I don’t know where the last year went other than into a busy working life. I think my last blog piece was in April last year. Part of my plan for the blog was to remind myself how to write, and use the blog as a way of keeping writing. Keeping writing seems to have been a bust! At least in blog terms. Although I have been working on a couple of individual pieces for publication, done an introduction to a proceedings and am editing (with colleagues) a collection for SEDA, so maybe writing has still been going on.
My daily working life is one which is fairly full with a lot of reading, writing, presenting, talking, thinking aloud and generally trying to keep up with the busy-ness of developing professional staff and understanding (and helping others understand) the sector I work in. I mostly, most of the time, enjoy what I do. Of late, working has taken over far more of my other time (for my partner, my cat, my house, my sense of self, my connection with friends and novels and the world beyond work – yes there is one, honestly!) and in particular seems to have left me with little time for thinking.
I read two things recently which have pushed me back to this blog and to thinking through writing (and writing to think), and about the future of higher education, as well as my own future place in HE.
The first piece I read was a blog about hope and despair (or not) and higher education in the USA http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/opposite-hope-isnt-despair I thought the piece was sad, but I recognised too a familiar sense of hanging in there by the fingernails that is echoed by many of those I know working in HE in various countries round the world. All we can do is teach, and write and try to make small differences and not be overcome by the pressures of governments and money to undermine any values HE provides, and the despair of a world that seems to grow less fair, less equal and more divided. The author doesn’t believe they can change the world for the better through their work, but there is a sense of trying (not despairing) to make small differences to individuals.
The other piece I read was an article about being an academic reflecting on the impact of overwork on health and trying to find some balance. I was reminded of the besetting problem faced by those whose work is often cerebral – we separate our bodies and our brains so very effectively that our bodies have to shout at us, very loudly, to be heard (usually by laying us flat!) . My own body has been sending me signals for a while now, and I’m trying to listen, but the bruises from a recent fall are a strong reminder that I wasn’t listening very well!
It seems to me that HE is at a crisis point (which may take 20 years to actually fully show). Governments have/are ‘tinkering’ and the ideological shape of that tinkering has yet to be understood. Technology is radically changing the sources and ownership of knowledge. Economic changes and approaches are driving students expectations, managerial processes and professional practices to such an extent that HE is already very different to how it was even 20 years ago. Not all the changes are negative; in fact the partnership between students and staff in Universities and the opening of HE to a far wider range of participants (both as students and as academics) is a bright light in murky waters.
But we can’t go on hoping it will all go away and everything will return to normal. And I’m definitely not convinced that the increased managerialism and business-minded approaches that seem to be advocated as an alternative are in any way suitable for education at any level.
Education changes lives. Education opens doors. Education creates citizens and revolutionaries. Education is scary, and beautiful. Those who are educated ask questions, they think, they interact, they explore creative solutions. Universities are full of educated people, so surely the answers are already seeded in the minds and hearts of those people. If we are at a crisis point, we should be well placed to identify creative solutions. We shouldn’t be despairing the end of HE as we know it, but imagining and even creating the future HE as it could (and maybe will?) be.
Selfies and remarks about them seem to be dominating social networks at the moment. I get that the whole notion, and the clever (but tacky) term for them, is a logical product of social networking and the technology that supports it. Touch phones and tablets and their tools made selfies inevitable I guess. I’d largely been ignoring the sheep-like spread of selfies through Facebook and Twitter, but it turned out I was a bit of a sheep too. On a recent visit to Bruges, the selfie I produced looked more like a still from a Bergman film than anything cheerful and social!
What I have found more interesting and also rather frustrating has been the recent rush of selfies by women, partly attached to a campaign for a charity, where women have been putting up selfies ‘without makeup’. There is so much in this that frustrates me and saddens me. WHY is this so provocative, so ‘radical’ that it creates a furore. I’m glad for the charity that they have benefitted, but really disappointed that one of the reasons they have done so is because it is considered such an unusual thing that a woman would put a photo up on a social network with no make-up on!! How many men would even be considering this. Yes, I know some men wear make-up, but the majority of men on Facebook and Twitter have all of their photos without make-up. Virtually all of the photos (maybe all! I honestly don’t know) of me are without make-up. I’m middle-aged. I wear make-up sometimes, but really mostly, what you get is me, clean, mostly tidy (tho I have long wild hair, so sometimes not), fresh faced and often smiling (though not on the aforementioned Bergman selfie!) I don’t even think about the fact that the photos of me out there relating to both work and play are make-up free. Good grief I’m a radical, I’m weird, I’m strange; maybe I’m a man? In my weird world men or women can wear makeup but really it isn’t automatic for anyone, and mostly what you get is people smiling.
I belong to a book group and we read a fairly wide range of books: mainly fiction, but not exclusively. I wrote an earlier post on Moran’s “Like a Woman” which was a book group read. Recently we read “After Nature” by W.G. Sebald. It’s a prose poem about three men: The painter, Matthaeus Grünewald, the botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, and Sebald himself. It was translated from the German by Michael Hamburger (translation approved by Sebald apparently who lived in the UK until his death) It is something I would never have thought about reading, but I really liked it. It made me laugh, and made me think, and made me research the characters and events to which it referred. It also seemed a timely read given my current fixation with nature and with seasonal changes. (see several previous posts).
“At the moment on Ascension Day
of the year forty-four when I was born
the procession for the blessings of the fields
was just passing our house to the sounds
of the fire-brigade band, on its way out
to the flowering May meadow. Mother
at first took this as a happy sign, unaware
that the cold planet Saturn ruled this hour’s
constellation and that above the mountains
already the storm was hanging… ” (p.86)
The book isn’t very long if you are tempted.
Yesterday, we walked Calum’s Road on Raasay. We also danced at both ends of the road. Calum built the road at the far North of the island over a 10 year period primarily alone. His goal apparently was to turn a wild track into a reasonable road to maintain a community and enable his daughter to get to school. A friend of mine has choreographed a dance to the Capercaillie song about Calum’s amazing feat, and we danced her dance to celebrate her birthday and the work of building the road. For me, and some of the others who danced I think, dancing is a way to keep building community, and smoothing the path we share. it was actually quite moving to dance together. The weather was vile, and the environment was bleak, but it felt great.