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!)

HERDSA 2012: President’s address at the closing

The President of HERDSA, Winthrop Professor Shelda Debowski, spoke to all of us after the final general session at the end of the conference. (As an aside, a Winthrop Professor, at the University of Western Australia, is equivalent to a full Professor (Level E) across the rest of Australia. You can read about it here on page 16 if you’re interested. For those outside Australia, the rest of the paper explains how our system of titles fits into the global usage schemes.) Anyway, back to W/Prof Debowski’s talk!

Last year, one of the big upheavals facing the community was a change at Government level from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council to the Office of Learning and Teaching, with associated changes in staffing and, from what I’m told, that rippled through the entire conference. This year, W/Prof Debowski started by referring to the change that the academic world faces every day – the casualisation of academics, disinterest in development, the highly competitive world in which we know work where waiting for the cream to rise would be easier if someone wasn’t shaking the container vigorously the whole time (my analogy). The word is changing, she said, but she asked us “is it changing for the better?”

“What is the custodial role of Higher Education?”

We have an increasing focus on performance and assigned criteria, if you don’t match these criteria then you’re in trouble and, as I’ve mentioned before, research focus usually towers over teaching prowess. There is not much evidence of a nuanced approach. The President asked us what we were doing to support people as they move towards being better academics? We are more and more frenetic regarding joining the dots in our career, but that gives us less time for reflection, learning, creativity, collegiality and connectivity. And we need all of these to be effective.

We’re, in her words, so busy trying to stay alive that we’ve lost sight of being academics with a strong sense of purpose, mission and a vision for the future. We need support – more fertile spaces and creative communities. We need recognition and acknowledgement.

One of the largest emerging foci, which has obviously resonated with me a great deal, is the question of academic identity. Who am I? What am I? Why am I doing this? What is my purpose? What is the function of Higher Education and what is my purpose within that environment? It’s hard to see the long term perspective here so it’s understandable that so many people think along the short term rails. But we need a narrative that encapsulates the mission and the purpose to which we are aspiring.

This requires a strategic approach – and most academics don’t understand the real rules of the game, by choice sometimes, and this prevents them from being strategic. You don’t stay in the right Higher Ed focus unless you are aware of what’s going on, what the news sources are, who you need to be listening to and, sometimes, what the basic questions are. Being ignorant of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education won’t be an impenetrable shield against the outcomes of people reacting to this report or government changes in the face of the report. You don’t have to be overly politicised but it’s naïve to think that you don’t have to understand your context. You need to have a sense of your place and the functions of your society. This is a fundamental understanding of cause and effect, being able to weigh up the possible consequences of your actions.

The President then referred to the Intelligent Careers work of Arthur et al (1995) and Jones and DeFilippi (1996) in taking the correct decisions for a better career. You need to know: why, how, who, what, where and when. You need to know when to go for grants as the best use of your time, which is not before you have all of the right publications and support, rather than blindly following a directive that “Everyone without 2 ARC DPs must submit a new grant every year to get the practice.”

(On a personal note, I submitted an ARC Discovery Project Application far too early and the feedback was so unpleasantly hostile, even unprofessionally so, that I nearly quit 18 months after my PhD to go and do something else. This point resonated with me quite deeply.)

W/Prof Debowski emphasised the importance of mentorship and encouraged us all to put more effort into mentoring or seeking mentorship. Mentorship was “a mirror to see yourself as others see you, a microscope to allow you to look at small details, a telescope/horoscope to let you look ahead to see the lay of the land in the future”. If you were a more senior person, that on finding someone languishing, you should be moving to mentor them. (Aside: I am very much in the ‘ready to be mentored’ category rather than the ‘ready to mentor’ so I just nodded at more senior looking people.)

It is difficult to understate the importance of collaboration and connections. Lots of people aren’t ready or confident and this is an international problem, not just an Australian one. Networking looks threatening and hard, people may need sponsorship to get in and build more sophisticated skills. Engagement is a way to link research and teaching with community, as well as your colleagues. There are also accompanying institutional responsibilities here, with the scope for a lot of social engineering at the institutional level. This requires the institutions to ensure that their focuses will allow people to thrive: if they’re fixated on research, learning and teaching specialists will look bad. We need a consistent, fair, strategic and forward-looking framework for recognising excellence. W/Prof Debowski, who is from University of Western Australia, noted that “collegiality” had been added to performance reviews at her institution – so your research and educational excellence was weighed against your ability to work with others. However, we do it, there’s not much argument that we need to change culture and leadership and that all of us, our leaders included, are feeling the pinch.

The President argued that Academic Practice is at the core of a network that is built out of Scholarship, Research, Leadership and Measures of Learning and Teaching, but we also need leaders of University development to understand how we build things and can support development, as well as an Holistic Environment for Learning and Teaching.

The President finished with a discussion of HERDSA’s roles: Fellowships, branches, the conferences, the journal, the news, a weekly mailing list, occasional guides and publications, new scholar support and OLT funded projects. Of course, this all ties back to community, the theme of the conference, but from my previous posts, the issue of identity is looming large for everyone in learning and teaching at the tertiary level.

Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our environment?

It was a good way to make us think about the challenges that we faced as we left the space where everyone was committed to thinking about L&T and making change where possible, going back to the world where support was not as guaranteed, colleagues would not necessarily be as open or as ready for change, and even starting a discussion that didn’t use the shibboleths of the research-focused community could result in low levels of attention and, ultimately, no action.

The President’s talk made us think about the challenges but, also, by focusing on strategy and mentorship, making us realise that we could plan for better, build for the future and that we were very much not alone.


Identity: Who am I?

The theme of last week’s HERDSA conference was supposed to be ‘connections’ and, while we certainly discussed that a lot, the fundamental requirement for a connection is that there is something similar between two points that allows them to connect in the first place. The underpinning of all of the connections was knowing enough about yourself or your area to work out who you could or should connect with. Even where we talked about inter-disciplinary issues, we established a commonality in our desire to learn from others, a need to educate. This was a discussion of greater identity – what we were beyond the basic statements of “I am from discipline X” and an affirmation of our desire to be seen as educators.

I have some more posts to make on the final talk on HERDSA, which moved me a great deal and gave me some very interesting pathways along which to think, but today I’m going to restrict myself to musing on identity and how we establish it.

Indigenous identity is an important part of life in Australia, whether those who wish to ignore the issue like it or not. The traditional owners of the land had ways very different from those of the white colonists and the clash of cultures has caused a great deal of sorrow and loss over the years, but it has also given rise to a great many meaningful and valuable opportunities where two cultures sit down and attempt to view each other. Something I find interesting, as someone who works with knowledge, is the care and attention given to statements of who people are, within their own culture.

When the speaker, about whom I will write much more, stood up to give the final keynote of HERDSA, we had already had her identified by her people and her place in New Zealand, and she spoke in another tongue when she began speaking, as the indigenous peoples here also often do. Because she is indigenous to another land, she then apologised for her pronunciation of local words because, of course, it is not as if this is British films of the 30s and every foreigner speaks the same ‘foreign lingo’. Her identity, her cultural locale, her zone of expertise and stewardship were clearly identified before she spoke but, as she immediately acknowledged, her status and place did not grant her mystical insights into the issues of local people. I found this very respectful but, of course, I look in from outside, without a clear notion of my own identity, and therefore I cannot speak for the traditional people of the region of Tasmania which I was visiting.

When I am introduced to people, my bio says something like this: “Nick Falkner is the Associate Dean of Information Technology for the Faculty of…” and then goes on to mention my linkage to the school of Computer Science as a lecturer, and I will probably mention my PhD if it hasn’t been put into the title. Why? Because it helps people to place me in context, to value the weight of my words, to determine if the knowledge that I speak comes from a point of authority.

But is this my identity?

My PhD is not the same as an initiation into sacred knowledge. We accept that gaining the PhD is the first step along the road, and not more than that. It is at best the journeyman qualification: apprenticeship complete and trade competent but not yet a master. Journeyman comes from the French journee (day) and refers to the fact that you can charge a wage for a day’s work – you have established your value. However, with increasing pressures on the PhD completion time, tied to funding and available resources, you cannot chip away at your task of knowledge until your apprenticeship is complete, regardless of the time it takes. Now, your supervisor, in the role of master, examines your works, guides you towards crafting that can be completed in time and then stamps you ready (with the help of many others) with a possible burden to be incurred as you pick up the additional skills.

There is so much disparity in what a PhD means, by discipline, by country, even by University within a state, that it is the loosest possible description of journeyman possible. No trades body would certify an electrician under such a rubbery and relaxed definition, without reserving the right to assess their skill at the trade.

So, in my bio, when I recite my list of the symbols and people that I come from, I list one that is either highly meaningful or absolutely meaningless, depending on where it comes from. But this is the line of my academic knowledge – my descent. And, on writing this, I realise that I have no idea who the supervisors of my supervisors were. I can tell you that I was the student of Dr Andrew Wendelborn and Dr Paul Coddington but there, it stops. Of course, I realise that there are people who can, and do, trace their thesis path back to Isaac Newton but, in our culture, where knowledge is largely mutated in transmission, rather than held sacred in one form as immutable knowledge, a grand truth handed down from the ancient and unknowable entities of the past, such a descent is an accident of structure and geography.

When someone calls himself a man of a tribe, they are saying much more than “I live in this area”, they are identifying themselves as someone who is linked to a tradition and carries on the essential knowledge of the tradition. This is part of their fabric.

When I call myself an Associate Dean, a lecturer, or a Computer Scientist, I’m telling you what I do, rather than addressing my fundamental identity. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I need to move myself to a place where I only pass on immutable knowledge or that I need to start some connection with the sacred. I have no real connection to the mystic and never really have, despite some false starts. But I have always been a thinker and now I’m thinking more about why I work the way I do – mostly it’s because I don’t know how to quantify myself or assess my worth except in terms of the things that I produce, the jobs that I do, the titles that I can present when asked a question that I loathe: “what do you do?”

For me, the answer for many years has always, implicitly, been “Never enough” and, on reflection, this is the answer of a man who really doesn’t understand his own nature enough to know when he can rest, or when he is done. My apprenticeship is long over and I am becoming more and more expert every day. But before I can claim mastery, I have to have knowledge and part of that knowledge is knowledge of myself.

Calling myself Nick Falkner is a label – it says nothing about who I am. In many senses, knowing what I am is identifying those aspects to which I could apply a modifier such as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ with a real sense of being able to achieve a change. I am the only Nickolas (middle names suppressed to avoid identity theft) Falkner that there is so I am the best and worst. I seek a functional model of my identity that allows me to able to improve myself and identify when I am heading the other way.

It is, of course, possible to be a disrespectful man of a tribe, a betraying man, a gluttonous woman, an untrustworthy elder, an ungrateful child. But this says nothing about the gender as a whole, and less about actual identity, and, frankly, falling back to those accidents of birth that define physical and spatial characteristics (including the location of birth or residence) seems rather weak in terms of the  nature of identity.

Looking back through this blog, my identity becomes more clear to me but, because I am still unsure, I will probably spend some time working on this – drawing diagrams, thinking and discussing my thoughts with my wife. My partnership, my relationship, my bond with my wife is a core part of my identity but, of course, it is a shared component and describing myself in terms of this alone is like calling San Francisco “the place between the bridges”. We lose the point inside the connections.

Am I an educator? Am I a teacher? There is a subtle difference in that educators can plan and direct education, whereas teachers teach, but this is an empty sophistry for a busy century so let us establish a rough equivalence. Am I more than this? Am I a transformer? A creator?

I am leaving my journeyman days behind me. I am now on the path to mastery but the real question is, always, “Master of what?”

I look at the questions of identity that I have been posing, in reaction to HERDSA, in reaction to my increasing exposure to the nature of people and self that is now surrounding me as I learn more about the Australasian indigenous cultures. It is time to look at everything I’ve been doing and work out, behind the name and the titles and the qualifications that I have put in my biography for so long (as if they told anyone who I was), and think about who and what I actually am.

Because, of course, once I have mastery of that, then I can help other people. And, if I know anything about myself, it is that helping people is and will hopefully always be one of the best pieces of my identity.

HERDSA 2012: Final general talk – that tricky relationship, University/School

When working in Higher Education, you fairly quickly discover that there is not actually a genuine continuum between the school level and the University level. School curricula are set, with some input from the higher ed sector, mostly by school and government, but they have little-to-no voice at the Higher Education level. We listen to our peers across the water and around our country, adopting ACM and IEEE curricula suggestions, but while we have an awareness of what the different sectors are doing (in terms of local school and University) it’s certainly not a strong, bi-directional relationship.

That’s where the Australian government reforms of 2009, designed to greatly improve participation in University, get interesting. We’ve been told to increase participation from lower SES groups who hadn’t previously considered Higher Education. We, that is ‘we the university’, have been told this. Ok. Great. Now some people will (flippantly) start ranting about how we’ll have to drop quality standards to do this – an argument that I feel is both incorrect and somewhat unpleasant in its tone. Given that we haven’t gone out of our way to try and form a continuum before, well some people have but with limited success, we can certainly address some of the problem by identifying higher education as a destination to students who may not have been aware that it was even an option for them.

This is where the work of Dr Karma Pearce comes in, won “Building community, educational attainment and university aspirations through University-School mentoring partnerships”. Dr Pearce’s research was based on developing student aspirations from traditionally disadvantaged regions in South Australia. The aim was to look at the benefits of a University/High School mentoring program conducted in a University setting, targeting final year secondary school students from the low SES schools in the area.

We are all aware of the problems that disadvantaged schools face and the vicious circularity of some of these problems. Take Chemistry. To teach chemistry properly, you need teachers and lab resources, including consumables. It’s not like a computer lab that can be run on oldish equipment in a room somewhere – chemistry labs have big technical and safety requirements, and old chemicals either don’t work or get consumed in reactions. If your lab is bad, your numbers drop because the teaching suffers. If the numbers drop below a certain level for schools in South Australia – the class gets cancelled. Now you have a Chem teacher and no students. Therefore, repurposed teacher or, shortly, no teacher. (Of course, this assumes that you can even get a chemistry teacher.)

The University of South Australia had recently build new chemistry labs in another campus, leaving their old labs (which are relatively near to several traditionally disadvantaged areas) free. To the researcher’s and University’s credit (I’m serious, kudos!) they realised that they could use these labs to support 29 secondary school students from schools that had no chem labs. The school students participated in weekly lecture, tutorial and practical chemistry classes at Mawson Lakes campus, with the remaining theory conducted in their own schools. There were two High School teachers based in two of the schools, with a practical demonstrator based at Mawson Lakes. To add the mentoring aspect, four final year undergraduate students were chosen to be group mentors. The mentors required a minimum of credit (B) level studies for three chemistry courses. The mentor breakdown, not deliberately selected, was three women and one man, with two from private (fee-paying) schools and two from regional state schools. Mentors had transport provided, a polo shirt with logo, were paid for their time and received a significant amount of mentor training as well as a weekly meeting with a University coordinator.

The mentors assisted throughout the 26 week program and, apart from helping with chemistry, shared their experiences of University as they worked with the students. Of the 20 secondary students who completed the program (10 F, 10 M), they indicated in surveys that they thought they now understand what Uni life was going to be like but, more importantly to me, that they thought it was achievable for them. From that group, 35% of them had family who had been to University, but all of the secondary participants who made it to the end of the program had enrolled to go to Uni by the end of their Year 12 studies.

In discussion, a couple of points did emerge, especially regarding the very high teacher/student ratio, but overall the message from the research is pretty positive. Without having to change anything at the actual University level, a group of students, who didn’t come from a “university positive” environment and who were at some of the most disadvantaged schools in the state, now thought that University was somewhere that they could go – their aspirations now included University. What a fantastic result!

One side note, at the end, that I found a little depressing was that some students had opted to go to another University, not UniSA, and at least one gave the reason that they had been lured there by the free iPad that was being issued if you enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. Now, in the spirit of full honesty, that’s my University that they’re talking about and I know enough about the amazing work done by Bob Hill, Simon Pyke and Mike Seyfang (as well as a cast of hundreds) to completely rebuild the course to a new consistent standard, with a focus on electronic (and free) textbooks, to know that the iPad is the icing on the cake (so to speak). But, to a student from a disadvantaged school, one where a student going into medicine (and being the first one in the 50 year history of the school) is Page 3 news in the main state newspaper, an iPad is a part of a completely different world. If this student is away at a camp with students from more privileged background, this device is not about electronic delivery or lightening the text book burden or interactive science displays and instant communication – it’s about fitting in.

I found this overall talk very interesting, because it gave an excellent example of how we can lead educationally by sharing our resources while sharing the difficulties of the high school/University transition, but it also made me think about how students see the things that we do to improve their education. Where I see a lab full of new computers, do students see a sign of stability and affluence that convinces them that we’ll look after them or do they see “ho hum” because they’re only 21″ screens and not the i7 processor?

Once again, when I look at things from my view, what do my students see?