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.