The following are announcements and commentary from the institute regarding issues in the news and new developments at the institute. The commentary represents the opinions of individuals in the institute and this is identified in the by line.
Success is a huge factor in so much of our self-appreciation. Are we a success? How do we know when we are, and does it matter when we fail? The world can be harsh. What do we do with harshness and with our fragility in the face of attrition? Read on.
James is a success. He is intelligent, married with three children and holds down an academic post at a good University. His wife works part-time now as the children are attending universities and there is time to focus on making additional money; “now that the kids are out and away”. Income is greater than expenditure and there is a pension pot building up nicely. James is good at his job. Not crazy good but good enough to be safe and, as I have already said, a success.
But, how do we judge or measure success in the academy?
Well it is a bit of a movable feast. Early on, back in the 1990’s when the sector was just learning about ideas like ‘impact’ and ‘performance’ measurement, success was judged by pretty random measures in line with teaching, research and administration. But that was before metrics took off and education became a business. James sometimes thinks back to those days with a degree of nostalgia. Of course, the system was open to abuse. Academics could and did have a very nice life. Lots of time for reading books, doing unpaid research and travelling to distance places on nebulous and unclear ‘visiting professor’ tickets. All of that changed over the 2000’s. At that time, he experienced the ratcheting up of the assessment of academics via the comparative measurement of the qualities of their work. Committees of compliant scholars began figuring out league tables of relative academic value. This took some doing but once the sector applied its vast talents to the exercise it proved remarkably creative at the task. The lengthy process of assessing comparative value meant that every academic output was weighed in scales.
In this brave new measured world getting journal papers published is ‘worth’ more than writing books. Getting published in some journals is worth more than getting published in others (measured by the ‘impact factor’). Under this system chapters in books are worth very little, conference papers are worth almost nothing and non-refereed articles (articles in journals where the submitted article is not subject to the review of peers) are worth less than nothing. This is Metrics Measurement Land and in this strange and multiply assessed country money too is graded. With quantum complexity some euro is worth more than other euro, some pounds worth more than other pounds, some dollars are worth more than other dollars. Research Grant pounds are good but research grant pounds from some Research Centres are ‘very good’. Money from charities is ‘so so’ but money from consultancy agencies is really not worth having even if you have a lot of it. In this singular world some apparently good things are, counter-intuitively, to be avoided.
Survival is key. James has a story which he walks through with himself and others when they listen. He tells himself that he is in a jungle and he is learning to identify the ‘big beasts’ that can hurt him. He is learning to distinguish between a harmless grass snake and a poisonous viper. What are the jungle survival techniques? Well, acceptance and avoidance are essential. For example, administrative duties are to be avoided at all costs as these take time that could be allocated to research grant writing or producing ‘good’ journal articles. Admin tends to be given to a newly evolving ‘support-class’ of academics. And, teaching is important but an encumbrance in the same way. Reading and thinking is strictly to be done in one’s own time and should not interfere with the day job. To live in the jungle, one needs focus and constant vigilance.
Things have changed a lot since the 1990’s.
James has seen the system change and has learned to survive. He is not really aware of it but he lives with a degree of background fear most of the time. His university jungle is a managerialist nightmare of constant mini-evaluation, rule by algorithm and overt bullying heavily disguised as assessment. He would love to be at a kinder place but there would still be the background pressure to achieve.
He does not think of his life as being governed by fear. Rather, if he were to reflect upon it, he might think of it as being habituated to pressure and measurement. Part of his success is that he is reasonably good at giving the ‘system’ what it wants. He makes ‘OK’ money and he publishes in ‘OK’ journals. He is ‘OK’ in the eyes of his line-manager (a term unknown in academia when he started in the 1970’s) but he knows that he could do better. His success is tinged with a constant awareness that he is not ever really ‘safe’. The jungle is in constant flux and is full of new traps and new predators that emerge to threaten him. His colleagues, the group he runs with, are also his competition. To be successful, everyone is encouraged to bray about success. If success is not current it is best to hide in the long grass. He is beset with worries, real and (much worse) imagined. His research may fail, his papers may not publish, his university management may change and become still more hostile. He lives with a constant and gnawing background of anxiety. He has learned to hide his failure, not to trust his colleagues, to be ever vigilant and to watch for every opportunity to reinforce his position. He does it rather well. After all, James is a success.
When you have finished the story think:
How is the story meaningful to you? What meaning do you find here?
How is this meaning relevant to your life?
What value does this relevance have in terms of how you may change?
What Insight follows from the sense of value to change?
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In solitude or with others, some things are too difficult to be dealt with directly. Sometimes we need to find a way to address underlying issues by circuitous means. My starting point is two-fold. It can be summed up by the two following sentences: We are needful of harmony with each other. We are needful of peace with ourselves.
By ‘needful of harmony with each other’ I refer to the quality of the relationship we have with the others who come into and move out of our lives.
By “needful of peace with ourselves” I refer to the quality of our self-knowing.
By use of the Mindful Stories you and your team can address issues which are often beyond easy solution.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!
– Robert Burns
It was on a windy day in late October that I met myself for the first and last time.
I was head-down against a leaf-spinning wind, trudging down a city street by a market place and happened to glance briefly into the welcoming cinnamon-scented depths of a coffee house. This is when I saw myself sitting on one of the window stools.
My foot paused mid-step, hovered and descended in haste to meet the rising pavement and, in a movement of surprising grace, twisted around to the right, taking the rest of me with it, my body the prisoner of my foot and my foot my eyes. They were fixed upon the coffee house window, caught initially by curiosity but subsequently captivated.
I stood motionless in the street, the noisy market drama around me a total camouflage, gazing at the profile visible through the glass.
We are always gathered around the centre of the flux of our being. We are so used to assuming our being in the world and yet not ever self-encountering. Of all the people who we are aware of we are our greatest surprise. We never meet ourselves and yet our friends, family and occasional acquaintances come across us every day. We never see the world with us in it. We may occasionally be provided with a story of our doings or overhear someone else talking about our clever moments or silly indulgences, but we never encounter ourselves. We leave it to everyone else to find us and make their minds up about us. We live in our shadow, voyeurs of our doings. We are the absence in the world which we inhabit but on the day I am describing all of that briefly but conclusively shifted.
Stationary outcrop of stillness in the swirling market chaos of pots and pans, dog food and flowers, dirty hair and onions, I stood a spectator on such a well-known, but little understood me. My first feeling, after the shock was: “I am so small!”.
And there I sat, reflection distorted by shop glass, casting back off my shadowy outline the images of other passer’s by, not at all interested in the consumers of coffee, there I sat. So many instant changes came in my perception whilst I battled with shock, ego-vertigo, disorientation and curiosity. Aware of myself, the object of my gaze and the confusion of my mind. Impressions. My hair loss is so obvious. My stomach sag so unflattering. How long have my shoulders scooped forward? And, why has no-one told me about the comic-cut of my beard by rear-profile?
In a yo-yo of concentration, I took me in and was baffled by the experience.
In an ordinary lifetime we are who we are and yet we are never party to the experience of ourselves. We transmit, we do not receive. But this was my confused state as the recipient of a warm and breathing presentment of myself. This was like no mirror made, like no photograph or video recording. By these means we are mediated to a flat image of predictable record. Here I was with the unmediated me as I intended it.
Buffeted by the wind, in cold October clarity. I looked at the me of I; and had no notion of what or why.
My horror would have been to see me look up and consider me, I realized immediately that this would have been too much, too vivid, too raw. Had I seen me, rigid, frozen in loss, this could not have been contained in the multiverse of consciousness. Something somewhere would have broken and split. The occasion never arose.
Me in the café seemed happy to ponder the cup in hand and review the passing of the life within the impervious glass walls.
How long did I stand there? I was there for as long as it took me to watch me finish the Americano and leave. That’s all, that’s how long it was. How long? A life-spiral of time. However long it takes a man to rise, smile, say farewell to a barista, open a door and walk away. How long can that be? 30 seconds or a continent of grains of sand draining through an hour glass, the aperture a needles width. Fixed in the hubbub of the street and deaf to every bit of it, time was as meaningless to me as the ocean is to a fish.
And what did I see?
This is the nub of this story. I saw a man walk out of a coffee shop. But when that man is you what is the quality of the watching and what are the implications for he who sees’? If we are always gathered around some kind of a centre of ourselves in life, what happens at death? When the self and the idea of self come apart. During life, the sane understanding is that we are one in and of ourselves. We are not two or any kind of plurality. We exist as a single and undivided entity of unity. A noun. Or that is what I thought. That, I began to see, was the unconscious conceit I accepted in my complacency. How is it to find yourself the audience to yourself? The spectator on you? The world extends to unknown frontiers in all directions, a desert of fullness and, if you look closely, you may find that you are within it. Look long and hard enough and you may just find yourself in there looking back. The dynamic verb rather than the static noun.
This must have been a one off, an anomaly. A moment of insanity which the world of sanity will eventually gently but firmly heal. Even so, the impression is made, the door to other experience has been opened just for a moment and there are consequences. There have to be consequences. We will each have our own sensibilities and have our own experiences, but these are mine.
Seeing me in my world, observing myself has rendered me unable to resist the nudge to look and look for the face staring back. I am just another person and pretty unremarkable. I am the process of me and, seen from me, I am just one more identity, unremarkable as the rest but remarkably, like the rest, able to process all that is not me.
I am invisible to most people. Certainly, I move (but not quite as I thought I moved), I interact with others and I respond to them but, generally, the world goes on alongside me without any reference to me.
I am not the centre of anyone’s world. I have no centre to my own.
Like a child allowed on the bus for the first time by themselves, I find me vulnerable and fragile.
As I watched me disappear into the crowd of shoppers, I had no desire or capacity to follow. This was not possible. I watched my head gradually pass from view among all the other heads. I was left in place until I was lost to view. Lost to sight and lost in the leaf strewn, windy wildness of the October day.
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