I hear you! Listening to the world

I picked up a chest infection and cold in February that wiped me out. Thankfully, I’m getting back to myself this week and am back working and writing and walking.

One thing I have been catching up on are the transcripts of glorious interviews for my PhD. Each one is brilliant, for the people who participated and for the unexpected participants – the blackbird, the crow, the bees and wasps, the sheep, the lichen, the squirrels, the wind, the rain, the sun… There are so many voices in the recordings and in my field notes. It is a joy to hear them all, even if I don’t understand everything that is being communicated.

This attention, this active listening, has helped me to observe myself. I noticed when we were out walking at the weekend that I say “I hear you” to the wind, the rustle of leaves and tree branches, to the birds, to animals. It turns out that I do this a lot, but wasn’t aware of it. As I get older, I’m less fussed if people think I’m strange for chatting to something they haven’t noticed. They are probably so busy thinking about their own lives that they haven’t even noticed me, never mind that I’m engaging in conversation with a robin. If they do notice, it might bring a bit of joy to their day ūüôā

This feeling of being “less fussed” links in with a great paper I read this week (thanks Beth!) by Robbie and Pauline (Nicol & Sangster, 2019). In it, one of the participants, Louise, is concerned she might be perceived as an “absolute weirdo” for sitting outside in a public place appearing to do nothing in particular. As someone who realised that she was laughing with joy at being caught up in the dance of a little wind dervish outside the full-length glass windows of the canteen at work in broad daylight, I believe I have worked past at least some of that concern myself, but it is understandable. I wonder if it is that concern about what human others might think that is the reason we don’t allow ourselves to connect as much as we could, to be aware of our surroundings, and listen to the many entities that share it.

In the theoretical background to the paper, Robbie and Pauline draw together research focused on the importance of paying attention to our place, of learning to listen, of coming to know the places we frequent. They ask, can we come to see the places we pass through daily in a different way, to actively engage with our places, and in so doing, to “find the unfamiliar within the familiar and the extraordinary within the ordinary” (Nicol & Sangster, 2019; p. 13). In being aware, in listening, and in acknowledging “I hear you”, I become more a part of the place where I am. Perhaps, by listening, I may someday come to understand.

Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us – and if they still try, we will not likely hear them. (Abram, 2010; p.175)


Abram, D. (2010) Becoming animal: An earthly cosmology. Vintage. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/318/becoming-animal-by-david-abram/

Nicol, R., & Sangster, P. (2019). You are never alone: understanding the educational potential of an ‚Äėurban solo‚Äôin promoting place-responsiveness.¬†Environmental Education Research, 1-18.¬† https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2019.1576161 #paywall

Taking lectures and meetings outside

As we move towards the end of the academic year, I’m getting a little time to catch up on things that I have in my Stack of Interesting Things. Today, I watched a webinar recorded by Cornell Civic Ecology Lab where Brittany Thompson discusses storytelling in teaching and learning.

Brittany starts her talk by telling her research story. It was interesting to see the way others share their stories in response to hers. The chat questions encourage her to reflect in more depth on her research as part of the presentation. I agree with Annie the facilitator that this was putting Brittany “out there”, in a vulnerable position, both in asking for constructive criticism on her story and in sending everyone off to tell stories to each other in breakout rooms. But it worked and people enjoyed sharing their stories; I know I wanted to be in the breakout room rather than being left in the main room ūüôā . Some good resources too; I had heard about StoryCorps before, but Story Maps and StoryCenter were new for me. I lost myself in Story Maps, travelling to the Isle of Mull through Allen Carroll’s Story Map. Definitely tools to investigate further and play with.

What resonated with me strongly today was Brittany’s comment about waiting until the end of the day to escape from sitting in the classroom. There was a stark contrast between the image in her slide of blue sky and treetops and the sense of captivity as she described her experiences of school.

Screenshot of slide showing treetops
Screenshot taken from Cornell Civic Ecology Lab presentation by Brittany Thompson https://youtu.be/sWqZDT7yNjg

I chuckled when she switched to the snowy photo of Cornell, another nice contrast between her first photo of Jamaican treetops.

Brittany Thompson in the snow in Cornell
Screenshot taken from Cornell Civic Ecology Lab presentation by Brittany Thompson https://youtu.be/sWqZDT7yNjg

Brittany’s reflections on the importance of getting outdoors links with conversations I had this week with colleagues about moving our lectures and meetings outdoors. Two of us have experimented¬†with this a little already, but we all agree it would be good to look at this in more depth and see what we can do. A good place to start is the Outdoor Journeys framework: Questioning, Researching, Sharing. For meetings, there is the step-by-step guidance [pun intented!] from FeetFirst for walking meetings. The only thing I haven’t figured out is how to take minutes on the move. Time to break out the digital recorder!


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 ūüôā

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 ūüôā


An Adventurous PhD

It was the phrase “challenging academic journey” that stood out for me in a¬†recent guest post by Donna Franklin for Pat Thomson’s patter blog. The phrase was followed by¬†“difficult PhD journey”, “emotional upheaval” and “doubtful thinking”.

The post went on to provide a clear and helpful outline of the process of mindfulness in helping to deal with the concerns associated with undertaking a PhD. It was encouraging and uplifting in the end as Donna had reflected directly on her own personal experience and the benefits she had found in taking a mindful approach to her studies. Nevertheless, it got me thinking…

Last year, I had the good fortune to read Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World by Simon Beames and Mike Brown. They tease apart the difference between “adventure” and “adventurous” learning practices. The challenge, they say,¬†“should start with the learner, build on their strengths and extend their skills and attributes” (p. 90). Unlike adventure learning, the goal is not to push the student outside their comfort zone, but to encourage them to set their own challenges and explore new terrain. Key to this is provision of a “safe and supportive environment” allowing students to “be actively involved in self-directed experimentation” (p. 92).¬†For me, that safety and support is akin to the equipment and buddy system for hiking and climbing. Your partner¬†helps you check your gear, motivates you and acts as your belayer. You choose the route¬†and you do the climbing, trusting that you’re safely anchored.

Standing at a point halfway up the Krimml waterfalls in a thunderstormWhen I read Donna’s piece, it left me unsettled and wondering where her safety and support came from. I reflected on my own PhD journey – I am conscious of the risk and sense of uncertainty, I¬†discovered a range of peaks ahead when I naively thought I just had one mountain to climb!¬†The mindfulness process she outlines is helpful, but more important for me is the knowledge that my supervisors, colleagues and research team are¬†on standby. They challenge me to think more creatively and independently, to take a different route for the fun of experiencing a new¬†viewpoint¬†and to discover¬†what is authentic for me. As Beames and Brown suggest, any anxiety I feel comes “from the process of adventurous inquiry” (p. 90). As part of the institution’s research community, there are opportunities to share our stories¬†and to¬†discuss our¬†individual adventurous learning experiences. It reminded me again how very fortunate I am to be part of¬†a strong network.

I had the great privilege of being shortlisted for a teaching award in 2016, and I used¬†the mountain-climbing metaphor in the short video created to celebrate¬†the awards. The concept of “teaching as climbing” was inspired in part by¬†a blog post by Ben Orlin¬†reflecting on his development as a teacher, and in part by my colleagues undertaking a charity climbing challenge.

Reflecting on my comments, Beames and Brown remind me that¬†my role as an educator is not just to “throw down a rope”, but to provide a¬†strong foundation, an¬†anchor, as demonstrated so well by my own supervisors (“skillful educators” for sure).¬†Our adventurous¬†journeys should¬†be authentic – have meaning for us, our community and our wider network. We develop our¬†sense of agency and mastery as we overcome the (frequent!) sense of uncertainty and tackle the challenges we set ourselves. At the end of the day, we have campfire tales to tell in good company.

To quote Jamie Davies, winner of The Kendell Award for Teaching in Medicine:

“The most important things [in staff development¬†sessions] come from the conversations between the lecturers who are there to learn. And I think that mirrors what happens with our… learning and teaching-that it’s the whole group working together to take a journey and to learn something.”

Beames, S., & Brown, M. (2016). Adventurous learning: A pedagogy for a changing world. Oxon, NY: Routledge.

Were they ever alive?

Amenhotep III @ British LibraryIt’s been a hectic time again, but thanks to earlier actions, at least my lists are in order!

I have also been trying to make quiet time within the busy-ness, space for thinking and recharging. One opportunity presented itself at the end of March, when I was down in London for the day for work. In addition to priceless reading time on the train “there and back again”, I noted there was a little space between the end of work and my return train departure. 

I decided to walk from Westminster to King’s Cross, passing all the famous sights along the way and getting grounded before the journey home. As I neared Bloomsbury, I realised I had a half an hour to spare. Hmmmn, what to do?

No question – half an hour sitting in Room 4 (Egyptian sculpture)!

There is something about the immensity of the statues in this gallery that calms me, reminds me of how small I am, how insignificant my lifespan is within the breadth and span of human history. It doesn’t sound like a cheery reflection, but it does put my small worries very much in perspective.

As I sat with Amenhotep III, I heard a girl ask her companion (mum, aunt, granny, sister, carer…) a key question:

“Were they ever alive?”(indicating big statues with a sweep of her very small hand).

“Yes,” came the answer, “there were once people alive who built these statues to represent their kings and important people.”

After listening to a brief overview of Egyptian history, the girl thought for a moment, and then rephrased her question, as it was clear her companion hadn’t understood the first time.

“No,” said in a tone of infinite patience, “were these [pointing at individual statues] ever alive?”

“No,” came the reply, “these are just statues.”

I looked at Amenhotep, who in turn stared down the gallery, ignoring those who had come to capture his image. Now I was raised with Ray Harryhausen movies, where statues were very likely to come to life. Perhaps this girl had also seen Night at the Museum, and could readily believe that the statues shook loose when the doors close in the evening.

I feel there is something beyond the influence of mainstream media on imaginitive folks like this girl and I. After all, these statues were created to inspire awe & worship. Like Ozymandias, they may be crumbly around the edges, their earthly rulers long gone.  They have been taken from their homeland to cold halls, but they still call their worshippers to gaze at them with cameras and phones.

I longed to ask the girl what she thought. Like me, did she think they had their own kind of life, locked in stone memory? I was too polite, or more likely, too shy to ask, and they moved away.

When my half hour was up, I walked the short distance to the train station. On my journey home, I thought more about her question and the answers. The first answer was good, it gave her all the core historical facts. The second answer left no room for discussion, no space for imagination, possibility, philosophy.

I must, I thought, make sure I leave that space in my teaching. 

Gift of time in the workplace

scrabble board with words relating to connections, e.g. ideas, people

I have been fortunate to be on a work secondment for one day a week to the Institute for Academic Development (IAD). The secondment started back in October 2014 and it has been a valuable protected time in my diary to focus on sustainable education in the veterinary medical curriculum.

Today is my last day.

As a secondee, I have had the benefit of working with a great group of people with connections to the wider University which are essential for any project to succeed. I also had space away from my desk – in fact in a different campus – ensuring the time was protected.

The value of this time cannot be underestimated. It not only creates space within which to explore a research area or idea in more depth, but also empowers staff to take action in implementing new approaches to teaching and student support.

The Institute’s secondment process contains within it all elements of a socially sustainable (Hammond & Churchman, 2008) community of practice – an interconnected, equitable, diverse and democratic group to support and encourage staff creativity.

This process has enabled me to lay the groundwork in evidencing sustainable education within veterinary medicine (more on that in future posts!). It has also given me confidence to speak about this to others, to share with colleagues and students.

I have a list of projects which would not exist without this thinking time and inspiring connections. Colleagues and I have undertaken projects to enhance learning and teaching at the University. Beyond that, the process improves our wellbeing by demonstrating that the institution values our creative input and seeks to include us in future planning.

Now I step back and release that gift of time for another colleague; looking forward to adding another new inspiring connection!


Hammond, C., & Churchman, D. (2008). Sustaining academic life: A case for applying principles of social sustainability to the academic profession. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 9(3), 235-245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/14676370810885862

Setting seed

Allotment plan on graph paper
Plotting the plot

Spent last Sunday plotting the allotment (excuse the pun!) – what we had last year, what is staying in place (fruit bushes and trees), and what we have planned for the new year.

It’s good fun – the allotment itself is tucked under its cardboard duvet and we’re envisioning the future.

In work, something similar is happening. A couple of years ago, two colleagues and I started the process of setting up a shared veg garden for staff and students. Now, the Easter Bush Veg Garden is looking tidy, all the plots are assigned, and we’re dreaming of well-tended plots where at the moment we have weeds and muck (of the mud rather than manure variety!).

Thanks to the FCFCG newsletter, I heard about the Here We Grow funding available from Dobbies for project gardens like this. Boy, would that help with the paths and communal herb garden! Keep your fingers crossed for us ūüôā