Reading the Academic Diary: On Parting Ways with Reflection

February 10, 2016

It has become almost inevitable to be asked to engage in “reflection” in the academy. Increasingly we are asked to reflect, to either show our learning, to prove our worthiness as a teacher or to complete a project. As we dutifully catalogue our thoughts in brief papers, statements of intent, teaching philosophies or at the close of our conference presentations, it certainly begs the question: How reflective are we really?

I have certainly become well versed in the posturing of reflection and, unsurprisingly, rather suspicious and cynical about it as a result. And yet, I remain drawn to reflection that is long in form (Karl Ove Knausgård’s tomes sit on my nightstand) and intimate in nature. To be given real insight into someone’s thoughts – their inner workings through challenges and routine – is rare. For all our reflection, we rarely truly expose what we might think or how we actually feel about our work, about teaching, about our areas of study. Inadvertently, not at all seeking a reflective piece of writing, I began reading Les Back’s Academic Diary. The Diary is unusual in our contemporary forms of reflective writing – it is not brief, it is not narrowly individual, and it is not to demonstrate one’s worthiness or learning. Rather, his diary is an examination of a year of life in the academy. It is unquestionably his year, but it echoes many of our own. Back’s Academic Diary sheds light on how reflection is so very often a neoliberal invitation to focus on the self, one’s work, and one’s worth at the expense of broader systemic evaluation and critique.

Back’s writing is in many ways an informal challenge to the modes of fast reflection that have become commonplace (e.g. the one minute paper, the 2 page statement of our teaching beliefs and values, Likert scales to measure our change in thinking). Both writing and reading the Academic Diary is by no means a quick task, nor does it offer expedient understanding or tidy conclusions to the conundrums it addresses (rising costs of education, academics’ worries about their importance, the challenge and meaning of teaching). After reading many of Back’s entries, it is clear that there is no tidy conclusion and no ‘ah-ha’ moment that we ought to wait for. For Back, reflection is in the doing – the labourious and slowness of writing regularly about the academy, its ebbs and flows, its characters and their egos, its injustices and its future.

For Back, teaching and his time spent with students is a possible salve for the quickened pace and narcissistic inward gazing (or the persistent worries that we are “mere typists”) that has become normative in the academy. He writes: “teaching a course creates a community of thought and space for dialogue and reflection. Here students struggle to understand not only the ‘learning outcomes’ but where they are in the mix of history and the world around them and how to form their own judgments in a society saturated with information.” For Back, teaching is a site and a practice where it is possible to meaningfully reflect and which can be, although certainly is not reliably, done in the service of students. But it is no quick task and one that is easily interrupted – by the challenges students face in affording their education, by the fixation on grades, and by our own distracted focus on producing more scholarship than we ever could really need.

With teaching as a space in which meaningful reflection may be possible, how do we safeguard it from being turned into a trite commodity that we dutifully offer in exchange for grades, accolades, or nods of approval? Back, although certainly closely and persistently attuned to the impact of an increasingly corporate, elitist and neoliberal university – still seeks ways in which to work well within it. At the opening of his diary, he notes that “apocalyptic portrayals of the demise of the university as a place to think are cold comfort for they offer few clues as to how one might act as an academic writer and teacher.” It is of course one thing to see it, it is another to try and do things another way.

Thinking through the influx of calls for reflection on learning and of our teaching practice, I hazard a few further comments to the presumed uniform good of reflection. First, we ought to, as pedagogues, be reluctant to substitute reflections on learning for actual thorough and detailed assessments of learning. Reflecting on what we learned, while valuable, should not stand in place for actually working meaningfully on projects that will challenge us to learn. Similarly, asking students to self reflect is not similar to the kind of substantive and responsive feedback that instructors and teaching assistants might provide.

Second, collecting is not reflecting. In a time of portfolios (teaching, learning, etc.), it has become normative to gather or curate a bevy of materials that ‘show’ what we know or who we are. Our portfolio reflections become typically focused on telling a more complete narrative through various pieces. Thus, reflection becomes a way of creating a seamless, coherent, and documented self.

Third, reflections on self, on learning, on power, can be unsettling and may leave us with no tidy story. Reflection can leave us with few answers and no way forward. Reflection can be immobilizing, frustrating or destabilizing. It can also offer a way through or a means of understanding the self and others in new ways. But it need not be one or the other to be reflective. The correct modes of reflection, with which many of us are deeply familiar in the academy, are merely a partial piece of the process. When we ask for and consume only those quaint and comprehensible reflections, we erode what could be possible through reflection.

Fourth, reflection is not a command we ought to deliver or hear. Reflection is possible in particular times and spaces but rarely can we invoke it – at least with any depth – through a quick prompting (before class ends, before year 4 of your contract). Perhaps, we could try to imagine a university where we have less moments where we are compelled to reflect and more where our time is unburdened. Back repeatedly highlights how our pace is destructive – that we are producing or writing more but reading less. Perhaps we should pause before spurring more reflection and ask who will actually take time to read, question, and discuss what is recorded.

Finally, the trouble with reflection is not just that it takes place in narrow forms or that there is not enough time. Rather, our current mode of reflection seems a rather individual and egotistical affair. Our reflections are so often a means by which to show that we are intelligent, deserving, and very often employable. Reflection in the academy is rarely becoming an exposing and messy affair but rather the endless crafting of cover letter-esque prose highlighting what we know and how we got there. And like so many cover letters, our reflections end tidily and succinctly. That reflection must end well is a process we should be more unsettled by.

Back ends his diary with three words: “a spare moment.” It is something we hope for but rarely find. If reflection was what we truly wanted, then spare moments perhaps need to be more abundant.


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DisruptED: Education Interrupted Copyright © by Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence, McMaster University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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