I propose to you to rebel.


I have been making some headway catching up with literature on education, educational theories and helpful instructional books for emerging teachers in higher education. There is a lot of ‘because I say so’ writing. As Erziehungswissenschaftler (educational scientist) this is rather a nuisance. It makes we want to rebel:

I am not saying that we shouldn’t familiarise ourself with constructive alignment, intended learning outcomes, assessment criteria and the whole lot. But what I would really, really like us to do is to become wholly and fully the best version of ourselves we can be, for our students. Just be who we are. And if we really want to, if this is a risk we think we can face, we can always work on becoming the teacher we wished we had when we were a student. It doesn’t matter here that everyone (all the 3,5 people) who reads this will have a completely different picture of that most awesome, inspiring teacher. Because being an educator, learning—together with our students—is messy, it is challenging, it is risky, is puts us on the spot, it puts our identity in the crossfire of curious, excited, disengaged, highly motivated, luke-warmly interested, cleverer than us, struggling, or sailing through students. Ultimately, the whole range of humanity we will encounter in this enclosure that is our lecturer hall, seminar room, or office. This is why there is no educational theory to rule them all. There is no one teacher who is the perfect teacher.

Yes, there are patterns, there are things that will work better than others. However, this can be circumstantial. That something worked incredibly well with one cohort, does not necessarily mean it will work exactly, or exactly as well, with another cohort—or the same cohort at a different time for that matter, or with another teacher.

When studying educational sciences in Germany, we studied neuro- and cognition sciences, developmental psychology, philosophy, didactics (as in instructional methods), education etc … because learning is a mixture of physiological conditions (synaptic plasticity for instance, or the different brain processes when having dyslexia), learning is identity negotiation (we constantly negotiate who we are, where our place in the world is (Weltaneignung)), and sometimes our students identify themselves by their ability to perform in a subject, and if this performance does not meet expectations, we are met with their anxiety, stress, disengagement, or over-engagement and burnout. Learning is social (think peer support or peer pressure, think sharing notes and study buddies). Sometimes I think no matter how many more conceptual suggestions we come up with, that explain learning, that explain how we make sense of the world, how we negotiate our environment and our-selves, ultimately they are just adding to the educational multiverse: they are all somehow true at the same time.

Therefore, I am writing this Note-to-self: Be brave. Be yourself. Take risks. Be authentic. See your students. Hear your students. And first and foremost commit to your students, because they know, and this commitment reflects their engagement.*


* Yes we have the data to prove it, dissemination forthcoming…

Radiography, Gallery of Modern Art & International Students

Iain Hamilton Finlay GOMA Glasgow

The Issue

I wanted my students, to take ownership of ‘how’ they use English in their presentations, instead of just focussing on bringing content across any-which-way. As master students the class are all professionals, used to present and speak in front of peers. However, translating this confidence into a different language is challenging—I am speaking from a ‘been there, done that’ place. So when planning this morning, I tried to find a way to enable my students to take control and ownership of presenting in English and explore mechanisms of the language.

We are lucky in Glasgow (Scotland) to have free access to all public museums. The Gallery of Modern Art currently runs a powerful exhibition by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) featuring prints, some of which done for the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The prints are an interesting mix of language, forms and colours. It had the students intrigued.

BOYD and the Museum

Using BOYD strategy I told the students to use their mobile devices, all of them had cameras but not all had internet access, so I could not make the students tweet. I brought some clipboards and paper with guiding questions the students could use instead. I have to say, the clip boards were ignored and the mobile phone cameras went to work.

Students engage with art to develop their academic literacies

Seeing the students’ interaction with the art was amazing. Initially I was not sure if they would like it, but found that within 5 minutes, the group had dispersed into huddles around different artwork. After about 45 minutes we met up in the antechamber of the exhibition and debriefed on the experience. The artwork had the desired effect. My students engaged with language and its use.

One observation, from a student pointing to an abstract painting with dispersed blue letters all over, was that this painting did not make any sense. I asked if he had read the description next to the painting, which he of course denied. The statement offered a great prompt for me leading the discussion towards the importance of contextualizing content, and the different levels of context that need to be provided depending on the audience.

When the students wanted to know, if it would make sense, on occasion, to not give the context when presenting, I used the example from today’s session. I said: look you were wondering why we would meet in front of a museum, linking to how this engaged their curiosity and thinking about the purpose of the activity, that meant I had their attention. The students began focussing much more on rhetorical tools now. Discussion points involved the way of presenting information, some of the language that was used in the art work, and how all this relates back to the presentations the students are to give.

Thanks to my students for sharing the picture!

I am grateful for having students who are willing to embark on my somewhat unusual methods, and engage, with good humour and sincerity.

Professional Homelessness

This is a conceptualization attempt emerging from: recent discussions with fellow ‘just finished’ postgrads; my family breathing down my neck about the usefulness of my degree (circumstantial evidence = zero), and last but by no means least the ‘you have to move out of the flat because I have to sell it’ phone call from our landlady. This is a reflection on professionalism versus incapacitation, professional homelessness and the  forlorn feeling that seems to creep into any conversation despite desperate attempts to cling onto positive language.

Professional Homelessness

Somehow since my final finalization of my PhD I feel utterly disconnected. An alien in an academic’s suit meandering through the masses of freshers that flood campus and city. An alien with no right to be anywhere. No right to be at any of the Higher Education Institutions I learned and worked in during the last five years. No right to be in any of the museums or shops I worked in, no right to the library. Reduced to the non-academic city libraries, I have no professional home at the moment. No place of work, of directed effort and this is a very painful experience—an imposter trying for a stowaway spot on an academic ship that goes nowhere.

I remember the last time I was off work for a summer after high-school. At least then, I was at the family farm. I made hundreds of glasses of fruit conserves and vegetable pickles, harvesting the apples and storing them for winter, learning type writing, collecting herbs and preparing remedies for the winter. Now I have none of this. In the city there is nothing to do but count the rain drops. (It is a bad day when the drama queen pops out of the prop box!)

Yes, I know I am starting up my own business but I still need, and not only for monetary reasons, some part-time work. I need something tangible a place in the world. Example: during my write-up I worked a 3 day a week maternity cover position, for three months, these were the most productive months of my whole PhD. I wrote 40.000 words in this time-span! A place to work is invaluable as a place of purpose.

I thought of starting the Professionally Homeless’ Association Anonymous  (PHAA). My introduction to the group would sound like this: I am an unemployed academic (Yeah, I know cry me a river and get back in line.) I am highly professional only that I have nothing to be professional for, with, in … I am professionally homeless.

This new employment (well unemployment) concept surely will find some foothold in public discourse. Not alone because professional homelessness sounds so much better than unemployment. Unemployment in the UK is also a massive stigma—really bad considering that about 25% of under 25 year old’s are holding this stigma. Unemployment so I am made to understand means you:

  1. smoke
  2. take drugs
  3. can’t be arsed (not my words)
  4. are useless
  5. and are generally a waste of space

The question is how do you get out of it, if professionalism means nothing? Professional capital is not getting you a job, not in academia at the moment anyway. Simply do the maths: my department alone lost more than 50% of its staff. Now these guys are on the job market with you, but there are no new jobs out (or very few and far in between). So what happens is: your former mentors and colleagues go for the entry level positions that you normally would go for, and of course are more qualified than you. What is left for you my dear fellow professionally homeless academic is the sour feeling of ‘not belonging’ of ‘begging’ for a job and eventually feeling like a puppy that got kicked and thrown out into the rain.

Okay, I put the drama queen back into prop-box. However, the fight against the windmills leaves me feeling incapacitated (entmündigt) because of questions such as:

  1. Can you have professional capital if no one acknowledges you have it?
  2. Are you actually an academic, if you have no ‘working home’ in a higher education institution anymore?
  3. Were the years of living on 50% below the poverty line, 24/7 work, no social life, gray hair, gaining weight, loosing teeth (sorry, sorry she keeps popping up—Shoo! Away with thee drama queen!) … I mean was all the hard work worth anything?
  4. Is an education really worthwhile, if it does not translate into economic rewards? (I mean the institution education—not the implicit learning experiences.)
  5. And the question my parents keep asking me. The penultimate question that made me wince over and over again: Was nützt der Titel ohne Mittel? (It translates roughly into: What for is the academic title without means?)

So if any of you share professional homelessness or professional displacement*, or if you have an opinion or answer to any of the questions raised or points made. Share, share and share! I did not want to disclose members of my social circle but I am by no means the only one experiencing professional homelessness. Any contribution would help to not feel so alone, and maybe out there in the conversation is a hidden solution.

* Professional displacement is a not as severe variant of professional homelessness. Here the victim (Oh yes the whole victimization and incapacitation issue needs much more attention!) has not lost all place of rightful association within a society, yet works in a field that has nothing or barely anything in common with the victim’s originally intended profession.**

** One could under certain circumstances even argue that this is a positive development and drag creativity into the discourse (just for the heck of it) but again this is a whole other issue.