I have been thinking a lot about the Go-Betweens recently. For those not yet acquainted with their genius, they were the next greatest band of all time in the late 1970s through to the late 1980s (and again in the 2000s for another glorious almost made it moment). They made a string of brilliant, idiosyncratic pop records that make you wonder how they were not chart toppers (they just weren’t). They were from Brisbane, Australia via London, Germany and back through Sydney. They were two lifelong friends, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, who were joined by a series of other critical creative forces in the band to make records that have changed people’s lives, been the soundtracks to births, deaths and marriages and have told and shared stories of love, loss and memory (amongst other things).
The record I have been thinking the most about is their final LP in the first incarnation, called 16 Lovers Lane. This LP (released in 1988) was the sound and words of a band moving from the cold darkness of London back into the Australian summer; with places new and familiar washed bright with sunlight. It was the sound of warm air, dark stories and familiar memories. It was a band held together by a painful breakup, a delirious love affair and two men, connected by friendship, love and an intense creative partnership, steadfast in their belief about importance of their songwriting and their relationship. The album reflected its humanity in spades: life at its most painful, conflicted, joyous and tragic.
Even at the tender age of 17/18 when I bought a copy of the record on cassette from my local record store in Eastwood, NSW these stories of experience and memory resonated, but I wasn’t sure why. I had never been to London, or Brisbane for that matter. I remember watching the clip for Streets of Your Town (see below) on the Australian music show Rage (an all-night music video program that airs to this day on the public broadcaster – ABC) and the clip shone like the sun and butchers’ knife of the lyrics. It was lustrous and bright and not like what I had imagined the London they left was like. It was a far better (and darker) summer song than my previous youthful forays into the Style Council. The songs on the record told of how experience shapes the way we continue to move forward (‘…if you spend your life looking behind you, you won’t see what’s up front’ from the song, Was There Anything I Could Do). They described how memory makes us do the next thing we need to do or risk becoming lost in regret (‘We stood side by side. Strong and true. I just wish you’d remember. Bad times don’t get you through’ from the song Dive for your Memory). They ennoble the importance of reflection and sharing in understanding how to cope with life (‘…I know a thing about darkness, darkness ain’t my friend’ from the song Love Goes On).
In early 2018, after 10 years of living in London, embedding myself and being surrounded by memories, both difficult and joyful, I left the city for a new job back in my hometown of Sydney. It was a quick, wrenching move, played out in difficult and trying work circumstances, with people being hurt for little or no reason. It felt like a bonfire was scorching the earth behind me, poisoning any thoughts of returning. Arsehole landlords, ego maniacal management and stupid, stupid Brexit all made leaving the natural and logical decision. It didn’t make it easy. Too many memories in London, so many of them back home. Memories were unearthed about practical things, family things, old workplaces and long distant battles and alliances. And the sun, the sun was glorious. (‘…and don’t the sun look good today’ from the song Streets of your Town). Memory and experience. But here was the weird bit, and the hook of this story to the land of higher education we all populate. My memories of Sydney were important. But they were just that: memories, fading a little bit each day, echoes of a long bygone past. I could not recreate what I had left behind ten years previously. People moved on, got older, greyer. Things had changed. Just because I wanted to make my experience be like it was, I could not. Lives lived are complex, dirty things. Tragedy, sadness and illness can be shared collectively but is experienced personally. None more so when people chose the path they think is the one of least resistance.
Three months later I am back in London, for a brief trip. Memory and experience snap back to reality. Smells trigger senses of domesticity, exciting travel, local knowledge and that sense of willing wrenching. I make the same mistake, trying to reenact memory and experience when people there are continuing to live their lives. But the experiences are more recent, sometimes raw. You slip back into habits, patterns and being that feels comfortable, if not slightly odd. Memory and experience both know it’s odd, but you can suspend disbelief, even for a short time. And within a flash (ten days being honest) I was back in the sun, the new office and world of new but familiar acronyms, collectives and communities. And I was back at the pub, with my mates, in a scene that to them was tradition but to me was still new and unfamiliar. A stranger in two familiar lands, and in both cases new inhabitants were making their own memories and experiences sans me. It all moves on (as it does, and should).
Predicting the future of higher education is a brilliant game to play because like most predictions, playing it generally comes consequence free. It is the most popular topic in keynotes at educational conferences. Vendors parade it in front of us with the square peg into the squarer hole solution of their platform or product. We debate it, twitter storm it, hold webinars about it, populate conference sessions with workshops and provocations about it and then when we are at the pub afterwards, we drink to it (or perhaps to the lack of it. Cheers!).
But why do we all play this predictive game of future bingo? Is there a nagging sense that what we have now just isn’t right? Is it driven by a desire to make things better, or a nagging sense of ambition continuously improve? Or is through a sense of discomfort with our role and place in the institution, a challenging of the sense of identity and a fear for how that identity fits into the future? Are these predictive debates, dead ends and fads the educational version of the EU and their place within the Brexit debate and the requisite predictions of project fear and project hope?
Hear me out here.
In the recent C4 movie called ‘Brexit: An Uncivil War’, Craig Oliver (played by Rory Kinnear) working as the leader of the remain campaign interrupted a focus group of diverse voters brought together to inform the leave campaign. His interventions around the damage leaving the EU would do set off a microcosm of the global political climate in a thirty second stanza of anger, names, abuse and fingers in the ear screaming. What he realised in reflecting on the experience was that this referendum was not about the EU. It was twenty years of societies experience leaching through in small drips. Identity. Fear. The Unknown. Job Security. Nationalism. Immigration. Family. Drip. Drip. Drip. And then allowed to come rushing out all at once, in a single vote about the EU and then put front and centre of the political debate through social media and the inevitable polarising effect of speaking to echo chambers. So much of the rhetoric of the leave campaign (and in part, their success to even come close let alone ‘win’) can be summarised in their three-word slogan. Take Back Control. You can go back to a time when you had control. When you were not frightened. When you and people you know had jobs. When you were happy, safe, living your life. When you knew who you were or that it did not matter.
It doesn’t matter if your memory of when you were in control goes back to the days of the Empire, the pluck of the Blitz, the times when you were a kid or a university student, or to last Tuesday, you know the day we downed four pints and watched the game. Taking back control reverts to a time when you are certain and confident that you remember being IN CONTROL. It works in the same way that nostalgia for music, or TV or reminiscing about times gone by does; through the lens of the past and residing in the safe space that is our memory. In those spaces, we can go back to a time that was better (louder, faster, further, safer, cleaner, happier) than it is now and how we fear it will always be.
Everyone who works in higher education has experiences and memories of being taught. If you are a teacher, it shapes your philosophy and practice, replicating good experiences and trying not to be ‘that’ teacher when critically reflecting on the bad. If you support teaching, then those experiences and memories provide you with an empathetic and experiential base to enhance your effectiveness in working with academics and students. But are we trying to shape HE to provide the kind of thrilling, personal, transformative social experience we perhaps had? Are we looking at the changes in HE through the prism of a time when we felt (louder, faster, safer, cleaner, fitter, happier, more productive)? Are the discussions driving so much of our time and energy in the sector around transformative, disruptive change and the trolling power of the Internet simply the HE equivalent of the EU? Do they represent the drip, drip, drip of our own fears and concerns about education, our jobs or the role of education in a civil society? Are we caught in a tacit version of nostalgia (perhaps like remembering an album released in 1988) where we trying to defend against change (or take back control of the experience) because it was ‘better in my day’? Is it easier to talk in the abstract about the student experience, the love+hate of AI, the pervasive benefits of learning analytics or the unbound and unreliable future of education than to engage in programs of change that require you to leave skin in the game, to jump into an unknown full of risk, retribution and uncertain reward?
Middleton and Brown (2005) expose the tensions and fears that exist in that space occupied by memory and experience:
‘… the overwhelming tension is between preservation and loss, the reduction of the everyday flow of our lives to a series of fragments. Brief passing moments and images remain completely intact, unaltered, we feel, despite the passage of time, but the overall framework appears destined to disappear, to be worn away by ageing, the passage of time that levels all, or else by some sudden and fateful intervention.’
Middleton, D. & Brown, S. D. (2005). Introducing remembering and forgetting in the social psychology of experience. In The social psychology of experience: Studies in remembering and forgetting (pp. 1-11). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446221808.n1
There is a risk that collectively as a sector we end up spending some much time and effort trying to remake or contain education in this way that in reality it gets worn away or is taken away by the aforementioned ‘sudden and fateful intervention’. By doing this we are potentially denying students the opportunity to have and make their own experiences and memories. In a policy environment where governments are dictating that university is the means to meaningful employment end. and that curriculum and learning are just ways of embedding the skills required by employers, having an experience (transformative or otherwise) at university is becoming challenging and disappointing. Students expectations are redirected towards the pragmatic assertion that the job is the end goal, university just like doing your reps at the gym.
Equally, the role of higher educators is not to imprint their framework of experiences on students, or to relive their youth vicariously. We can create the environment, the community space and the capacities and opportunities for students to make those experiences themselves. We can help them find the pathway through the policy dictated by the employability end-gamism of modern HE and embrace the idea that university is not the only thing occupying our students lives. They work. They play. They live. They learn. These things intersect and compete. There are tensions that arise when one needs to be prioritised over the other, but they equally generate affordances when the synergies open insights that are new and thrilling.
Some of the research we have been doing at my two most recent institutions with our students has told us that our learners are bound together with initially weak ties centred on the commonly held expectations of a university experience. Sometimes we exceed, others time we disappoint. They are also bound by the need for social interaction, not isolation. They are bound by a belief that at the end there might be some clarity, about work or life. They are bound by how this experience might help define or shape identity. The know that learning is what they need to do, become better at and use effectively to achieve their outcomes. But at some point in their experiences of higher education, one or even all of these weak ties become uncertain, transitory and liminal. And that is where the design of curriculum, teaching, assessment and the student experience becomes critical. It affords the opportunity to find places and spaces to experiment, to test, to succeed and fail, to acquire and apply, to inquire, to challenge and debate, to collaborate, to make and to share.
The next Summer
Platforms like Spotify mean that new people get to hear 16 Lovers Lane every day. They will hear the lyrics for the first time and if they like it, then they will have memories and experiences that emerge from the record. They might fall in love, meet their best friends at a party, be inspired to do something different with their lives, share it with other people, make something new and different, put it on a soundtrack to their study or as they are reading about stuff on the bus. But if I tell them to listen to it as part of my class? What if I get caught up in the nostalgia of times gone by and through my ‘power’ over assessment, compliance and certification I make reflecting on the album a compulsory assessment because it was the way I learnt back in 1989, so shouldn’t they have the same experience as me? What if I compare it unfavorably to the music that inspires them or make them dance around the room in joy? What if I make assertions that by not listening to the glorious harmonies on 16 Lovers Lane, they are wasting their time and they will never get their first job? Or maybe I design an experience that says to students; find something that inspires you to understand Summer. Make a playlist and share it with your colleagues. Swap tracks on whatever platform you feel comfortable using. Tell us the story of the songs and their historical or lyrical context. How do these songs represent Summer (and how could that be used to sell ice cream, or understand culture or influence the way a park is designed or help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder or make an education campaign about skin cancer more effective)?
The lyric in the title is from Quiet Heart, by the Go-Betweens. The photo at the top of this post is of the sunset at City Beach in Perth, Western Australia and features my wife and her father.