Stitching the shadows: Writing & social media

textile detail by Isobel Moore http://www.threadnoodle.co.uk/

textile detail by Isobel Moore http://www.threadnoodle.co.uk/

This blog post is part of a blogversation. It responds to two blogs, both of which came to my attention via my Twitter feed. This one on qualitative research methods by Naomi Barnes, and this one on tracing the social media interchange that followed, by Ian Guest. This is not the first time I have jumped into a blogversation unannounced and univited. The first time was when Helen Kara challenged Naomi Barnes to the #blimage challenge, after I had first challenged Helen to the same. The post I wrote, in response to Helen’s photograph of spider webs in her garden, echoes the themes of this post – the power and messiness of connectivity on social media. Another of Naomi’s posts had me thinking about diffraction.

The great thing about social media is that by engaging we situate ourselves within a public conversation. It’s when people jump in—to ask a question, make a comment, respectfully challenge, add their lived experience, share their perspective—that dialogue is enriched and we influence each other, across time, space and devices.

In Naomi’s recent post she articulates some ways of thinking that are close to my heart and my keyboard: blogging as inquiry and using metaphors as a method of sense-making. As many of you would know, I used Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a literary metaphor through which I viewed and re-constructed my PhD data. Metaphors, as any reader of this blog will recognise, are one way that I make sense of the world. Metaphors also emerged from the stories of the participants of my PhD as they worked to make sense of their selves and worlds.

As une édu flâneuse I was taken with Naomi’s notion of the ‘concept flâneur’. The flâneur, or its feminine alternative the flâneuse, is the attentive observer, the attuned wanderer, a scholar of the world and a chameleonic surveyor of the crowd. The ‘concept flâneur’ reminds me of my own use of bricolage in my PhD that I describe here as rethinking well-worn traditions and stitching them back together in new form. But flânerie is about more than stitching together. It is about rapt observation and devoted contemplation, about deep understanding and applying scholarly thinking. The theoretical flâneur is the insider-outsider, at once looking in and immersed within.

The part of Naomi’s post that challenged me the most was when she stated that qualitative research has stagnated as “the author has become central in the writing. It becomes about writing, rather than the research and the need for change.” It led me to a Twitter exchange in which I explored my own uncertainty around the self in research and the author’s place in writing.

a Twitter exchange resulting from Naomi Barnes' blog post

a Twitter exchange resulting from Naomi Barnes’ blog post

In keeping with Naomi’s metaphor of the sutured-together monster body, I see these kinds of social media interactions as textile. I have written before about textiles as a metaphor for subversion and political activism. We stitch onto shared fabric, adding perspectives, colour, texture, visual elements to a work. Our hands and minds shape the work (our thinking work, our writing work, our collaborative dialogue work), as it shapes us. Needles prick and rub callouses into fingers. We cramp. We struggle with the material. We can be proud of our contribution, working together like a quilting circle on the collaborative work of seeking to understand and to theorise.

Ian, in his post that responds to Naomi’s post, points out the non-linear, messy ways that exchanges happen on Twitter, despite their appearance in the feed as linear threads. I’ve written before about the butterfly effects of Twitter conversations, their serendipitous, surprising and subtly influential moments. Their powerful, unforeseen circumstances.

Ian wonders about the silences and the blurred boundaries between people and thoughts. I agree that it is in the silences, the shadows, the fissures, the dark cracks, of exchanges and of our own thinking, that we are most in a state of becoming and therefore potential change. It’s in the dark and vulnerable spaces that we learn. Blogging can be a bit like this: an exposure, a laying bare, a stripping down.

Ian mentions in his post that he shared a blog post via email despite sitting right next to his colleague; they collaborated via technology despite being in the same room. This reflects the evolving relationship that Naomi and I share. We have begun a co-authorly relationship, via digital tools. Word to word, screen to screen, device to device. When we met in person for the first time recently, we didn’t discuss our writing projects specifically. We saved our writerly collaborations for online spaces: email, Google docs, Twitter. In our fledgling collaboration, for me the digital sphere feels simultaneously a bit sacred and a draft-notebook-type place for working out. We show our workings to each other via our thinking-out-loud digital musings.

The wonderful thing about blogging, tweeting, emailing, writing and reading as inquiry is the acceptance, and even celebration, that it is all unformed. There are moments of awkwardness, uncertainty, openness, weakness, resistance, emotion. It’s all laid bare on screen, and open to tangled-threaded multi-webbed interchanges that have us emerging from the knotted labyrinthine tangles as from a chrysalis, declaring “here I am” so that we can be challenged and changed again.

5 things I learned in 2016

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

2016 seems to have flown by at a rate of knots. I am so shredded right now that I feel like all of those ‘me at the beginning of 2016; me at the end of 2016’ memes floating around. But instead of a bleak image of end-of-year despair following this year of Brexit and Trump’s election, I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog post with the above sculpture. Part utilitarian shipping containers and part rainbow possibilities. The mundane made beautiful. Take from that what you will.

I figure that maybe if I take stock of what I’ve done and where I’m at, it might help me shed my 2016 skin and slip more freely into the new year. This year I submitted, was awarded and graduated from my PhD. I’ve since been appointed as an adjunct at the university where I did my doctorate, and have also been appointed to a cool new role at my school from 2017. I’ve had 3 peer-reviewed journal articles published, 3 book chapters accepted and presented 8 times at 6 conferences, including AERA in Washington DC. Emerald Publishing made a cartoon abstract of one of my papers. This is my 66th blog post for the édu flâneuse in 2016. I’ve also written for other sites including The Conversation and the Times HigherEd blog. I won an ACEL New Voice in Educational Research scholarship, and an international award for my PhD thesis. I worked a 0.8 FTE load: teaching English, coaching teachers and middle leaders, and refining professional growth and performance review processes at my school. I parented my two boys, who will both be in full time school next year. The youngest was in part time kindy this year, so I’ve had my last term-time weekday frolic with him.

This time last year I wrote about 5 things I learned in 2015. 2016 has thrown up some similar and some different learnings. Here are my top 5.

  1. Carve out a work routine.

I’ve had what has felt like a really busy year. To manage, I have instilled more structure into my work flow. This is about more than my Post-It note system. It means I try to find a regular ebb-and-flow routine, like blogging here every Friday, and carving out time for strategic project work at school, to make time for it among all the operational and relational stuff that fills my days. It also means figuring out where and how to make time for academic thinking, reading and writing.

This #1 point is totally unsexy and eye-rollingly boring, but it’s becoming more and more of a necessity if I’m to manage the work I have coming my way in 2017.

  1. Prioritise breaks for self-care.

One thing I’ve learned this year was something I already knew but seemed to forget: I need regular proper breaks. This year I didn’t carve out enough time for space, family and myself. Time. And. Spaaaaaaaace. A couple of weekenders does not a break make! Also, I have realised, conference travel does not count as a break. Between presenting, rushing around to sessions, meeting up with people and time zone changes, I often came back more exhausted and more behind than when I left. Doing good work that inspires and nourishes me is important. But taking a break from work to regenerate and re-centre is, too.

Watch out, 2017. I have plans for some spectacular holidays.

  1. Support and trust the individual.

In my work in leading professional learning, coaching and performance review processes, I have become more convinced than ever in the need to balance the individual and the organisation, personal vision and organisational purpose, support with accountability.

In particular, I remain despairing about the increasing media and policy focus on high-stakes standardised testing and performative measures for teachers. I’m also increasingly committed to supporting middle leaders in our schools, who are often forgotten between the popular rhetoric of and focus on the teacher and the principal.

  1. Be who you wanna be, yeah.

I continue to do identity work through my writing, my online interactions and my professional engagements. I struggled this year with fitting into doctorly robes after my degree was conferred, but am now enjoying the freedom that comes with being beyond-PhD. Being a post-doc adjunct whose paycheck comes from industry, not a university, means that I can start to play with ideas that are interesting, divergent and experimental. The joy of being an unpaid academic is that I’m not tethered to the world of academic measures and impact factors, so am able to flex my writer-scholar identity, to see what sorts of crazy-beautiful writing I might be able to work towards. In 2017, I hope to continue in my journey to becoming the scholar, writer, teacher and leader I want to be.

  1. Shift the narrative. Make a difference.

I’ve been exploring voice and activism in 2016, and wondering about what those things might look like. Can I be a part—via my work, conference presentations, online writing, scholarly writing, social media engagement—of shifting education narratives? Can I make a real difference, not just to the lives of students and staff at my school, but to the wider system, to people outside of my local bubble? I’m not sure, but I’m inspired by Tolkein’s character of Gandalf who says, “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” As a pracademic I’m excited about the synergies between educational research and practice, and I’m hoping my own small, persistent nudges at the narratives of education might make a small but important difference.

The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach

Sitting with monsters this Halloween

'The Colossus', by Francisco de Goya

‘The Colossus’, by Francisco de Goya ~ monster on the loose

Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned? ~ the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Monsters get a bad rap. They are recoiled from in horror. They are often marginalised and voiceless in texts that privilege the hero, the ‘goodie’, the protagonist. There are, however, texts that challenge the hero narrative. And those, like the 2013 zombie film Warm Bodies, that attempt to give voice to the monstrous.

Recently, Naomi Barnes has me thinking about monsters and about what being mindful of the monstrous might teach us. As well as her blog posts on monstrous identities and monstrous research method, we are working on co-authoring academic papers that play with assemblages, messiness and monstrosity.

So I’ve been mentally revisiting Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, a novel close to my literary heart. Today, Halloween, seems like an appropriate day to write down some of my musings about what Frankenstein might offer us.

Over the weekend I watched the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein, which, while breathing some life into aspects of the original story, manages to mostly butcher it. One of the most disappointing aspects for me, a common feature of film and popular adaptations of Shelley’s novel, is the grotesque and unsympathetic way that Frankenstein’s creature is portrayed. The creation is coldly portrayed as violent, scary, hideous and inhuman. Unlike its long journey in the novel, in the 2015 film the creature comes to a swift and ugly end.

In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein’s creature does indeed look hideous. Its appearance is the reason that almost everyone it comes across is afraid of it at first sight. But we see in the creature’s scenes with the blind man De Lacey how human, gentle and thoughtful he is. After his unnatural birth at the hands of Victor, he initially acts with kindness and curiosity, secretly helping De Lacey’s peasant family and showing a great deal of empathy and benevolence.

The novel gives the creature a voice and we see its potential for good and for love. But he never really has a chance. He is the product of unchecked scientific ambition, an assemblage of body parts dug up from graves, and the brutal force of lightning that seems to provide his “spark of being”. He is living dead. As soon as he comes to life, Victor says that “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” So the creature’s own creator immediately rejects him. Victor describes his own creation as “wretch”, “demon”, “villain” and “fiend”. While the creature is eloquent, he comes across virtually no one who will stick around long enough to hear him out. His existence, and the visceral human reactions to him, are a clear lesson in human prejudices. In the end, it is his rejection by everyone, including his creator, which leads him from childlike curiosity and kindness, to vengeance and death.

On the flipside, Victor, while described by others in the novel as “noble,” eloquent and “godlike,” shows many monstrous qualities. He is ego-maniacal, obsessive and unlikeably self-absorbed. He calls the creature “my own spirit let loose from the grave,” revealing his own internal monstrousness. Like his creation, Victor gnashes his teeth and is blinded by rage and vengeance. Like Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, Victor is punished for seeking and creating forbidden knowledge.

Frankenstein and his creation are dual co-existing beings, doubles to one another. They are both human and monstrous. They mirror each other throughout the novel, highlighting the monstrous in the human and the human in the monstrous. The light in the darkness and the darkness in the light (à la Star Wars). Their duality is clear when the creature says to Victor, “you are my creator, but I am your master.”

Nature, natural creation and birth are presented positively by Shelley in her novel, while the unnatural is constructed as destructive. The reader of Frankenstein is constantly warned that “dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” Victor’s ambition to distinguish himself through his science is what creates his downfall, while his creature becomes more and more desperate the more he knows. Knowledge is despair.

So this Halloween, as an English and Literature teacher, a researcher, a teacher, and a human in the world, I’m wondering what this tale of the dangers of science, the prejudices of people and the monstrous and human in us all, might have to offer.

I’m sitting quietly with my thoughts of monsters on this All Saints’ Eve. Re-membering. Dis-membering. En-visioning.

On the emotional, human dimension of teaching

A world map for World Teachers’ Day (photo by me)

On today, World Teachers’ Day*, I‘m going to reflect on my experience of teachers as a school student. I’ve written about what research indicates about ‘good teaching’, but this post shares my personal story of the teachers I remember, and how they shaped me as a teacher.

Growing up, but especially during high school, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I think partly this was because of my dislike for those in authority who saw their role as to uphold what I saw as petty rules. While on the one hand I was a geek who diligently completed my school work and strove for academic success, I did not want to fit into norms set by others. I skipped some classes. I didn’t see the point in wearing the school uniform, unless it was to shackle me to conformity as part of a homogenous group. One year in high school I called the State Education Department and checked their rules on wearing uniform, and then asked that they contact my school to explain that uniform was not legally enforceable. It turned out that the only enforceable guideline at the time was that students in government schools be neat and tidy in appearance. (Yes, I was that student.)

In Year 8, my English teacher insisted that I rewrite a creative story entitled ‘Stop, thief!’ Although I had worked hard and long to craft the story, she told me that a thief should not be good looking with a “chiseled jaw,” and that I was to rewrite him as ugly with a hooked nose and hunched back if I wanted to pass. This felt to me to be an unjust response, one that not only supported what I considered to be an unrealistic and one-dimensional stereotype, but one which failed to acknowledge my effort and deliberate authorial decisions. I wanted my villain to be good looking!

In Year 10, after approaching a teacher to transfer into his higher Mathematics class, I did not pursue the subject change after he told me he wouldn’t speak to me unless I tucked my shirt in.

These experiences contributed to my view of the identity of ‘teacher’ as authority figure and stickler for petty rules, an identity I had no desire to emulate.

After deciding eventually, and almost accidentally, to pursue teaching as a profession, my “I don’t want to be a teacher” sentiment morphed into “I never want to be a teacher like that but I do want to be this kind of teacher.”  As a teacher I am often an advocator for looser rules (such as encouraging mobile technology in class, rather than banning mobile devices) and am guilty of ignoring those rules which I think are there for control and assertion of authority, rather than for learning and developing students into self-regulating, autonomous, responsible, thinking individuals.

At school I connected with teachers who I thought cared about me and my learning, who gave me some scope to try alternative methods and pathways of learning, and who did unexpected things: the Literature teacher who helped the class read a difficult novel by providing coffee and breakfast while we listened to the audio book; the Mathematics teacher who differentiated to allow her students to feel success; the English teacher who would surprise the class by wearing elements of costume while enacting scenes from texts. 

I try to emulate these things in my own teaching, thinking of little ways to surprise and inspire. I began one lesson while standing on a chair, conducting with a pair of drumsticks I had confiscated. I take students to the river or the high street to write. I surprised a very serious class of International Baccalaureate Diploma students, with whom I had been doing difficult laborious text analysis work, by providing them with textas, pencils, reams of paper, and chocolate biscuits (Arnott’s Tim Tams and Mint Slices for my Australian readers). At the end of all our hard work trying to understand 800-plus page Anna Karenina, they were to spend a couple of hours creating a visual representation of the novel. The result was a thoughtful and inspired creation, a train driven by Tolstoy, in which each carriage visually represented a key moment in the novel, with a lit candle at the front of the train and a burnt-out candle at its end, representing Anna’s journey.

A later experience, as a postgraduate student in a class during my Graduate Diploma of Education, supported and developed these earlier experiences of the emotional dimension of being a student and of the impact of teachers and classrooms on student confidence. There I was, in a class of mature age Graduate Diploma of Education students. I was the youngest, at 20 years old, and the oldest among us was 62. We were asked to share our memories of the best and then the worst teacher we had ever had. What I noticed as my fellow students, themselves almost-teachers, responded to this question, was the emotions they seemed to experience as they recalled their memories of teachers who either inspired and encouraged them, or who made them feel small, exposed, and uncared about. I was reminded of the famous quotation, attributed to a number of people including Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It occurred to me during that Grad. Dip. Ed. class that the impact of a teacher, and their behaviour, on a student, each student, can be powerful and lifelong. That what for the teacher may be a throwaway line on a bad day, may for the student be a criticism which cuts deep and lasts a lifetime. It reminded me of the vulnerability of students and the turbulence of finding a sense of self throughout childhood and adolescence. This led me to continually reflect upon the effect I am having on students, my building of relationships, and my self-monitoring of things which may be seen by students as hurtful.

So while I often take an intellectual approach to teaching, looking to evidence, research and impacts, I think we also need to remember and recognise the deeply emotional, human experience of being both student and teacher. Happy World Teachers’ Day!

* World Teachers’ Day is held internationally on 5 October, but as this usually falls in the Australian school holidays, Australia celebrates it on the last Friday of October.

Reflecting on my PhD graduation ceremony

my Tudor bonnet and graduation shoes

my Tudor bonnet and graduation shoes

My Tudor bonnet brings all the cred to the yard

At my PhD I worked so hard

Wherever I lay my hat that’s my home

Its soft black velvet quells imposter syndrome

The PhD is seemingly never ending. Its end is emotional. Completion and post-PhDness is identity-bendingly confusing. And in Australia, with no viva or oral defense, there’s no clear end to the PhD. No full stop. Certainly no celebratory exclamation mark. I’ve reflected that my PhD ended with a whimper, not a bang.

So, while I have tended to avoid graduation in the past (only thus far attending my Grad. Dip. Ed. ceremony because my mum was graduating from her PhD that same night), the messiness of post-PhD identity wrangling, combined with an inner desire for a rite of passage or moment of celebration, drew me to attending my PhD graduation ceremony. While I have enjoyed some other milestones – submitting the finished thesis, having thesis amendments signed off, having the published thesis book in my hands, being conferred with the doctorate and getting the doctor title – a university graduation ceremony seemed to offer the acknowledgement and closure I felt I was missing. It was the last PhD milestone. The final carved stone obelisk at the end of one road and the beginning of another.

How I felt attending my graduation ceremony, 5 months after conferment of my degree

how I felt attending my graduation ceremony (5 months after conferment of my degree)

Graduation didn’t disappoint.

It was a great reason to design and purchase some graduation shoes, but also to procure a Tudor bonnet, age-old symbol of the doctorate. With its stiff round brim, silken tassels and floppy (impossibly-soft!) velvet top, this hat is at once unflattering, medievally ridiculous, and a long-standing symbol of scholarship. The red satin facings on the front and sleeves of the academic gown (which is burgundy at my university), and the accompanying Cambridge hood, represent the doctoral degree. Altogether it is quite the ensemble.

It was a lovely ceremony that allowed PhD graduates to feel acknowledged and respected for their achievements. We processed in past the seated audience, leading in the academic faculty procession, and were the first of the night to receive our degrees. Each of us was introduced, with our name and a blurb about our thesis (its title and description), at which point we walked across the stage to be personally congratulated by the Chancellor and to receive our degree. We were then invited up onto the stage to sit behind the Chancellor, professors and other academic faculty, a gesture welcoming doctoral graduates into the community of scholars.

Graduation was a wonderful opportunity to bring together some of the people who had been supportive during the PhD. It was an excuse to share this ritualistic formality with family and friends. As PhD graduates, we and our guests had VIP tickets that allowed us to mix with other PhDs, their families, their supervisors (including mine; I’m her 24th PhD completion), the faculty and distinguished guests, in a private room beforehand. There were more drinks and refreshments following the ceremony.

I can highly recommend attending your PhD graduation. After a journey that is often isolating, long and difficult, without a clear end, the ceremony was special, memorable and about coming together with your favourite people (and an applauding auditorium).

I now feel more able to rock those robes, not just with a saucy dash of red lipstick, but in terms of owning the achievement and assuming-subsuming-becoming the doctoral identity. I’m more ready to continue to move on from the PhD into The Next, The Beyond and The As-Yet-Unimagined-Faraway.

#graduationselfie #rockyourrobes

#graduationselfie #rockyourrobes #lovemybonnet

Power of a nerd herd: Ode to my people

Nerd Face Emoji

It seemed Liv had spent the last eighteen years in search of her people, and in one sudden explosion of fate, they’d all been brought together in this place in time. Her eyes filled with tears as a sudden awareness filled her. They were all nerds.” ~ Danika Stone, All the Feels

The word ‘nerd’ is often given a bad name, being associated with relational ineptitude and being socially outcast. But for me nerdiness is about finding joy in knowledge: attaining it, interrogating it, producing it. Immersion in it. Consuming, curating and creating.

I love it when a nerd is positioned as a central figure of a story. One example is astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, the protagonist in Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian. At one point Watney, stranded on Mars alone, yells, “Hell yeah! I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” Watney embraces his nerdiness, calling himself a “space pirate” and invoking the metaphor of Iron Man when he catapults himself into space near the novel’s end. The story arc of the novel, and the Ridley Scott film in which Matt Damon plays Watney, is carried by this nerd-hero and his melding of science knowledge and affable humour. Watney is the epitome of the lovable nerd.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on those people in my professional and personal spheres who make me feel like I’m at home when I’m with them. Many of these are fellow nerds. That is, we connect over our mutual love of something geeky (reading, writing, teaching, research, literature, coaching, art, science, story). We have a shared joy in finding things out and in doing purposeful work.

These are family and friends who, while I was completing my PhD, asked me about my research and listened to my responses. They are colleagues who get excited about a project we’re working on. Who co-plan courses, lessons, cross-curricular opportunities and assessments with a fervent enthusiasm and a twinkle in their eye. Who understand, or at least watch with knowing amusement, when I get excited about a new academic text or education book arriving on my desk (O, Book Depository, my faithful friend!), or about a paper being published. Who smile patiently when I cyclone into their office full of ideas busting to get out of my head or words tumbling out of my mouth. They are the past or present principal who continues to show an interest in and support of my work. Who sometimes says ‘yes’ and sometimes challenges me to think and do more.

They are the mentor or coach who waits while I work through my messy thoughts and helps me to arrive at cleaner ones. They are the colleague and bloggers who trust me enough to listen to their unformed thoughts or read their still-emerging ideas.
They are the professional friend who coaches me on Voxer or takes a phone call to help me work through a professional problem or issue. They are my PhD supervisors who gave me the space to explore some off-the-wall ideas, while challenging me to construct airtight rationales for non-traditional approaches. They are the well-known academic who shares their expertise via social media, flattening hierarchies and transgressing time zones. They are the conference-goer who stops me in the corridor after my presentation to talk for an hour, before moving our conversation to the long lunch it deserves. They are the co-author I’ve never met face to face, or spoken to on the phone, but with whom I’ve collaborated, co-written, and whose thinking and writing has pushed mine into new crevices.

They are my kind PLN who engage thoughtfully with me on Twitter, respond to my blog posts and meet up with me in cities around the world. Twitter is full of generosity. In my PhD acknowledgements, I thanked family and friends who had shown an interest and those in the social media world who had provided an antidote to isolation when I felt alone in my own head in the PhD wilderness.

Those people who feel like my tribe provide a space that is at once safe and challenging, celebratory and questioning, inspiring and industrious. It’s a place I can be excited about an idea, a text or a possibility. I can geek out and nerd it up without risking an eye roll or a snigger. I can share narrow interests and pursue broad passions.

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections, our people, our herd, our tribe, our squad. We can pay forward and give back. We can support each other’s nerdy excitement. In the karmic circle of knowing, learning, doing, being, leading and caring, we can share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories and celebrate others’ milestones.

Thank you to my fellow nerds who give me a sense of belonging and allow me the luxury of knowing that my personal brand of nerd has plenty of places to call home.

Achievement unlocked: I think I am Nerd Face Emoji.

Achievement unlocked: I think I am Nerd Face Emoji.