The mythmaker of academia

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I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
W. B. Yeats 

This must be the most self-indulgent writing I’ve ever done, but I had to write it. For me, but perhaps also for anyone, who thinks they don’t belong.

An unexpected side effect of taking a recent open online course, exploring rhizomatic learning, was for me, a startling realisation that what I thought was my ultimate objective,  something I needed to prove to myself –  or maybe to others, was a complete antithesis to everything I believe in.

I had made a mythic cloak for myself. Very comfortable indeed. Swishy.

I was not born into an an academic life and it’s fair to say that I almost missed it. One term into a course at a small further ed college attached to a high school, one teacher did something unexpected. She told me I was her best student and that I didn’t belong on that course.  I felt like I had been slapped in the face.

She asked me why I was not  “going to University”-  “This – the way you write – why are you not pursuing university?”

I mumbled something pithy like “I don’t think I would fit in” and she replied with pure genius: “Have you ever been?”.

She had a point. I had never been. My parents had never been. No one I knew had ever been. Everything I knew about university in Australia,  I am embarrassed now to admit, was based on 1980s American films. She bundled me home with a uni course guide and I returned to her with preferences chosen.  In short, I ditched the vocational course and at her suggestion, I took some high school subjects “for interest” (I already had the grades from the previous year to apply with).  It was a truly wonderful year of transition, studying religion (philosophy, buddhism, islam, christianity), modern history and English “for fun” with no pressure, with adults. The best gap year ever.

No one had ever told me I was university material, and for some reason, I needed to be told.  They told me I could write beyond my years, but then they would force me up in front of groups to share my writing. They would make an example of me. Without permission they would read my poetry to the class,  raw things that I had submitted as an assignment, in a dialogue that I thought would be read and assessed by one, were often shared and paraded in a large group.  I shrank. They gave me certificates for academic excellence, awards for writing, but they also told me I was far too shy, I needed to speak up more and my career guidance sessions seemed to focus on my deficient personality. Yes, I seriously struggled in front of groups. I did things to try to fix myself, I took drama. Drama was fun, but it didn’t help by pretending to be someone else. I took alcohol in my senior school years. Again, it did not help to pretend to be someone else, but I began to believe that these mythic me’s patched the holes.

So, why on earth would I run to a university, when my perceptions were of a loudly social place, based on American college films, where I thought social interest groups were compulsory, and campus life was for the extroverted? Why would I run to that fearsome environment?

I did it though. I went because I was told I should. I got through university, well more than that, excelled. In the beginning there were panic attacks. The first and only of my life. Travelling on buses for hours to get onto campus, I would sometimes walk up to a tutorial room, turn around and catch the next bus home.

I took on extra literature subjects so that I had more than a full time load, because I LOVED study, despite not feeling like I belonged on campus.  I worked part time in a bookshop in the city and I would often cry after closing the shop,  after incidents with pushy customers as I often worked there alone.  I spent Saturday nights in computer labs. University was not a party, it was absolute work all of the time, often staying awake all night and going to uni and work on no sleep. It really was bloody exhausting chaos. I adored it.

Some people befriended me somehow, and I grew more confident. I did not wait for jobs to be advertised when I graduated, I wrote and wrote and wrote to places I wanted to work, I sought out my own jobs, and my career began based on such an unsolicited approach. By then, I had also moved overseas and grew and and grew and then, to my surprise, I ended up back at university as an employee. Me, on campus. Weird. 🙂

I became punch-drunk on a feeling that I belonged somewhere finally, and I feel like I want to work in higher education forever. So,  I did my Masters, and since then I’ve been waiting for the “right time” to start my PhD.  I felt excitement seeing colleagues and friends embarking on their PhDs. So,  I have thought about it a lot, honed the ideas, I was poised on the brink of the commitment, just waiting for the planets to align. This was, I thought, what I wanted to take this passionate inquiring mind with an imagination that sometimes feels like a curse, and get those three letters. To really make it. To complete it. A better cloak to swish about in,

Then, only very recently, in the midst of #rhizo15, this mythic cloak I had been wearing, on me, started to unravel, to look shabby, ill-fitting.  I looked at how large my already large student debt was, and how much larger it would be, post PhD. I thought about the impact on my family.  With two young children, I would likely have to leave my job to pursue study full time. I thought and I thought and I thought.

What are my subjectives, I began to ask myself?. When I look into my future, and the future for my children, what is it that I could yield from a PhD in my particular field (educational design & technology) that would change their world for the better?

The cloak, and with it, what I thought were my dreams, began to unravel.

With the experience of such a rich learning experience recently with an unstructured online course, when my passion is open education, when I’m constantly throwing myself challenges to draw myself out of my maddeningly shy personality, which defies my inner fire to connect and change things, to be the quiet activist – why on earth would I run to the safe cocoon of writing a PhD?

For me, writing is safe. Academic writing is so safe. For me.

What would those three letters yield?

These questions are not to belittle others on this path. I am asking them only for me. Subjectively.

What goals would give me a greater practical understanding of the design processes that I believe works well as an educational designer, and in my quest for a more sustainable life?

I just had the wrong three letters.

So, I am ditching my PhD for a practical PDC.

A permaculture design certificate.

That’s the formal learning, sometime in future,  that will challenge me and I will patch the holes in my cloak with the experience of learning new practical skills, on a food forest property, with a group of strangers from diverse pathways.

Permaculture and more widely ecology, I believe is more widely relevant to how we learn, than we know yet. No one have ever said this with a deeper clarion call, for me, than Satish Kumar in his Tedx talk Education with Hands, Hearts and Heads:

So that leaves my other dream. The one I have ignored and made excuses for not pursuing. The one I have never worn on the outside, even when I meet those living that dream.

What I have always wanted to be. I fear success, and I fear failure.

I. want. to. be. a   ******

So it is, that post #rhizo15, I gather my interests around me as a patchwork shred of what recently was a cloak and understand that it can only be more fitting, if weave into it, everything I fear.

Perhaps this is our deepest terror, of wearing our true subjectives, on the outside,  for the world to see?

I hope this humble story is an example of why I think it is important to speak more subjectively about the different pathways in education and how we learn. Outside of the language of career. These conversations with our students, and our children, should happen in the years of formal education, when the myths of their self are being written based on the feedback they receive within the walls of one institution.

At some point, we stop asking the question “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and what if this question became  “What do I want to be when I grow out?”. It could nuture our rhizomatic nature.

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4 thoughts on “The mythmaker of academia”

    1. Thank you for reading! I thought I had only published a draft of this, ha ha. I guess it was ready to be released despite what I thought.

  1. There is so much here that rings true to my ears (eyes?). Swishy, even. Like you, I don’t feel like I am a strong part of the academia world and I often only realize this reality when I am involved in places (spaces) like Rhizo, and even then, as an elementary teacher, I feel as if I am surrounded on all sides by university folks. They are all very nice and all that, of course, and I know there are other non-university types in the mix, but it still feels … different, as if I am navigating a few different worlds and trying to find middle ground between the two.
    Good luck on your own journey. Stay connected. It’s important.

    1. Thanks Kevin, and yes, I think we all wear multiple swishy cloaks. 😉 One of the things I like to think about a lot, is that my favourite teachers in life, weren’t even qualified teachers, but how they could teach! One of the best online courses I did was facilitated by a children’s author who had no previous experience running online discussion forums, but he built this incredibly tight-knit discussion group, just by posing the right questions and with his responses. There’s definitely a talent in that. I think belonging to any community, is maybe less about the role or background we have or the bits of paper we hold, and more about what we give.;-)

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