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.

Bees in lime trees

As today is World Honey Bee Day, it seemed appropriate to finish a post I started in July! What can I say, I’m a slow blogger 🙂

Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian
Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian

Our travels this summer took us to Svalbard. The most notable difference for us between Svalbard and our home in Scotland were the bees.

Bees, our Longyearbyen guide told us, are not seen in Svalbard. Coulson et al. (2014) reported that any honey bees found in Svalbard are classed as “accidental migrants”, with the bumblebee completely absent from the archipelago.

The contrast was most strongly demonstrated the day after we returned home. As we walked under the lime trees beside the River Tyne in Haddington, each tree hummed with a variety of pollinators, including honey and bumblebees [55.954270, -2.772102 to 55.951603, -2.773239].

Below is the recording I made as I walked by the river. Note that I started giggling as the bagpipes started up, further proof, if proof was needed, that I was recording in Scotland!

I found out more about solitary bees in this thought-provoking video from Team Candiru, tweeted by the London Beekeepers (@LondonBeeKeeper) on August 12th 2016.

The Solitary Bees from Team Candiru on Vimeo.

As a further celebration of all things East Lothian-bee related, we treated ourselves to a jar of local Cockenzie spring honey from Jacobite Apiaries, via our local food assembly.

Three cheers for East Lothian bees, and it is lovely to be home!

 

Reference:

Coulson, S.J., Convey, P., Aakra, K., Aarvik, L., Ávila-Jiménez, M.L., Babenko, A., Biersma, E.M., Boström, S., Brittain, J.E., Carlsson, A.M. and Christoffersen, K. (2014). The terrestrial and freshwater invertebrate biodiversity of the archipelagoes of the Barents Sea; Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 68, pp.440-470.

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

Getting organised

list-372766_640As I mentioned, I have not been doing so well for the last couple of years. This year, my aim is to find ways to live and work more sustainably.

Oliver Burkeman raised an interesting point about how our to-do lists are overlong and  easily get out of control. I am as fond of lists as Oliver – goals to aim for, MS memory prompts and work priorities. However, my lists were indeed getting longer, I was adding new tasks and rarely crossing any off. I was feeling stressed and dissatisfied.

A recent post on the British Psychological Society blog by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) about work/life boundaries explored this topic further. Alex reported on an article by Smit (2015) which links feelings of increased anxiety with tasks that remain undone. Smit suggests having an incomplete to-do list makes it difficult to disconnect, in effect extending the working day.

Both articles inspired me to rethink my process of planning and organisation. I like starting the day with a clear idea of what needs to be done, so I needed a method that worked. My daily list now has a maximum of five key activities. It has become fun to celebrate new and unexpected tasks that each day brings; additional unplanned tasks become a bonus. If anything on the list is not finished at the end of the day, I leave a step-by-step plan of how that task will be completed before I leave the office.

I’m aware it is still January, but I’m resolutely optimistic. Granted, I usually am optimistic, that’s my default setting. This is working well so far though!

Smit, B. (2015). Successfully leaving work at work: The self-regulatory underpinnings of psychological detachment. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/joop.12137. [Open access article]

Waking up the blog…

Right, I’m back. No honest, I am!

This last year has taught me that, try as you might, you can’t win out over medication. The meds I was on for the last three years left me with chronic fatigue. I described it to a colleague as trying to run up a mountain through a treacle downpour.

Thankfully, I’ve had a meds change – whoop! It has required time to recharge and set new targets. However, all that means I can get back to writing, thinking, dreaming and, of course, studying.

Did I say I wasn’t going to study anymore? I have no recollection of saying that (innocent face). Ah sure, isn’t all life a learning experience 🙂

Roll on 2016 – and hello from the one and only 2015 post!

Sustainable Dying – Re-use and Recycle

This article on organ donation reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few months before he passed away. Planet with plant from Pixabay.com

His mum had donated her body to science, and he planned to do the same himself. Then we saw an article about donating your body, and realised that we hadn’t taken any of the steps to ensure that could take place – no forms completed, no notification made, not enough time left. He knew then that it was not an option for him.

I’ve always carried my donor card, but realising that it might not be enough, I’ve ensured in as many ways as I can that it is clear I am happy to be an organ donor should my varied odds and sods be of value when I no longer require their services.

I like to think my organs would be happy to have a second life, to be reused and recycled to help someone else. Previous owner: one careful lady driver 🙂

I also have multiple sclerosis, and again in the newspaper spotted a piece about brain donation to help with research. A talk with my specialist confirmed the details, and I have now signed up to the UK MS Tissue Bank. I particularly like the idea that my brain and spinal cord may get the opportunity to travel around the world if they are assigned to a project outwith the UK, which is certainly possible. I think they’d enjoy the trip, and why should they stop living simply because the energy that makes me ‘me’ is no longer residing here?

Two things to note: 

  1. the letter from the Cambridge medical students and the life stories of those who have benefitted from transplants in the articles mentioned above are inspiring – as are the stories of those brave enough to give a living donation (I’m not that brave!)
  2. don’t underestimate the strength, love and understanding of your family – choosing to donate needs their acceptance and agreement too

So go on, give your fantastic body the option to go on doing good after you’ve moved on to pastures new 🙂 

NHS How_to_become_a_donor