Running with Scissors

or: The Problem of MicroManaging Study.

At first we thought we would have a time-table, but we have given it up. We have a programme, and the hours are fixed for all big events like dinner, sleep, play and work, but our play and work lost so much force and interest by being snipped into little sections that after some hesitation we gave up the snipping altogether, and allowed ourselves to be interested in things.

Margaret McMillan “The Nursery School,” Chapter 9, pp 83-84

The McMillan project of care and education is exemplified in this book, well worth a read by those who would confine Early Years to a rather expensive version of baby farming, and describes the Nursery School as a place for refuge for children living in awful conditions and whose health suffers from lack of healthy provision – cleanliness, good food, plenty of fresh air all… ordered and fairand the health of the children perfect. They were models for educators, for families, foundation for the children, and a nurture centre where miserable children flourished. There was direct instruction in all sorts of curriculum areas, but Nursery Schools in the early C20th were not hothouses but lighthouses: beacons of good practice. The model of childhood was really one combining the child-in-need-of-rescue with a vision of a child with a right to full nurture. Note, however, that this is not a place of total do-as-you-please: there is identified need, purpose, resource: Art lessons, dance, reading, mathematics….

In the same way, a University as an institution fostering learning has identified need, purpose, resource. I looked at this fairly recently in a goodbye to this year’s Education Studies students by examining our Guiding Principles at Oxford Brookes. The model of the learner here: someone capable of learning by doing; an institution with confidence in its staff and students.

I wonder, however, whether the confusions about lines of accountability leads institutions to show a lack of confidence in its members. What are we accountable for? To whom? Let’s look at this as being accountable for student learning, and for promoting behaviours that aid that learning. Here are some of the books I might suggest my students read, for example, depending on the context. It strikes me that this (purposefully odd) selection underlines the importance of the tutor not as arbiter but guide: to nudge, not judge. You wouldn’t get a degree if you read these – unless that reading were informed by wider reading, discussion, synthesis, evaluation. Quotation alone does not make an essay, although I do recall looking at a portfolio (at another institution) where the student had been told to “put in the quote about Vygotsky to show us you read that chapter.” The dependent thinker.

I’m zipping around here, going from 1919 to the present day, and then back a bit. Cut through the noise of managementspeak, and McGregor’s model from 1966 (here, from The Human Side of Enterprise) of how one might view workers in a team is still of use here. Theory X suggests that it is management that actively drives the project by directing the workers, and

The average man is by nature indolent—he works as little as possible

He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

Micromanaging a student experience starts from here, and it doesn’t take too many clicks to find opinions about lazy students – particularly first years. By nature indolent.

If we start, however, from McGregor’s Theory Y that

…motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

then learning and teaching become a different set of activities altogether. Riskier, perhaps for all concerned – but actually more worthwhile than the over-planned, micromanaged but beautifully accountable syllabus.

Students in Higher Education are not employees any more than they are customers, of course; the shifting sands of ideology put them closer to one end of the spectrum in some time periods and at others closer to the other end. Thus, it might in some contexts seem desirable to say to a student “This course requires you to set aside some ninety hours for your own reading” but the tone is quite authoritarian: what do we mean by “this course requires”? That also sounds a lot, although over, for example, the Brookes twelve week semester it’s seven and a half hours a week (since I’m referring explicitly to the Brookes system here, it is worth remembering that an undergraduate very often takes four modules at a time, so that is almost a full-time job: with classes to attend, it really is a full-time job!). Did I manage that in the 70s? Yes, sometimes – very often – I did: pastoral crises aside, I was reading Homer (very badly) for a weekly translation class at a rate of three books a week for eight weeks, and I regularly saw very little sleep. If I disliked the pace of work set, too bad.

But this is not a valid argument: the “I was unhappy so you should be too” approach to course design has, it seems to me, at its heart a misdirected desire for revenge. Far better to revenge oneself by turning up at a tutor’s hour reciting The Catalogue of the Ships at three in the morning1. But why do tutors set work – reading specifically – for undergraduates? What do we hope in doing this?

The pictures in this blog are partly there to identify the disciplinary shift I had to learn to manage when I moved from being, in effect, an ex-Classicist (or “lapsed Medievalist,” as I described myself) where text was the lead, to looking at educational practice where ideas and practical application are at the forefront. And yet there has always been in my work with education students, my desire to “get them reading.” Is this the change we seek? To make readers? What does Higher Education aim to do? And in a time where the norms of classes and library time are disrupted, what, at heart, are the aims of education? My first thought is to dive for a classic text:

Applications in Education. There is nothing peculiar about educational aims. They are just like aims in any directed occupation. The educator, like the farmer, has certain things to do, certain resources with which to do, and certain obstacles with which to contend. The conditions with which the farmer deals, whether as obstacles or resources, have their own structure and operation independently of any purpose of his…

It is the same with the educator, whether parent or teacher. It is as absurd for the latter to set up his “own” aims as the proper objects of the growth of the children as it would be for the farmer to set up an ideal of farming irrespective of conditions. Aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function — whether farming or educating. Any aim is of value so far as it assists observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour; if it gets in the way of the individual’s own common sense (as it will surely do if imposed from without or accepted on authority) it does harm.

John Dewey Democracy in Education, Ch 8 “The Aims in Education”

So why the quirky title? I have used it with University students if I have had to leave the room just as a jokey reminder of the need to stay on task; it also belongs in the death scene in Muppet Treasure Island, where Billy Bones with his last breath warns against running with scissors2. Of course it belongs first of all in the Early Years classroom where, supervised or not, running with scissors is generally frowned upon; there is risk and there is risk.

And there is risk in learning. The independence of using scissors on your own might be an early step in education, but there are others, as outdoor learning sometimes emphasises. “Even” in everyday learning and teaching, as Dewey has it, we have an acceptance of responsibility to cope with in different contexts than our usual ones. We have (Dewey again) to let go of our own aims or at least to question them seriously through reevaluation of our observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour. The shibboleth is about “going outside the comfort zone” and perhaps the conditions for teaching and learning have been so different of late that we are very far outside that comfort zone – and seek a firm foothold in managing the student experience and recording how we manage it. Do we (Higher Education lecturers, tutors, administrators and managers of the nebulous stuff that is Quality Assurance) ourselves run a risk here: not letting the students make mistakes? Make their own choices? Not letting the students find their own way? “Read this – then this – then this” is an easy way to put together a programme of study, but a difficult habit to break when the time is right. Snipping learning into little sections (to return to Margaret McMillan) and not letting students or ourselves (McMillan) to be interested in things? After all, being interested wasn’t one of the learning outcomes. Was it?

It was and it wasn’t. The trivial round, the common task dominate our thinking. Lecture timetables, assessment deadlines. Dave Aldridge’s article (yes, go and read the original) puts it very clearly:

The descriptive understanding… leaves the materiality of university life untouched: those involved continue to memorise, recall, rehearse, assess, and implicate themselves in those activities associated with the accountability that encroaches on educational experience. Students attend or miss lectures, work part time, stay up late, participate in or shun their university’s union, and form and break relationships. Tutors struggle to find time for their research and the energy to resist institutional bureaucracy.

David Aldridge (2019) “Reading, Engagement and Higher Education.” Higher Education Reserach and Development, 38:1:47

The “materiality” of higher education is currently in a sort of ideological and procedural Limbo that reminds me sharply of CS Lewis miserable opening to The Great Divorce:

Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.

and like the characters in The Great Divorce, escape from this is only possible by risking something: the letting-go of worn habits of affection (or lack of it). I would suggest that “getting students to read” is another worn habit, and is part of a bigger picture foisted on Higher Education by a false accountability: students, at least the ones I have had off-the-cuff conversations with, seem to me to want to be asked to join the dance, not to know their tutors can account for every hour of the module’s learning. Again, it is Dave Aldridge who sees this as courtship, the tutor’s task being to see the student’s learning with the attentiveness of the lover.

So this certainly doesn’t mean a chaotic “pick the bones out of that” model of teaching. As Julie Fisher (yes, of one her books is in that first photo) has said Independent learning is not abandoned learning. I want students to read, I will propose work for them that will require them to look at and analyse texts from the role of therapy dog through to John Dewey, not simply so that they will read (as if that on its own will cure some ill-named ignorance, a Very Hungry Caterpillar transformation of Take-It-All-And-You-Will-Emerge-A-Butterfly), but so that the ideas they encounter will encourage them to take a risk – to think for themselves, to apply what they read about to the educational questions of why we do what we do. Systems and accountability will not suffice: we are back at the challenge of Margaret McMillan in her 1919 Nursery School: being allowed to be interested.

And if the everydayness of Higher Education is lost at the moment, we still have that as a challenge for tutor and student alike.


1: Actually, don’t even think of it. And certainly do not turn up at my house at any point day or night to discuss the place-language of Robert Macfarlane or to recite Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. At least, not without an invite.

2: Although if we meet in the pub and you can sing the Professional Pirate song I will be impressed.

Guiding Principles, Graduating Students

Very much a Brookes Blog this, albeit entirely unofficial, but inspired partly by the surfacing of the annual Cthulhu of Nursery Graduations, something I’ve railed at before. What is graduation about? And this year, what takes its place? I know some places have gone entirely virtual, while others are looking at postponement.

If I had my way I’d be standing in my cap and gown at a lectern reading names. People I know well, or people I have at least taught, and sometimes people I haven’t taught, would file past me, and I would try and balance the tricky bit of reading their names and giving them a little smile before they launch off across the platform to where the Vice-Chancellor would be all smiles and shake hands somewhere in the middle of a platform. I am missing some notable students this year – and I was especially looking forward to the award of a doctorate to my friend and mentor, Dr Julie Fisher. I would inevitably get some names wrong despite the prompt card, and as Reader have no time to play the “Have they ever worn those heels before?” games of spotting ten foot tall women and suited men unused to shoes without trainer grips tottering or tripping along. 55 mins pretty much every time, depending on the guest speaker. 

Ah yes, the guest speaker. A notable, hopefully someone the graduands will recognise and, if not, at least someone who can speak about what graduation means. The ones who find it hardest to win the crowd haven’t really understood the cohort they are addressing and think “education” in the School of Education means teachers or teachers-in-the-making; some of the best warm the audience up with something light hearted and then hit them with something that is so inspirational you wonder why you even tried for three or so years when someone so talented has lifted the spirits of “your” students in 15 minutes. There are speakers who have that gift, and have thought and prepared and picked the right phrase or poem or saying and everyone leaves on a cloud. 

I don’t think this cohort will get this experience, not this year – or maybe not right at the end of all that hard work, at any rate. Up in my little study, I could put my kit on but it wouldn’t be the same. I could make a hash of the names, too – but we would be missing the ceremony. So what does a ceremony do? I’ve asked this question before, and I wonder about the ceremonial that accompanies what is, in effect, a representation of an older set of rituals that are about being allowed to do something after a ceremony that you were not allowed beforehand. Marriages are like that in many cultures, permission to be or join (or start) a family, and graduations similarly reflect the older view that a degree is a license to teach, permission to go out and replicate the educational project of which the student has been the recipient. 

In the post-1992 Universities – and perhaps in all UK Universities except the most ancient – the ceremony itself is not in any way the conferment of that license, even for people training to be teachers, although it echoes it; it is more accurate to be viewed as a ritual representation of a lot of work. Work by administrators (from admissions to room bookings) feeds into work by lecturers (teaching) which feeds into work by students (reading, experience: learning); more work by students (producing assessable work) feeds into work by lecturers (marking), which then translates into the filtration system of exam boards (or committees, or whatever) which are in turn reported to complex administration systems (involving humans and computers). These systems are checked and rechecked and a result is determined, and the student gets their BA, BSc, MA, whatever. If you want a sense of the complexity and the life-changing, hectic nature of this, try reading this paragraph in one breath. 

And then the ceremony. Lots of clapping, lots of little speeches, a queue to meet a University leader for a handshake or other greeting. Pre-ceremony there has been dressing up; post-ceremony there is a bit of a party: photos, meeting relatives. Parallels with weddings are again pretty obvious. 

At Brookes we talk about graduands (people ready to be given a degree) and graduates (people who have been moved up a step by being awarded their qualification), although actually a student “has their degree” when the results are published. What are we saying the student now has?  Graduates are connected to their degree by the learning outcomes of the degree that they have undertaken; they are connected to the University by the way that degree has been dovetailed into the organisation’s aims, visions, hopes and fears. I sometimes think we don’t talk enough about these broader aspirations: they become, if we’re not careful, a way of selling the University more than a way of looking at the time the student has spent with us – and, in this context it is worth remembering that that these aims are a way of thinking not so much about what the students have done so much as what the graduates can now do: not a million miles away from the old license to teach idea. What does the University now think you (graduates) can do?

Brookes has a set of what might be thought of as “family values” by which it couches its Guiding Principles as ideas which “shape the character of our graduates” thus:

Generosity of spirit: the principles say the University has positive working practices…built on the various ways we give time and attention. 

Connectedness: where the heart of staff and student experience is the deep rotts of Brookes history and the city in which it is situated

Confidence: in the ability of the student body. 

Enterprising creativity: time at University should be a sustainable and life-changing route for student participants and support them as they graduate. 

…and so let me just note that this implies that graduates will have been given time and attention, with compassion at the heart of the relationships and confidence in the ability of the student body, to be flexible and creative as they leave their study time at Brookes. And this is where I have a problem.

Things like Student Satisfaction Surveys function like Trip Advisor: Have you had a good time? or Were they nice to you? All very well in their way – some might argue key to how an organisation sees its work and improves. But they also put the onus on the organisation to talk in terms of what it’s doing or done: Were the towels clean? and Was the Reception Area easy to find? Perhaps we could turn this around a bit, not to shift blame or to avoid those things that in a really difficult time need to be looked at with a keen eye, but to look at whether guiding principles have behind them a spirituality that they seek to impart to students. It’s not necessarily a spirituality of transcendence, unless we thing of that as being part of something bigger than ourselves, but it is about connecting and compassion, and by this being able to make sense of our lives. It’s then not enough to think about whether staff were available when students wanted them, or what a University could do better, but what a graduand might do to look at themselves:

Enterprising creativity: Can I think flexibly and in an adult way, using the skills I have practised to make the world better? We are going to need this so badly: economic and political crises, ecological pressures… Am I set to be compliant and get my own job done, or can I see myself as something bigger, something needing my energy?

Confidence: Do I know at least something of my own abilities, and can I build a community around me of people who trust me and whom I can trust? When my confidence fails me, or when society looks unsafe, can I find ways to inspire myself and others?

Connectedness: Is compassion at the heart of my experiences and the decisions I make? Can I see how people different from me are still people with yesterdays and tomorrows to face? Are my choices about me and the here-and-now or do they look around to see wider implications?

Generosity of spirit: How do I give time and attention to people around me? People close to me, people I work with? People in the shops or on the bus? This year above all years do I have an eye for the marginalised, the sick?

If as I said before a graduation ceremony is about belonging – and this year we can’t say we belong in quite the same obvious and physical way – then we might ponder how we belong.

And I might suggest we belong in Brookes by being the embodiment of these principles. It’s not so much about having a license to teach, or any of the other things that we might be empowered do so with our MAs or BAs or wot not – but about how the “family values” are translated in our own lives.

All this from a small dog?

Doodles the therapy dog whom Cherryl Drabble has introduced to her school and written about has been much in my thoughts, and was the subject of a blog post at the start of this academic year, when I asked this strings of questions:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?
  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

That’s a lot of questions to lay at the door of one writer and her dog, and maybe a lot to ask of first year undergraduates, too. What I suppose I’m getting at – and thinking about as I gear up for the marking of their essays – is the stuff at the heart of this document, Be More Critical from Oxford Brookes’ Upgrade service.

As a student in higher education, you need to weigh up the strengths and limitations, the values or merits of what you read, see and hear. You can then justify your own conclusions.

Much of your learning at university is designed to enable you to develop the skills you need for life and work. A questioning, ‘critical’ approach is fundamental to everything. You are not simply a ‘sponge’, soaking up information, and repeating it in your assignments to prove you ‘know’ it. Your course is designed to help you develop a critical approach to evidence so you can apply it in your future practice…

And so here we are, faced with a multi-headed task around choosing an essay that is

  • going to exercise and develop a student’s critical skills
  • going to be big enough to be interesting and yet feasible in about four weeks
  • going to have an accessible amount of relevant sources.

Let’s look at Doodles.

Cherryl Drabble’s book is friendly, chatty and anecdotal. It allows a school to ponder some of the pros and cons of getting, training, managing and, well, using a dog in therapy.  I think it has come as a surprise to some of the students that policy and practice can be presented and discussed in this voice -but of course this is the voice of education as it is spoken in staff rooms.  Is it, maybe, the voice of the educator as opposed to the educationalist? In some ways, perhaps: but here is  another critical question, and one that trails around education very often (this clip provides a nice metaphor): how does someone who thinks and writes about education differ from someone who works with learners on a daily basis? What should the new consumer (and replicator?) if academic style make of Drabble’s warm reportage?

When Levi, a boy with ADHD (p100) readies himself for learning by playing with Doodles, and perhaps more particularly by taking charge of the dog, a number of things are in play.

We as readers are aware of Drabble’s astonishment at this turn of events; she is showing a key (but sometimes overlooked) element in reflective practice in that she reports on her emotional responses.

We are also aware of how her report is couched in conversational language: a student-critic will notice the turns of phrase that are suited to spoken language (“No, that wasn’t his intention at all.”) and reflect on the way in which academic language, while useful when it makes meaning clear, can also distance the reader… What are the choices for the young writer?

It’s actually quite complex – and the deeper we go, the more there is to see:

Why is Levi “running off some energy?” and what is the role of a TA with a child who has needs similar to Levi? What role does conformity play in a learner’s experience? What might boundaries do – impair Levi’s learning or give him a structure? How does the student in Higher Education explore the big questions around educational “therapeutic spaces”?

And then I might ask the student reader to look again at Levi, to see how these “sensory breaks” allow him to succeed in class. Might Levi’s teacher really be looking at good practice for any learner – and how does learning at University take into account ideas of what makes an enabling learning environment? Or does it simply replicate historical precedents with a liberal (or “customer-first” neoliberal?) veneer of conversation, group tasks and chatty tutors? Should we have sensory breaks? How do we make a case – weighing up evidence, seeing arguments in context? If pace is self-chosen for Levi, if compassion and belonging underpin his learning experience, what about in Higher Ed?

From Levi and Cherryl on the playground we are on task in “developing students’ critical skills” as well as looking at the questions this post started from.

Wow. Yes, all this from a small dog.  



Starting out

Just a quick thought for the students on two of the three modules I’m teaching this semester, based on the relationship between the cat and the rabbit in the wonderful Up The Mountain. My comments here might be something to follow up, but are in no way important for what follows here. I hope this works for the three modules* but maybe in different ways: I have to say that from the outset I’m writing this really for the first years: for “my” Ed Studies students, and then for the first year Outdoor Learning people in Early Childhood.

img_9968The model that the book Up The Mountain explores is one of friendship and apprenticeship. The author wrote it in memory of her grandmother “who loved nature and books” – and that pretty much sums up my attitude to this semester’s teaching: warmth, love of Nature, love of books. 

However, if this were all, I think I would be wondering if this was worth a degree. Just as sometimes I look at CPD that people report as inspirational and think “that was a day’s worth?” I worry that coming out of the undergraduate process thinking that one or two tutors were nice people and that being outside is lovely is just too weak. Of course, in the CDP example and the undergraduate one, this précis is too wishy-washy to be a decent overview of what anyone has learn, but what do I want students to do when starting out in  Higher Education?  I find myself as old Mrs Badger, watching the little cat explore, and grow – and pass on his delight to the (even littler) rabbit who joins his journey.  Perhaps the imagery doesn’t extend too far, a delight though the book is.

But to move away from metaphor, let’s take Doodles, the therapy dog whose work is described in Cheryl Drabble’s book and her blog. Why use a book like this in the Introduction to Education Studies? Well, because it describes and uses the disciplines of Education Studies in a compassionate and engaged context. Real children and young people, along with their educators, have encountered and appear to benefit from a different way of working. How do we know this works?  Do we define curriculum in such a way that the experience of education has room for “cute, fluffy, handsome, pretty and furry”?**

We will, of course, read about the uses and abuses of cherrypicking educational practices and about the ways theory can and can’t be used – from Developmentally Appropriate Practice to looking at models of (dis)advantage – but Cheryl Drabbles’ dog allows us to ask big questions through a practical lens.  For example:

  • Should schools be therapeutic spaces – or should the task of learning itself be enough to raise self-esteem and motivate? How does “belonging” fit with one’s identity as a learner – or an educator (thanks, Jon, for the timely reminder on this last point as I prepare a class on the Sociology of Education)?
  • If a dog is right for one school, should all schools get one? How might  practice in a school where pupils have significant needs for physical and/or cognitive support be different from other schools? Should they be seen as different?
  • What is the role of the professional as an autonomous worker? How do educational institutions work as teams – and (see above) how does belonging and having a voice in a team look in practice?
  • What does the documentation of a National Curriculum have to say about what society might aspire for? Does this aspiration close doors or open them?

All this from a small dog?

We might, by moving beyond the text itself into exploring what we mean by distinguishing between research and news media, ask

  • What makes an argument valid?
  • Does “it works for us” clinch an argument, validate a practice?
  • How does research work in a messy world of so many variables?

All this in twelve weeks?

No, and no. We (the students and I) are beginning to pose these questions, just as we are beginning to put together the skills the students will need for the next few years and beyond.  And of course it’s not Doodles – or even Cheryl Drabble’s book about him and his impact on her school – that gives us these things. We are using the idea of a therapy dog, and what people have said about therapy dogs (and mutatis mutandis the experiences we are having outdoors in the other modules and what people write about being outdoors) as ways of starting to explore the Big Questions both in the abstract and the concrete. We are also starting to look at the conventions that Higher Education (sort of) seeks to impose on its neophytes.  So – to end with practical questions – if we are using (as many students are) the e-version of the book, how are you going to reference a quotation from it? How might you summarise some of Drabble’s conclusions?


*The three modules are: the first year module Introduction to the Study of Education and the first and second/third year modules Young Children’s Outdoor Learning. Doodles makes his appearance especially in the first of these.

**Drabble, C (2019) Introducing a School Dog: a practical guide. London: Jessica Kingsley.  Drabble (2019:98)

Corvid, my Corvid

So I was standing in a large auditorium reading the names of people who were being awarded doctorates. There were more than I expected – in fact more and more seem to appear on the sheaf of papers I was reading from. I dropped the papers, and picked them up in any order. The hall kept getting bigger, I kept seeing more people, and the titles of their theses were, over and over, relevant or interesting to me. I mugged my way through the ceremony, trying to make some sense of the papers in front of me. All those people with doctorates and I couldn’t manage to read their names clearly enough.

And then I woke up, woke up with a sense of failure – and remembered that last night I had agreed to sign my withdrawal form from my own doctoral/MPhil experience. I signed it this morning, and the should’ve, could’ve, might’ve shadows make my tasks today – reading more of Hawkes’ A Land in the Bodleian and setting up teaching for the next semester – seem at first glance empty of significance.

But – like all but one of the psalms – I cannot leave it there. The title of my research still holds good: A critical investigation of themes in the depiction of the outdoors environment in young children’s picture books and one of the things reading and reading and thinking Ludchurch duskand talking about this have brought me is a closer look at landscape and the ways people interact with it. It has brought me all sorts of authors and ideas: Macfarlane, Garner, Gawain, Ludchurch;  it continues to allow me to work with and learn from Mat and Roger, to read with joy and understanding, to think  about the pressing issues of our ecological failures, to take pleasure (as well as feel concern) as I look at the world I walk in.

So here is Mary Oliver (of course) in her poem


Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.


Spiritual patience, and the ambition of crows.


And thank you, Annie, for the raven linocut I’m finishing with. I might want to fly with the wings of eagles, but a keen eyed scavenger with a rude clarion cronk (thanks, Chris!) will do me just fine –

– and is probably just right. 

Never Neat

I had a conversation the other day with one of the leaders, to my mind, of Early Years philosophy and practice, a man who describes himself as “Theorist by instinct, Pracademic by experience,” Jan Dubiel. We were thinking about how the transition into training, writing, Higher Education, &c., from Early Years is tricky because our first instinct is to think first of the wellbeing of the children in our care.  This isn’t really a high-minded and self-sacrifical statement, just that the practice of day-long working with young children is so all-engossing, it is hard to look up and see the other things looming.

I was talking to him while I was down at the allotment in the sunshine – that is, I was at my allotment in the sunshine; I don’t know where he was, but we were talking on the ‘phone, and when we had finished I watered, and netted, watered some more and picked courgettes, and I thought and thought about the lack of neatness of the professional world of what he calls the “pracademic.”   I think we crave neatness, sometimes, and whether we achieve it or not, it says something to many of us about how much we can control our thoughts, or professional lives. Maybe the single-minded, plan-ahead hunter caught the gazelle aeons ago and it stuck. I don’t know: if so, I expect my ancestors were scavengers…

But this neatness has down sides. It suggests, for example, that orthodoxy is linear, or internally consistent and somehow wins because of this. This in turn might suggest that the monolith of an educational theory or practice is valid because it is massy and impassive; those who oppose it are dashed against the rock of its certainty. I am very wary of it: life is too complicated, families are too messy; what general theory might suggest does not mean that it can be reduced to “all children must,” still less “unless you do this as a teacher, the children will fail.”

Life is not neat. If I were to extend the idea from this previous blog post I might suggest that the lived experience of the professional educator is a task not unlike the complex task of literary criticism: we might, as Margaret Meek says,

…take the simplicity of the words for granted…but each double-page spread with its three words of text is full of possibilities.

How Texts Teach what Readers Learn, p12

I worked this morning with marvellous people from Home Start, a charity working with “families who are having difficulties managing parenting for a variety of different reasons:” we read Anthony Browne’s Voices in the Park, and (thanks to the complexity of the book, I rather think) they got my point at once.  These are people – often volunteers – who understand that all children are not the same; all families are complex, full, like a picture book, of possibilities beyond the simple statement, half-quotes from past lives, chances missed or taken.  The task of working with children and families requires a skill beyond the monolith, or beyond the first glance. This allows practitioners and practice-focused academics and trainers an interesting leeway: we are not joining a church, but enhancing the lives of children and families. Disagreement in one thing (or even a raft of things) does not make heretics, but can make thoughtful practitioners.

I did say “can…”



What Happens When You Graduate?

I’ve written about this before, both passing on the wisdom of others talking to graduands/graduates (such as Bill Watterson, here) or briefly when five years ago I discussed what the ritual of graduation does.

I asked “What about the ritual? What is conferred, what is received? Is there a quasi-sacramental element here?” It is this that I want to return to, the grey Monday after the Brookes Graduation ceremonies.

Oxford Brookes (and other Universities) talk about graduands, people who will be given a new status. In the ancient University “down the hill” (I am writing in Brookes library), the ceremony has something of its ancient power and regulation,  with candidates arriving dressed for one status and leaving dressed for another: ego admitto te /vos: I admit you, says the VC, and for the MA at Oxford this is the authorisation to teach, to lecture and dispute:

do vobis licentiam incipiendi in Facultate Artium… legendi, disputandi, et caetera omnia faciendi, quae ad statum Magistri in eadem facultate pertinent…

I give you licence to incept [begin to teach] in the Faculty of Arts …to lecture,
to dispute and to do all the other things that pertain to the rank of Master…

In another, Cambridge, the visual emphasis is oath/belonging but again is about admission – admitto te; in the third I’ve seen, St Andrews,  the conferment of the hood is a key element – back to dress and status. The elements have their roots in the regulation of the Schools such as Paris and Oxford and in turn draw on clothing and ordination ceremonies in the Western Christian tradition.   These have all drawn criticism of the ceremonial as based in intrinsically masculine symbolism, and while University leaders are often men there is an element that cannot be overlooked here. It is really compounded by the idea that the ritual does something: you come in without a degree and you go out with one; you come in without a license to teach, and leave able to do so.


Yes, this is where the ceremony stumbles, even in its ancient forms. What can you do today you couldn’t do on Friday? We have largely gone away from the ceremony as imparting some character, a sort of sacrament, or even a license, although some qualifications still have those elements when linked, as here, to professional standards.

I wonder if it’s time to rethink what a graduation ceremony does? If we think honestly about it, it seems to me to be about

  • belonging
  • standing
  • celebration

If (and I have cited Brookes’ own vision before) this is about “academic, professional and social engagement to enhance our reputation as a university” how does the graduation fit in? It fits in because, although we are (sc. Brookes is) not a University that uses the ceremony as a rite of confirmation – in other words, if you don’t turn up, you still have your BA or whatever – what a graduation does is celebrate the belonging and the success-at-belonging in the University.  The organisation – represented hierarchically by serious grown-ups such as the Vice-Chancellor and by tutors and other staff – shows how even when a course has finished, you still belong.    That belonging means that our reputation is mutually enhanced: “we” are happy to call you a graduate member of the family, hoping that “you” are happy to be recognised as one. The day celebrates – in its oldest meaning the organisation gets its members to congregate for a ritual purpose, and in this case in a more modern meaning, to come together with joy – the successful conclusion of part of the relationship. Perhaps the studying and results are the most intense part of the relationship, but it is a relationship that continues

The work the student has done allows their standing to be recognised. The academic exercises, successfully completed, bring about a recognition that this person or that has done the job they set out to do. The professionals that helped them to do it recognise that publicly (and ceremonially?) in a way that a message over the internet or by post does not do. Whether this actually needs marking by dress and processional is an interesting point – but maybe that debate is a different one. What might a graduation look like that was overtly inclusive? Specifically not rooted in Christian ritual or at least ecclesiastical history? Smaller? Bigger? Gownless (I don’t mean naked)? Started from the student, not the institution? How much might be gained or lost in the sentiments of belonging and standing? What might be gained?

I think that we would have to recognise that in a society where dress codes are less and less important, they do still have significance; where hierarchy is more about management of power than the more instant getting up when someone comes into a room, physical aspects of respect still impact on our understanding. And where ceremony has its place in weddings, funerals, birthdays (yes they do have forms and formulae) and physicality continues to be part of what it means to be human, maybe the graduation day is not ready to be ignored.

I hope not: I had fun.


In 2018, on 11th June, after much humming and hawing (to the point where I must’ve bored Maggie and my work friends to pieces) and a memorable walk with Roger (my manager at the time) to talk it all through, I sent off the paperwork to apply for Voluntary Severance from my post as Programme Lead/Principal Lecturer in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes.

The back story is that I had been thinking about it for some time, pondering back in the January on this blog  “whether vocation and profession are coterminous.” Then it crashed in on me a year ago, at a time when (as the still rather raw-to-read blog posts such as this and this or the more comfortable this attest), I had had enough. Doctor; Occupational Health; Counselling: VS came at the point where I was (as those compassionate or foolish enough to get caught in the flood)  everything from tetchy to sleepless or weepy . I thought about it, thought about the other possibilities, and metaphorically signed the papers (e-documents). I am tempted to give an Oscar-like list of thanks to all those people who let or helped me let go of all those things I felt increasingly unable to do well, or who gave me sage advice. But I  won’t –  except that it’s now my turn. Here are some thoughts about the last year or so.  I won’t advise on how anyone not yet at pension stage should check their payments and lump sums &c regularly – although to have done so earlier would have saved me literally days on the ‘phone. This is a bit more personal. Well, a lot more personal really.

I wrote in January ‘18 that it came as “something of a surprise at this end of my working life to find I have friends deeply woven into my appreciation of a working day.” I was right when I said I enjoy people’s company.  It is still a good day that has coffee with Mat, or with Elise,  Chris or  Helena, or tea or something more refreshing with Jon. It is still a good day when coffee in the Weston means meeting Catharine, Carol, Georgina or Susannah. I still feel guilty about leaving when colleagues asked me not to.   It can be a bad day when I have to remind myself that not everyone is as flexible as I can be…  I wouldn’t describe this as loneliness, but as a realisation that I was right: life at Brookes can go on, does go on. Gloomily, I likened my going to a stone dropped into a pool: a splash, and then the calm waters close over. I had seen colleagues leave before and know that organisations and systems fill the voids very quickly.  That this is true is inexplicably sad. Nobody told me how big a part of this would be regret.

So the first message was that I wasn’t going to leave behind some of these gloomier things. I thought I might; I said to my counsellor I understood I wouldn’t; I really didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it is.  While Elise had advised it would take a year, I didn’t realise it would be a hard year. 

Other things have stayed, too. I feel like the reinvention of Nick has been like a second go on the adolescence rollercoaster, but with some knowledge of the track.  I sleep badly still – but then,  I always have. I spend too much time on social media and modern tech. Too much telly, too much iPad or ‘phone. A worry last week about a student’s programme meant I saw the dawn, heard the dawn chorus. Avoidance strategies to make things that are hurtful seem smaller. But with that has come running.

I am not a good runner. I am not like some of my extended family who moan about the Trench Foot or broken toes their umpteenth Marathon has brought them. BAA6F010-890B-422D-8483-6C7981D1D1EBI am a tubby jogger who is proud to be able to cover 6.5k without collapsing. Nevertheless, I look forward to it, enjoy it (mostly), really appreciate the contact with the natural environment of suburban Oxford, and of course boast of it when I can (like here).

Therefore the second message: new things may arise. I keep seeing jobs that I think “Ooh, I could apply,” only to realise that those opportunities are closed to me. But there are new chances, new possibilities, and I now know that vocation and profession is not the right dyad: it is much more like profession and full-time paid employment are not coterminous, and the new things arising can’t always be seen in terms of money.  Being not-entirley-retired has a lot of plus points: it allows me above all to ponder what I really want and need from my profession as an educator (yes, I know that’s ponderous and full of windbaggery).  

And as for the rest? Well, the new opportunties may not be what was expected, they are smaller, but they make the shape of a day feel different.  It’s such a joy to share stories and books with school children; a challenge to learn from pottery; a grace to go to Mass more often – and who is this person that writes household To Do lists? Tomorrow I will be reminded by various bits of music that it’s a day for running. This piece of Nina Simone from the music of Billy Taylor has been key, a life saver in the darkest times, and if it is an anthem for the liberation of oppressed minorities in the States, I don’t mean to equate my desires with the plight of African Americans in the 50s and 60s, but this came on as I went for my first run, and has stayed with me.

…I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole ’round world to hear.
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the doubts
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free…
It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom.
And it’s reflecting on this that will bring this rambling to a close. I knew I would lose a lot when I left, some good, some bad – or maybe some immediately pleasant and some stressful: avoiding a judgment of good and evil – and I dimly realised there would be some things I would take or leave that would be in my power. I hadn’t expected that a lot would be outside my immediate control, and again some of that has made me really happy, and some has taken me to very miserable places.  I suppose one way of thinking about this is a Detox, but of course not everything was toxic in my job, not by a long chalk –  although I think one of things that I became addicted to was the stress…  and bang: work stress is gone.  
And that’s perversely one of the things that make leaving feel like a sentence that has been interrupted, a me that no  longer is me. The fish who escape the Aquarium at the end of Finding Nemo are free – but what do they do now? What will Caliban find when he has no more dams to make for fish? Another “language learnt but nothing understood,” perhaps? Freedom is also freedom to be caught by squalls of depression or aimlessness. Maybe these are the very spurs that send me out trotting round the meadow.  Like Caliban we all create who we are with what we have….
The poignant lyrics (and very James Taylor harmonies) of Before This World and The Jolly Spring Time have some useful thoughts:
Give up the love that takes and breaks your heart
Let go the weight of all that holds you here
Let the resin risin’ up in the tree
Make the green leaf bud…
Yes the winter was bitter and long
So the spring’ll be sweet
Come along with a rhythm and a song
Watch creation repeat.
Thin thin the moment is thin
Ever so narrow the now
Everybody say got to live in today
Don’t nobody know how
I know that the lyrics alone don’t cut it. For some people these are threadbare sentiments except, maybe, to a sixty-something who smiles when he’s running through the meadow and James Taylor’s singing comes on the lighten the last few minutes of a run. But they stop me running away from something: they make me think I’m running in something, which feels very different.  Running in the now. 
Maybe the third message is that I think this is my new job.    


It’s a spring day as March comes to its “out like a lamb” ending. The sun is shining and I’m out on Warneford Meadow, treading through tufty grass, and along paths worn by commuters. It is our local Green and a valuable space, with a rich and (I suspect) growing biodiversity.   I am one of a number of visitors, human and non-human – and as I trot down one of the paths I see a bunch of magpies. The Opies record the rhyme as:

One for sorrow
Two for mirth
Three for a wedding
Four for a death.

Lots of other versions are on record, testimony to the respect  people (maybe) had for these striking birds as messengers.  The Boke of Saint Albans has, in its lists of the Compaynys of beestys and fowlys has a tiding of [mag]pies (but beware: I’m not sure I trust a list with  Superfluyte of Nonnys or Noonpacience of Wyves)…

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you must not to miss.

(It received a boost by being the theme tune for the Thames TV production of Magpie, ITV’s Blue Peter Rival, when perhaps other customs and rhymes have fallen by the wayside – but that began when  I was the key audience: a long time ago, now.)

Back to Warneford Meadow as I slog over a possible Roman settlement and try not to think about the Quis Est Iste Qui Venit of such a run.   Nine magpies, then as I approach it’s four then seven and then just one. What do we make of portents whose mobility makes the I Ching look solid?  Well, of course, we don’t, in general; it’s a bit of mind play while I run.

I remember that as I qualified as a teacher, the National Curriculum was just coming in, and the course leader was ending his goodbye speech to the PGCE with “May you live in interesting times.”  He did not foresee where we might be today: if we were only contending with conflicting views about curriculum that would be enough, but we have Schoolsweek announcing scandal upon scandal, Unionist bands and racists openly on the streets in London vying for publicity (and no, they don’t get links) with crowds and crowds of people with more politeness and less threatened violence, a Parliamentary struggle the likes of which I have never seen before… These are interesting times, but not in a good way. There are no signs or portents to match all of this rubbish.

And while I trundle my sixty-something way and wonder about what the list of magpie numbers might portend (I really did get the one above the other week), part of my mind is wondering: instead of nines and sevens am I just seeing magpie after magpie after magpie? Sorrow and sorrow and sorrow?  I don’t think I have ever felt gloomier about the state of my country and my profession.

So instead of corvid fortune telling, I will end with part of my play list for running:

Nina Simone whose version of Billy Taylor’s anthem to Freedom has been a lifesaver this winter.

And while we’re at it, her singing of Randy Newman’s great hymn to compassion.

Sod the magpies, stuff the omens: this is what we need.

Unwary Travelling – References

Or Unofficial (and Sweary) Views about Referencing

This is an odd piece to write because some of the students whose discussions prompt it graduate this summer. Too late, maybe, is the “well, I think” nature of this personal rant. Sorry.

I am also not able – or in fact willing even if it were in my power – to bring the whole edifice of referencing down, and I am not speaking for anyone but me – and probaby not me as a marker, when I am, apparently, harsh. I’m writing as an unwary fellow traveller myself, someone who continues to forget where a quotation comes from, and who, when I actually do publish something, dreads the Guides for Authors which tell me my own style won’t work for the Journal of Grindylow Studies when it was perfectly OK for Nelly Long-Arms Quarterly. So this is just my view, and you can’t hold me to it when I mark you down for something.

And with that disclaimer has to go the advert for the Brookes UpGrade (or Upgrade) service, who will help Brookes students get it right. The Upgrade web pages are a study handbook in themselves for referencing, note-taking, how to make a powerpoint… and include my favourite resource, Manchester University’s Academic Phrasebank. Yes, I use it when I get stuck, if you’re wondering.

Why Referencing?

The official view – and I wouldn’t depart from it – is that academic integrity demands it, and that anyone who writes should be able, as it were to show their workings. Nicely put here, it comes down to: No Fudging, No Half-quoting, and No Nicking ideas off other people. But with this there is another subscript, if you like: students reference because courses from Foundation Degrees and BAs on are in some bizarre way part of the apprenticeship for what every student really wants to be, and that’s an academic.  And academics’ jobs hang on the notion that their work is their own, their writing and teaching are trustworthy – so you, dear students, must buy into this most basic membership of the academic club.

Why Referencing like This?

or that? Why footnotes or endnotes or Harvard or whatever?

Really only because for the first bit to work, the reader/marker has to know what you’re trying to get at and where your ideas are coming from. Death by buzzword makes for an essay with little substance, and “everybody knows” is not a watertight argument.

Here we go with the kind of ranty thing I can’t really do much of in a class.

So I am bowling along in my writing and there’s this article, and I want to cite it. It’s Elizabeth Bucar’s The Ethics of Visual Culture, and it’s in the Journal of Religious Ethics, March 2016, Vol. 44 Issue 1, p7-16. That still won’t do us, even though I copied it faithfully from the article itself. Since the references list is alphabetical by surname, it has at least to be Bucar, E – and since we also used the date when citing inside the essay, that makes sense to be next. Bucar, E (2016). The rest falls into place as Article title, Journal title and then more precise details. 

Bucar, E (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16.

Or something like that. And that’s where people start to panic.

What was all that stuff about Grindylows?

A Grindylow is “a Yorkshire water-demon who lurks in deep stagnant pools to drag down children who come too near to the water” (Briggs 1976: 206. See also Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Long-Arms and Peg Powler) and I used the fictitious journals earlier because referencing is itself a bit of a Grindylow in that if you’re not careful it can drag you under if not, as the song has it, by “the fancy tie round your wicked throat.”  Let’s not panic – but I’ll admit that a couple of weeks ago it dragged me under, chasing references because I thought I had lost the notes I was working from – so

Rule 1: Take Notes and Keep Them. Full notes too – not just “Bucar” (as above) but the title and the year of the journal at the very least.

And it can drag you down in other ways too. Tutors are not always very helpful here, and my experience is that we think we are consistent but often we slip or we have different expectations. This isn’t a Brookes thing: I’ve done enough work as an External Examiner, looking at coursework from other Universities, to know that one tutor will find

Bucar, E (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture, Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16.

acceptable and one will want

Bucar, E. (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1: 7-16.

But in most cases, marking tutors are less worried about this than you might think.

What all tutors find hard is when key information is missing (e.g. the whole reference – and that happens a lot!) or if it turns up in the text and not in the end list, or it some of it, but not all is in the end list, like these:

Bucar (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16. (Sigh: where’s the initial?)

Elizabeth Bucar, (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16. (Ah crap: now not in alphabetical order.)

The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1, pp7-16. Bucar, E (2016)  (What the fuck?)

Bucar, E (2016) Journal of Religious Ethics. 44:1: 7-16. (What the actual fuck?)

Bucar, E. (2016) The Ethics of Visual Culture. Journal of Religious Ethics. Page 14 (Where’s the rest of it?)

And yes I’ve seen all of these. They aren’t the be-all-and-end-all but they sometimes indicate a lack of respect for the sources used. So to be safe:

Rule 2: Make sure all the details are there and in the right order. Styling is helpful. 

We tend not to mind if you have a convention of pp rather than : to introduce page range; we don’t always notice if the author’s initial has a . after it (and some styling argues against it); consistency will help, and if you use things like Cite Them Right (the library at Brookes recommends it) you will rarely stumble too much.

And the third way references can drag you down is the really complex one: why you are quoting in the first place, and what you need those actual words for. Maybe you don’t.  Look back at the guidance from Upgrade about why we reference anyway.

  • to enable other people to identify and trace your sources quickly and easily
  • to support facts and claims you have made in your text
  • to show that you have read widely and use a variety of sources

So it starts from how you access and use your sources. That means

Rule 3: Propping up the Easy-to-Grab Sources as you write and bunging in  quotes that sound good won’t help you make your argument.

Reading, thinking and talking about your ideas will help your argument: quotation for the sake of it is just a bit desperate.

And that reading and discussing will also be the best “entry into the academic club,” in which as a graduate you will be able (and at liberty) to define Higher Education in terms of inclusivity, raising aspirations, employability or plain BS Spotting. Not fancy words, not even, actually, neat referencing – but reading and digesting other people’s ideas and making coherent and engaged arguments that challenge you, challenge the writers you have read and the practices you have seen. Get the references right and then forget them: what you really need, and what your markers are looking for is usually much more about ideas than whether you have put bullet points on all the entries in your references list.


PS: Don’t put bullet points on the entries in your references list. It really pisses me off.