Monday, 26 August 2013

new knowledge and longstanding values

I was watching NITV the other day while I was simultaneously working on a chapter and reading a book. It was Saturday, I didn't mind that I wasn't doing any of those things very efficiently.

I was captivated, as anyone would be, by this adorable approx. 8 year old boy who had made a video. I hadn't caught all the details, since I was cheerfully failing at multi-tasking, but it was a community project in NT, I think with the local school.

The boy was wearing a white lab coat, holding a pointer and indicating the head of a scientific picture of the human body.

He said something about what petrol sniffing does to your brain and then recounted the consequences as "you will forget your stories, you will forget your country". With a melodramatic look in his face, he added "YOU WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN", followed by a big cheeky grin.

It was a tiny segment of an afternoon of television (what a great channel it is, so great I'll link to it again) and it was not the only spot where different kinds of knowledges came together so successfully. But this one seemed so clear and exemplary: the school formulae of communicating knowledge; the trappings of the lab coat; while most clearly communicating the assumption that stories and country remain the worst thing that one could lose.

Friday, 23 August 2013

a rant about whinging

There is a great deal wrong with universities, but we academics really need to watch our whinging. I’ve sometimes wondered how those authors of books that relay academic views on universities have managed to find so many variations of the phrase ‘academics complain a lot…(about)’.

The problem with our whining habits struck me one day when I was travelling with colleagues (they will know who they are and that I hold them in esteem and affection). Five historians in a car, travelling through the desert, all of us complaining about the academic life, how it invaded family, how impossible work-life balance was, how difficult it was to manage financially through a PhD and early career, how the university was screwed and we should all go on strike – except no one would likely notice that a bit less history got written the week we waved signs pretending that we, with our 20-25 years of education each, had lots in common with early 20th C miners who, with between 3 and 9 years of education each, fought for the 8 hour day.

What struck me was not how screwed the universities are – I’ve been looking at this, indeed it has been my passion, for more than six years, to try to research a real way to understand and thus tackle our problems – but how little we acknowledged our privilege. Here we were, all five of us, with the surplus to be in the Australian outback doing community engagement work that would not result in any of the metrics our whining insists is the only thing our university cares about. Despite this belief, our university had in fact paid our airfares, food, car hire and accommodation – given how far we were away from our home base, this was a pretty big sum. Yes, the path is tough. But we are also profoundly privileged, in every sense.

The next day we each taught a year 9 double period in history at the local high school. This was a school that on any normal day will be missing around 30 per cent of its students – and I can confess that the students I had did not seem to be the types that wanted to learn history, so I couldn’t quite picture the ones who didn’t turn up.

And yet, I consider it to be our job to figure out how to educate everyone – for I take Whitlam’s ‘Everybody in Australia is entitled’ to an education seriously, not just the bit about how education should be free. I don’t believe it is our job in universities to only educate the handful of people who could pretty much educate themselves if we just gave them access to a decent library. I go mad reading about how ‘standards’ will fall when we educate 40% of young people. Did standards fall when we went from 0.2% to 3.2% - the same multiplier? When should we have stopped offering higher education to maintain ‘standards’? When it got to 5%? 10%? Or perhaps just a little after I got in, standards fell after that, not before, surely…? I also feel astonished by the scholars who decry the expansion of universities and imagine they would have been amongst the elite. Who is to say?

Those elite types, by the way, are usually raised in relatively-wealthy families with the surplus and family history in higher education to do things like discuss Foucault around the dinner table…and to be frank, I am not persuaded the parents of the kids I saw in the outback should be paying for those wealthy kids’ opportunity for a higher education (HECS, I reckon, was actually an amazingly equitable system – full-fees I oppose entirely. As for commodification and consumer-students….well, this whole blog is an ode in opposition to that).

After the year 9 double-period classes, when we were all a bit more aware of how easy our teaching work is in universities, we were talking to the teachers in the staff room. I’d been doing research, interviewing many teachers like them across a variety of disadvantaged schools, to see what we could learn about teaching more than the elite students who made it to our elite institution. That was when it hit me: unlike academics, they didn’t whinge. They worked long hours, weekends, evenings, school holidays, preparing teaching resources, brushing up on topics, reviewing curricula, doing the endless admin that plagues them, too. Even applying for grants, though these were actually for the school, not to travel overseas to do research (and have a family holiday while there). They had to be across a bewildering array of historical periods and topics (not just their favourites) and teach them to people not inclined to sit still and talk history – and who almost certainly had never heard of Foucault. And they did not complain. I asked them about this, once I noticed. Why not? ‘Oh, you get used to it’, they all said, cheerfully. Sheesh.

But this, I think, is not the worst thing about academic whinging. It is that it doesn’t do anything. We have a really big job to do now. We have to figure out how to offer good higher education to around 40% of school leavers. We obviously can’t do it at the price per head we could run an elite system, so as well as finding better ways to teach, it also has to be efficient. We believe it also needs to be linked to research, so we need to do that too. We need to persuade our administrators, government and the public that we are trustworthy enough for them not to need to collect data on our every move, because it is driving us crazy, inhibiting the creativity we need to do the work and taking up way too much of our time. But somehow they got the idea we couldn’t be trusted…and they probably didn’t get it from thin air. So we have to fix that.

We have SO much to do that we don’t have time for whinging. And if we hang around whinging instead of trying to tackle the problems at hand, those above us are just going to tell us how to do it and they’ll be wrong – giving us something more to whinge about. If instead, like those teachers, we got on and did it, and showed how it could be done and done well, demonstrating too how trustworthy we really are, all the things currently driving us crazy would, bit by bit, drop away.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The rising sun

I have been trying to learn, this past year, how to write history that looks to the future, taking seriously Walter Benjamin's position that history should 'look to the rising sun' - it should be about how we want the world to be. 

I walked on the beach this morning, watching the actual rising sun, pondering the ways the radical historicists of the postmodern 'cultural turn' rejected this idea, claiming the historical materialism Benjamin advocated was unacceptable 'metanarrative'. All history happened uniquely in its moment - a belief in which, intellectually speaking, I was 'raised'. 

I've been exploring both Marx and the future, while still hanging on to that insistence on the historicity of the moment. It makes writing a trickier task, I find. 

But looking to the rising sun - how we want universities, workplaces and opportunity in society to be - seems to me to be just as important as writing 'against the grain' - a phrase of Benjamin's the cultural historians were happy to embrace in the same moment as they rejected the historical materialism that is the whole subject of his wondrous 'theses on the philosophy of history'. 

Monday, 19 August 2013


I am on a writing retreat. 

I like it. 

i am working hard, despite what this photo looks like. 

Yesterday was structuring narrative and argument, threading through themes. 

Today is writing...

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Knowledge as currency: a story

I can take no credit for this blog post at all. This is a story written by my son, Cooper Forsyth, around a year ago. He was twelve. 

There once was a very clever boy, He was always top of the class and he excelled in anything that required intellectual ability. Grown-ups often told him that his knowledge would bring him far in adult life, but when the boy grew up he was very disappointed. He needed to earn money but each job only required a portion of his intelligence, so he came up with a plan. He went down to the bakery to try out his new plan, and when he got there he offered the baker a deal. “for one loaf of bread” he said “I will tell you something you don't already know.” “why would I do that"? the baker replied in alarm. “Because” the man started intelligently “you can then offer the same knowledge to another baker for two loaves of bread.” the baker hesitated for a moment, “alright” he said “I'll do it. The man walked away in satisfaction, “soon everyone will accept knowledge as currency, and finally my knowledge will serve me well” he thought.

Time passed and the man became very rich. One day the man had to go to the grocery store to buy some food. When he got there he offered the grocer a simple maths equation he learned in year 7, but the grocer already knew it. The man tried again. He tried everything he knew about science, English, maths, physics but the grocer knew it all. He sighed: “in return for some rope and a stool” he said “I will tell you the secret of how knowledge became currency".

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Watch how you use the word 'merit': it does not mean what you think it means

Who decides what academic merit is?

How does this change?

It has been my suspicion - informed by evidence that I am still piecing together - that merit can sometimes be gendered, is often classed - but is not only 'raced', it is racist.

Check this out:

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How white are you, how close to the centre of the city?

I have spent some of the last day or so working through some interviews I did last year with history teachers and  - mostly from curiosity, though perhaps there is no real distinction between research and curiosity - have been putting what teachers have said about their students against data available in a My School search.

I'm not about to embark on a new career as a sociologist of education, but every time I use the My School website (which is not the proper way to do it - were I doing a full study of schools I'd apply to ACARA properly) I am struck by the ways education and socio-economic advantage map so readily to one another. And this time - because our social inclusion work is increasingly focused to regional Australia, the way it is also about both race and distance from the metropole.

Being a historian and spending so much time with the linearity of language seems to have sapped all my ability to think spatially, but there must be some sort of diagram with quadrants of ethnicity and distance from Centrepoint tower or... OK, lets forget the diagram. But all the evidence points to the more anglo you are and the closer to the centre of the city, the easier you will find it to access educational and professional advantage. It creates a complex set of relations between class, wealth and ethnicity that is not easy to untangle, for (very crudely and generalised) a white person away from the city might have less advantages that a not-white person close to the middle - but certainly fewer (in general, statistically, that is) than a not-white person 'remote' to Sydney - and their remote designation tells us a whole lot about the way words and ideas and material reality work together, too.

Seeing the numbers, looking at the results and putting them against the stories teachers were telling me put knots in my stomach and tears in my eyes at the unfairness of it all - that such uncontrollable things in your life, like where you live in Australia and your ethnicity will make it easier or harder to reach your goals - or even to set them.

We know what this means for inequality, but what does it mean for history? In some ways the question, compared to the consequences and symptoms of disadvantage, seems trivial. But we also know that being able to place yourself in the story of humanity and the nation is what enables you to take you your place a citizen, with all the things that citizenship offers yourself and the world.

So when teachers from these schools tell me that they couldn't 'take for granted' the things they had expected their students to know or be able to do, that also tells me NOT that they are bad teachers - history teachers are AMAZING - but that the way we think about history itself has biases built into it. History in school and university, often also in books and on TV I reckon, in Australia does NOT imagine its audience, its authors, its essay writers, students to be the students these teachers are working with - if it did, there would be a different set of assumed knowledge, another set of skills valued, a different narrative to tell the world and oneself. This is not (only) about school curricula but is mostly about what we think of as historical merit.

There are so many implications it is hard to pick the most important one and this probably is not it. But the concern that has been driving some of this is that if HISTORIANS are a fairly homogenous group, picked out because 'merit' has something to do with where you live, the colour of your skin, the language you speak at home, the types of conversations at your dinner table - what does THAT do to the story of humanity and the nation that historians are tasked with telling?

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Work and knowledge - reading Kropotkin

'Thousands of inventors, mostly unknown, mostly dying in poverty and neglect, have elaborated the machinery in which man admires his genius. 
Thousands of writers, philosophers and men of science, supported by many thousands of compositors, printers, and other labourers whose name is legion, have contributed to elaborating and spreading knowledge, to dissipating errors, to creating the atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century never would have been brought to life... 
These men of genius themselves are, in their turn, the children of industry thousands of engines had to transform heat into mechanical force and mechanical force into sound, light, and electricity had to do so for years, every day, under the eyes of humanity before some of our contemporaries proclaimed the mechanical origin of heat and the correlation of physical forces, and before we ourselves became prepared to listen to them and understand their teachings. 
Who knows for how many decades we should continue to be ignorant of this theory which now revolutionises industry, were it not for the inventive powers and skill of those unknown workers who have improved the steam-engine, who have brought all its parts to perfection, so as to make steam more manageable than a horse, and to render the use of the engine nearly universal?
Who is, then, the individual who has the right to step forward and, laying his hand on the smallest part of this immense whole, to say, "I have produced this; it belongs to me"?'
And on another topic on which I've been interested:

'It is becoming evident that it is merely stupid to elect a few men, and to entrust them with the task of making laws on all possible subjects, of which subjects most of them are utterly ignorant.' 

- Peter Kropotkin, 1887