Reflections on Identity
The starting point for this exploration of loss, nostalgia and identity as a teacher in Higher Education came from a moment of serendipity. When I first took this job, then based at one of the regional outposts of the Open University, I inherited my own office—my first room-of-one’s-own—from my predecessor. She was taking early retirement and shedding a great deal of the stuff from her own teaching past so left behind a bookcase full of unwanted books. “Take whatever you want and dump the rest”, she said with a dismissive wave of her arm before happily skipping out the door to her new life. One of those books was Claudia Mitchell and Sandra Weber’s Reinventing Ourselves as Teachers: Beyond Nostalgia (1999). Although I couldn’t immediately see a use for it, the title sounded interesting, so it got to stay on the shelf alongside my own collection moved in from the shared office along the corridor. Very shortly afterwards the university announced the closure of most of its regional bases and so started the traumatic process of watching beloved colleagues being made redundant, years of work being shredded and our branch of the university getting dismantled. I was one of the lucky ones—I got to keep my job—but my place in the university became almost entirely virtual, accessed from my spare bedroom at home. I became a ‘designated homeworker’.
Mitchell and Weber’s book got moved to a bookcase in my new ‘workplace’ at home, where it gathered dust for another year or so, and meanwhile I yearned for the old days—the routine of leaving the house and walking to the university office, daily collaboration with colleagues, the satisfaction and sense of purpose simply from being at work—and watched my professional identity disappear. My identity as someone who teaches at a university, as an academic with things to say, started to exist only in the past.
I’m with a student who I’ve been worrying about on and off since day one. I don’t know what she looks like, I’ve never heard the sound of her voice, I know nothing about her apart from her name, address and date of birth. But I know that she’s struggling. “I’m struggling,” she tells me in her emails.
I say, “Have you got a mic, Kelly? Can you talk to me?”
A message pops up, Kelly Bennett is typing….
Kelly Bennett: No.
“OK, we can do this in the chat box.”
Kelly Bennett: Thank you.
I miss my old office when my students would sit in a grubby arm-chair that I’d pulled in from the Staff Common Room, while I made them a cup of tea. Waiting for the kettle to boil, I’d take the opportunity to give my plants a drop of water. Perhaps I’d make a silly joke about the atrocious weather or the noise from the roadworks outside, and then I’d turn back to the arm-chair, mug in hand, and smile. We would talk, we would spread books and papers over the little coffee-table and, heads together, work through it. An hour later there would be another student back on track.
Now, I speak to my screen and she types into a little box.
“Can you tell me how far you’ve got with this assignment? Have you managed to read chapters 4 and 5?”
Kelly Bennett: Yes.
“OK. So, have you started writing up your notes for the assignment?”
Kelly Bennett: Yes.
“Good. So, what’s preventing you from finishing it, do you think?”
Kelly Bennett: I’m struggling to put it together.
I do my best, try to be reassuring, try to clarify what she needs to do, try to give her confidence, “You can do this Kelly,” I say. But I wonder if it is enough.
“How do you feel now Kelly? Has that helped?”
Kelly Bennett is typing….
Kelly Bennett: Thank you so much.
I’ve been hanging a lot on that little ‘so’—it’s all I’ve got to cling to. I hope she’s going to be OK.
My resistance to virtual working—and to the wider changes in Higher Education—is certainly not uncommon amongst academics in twenty-first century universities. Research exploring the challenge to professional identity provoked by the increased use of technology to deliver teaching in universities has documented anxieties that mirror my own (Hanson, 2009; Smith, 2010; McNaughton and Billott, 2016). As centres of knowledge, universities have always been at the crux of the old and the new, acting as depositories for old knowledge and tasked with creating new knowledge. But the use of technology in teaching—so frequently referred to as ‘innovation in teaching and learning’—makes many academics uneasy for a wide range of reasons, threatening their sense of themselves as teachers in the Academy. As McNaughton and Billott’s study (2016) concluded, the academics they spoke to were “caught in a tension between preserver and innovator, they found it difficult to successfully integrate new and old professional narratives” (p. 655). What I am attempting to present here is an integration of old and new professional narratives by reflecting on them through the lens of nostalgia. In this way, nostalgia is offering a means to both preserve and innovate in my academic life and for my professional self to evolve in my virtual workplace. Nostalgia, it seems, can enable me to re-imagine and emphatically re-state myself as an academic who cares (Smith, 2010).
Working from home provokes an interesting collision of the professional and the personal. My office now houses bookcases on which texts on my professional practice and research interests sit next to my crafting books and classic novels. I frequently work with the cat asleep in her little bed at my feet, those feet wearing fluffy slippers. When I get tired looking at a screen, I nip into my garden and pull a few weeds. I cook a proper meal at lunch-time. For so many teachers, teaching is a vocation that speaks to their personal lives as much as their professional lives; I am used to taking a version of my personal self into professional contexts but I’m less secure hosting my professional self in my home. I feel more exposed, vulnerable and emotional. Dealing with difficult situations, which may simply have provoked frustration when I worked in an office, can now reduce me to tears. I cry, swear, jump with joy, and squeal with excitement far more openly than I did when surrounded by colleagues. Working from home is foregrounding the personal in my professional practice in new ways that I had not anticipated but which also allows a freer expression of emotional vulnerability and, in turn, acknowledgement of my feelings of nostalgia about the Open University. As Bonnett (2010) points out, while public expressions of nostalgia are vilified, seen as conservative and anti-progressive, private nostalgia and attachments to the past “speak not only of a shared humanity but also a shared vulnerability, an emotional range that includes love, loss and loyalty” (p. 6). Indeed, in the field of Psychology, it is widely acknowledged that nostalgia is good for us (Sedikides and Wildschut, 2017). Far from being an insidiously conservative emotion that is unhealthily inward-looking, nostalgia is a nurturing emotion that contributes to our resilience, our sense of self and our relationships.
My nostalgia for the OU starts with my experience of being an OU student. I’ve been lucky enough to have a wide range of student experiences—my first degree was at a polytechnic in the early nineties (a ‘post-92’ university by the time I graduated), a concrete monstrosity in a run-down area on the edge of the city. That building has recently been bull-dozed as part of the regeneration of the locality and the university has moved to premises closer to the city centre. I also studied at the grander ‘Russell group’ university of my home city, set on a romantically leafy campus through which students are still cycling, in duffle coats and long scarves, in the twenty-first century. But in-between those experiences, whilst working as a primary school teacher, I studied with the OU and as soon as I went along to my first tutorial, on a Saturday morning in a local Adult Education college, I felt at home. When, a few years later, I saw a job advertisement for tutoring posts at the OU, I jumped at the chance and so started a career in HE I could never have imagined.
It’s a Tuesday evening in late-October in the early 2000s and I’m walking alone across an unfamiliar university campus trying to find the room where my first tutorial of the year will be taking place tonight. Most of the staff and students have already gone home so I’m seeking out the security guard to let me in.
“You with the OU?,” he says with a grin when I knock on his door. “The tutor’s not here yet but I’ll take you to the room.”
“I am the tutor,” I laugh. This happens a lot. At 32, I am the average age of a typical OU student.
He unhooks his keys and locks the door behind him. “Well, they’ve already started to arrive, one of them was here an hour ago. They must be keen.”
He takes me along endless corridors to our room—and walking through the empty buildings, with locked, darkened classrooms, always gives me a little thrill. That feeling I used to get when being in school at night—maybe for the Christmas disco or some other special event—being out of bounds somehow, somewhere you shouldn’t be. It feels a little bit subversive, a little bit disruptive. We’re hi-jacking other institutions’ premises and using them to teach students who wouldn’t have been allowed through the door otherwise. At the end of the corridor is our room for this evening and as I reach it I can see a couple of people are already awkwardly sitting at desks, urgently looking through their bags or flicking through the textbook, anything to avoid having to talk to the other. I’m trying to guess which of my students they are—we’ve already spoken a couple of times on the phone but this is the first time we’ll have met properly.
“Hi,” I say, walking into the classroom. “I’m Sara and I’m your tutor.” They look up at me and then at each other, visibly relieved—I’m not what they expected. And it’s started.
I feel nostalgic for the radicalism of the Open University and for the forward-thinking political climate that enabled it. We’re not the only institution that has undergone worrying changes in the last couple of decades and the effects of managerial, neo-liberal, HE policies on academic identities has been well-documented (for example, Clarke, 2010). Yet, nostalgia itself has a radical potential, disrupting modernity by challenging progressive narratives (Bonnett, 2010). While the virtual world can seem to be relentlessly rushing forward, stopping to look back can remind us of what we want to take into the future.
Is it possible to take the radicalism of the OU—its desire to disrupt power structures and social hierarchies—into the future? That radicalism is rooted for me in the relationships I have with my students—they are people I want to get to know and care about. I want to see them do well, to have their lives enriched by learning, their horizons broadened and their opportunities to be increased. However, while I started this process of reflection longing for a face-to-face connection with both my colleagues and my students and while, then, I wholeheartedly agreed with Hanson’s conclusions that “resisting e-learning is in fact an entirely rational act designed to strengthen a relationship based on ‘being there’ with the students” (p. 564), I am discovering that maintaining my core professional values does not have to mean a return to face-to-face contact or a physical office in a university building.
Moreover, if “nostalgia can be a site of creativity, danger and transgression” (Bonnett, 2010, page 10), then can we use it to critique received wisdoms about virtual working? We need to scrutinise how students behave in the virtual learning environment, how they use it to study and how they learn. Are students actually more passive when studying online? Are they really ‘disembodied’? Are we? I have come to recognise that an important way in which online tuition can be subversive and disrupt the power dynamic is by giving students power over their learning environment.
It’s my first online tutorial of 2019—this year, for the first time, I will only be teaching online. As it’s the first session of the year, I have a large turn-out and the atmosphere is lively and buzzy. I’m excited too. I want to show my students how actively engaged I am, so that they have the confidence to actively engage. There’s my photo in the corner of the screen, I switch on the webcam and wave ‘hello’. Now I’m telling them about where I am and ask them to do the same. A couple of people say ‘hello’ over their mics—this is very promising. Usually no-one wants to speak. It feels like it’s going to be a good session.
My way of managing online tutorials is to plan every second of them with military precision—they are tightly controlled operations with a printed off list of instructions next to my keyboard detailing exactly what I need to say and which button I need to press at every stage of the evening. I can’t wing it, there’s no room for spontaneity or improvisation. But about half-way through the session I realise that something is happening that I didn’t plan for. In encouraging the students to engage—in showing them how to draw on the slides, add text in a colour of their choice, talk to each other in the chat box—they are starting to take the controls. I realise that they have taken the wheel from me and are now in the driving seat.
It starts with a rogue smiley face that appears on a slide that didn’t ask for student engagement.
“Oh, OK” I say, “It’s good to see you’re getting the hang of the draw tools. Anyone else want to add something?” I figure I might as well go with it and see what happens but I have a rising tide of anxiety starting in the pit of my stomach. This is not on the script—what if this descends into complete chaos? More smileys appear—and then a scribbled flower. I have no idea if this is one maverick having fun or several. I don’t know what it means—the smileys don’t really relate to what I had been talking about or the content of the slide. I can’t read this situation at all—is this meant in good spirit? Or am I being mocked? It’s extremely unnerving. I decide to take it as a joke and laugh, “OK, let’s move on—what was I talking about? Ah yes…”
I click onto the next slide and try to pick it back up. And then a message pops up in the chat box.
Laura Jones: Anyone else finding this a weird experience?
I’m mid-sentence when I notice it so I decide to finish the end of the sentence before commenting and see what happens in those few seconds. Is ‘anyone else’ going to respond? My heart is in my mouth, waiting for the imagined tirade of criticism that’s about to hit. It’s the ‘anyone else’ that disturbs me—does this address include me or not? To what extent am I visible to these students? Are they about to start talking about me as if I’m not in the room? Have all my attempts to give myself some kind of presence been futile?
Multiple attendees are typing…
Laura Jones: Good though.
Chris Boyle: I’m enjoying it – it’s fun!
Resisting inevitable change is futile—and the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have accelerated a shift to online working way past the point of return. However, nostalgia has taught me that what is “worth arguing about, even fighting for” (Halpin, 2016) is not face-to-face contact with my fellow scholars or a physical university campus. Rather, I think nostalgia is allowing me to imagine a better virtual environment—a virtual environment that allows real connections with students, meaningful working relationships between colleagues; in short, an environment that acknowledges that we are human. I’m reminded again of hooks, when she says, “Acknowledging that we are bodies in the classroom has been important to me, especially in my efforts to disrupt the notion of professor as omnipotent, all-knowing mind” (hooks, 1994). Acknowledging that we are still bodies in a room—as are our students—when interacting online is becoming an important part of my approach to teaching in the VLE.
The cat is scratching persistently at the door, before letting out a long and low wail. I’m in the middle of trying to explain the difference between the theories of Vygotsky and Piaget to a group of students anxious about the forthcoming assignment. The noise is distracting and I’m losing concentration, “Sorry everyone, I just need to let the cat in.” A moment later, she’s settling down on the chair next to me, I’m slipping my headphones back on and am greeted by the sound of laughter and chatter. While I’ve been gone the students have started sharing stories of their own experiences of studying at home.
“I’ve got my baby on one knee and my laptop on the other.”
“Me and the kids are all sat round the kitchen table—they’re doing their homework, while I’m in this tutorial. We’re helping each other study.”
“Sorry about the dog barking. He’s just seen a pigeon in the garden—he’s scared of them, ha ha!”
I join in and tell them about my cat, “She wanted her hot water bottle. Yes, I know. She has her own hot water bottle.”
“I love that!”
“Ha ha, little princess!”
We spend a few minutes laughing about the surreal experience of online working—in homes with families and pets vying for our attention, in dining rooms and kitchens, or sat on the bed.
After the tutorial, I take a picture of the cat—now fast asleep with one paw stretched round her hot-water bottle, hugging it to her chest—and post it on our Tutor Group forum. The next morning there are photos of other pets, other tables or floors strewn with course books in other messily human homes. I realise that the virtual world has enabled a new kind of connection to be made—a glimpse into each of our physical realities of distance learning. This is different from the connections I had with students in the past, meeting on the neutral ground of a ‘Study Centre’. It’s closer.
Nostalgia for my past working life has shown me that the values at the heart of my identity as an academic are unshakeable—a commitment to the radical potential of Higher Education and a desire to achieve what hooks calls a “mutual recognition” with my students (1994). While I have been grieving the loss of my professional identity, I’ve realised that it was never lost at all but has been there all along. I’ll be carrying that into the future.
Bonnett, A. (2010). Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia. London, Continuum.
Clarke, J. (2010). So many strategies, so little time… making universities modern. Learning and Teaching, 3:3, 91-116.
Halpin, D. (2016). Dancing with eyes wide open: On the role of nostalgia in education. London Review of Education, 14 (3), pp. 31-40.
Hanson, J. (2009). Displaced but not replaced: the impact of e-learning on academic identities in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 14:5, 553-564.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Abingdon, Routledge
McNaughton, S. M. and Billott, J. (2016). Negotiating academic teacher identity shifts during higher education contextual change. Teaching in Higher Education, 21 (6), 644–658.
Mitchell, C. and Weber, S. (1999). Reinventing Ourselves as Teachers: Beyond Nostalgia. London, Falmer Press
Sedikides, C. and Wildschut, T. (2017). Finding Meaning in Nostalgia, Review of General Psychology, Vol. 22 (1), 48–61.
Smith, J. (2010). Academic Identities for the Twenty-First Century. Teaching in Higher Education, 15 (6), 721-727.