confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Month: July, 2014

The Ethics of Academic Practice- 1: Reverence For Life

Watching the unfolding horror in Gaza I am reminded of my commitment to a form of academic practice that places ethics at its core.  But, apart from rhetorical claims to the moral high ground how might such an ethics inform academic practice; how might it guide a thoughtful and honest response to events such as those in Gaza as well as the ‘everydayness’ of teaching, research, and administration?

To explore this I want to look at the 5 MINDFULNESS TRAININGS  offered by the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh and the trainings are a good place to start for a number of reasons.  Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the key instigators of what has become known as Engaged Buddhism, that orientation within reformed Buddhism that seeks to engage directly with issues of poverty, equality, and justice as a means of practicing the teachings of the Buddha.  This orientation grew out of his immediate experience of war in Vietnam.  His efforts to engage in ethical practices applying Buddhist teachings led him and many other Vietnamese Buddhists to support villagers to rebuild their homes, to provide health and education in the midst of suffering, and to campaign for peace.  It was on the basis of this that Martin Luther King Jr nominated Thich Nhat Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh has gone on to become one of the most influential Buddhist leaders in the world.  As part of his ethic of engaged Buddhism he has sought to establish sets of principles that can guide people in their everyday lives – the 5 MINDFULNESS TRAININGS.  These are based on the original 5 Precepts established in Buddhist tradition:

  1. Not killing
  2. Not stealing
  3. Not misusing sex
  4. Not lying
  5. Not abusing intoxicants


While similar to the rules and commandments found in other religions, in Buddhism there is no ‘god’ to provide authority for such rules.  Instead they are seen as rational guides for improving the human condition.  These precepts have been reformulated as:

Reverence For Life

True Happiness

True Love

Loving Speech and Deep Listening

Nourishment and Healing

Over the following weeks I will focus on each of these ‘trainings’ in order to elaborate an ethic of academic practice.


Reverence For Life

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life. Seeing that harmful actions arise from anger, fear, greed, and intolerance, which in turn come from dualistic and discriminative thinking, I will cultivate openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views in order to transform violence, fanaticism, and dogmatism in myself and in the world.


As I write Israel is unleashing its amazing arsenal of death upon one of the poorest people in the world.  This is not a war between competing combatant states.  This is an asymmetrical war of destruction.  Borrowing from the Old Testament, a text that the Jews, Muslims, and Christians of the region regard as sacred, Israel is Goliath and Gaza is David.  In this story David is unlikely to win.

The other night I was talking with an Italian Jewish friend about this horror.  While unambiguously seeing himself on the side of peace and against this current onslaught, he remarked that he had come to the opinion that Israel’s heightened ‘security’ measures over the years that had effectively made Gaza an open air prison, had created necessary calm in Israel.  I could have asked him what he thought this meant for the population of Gaza.  Instead, I asked him what this was doing to young Israelis, particularly Jewish Israelis.  I asked him what this creation of Israel as a security state was doing to those young people who had to serve in the military.  We explored the psychological and moral impact of serving in the Israel Defence Force (IDF), of what this did to young minds and souls as they had to search old women at check points, go through children’s clothes, break down doors on frightened families, shoot young boys throwing stones.  We explored how fear could so easily be transformed into hate, into constructing the people of Gaza into non-humans.  We explored how Israel, and Jewish Israelis, seemed blind to how they, like the Christians before them, were creating new GHETTOS.

The constant heightening of security measures creates prisons for both Palestinian and Israeli.  But this prison, whose walls are constructed by high calibre weapons as much as they are by concrete and wire, is aided by scientists of many kinds.  There are those involved in the development of spy technology that enable the IDF to use pinpoint accuracy (so it is said) to target particular individuals and buildings.  There are scientists who are involved in the development of weapons as well as those involved in the psychological training of soldiers, and torturers; as well as those who advise on the use of psychological warfare against the civilian population of Gaza, or ‘persuading’ the Israeli population of the correctness of these actions through the controlled use of the media.

All of these ‘scientists’ were educated in universities.  What was the moral content of their university education?  How is it that universities can produce individuals who are apparently so lost to basic human empathy and compassion?  What is it about the pursuit of knowledge that splits a person from their heart such that they see only the spirit of the technology and the beauty of the algorithm?

And how is it that universities accept funding from arms manufacturers fully aware of the human and ecological destruction they unleash on the world?  Is this why there is almost universal silence from universities despite the death toll of Gaza’s civilian population?  Have they, that is the leading academics and administrators, literally sold their souls to the devil?

Israel’s IRON DOME defence system, heavily subsidised by the USA, is only possible by the complicity of universities and their scientists.

What ethical choices are these academics making?


But we face other ethical choices in these times.  It is all too easy to CHOOSE one side against the other.  But the challenge posed by the commitment to COMPASSION is that seeing one side as lesser than the other simply perpetuates this process of dualism, of distinction.  This is not to promote some kind of dispassionate approach.  But we must always seek the path of peace whilst also speaking out against injustice where we see it, regardless of personal security.

I am appalled by what Israel is doing to the Palestinian’s.  But I also feel such pain at what is happening to those young Israelis in the IDF, to the loss of humanity they suffer each time they construe another human not as a human like them, but as ‘enemy’, as being less than human.  Each act like this dehumanises them, alters their psychology and moral framework.  I hear the pain of Palestinians as they confront the loss of loved ones, wishing harm upon all Israelis or Jews.  But the death of any Israeli will never heal the wound of losing a child in such circumstances.

As academics we need to be attentive to the moral content of our teaching, and we should be mindful of the ethical modelling that accompanies our practice.


My friend and I finished the evening not in total agreement, but in renewing a commitment to ethical practice and the search for peace.

How can we write of ‘academic depression’? Part 2 – words

Below is the text of my ‘academic performance’ in durham recently

This is best read in conjunction with the slides in Part 1.


Writing of the Heart: Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling



1 – a(n) (un) kind [of] introduction



13th February 2012

…as with every day last week, and all through the conference and study school, I get up, I wash and dress. I have breakfast –– something resembling breakfast. I put on the mask and perform the competent academic and adult. Inside, though, I am dissolving. Each moment it is harder to maintain this fiction of calmness, of ‘togetherness’…I am caught between anxiety and normality. Normality is increasingly unreal. Anxiety is increasingly normal. The idea of facing all my colleagues tomorrow at the staff meeting…God, I don’t know…I MUST. I MUST…just get through this week…GET THROUGH THIS WEEK.


“A 2012 survey on occupational stress carried out by the University and College Union found that staff in British universities are more stressed now than in 2008, and experience considerably higher average levels of stress relating to the demands made on them at work than the British working population as a whole.”


I have moved here from a ‘me’ story to an ‘us’ story;

from a personal biographical account to a scholastic account.

The first is an extract from my personal diary 

the night before I finally succumbed to….clinical depression.

The second is a report of a survey in the British Guardian newspaper.

They both speak of the same phenomena,

but in different ways.


The energy produced

by placing these two different texts next to each other –

the first pathic, the second gnostic –

is the kind of energy that is produced by a ‘layered account’

as found in much autoethnographic work.

And this approach to speaking of academic life and practice is the content of this presentation.


The writing is about my experience of a particular context –

of the impossibly competing demands between teaching,


and administration.

Increasing student numbers

with fewer resources

whilst also increasing research productivity

and ‘grant capture’

in a culture of measurement and surveillance.


This is a context where the very institutions we work in and for create what what Barabara Jago has called ‘academic depression’,

and what Art Bochner refers to as

‘…institutional depression, a pattern of anxiety, hopelessness, demoralization, isolation, and disharmony that circulates through university life.”,

the way we succumb to performative institutional culture,

especially the ways we are conditioned to split our academic and personal lives,

to privilege the former and suppress the latter.


Academic depression, as discussed here,

is then both a disenchantment with the romance of a scholarly life

and psychological trauma.


BUT – How do we write…how do we write

of ‘academic depression’ without emptying the experience of its visceral reality?

In this presentation I draw on a number of personal,


and cultural resources

to tell a story about how I am trying to write of academic depression, of writing a:


MY/YOU/US STORY of life in the modern university.


In particular I speak to the capacity of autoethnographic writing to be transformative,

to remoralise us in a context of demoralisation;

and of the pause [……..]

the pause that such writing and reading can create,

within which

different ways of being an academic can emerge.


But there is a craft to this

and I speak also to this craft-work.

I speak to a kind of playful writing,

of autoethnographic writing as a sampling and remixing of introspection, memory, anecdote and scholarly work

to create an evocative text.




2 – confronting the SPECTACLE


This presentation rehearses the ideas

that I hope will become a paper published in an academic journal:

This represents something I want to term ‘authentic’.

That is,

my experience of academic depression, I feel,

says something not just about me personally

but about a wider experience of academic life in neo-liberal times.

In reading the many texts of academic capitalism

or new public management

sometimes I feel as if I cannot see the human experience,

the panic attacks,

the joy at being published,

the dark night of the day.

While eloquent in their analysis

I cannot FEEL myself in them.


I am involved in a project of redefining my academic purpose.

And in writing I want to enter into dialogue with others.

And because of the mode of engagement –

autoethnography –

I am signaling which kinds of folk I want to talk with,

what kinds of conversation I want to have.

There is an ethical dimension to this.

Autoethnography is an ethical choosing,

a political position.




at the same time, my efforts,

my existential choosing,

is caught up in what Guy Debord referred to as the SPECTACLE.

That is,

the substance of my authentic and choiceful activity is also taken up in the knowledge factory of the modern university,

emptied of meaningful content,

transformed into a commodity,

and utilized in the pursuit of institutional ambition.

Imagine the modern world of global higher education as being like a fashion show.

What is important is the glamour,

the style,

the posturing.

What we are not invited to see is the ecological damage of a culture that persuades us that we MUST

keep going out to buy more and newer clothes

so that we end up with wardrobes bursting with unused items

while the majority of the world’s population struggle to secure the basics.

We are not invited to think about the child labour that will underpin the cheapness of the latest fashions we purchase.

In other words,

image and illusion come to dominate.

We don’t experience the world directly,

Debord argued,


we increasingly meet the world through images of the world.




3 – academic life as sadomasochism


And so,

my article will be denuded of meaning,

it will be taken up by the production of writing plans,

it will be linked to performance indicators and professional development meetings,

it will become a commodity that is accumulated by the university,

and will eventually be reflected back to me as an item on my CV,

as part of an institutional submission

to a research assessment exercise –

as something emptied of its choicefulness,

of its ethical claim,

of its authenticity.


And this is perhaps why so many of us feel demoralised.

And so this is why it is important to write in ways that remoralise,

that can open up the possibility of imagining what an authentic academic might be –

to give moral purpose to what we do.

4 – and so the dérive


The ‘managed’ academic CV is one that increasingly must be cohesive,

must be linear.

BUT –but –

Cohesiveness and linearity is a product of RETROSPECTION –

an afterthought.

Yet we are asked to write plans AS IF intellectual thought was linear,


bullet points.


This is a world that cannot entertain the idea of “dérive”,

of wandering of meandering through intellectual landscapes.


Imagine drawing a straight line on a map and attempting to follow that path regardless of what obstacles might be in the way;

of having to negotiate those obstacles as best we can;

of having to encounter people;

and to encounter the space without GPS or smartphone or Google Maps.


Or psychogeography where you might be given a set of simple instructions

(2nd left, 1st right, 2nd left, repeat)

and use this to navigate an urban space

and to observe what you see and experience –

experience it directly without the concepts provided by a map.



choosing a familiar space

(work building, journey to work, etc.)

you are asked to travel in silence.

The silence immediately forces

a pause,

a reflection,

where we might start to notice certain aspects of the ‘familiar’ environment in different ways,

where we might find ourselves drawn to certain objects, feelings, anticipations


As well as this mode of academic practice being contrary to the managed CV

it is also how I am imagining the writing I am talking about.

It is much more akin to psychogeography –

a methodology that enables me to walk through my experience of academic depression in a structured way

but which makes possible new observations.



5 – the aim of an aimless walk


A dérive is a methodology that poses this question –

what if there is no point B?


It is a methodology that invites the researcher


to begin in a particular place

–     now –

looking back at my experience of academic depression

– and to traverse this recovered experience with no specific destination in mind.


The derive…

Is Disruptive –

like the walk following an arbitrary straight line

it is a methodology that is disruptive of traditional social scientific practice.

It disregards the arbitrary distinction between public and private –

so my person

and personal feelings

are viewed as important,

it plays with creative and scientific writing,


It is

An embodied methodology:

it places emphasis on capturing the emotive experience without rushing to abstraction….

it tries to speak of the bodily response

and not to give undue weight to the cognitive.

It places the pathic as equal to the gnostic…


part of the aim of an aimless walk

is to identify the way everyday life,

the mundane,

is ordered or structured.

But this requires something like the phenomenological reduction,

the bracketing of our normal understandings,

and the cultivation of a open attitude.


the wandering through cycles of introspection and analysis can,

it is hoped,

produce a kind of disorientation.

And disoriented

we identify what we find ourselves attracted to

(what incidents, emotions, ideas induce us towards them)

and what discourages us, repels us

(what feels uncomfortable, distasteful).








6 – ethics


And so the dérive is also an ethical intervention to encourage a deep reflection on the nature of academic life as we live it.

A political intervention.



7 – a layered account


One way of doing this in the craft of writing

is the use of the Layered account

used to produce disruptive and evocative texts.


This can involve the varied use of memoir or diary,

as well as academic analysis

in order to reconnect the private and academic self –

as in my opening quotes.


It is Ruth Bihar’s combination of ‘a novelistic and scholarly voice’ ;

or Carolyn Ellis’ invitation

to write in a way that moves back and forth between personal introspection and academic reflection,

methods that are simultaneously social and psychological.


This is similar to the Situationist method of détournement.



8-10 – seeing détournement



11 – Marx as ‘culture hacker’


Détournement is ‘culture jamming’ or ‘culture hacking’.


This is where everyday objects,

normally those associated with


and capitalism

and patriarchy

are subverted,

are hacked and reproduced –

where items from personal life are conjoined with scholarly writing

to disrupt our consciousness

and reveal not only the child labour behind the glamorous clothes,

but what this means to us,

what this feels like.





10 – the naked academic?


It is a process of sampling and remixing everyday objects,

of using familiar items

and putting them together in ways that disrupt perceptions,

that create new,

possibly subversive stories.


The hope is to invoke such disruptions for me

but also for the reader.


To subvert the tidiness of academic writing that can abstract us from lived experience


That asserts academic life and academic practice as embodied and embedded in social-political space


That produces a pause

or intensified awareness of the object of study

so questioning my sense of being

and opening up space to reimagine academic life




How can we write of ‘academic depression’? Part 1


On Wednesday 9th July 2014 I gave a performance-presentation  entitled “Writing of the Heart: Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling” at the Academic Identities Conference, Durham, England.

The ‘presentation’ was done in the form of a ‘spoken word performance’, a ‘doing’ of authoethnography, a ‘situation’.  

Below are the slides of this performance-presentation.  In Part 2 I will provide the text of the ‘spoken word’ performance.  In Part 3 I will provide an audio recording of the performance.


Writing of the Heart- Auto-ethnographic Writing as Subversive Story Telling


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