Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

Tweeting and blogging: Selfish, self-serving indulgences?

Narcissus by Caravaggio

This week I’ve been mulling over a post in the TES written by Claire Narayanan in which she argues that teachers’ time is precious and they should quietly get on with their jobs, not spend time writing about it. In encouraging teachers to be ‘do-rus not gurus’ she writes:

In a world where self-promotion has rather shamelessly crept into education, the real heroes are not those who we may follow on Twitter, read about in leadership manuals or hear speak at conferences, but those who are at the chalkface.

These are the teachers who seek no recognition beyond a set of decent GCSE results; a thank-you from their headteacher every now and again and, best of all: “Thanks Sir/Miss, I enjoyed that lesson”.

They haven’t got time to attend every single TeachMeet in their region, read every piece of research written, attend every conference around the country on their subject area or update their blog. Does that mean they don’t care as much as those who do? No chance – they’re too busy marking and planning.

I found this interesting and a little challenging. Of course no-one attends ‘every’ TeachMeet, reads ‘every piece of research written’, or attends ‘every conference around the country’, but the suggestion that ‘real teachers at the chalkface’ are too busy marking and planning to entertain attending professional development, reading research, or blogging, implies that those who do make the time for these activities are perhaps neglecting their teaching jobs. Otherwise, how would they have the time? It also implies that these activities aren’t a valuable use of teachers’ time.

I agree with Claire that we shouldn’t pursue gurus and heroes in education. My PhD reveals the importance of leadership that is deliberately invisible and empowering, rather than visible, focused on the leader, or driven by outward performance. I’ve spoken of the silent work of coaches and leaders. And as a full-time teacher and school leader who also tweets, blogs, and writes peer-reviewed papers and chapters, I know the tricky balance between self care, time with family and friends, and service to the profession and to my students.

I wonder, though, about the implication that those who are on Twitter or presenting at conferences are shameless self-promoters or narcissists seeking heroic guru status. Many of those who tweet and blog, I would argue, do so because they are interested in learning from others, sharing their own perspectives and experiences, and engaging with educators from around the world.

Part of what keeps me blogging is that it helps me think through ideas and get feedback from others. Another part is how useful I find the blogs of other people in helping or challenging my thinking. I also see blogging and academic writing as a service to the profession and a way to reclaim the narrative of education from those normally at its apex. It is why I am involved in the Flip the System series of books, which offer and value the voices of school practitioners—those working at the whiteboard, in the playground, and in the boardroom—that are often ignored in education reform, and yet are crucial voices to drive change in education. As Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggested in the first Flip book, teachers and school leaders can be agentic forces in changing education from the ground up by participating in global education conversation.

When I asked Claire on Twitter whether she saw all who tweet, share, blog, and present as shameless self-promoters, she responded, “Not at all. I’m all for sharing and learning. We all get on with the job in the way that suits us.” We seem to agree that different things work for different people. I don’t expect everyone to use their time as I do. There are benefits and costs to choosing to spend evenings, weekends, and holidays on professional activities or presenting at conferences. Last year I paid the price of going too hard for too long without a break.

For me, social media provides an avenue for sharing, learning, and connecting. I can tweet out my thoughts into the nighttime abyss, and somewhere, someone in the world is there to respond. I found this especially useful during the isolation of my PhD. I connected via social media with generous, supportive academics, researchers, and doctoral candidates from around the world who provided crucial advice and moral support.

My understanding of the world is broader for the conversations I have with those around Australia and the world, on social media and at conferences. These conversations and relationships allow me to see outside of my own context and my own perspective. They spill sometimes into productive collaborations that shape my thinking. I wrote here that:

In a world in which we are more connected than ever, we can be buoyed, empowered and supported by our connections…. We can pay forward and give back. We can … share our knowledge, contribute our time to help others on their journeys, listen to others’ stories, and celebrate others’ milestones.

Do I think we should acknowledge and celebrate the quiet daily work of committed teachers? Absolutely. Do I think we should encourage teachers to be mindful of workload, wellbeing, and self care? Yes, yes, yes. Do I think this is mutually exclusive from professional learning, engaging with research, interacting on social media, or writing blogs? No, I do not.

The oasis of writing

Sometimes we need an immersion in a cooling, calming place of our choosing. That might involve turning off our devices, turning away from social media, turning towards what nourishes us. It might be sitting in silence, or playing music loud. It might be the catharsis of working with our hands, or the release of letting them rest. It might be solitude or connection, work or play, stillness or movement, mindful or mindless.

School is currently out in Western Australia, and while I am working, I have been taking time out across the break to bathe in oases of sorts. I’ve been on a brief holiday with my family, pottered around the house, seen friends and indulged in another haven of mine: academic writing.

Those of you who write for a living or are in the throes of a PhD (Oh, the unicorn-dancing-in-a-champagne-waterfall highs! Oh, the despairing bottom-of-the-dark-pit lows!) might roll your eyes or baulk at writing as an oasis. But after a term of working full-time in an exciting but challenging newly-formed role in a school, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, parenting my two lovely children, and trying to maintain relationships with family and friends, I was ready for a break from the relentlessness. From feeling like the mouse on the wheel, full of urgency and repetitive motion. Not only that, but both social media and real life have had their share of challenges lately. Academic writing has been a welcome and nurturing reprieve; simultaneously mental work and a mental break. Academic writing continues to be like my PhD, which I sometimes managed to think of as a holiday from all-the-other-things, or intellectual me-time, although without the weighty pressure or looming examination. Papers and chapters are more bite-size and more varied, and pleasingly always at different stages; just as one becomes difficult, another is coming together or being accepted.

Of course academic writing is not easy or necessarily enjoyable. With it comes challenge, struggle, sometimes brutal feedback. It helps that the acwri I’m doing at the moment is writing I want to do. I’m engaged, interested, motivated, intrigued. I’m learning, growing, pushing at the boundaries of what I know and can do. Academic writing allows me to extend myself in different ways to my school role.

Some of this writing is solo, but I’m also writing papers and chapters collaboratively, something still pretty new to me. Perhaps the collaboration is the coolest part because working with others takes me out of my usual groove, my usual ways of thinking and writing. It gets me engaging with others’ words and these spur my words on. Our words are like gifts from a science fiction world; they shapeshift and take on different lives as they are passed back and forth between authors.

This kind of writing and collaboration is somewhere for a writer to luxuriate. Nestle in. Be cocooned by the writing while at the same time deliciously confronted by it. I brace for feedback but at the same time allow myself to be vulnerable and to be shaped. To read unfamiliar theory, try alternate approaches, or to tinker with new ways of theorising, researching and writing. To have one or more other writers to generate and energise.

It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s a welcome distraction from the daily rush of work during term time and the barrage of angry educators slinging accusations at one another on Twitter (thank goodness for my arguing on EduTwitter bingo card!). This holiday break I’ve worked on a solo-authored journal paper and a collaborative chapter so far. I’ve got one more collaborative chapter to look at over the next few days. I’m looking forward to it. Like a cup of tea at the end of the day after the kids have gone to bed, for my pracademic self, straddling as I do the worlds of school and academia, academic writing can be a moment of ‘aaaaaahhhh’, of indulgence, of me-time.

Stream of blogciousness

Aqua Fauna by Britt Mikkelsen, taken at the 2017 Cottesloe Sculptures by the Sea

It’s Friday. The day I’ve told myself I will post a blog piece each week. Often I have the post written by Wednesday. Or I sit with a wine on Thursday night and work through it, luxuriating in the writing, getting the post ready so that it can sit quietly in hiding, ready for posting the next day. Sometimes it’s times like now – once the kids are in bed on a Friday night – that I finally sit down with my laptop and begin my tap tap tapping. Brain and keyboard reconnecting. Sometimes I agonise and go tentatively. Sometimes the words explode in a cacophony of keystrokes.

Occasionally, I skip a post, despite this being like the sound of fingernails down the blackboard to my perfectionist tendencies. Who cares if you don’t post? says the sane voice in my head. If you shout into the blogging void and no-one listens, it’s like it never really happened, whispers another. Why have a self-imposed deadline if you can’t break it? mutters the voice of reason.

This post, tonight, is a bridge between not-posting and posting-to-deadline, Writing about writing. Blogging about blogging. Guilt blogging. Words on the screen. A deadline met.

It’s not that I’ve been dragging my feet. In the last week I have written four blog posts, two for this blog—on International Women’s Day and on E4L in Australia—and also two for my school’s blog. I had a co-authored paper published in the International Journal of Research and Method in Education (Wahoo!). I had one child with a broken arm, the other with a virus. Sleep hasn’t been great. I presented at an evening leadership event that I organised with a colleague for the leaders in our school. I held a 5th birthday party with a Star Wars theme, including making the cake from scratch (another self-imposed rule of mine). I attended two grown-up birthday parties. I danced. I worked full time. I missed two calls from my sister and have not managed to call her back. I attended parent teacher interviews for my two kids. I packed lunches for school and also boxes of belongings because I’m moving house soon. I have plenty more to pack. Plus forty Year 12 English essays to mark. Plus plus plus.

Star Wars cake for Mr 5

So I can probably just have a glass of wine and relax. Skip the blog. I doubt very much that my small readership wait with baited breath for my posts to ding into their WordPress reader or inbox each Friday. So why do I feel compelled to stick to my deadline?

I wonder if it is a fear that if I let my own schedule slip then it’ll be a slippery slope to the occasional lonely tumbleweed post blowing through an empty desert of a blog. Or an abandoned wasteland of once-prolific posts, words dried out like carcasses in a summer drought. That my writing muscles will atrophy. That I won’t make the time to use this blog space to think through the things that get stuck in my head. Those thoughts that need to be teased out like fine silk threads or rolled around and around in meditative contemplation. Those dilemmas that need thrashing out and that burn in my mind until I assault my keyboard to get them out.

Today I had a bunch of partly formed blog ideas. Mostly things in my work or research that I’m thinking about and around. But this is the post I have written. I can only assume that this is the post that I needed to write. Maybe it’s my way of giving myself a break.

Writing productivity this Academic Writing Month #AcWriMo 2016

acwri at Melbourne airport

acwri at Melbourne airport

November isn’t just Movember and Dinovember. It’s also Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo), the time for academics to publicly shout their writing goals from social media soapboxes everywhere. Ironically, at the moment work is taking over all my working and spare hours and my academic writing pipeline is suffering from inertia as a result. I haven’t been able to make the time to acwri, despite making constant lists that include acwri targets (respond to revisions! write draft paper! scope out argument! complete literature review!).

For me, academic writing is both unpaid work and a labour of love. While I don’t need academic publications for the work I do in my school, I write journal and conference papers because a) I think my research and writing have something to offer, something to say, and b) I enjoy the writing, the writing-thinking, the off-shoots of ideas from my PhD thesis that I now get to play with, and opportunities for co-authorship.

This blog both gets in the way of my academic writing and helps with it. It takes time and discipline to blog (I try to blog at least once a week, usually on a Friday), but I find that blogging keeps my writing wheels oiled and turning, which flows over into my scholarly writing. By blogging weekly, I never feel out of writing practice, even during these times when my academic writing slows to a barely perceptible drip.

Despite my inertia of the last few weeks, I share below some of my own approaches to academic writing productivity. I could call this ‘5 tips for productive writing’, but I agree with Naomi Barnes that tips aren’t always helpful.


Count more than you can count

I wrote last AcWriMo that successful writing is more than word counts. Sure, sometimes it’s motivating to hit a word count milestone. Every time I hit a 10,000 word number during my PhD felt like I was getting closer to somewhere, something, the end product.

If, like me, you write a lot and often too much, it can be satisfying to cull words, to watch the count go backwards. I cut 15,000 words from my PhD in the final editing stages. There’s joy in word cutting, too. Refining, pruning excess, making the writing better, stronger, clearer.

Sometimes it’s useful to use a Pomodoro timer or a bomb timer to give a sense of writing focus and urgency. I rarely use timers, but I often write to the time I have. One hour while the kids nap. Forty minutes between weekend commitments. Stolen moments before the family wakes. Having such little writing time means that I am highly absorbed when it comes. There’s no time to be distracted, dithery or unfocused. I prepare writing goals and materials for the times I map out, and when they arrive I write like a tropical cyclone.

Write where it works for you

I need quiet or a steady hum to write. Total silence works, but I can’t often get silence, or even solitude, at home, unless my husband takes our sons out.

A busy café with indiscernible noise also works for me. I love writing in cafes because a) I don’t feel alone as I‘m surrounded by people, b) I’m not distracted by domestic chores, c) there’s good coffee and d) it can make writing seem more pleasurable, like a holiday or an indulgence. I love the low hum of indistinguishable conversation as the soundtrack to writing.

I even considered acknowledging some of my favourite writing cafes in m PhD acknowledgments. The owners and baristas recognised me. I was the polite woman who would sit alone, drinking two coffees over two hours, tapping away at my keyboard or shuffling through annotated drafts. Quarantining myself in a public space for a specific block of time allowed and motivated me to just write.

Write when it works for you

Know your most productive times. I am at my best between 7am and 11am. This is when I zing with energy, ideas and the kind of focus that means that words and solutions come easily.

I am at my productivity worst from about 3pm to 6pm, during which I usually have the least physical and mental energy. Then I have a strange energetic renaissance between 8pm and 10pm, which are often the hours that I blog. Yet, sometimes in the evening I am too tired for anything but the most menial tasks: calendar entries, checking references, basic admin. I’ve learned that it’s better to close the laptop rather than stare uselessly in a kind of slo-mo catatonia.

To write my PhD, I had to leverage my best writing times and avoid my worst ones. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending time writing and not getting anywhere.

Use the in-between times

The shower, sleep, a walk, standing at the checkout, taking children to the park. These are all opportunities for cogitation and idea percolation. I often find, especially if I know I’ll be racing between commitments, I will deliberately plant a writing problem in my mind by thinking deeply on it for a time, and then let go of it, knowing that my brain will somehow continue to chip away at it while I do other things. Sometimes I revisit the problem mindfully, and sometimes a solution or idea will bubble up, unsolicited. Our writing solutions and growth often happen while we aren’t watching.

Work with others

I am new to co-authorship, but am finding that the writing relationships I am now nurturing push me beyond the kind of thinking I do on my own. I’m exploring new theorists and fresh methods. Collaborative writing can grow us beyond our writing selves.


Despite my inactivity thus far this #AcWriMo, I appreciate the social media reminders of the importance of academic writing, and of making time and space for it. This is true even for someone like me who is on the academia outer, an adjunct and a practitioner in another field.

I can give myself permission to ride the ebbs and flows of work, writing, parenting and being a friend/spouse/daughter/sister/colleague. For now I will keep scribbling my acwri lists, keep revisiting my acwri goals, keep putting my eye to my acwri pipeline. I’ll get it moving again soon.

The gift of failure

surf fail from

couch surfing fail from

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.