teachers and teacher educators together. 

Everyday learning – a shout out to colleagues who inspire me to think

My dad’s a big fan of saying, ‘Well, you learn something new every day’. I never paid much attention to it, but I think that dad is right about it and that this is a message that has soaked into my pores over my lifetime. Today I did some learning and I did some thinking. It’s not always comfortable and it’s not always easy, but it got me musing on the nature of learning and on the colleagues who inspire me to learn more. 

It began with an email from Amanda – I’m mentioning her by name, because all day I’ve been thinking about how much I love working with her – and today I sent her an email to tell her this. I really like the way Amanda looks at the world and at her practice as a teacher educator and academic. She wants to know more about learning and teaching and this is never in simplistic and easy ways. Today she’d sent out some feedback from our GDE (Sec) students from last year – there was lots in this feedback to learn from, with students commenting about what they found positive in their experiences of our courses and what they would have liked to have seen improved, or areas that could have been approached differently. Amanda and I exchanged some emails about the feedback and I was telling her that I was excited about the opportunity the feedback presented to learn something new about my practice. Despite my excitement, there is always a moment of trepidation, something I shared with her in my email today:  

I think there’s always a moment where I think ‘oh god, please don’t let it be horrendous’ but that’s because so much of our professional work as teachers is linked to our personal views of ourselves and our emotions as well – but in a supportive environment these kinds of things can be seen as ways of opening up discussions for learning. I looked at the feedback and thought ‘right, what can I do in my teaching to address these comments? what’s the gap between what I was aiming to do and what might not have worked with the students?” – and I had a couple of lessons with them last year where I wasn’t happy with the way things went so I went in and talked about that the following week – to try and model that idea that we learn through reflection and critiquing what we do. This has been really hard for me to get to as a teacher though – I was always so hung up on being a ‘good’ teacher (I’ve always been ‘good’ at things – what if I’m suddenly not?! shock horror) that I was scared to look at what might not be good – worried that if I opened pandora’s box, who knew what I might find out? That’s so limiting though and so at both uni and school I’ve had to challenge myself as a teacher (and a person!) to make myself vulnerable to learning (and I choose those words deliberately as at the beginning it was a lot more about being vulnerable to learning, rather than open to learning). 

Another colleague, Robyn, introduced me to a quote that reverberates in my brain constantly. It’s from Schute, and I must dig out the actual reference details, but it says ‘One needs to stand in one’s vulnerability in order for it to become a strength’. I LOVE this concept. As a teacher and a teacher educator, it represents everything that is possible, challenging and worthwhile doing in our work. Learning involves risk, it involves being courageous enough to say that there are ways we can do things better, that we all still have so much to learn. 

Today I send a shout out to three of my colleagues, three people who inspire me to learn more about who I am as a teacher  – Amanda, Robyn and Maryann. I feel lucky to work with teacher educators who question the ways things are done, who seek to find ways to do things differently, who challenge me, question me, make me think and inspire me to keep learning. In working with them, I become a triptych learner – vulnerable, engaged and eager all at once.

So, who inspires you to learn and think more? 


Is there a Dr in the house?

So I started thinking about titles yesterday after seeing on twitter that @snarkyphd was asked for proof at the bank to change her title. It made me think about my own switch to ‘Dr’ at the bank and it also reminded me of Pat Thomson’s blog piece on titles – if you haven’t read it check it out here http://patthomson.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/travel-diary-titles-do-they-matter/

Before I finished my PhD I couldn’t wait to be called Dr – I thought it was going to be great and pictured myself using it everywhere, all the time. I had visions of it on my credit card and using it to test drive cars I couldn’t afford (huh? did someone else take over my brain briefly – when would I ever really aspire to this as a life goal? this is just further proof that doing a PhD can sometimes result in manifestations of odd behaviour).

As soon as I graduated though and was officially part of the Dr club – it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I ventured off to the bank though and said I wanted to change my title (that car thing must have still been lurking in the deep recesses of my brain) and they replied ‘Yep, what would you like to change it to?’ I told them, they tapped a few keys, made the change and off I went. I couldn’t quite believe that it was that easy – surely after all that work to get a PhD people should actually want some form of documentary evidence that I am in fact a Dr, rather than me just bowling in off the street and telling them. If it’s this easy – why don’t people do this all the time I wondered? (And for a crazy, fleeting moment I thought ‘You mean I could have had Dr on my credit card all this time without even doing a PhD? see point above – even more proof about the irrationality of the PhD brain at work).

Once I officially became Dr I didn’t want to use it in conversation- it was like it had lost the glittery glow it had when I was only aspiring to get there. Or maybe it was due to the fact that once I got the title, I got a full-time job at uni as well and was surrounded in a corridor by other people with it and so it didn’t seem special, it just seemed normal. Meanwhile my family went crazy with it, every letter was  addressed to Dr. Sharon and there was pride bursting out of my folks’ pores.

This year I returned to school to teach part-time and a number of people asked me if I was going to get the students to call me Dr. The answer has always been a resounding no – in the school environment I can’t think of anything worse than being called Dr- I would just feel like such a, well, wanker, really asking a bunch of year 7s to call me Dr. They don’t know what it means or why I would be called that (I picture questions like ‘Miss, I feel sick’- sorry kid I can’t help you) and I also don’t want my school teacher colleagues to think that I’m prancing back in as the university ‘Dr’.  Students will often call all teachers ‘Miss’ as a form of address and so I figured I could live with that – and in French class the students can call me ‘Madame’ so it’s no big deal there. I was embarrassed at the opening assembly when the principal introduced returning staff and when reading the list where I was listed as Ms, changed it midway to Dr. When other teachers call me Dr in the yard, I get embarrassed as well and say there’s no need for that title in this place. But why? There’s probably some interesting unpacking to be done here about cultures of derision and why it might be that I’m happy to be called Dr in the corridors of the uni but not in the corridors of the school.

On all official paperwork I am Dr though, so my students will get reports from me listed as Dr – maybe this will be odd to them and to their parents, but when it comes to written titles I have a whole different perspective (and yes I realise the absurdity of this). I loathe the titles Ms, Miss and Mrs- I hate the way our marital status can be gleaned from our title and so when it comes to written things I always use Dr. It’s my title, I earned it and it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m married, single, in a relationship with my tv and a box of chocolate, or whatever. Flight and accommodation bookings, all these types of things are done as Dr, and I often get irate when I’ve only used my initial, turn up somewhere with my husband and he is referred to as Dr – is it 1950 still?

So the use of titles is an interesting issue I think – when, where, how and why we use the title we’ve worked hard to get. As I write this piece, I’m more interested in when I don’t use it and what that says about me and my view of the world …

Finding your voice

An impromptu meeting with my PhD student in the corridor got me thinking about the concept of how we find our voice in academic writing. He’d been having some difficulty writing the methodology chapter of his thesis – he knows what he wants to say but is finding it hard to get the words down in a form, structure and style that he likes. I started thinking about finding our writing voice when he said “I’ve just been reading and re-reading your methodology section as I really like it – I want to be able to do it like that”. We had a chat about this concept and in supervisor mode (that’s an interesting comment – I have a mode for this?), I talked about the need for him to find his authorial voice, saying that while we can admire the writing style of others, we can’t force ourselves to write in a style that doesn’t fit who we are as becoming academic writers. We don’t want to be a tracer, we want to be a creator. 

In a meeting with Maryann later that day the idea of voice emerged again. I was telling Maryann that in our joint paper I could hear her voice as I read – and this was not a bad thing. Her writing voice is thoughtful, honest, warm, engaging and it takes me on a journey each time I read it. I thought my voice clashed with hers. In the paper we were working on my voice seemed clipped and stilted and I felt like I was trying to jam my writing into a nice conventional structure that didn’t quite work. Maryann said she could hear my doctoral supervisor in my writing, and I began talking about the doctoral thesis hangover. 

I think the doctoral thesis hangover comes from the need to support everything I said in my thesis so strongly with what other people had written and researched – now when I write I’m still breaking free from the shackle that screams “ASSERTION” in bold capitals as I write. I remember when I was writing my thesis I kept questioning “When do I get to say something new, something that’s mine?” Now that my thesis is behind me, I’m still building that confidence to say something that’s mine without referencing it to someone else, someone older, wiser, more experienced, more published. 

Last night, I lay in bed thinking about this idea – it bloomed and throbbed, creeping out and filling up the spaces in the dark. I woke up needing the academic equivalent of a bloody mary or an academic hair of the dog – what might it be? I opened a file that contained some half-written papers and I started to read. In them I could hear my voice, the voice that I was struggling to keep quiet while writing my thesis, it was gaining more volume in these half-written, unfinished drafts. So now, I’m sitting at my computer, a cup of tea lays quietly beside me and I’m going to spend the morning singing my song of words. 

What about you? How do you find your voice?Image

Next stop on the writing road trip.

Today I stopped in at the academic equivalent of a roadside cafe – I lay on the floor of my office and stared up at the ceiling. I was hoping for inspiration, for the genesis of an idea that would help move our paper forward. Maryann, my co-writer sat at the table in my office with her computer and a copy of our paper in hand. Feet up I may have been hoping that the force of blood rushing to my head would help with the process although I’m not convinced it did.

Nevertheless, we got there in the end  – well if not there, we got somewhere. Another point on the writing journey, moving from the town of Dead End, population 2 (well I’m sure there are more than just 2 of us there at any given time), to the town of Rewrite where the population is transient, stopping in and then moving on.

The time to pause and think is a central part of the process and today I was lucky enough to have a couple of hours where we could do this. While my to-do list seems to be growing ever longer rather than shorter, for a while I was able to suspend this (and using this makes me think of Bruce Dawe and his beautiful poem Katrina and that line of being “suspended between earth and sky”, but I digress) and just focus on the task before me. Two hours later and I had nothing written down but I had a road map in my head.

Maybe I’ll see you in the town of Rewrite?