A hidden cost of conferences

I was at a conference last week; hence the lack of a weekly blog post. I had the best of intentions, thinking I would perhaps live-blog the conference, or at least get a post out last week talking about the top sessions, inspiration and ideas. The fact that I wasn’t able to do any of that and I’m still recharging gave me the topic for this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have multiple sclerosis. Chronic fatigue is a standard symptom. I have learned about managing my fatigue, not taking on too much or pushing myself beyond my limits. I’ve also had to reconsider what those limits are, ask for help, adapt and prioritise. My family and friends keep an eye on me, reminding me when I forget to take care of myself. My employer has been incredibly supportive in allowing me to work flexibly, so I can manage more things than you might expect, including doing a part-time PhD while working full time. I am very fortunate as I can still get out and about.

Then come the conferences with associated travel, increased social interaction, presentations and workshops. Conferences are an excellent way to share your research and meet new people, but they carry a hidden cost for me in the impact on my health. As an example, the conference last week was excellent and I was looking forward to it. Air-travel was required, but I was armed with tea tree oil and haven’t caught a cold. I sensibly opted to go to bed instead of attending the conference dinner. I had included additional time to sleep, scheduled a day off when I got back home, and my out-of-office message said I would respond to emails when I was able. Even with careful planning, it is a week later and I am aware that it will take me at least another three weeks to return to normal functioning energy levels. In the meantime, I am taking it easy – I see it as putting my dodgy battery on trickle charge 🙂

This blog site is entitled “The Sustainable Academic” and conferences negatively impact my academic sustainability in two ways. One – the environmental cost of travel. Two – the physical cost of attending. As with all my colleagues, I have to select the best conferences that meet my research needs. We all have limited budgets and time, so this choice is carefully made. What options are available to cover my additional costs?

One option is to increase and improve opportunities to connect online. The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) run an online winter conference. The Networked Learning conference has run online “hot seats” (discussions and presentations) in the past and plans to run these in the future. At this point, you may be saying to yourself “…but these events are for people already interested in engaging online”. True, but the lessons learned from these can be extended into other areas. An excellent example of a wise use of technology is the Virtually Connecting option. The aim is widening participation so that any who are unable to attend can have an online chat with key presenters and ask questions. If there is a conference you want to attend and can’t, you can contact the team and see if something can be organised. You can become a buddy (of many kinds) to help increase the number of events where this option is available. I had the good fortune to participate in a session last week and could see the incredible potential.

It is true that meeting in the same location will be the preferred choice for many. Personally, I’m excited about virtually connecting to the Festival of Learning in Vancouver next week!  For those wondering about the experience of living digitally, see @Annakwood’s excellent blog post: http://learningfrome-learning.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/10-years-of-living-life-digitally.html #MillionsMissing.

Right, that’s me for today. I will blog about last week’s conference in future posts, but for now, I’m off to tuck myself up and get busy recharging 🙂


Where do we go…?

In my post last week, I was thinking about how the digital could function as a “thin place”, creating that magical sense of almost there, a step apart from someone and somewhere on the planet. This week, Ruth Stalker-Firth kept my mind whirring on that thought. I love that sense of synchronicity when ideas seem to draw in others, though my supervisors tell me that happens when you are early in your PhD and everything seems connected to your research 🙂

Ruth asks “Where do we go when we go online?” and talks in her post about attending a live webinar with Eckhart Tolle. His talk focuses on living in the now,  discussing how we can live fully in the present, while considering how our online practices can serve to distract, pull us into the “collective unconscious” as Ruth terms it. We go online and lose awareness of time and place.

I began to wonder about presence, our physical presence like mine in the garden, and our virtual presence when we are connecting to the Internet… I was off wondering: Where do we go in the space? (Stalker-Firth, 2018)

I smiled as I read this – as Ruth was distracted from Eckhart’s talk as she wondered about our virtual presence, I was equally distracted from her discussion of the research, caught in her “peripheral” report of her surroundings. I was sitting in her garden listening to the birds tweet and the traffic go by, echoed in the sounds of tweet and traffic in my own garden. I was feeling my breath and thinking about my presence. I had stepped out of time, and through her description, my virtual self had traveled to sit with her. Her brief description of her garden was not enough for me to visualise my/her surroundings, but there I was, sitting beside her, eyes closed, breathing deep and listening to the birds.

This medium – the Internet – expands us and influences how the message is perceived and so, creates a symbiotic relationship. (Stalker-Firth, 2018)

By now, you will have realised I’m a sucker for symbiotic relationships. Ruth’s comment above weaves into my previous thoughts on this, on the digital, on the physical and the lack of boundaries between what is “me” and “everything else.

I believe it is our desire to connect and experience and be experienced which really drives our minds, not the technology. It is our willingness to want to reach out for are hardwired for connection and shared experiences are a quick way to connect. (Stalker-Firth, 2018)

My drive is to connect beyond the human to the more-than-humans that share the place where the networked human is located. I wonder if it is possible to reach out and connect with the meshwork of relations that are local to someone else. I’m aware that my experience of Ruth’s garden is tied to my current experience of birdsong and traffic in my local area, not hers. Margaret Somerville warned me already that this might be the case, that meaning-at-distance may come only through reference to my local place-based connections.

If we, as Tolle recommends, learn to cultivate a stillness inside us against which everything happens then it is will be easier to retain a sense of self online, a sense of presence, and our virtual and physical will be aligned. (Stalker-Firth, 2018)

Ruth asks “where do we go when we go online”; I add to that my own question “what do we bring with us”. If there is truly no division between “me” and “everything else”, perhaps cultivating that sense of stillness allows us to be more aware, to integrate and celebrate the all that is now and the all that surrounds and permeates us. We can acknowledge it and bring it with us, share it out into the network and allow other voices to be heard. We can welcome the presence of all our relations; I just need to fine-tune a few methods of doing that!

For now, there is more in Ruth’s post that I need to dig into, when I can stop myself getting distracted by the spring chorus. It may have only been based on my local place-connections, but it was nice to sit with Ruth in the garden, even if only for a virtual digital moment.


Somerville, M. (2007). Becoming-frog: a primary school place pedagogy. Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Freemantle, 26-29 November. https://www.aare.edu.au/publications-database.php/5511/becoming-frog

Stalker-Firth, R. (2018). Virtual presence: where do we go when we go online? https://www.ruthstalkerfirth.com/virtual-presence-where-do-we-go-when-we-go-online

Standing in a thin place

I have grown up with a fondness for “thin” places; places that have given me a sense that there is a “somewhere else” just a breath away. From a Celtic spirituality perspective, these places are described as sacred, close to the Otherworld, locations for pilgrimage and reflection (Béres, 2012). My thin places have rarely been those selected by tour companies; they are often liminal zones, edges of rivers, lakes, paths or woodlands, with a kind of somewhere-in-between-ness that makes me feel as if I have stepped out of the flow of time.

Close up of primrosesOne of my clearest memories as a child of such a place was a family holiday to a cottage my uncle had recently purchased. The cottage stood in the middle of a ploughed and mucky field (yeay, muck!) and at the edge of the field there was a small stream running in a deep mossy ditch under trees. Though the ditch was deep, the stream was not. I liked to wade in to the middle in my wellies and stand in the quiet cavern under the green tree canopy. The sound of chuckling water and birdlife and my breath. The scent of water and moss and green and primroses. I remember the primroses most of all, as the banks were covered in them and the scent wrapped all around me. It was a magical spot; if I stood long enough and still enough, I thought, I will see fairies. To this day, the scent and sight of primroses makes me smile.

I’m thinking about these thin places as I am exploring connections to place, reading about Indigenous research methods, and thinking about my own cultural heritage. As Béres (2012) states, there is a valid concern about appropriation of the ways of other cultures. I want to draw on my own cultural heritage and wonder what exactly that is. I wish to encompass Béres’ approach as outlined below.

I am able to honour, respect and learn from North American and Australian Aboriginal ways of being with the non-human world and also from Celtic spirituality (European ways of being in pre-Christian and early Christian times) regarding the sacredness of the non-human world. (Béres, 2012; p.183)

I talked about Newgrange last week; another location that was special for me. Again, that same sense of somewhere-in-between-ness. Unsurprisingly, things have changed in the 20-odd years since I was last there! In an excellent article by Stephen Brown (2006), it seems that heritage-park marketing has run a little wild. If I return, it won’t be to the Newgrange of my memory, though it sounds like they may still be using the same light bulb to replicate the solstice. Brown’s article considers the various contested interpretations of what it means to be “Celtic” as an introduction a special issue exploring “Celtic marketing”. There are three elements to Celtic marketing, Brown suggests: practice, paradigm and philosophy. Practice is the marketing of Celtic “goods and services”, from events to merchandise and everything in between.  Paradigm “celebrates intuition, idiosyncrasy, iconoclasm and irreverence” at the heart of the Celtic ethos, which sounds like fun. Philosophy, it seems, marketers share with the Celts, who Brown describes as “proto-entrepreneurs”. As with the Celts, Brown says, Celtic marketers are “simultaneously abhorred and admired, we attract and repel, we intrigue and infuriate”. What ties the practice, paradigm and philosophy together is storytelling; the Celts are renowned “yarn-spinners”. I inherited that tale-telling gene and wonder what the Celtic researcher practice, paradigm and philosophy is.

The articles may seem like strange bedfellows, loosely connected by Celtic association. However, both articles emphasise how places are not static, even those containing structures that have stood for thousands of years. My stream and the primroses are locked in a memory, as I do not know how to return to that location and the quiet cavern may be long gone. To know a place, and for a place to know us, is simply for the moment. My sense of thin places being those briefly outside the flow of time may be linked simply to my focus on being in that place at that time. Thinking about my research and connecting with other places at distance, the thin place may prove to be the shared online space with my participant, when they hold open the door for me to be with them in their place as I stand on a digital threshold. We will both be “somewhere else” and perhaps our shared places can allow us to feel as if we are just a breath away.


Béres, L. (2012) Celtic spirituality and postmodern geography. Journal for
the Study of Spirituality, 2:2, 170-185. https://doi.org/10.1179/jss.2.2.h84032u7246xg776 #paywall

Brown, S. (2006) Tiocfaidh ár lá: introduction to the special issue. Journal of Strategic Marketing, 14:1, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1080/09652540500511206 #paywall

Spiral Learning

Spiral learning moves through complexity with partial understanding, allowing for later returns… What was once barely intelligible may be deeply meaningful a second time. And a third. (Bateson, 1994; p.31)

I’m currently reading Peripheral Visions by Mary Catherine Bateson (1994), enjoying how she weaves reflections on research, items and places. The quotes above are from a section on the non-linear nature of learning which appeals to me; what Bateson calls “spiral learning” in the example above. She talks about how rote learning can have a value in embedding information deeply within the minds of students, with the view that it can be returned to and puzzled out over a lifetime.

I have a fondness for poems from school and know many friends and colleagues who will recite word-perfect poems from their childhood. We often return to them in the way that Bateson speaks of, unpick and stitch them into our lives, our speech and our stories. But all too often, I think we memorize to forget; here I’m thinking of the large amount of cramming I have done for examinations only to see the “knowledge” drift away once the exam is completed. When I return to the same textbooks now, it is with a sense of rediscovery, of connecting the information with the life experiences I have had since, of reaching a deeper layer of understanding by revisiting with time to explore.

I am conscious of the packed curricula that students in most disciplines encounter, the resulting sense of panic at the volume of material that has to be absorbed, soon to be regurgitated for examination. Working on the PhD has given me a space to spiral back, though also a sense of that same panic, the awareness of the volume of material, and the desire to find my space and place in the discourse.

[In] the action of the needle, the embroidered line grows through the repeated looping back of the trailing thread-line between where the point meets the surface and where the thread meets the eye. Telling stories involves a similar looping back of present experience to connect with that of the past. (Ingold, 2011; p. 195)

Newgrange tomb entrance passage and stone with spirals
spudmurphy, Newgrange, Meath, CC BY-SA 2.0

The image is of the Newgrange passage tomb in Meath. I love this place, the silence and peace in the tomb, the steady temperature no matter the weather, the little lightbulb set up in the roofbox to simulate the return of the sun at midwinter. Thinking of spirals brought me spiraling back to the entrance stone, the guardian before entering the tomb. This is matched by the kerbstone on the rear of the tomb, discussed in the short YouTube video below. The spiral is not just a spiral, we are told, it is more complex than that. Following Ingold’s quote above, I loop my experience to my past and to the distant past, to others who traced the spirals before me.  There’s probably a metaphor for my PhD in this 🙂


Finally, you may be wondering why there is a snail in this post. I like snails, with their mathematical shells and way of spiraling across paths, writing in a silver code that I can’t decipher. I envy their ability to regenerate their nervous systems. And returning to Bateson, I find myself wondering what their “peripheral vision” is with their multimodal view of our shared habitat (Matsuo, 2017).


Bateson, M. C. (1994). Peripheral visions: Learning along the way. New York: HarperCollins. https://www.harpercollins.com/9780060926304/peripheral-visions

Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. London and New York: Taylor & Francis. https://www.routledge.com/Being-Alive-Essays-on-Movement-Knowledge-and-Description/Ingold/p/book/9780415576840

Matsuo, R. (2017). The Computation and Robustness of the Mini-Cognitive Centers of Terrestrial Mollusks: An Exquisite Outcome of Brain Evolution. In Brain Evolution by Design (pp. 101-122). Tokyo: Springer. https://www.springer.com/us/book/9784431564676

Becoming Frog

In February, I took part in an event entitled The Mobile Campus: Imagining The Future of Distributed Education at the University of Edinburgh, run by two colleagues, James Lamb and Michael Gallagher [see end of post for their respective blogs or click on their names for details on the event]. This was a neat exploration of what it meant to be “at Edinburgh” and acknowledged how the participants were distributed across the globe, drawn together in the event hosted in George Square.

Michael and James facilitated a range of discussion topics, sharing of images and sounds. When asked to define what digital education was for me, I took a picture of frogs on the pin-board behind my desk and said that those who knew me wouldn’t be surprised. There were some there who remembered that I presented my MSc dissertation as a half-woman-half-frog avatar. I have a picture of that somewhere; when/if I find it, I’ll add it!
Photo of pin board pictures of frogs

So what is the link between digital education and frogs? Why are they my digital education totem species? I was all geared up to investigate and discuss frogs in myths and legends, the permeability of frog skin and its role as a metaphor for inter-connectedness. In my random searches, I discovered there is something called a Frog Leaping Algorithm, and indeed a Shuffled and Improved Shuffled Frog Leaping Algorithm as the nerve-centre of programmed neural networks (Dash, 2018). I was planning to explore “Sharon-as-frog-avatar” building on a Gregory Ulmer paper I have had sitting waiting for just such an opportunity.

Avatar is not mimetic of one’s ego, but a probe beyond one’s ownness, as a relationship with community. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome is much invoked in association with the Internet. Our use of the figure follows their example of rhizome as a symbiotic relationship between two separate domains brought into mutually beneficial alliance. (Ulmer, 2011)

And then I found, as with so much in my PhD reading, that someone had got there before me. Or rather, some people – a group of primary school children were “becoming frog” and incorporating digital practices long before I was.

It was on a prac. visit that I entered the world of frogs. (Somerville, 2007)

This blog post now becomes a celebration of Somerville’s paper; one of those awesome papers that only synchronicity and random frog searching can gift you with. Her paper is exciting for two main reasons linked to my research. First, she talks about local wetlands experts working with schools in their area to extend the knowledge of the local ecology; citizen-science and public engagement at its best. Second, she brings together a whole range of theories and research I have been reading about for the past few years, from Deleuze & Guattari “becoming-animal” to Gruenewald and place-based and -responsive pedagogies. Wrap all that in the glorious global knowledge-sharing with other frog-excited students via the web in an Australian and US collaboration, add a touch of storytelling, and you’ve got a darn good paper.

In this thinking human bodies, as corporeal entities, then, are continuous with human and non human others but also with artefacts such as pens, paper, paints, computers, fabric, metal and machines, that they are linked with through production, and with the productions themselves. In other words, the representations we produce are conceived as part of our bodies. (Somerville, 2007)

Somerville’s comments about human continuity with “others” links with Timothy Morton’s symbiotic real, as mentioned in a previous post. This inter-connectedness is inherent in Indigenous epistemology and ontology, and Somerville touches on the complexities in engaging with Indigenous knowledge practices. This is an aspect of her research I will draw on later for a post I am currently drafting.

Back to the 2007 paper, and I followed the link from Somerville’s references to see how the online community has developed. While the link provided no longer directs to the community, it seems there is activity as of 2017 on the Project Corroboree Community page. I can’t seem to access or explore the web-journey she speaks of, but the idea stays with me, the sense of the web as a songline. Her process of “visiting” the wetlands via the web echoes my investigation into developing connection to place at a distance, where “place” is defined as a meaningful location. The sense of meaning appears to be linked, for Somerville, to the memories of being physically present, the “thousands of intimate moments” associated with the place. I wonder if it is possible to separate the two, for the digital to connect. Will I find, as Somerville suggests, that any meaningful connection to place-at-distance will only come from reference to my local place connections. I put that to one side as a direction to explore, a gap and an uncertainty.

One thing is for sure, I am invited and inspired to learn more about Somerville’s work and to more actively “become-frog”. I am off to perfect my frog dance!

I can feel in my body the extension of self-into-other required to perform frog. How does a frog move? What do its limbs do? How can your fingers be frog fingers, how does your body move to frog music? (Somerville, 2007)

Blogs posts on Mobile Campus event

James Lamb: https://www.james858499.net/blog/remixing-the-campus

Michael Gallagher: http://michaelseangallagher.org/mobile-learning-in-distributed-universities-summary-of-recent-festival-of-creative-learning-event/


Dash, R. (2018). Performance analysis of a higher order neural network with an improved shuffled frog leaping algorithm for currency exchange rate prediction. Applied Soft Computing67, 215-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.asoc.2018.02.043 #paywall

Somerville, M. (2007). Becoming-frog: a primary school place pedagogy. Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Freemantle, 26-29 November. https://www.aare.edu.au/publications-database.php/5511/becoming-frog

Ulmer, G.L. (2011). Avatar emergency. Digital Humanities Quarterly 5(3) http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/3/000100/000100.html

Vampire Researcher

Due to some behind-the-scenes digital footprint weirdness, I discovered that Google Scholar was reporting one of my papers as being written in 1759. That got me thinking: asides from outing me as a vampire to the world, who is the Sharon from 1759? And before you ask, no, my skin does not sparkle like diamonds in the sun!

scholar_1759 (2)
Screenshot of the Google Scholar auto-entry dated 1759 instead of 2016


This process of looking back to 1759 highlighted my bias about women at that time. I expected to hear about difficult lives and fashions. While some of this was true (panniers!), women writers existed, at least those fortunate to be born into privilege and with understanding male family members to support them.

My colleague Jessie and I come from a science background, and even that was not so strange. The first paper by a woman was published in the Royal Philosophical Society’s Transactions; all credit to Anne Whitfeld and her report on the thunderstorm that struck her home in 1759 (Whitfeld & Van Rixtel, 1759). By the 1780s, Caroline Herschel was discovering comets (Herschel, 1787) and working as an astronomer for the King (Hoskin, 2005). She was the first woman to be made a member of the Royal Society, albeit honorary, and managed to do all that while still taking care of her household duties. Chemist Marie-Anne Lavoisier was born in 1758 and feminist philosopher and author Mary Wollstonecraft in 1759.

Had we been born into the right circumstances, perhaps we would have printed our paper; not everything was so straightforward. I was born in Ireland and studied in Trinity College Dublin. In 1759, they were putting the finishing touches on the west front on College Green, but women would not be permitted to study there until 1904.


Herschel, C. (1787). An Account of a New Comet. In a Letter from Miss Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden, MD Sec. RS. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London77, 1-3. Retrieved from http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/77/1.full.pdf

Hoskin, M. (2005). Caroline Herschel as observer. Journal for the History of Astronomy36(4), 373-406. Retrieved from http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?2005JHA….36..373H&classic=YES

Whitfeld, A., & Van Rixtel, J. (1759). An Account of the Effects of a Storm of Thunder and Lightning at Rickmansworth, in Hertfordshire, on the 16th of July, 1759: In a Letter from Mrs. Anne Whitfeld. Communicated by Mr. John van Rixtel, F. R. S. Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), 51, 282-286. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/105375


My Immortal Microbiome

This post neatly links to the previous one on digital compost; you would think I planned it! With digital compost, I expanded on a metaphor for the digital footprint of places and the more-than-human. With my immortal microbiome, I’m focusing on the biota that exist in and on my body, a wonderful network that lives in the liminal spaces between what I view as “my body” and perceive as my “external environment”.

My husband, Gavin, and I recently participated in the International Microbiome Study (http://imsms.org/home/) via the Anne Rowling Clinic. The aim is to compare the microbiomes of two people who live together, one with MS and one without. The team are investigating and comparing our gut flora, given that we live mainly in the same environment and eat roughly the same food. We gave blood and stool samples which will be stored at the main research lab in San Francisco. I joked that it is not my heart I have left in San Francisco!

I am keen to see how this study progresses. It was pretty much painless thanks to a great phlebotomist and the kit for taking the stool sample was fun to use and appealed to my inner MacGyver. There was a food survey and I’m a survey geek, so was delighted to work my way through it. I also get a kick out of the fact that part of me is getting to visit somewhere new in the world, as I’ve never been to San Fran. But I digress…

What was most interesting at the outset was the consent form and we both discussed this at length before signing up for the study. We have essentially gifted our DNA and microbiomes to the research team to be sequenced and cultured and kept in perpetuity for health-related research. Somewhere in a lab, a unique portion of us lives and is cared for, ready and on standby to help research teams better understand the organisms that are part of us.

Linking back to the post on digital compost, this is a whole deeper level of data that gets right to the coding of what makes us. It also calls into question what is “us”, the two people who share a life and a home, or the trillions of microbes that co-exist with our “selves”. More accurately, perhaps we are a community, an extension of the participatory, relational understanding that I touched on previously. Reading Timothy Morton’s Humankind this week, linking his discussion on symbiosis and the “symbiotic real” with Donna Haraway’s exploration of symbiogenesis, I can see it is more than this.

I like this quote (Morton, 2017; p.40):

“Human” means me plus my nonhuman prostheses and symbionts, such as my bacterial microbiome and my technological gadgets, an entity that cannot be determined in advance within a thin, rigid outline or rigidly demarcated from the symbiotic real. The human is what I call a “hyperobject”: a bundle of entities massively distributed in time and space that forms an entity in its own right, one that is impossible for humans to see or touch directly.

What I define as “me” is a symbiosis, a biosphere, operating in a “hum of solidarity”. There is no firm, fixed boundary, no inside/outside; instead at most a permeable  membrane, ebb and flow between what appears to be me and me-as-part-of “the loose connectivity of the symbiotic real” (p.2). Does that mean there is no “me”? Even “I” don’t know what “Sharon” truly is, but there is a plethora of Sharon-data. To paraphrase Tim, what the team in San Francisco will have is definitely a lot of Sharon-data, it isn’t raindrop-data or blue-whale-data, though there may be a fair whack of daffodil and earthworm. But it will not be “Sharon”.

At the start of this post, I talked about the “network” of my microbiome. Over the week, with Tim’s help, I understand that it is more truly a network of solidarity, a collective, a doing-being, a deep inter-relatedness. Kindness and kin-ness have returned. Miriam Lueck Avery’s TED talk is a good way to finish this week’s post; unsurprisingly, I particularly like the “medicine as gardening” idea!

Image is: “Bacteriaby Caroline Davis2010. Licensed under CC-BY 2.0. Original source via Flickr


Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso Books. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2465-humankind