Writing about creative survival in higher education

Month: October 2021

E-books and ballots

This week we launched a creative commons multimedia e-textbook, Fundamentals of Music Theory. This came about as the result of a pilot Open Educational Resource project, and – funded by a Student Experience Grant – we paid three Music student interns to work on the transfer of a range of existing digital materials into this new source, providing some valuable work experience.  (The valuable part came from the tutelage of the OER team, with their experience in collaborative project working and their handling and direction of the interns.  It was also valuable for me to watch how they did this, and to see our students operating in a different context, away from lectures and tutorials.)

Overall it was a very positive experience, though the timing of the project meant that it took place across perhaps the most stressful and intense period of working I have known. Early discussions and then application coincided with the end of a period of industrial action/the onset of the pandemic. The recruitment phase took place in lockdown Semester 1, 2020. The active, funded portion ran from January to June 2021 while we struggled on to the end of the locked-down academic year.

The chance to develop freely available, open educational resources is precious to me, and a key reason for this is because OER can stand in as an attitude of welcome, of hospitality.  Meanwhile in my daily working life, I’m finding fewer and fewer opportunities to perform the deliberate gestures which create space to give and receive (Would you like a cup of tea?  Let’s eat together. Come sit down, let’s talk!).  As an educator, I sorely miss these chances to rehearse and to model authentic dialogue.

I’d like to believe that academic communities’ primary work is to share what they know and to keep learning more. But I feel deeply concerned that the many forces which are currently squeezing and shaping my daily working life are causing damage to this fundamental professional (vocational?) commitment. I don’t believe that the pandemic is the main issue here.

The example of PhD viva voce examinations: an extended, rigorous, intellectually and creatively gruelling dialogue between scrutinizers and defender, the culmination of a minimum three years independent work by the candidate.  The process has thankfully been modernized (and shortened) compared to the most antiquated version of this rite of passage. But still: pre-meeting, examination, and feedback session all in cannot take less than 3 hours, usually longer.  The standard hospitality for this event now?  No tea or coffee. No biscuits.  Forget sandwiches!

OK, so with advance planning and subsequent reimbursement, I can still – as internal examiner, or chair – make these offerings happen. But alongside the practical and mental preparation for the intellectual work involved in this essential award-determining business, more often than not I find that the dance of form-filling and justification is out of reach. (I’m far more likely to run out and buy some biscuits to share, just before the meetings begin. A whole expense claim process for a packet of custard creams?)

It’s revealing that locked-down, virtual Zoom vivas have felt like a relief because of the way that they remove what has become burdensome hospitality. But I don’t want to lose these skills and opportunities!

The PhD viva is a specific example, but it’s indicative and it flags up wider issues – including debilitating busyworkload – which damage the opportunities for good quality talking and listening that are essential for good quality scholarship and education. But good conversation requires both time and opportunity. If you need to book a room ahead and factor in transit time for that chat, it’s far less likely to happen. Worse still, when booking and reporting processes are required to execute the most essential daily transactions, the effect is that we are in constant competition for funds, for time, for space with our own colleagues.

UCU is balloting.  I’m devastated at the thought of more strikes, distressed students, pay loss. My pension is slashed, my income shrinks further in real terms, this affects my personal life and my family’s lives. I care a great deal about my professional capacity to offer hospitality and create space for meaningful dialogue. I am grateful that my institution has put such resource behind OER – including committed, skillful individuals. But while strike action withholds in the short term, I don’t see any better option to fight to preserve the value of open, accessible, meaningful dialogue and knowledge creation.

Invitation To Play

There is A Thing that early childhood educators know about, called an Invitation To Play.

If you don’t already know what that is, I wonder what you’re imagining. An enticingly heavy, embossed card through the letterbox? A verbose request in swirling calligraphy? A formal – perhaps awkward – conversation? Or a request to attend, from an eyebrow-wide, open, smiling face?

Actually, an invitation to play involves no words, either spoken or written. (Or typed, or embossed.) It is a scene. A site for invention and exploration. It is the setting-up of objects and materials, the curation of another person’s future actions – a creation of desire!

I discovered Invitation To Play before I knew its name, watching my young son’s behaviour – at ease in his home, primed for a day at nursery, out and about in brand new places. In thrall to his mind and infant curiosity, I was accustomed to exploring his reactions to objects both familiar and exotic. I noticed that his activities expressed different rhythms of repetition and renewal. I suppose that when watching with love, we always do witness the direction of attention in those we adore: I found that I could learn more about his mind by interacting, myself, in his world. Stepping with care into play.

In his absence I would take huge pleasure in visiting the play areas of his home (our home), and setting up a new object – a book, or three bendy pipe cleaners, or a wooden spoon alongside a tin pot. Laying them out, just so: calibrating my knowledge of his mind and the possibilities inherent in those objects.

This is the Invitation To Play.

There is nothing more rewarding and affirming than standing silently aside and watching the invitation work its magic.

So much of HE teaching is lecturing. So much lecturing is telling. Telling is no fun! Discovery is better.

Facing out, tuning up

I’m sitting in my kitchen, looking into fine, drizzling rain tickling the leaves of the elder which has grown too tall for itself, leggy and bending outside my window. The air around me feels spacious and cool. It’s occupied by the logical tranquility of the piano tuner’s key strikes. I’m gazing without seeing, hearing without listening.

The cat stands, stretches, and wanders across the room, disturbing the bell on his collar. It blends with the piano’s harmonics which are moving in and out of focus, trickling into the kitchen from the hallway on the other side of the door. No words. This space is peaceful.

In this moment, demands on my attention and time are quelled. I am alone but far from lonely. My ears keep me in company with the piano tuner’s progress, his temporal journey from low to high. Without thought, I’m in step with his decisions, which are evident in the vibrations and resonance that say, “Work done. This one is ready now, time to move on”.

Like everyone, I’m living in daily anxiety through inevitable, unknowable change. Like every parent, I fear the future of austerity and global damage. The insecurity can be overwhelming – what to do for the best? How much is ever enough? But I can escape for another few minutes into this step-wise sonic space of action, clarity and order.

Imagine if… our University teaching and interactions were to create this same feeling for students to sit with, for an hour or two? Where we can acknowledge the disorder and complexity of our precarious life and times, but yet enjoy moments of clarity in successive decisions that we reach – for ourselves – through absorption and creation. Agreeing that this will do, that this is well enough in time, in tune, ok for now – each single small decision accepting something beyond ourselves.  Idealistic?  Pretty sure this is how it should be.

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