The new normal in the arms of the old

Diversity of working practices must be one way of improving diversity of participation. It may become a factor in survival.

In the first week of the Covid19 distancing, on a departmental coffee break in one of the popular meeting applications, colleagues maybe uncomfortable with distributed collaboration and diverse working patterns asked what they had to “give up” in order to work in a distributed collaborative mode.

My first thought was, “The nine to five!” But, much comfort shared in well-defined protected time emulating the old normal. Some argued that it was important to maintain routine. Many colleagues dressed for work. There were jokes about not being: “… only dressed from the waist up.” Children and pets presented briefly but neither seen or heard during work.

I have spent my life trying not to work the nine to five. I love working “anti-social hours”. I hate commuting. I do not revel in avoidable shared misery.

I was an early adopter of distributed collaborative working. Never truly a pioneer. In the late 1990s I helped implement Internet Relay Chat for professional development in a global industry. I envied my friends who had “real email” in universities while I made do with CompuServe. I had a”web log” just before they became “blogs”, a LiveJournal, a MySpace, and TypePad (Remarkably still there from 2009).

When I started working in higher education I was 48. I found colleagues similarly motivated by passion as much as reason, who didn’t all think they were doing the day job. Some kept routines in offices. Others lived in tele-cottages on outer islands. Some lived on boats. Some had children. All appeared to be enthusiastically productive, effective and influential, navigating senior corridors in universities and governments. We ran large and small-scale online distributed collaboration learning events. We made a MOOC that was among the first in the UK to be accredited. Some of the things we did have become business as usual. Much did not.

I understand routine. But, I also understand diversity. We declare how important diversity is. This post could become more of a discussion of diversity than I planned. I will observe that diversity of working practices must be one way of improving diversity of participation in the benefits of society, including higher education.

I am concerned

I am 66 with a history of pneumonia x2, once with the nee naw up to the John Radcliffe and about 8 hours in A&E. And that was two years ago. I have had bronchitis many times until I started getting the flu jab: winter chest infection free for the past 2 years. I am very not keen to get Covid-19. But, life does go on and if this is my last week/month/season, I do not want it to be, even metaphorically, spent hiding behind the sofa trembling in isolation. But, I also respect those who want to stay out of harm’s way. I do not want to be on their vector of transmission.

Learning in the time of…

Covid-19 has brought about a collective response. What can I call it? Madness? Folly? There will be bad come of it. There could be good come of it.  I read that the number of premature deaths due to urban air pollution is down more than deaths due to Covid-19 are up. And there will be many unexpected outcomes of all sorts. How can the good be upped and the bad suppressed? Much to be learned from a moment of quiet reflection before action. Locally it appears to be a real boon to those who enjoy being in charge. Everything can be put on hold because we have an emergency, here. Headless chickens issuing commands left and right.

 

Making money off the misery of others

Among the things I got from my father is a phrase he used to guide the way he engaged with the world. You don’t make money off the misery of others. This was usually applied by him to to the provision and practice of socialised medicine. But, it extended beyond the health of individuals with a powerful positive corollary: if people are in misery and you could do something, but choose to make money in the face of that misery you are sure as shit slips off a shovel making money off their misery. Private, for-profit hospitals were axiomatically, for him, wrong. I do not think he could have imagined private prisons let alone a society – or single human – which or who would benefit from such a thing.

I accept as a society and member of such, that I might want to use force to prevent the immiseration of others directly: robbery, assault and so on directly immiserate the victims. Those who prevent such activity should be paid as good a wage as anyone engaged in the alleviation of misery. I understand incarceration as a part of a holistic approach to making the world a less miserable place. But, we shouldn’t fund pensions through such activity and we certainly should not fund lavish lives. Surplus value created through the alleviation of misery should be returned to common wealth not private benefice. Removing liberty is as fundamental as providing any service, which alleviates misery. A preventative corollary follows. The liberty to profit from immiseration should be restricted.

There is, of course, a 1,000 mile question in this inquiry.  How close to the misery do I have to be – in space or time – before anything I do should be restricted in order to turn all my resources to the alleviation of that misery?

Reflection in action: professional development study visits

How close to the moment can you get? “Be here now,”  urges 1960s psychologist Richard Alpert. A mythical Google aspires to a perfect concurrent rendering of this reality: in real-time, in software. How much rewinding can we do before anyone notices the pause for thought? Reflection in action often has the effect of: “Oops! Don’t do that again.” Have we all heard ourselves tell ourselves, “Don’t say that,” and then hear ourselves say it? The warning reverberates like a slow bell buoy. It fades until the next wave makes a ding! Good learning is sometimes referred to as “authentic”. What is this but being “in the moment”?

I have been invited to “Listen to and comment on” a number of presentations this morning. These presentations will be made by participants on a study tour for Chinese academics and higher education professional and student-support services staff.

I received the invitation yesterday morning in a hotel dining room in Cardiff, shortly before co-facilitating a workshop for newer academic staff at the University of Cardiff, who may be new to teaching and leading study modules.

So this is a note to myself, in the moment between. My colleagues at OCSLD and I use a phenomenographic approach to analysing learning events and the work of those who lead, teach or otherwise facilitate learning in higher education. Try to distinguish between event and judgement. There is data. And, there is analysis.

I have engaged with four one or two-day events organised by Oxford Prospects Programmes. Two events were for about 50 “senior academics” (n=100) from a number of Chinese Universities. One event was for about 45 professional and student-support services staff. One event was a symposium on “Education and Social Governance” jointly organised by Beijing Normal University and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. At the symposium, academics from both institutions, eminent local government officers and representatives of the British Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London addressed contemporary socio-economic impacts of higher education and the role of education in social governance issues such as rural depopulation, industrial development and teacher education.

I am seeing these events all through a professional development eye as an authentic opportunity to consider where a globalising academy sees itself going next.

Beginning of term

Shamanic meso-american woman playing the earth as a computer keyboardSystems or people? We can model learning in order to develop ways for our machines to acquire, store, process and apply data: information gathered from the world around. Although I put it as a vague question of preference at the start of this essay, it has many ramifications. Are people not just quite complex systems? And is complexity simply a diversion? Is it not a more simple question? Where are the boundaries and limits?

I ask this at the beginning of term because this is hurricane season for university administration people and systems in general, and has been in particular for my university at this moment. We are building a new student record system. Well, we are acquiring, localising and implementing a student record system consisting of many new – and large – components. And, it is the system we use to manage relationships.

Which means, for the moment at least, we need to manage relationships in a different way: through people not systems. Or at least we have – for the moment – to act as though people are different to systems. Or, maybe that systems are people?

One thing we do know about people is that they feel things when they are under stress. They feel things like anger, anxiety and fear. Can I repeat that, please, using “I-statements”? I feel angry, anxious and fearful when I am under stress. While I want to be careful about projecting those feelings onto colleagues, I also want to attend to others with empathy for the possibility that they might also be angry, anxious and fearful.

One notebook warning

One notebook

One notebook

I write. Not as much or as well as I should. But I write. Two very broad forms interest me: poetry and philosophy of learning, knowledge, theory. What is true and good?

Do these concepts mean anything? I believe they do. My job, and much of this writing, here, has to do with trying to explain – to myself as much or more than anyone else – what it means to learn and do “well”, that which is “right to do”: Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Bob Dylan, Paul Eluard, Alain Badiou, Bob Marley, Slavoj Žižek and Mikey Smith mashed up.

Žižek, late in this monologue, says the real artist does not add, but takes away.

I used to keep a separate notebook for work and a different one for poetry. I took it away  one and a half notebooks ago.

I am adopting that principle here in this blog. Over the next few weeks I will be on a rescue mission to a few old websites.

And the warning? You might come across some poems. You might come across some philosophy. You might come across some teaching. My honest intention is to make connections. To converse. It is all dialogue. And, a story.