Using coaching in qualitative research interviews

being interviewed about my research

being interviewed about my research, in front of Sydney Harbour

In my last post, I tried to illuminate some of the internal dialogue and thinking that goes on in the coach’s mind during a coaching conversation. On Twitter, in response to that post, Avril Nicholl reminded me that being deliberate about interaction, and explicit about role, is applicable to qualitative interviewing. So in this post I’ll explain how I used my coaching toolbox when I was conducting qualitative interviews for my PhD.

My PhD experience of the qualitative interview comes from both participant and researcher perspectives. I interviewed one group of participants for my study, as interviewer and researcher. But ethical issues resulted in another group, and me, being interviewed by an independent interviewer. So I was interviewer, designer of protocols and questions for someone else to interview some participants, and an interviewed participant in my research.

Interview is a widely used way of generating data, especially when the researcher is seeking to explore feelings, relationships, beliefs, identities, and insights about people in action in their social worlds. As I discussed here, the creation of meaning is a complex interaction dependent on meaning-maker and context. Narrative researchers often agree that participant stories are not fully formed, waiting to be drawn from the person. Rather, meanings are made on the spot; shaped by the questions asked, the interview structure, the interview environment and the interviewer themselves. Interviews do not just recall knowledge; they produce it, in the moment.

Anecdotally, I experienced this myself in being interviewed for my study by the independent interviewer, who I had briefed on interviewing me and other participants. I had written the questions and the protocols, so I was surprised by the experience of being interviewed for my own study. In thinking aloud, or being probed to think further or differently, my own thinking was not only illuminated, but deepened, extended and re-shaped, even though I knew what the questions and foci beforehand.

The interviews for my PhD sat somewhere between semi-structured and un-structured, designed to elicit storytelling from participants. I wanted to, as narrative research doyenne Catherine Riessman suggests, “follow participants down their diverse trails” (in ‘Analysis of personal narratives’, 2002). I wanted interviews to be less about my agenda (although of course my study had its foci) and more about surfacing participant stories in all their messiness and humanness.

Planned questions were sparing; there were only a few. These were based on the phenomena on which the study focused. Mostly, these anchor questions started with, “Tell me about …” There were also suggestions for probing questions. The interviews were designed to be broadly consistent for each participant (in question order and focus) but the structure of the interview was flexible enough to explore tangents which emerged from each participant’s responses.

When interviewing, I was explicit about my role as researcher and interviewer, especially because I was interviewing people from within my own professional context. I used my coaching toolbox to give me a structure and approach for research interviewing. I applied an interviewer listening pattern of ‘pause, paraphrase, ask question’ (borrowed from Costa & Garmston’s 2006 Cognitive Coaching). This interview structure encouraged participant storytelling, while allowing patterns and idiosyncracies to emerge.

I was aware of leaving space in conversation for pausing and thinking, rather than jumping in when there was silence (as I mentioned in my previous post, restraint and pausing are areas of personal mindfulness for me). My coaching training on eye movement (see visual representation above for more on how to recognise eye cues) allowed me to see what sort of thinking the interviewee was doing, which helped me to wait while that thinking happened; I knew if I jumped in with another question I would be interrupting the person’s internal dialogue or their recollection of an experience. Usually the silence in the interviews didn’t last long but instead was a jumping off point for the participant to speak further; it was a space in which the interviewee was thinking and after which their story would continue.

I found that, rather than asking questions, I was attempting to distil, clarify, or abstract the person’s thinking with a well-considered paraphrase. While the focusing questions were necessary to direct responses onto the research foci, a Cognitive Coaching approach allowed me to ‘get out of the way’ of participants, following them along their own stories as they directed and developed their own responses. After the interviews I had feedback from a number of participants who said that for them the interview was useful, a great conversation, and a luxurious space in which to reflect on their own professional selves and practices. The research interview was valued by participants as an opportunity which provided the space and structure for learning and reflection.

My Cognitive Coaching training also helped to bring to my awareness, during the interviews, to the importance of trust, rapport, body language mirroring, pausing and paraphrasing. Conscious of maintaining rapport, I did not take notes, but allowed a Dictaphone to capture the audio. I watched the conversation body language in a kind of meta out-of-body looking-in-from-outside experience, and often found myself mirroring the interviewee’s body language. I was mindful of how participants used their bodies and hands to express their ideas and their relationships to things. This allowed me to pick up on the nuances of their thinking. Were they sequencing points on their fingers or in the air in a linear pattern? Were they expanding themselves and their ideas out into abstraction or magnitude, or bringing them close to their chests, showing something was dear to them? Non-verbal cues helped me to paraphrase participants’ responses.

For me, coaching and being coached has influenced the way I have conversations in all sorts of arenas. As a parent, as a partner, as a friend, as a teacher and as an interviewer. As a PhD candidate and neophyte researcher, the coach’s toolbox was helpful in developing my approach to qualitative interviews. As interviewer and coach, my PhD interview transcripts and audio provided data for reflection on my practices.

While the role and purpose of a research interviewer is different to the role and purpose of a coach, the principles and skills are transferrable: belief in the capacity of the individual, active listening, paraphrasing, asking questions which mediate thinking, and keeping oneself (coach/interviewer) out of the conversation. Both kinds of conversation – coaching and research interviewing – should be primarily about the person doing the thinking, talking, sharing, storytelling. Although the coach or interviewer of course influences the words and thoughts generated, they should aim to be almost-invisible catalyst, mirror and conduit.

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Doctoral supervision: From the PhD Panopticon to circle of awesome

Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? ~ Michel Foulcault, Discipline and Punish

chapel by @debsnet

circular chapel with spire

This week, Module 2 of the How to Survive the PhD MOOC asked us to take a photo of something in our daily lives which harks back to the history of the doctorate, and comment on it, perhaps considering the remnants of history on our own doctoral experience.

Although not medieval or at a university, I was immediately drawn to the chapel of the school at which I work. It has two elements which might be seen to allude to the history of the doctorate.

The chapel has a large spire atop it, which appears as a sharp white spike, piercing the blue sky. The spire speaks of the monastic traditions of the PhD, which was originally based on an understanding of the Bible. Whenever I’m sitting in this chapel, I’m aware of the presence of that spire, which looks like a kind of direct line to God, awaiting a lightning bolt of inspiration or knowledge, or carrying prayers to the heavens.

The circular form of the building is the other feature which has me thinking about my experience of the PhD. Could it represent an ideal cycle of PhD completion or be an Orwellian metaphor of authority, surveillance and control?

On the one hand, the symbol of the circle might help us to think of the PhD journey as a complete, unified process. Although most candidates do not experience a seamless journey, they might feel at the end of their doctoral studies that the cycle or circle is complete (not, hopefully, like they have ‘come full circle’, but that they have tied up the ends of a long process).

A circle often also suggests infinity, and certainly the PhD process can feel like it is never-ending. Just as one PhD milestone is completed, there are already more laid out before the candidate.

circle by @debsnet

In a less positive view of the circular building, I am reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Michel Foucault’s Panopticism. The Panopticon was a circular prison building with a central watchman’s tower, perfect for surveillance and control. The prisoners were separated from each other by concrete walls, and yet potentially under constant surveillance from the eye of the watchman. The watchtower emanated bright light, so that at any time each prisoner was unsure if or when they were being watched. Foucault saw the Panopticon as a symbol of power through the knowledge and observation of the watchman, and the disempowerment of the imprisoned and the watched who were robbed of knowledge.

I wonder how traditional vs. non-traditional views of the doctorate might relate to the Panopticon. Often PhD researchers are isolated, like Panopticon prisoners in their cells. They are watched over in varied ways and to differing degrees. Some may feel like they are unaware of the knowledge of the watchman, those in the academy who know what a PhD is, and what a PhD researcher should be doing; the watchtower is knowledge from which the candidate is excluded. Some might feel as though they are working away in their cells beneath the eye of no-one, abandoned by beacons of power to toil alone, un-watched and un-helped. Perhaps some research students would like more constant watching and checking in by their supervisors. Some are watched over generously by kindly supervisors who are far from the invisible authority in the blindingly-lit tower.

Despite Foucault’s observation that the idea of constant surveillance could help with self-governing behaviours – that people who think they are being watched develop agency and self-discipline – I would hope that the modern PhD experience feels very little like being invisibly surveyed by those in authority, where the candidate is power-less and the academe is power-full. PhD candidates should not be seen as a population which needs to be under the control of powers that be. Doctoral researchers should be capable of independent research and provided with supervisory support.

In my own experience of supervision, I have found that the supervisory relationship slides along a continuum as it changes over time. At first I felt very much like the enthusiastic apprentice to the knowledgeable masters. Never was I, however, expected to emulate the masters. The PhD is about creation of new knowledge, not emulation of old knowledge. In my Fine Art study we copied the Old Masters so as to understand how they did their work, but then took this knowledge and bent or broke rules to generate new ways of creating, producing or knowing. Research, like art, is conversation in which layers of meaning are added.

At some point along the way I felt as though I became a peer or collaborator in my supervision meetings, with some of my own expertise to offer, although my supervisors are still the experts in PhD completion and peer review processes. I became the expert on my own work. Finding my own voice and owning my contribution was an important step in developing my researcher identity.

I still feel sometimes as though I am working behind soundproof concrete walls, alone in the PhD studio (it has not been a cell for me). Yet connections with tweeters, bloggers, and now the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC online community, have helped me feel more connected to others experiencing the doctorate from their various vantage points. My circle has become more campfire-Kumbaya and less panoptic Orwellian control.

Balance, not division. Compassion, not attack. Conversation, not war.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. ~ Pema Chödrön

by @debsnet

Often I am struck by argumentative battles in traditional media, on social media and around the blogosphere. I appreciate those writers, commentators and educators who share their musings, experiences, readings, and perspectives, without using divisive loaded language or attack. I think the rantiest I have gotten was this post on the APPR reforms in New York and this one around whether teachers can be researchers, but I attempted to frame my criticism through making transparent my perspective and asking clarifying questions. Balance.

I have written a lot about my school’s coaching model, as it is kind of my baby and it’s something which I think is worth sharing; others might gain from hearing our story. Yet this coaching model is not stand alone. It is not as though teachers at my school are only coached by teacher-coaches in a non-evaluative, non-hierarchical model. In their first year at the school, teachers participate in a rigorous evaluative permanency process. Every year they have a conversation with their line manager, who touches base with them on their work, goals and classroom practice. Every third year, teachers have their coaching cycle with their manager. This is more evaluative and performative by its nature, and by the nature of the relationship. Teachers additionally work with instructional consultants. Leaders work with coaches. Professional learning community teams and action research projects work alongside. Growth and evaluation. Balance.

I have written about the creative things I trial in my classroom like a term without grades and genius hour for students and teachers. These are things at the experimental end of the spectrum of what happens in my lessons, so I share them as stories of experience and part of a conversation. I do these things to develop engagement of my often-reluctant high school English students, to build their self-efficacy and to help them learn to rely on themselves as drivers of learning, rather than entirely on me as Teacher with a capital T.

Does that mean I don’t use explicit instruction? Of course not! I explicitly teach concepts, skills and texts, although I temper this with encouraging students to do their own thinking and to trust their own thinking, rather than expecting that I can fill them, as vessels, with the answers. What are the ideas of the text? What interpretations might be drawn? Answers can come from me or from Spark Notes, but if I do my job properly, students will have the skills, understandings, language and cognitive capacity to draw their own interpretations, from their own contexts, and justify these using logic and evidence. The best student responses comprise original thinking, not regurgitated knowledge. The best teachers focus not just on effective learning (our core business, of course!) but developing learners and passion for consuming, curating and creating knowledge.

In my Head of English roles at three schools I have ensured a balance between explicit instruction and those strategies which propel love of reading, power in writing and deep intellectual engagement in ideas and discussion. Interestingly, Charlotte Danielson’s heavily-researched Framework for Teaching has its ‘proficient’ descriptors describing teaching which is expertly directed by the teacher, and its ‘distinguished’ teaching descriptors outlining lessons in which students are taking responsibility for their own learning and behaviour. Creative and explicit. Balance.

I have written about lyrical metaphors for PhD study, and only occasionally about the unsexy logistics of what the graft actually looks like. My conceptual framework draws in part from fictional literature. Does this mean my PhD is devoid of hard, critical, scientific work? No. My PhD is of course the result of the logical, systematic working through of literature, data and research problems. When writing the Limitations section in the conclusion of my thesis I was highly aware that all research has its limitations. Extensive quantitative data can show us patterns and effects, but these may be faceless. Qualitative data can drill down deep into the messy humanness of lived experience which may be unrepresentative of wider groups and therefore not generalizable. Yet each study adds its tiny piece of understanding to the layers of what is known. Research is conversation. Imaginative and systematic. Broad and deep. Balance.

I would love to use the line ‘I’m a lover not a fighter’ but I think I’m both. I believe in sharing and celebrating our stories, but I will advocate fiercely for my students, fight for what I believe is right and argue for my research. Balance.

From a history of my posts, it is probably clear that I am seduced by the lyrical, by storytelling, by creative approaches and by metaphor. Yet I am not one dimensional. Nor is my teaching, my thinking, my researching or my living. Balance.

I came across this excellent recent TED talk from Jon Ronson on the way social media has moved from giving voices to the voiceless, to an angry mob mentality of shaming and abuse, in which people seem to forget compassion and morality.

While I love robust discussions which take us out of the echo chamber of we-all-agree-high-fiving, I also think we need to approach these with compassion, thoughtfulness and a view of each other as human beings. We can disrupt with respect. We can disagree gracefully. We can advocate with civility. (And if you throw in a metaphor, you’ll totally have me!)

by @debsnet

Research as conversation: contemplating Wicked and the Mona Lisa

Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game. … It’s time to trust my instincts, close my eyes, and leap. ~ Elphaba, Wicked

This week I took my mum to Wicked the musical. It was the third time I’ve seen it, the first being in London’s West End in 2007. I still remember the goose bumps that raced up my arms as Elphaba rose into the darkness singing that she was “defying gravity”. After seeing the show with my mum, our talk turned to art, research, and my thesis. Yep, that’s how my mum and I roll. So how did Wicked prompt talk about research?

Wicked is an example of a literary and artistic work which inserts itself into a discussion. It adds to a conversation started by the 1900 L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Loosely based on the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, it refers to the original story, reinventing, reimagining and conferring new meaning. It takes the Oz-Dorothy-Witches narrative from one of the value of journey, the longing for home and good triumphing over evil. It transforms the well known children’s story into a tale of the Other, accepting difference, embracing our authentic selves and fighting for what is right in the face of corrupt political systems. It takes the imagery of the written story and the film interpretation and recreates these in fresh ways through music, set design, costume (the shoes! the millinery!) and dialogue. Clever references to Dorothy’s story are woven into this back story about witches Elphaba and Glinda. In this way Wicked is a creative product which adds layers of meaning and injects new insights and perspectives into an existing story.

Artists also ‘speak’ to each other through their work. The long history of reimaginings of the Mona Lisa, a few of which I have juxtaposed below, illustrates how artists comment on each other’s work through their creations, adding to a dialogue about what art might be, how art might be created and what art might have to say about the world it inhabits.

art is conversation

art is conversation

Commenting on Da Vinci’s 1517 painting, Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, in 1919 Marcel Duchamp drew a moustache and goatee on a cheap postcard reproduction, labelled it L.H.O.O.Q. (a pun) and exhibited it in a gallery. Duchamp’s appropriation and reinterpretation of one of the world’s most famous paintings brought into question its value and challenged the then-definition of fine art. In 1954, Salvador Dali produced a work in which he added his own eyes, moustache and hands filled with coins in Self Portrait as Mona Lisa, in a kind of artistic high five to Duchamp. Pop artist Andy Warhol used the Mona Lisa image in his 60s screen prints, blurring lines between high art and popular culture. In Warhol’s work, Mona is reproduced through the then-controversial-in-the-art-context screen printing process. She is repeated in primary colours to reflect assembly-line mass production, questioning the place of art in an increasingly mass-produced consumerist world. These artworks show how artists use their processes and subjects to talk to each other across time. Each uses subject and method to add a new layer of meaning, present a critique or pose a challenge to what has come before.

Research, too, is part of a conversation. Like writers and artists, theorists communicate with each other through their work over time. A literature review places research within the historic conversation. Where and with whom does it fit? Whom or what might it challenge? Research methods draw from what has come before. The approaches of old masters and contemporary talent become models to emulate, springboards from which to adapt or materials with which to weave new forms. Discussions and conclusions are places in which researchers form reimaginings and state contributions to the greater conversation, to existing knowledge.

Research writing, too, is steeped in academic tradition, in a conversation of form and language. Some choose to adhere strictly to the expectations of academic or dissertation genres, and some choose to push and challenge those boundaries. My thesis, while not a creative work in the sense that an arts thesis with exegesis might be, draws on literary as well as academic traditions. It uses a literary work as a conceptual frame in order to draw metaphorical meaning.

Some might not agree with seeing research as creative-product-in-historic-conversation, perceiving it as a lyrical idea which undercuts the systematic science of research. Of course research is logical and systematic. It can be viewed as science but it can also be seen as story, as creative work and even as sculpture. A recent post by Lara Corr on the thesis whisperer blog talks about the creative elements of research. She plays with the ideas of being a master builder and colouring outside the lines. Pat Thomson’s post on discussion chapter as flight influenced my posts about starting the discussion chapter and building a researcher identity through it.

In Wicked, Elphaba comes to a place in which she chooses a new path and embraces a new identity. Have you found a place in your research or work where you were able to defy gravity and fly? To add your layer to the conversation in which you are engaging?

As somebody told me lately, everyone deserves the chance to fly! And if I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free. To those who ground me, take a message back from me. Tell them how I am defying gravity! ~ Elphaba, Wicked

Front load your work. Be an expert. Own your contribution.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go. ~ Dr Seuss

by @debsnet

sometimes the words slowly bleed onto the page

As a mid-career professional I often feel comfortable in my work in teaching and school leadership. I might come up against challenges, but I do so with a sense that I know what I’m doing and have a sense of how to make my way through them. ‘This is what I know how to do,’ I think to myself. And forward I go without a second thought.

There are times, however, when I cannot forge forward confidently. Becoming a parent, for instance, threw me into a new situation and a new role in which I had to start from scratch. I was a newbie who had to find my way into my parent-identity and a way of parenting which worked for me. The PhD is another something which throws people into a new deep end. I have written about my realisation that my discomfort zone is my place of growth, but that doesn’t make the experience of discomfort any more … comfortable!

I type this post from the throes of my current nemesis: the PhD Discussion chapter. I wrote last month about my feelings of paralysis before beginning this chapter, and how I eventually got started. And yet here I still am, four or so iterations later and still wrangling, dancing with, building and un-building my discussion.

Part of my struggle is around scholarly confidence, reflected in the notes from my last PhD supervision meeting which read a bit like this: ‘too much other people’, ‘less others, more you’, ‘put your ideas up front.’

It seems I am clinging to the literature. I still want to prove to my reader that I have read everything I can get my hands on and I know my stuff. That I’m not a masquerader or pretender. And it seems I do this by citing and paraphrasing and putting up front the work of Others.

You know Others. In the mind of the novice researcher they deserve capital letters of knowledge because they are experienced, frequently-published, well-renowned academics, not researchers-in-training or Doctors-in-waiting.

And yet in the Discussion and Conclusion of the PhD I know I must identify myself as an expert. A person worthy of a capital letter (like a ‘Ph’ or a ‘D’). I keep reminding myself that I am an expert in my own research and that I can stand on the front foot when I discuss my findings and what they mean in the world.

So my current notes-to-self for the Discussion chapter are:

– Stop trying to prove my worth through literature.

– More me. Less others.

– Front load my work.

More than just a process of writing, this is a process of becoming. Becoming a researcher. Becoming a researcher who knows she is a researcher, feels like a researcher and makes knowledge claims like a researcher. It’s taking me many molasses-slow drafts to find my expert voice and a way of writing which foregrounds my own research and my own academic voice, while still situating my research within the existing literature. But step by step I am getting closer.

And I’ve been reading Dr Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go! to my children recently so I am armed with the mantra that with brains in my head and feet in my shoes, I can move mountains. One painstaking word at a time.

You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way! ~ Dr Seuss

You're off to great places, by @debsnet

the édu flâneuse atop an Icelandic glacier

 

Travel and presence: doors to clarity and joy in life and work

offerings, Canggu, Bali, by @debsnet

table of offerings being made

Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe. ~ Anatole France

In 1964 Baudelaire described the flâneur (or for my purposes, the flâneuse) as “lover of universal life” who “enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” He describes flânerie as the mirroring of crowd and environs, in which the flâneur is a “kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding … and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.”

Oh the places you'll go! Canggu mural

Oh the places you’ll go!

As the édu flâneuse, then, I am mindful of channelling this notion of the reflective mirror or refractive kaleidoscope, of being an absorber of words, worlds and wonders. While I try to find awe and gratitude in the everyday, travel is the perfect opportunity for practising the flânerial mindset of intense attentiveness and expansive wide-openness.

Tanah Lot, Bali, by @debsnet

Tanah Lot temple

My recent trip to Bali, in which I gave myself permission to take a break from work and PhD study (and also blogging and even engaging professionally on Twitter), was the perfect opportunity to embrace flânerie and presence (one of my 3 words of 2015). As well as unplugging from constant mental and physical engagement in work and study, I was focused on the travelling mindset, defined by Alain de Botton as being about heightened receptivity. As Adriano di Prato writes on his blog ‘Permission is Triumph’ we must each say ‘yes’ to living our lives in the way we choose.

offerings on Echo Beach rocks

offerings on Echo Beach rocks

While I left home in a flurry of jumbled thoughts, to-do lists, marking piles and thesis pages, I have returned almost delirious with relaxation, centeredness and acute awareness of the present moment. The act of travel, and its immersion in people and places, has allowed me to re-ground myself, reflect and practise receptivity, allowing me to (hopefully) return to daily life, work and research with renewed clarity, purpose and joy.

Ayana Resort infinity pool, Bali, by @debsnet

infinity pool at Ayana Resort, Jimbaran

My experiences away included those with my husband, children and friends. But they also included solo flânerial entanglements in environment. Early morning walks often provide these moments for me. In the past I have watched the sun rise above iconic landmarks including Venice’s St Mark’s Basilica and Prague’s Charles Bridge. There is something magical about being alone in the first quiet golden light of day, watching a city wake up, before it is caught in the throes and machinations of its daily grind. This trip was no exception.

Tumpek Wayang ceremony, Seminyak, Bali, by @debsnet

Tumpek Wayang ceremony, Seminyak

One morning, as I wandered through the streets of Seminyak at dawn, I happened upon a Tumpek Wayang ceremony in which three individuals were led by a holy man in ritual. I was first drawn to this small ceremony by the sounds – the pealing of bells and the twittering of a small caged bird. I drew closer and sat nearby to watch as the ceremony continued, with prayers, offerings and sacred rites conducted with grace and in luxuriant colour. I have since discovered that Tumpek Wayang occurs every 210 days and that its purpose is to honour the god of art and artists, Sanghyang Iswara. After it had finished I was able to talk to the people about the ceremony, its significance and what it meant to them, such as the use of holy rice (bija) for blessings and to bring their god to themselves by placing the rice on their forehead and also by eating it.

basket of petals, Bali, by @debsnet

basket of petals

Another morning, wandering through Canggu rice paddies at sunrise, I encountered a Balinese man, or he encountered me, and we began to talk. He asked me if I was a spiritual person, and we spent the rest of the walk discussing spirituality, blessings, meditation, music and love. ‘Love,’ he said, ‘is when the heart smiles.’ We talked about the meaning of Engelbert Humperdinck’s lyrics ‘there goes my everything’ and the role of music in life and self. I don’t speak Indonesian and this man’s English was limited, but we connected at a moment in time and managed to communicate across cultural and language barriers.

Echo Beach sunset, Bali, by @debsnet

Echo Beach, far away in time

These experiences, as well as other small moments like watching the sunset colours change or talking to a woman as she made the morning’s offerings from baskets of soft petals, allowed me to connect presence, self and world, experiencing it in open, receptive and reflective ways.

Vue Beach Club, Canggu, Bali, by @debsnet

beach club sunset

I have returned from my trip hopeful that I can hold on to this feeling of openness-to-noticing and use my flânerial Spidey senses as a tool to keep me centred on my axis. I am considering how I might bring the idea of paramaterising my commitments to work and PhD into my weekly existence. How might I make attentive noticing and openness to unexpected conversation a daily practice? How might I take more regular self-care breaks in order to restore clarity, increase productivity and protect wellness?

When you take your attention into the present moment, a certain alertness arises. You become more conscious of what’s around you, but also, strangely, a sense of presence that is both within and without. ~ Eckhart Tolle

Canggu rice paddies, Bali, by @debsnet

Canggu rice paddies

 

When imagination & hard work collide: making something amazing

Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all. ~ Michelangelo Buonarroti

Today is International Women’s Day and as a woman trying to balance parenting, working, PhD and being a person, I have recently felt overwhelmed. I don’t believe in men or women ‘having it all’ but I do want us all to have the freedom and power to make our own choices. Sometimes, though, the choices we make can feel like difficult paths to walk, especially when something surprising tips us off balance and throws our delicate ecosystem of relationships, roles and responsibilities out of its precarious equilibrium.

On top of the usual teaching, parenting and life stuff, my work at school is currently focused on school-wide implementation of a strategic project focused around teacher growth. My PhD is centred around pulling 300 references, reams of data and over 200 pages of words into a coherent thesis, in time to meet my own personal deadline for submission (of course, this deadline is four months ahead of the official deadline required by the university.) Along the way, I am trying to keep the magic, spark and creativity in my thesis. It is a bit weird, a bit whacky, and a lot me. Part of me is thrilled that I have been able to craft a research project and document which so authentically aligns with my own (lovably weird) identity, and part of me is anxious about the work still ahead. I need to ensure it resonates with what I value in research while also being acceptable (even significant?) in the world of academia.

So, much of what I am presently in the midst of working on requires daily commitment, laser-like focus and hard grafting work. Perhaps this, combined with piles of marking and lesson preparation, has contributed to me feeling drawn to the creative and the crazy. I have been seeking out connections with things which capture my imagination and buoy me with their colour and magic.

As a follow-up, then, to my experience of gigantic marionettes walking the streets and this post on my friends’ amazing interactive sculpture-on-the-beach, here are some more shots from this year’s Sculpture by the Sea exhibition.

Perhaps you will also find solace and escape in the wonder-full, the unexpected and the strangely beautiful. How is a PhD like a sculpture? These sculptures, while capturing imagination, are also the outcome of commitment, dogged determination and hard, systematic work.

Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, by @debsnet