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.

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Cartoons to communicate science? #scicomm

With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily–but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care. ~ Randy Olson, Don’t be such a scientist

In 2015 the Oxford Dictionary word of the year was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. This year I have seen PhD researchers communicate their theses via emoji on Twitter. Today Emerald Publishing and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community released the following cartoon abstract of my peer-reviewed paper ‘Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders’. The paper itself, which has so far been downloaded over 4000 times, is open access, and I have also blogged about it.

What do you think of the notion of a cartoon or graphical abstract of a research paper? Is this a way forward for science communication? Can we use visual language to make research more accessible and more widely read? Could you or would you be open to designing a cartoon strip or graphic-novel-style summary of your research?

designed by Emerald and posted here on JPCC website: http://jpccjournal.com/teacher.htm

designed by Emerald and posted on the JPCC website

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

How writing is like cake making. #acwri

this week's home-made asymmetrical Aussie Rule football cake

this week’s home-made Aussie Rules football cake

Why cake ? Because joy and deliciousness are nutrients in their own right. ~ Jude Blereau

I make about two cakes a year, one for each of my children’s birthdays. One year ago, baking and decorating my eldest son’s cake prompted a blog post in which I compared making a novelty birthday cake to doing a PhD. This year, baking his double-layer chocolate cake (decorated as an AFL football field) had me thinking: this cake making business is a lot like writing, particularly academic writing.

My boys are 4 and (just) 6, so on my one-cake-per-child’s-birthday / two-cakes-per-year average, I haven’t baked that many cakes. Yet this week’s cake (pictured above), is the first cake that has felt stress-free to make, and first one for which I haven’t made big mistakes in the making. In the past my cake and icing mixes have split and curdled. I have broken cakes trying to get them out of the pan. There have been times when I decorated cakes the day before serving and the colours from the candy bled into the icing. Once, a heavy cake topper figurine sunk into the cake overnight. Earlier this year, I got a knife caught in the beaters while making icing, which resulted in me icing myself and the whole kitchen, including the ceiling. I didn’t feel quite the Nigella-esque image of domestic goddessery when I couldn’t see through my tears and icing-splattered spectacles.

This week there was none of the cake-anxiety drama. Baking and decorating were calm and enjoyable. Much of this was due to the knowledge and skills I have gained over time, as well as processes I have developed for this task. I knew to leave my ingredients out so that they were room temperature when I used them, preventing mixes from splitting. I knew to alternate mixing in dry and wet ingredients. I knew to take the time to cover the whole inside of the pan with carefully-traced-and-cut-and-placed bake paper so that the cake would slide out easily, with a now-practiced flourish, onto a wire rack. I knew to ice the cake while it was partly frozen to prevent crumbs in the icing, and to leave the extra decorations off until the icing was set so that the colours didn’t bleed. I had a familiar routine set out over a few days which made the process manageable. I also knew my materials better, what they could and couldn’t do. My expectations were managed. The cake was a bit lopsided, the icing a bit uneven, the drawn lines a bit skewwhiff. These imperfections were the marks of me as the maker, and I was ok with those idiosyncrasies. They were the ‘voice’ or the ‘me’ in the cake.

And so, from baking and decorating to writing …

My reflections on my journey as a novice baker and decorator remind me of my arc as an academic writer. The brief for each cake (footy! outer space! race track!), or each paper or chapter (this journal! that book! this field! that theory!), is different, requiring planning and consideration at the outset about how to proceed in order to reach a particular end point. Academic writing requires a nuanced understanding of its ingredients, materials and processes. The writer needs to understand, and be able to expertly manipulate, the language of particular disciplines and the language of particular journals. They build a growing knowledge of theories and literatures.

Like the baker, the writer develops a routine, a flow, an individualised writing process that works for them, including how to time their work, how to structure it, how to build layers of meaning, how to perfect and polish it in the final stages. They acquire tools and strategies for their work, things that make the work smoother and produce a better product. Some knowings and doings become internalized over time, with the writer having to think less about them, able to turn their attentions to refining their craft, developing deeper understandings and pushing the scope of their work beyond the limits of its previous iterations. Writers hone their voice, the ‘me’-ness in their writing, while watching out for their writing tics.

Like a cake made for a particular individual and a specific celebration, a piece of writing is often constructed with a particular audience in mind. Peer review of cake at a child’s birthday party is gentler than that in academia, but the party guest’s purpose is to appreciate and thank the host, while the peer reviewer’s purpose is to critically judge and improve the work. Once writing is published, more feedback comes in the forms of citations, downloads, reviews and social media shares. The audiences are different, but for both baking and writing there are accepted norms of feedback from others. A baker might dread the grimaced smiles of guests pretending to enjoy their cake while they leave slices unfinished, just as a writer might fear Reviewer 3’s scathing critique or the deafening silence of an uncited, un-clicked-upon piece, lying unread in physical and online spaces. Peer review is, after all, often like getting a punch in the face and a high five simultaneously.

While I am a sometimes-baker, I am a regular writer. I’m sure that if I baked with the constancy of my writing, it would improve markedly. I write something almost every day, for different purposes or different audiences. One distinction for me between baking and writing (obviously there are many differences!) is that I find I write my way into understanding, into knowing my own thinking and into interrogating my worlds and the writings of others. Writing is inquiry, identity work, illuminator. It is joy and struggle. And while a cake is devoured until only crumbs remain, writing lives on.

Textiles & academic writing: Material, process, product


This post, which could also be titled ‘remembering my 1990s feminist self’ is a re-emergence of some thinking I did a long time ago in my early years at university. After leaving school, I completed a Fine Art degree, followed by an Honours year. I’m writing this post as a way into self-inquiry, a way to write myself towards my hunch that my early days as a feminist-textile-artist-writer have underscored my more recent PhD work and academic writing. Big thanks to Katie Collins whose wonderful blog post on subversive material metaphors in academic writing sparked my thinking.

I was a painter from a young age, thanks to my artist mother, but I chose to study textiles as a major in my undergraduate Fine Art degree, rather than painting. This choice was due to the meanings inherent in textile materials, processes and products. A textile artist can weave in metal or print on latex. They can make work in the blacksmith forge or the sculpture studio. They can work with cardboard or furniture or paint or dye or thread or canvas or wire or plastic or found objects. The visceral and sensory experience of working with materials is central to the artistic process.

The materials a textile artist chooses, and the scale at which they magnify or miniaturise those materials, are deliberate meaning-making choices. The artist can choose needlework and hand-dying, or industrial Warhol-esque mass printing. They can applique or cut away. They can build or melt. They can assemble or destroy. They can stitch or slice. They can focus on the macro or the micro, staggering their viewer with enormous size or encouraging the viewer to come in, up close and personal.

Textiles is personal and political. It is also a subversive arena for artists, and often a feminist one. It pushes or rails against the stratification of ‘Art’, which has often meant the dichotomising of cerebral, thinking highbrow Art (upper-case ‘A’, often seen as done by men), and functional or decorative art (lower-case ‘a’, often associated with women and femininity). Historically, women were objects of art: she the body to be gazed at and sculpted. Or objects of art were personified as women: she the landscape to be scrutinised and painted.

The art historical devaluing of textiles pivots on its early treatment by critics, galleries and institutions. Aesthetic disciplines depend on recognised ‘powers that be’ to promote and uphold them. Early galleries and history books excluded textiles. Unlike painting and sculpture, textiles was historically seen as an unimportant discipline, undeserving of discussion, not worth deconstructing for message or meaning. The association of textiles with the devalued domestic space of the home, the opposite of the glorified public space of the art gallery, contributes to its dismissal.

So, why am I back here, thinking about textiles as feminist discourse or subversive act? Because Katie Collins’ post brought memories of my past self bubbling to the surface. And I am wondering to what extent my long-ago thinking and artistic practice, around the meanings inherent in working in and writing about textiles, has influenced my current and recent research and academic writing. On reflection, my PhD incorporated disruptive elements. While fitting largely within an accepted academic paradigm, it quietly challenged the ways that knowledge is traditionally written about. I used narrative method, literary metaphor and created three multimedia illustrations for the thesis, corporeal expressions of my thinking.

Now that I’m back in the eye of this needle, I need to think further about how textiles might provide a metaphor for research and academic writing.

In the meantime, below I will type an extract from a paper that won me the Allport Writing Award in 1998, and was published in Textile Fibre Forum. It was an analysis of Vivienne Binns’ artwork Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat. The piece gives a sense of where my thinking was around textiles as feminist activism in the late 1990s. I have deliberately omitted an image of the artwork as I’m wondering if the text itself can paint the picture for you.

(For non-Australian readers, Captain James Cook was a British explorer who claimed to ‘discover’ the south eastern coast of Australia in 1770.)

_________________________________________

Extract from ‘Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat: Rewriting history through cloth’

by Deborah M. Netolicky (1998), Textile Fibre Forum, Volume 53.

Mrs Cook’s Waistcoat may be read as one woman’s attempt to rewrite and reinterpret human history. Here Vivienne Binns contributes to the discourse on journey, adventure, and historical significance, telling the pain-filled woman’s story of discovery and adventure—the burden of waiting and worrying, as opposed to doing and dying. Through this work she questions platitudes of the day, such as “men work and women weep”. Binns demonstrates that women were not passive, but were actively working contributing, storytelling, and recording their own histories, written in needlework.

Binns uses journey as metaphor, identifying with Mrs Cook’s expedition as expressed through the waistcoat for Mr Cook. She challenges the value placed on women’s histories and women’s work by challenging the notion that Mrs Cook’s journey was insignificant in terms of human history. She has chosen to elevate its significance, giving it voice, implanting it in the discourse of high art.

… Captain Cook’s wife is the “Mrs Cook” referred to by the title of the work which tells the story of her laboring over a waistcoat for her husband while he is away on a long voyage. The waistcoat mapnel is larger-than-life, describing the legendary reputation of Captain Cook in Australian myth-making, and the amplified importance that Binns intends to give to the making of the waistcoat.

Binns connects the historical representation and exploration of Cook’s journey with issues of women’s value, women’s history, and the construction of gender. In her version of this story, the ocean water is a metaphor for a bewitching, intoxicating vacillating, unpredictable femininity and female identity … Cook, the white, middle-class male, is discovering, navigating, defining, and fixing the limits of the Pacific Ocean. He is writing the experiences, histories, and memories of and for the water, which has no voice. It is formless, restless, intuitive, irrational, and passive, in need of taming, subjugating, explaining and defining by the rational, scientific logic of male discourse.

Nature is tamed by culture. Binns places herself in the middle ground. She associates herself as water, as a woman employing subconscious, intuitive processes – her own emotions, remembrances, and ideas about certain colours, materials, and ways of working. On the other hand, she calmly calculates, selects, and constructs her images, associating herself with the heroic explorer, just as the artist does on a continuous intellectual journey to discover new meanings. This marriage of antithetical metaphors reflects Binns’ concerns with shaping perceptions of women’s ways of knowing, living, researching, remembering, experiencing, and making. By yoking the two ways of working, she gives equal value to each.

…The waistcoat can be seen as a woman’s way of writing and recording history. Women write history in fabric, men write history in text. Binns makes Mrs Cook’s journey of waiting, sewing, and weeping, as valid as Captain Cook’s journey. The labour and time involved in making this waistcoat explain the wife’s dedication and devotion to her far-away husband. Binns questions the trivialisation of women’s roles surrounding issues of the domestic and ‘crafty’. … She uses the processes, materials, and experiences of women—traditional metaphors of women’s work—to weave a myth about women’s forgotten places in history.

Penetrated openings are created by slicing, cutting, and scarring the fabric, fabric that represents flesh as well a material. … Rolled up papers (the stuff of men’s work) penetrate exposed fabric (the stuff of women’s work); paper penetrates fabric; men’s work penetrates women’s work; culture penetrates nature. The slits in the fabric are peeled back like open sores, mirroring the multiple stab wounds that were the cause of Cook’s death. The ultimate satire of the story is that while Mrs Cook is lovingly creating the waistcoat for her husband, he is already dead, his stab wounds mirrored in her handiwork. This is reflected in the typed and hand-written text, which permeates through a layer of white paint: “Mrs Cook embroidered… this time the Captain did not return and the waistcoat remains unfinished”. This irony elevates her personal anguish, and points to the difference in men’s discourses and women’s ways of speaking through needlework.

…Binns … uses traditionally female and domestic techniques of women’s work: embroidery, pattern-cutting, and sewing. There is a sense of Mrs Cook’s physical involvement in this garment, her time, effort, and care. It is stitched, cut, glued. Elements, images, textures, and metaphors are exposed, denied, revealed, concealed, constructed, deconstructed, veiled, disguised, patterned, decorated slashed, sliced, torn, ripped, reconstructed. The piece is layered with the corporeal stuff of memory.

… Binns does not create a new reality, but reflects and reinterprets the existing one in a way that gives it new meaning. She puts one moment in one woman’s life under the microscope until it boils, making her audience reconsider women’s lives, women’s history and women’s art.

Harvesting good work: Reap what you sow

I’m not a farmer, not even a green thumb really. While I quite enjoy gardening and have a composter, I’ve learned to populate my garden with plants that survive on a healthy dose of neglect. (Side note on the composter: there is something joyful about shredding old copies of my PhD thesis drafts and feeding them to the worms.) Despite my lack of horticultural know-how, I’ve recently been considering the farming—and biblical—metaphor that you reap what you sow.

I often see others I admire reaping the rewards of their work. These people aren’t slaves to the performative measures of a neoliberal system, or narcissists seeking the spotlight of social media celebrity. They are humans–professionals, thinkers, theorists and practitioners–dedicated to work they believe is important. To doing it, sharing it, making a difference.

Since the final throes of my PhD in March, things have been happening in seemingly organic ways. Of course the PhD got done-and-fairy-dusted, and the thesis published online. The first paper from my PhD has since been published: ‘Coaching for professional growth in one Australian school: “oil in water”’, in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education. I have another paper in press, due out next month. Two more are sitting on editors’ or reviewers’ desks. Two drafts are on the desk of a co-author. I have been interviewed on the Teachers’ Education Review podcast and on 2SER Sydney community radio. I had a piece published in The Conversation this week, about the dangers of pursuing performance pay for teachers. I am in discussions about bookish things, too.

And I’ve been on some kind of accidental-on-purpose conference circuit. AERA in DC in April. researchED in Melbourne in May. The International Symposium for Coaching and Positive Psychology in Education in Sydney in June (this Thursday and Friday). Heroism Science in Perth in July. For (little old) me, alongside my work at my school, all this seems like armfuls of hand-picked produce.

I’m not sure why I’m surprised at the pace of my recent schedule of outside-of-work commitments (also known as the unpaid-but-rewarding work that is academic writing and presenting), and the fact that I’ve started to be approached, rather than doing the approaching myself. But I am quietly bemused that I seem to be in a harvesting part of a cycle, even though I know that this is actually the result of hard and persistent work. The seeds for the current abundance were selected, sown and tended a while ago. Papers were written and reviewed (and reviewed and reviewed). Abstracts were drafted and submitted. Relationships were formed and cultivated. Presentations were prepared. Work was done. A lot of it. In my evenings and on my weekends and in my down time, and in all the little nooks and crannies of my life where I could fit reading, writing, collaborating, learning and connecting. Thank goodness for the wonderful people who support me, from my family and friends, to my colleagues and professional learning network, the Twitterati and my Voxer Squad.

I believe in doing good work. For me this is enacted in ways that are without a linear frame. I’m never quite sure where I’ll end up, or even where exactly I’m intending to go. It’s about doing work that I’m passionate about and feel is important, whether in service of my students, my coachees, my school, or knowledge in the world. In my writing, too, I often try things out, head down trails unsure of where they lead, double back, try again.

So, for now I continue to sow seeds I think are worth sowing. Write and research those things I think are worth writing and researching. Say things I think are worth saying. Teach what I think is worth teaching, in ways I think are most worth doing. Seek to learn those things I think are most worth learning.

The fun thing about this kind of sowing is that it’s like planting mystery seeds. I never quite know what influences or impacts something I do now might have in the future. It’s why the reaping feels like Christmas morning.

The best bit is how rewarding all the persistent and consistent hard work is. I like the work itself. I love the struggle and the triumph. I love the connections and the relationships that bubble up and take form. I love the unexpected rhizomatic results. A failed planting. A teeny green seedling reaching up from damp dark earth. A basketful of glossy fruit. A knotted beanstalk reaching up to the clouds.

Academic activism: Scholars, let your moral passion drive you #aera16

Iwo Jima at sunrise

Iwo Jima at sunrise

The theme of much of my day at the AERA conference yesterday was around scholarly activism. This post, which also shares a few of my photo snaps from DC, reflects on what yesterday’s sessions had to teach me about being a scholar. This comes at an important point in my journey. Now that the PhD is done, I’m thinking about what work I’ll do next in my school, my research and my academic writing.

In one roundtable session, a paper by Stefani Relles and Randy Clemens used the metaphor of punk rock for academics who use DIY scholarship in their quest for social justice. They theorized punk rock scholarship as grounded, activist and disruptive, using comparisons to skateboarders, graffiti artists and musicians of the punk movement. I reflected that a punk rock scholar might circumvent or disrupt traditional academic practices by self-publishing, using social media, blogging, or embracing open access and saying no to pay-walled publishing. But there was discussion at the roundtable about the extent to which an academic can be an outlaw. How disruptive can one be within the system, which places particular norms, pressures and metrics on those working within the academy? How might academics navigate the need for a pay check and tenure with their passion for social justice? Is it a case of corporate Bruce Wayne by day and vigilante Batman by night?

Similar issues emerged in a six-paper session about post-qualitative methodologies in which scholars were pushing at the boundaries of, dissolving, or letting go of, accepted Western ways of knowing and researching. Audience questions included those about how to exist within an academy while challenging or dismissing much of what it holds to be true or important.

Georgetown blossoms

Georgetown blossoms

Yesterday the notion of scholarly activism also emerged in a panel of what some might call superstar or celebrity academics. A discussion between Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch was moderated by Washington Post education reporter Valerie Strauss. One theme which emerged was the importance of researching and writing from a burning core of moral passion. In discussing their books, the authors talked about what had inspired and driven them to write. In each case it was a sense that a book needed to be written, an argument needed to be made, something had to be said, an idea or group needed to be mobilised. Their writing was framed as political activism and advocacy. It had an emotional and moral component. Andy Hargreaves noted that writing should be based on the nobility of an idea.

Diane Ravitch’s story pointed to the need for persistence with moral purpose. She told the audience that her best-selling, award-winning book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education was initially turned down by 15 publishers. At 77 years of age she is also an example of the power of social media and blogging. Her blog has more than 14,000 posts with more than 27 million page views. This speaks to the opportunities for scholars to leverage social media and the blogosphere to communicate their work and their messages to wide audiences. Tweeting and blogging can be scholarly writing practices.

Jefferson

Jefferson

I wonder about how much career stage and level of influence make a difference to the extent to which it is possible to disrupt the status quo. As a PhD candidate, I pushed at the boundaries of the traditional in my thesis, but I was also keenly aware of the need for my dissertation to be recognizable (by the all-important examiners) as an acceptable academic text. I pushed and agitated, but within the limits of what I thought I could get away with while still passing the PhD. Are those earlier in their careers, or in universities on contracts, less able to agitate, disrupt and advocate? Or is it again a case of Diana Prince sometimes, Wonder Woman at others? Clark Kent and Superman? The acceptable academic versus the one fighting for what they believe at their core to be the most important work?

The AERA conference itself is in some ways an exercise in homogeneity. While with about 18,000 in attendance, there is a wide range of topics being covered, most attending are dressed in variations of the same theme. Outwardly, there is an expectation of the academic, graduate student and educator. Do we wear our capes beneath our clothing? Is it our words and our work that are the heroes and the punk rockers?

Yesterday answered many of the questions I’ve been asking myself about what work to choose to do next. I think the answer might be simple. Do the work you believe at your core to be important. Say what needs to be said. Be guided by moral passion, social justice and fundamental purpose.

Folger Shakespeare Library

Folger Shakespeare Library