Tenderly Returning to the Past

Last week I made a big come back to my former line of work, pedagogical innovation in higher education, something I had not thought I would do, having decided to make a clean break when I left France to settle in Denmark. There were many good reasons for me to turn my back completely on my academic career. The more noble reasons are that, on one hand, I wanted to move into uncharted territories of higher consciousness and dedicate my life and work to the field and, on the other hand, I felt limited, in higher education institutions, in my endeavours to inquire beyond consensual reality and explore out of the box, and institutionalised frameworks, as to what makes up innovation and how change happens. The more shameful reason is that I left my last job under a cloud of shame, due to harassment and institutional bullying, something that I kept rubbing against in the course of my unconventional career. I needed to lick my wounds and console myself for, yet again, losing my job in strange and opaque circumstances. I felt it was time for me to stop banging my head against the same wall. Added to that, I was getting bored and fed up with listening to the same discourses preaching change and not practicing it, and then pertaining that change is not possible, or even desirable, whilst still arguing the need to change. Talk of the impossible conundrum. I was finding it increasingly difficult to be with colleagues and take part in what, for me, were empty and meaningless meetings and gatherings. So, what enticed me to return? And why was it not only great fun, but also a meaningful move where I was able to retrieve some suppressed material ready to be released?

A few months ago, I was contacted by the Association Internationale de Pédagogie Universitaire, known as the AIPU. This year the AIPU is celebrating its 40th anniversary and the commemorations would normally have been held during the annual summit. Since all venues have been cancelled due to the pandemic, it was decided to hold an online event throughout the year, and to invite all former presidents and secretary generals of the AIPU to give either a key note talk or a workshop. I had been president from 2007 to 2010 and, furthermore, had launched the online review, the only one of its kind in French, hence the invitation. When the email landed in my inbox, I immediately knew that I was to host a workshop. There was no doubt about this. All my former resistances and reluctances about showing up in the field of higher education dissolved as the compelling urge to show up and offer something came forward. I was almost surprised myself by my enthusiasm and the clarity of my proposal. The next day I responded saying that I would do a workshop. I gave the title, a brief summary, and suggested a couple of dates. Within a few days, everything was settled with the organisers.

I was later to learn that not only was I the first to respond, but I showed up with an appetising proposal almost ready to go. Knowing of my decision to step back from higher education, the organisers were sure that I would decline the invitation which, according to them, would have been a pity owing to my contributions to the field. They all kept their fingers crossed and did not pressurise me. This allowed the compelling call to offer a workshop to arise naturally within me, in the ripeness of time, something for which I am very grateful because nothing was enforced. All the movements have been effortless and spontaneous, fuelling my enthusiasm and creative impulses.

Embodying Pedagogical Innovation

I decided to design the 90-minute workshop on the same lines as the online weekly gatherings I have been hosting for the past year. The intent, here, is to provide participants with an experience of intimacy with themselves, and with a few others, through a guided practice in the company of others, in order to bear witness to what is arising within and to welcome what is presenting itself and seeking expression, in other words, bearing witness to what is ready to change and what movements want to unfold through us.

The focus of the workshop was to be on shifting pedagogical approaches and, more precisely, inquiring into the difficulties we experience when nudged to step out of our comfort zone. The organisers of the AIPU webinars had asked me to address pedagogical innovation because this is what I am known for in the circles of higher education, and I have published extensively on the topic. For this workshop, I wanted to focus on our resistances to change and to creatively and gently embrace all movements of anxiety and fear that present themselves when we seem to be going beyond what feels safe or comfortable. As suggested in the material of the Guidance for Life on Earth series, the larger invitation is to welcome and befriend our fears, thereby (re-)claiming our agency which enables us to venture into the unknown.

Inspired by Practice 5. Partaking of Your World (Book Two, pp. 55-60), I chose to work with worldly scenarios depicting strong oppositions and highly conflictual situations where changes seem impossible and even extremely threatening. The participants were to consider the scenarios as if they were their own stories being told, so as to access the information which habitually resides under the threshold of awareness. I wrote three scenarios, in French, based on situations I had been part of, where there had been a lot of fear and aggressivity being played out. The scenarios are written in the present tense and from a first-person perspective, gender neutral – which can be tricky in French – and I thoroughly enjoyed scripting the scenarios in less than 300 words, highlighting the tensions and dilemmas being stirred up in dramatic circumstances. Each scenario was to be read twice concluding with some music relating to the context described.

The workshop was to start with a guided piece, the reading of the three scenarios followed by some inquisitive pausing to feel, first, the bodily sensations, the feelings and the thoughts that float in when in presence of one chosen scenario and, then, to further inquire into what is presenting itself to be welcomed, gently and kindly, so that change be possible. After this guided piece, the participants were to be put into triad breakout rooms, not for a conversation or chat about the previous exercise, but to continue the inquiry in the presence of two others. Each participant was to have five minutes to share spontaneously, while the two companions listened and offered their presence. After the breakout, we were to gather in a plenary for a generative dialogue.

Embracing shakiness

Two weeks before the workshop, two organisers contacted me to let me know that 150 people had already signed up. They were expecting a maximum of 50. They asked if I would like to meet beforehand to ‘practice’. My response was affirmative particularly as I could sense a hint of overwhelm bouncing back due to the numbers, added to which the organisers were feeling uncertain about hosting an online participative workshop with so many people. I still had no doubts and started thinking about ushering a large group into an interactive plenary. We set up a first work session and I could feel myself getting very excited about this new venture. This was a wonderful opportunity to prototype online teaching and learning. I have always advocated practicing what I preach and, here, I was being offered the perfect playing field to try out some highly innovative ideas. No longer professionally involved in higher education, I felt no obligation to fit into a framework or to respond to any expectations. The perfect conditions. I could not have dreamed better. I was certainly invoking a big stretch and I felt fully equipped to do so. How much was I prepared to go beyond my comfort zone? Quite a distance, and this is what ignited the thrill.

The first meeting with the support team uncovered some unexpected aspects, the first being that the team was not entirely familiar with Zoom, the platform they had been chosen to host the call on. My astonishment emerged from the fact that both my contact persons have made a name for themselves, and a career, in online teaching and what is called e-learning in French. They even have a doctorate in the domain, so I was expecting to be fully supported on all technical aspects and to be able to discuss contents and design with knowledgeable people. It was quite the opposite. I found myself showing them the functions I needed for the workshop, indicating how to modify the settings, and how we could co-host the event with so many people without tangling ourselves up in technical issues. I suggested a clear distribution of responsibilities and roles and we went over the design several times, painstakingly testing all the technical options.

I could feel my irritation growing as I patiently went through the technical aspects and trudged through scatteredness and fluttering conversations. It did strike me that I was in contact with a huge cloud of shame, most likely unconscious, and that my contacts were not willing, or possibly aware, that they had found themselves well out of their own comfort zone, and nonetheless needing to show up as competent and proficient in their allocated roles as convenors of these online events. This brought up my bitterness about all the funding that had been poured into online teaching and learning, when I was working in the field. I had not chosen that path, my interests being in what supports learning, and I had not fallen either for the trendy thing to do at that time, i.e. technological innovations and online teaching. As a result, I spent a lot of my time advocating for relational work and kept well away from the crowd that were fascinated by technology, claiming that implementing technological solutions would inevitably bring about huge changes and that people would be forced to change or be condemned to extinction like the dinosaurs. What I saw was people doing the same, sometimes in worse because there was little or no consideration for what truly supports deep learning as opposed to surface learning.  The consequences of choices and career paths taken all those years ago were surfacing during the pandemic with the greater move towards online teaching and gatherings, and there was a lot to inquire into, here, is so wished. I felt immense gratitude for everything I have experienced and learned, in terms of online courses and programmes, once I stepped out of higher education and ventured into the field of higher consciousness where prototyping is high on the agenda and some truly innovative and creative ideas are being tried out. I have largely benefited from these co-creative experiments and I was eager to share this with my support team for this event, bridging between worlds and experiences.

I talked them through the design of the workshop and provoked more startled reactions and concerns. The strongest reaction was when I said there would be music during the guided piece, something I do regularly as part of my signature, bringing words and music together. Can we have music on a call? A guided piece is already beyond the pale! Is this appropriate? Is it scholarly enough? I was a bit taken back, but smiled when I realised how many limitations and beliefs we harbour about what academic teaching should look like. Having fun, revering the space between us, and including beauty were not high up on the agenda. Instead of getting uppity about their surprised comments, without saying anything, I simply tapped into the energies of my online gatherings and connected with all my practice partners spread around the world. I could feel their support, as well as that of invisible beings, all encouraging me to go forward. This is my playing field and practice, now. The effect was immediate and I could sense my two companions relaxing and listening differently, trusting and consenting to be guided into, for them, a highly experimental workshop.

They pointed out that this was indeed a rupture from what is ordinarily done and they suggested ‘warning’ people. I agreed on informing people of the set-up, asking them to be on time for us to start all together, but I did not see the need to warn anybody of anything, the summary of the workshop which had been publish was clear. Where they saw rupture, I could only see continuity. I was not proposing anything radically different; I was simply following my own unfoldment. I might have left the world of higher education, but I had not stepped off the path of following my higher purpose. I needed to hear them name ‘rupture’ for me to understand and apprehend the continuity in what I have been developing and doing all my life. This was a true gift.

We scheduled a second meeting the day before the workshop for a final test of the set-up and to go over the timeline and allocated roles. Things were much more settled, even if the numbers had raised to over 200 people attending, and the team had been liaising with me about all communications sent out. Towards the end of our meeting, Nathalie, my Zoom support person, asked me if I was reassured. Again, I was surprised by the question because, first of all, I had always been grounded and calm, and, secondly, I felt that I had been doing a lot work in reassuring her and helping her do her job. The comment struck me as being very projective, more about her than me. But what if this were not entirely true? What if this is also about me? Were there any parts in me needing reassurance, parts that I was not even aware of, so used am I to pushing down my vulnerability in order to reassure others? The question was out, and the answer came crashing down the following morning.

Presencing Gut-Wrenching Dread

The day before the online workshop, I turned in for an early night. At first, I was bobbing along a pleasant energetic stream on my way to deeper sleep, feeling very reassured and relaxed by all the preparatory work we had achieved. Then, I went through a portal of a very different energetic quality, which I can only describe as encountering gut-wrenching dread. The contrast was such that I felt abruptly torn away from rest and quietude, and forcefully plunged into the bottomless abysses of the human experience where there are no words available to describe what resides there. I am familiar with trudging in the swamplands of the human experience and, over the past years, I have learned to become inquisitive here. The place where I found myself that night is yet unknown to me, somewhere beyond the familiar swamplands, those places we barely allow ourselves to come in contact with, and from which we turn away because to look there would be unbearable and untenable. The body sensations were located in the lower belly with waves of nausea and disgust rising relentlessly. Eventually, through the body movements, a few words or qualities came: putrid, lifeless, foetid. The jerk as I was pushed through the portal was so pugnacious that I had to get up and spend some time consoling a younger part in me, who was deeply afraid of the nightmare, before getting back to sleep.

The following morning, I wrapped a few words around my night experience during my early morning journaling practice. This brought more awareness to what was lurking in the background regarding the workshop and that I had not had time to presence, too busy was I organising the support team: fears of being humiliated; fears of people talking incessantly and rebelling against the format; fears of being bullied and banned; fears of being shamed for having dared to come back to higher education after what I had done. None of this was likely to happen, particularly in an online environment where all mikes would be turned off. Nonetheless the fear-based programmes were running wild and escalating to life-threatening proportions. In the midst of the catastrophic scenarios presenting themselves to me, I was aware that this was material from the past that had not been fully presenced when the events had occurred. At the time, my need to survive and to get out alive from threatening and aggressive circumstances had blocked out any possibilities of being with the lower-vibrational energies swirling around me. They were now asking to be lovingly embraced. Time for me to bring back home those exiled parts of me. Time to ask for support in order to integrate the suppressed material. I did reach out and, immediately, my friend Dave suggested that we met to explore what was surfacing.

Time spent with Dave was invaluable for teasing out from the bundle that was presenting itself to me some of the lower-vibrational tramlines that crisscross my life-trajectory. For the first time, after a long period of silence, I recounted what had happened in Strasbourg. I told the story of losing my job without being informed by the leadership. I was dismissed as a disturbing element, the rebel who had openly refused to step back into line, and the news was conveyed to me by the person who was secretly appointed to take over my position.  I was then able to see a pattern repeating itself, where people in positions of authority take a decision, directly impacting me and my life-circumstances, without involving me in the decision making, similar to when I was a child, whisked away from England to settle down in Switzerland. The most distressing fact for me is the total absence of communication, verging on to secrecy or even conspiracy to eliminate the one who had dared speak the unspeakable. I was told that I had committed a regicide when I had challenged the leadership on their vision, or rather absence of vision, regarding educational development. As I recounted this to Dave, I could see the many times this scenario had played out, where the stakes of truth-telling are high and the consequences of doing so are dramatic and, yet, I cannot keep my silence and feel compelled to speak up. I was able to acknowledge, for the first time, the extent to which I was repeatedly harassed and persecuted by figures of authorities whose role it was to assist me in bringing about the changes they needed to implement and had entrusted me to take on.  In Strasbourg, many people around me were aware of the drama being acted out, including that I was being unjustly targeted. Nonetheless, they chose not to speak up, lest they, too, should lose their job. Some even apologised to me saying so. I told Dave of how, once the devastating news fell, I had gathered my team around me to use the six months that we still had left together to pursue our work and dream into our futures. I simply could not run away and hide. I felt responsible for all the young people who I had hired and I wanted to make of this crisis an opportunity for growth and for developing new capacities for meeting disruptive and dramatic worldly circumstances.

Speaking of that which had been silenced for so long, touching on the deep anger and sense of injustice that I have been harbouring, silently and somewhat stoically for five years, and, furthermore, feeling totally received by Dave with no judgment, nor comment made a big difference. I could then allow myself to be touched by an email I had received, the previous day, from someone from my former team. Simon had written to tell me that he could not attend, but he wanted to thank me for agreeing to host a workshop, an act of bravery according to him. He added that the whole community felt blessed that I had accepted the offer, hence the high number of registrations. So many people were looking forward to spending time with me again, since they had felt deeply bereft when I had left. I could feel this generosity of spirit and eagerness to explore again with me and, at the same time, I feared being under scrutiny. Had I survived the crash? Was I thriving and doing well, in particular now when our worlds are collapsing and crumbling down? Previously, after my many downfalls, I had been aware of how people scrutinised me, making sure that I was resilient, as alleged, and that I was doing well, in other words, that I was picking myself up after the disgrace, shaking off the dust and getting back on my warrior’s horse. I know that people needed to see me as a survivor as much as they needed to believe that what had happened was for the greater purpose and had served my growth. “What does not kill you makes you stronger”, they would affirm. It helped them accept the abuse and cover up any guilt about not having done anything to defend me. As long as I appeared to be thriving and flourishing, and courageously confronting adversity and misfortune, all was fine. Dialoguing with Dave helped me pick out the different threads that were part of the bundle that had been regurgitated from my nightly visit to the dredges of humanity, those unspeakable and barely mentionable aspects of the human experience: abuse, shame, resilience, rebellion, truth-teller, pioneer, subjugation, and beyond all of these.

Had I not come in contact with all this, I would not have realised what had persuaded me, first of all, to stay away from the field of higher education for so long and, secondly, what had prompted me, on a creative impulse, to come back. I did not want to return full of resentment, feeling that I had been wronged and seeking justice. Nor did I want to go back filled with thoughts of vengeance and self-righteousness. I did not want to be pitied, nor did I want to show up as someone who is hardy and resilient. I just wanted to be myself, and no longer a persona with a particularly dramatic story within the field of higher education that gets people gasping and panting over drinks at the conference cocktail. None of that mattered any longer. I wanted to be me and to share with former colleagues and friends some of my current work with no other intention that to share, generously, with no agenda. This was about claiming my sovereign selfhood and remaining grounded within myself regardless of outer circumstances, and in particular should the ride become bumpy. My nightly visitation had provided me with the perfect training ground where I could then practice, intensely, in sustained relatedness with Dave, rooting myself in stillness and clarity as we inquired together into the effects of crises and the fear-based programmes running our lives.

After our call, I went for a walk to the woods nearby and, as I stood among the beech trees, I came to see the narrow bandwidth of reality that was prevalent when I was working in higher education. Numerous events dashed in front of me and I found myself quickly flipping through a photo album comprised of small and almost insignificant moments, all signposting the prevalent framework. Part of my work had been in the domain of measurement and evaluation and I was shown many occurrences when people affirmed, rather assertively, the existence of causalities and the need to identify a single explicative factor in order to fix the problem. I was shown other episodes when highly acclaimed academics were misreading data and mistaking numerical results obtained from student feedback sheets with scores grading their teaching abilities. I was taken back to the many times when I had witnessed academics unable to transfer the skills and expertise gained from their research focus to other areas of life. Talk about being caught up in paradigmatic blindness.

I had once written an article on the scope and purpose of evaluation in higher education with the telling title The Tree That Hides The Forest. I needed to be standing in a forest to realise, with humour, to what extent that was true. I understood that often we were trying to look at the expansiveness of reality and life from the perspective of one single tree, the most familiar and closest to us. What a difference it makes when I gaze into the space between the many trees in front of me. Here, I see the interwovenness of all things. And what a perfect place to be standing in as I grounded myself and prepared to host the workshop. What if I was to invoke the space between our beliefs and assumptions? What if in invoking spaciousness, first and foremost within me, I could softly blow apart the narrow bandwidth of reality we operate from and offer a glimpse of what lies beyond? What would it be like to experience the forest beyond the tree?

Adventuring Beyond Consensual Reality

The workshop was a huge success: a genuine collective experience of stillness and clarity as we waded through the many beliefs that form teaching practices in higher education, choosing to stop when invited to challenge our assumptions with loving kindness. The participants loved the guided piece and were immediately drawn into the three scenarios feeling strong resonances with all three of them, uncovering, within themselves, compelling movements and surprising reactivity. The breakout triads also went down well, since the set-up provided a well-framed relational space to move out from the intimate inquiry of the guided part into new fields of conversation. During the plenary, everyone was eager to share a few words on the chat, stating how refreshing and nourishing the experience was, something they were keen to replicate in their own teaching.

Many questions were offered for further explorations and, as I watched them appear in the chat thread, I could easily spot some of the trees that comprise the forest of higher education: common themes, recognisable arguments, well-worn paths and well-established assumptions, everything appeared on the scene with the familiar signposts, all in their correct location. And what if we were to rattle this familiar landscape and to pull it to pieces? A daring proposal, indeed, but one that was becoming conceivable, alternate perspectives appearing on the horizon. Let me give two examples of shifts, well out of our habitual comfort zone, that were enabled in our generative dialogue.

One teacher was telling us how he endeavours to remotivate his students, who struggle to meet the learning outcomes and repeatedly fail their exams. He is hoping to help them find their path in a highly competitive environment and to inflect the high attrition rates in his establishment. This is without doubt a noble pursuit. His enthusiasm and concerns for the students were palpable, as was his passion for teaching and being of service to those who are dropping out of the system. As I listened to him advocating for alternate educational pathways and assessment systems that appraise the students’ capacities, rather than rank them, I could not help thinking that operating within the boundaries of success/failure and the world of measurement was a very narrow perspective. Even if we choose to foster only achievements, at all cost, however innovative and generous our teaching and assessment practices might be, we still remain constricted to a binary world where everything is measured in terms of success and failure, dancing between the polarities of optimism and pessimism. Not only is this dance exhausting, on the long term, it is also self-defeating because we don’t step out fully from a polarised reality based on the assumption that success and failure exist per se and, furthermore, can be measured. The alternative would be to completely let go of the assumption that life can be measured in terms of success/failure. I offered him this perspective and, immediately, things began to loosen up and soften. This was the breakthrough he needed to hear in order to stop striving to beat a system that is, by definition, unfair and discriminatory since culturally based on ranking students in the belief that all human phenomena are distributed according to the gaussian curve, a strong underlying assumption in most sciences. I wonder how he, and others who took to the idea, will journey with this new perspective. It certainly helped me point to the bias of the gaussian curve that plagues most social sciences and organisational practices, one that is never questioned as to its validity it being scientific. Taking the success/failure dilemma out of the equation was the equivalent of weeding an overgrown flower bed and planting new seeds. I trust that they will grow in the ripeness of time.

We also had a very interesting conversation around time, most people reporting feeling pressurised to produce results and changes quickly. I call this the low-cost quick fix problem-solving approach that is rampant in organisational development as I experienced it. No wonder those on the field, trying to implement top-down changes, are constantly demanding more time as they rush around the clock trying to meet expectations and deadlines. As I listened to the familiar arguments, I could apprehend, differently, the aspect of time in building consensual reality. Having worked in Switzerland, a democratic country and federal state that takes consensus very seriously, I know how much time it took us to build, from scratch, a national educational system for higher education bridging linguistic, religious and regional differences, as well as a wide range of traditions and beliefs. Creating a unified system for higher education in a country that boasts as many educational systems as cantons was a huge challenge. The consensus that came out ten years of consultative work could be said to represent the smallest common denominator, the results of power games between influential interest groups and cantons, rather than an expression of the diversity of the composite nation. So, indeed, building consensual reality can, at times, be time demanding.  Only, this assumption can enslave us making of any change a big deal, requiring countless resources to tackle all the obstacles that will emerge along the way, of which overcoming our natural resistances to change. As I took this in, I became aware of my ease in implementing some of the reforms and major changes made in higher education. I was taken back to consider the resistances I encountered when learning outcomes were introduced for designing courses and programmes, the example that was been discussed in our plenary. Truth be said, most people struggled with writing their learning outcomes in terms of student learning and grumbled incessantly about being forced to explicit their teaching intentions. I found it easy because I have always been happy to experiment with all forms of prototyping. Could this be because my life-circumstances have provided me with the perfect training ground for shifting perspectives and taking to pioneering work like ducks to water? Could my mastery of several languages have supported me in learning to word and language the human experience and to expand my bandwidth of reality? There is no knowing of all the impacts of my life-circumstances and life-lessons, but in that moment, I got a glimpse of what prevents us from instantaneous changes: our belief that we need more time and more resources, and that we need to find our place in a world and life made of compromises without compromising ourselves. Another self-defeating prospect. I invited the participants to inquire into their relationship to time and how this was likely to affect their engagement with life as it presented itself to them. Again, more weeding of obsolete beliefs and planting of seeds. This reminds me that when I left Strasbourg, we held an event to celebrate what had been accomplished in the four years I had been there. As a parting gift I handed out packets of seeds for people to plant and I could see the flower beds sprouting.

The most rewarding comment was the importance of indulging in some reflective time and intimate sharing with a few others, outside of the battle fields that characterise higher education and its competitiveness – l’appétence à se connaître soi-même, as put eloquently by a participant – the ability to become highly interested and curious about all those places where we declare that change is impossible and give up on ourselves. For me, observing a new forest, yet unmapped and unexplored, emerging from the filaments of our discussion was a gratifying experience, telling me that I was indeed returning to the past with tenderness and kindness. I was learning to steward the new landscape and become a custodian of traditions, old and new, that make up the diversity and nobility of higher education for which I stand. I need no longer hide from myself, nor from others. I am doing the work and nothing more need be done.