Winding up 2012: Dear Students…

Dear Students,

After this week I will not see many of you until February of next year and, some of you, I may not see again because you’ll go on to do other things. This is the time of the year when I reflect upon what I have achieved in terms of contributing to the knowledge and skills of my students and how I can do it better. I have to start from the presumption that I can always improve upon what have I done but, even without that, accepting that every year will bring a different group, with different needs, forces me to think about the core of my teaching – as opposed to what actually came out in the teaching activities. What I always want to achieve is to help you develop yourselves. I can’t change you but I can help you change. If you know more, understand more or can do more at the end of the year, then I’m happy. If you go on to help other people, then I’m ecstatic!

Many people throughout your lives will tell you big, shiny success stories and expect you to take a certain path because there’s a big brass ring at the end. I have walked that path and have known success but, if we are being honest, success is not the same as happiness. Throughout the year we have discussed many things, scholarly and secular, but we have rarely had the time or the opportunity to talk about some of the most important things in life: the reasons why we do things and, ultimately, how it will make us feel. But you shouldn’t be listening to me because of who I am or how you think of me, I’m just another voice from our species and I have one of the many opinions. My friends will (I hope) tell you that I am mostly a good man, with some occasional moments of selfishness and stupidity. You should realise that almost everyone is like this. It would be impossible for us to live as we do, where we do, were this not so. The majority of people are good, most of the time, with occasional moments of stupidity. What that means, of course, is that we have a terrific amount of force to act against those who are always stupid or unpleasant – the silent majority is powerful.

Firstly, let me tell you how much I love our magnificent, terrible and bizarre species. We are terrible and beautiful. We are capable of acts of tremendous selflessness and kindness, yet sometimes we taint it with greed, selfishness and cruelty. We are driven by so many things and, the more I read, the more it becomes apparent that who we are, as individuals, is as much about the world around us, our families and friends, our education and our overall exposure to reality, as it is about ourselves. I can think of several points in my life where the intervention of other people has held me back from a terrible and destructive course, explicit examples of changing direction, but there are so many examples that speak of casual intervention: a smile on a day when I needed one, someone holding the door, being let into traffic after waiting forever.

To try and distill this species, into the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” myths of Horatio Alger or to claim it is all emptiness and cynicism, is to sell us, and you, short. Fairy tales are conveniently small fictions, now separated from their original cautionary endings, that sell you a “happy ending” as a bill of goods, as if all you have to do is to kiss the frog, find the right name or have the right shoe size.

Nothing is that easy. If it is for you then, sadly, experience tells us that you will not really appreciate it that much. This is not a rationale for suffering but an observation of the bad behaviour that seems to come at certain levels of privilege. Be in no doubt, if you leave with a degree then you are privileged. This is not a matter of guilt or a burden, it’s just a fact. Some of you will never appreciate how lucky you were to go to University at a time of peace in a prosperous country because you do not quite realise how fortunate you were. You are no more or less entitled to be educated than the next person and it is pure accident that determines who enters school in a safe, highly educated, country, rather than trying to learn under gunfire in a cramped and broken classroom where you might be lucky to get to Year 6 before forced to go and work to keep your family alive. Some of you have made it through wars and fought your way to restart your education, surviving that and striving for more. Some of you represent minorities, first-in-family or face terrible ordeals that your peers will never quite understand. Many of you, facing no other impediment other than ignorance of a certain area, strive for more and to achieve a greater understanding. I salute all of you for your efforts, especially where you have reached out to help your peers. But why are you doing this?

We often fail to ask ourselves ‘why?’ “Why are you doing this degree?” “Why are you looking for this job?” “Why are you doing this?”

You will often be encouraged to believe that questions like “Am I happy?” or “Should I be doing this?” are somehow not appropriate questions – indicative of some sort of laziness when you should be seeking jobs and working harder, every single day. So, what are your plans? If your answer is “Get a job”, then which job are you looking for? If the answer to that is “a programming job”, then what kind of programming job? If you don’t know what you really want to do, then how will you know when you’ve found it? How can you search for something better? How will you say no to something that will make you miserable? What do you need to live and what do you need to make you happy? Can you combine them?  Many of you will have dependents and you will have to take the work that is offered, when it is offered. If you do have some freedom of movement now then I encourage you to make the best use of it so that, when people do depend upon you, you can support them with little or no resentment. Remember that rarely do the people we support ask for our help for any other reason than they need help. I always have to remember that when a student asks me a ‘silly’ question. It’s not about me – they just need my help and probably don’t yet realise what the question sounds like.

What makes you happy? Can you make it a job? Are you happy now? Do you actually want this degree? Why? Most students start University with no clear plan or understanding of why they’re doing it. Now, most students then end up finishing and having some idea of what they’re doing – and a Uni degree is a great thing to have when we teach it properly – but leaving after 3-5 years with a degree and no idea of direction means that finding something that you want to do is going to be a crap shoot. This must be tempered by the realities of your life because this is no fairytale.  You will give 5% of your time to some people and they will be so grateful in return that you will be embarrassed. You will try to give 200% to other people and they will only demand more. You will not necessarily know in advance which way this will go. Those of you have choice must remember that there are many, many more who don’t. Again, this is not about guilt but about perspective and valuing what you have, and what you can do.

I am, unashamedly, focused on actions taken for the good of us all: our community, our society and our home, which is far more than just a place for humans. I have spent time at a very low ebb over the years: depressed, deep in debt, terrible job or unemployed, living on almost no food for weeks, giving away my own books and CDs as gifts to not stand out at social gatherings, washing my clothes in the bathroom sinks at work to hide the fact that I couldn’t afford laundry powder or new clothes. I hope that none of this ever happens to you but you should be aware that this is happening, day after day, to people everywhere. Many of these people did not go to Uni, did not finish school, may not have basic literacy. How do you expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they have no boots and someone is standing on their toes (to quote Dr King).

I do not want to encourage you towards any movement, political, secular, religious or otherwise. It is none of my business what kind of “-ist” you become, if any, as long as you do so fairly, ethically and with respect and an appreciation of who you are and the people around you. I find myself constantly challenged to live up to my own beliefs and my ideals. Sometimes I do, sometimes I wish I had tried harder. That’s just how it is, for almost all of us.

My sincere wishes for a beautiful and happy future,


Thoughts on the Fauxpology

We’ve had some major unpleasantness in the Australian political sphere recently and, while I won’t bore you with the details, a radio announcer has felt it necessary to apologise for a particularly unpleasant comment that he made about the Prime Minster, and the recent death of her father. It was not, I must say, either the most heartfelt or actually apologetic apology that has ever been delivered and the Prime Minster, who quite rightly has better things to do, has chosen not to take this man’s personal phone call for an apology. And, of course, neither should she feel that she has to. Let me state this in plain terms: the offender does not gain the right to demand the way in which an apology is presented, if they wish to proffer an apology. However, let me cut to the chase (for once) and say that an apology without a genuine sense that you have done something wrong, for which an apology is deserved and that will change your behaviour in future, is worthless.

In this case, the broadcaster has previously apologised for remarks, including that the legally elected and sitting Prime Minister of Australia be put in a ‘chaff’ bag and thrown out to sea. However, his apology for the chaff bag comment may have to be scrutinised, in light of what happened at the dinner function at which he made further deliberately offensive and unsubstantiable claims.  At this event he, in between scurrilous remarks, signed a jacket made out of, you guessed it, chaff bags. Therefore, at least in the chaff bag case, it would appear that his previously apology was without conviction and possible not heartfelt: hence, worthless. He did not feel genuine regret or change his behaviour. In fact, if anything, he was now extending his behaviour and disrespect by aligning his signature with a physical representation of his statements.

When public figures mouth the words of regret, yet do not change or feel regret, we are in the territory of what has been neologised as the fauxpology. (Wikipedia refers to this as the Non-apology apology, if it has the form of an apology but does not actually express the expected contrition.) Let me give you some example words (not from said broadcaster I hasten to add):

“My recent comments may have offended some people and, if they did, then I wish to apologise.”

You are not sorry for the action, but you are sorry only because someone has taken offence, or your actions have been uncovered. Ultimately, the idea here is to say ‘sorry’ in such a way that it appears that you have sought, and may be granted, forgiveness without having to actually express responsibility. Of course, if you aren’t responsible for the problem and can move this to being the problem of the people that you’ve offended, then why should you change your behaviour at all? The example above is an “If apology”, where you are only apologising on a conditional basis. Other fine examples include such delightful phrases as “Mistakes were made” because, of course, one is studiously avoiding saying who made the mistakes.

The major problem with the fauxpology is that it is effectively a waste of time. Without a genuine desire to actually avoid the problematic behaviour, the only thing that may change is that the offender is more careful not to get caught. What bothers me from an educational sense is how pervasive these unpleasant non-apologies are.

I have too many students who feel that some sort of fauxpology, where they are sorry that an action has occurred but it is mysteriously not connected to them, is going to make things all better. I’m pretty sure that they haven’t learned it from me because I try to be honest in my apologies and then change things so that it doesn’t happen again. Am I always up to that standard? I’m probably pretty close and I strive to be better at it – but then again, I strive not to be a schmuck and sometimes that doesn’t work either. This separation of responsibility from outcome is a dangerous disconnection. It is most definitely someone’s responsibility if work didn’t get handed in on time and, while there are obvious exceptions and the spirit of charitable interpretation is still alive and well, a genuine recognition of whose responsibility it is leads one towards self-regulation far better than thinking of the work as something that is associated by accidental proximity rather than deliberate production.

I’m lucky in that I rarely expect my students to do anything where they feel they should be contrite (although there are examples, including being rude or disrespectful to their peers, although I wouldn’t push them all the way to guilt on that) but apologising for something as a recognition that whatever it was is both undesirable and now something to be avoided is essential, when you are actually at fault. But it has to be genuine or there is no point. I loathe being lied to so a false apology, especially when immediately backed up by recidivism, is a great disappointment to me.

My students are responsible for their work. I am responsible for their programs, assessment, and ensuring that they can achieve what is required in a fair and equitable environment. If I get it wrong, then I have to admit it and change behaviour. Same for the students. If something has gone wrong, then we need to work out who was responsible because we can then work out who needs to change things so it doesn’t happen again. This isn’t about ascribing punishment or blame, it’s about making things work better. The false apology, like foolish punishment, is easy but useless. As an example. I cannot think of a more useless punishment than writing lines on a blackboard, especially as the simple mechanics of this action lends itself to a deconstruction of the sentence into a form where the meaning is lost by the fifth time you’ve written “I will not challenge the ontological underpinnings of reality” but have really written “I I I I I I …” “will will wll wll wl wl” and getting steadily more squiggly. But this is useless because it is not really tied to the original offence (whatever it happens to be – talking in class, making fart sounds, shuffling the desk) and it has no teaching value at all. This punishment is the equivalent of the fauxpology in many ways: it looks like it’s doing something but not only does it not achieve its aims, it actually works against positive alternatives by providing an easy out.

I’m very disappointed by the public figures who recite these empty phrases, because the community and my students learn their empty words and think “If they can get away with it, so can I” and, ultimately, my students can’t. It’s a waste of their very valuable time and, at some stage, may lead to problems for the vast majority when someone demands more than a fauxpology and there is no real character substance to provide.

The Philosophical Angle

Socrates drank hemlock after being found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens, and impiety. Seneca submitted to the whims of Nero when the Emperor, inevitably, required that his old tutor die. Seneca’s stoicism was truly tested in this, given that he slashed his veins, took poison, jumped in a warm bath and finally had to be steamed to death before Nero’s edict that he kill himself was finally enacted. I, fortunately, expect no such demonstrations of stoic fortitude from my students but, if we are to think about their behaviour and development as self-regulating beings, then I think that a discussion of their personal philosophy becomes unavoidable. We have talked about the development state, their response to authority, their thoughts on their own thinking, but what of their philosophy?

If you are in a hurry and jump in your car, every red light between you and your destination risks becoming a personal affront, an enraging event that defies your expectation of an ‘all-green’ ride into town. There is no reason why you should expect such favours from the Universe, whatever your belief system, but the fact that this is infuriating to you remains. In the case of the unexpected traffic light, which sounds like the worst Sherlock Holmes story ever, the worst outcome is that you will be late, which may have a variety of repercussions. In preparing assignment work, however, a student may end up failing with far more dire and predictable results.

“Watson, I shall now relate the entire affair through Morse tapped pipe code and interpretative dance.”

While stoicism attracts criticism, understandably, because it doesn’t always consider the fundamentally human nature of humans, being prepared for the unforeseen is a vital part of any planning process. Self-regulation is not about drawing up a time table that allows you to fit in everything that you know about, it is about being able to handle your life and your work when things go wrong. Much as a car doesn’t need to be steered when it is going in a straight line and meeting our requirements, it is how we change direction when we know the road and when a kangaroo jumps out that are the true tests of our ability to manage our resources and ourselves.

Planning is not everything, as anyone who has read Helmuth von Moltke the Elder or von Clausewitz will know: “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. In this case, however, the enemy is not just those events that seek to confound us, it can be us as well! You can have the best plan in the world that relies upon you starting on Day X, and yet you don’t. You may have excellent reasons for this but, the fact remains, you have now introduced problems into your own process. You have met the enemy and it is you. This illustrates the critical importance of ensuring that we have an accurate assessment of our own philosophies – and we do have to be very honest.

There is no point in a student building an elaborate time management plan that relies upon them changing the habits of a lifetime in a week. But this puts the onus upon us as well: there is no point in us fabricating a set of expectations that a student cannot meet because they do not yet have a mature philosophy for understanding what is required. We don’t give up (of course!) but we must now think about how we can scaffold and encourage such change in a manageable way. I find reflection very handy, as I’ve said before, as watching students write things like “I planned for this but then I didn’t do it! WHY?” allows me to step in and discuss this at the point that the student realises that they have a problem.

I am not saying that a student who has a philosophy of “Maybe one day I will pass by accident” should be encouraged to maintain such lassitude, but we must be honest and realise that demanding that their timeliness and process maturity spring fully-formed from their foreheads is an act of conjuring reserved only for certain Greek Gods. (Even Caligula couldn’t manage it and he had far greater claim to this than most.) I like to think of this in terms of similarity of action. If anything I do is akin to walking up to someone and yelling “You should hand in on time, do better!” then I had better re-think my strategy.

The development of a personal philosophy, especially when you may not have ever been exposed to some of the great exemplars, is a fundamentally difficult task. You first need to understand that such a concept exists, then gain the vocabulary for discussing it, then interpret your current approach and see the value of change. Once you have performed all of those tasks, then we can start talking about getting from A to B. If you don’t know what I’m talking about or can’t understand why it’s important, or even discuss core concepts, then I’m yelling at you in the corridor and you’ll nod, compliantly, until I go away. Chances of you taking positive steps in the direction that I want? Very low. Probably, nil. And if it does happen, either it’s accidental or you didn’t actually need my help.

I try to be stoic but I must be honest and say that if Nero sentenced me to death, I’d nod, say “I expected that”, then put on some fast saxophone music and leg it up over the seven hills and far away. I don’t think I’d ever actually expect true stoicism from most of my students. but a simple incorporation of the fact that not everything works out as you think it will would be a definite improvement over the current everything will work out in my favour expectation that seems to be the hallmark of the more frequently disappointed and distressed among them. The trick is that I first have to make them realise that this is something that, with thought, they can not only fix but use to make a genuine, long-lasting and overwhelmingly positive change in their lives.

All That Glisters Is Not Gold

We’ve seen some disgraceful behaviour in the local media regarding “underperformance” at the Olympic Games. Australia fancies itself in a couple of sports – swimming is definitely one of them. It would be, sadly, an overstatement to say that we are good winners and bad losers – we’re smug winners, as a media scrum (the athletes are generally quite humble), and we’re absolutely vile losers. If someone from another nation (which isn’t Britain or the US) happens to beat us, then out come the accusations of doping, or sly comments. A young man who has achieved Olympic Silver and has missed out by 1/100th of a second is confronted, just out of the pool, by an ex-swimmer who should know better asking if he’s feeling shattered. What does it achieve? Do we need it? Do we care?

Why should he feel shattered? Did he stop for a drink half-way? Did he throw the comp (as some athletes who have already been expelled did)? No? Then let it go.

I was watching the kayaking (I was trapped in an airport lounge) and the guy who came third was absolutely stoked – a Bronze for Czechoslovakia! Why? Because he did his best and it happened to get him a medal. The lone male Australian athletics competitor came 19th but it was the best result for mens athletics for Oz in decades, I believe, so that was a good thing and he got some brief praise on the television. Sadly, and I’m sorry, athletics people, I think that’s because nobody expected him to do that much and, being very honest, very few people give two hoots about Australia’s performance in this area. (I will be surprised if he’s ever mentioned again – which is terrible after his achievement.)

Here’s what everyone sitting on a couch, remote in hand, beer in the other, criticising these athletes for getting Silver (woo), Bronze (gasp!) or (hushed silence) no medal (no hoper!) is secretly reciting to themselves.

“We’re sun-bronzed Aussies! We’re cut out of the same rock and leather as the outback heroes who became ANZACs and went off to war, larger than life and twice as tall! We own the pool! We rule the velodrome! We occasionally shoot things with guns and bows! We’ll remember who you are for a few minutes in another sport if you win a medal – we’ll make you a natural treasure if you’re cute, you win through an amazing series of people falling over or if you get us unexpected medals in a Winter Olympics. We might even remember your name.

For a while.

Of course, run into a pommel horse and break your jaw and we’ll play that on the TV for 20 years because nothing appeals to us more than the humiliating failure of people that we would praise if they won.”

(Note that this is not everyone who watches the Olympics but it’s certainly everyone who walked around for the last day or so giving our swimmers a hard time or accusing the Chinese swimmers of doping. Seriously, that’s your first reaction?)

What a curse of expectation lies over all of this – the sport you pick, the way you do it, people sitting in armchairs judging professional athletes as to how much over their PB they should have achieved. You know what I’m drawing to here. This is exactly what happens to people who come to Uni as well. If you’re first-in-family and not well supported, then you’ll be listening to people telling you that you’re wasting your time. If you’re getting distinctions, why not HDs? (Hey, if you’re offering constructive assistance and support, I have much less problem. If you’re saying ‘Wow, 98, what happened to the other 2’ and even vaguely mean it? Shame on you.) Everyone else did better than you? Why not drag up a racial or cultural stereotype, or accuse the staff of favouritism, or come up with any excuse other than “I didn’t do anything”. I still have a lot of sympathies for these students because I think that a lot of this rubbish comes in from around you. If you’re not excelling, then why bother?

This kind of culture is pervasive – you win, or you’re nothing. If someone else wins, they cheated, or (somehow) it wasn’t fair. It’s impossible to construct a sound learning framework out of rubbish like this. What’s worse is that if you start to think that everyone else is winning by cheating or by being ‘lucky’, then suddenly little switches go off in your head as your rationalisation engine starts shutting down the ethical cut-outs.

I generally try not to watch sports or commentary around Olympics time because, for all of the amazing athletic effort, there’s always far too much hype, nonsense and unpleasantness for me to able to appreciate it. It’s no wonder a lot of my students can barely think sometimes as they stress themselves into careers that they don’t want, degrees they don’t need, or towards goals that they aren’t yet ready to achieve, when we have such a ferocious media scrum hanging around the necks of our best sportspeople. You tell people that’s what winning looks like and, be careful, they might believe you.

Richard Hil on “Whackademia”: Conversations with Richard Fidler

The Australian national broadcaster’s Radio National station has a segment called Conversations with Richard Fidler, where the host has a roughly 30 minute chat with someone interesting. A friend (thanks, Cathy!) recently sent me a link to a conversation that Fidler had with Richard Hil, author of “Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university.” She sent me the link of the 25th of June and it’s slightly telling that it took me until the 10th of July, when I was home sick and was looking for things to listen to, that I finally had the chance to devote 30 minutes to just sitting and listening. You can find the link to the podcast itself here, but I’m not sure if it will work outside of Australia. However, I have some thoughts on the podcast that will work just as well if you haven’t listened to it. The vast majority of the words here are my interpretation of Hil and Fidler. I will insert my own comments parenthetically.

Hil is fundamentally concerned with the change in Universities that he perceives as the change in the focus of education and making life less enjoyable and far less free for the academics. He feels that students have become, in the words of Laurie Taylor (from Schwartz’s “Paradox of Choice“), shoppers, in the sense that they are controlled consumers, shaped by marketing, branding and the illusion of choice. Students are becoming far less likely to spend time on campus, with up to a third surveyed reporting that they haven’t made even a single friend. Given the pressures of modern life, and fitting education in and around work and family, this is hardly surprising, especially when combined with the increasing on-line availability of courses.

One of the other elements in play is the strong vocational focus that drives subject and degree choice, students now being far less likely to take courses that are potentially enriching in the future, which often lifted universities up from the requisite lectures and tutorials and allowed students to be involved in the energy of education. It’s also very easy to scoff at “enrichment” courses, especially if it they are marketed in an empty or cynical fashion.

Some universities, such as Macquarie, have experimented with third year courses with titles like “Practical Wisdom” to cover general world, thinking and important issues – but at third year, we have to ask what we have been teaching up until then along similar lines? What are we doing to form the global citizen?

Hil identifies what he refers to as the rise of managers in University, increasing regulation, driving business-speak, business models and performance management drawn from, and more suited to, traditional private enterprise. (He makes a loose argument against the perceived subjectivity of performance reviews, but I didn’t feel it was very strong.) However, how did we get here? Was it the Dawkins Revolution? Hil thinks not.

Hil identifies an early essay by Milton Friedman about the role of University in society and the economy, which advocated a student loan system and a deregulation of the University sector to move it into a competitive business model. (My reading of the essay agrees with Hil but there are some wonderful phrases in the essay on the value of education – I do disagree with Friedman’s slippery slope argument and his argument that denationalisation automatically and magically equates to more choice, among many of his conclusions.) So, post-Friedman and Dawkins, we have a business model between educator and student, more fitting facilitator and consumer.

So, if competition increases choice, as Friedman asserts, has it? Hil refers (not too seriously) to specialist courses in courses that specialise in the study of Surfing, Casinos, David Beckham, Judge Judy, Cyberporn and the Phallus. (One can only hope that there are interlocking partial credit arrangements for the last two, if not four, given Rule #34.) Rather than an indicator of choice, this is an indicator of the “sexing up” of University as part of branding and consumerist issues. (Certainly, in Australia, we are seeing more schools and areas close than we are seeing open and there is no real sense of a locus of excellence for some areas outside of naming rights for institutions.)

In using business language, the University is implicitly stating that they understand the need to speak this language because it allows the consumer to attach value to our offerings but, because we aren’t really businesses, we come across as an amateur theatrical society – possibly looking good out the front but utter chaos behind. Part of this is the myth of our commitment to certain activities such as teaching, which is being increasingly carried out by casual staff, who may not have the background for the course or given the time to develop it. There is an expectation of expertise and deep familiarity, that we as teachers have thought about the work, imbibed it and considered it from all angles in order to move beyond understanding into wisdom – but this is too much to develop in one week! Hil does quickly note that he believes that vast majority of academics are doing the right thing but the increasing student numbers and class sizes, combined with an increasing ‘casualising’ of the work force, are taking us down a certain path.

Hil then talks about the implicit conflict of being a partially publicly, partially externally funded entity and that he believes that public funds were deliberately not given to Universities to make us more private and entrepreneurial. (I may have missed it but I don’t believe that he gives much evidence for this and the host did question him.) Private Universities are up front about being profit seeking, whereas we in the public sector walk a blurred line. Hil also feels pressure from directed retention policies to step attrition that, he feels, can compromise academics standards.

Academics are speaking out but mostly in private, Hil believes, because they are concerned for their futures and retribution. Academic tenure, the principle that academics can speak truth to power, is mostly eroded, with some institutions demanding clearance on all public statements concerning higher education and University matters. He’s also surprised that our Union membership, the National Tertiary Education Union, is very, very low, which appeared to surprise him given the level of discontent. On that note, the interview ended.

(From my perspective, an interesting interview but not a great many supporting facts but, given the topic, that’s probably understandable. I have already ordered Richard Hil’s book to have a look through and if I find something else useful, I’ll blog about it. I note that, at my University, we have very strict guidelines for assigning work to casual lecturing staff, including selecting an area of expertise, providing mentorship and training and most of what Hil talks about here does not appear to have taken as strong a hold in my University as other places, although I can definitely see tendrils!)

How Do We Recognise Mastery? What Is My Masterpiece?

An artwork entitled “Masterpiece”. Click through for the webpage.

A few posts ago, and my goodness that’s a lot of words, I posted on issues of identity and examined the PhD in the light of it being a journeyman qualification, one that indicates the end of an apprenticeship and a readiness to go out into the world. That, however, is only half of the overall story of the apprentice, because there is a level above journeyman and that is, in all of its gendered glory, “master”. In the world of the trade and craft guilds, the designation of Mastery was only given when a journeyman applied to the guild and provided a piece of work that demonstrated their mastery of the appropriate craft. These works, if accepted, paved the way for journeyman to become Master, to become capable of training more apprentices and retaining their own journeymen, and were referred to as “Masterpieces”.

We use the term a bit more loosely these days, especially when coupled with the word “theatre”, but the sense remains. A Masterpiece is a piece of work that demonstrates your mastery of the craft and any sensible group of experts within your discipline would recognise it as such and declare you worthy to join them.

On reflection, after my last post on identity, I realised that I had placed the PhD into a very specific place, based on the PhD culture of my own discipline and my own experience. There are people who work their way up through a discipline for years, advancing steadily through their craft via diploma, recognition of prior learning and finally degree. Finally, having functioned as practitioner, they move into the academy in order to make their definitive contribution and it is as practitioner-academics that they create their final thesis which, in some regard, has more than a hint of the mastery of the craft about it and is far more likely to be a masterpiece than, say, my three year musing on big systems and XML. I regard myself more as an academic-practitioner as while I have previous knowledge, my research work began afresh and my PhD formed the basis of my qualification for entry into the profession of academic (journeyman) rather than the condensation of my life’s contribution as a practitioner, placed within the academic sphere to change teaching, research and policy (masterpiece).

However, this really doesn’t clear the issue up at all, all it does is emphasise that it is the recognition of the masterpiece that determines one’s mastery, which in turn requires that we have strong “guilds” or their equivalent in order to be able to clearly state when something has been produced to a level that we have met this particular skill battier.

Now, in terms of supervising other PhD students, I can do that now but, until my first student completes successfully (fingers crossed for December), I cannot be a principal supervisor. I am apprenticed, again, in effect until I have demonstrated sufficient mastery. So my PhD qualification is, again, rendered at the journeyman level. If I still had my network certifications from my previous life, I could instruct people in networking within certain corporate frameworks, but I (again) only had journeyman qualifications here. I have a friend who has achieved mastery in the networking discipline and the difference in our skill levels is amazing but, rather sadly, he has no masterpiece to show for his efforts. He worked to solve some difficult problems, and sat some very hard exams, and provided that he repeats this performance every 2 years, he will make lots of money doing interesting things involving networks. There is not, however, a single artefact of his that he can point to, which asserts that from that point on, he had mastery of a certain set of skills.

And this is very much the way of modern mastery. Why does my friend have to resit his exams? Because things are changing very quickly these days and, because of the Internet, we can propagate those changes almost immediately. A master craftsman of the 17th Century would learn new techniques, certainly, but having achieved mastery, he would enjoy maybe 20-30 more years of relatively low change until he died of some unspeakable disease or a falling giraffe. These days, while master craftsman certainly exist and are recognised as such, in many scientific disciplines, we tend to award this towards the end of someone’s life, at a time when their practical life is relatively close to over and I wonder if that is to stop the embarrassment of a recognised master who knows nothing about what has happened in the field because it has all moved on.

How do we recognise mastery in science, literature or academia? Well, there are significant Fellowships (the Royal Society springs to mind), important prizes (the Nobel, the Pulitzer) and awards (the Turing and the like). Of course, there is one award that recognises early achievement, the Fields Medal in mathematics, which may only be awarded to someone who is not yet 40, specifically to try and encourage the recipients to go further and do more. A lot of these awards and prizes, however, allow the luxury of a Masterpiece, especially those awards which are given for a specific piece of work. But which of J. M. Coetzee’s works was the definitive masterpiece that granted him the Nobel in Literature, the one that tipped the balance? Where is the specific masterpiece that I can pass to other guild members (not that I am one) and admire, wish that I had created, and learn from? Even where we have the books, we still don’t have a clear notion of what we are looking at. (I realise that Coetzee’s skills were clearly identified in the award, as well as his focus, and I am certainly not disputing the validity – but which is the book I give to someone to explain why he is a master?)

It is much harder to see where we give our students the ability to produce master works of any kind, even within our capstone courses. The works produced under capstone are more likely to be fit-for-purpose, complete but unremarkable, and therefore fit to judge for the end of apprenticeship, but no further. If they then progress to Honours, Masters or PhD, they do not so much have an opportunity to produce a masterpiece, what they are doing is conducting an apprenticeship for a new trade. (This varies by profession and intent. I can quite happily see that a PhD in Creative Writing has a masterpiece component attached to it, whereas a PhD in other disciplines may not.)

But, given that the international recognition of mastery is in a highly refined atmosphere and can, at most, accommodate a very small number of people, how do we even recognise those few masterpieces that will occur outside of the defining masterworks of a generation? For me, as a personal reflection, I am coming to terms with the fact that any masterpiece that I do produce, a work of great import or even a student (in some respects) that goes on to change the world, may have a very short shelf-life compared to other crafts. I also have to accept that the guild that accepts it as master work may never even contact me to tell me what they think – I’ll just have to watch my citation index go up and use it to get myself promoted.

I don’t have a complete answer to this, and I know that there’s a lot more thinking to do, but are we looking at the end of masterpieces or do we just have to adopt a different lens for seeing them, as well as a different group for judging them?

HERDSA 2012: Final Keynote, “Connecting with the Other: Some ideas on why Black America likes to sing Bob Dylan”, Professor Liz McKinley

I’ve discussed this final talk in outline but it has had such an impact on me that I wanted to share it in its own post. This also marks the end of my blogging from HERDSA, but I’m sure that you’ve seen enough on this so that’s probably a good thing. (As a note, the next conference that I’ll be at is ICER, in September, so expect some more FrenetoBlogging (TM) then.)

Professor Elizabeth (Liz) McKinley has a great deal of experience in looking at issues of otherness, from her professional role in working with Māori students and postgraduates, and because she is of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Ngāi Tahu descent herself. She began her talk with a long welcome and acknowledgement speech in an indigenous language (I’m not sure which one it was and I haven’t been able to find out), which she then repeated in English, along with an apology to the local indigenous peoples for her bad pronunciation of some of their words.

She began by musing on Bob Dylan, poet, protest song writer, and why his songs, especially “Blowing in the Wind”, were so popular with African Americans. Dylan’s song, released at a turbulent time in US History, asked a key question: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” At a time when African Americans were barely seen as people in some quarters, despite the Constitutional Amendments that had been made so long before, these lyrics captured the frustrations and aspirations of the Black people of the US and it became, in Professor McKinley’s opinion, anthemic in the civil rights movement because of this. She then discussed how many of Bob Dylan’s other songs had been reinterpreted, repurposed, and moved into the Black community, citing “Mr Tambourine Man” as covered by Con Funk Shun as an example of this. (I have been unable to locate this on Youtube or my usual sources but, I’ve been told, it’s not the version that you’re used to and it has an entirely new groove.)

Reinterpretation pays respect to the poet but we rediscover new aspects about the work and the poet and ourselves when we work with another artist. We learn from each other when we share and we see each other’s way of doing things. These are the attributes that we need to adopt if we want to bring in more underrepresented and disadvantaged students from outside of our usual groups – the opportunities to bring their talents to University to share them with us.

She then discussed social justice education in a loose overview: the wide range of pedagogies that are designed to ameliorate the problems caused by unfair practices and marginalisation. Of course, to be marginalised and to be discriminated against, we must have a dominant (or accepted) form, and an other. It is the Other that was a key aspect of the rest of the talk.

The Other can be seen in two very distinct ways. There is the violent Other, the other that we are scared of, that physically repels us, that we hide from and seek to destroy, sideline or ignore. This is drive by social division and inequity. When Gil Scott-Heron sang of the Revolution that wouldn’t be televised, he was speaking to his people who, according to people who look like me, were a violent and terrifying Otherness that lived in the shadows of every city in America. People are excluded when they don’t fit the mainstream thinking, when we’re scared of them – but we can seek to understand the other’s circumstances, which are usually a predicament, to understand their actions and motivations so that we can ameliorate or remedy them.

But there is also the non-violent Other, a philosophical separation, independent of social factors. We often accept this Other, letting it be different and even seeking knowledge from this unknowable other and, rather than classify it as something to be shunned or feared, we defer our categorisation. My interpretation of this non-violent other is perhaps that of those who seek religious orders, at the expense of married life, even small possessions or a personal life within a community that they control. In many regards this is very much an Otherness but we have tolerated and welcomed the religiously Other into our lives for millennia. It has only been reasonably recently that aspects of this, for certain religious orders, has now started to associate a violent Otherness with the mystical and philosophical Otherness that we would usually associate with clerics.

Professor McKinley went on to identify some of the Others in Australia and New Zealand: the disadvantaged, those living in rural or remote areas, the indigenous peoples. Many of the benchmarks for these factors are set against nations like the UK, the US and Canada. She questioned why, given how different our nations are, we benchmarked ourselves against the UK but identified that all of this target setting, regardless of which benchmarks were in use, were set against majority groups that were largely metropolitan/urban and non-indigenous. In New Zealand, the indigenous groups are the Māori and the Pacific Islanders (PI), but there is recognition that there is a large degree of co-location between these peoples and the lower socio-economic status groups – a double whammy as far as Otherness goes compared to affluent white culture.

Professor McKinley has been heavily involved and leading three projects, although she went to great lengths to thank the many people who were making it all work while she was, as she said, running around telling everyone about it. These three projects were the Starpath Project, the Māori and Indigenous (MAI) Doctoral Programme, and the Teaching and Learning in the Supervision of Māori PhD students (TLRI).

The Starpath Project was designed to undertake research and develop and evaluated evidence-based initiatives, designed to improve educational participation and achievement of students from groups currently under-represented in degree level education. This focuses on the 1st decile schools in NZ, those who fall into the bottom 10%, which includes a high proportion of Māori and PI students. The goal was to increase the number of these students who went into Uni out of school, which is contrary to the usual Māori practice of entering University as mature age students when they have a complexity in their life that drives them to seek University (Liz’s phrase, which I really like).

New Zealand is trying to become a knowledge economy, as they have a small population on a relatively small country, and they want more people in University earlier. While the Pākehā, those of European descent, make up most of those who go to Uni, the major population growth is the  Māori and PI communities. There are going to be increasingly large economic and social problems if these students don’t start making it to University earlier.

This is a 10-year project, where phase 1 was research to identify choke points and barriers in to find some intervention initiatives, and phase 2 is a systematic implementation, transferable, sustainable, to track students into Uni. This had a strong scientific basis with emphasis on strong partnerships, leading to relationships with nearly 10% of the secondary schools in New Zealand, focused on the low decile groups that are found predominantly around Auckland. The partnerships were considered to be essential here and the good research was picked up and used to form good government policy – a fantastic achievement.

Another key aspect, especially from the indigenous perspective, was to get the families on board. By doing this, involving parents and family, guardian participation in activities shot up from 20% to 80% but it was crucial to think beyond the individual, including writing materials for families – parents and children. Families are the locus of change in these communities. Part of the work here involved transitions support for students to get from school to uni, supported by scholarships to show both the students and the community that they can learn and achieve to the same degree as any other student.

One great approach was that, instead of targeting the disadvantaged kids for support, everyone got the same level of (higher) support which normalised the student support and reduced the Otherness in this context.

The next project, the MAI programme, was a challenge to Māori researchers to develop a doctoral programme and support that didn’t ignore the past while still conforming to the academic needs of the present. (“Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 1999, was heavily referenced throughout this.) Māori students have cultural connections and associations that can make certain PhD work very difficult: consider a student who is supposed to work with human flesh samples, where handling dead tissue is completely inappropriate in Māori culture. It is profoundly easy, as well as lazy, to map an expectation of conformity over the top of this (Well, if you’re doing our degree then you follow our culture) but this is the worst example of a colonising methodology and this is exactly what MAI was started to address.

MAI works through communities, meeting regularly. Māori academics, students and cultural advisors meet regularly to alleviate the pressures of cross-cultural issues and provide support through meetings and retreats.

The final project, the Māori PhD project, was initiated by MAI (above) to investigate indigenous students, to understand why they were carrying out their PhDs. Students were having problem, as with the tissue example above, so the project also provided advice to institutions and to students, encouraging Pākehā supervisors to work with Māori students, as well as the possibility of Māori supervision if the student needed to feel culturally safe. This was a bicultural project, with five academics across four institutions.

From Smith, 1997, p203, “educational battleground for Māori is spatial. It is about theoretical spaces, pedagogical spaces, structural spaces.” From this project there were differences in what the students were seeking and the associated pedagogies. Some where seeking difference from their own basis, an ancestral Māori basis. Some were Māori but not really seeking that culture. Some, however, were using their own thesis to regain their lost identity as Māori.

The phrase that showed up occasionally was a “colonised history” – even your own identity is threatened by the impact of the colonists on the records, memories and freedoms of your people. We had regularly seen colonists move to diminish and reduce the Other, as a perceived threat, where they classify it as a violent other. The third group of students, above, are trying to rebuild what it meant to be Māori for them, in the face of New Zealand’s present state as a heavily colonised country, where most advantage lies with the Pākehā and Asian communities. They were addressing a sense of loss, in the sense of their loss of what it meant to be Māori. This quest for Māori identity was sometimes a challenge to the institution, hence the importance of this project to facilitate bicultural understanding and allow everyone to be happy with the progress and nature of the study.

At this point in my own notes I wrote “IDENTITY IDENTITY IDENTITY” because it became clearer and clearer to me that this was the key issue that is plaguing us all, and that kept coming up at HERDSA. Who are we? Who is my trusted group? How do I survive? Who am I? While this issues, associated with Otherness in the indigenous community, are particularly significant for low SES groups and the indigenous, they affect all of us in this times of great change.

An issue of identity that I have touched on, and that Professor McKinley brought up in her talk, was how we establish the identity of the teacher, in order to identify who should be teaching. In Māori culture, there are three important aspects: Matauranga (Knowledge), Whakapapa (ancestral links) and Tikanga (cultural protocols and customs). But this raises pedagogical issues, especially when two or more of these clash. Who is the teacher and how can we recognise them? There are significant cultural issues if we seek certain types of knowledge from the outside, because we run headlong into Tikanga. These knowledge barriers may not be flexible at all, which is confronting to western culture (except for all of the secret barriers that we choose not to acknowledge). The teachers may be parents, elders, grandparents – recognising this requires knowledge, time and understanding. And, of course, respect.

Another important aspect is the importance of the community. If you, as a Māori PhD student, go to a community and ask them to answer some questions, at some stage in the future, they’ll expect you back to help out with something else. So, time management becomes an issue because there is a spirit of reciprocity that requires the returned action – this is at odds with restricted time for PhDs and the desire for timely completion if you have to disappear for 2 weeks to help build or facilitate something.

Professor McKinley showed a great picture. A student, graduating with PhD gown surmounted by the sacred cloak of the Māori people. They have to have a separate graduation ceremony, as well as the small ‘two tickets maximum’ one in the hall, because community and family pride is strong – two tickets maximum won’t accommodate the two busloads of people who showed up to see this particular student graduate.

The summary of the Other was that we have two views:

  • The Other as a consequence of social, economic and/or political disaffiliation (Don’t pathologise the learning by diagnosing it as a problem and trying to prescribe a remedy.)
  • As an alterity that is independent of social force. (Welcoming the other on their own terms. A more generous form but a scarier form for the dominant culture.)

What can we learn from the other? My difference matters to my institution. We need to ensure that we have placed our ethics into social justice education – this stance allows us how to frame ethics across the often imposed barriers of difference.

Professor McKinley then concluded by calling up some of her New Zealand colleagues to the stage, to close the talk with a song. An unusual (for me) end to an inspiring and extremely thought-provoking talk. (Sadly, it wasn’t Bob Dylan, but it was in Māori so it may have secretly been so!)