A scholarly life: reflecting on my week


Student notes from my presentation at Inspire Sydney 2016

Over the last week I have been fortunate enough to be involved in three inspiring events that have me reflecting on the life I get to lead as an educator and scholar – or a ‘scholarly life’ as I have heard it described.

The first event was the Inspire Sydney 2016 conference aimed at higher degree research students and was organised by the five Sydney-based universities. Over 250 students attended including many from outside Sydney.

The focus of the conference was on how to build a career in both academia and beyond. The message was clear: a career cannot be thought of in isolation but is part of a balanced scholarly life. I was so impressed with the students: their passion, their ethics, their insightfulness.

The second event was the Senior Management Conference of Western Sydney University looking at thriving in a time of uncertainty. While the focus was on the university itself, we undertook a whole of sector analysis.

Thirdly, I have spent the week with my collaborator from South Africa, Professor David Hornsby as we work to further interrogate the concept of the citizen scholar – with a book recently published the Palgrave.


A reciprocated obligation

As an educator I feel that I have a deep obligation to our society and community. I started life as part of a working class immigrant family and despite the many opportunities afforded by my parents, I had to fund my way through university.

It was of course subsidised by the Australian public: I feel a deep obligation for the opportunities that followed and as such, believe that I have an obligation to reciprocate.

But what exactly does this mean?

Over the last week while I have been participating in these events and inspired by the colleagues and students alike, I have thought of four dimensions that this entails.

The fist relates to Plato’s conception of living a good life. That is to say, that our well-being as humans is achieved through aims of moral thought and conduct. This is a view of ‘morality’ that is focussed on striving for excellence and treating those around you with the highest levels of respect. This includes our students, our colleagues and the broader public – even those we do not agree with.

There are days I find this hard – days when we feel unappreciated or even a sense of jealousy: why did my grant miss out and that one get funded? How dare that journal reject my paper?

But these thoughts are driven by ego – and when you take a step back you come to realise that many times the rejection is justified, that grants cannot go to everyone, and that every failure will eventually lead to a success if you find ways of learning along the way.

The second, and related to this, is a reflecting life. In one of the most quoted parts of his dialogue during his trial, Socrates states that a reflective life is the only life worth living. If we do not reflect, then we are not living.

Sitting in those workshops over the last week, I have reflected on my own limitations and weaknesses. I have thought about the things I could do better, the ways I can treat those around me with more respect, and the way my many successors have been the result of benefitting from the work of many of those around me.

A reflective life is one that strives to understand ourselves and our motivations – and to work towards the good life described above.

The third dimension is the educated life. I honestly believe that education is the greatest mechanism for social justice: it is how we can confront the injustices across the world including poverty and persecution.

As an educator, this takes many different dimensions. To begin with, I want to work with my students to ensure that they are offered every opportunity possible. Further, there is a need for educators to confront myths, misconceptions and ignorance in our society. Watching Pauline Hanson’s fear of Halal foods or the way climate science is dismissed highlights that the role of education in confronting ignorance has never been more important. And as an educator, it is important to speak truth to power: never letting those with power take advantage of this by confronting them.

The final dimension is an intellectual life: that is, a life long journey of learning and education. It is beholden on us to persevere with our own education – there is so much more to learn. In a world with hundreds of daily emails and multiple deadlines, an intellectual life is something that is hard to maintain – but it is something that we as educators should never stop striving for.

This week, working with David, I realise there is so much I do not know. Listening to a lecture by Professor Paul James about universities and globalisation, I realise there is so much more I want to know.

And it dawns on me: I get paid to do this. No wonder I feel a sense of obligation.


The classroom…

It has been 10 years since I graduated from my PhD – and this week when I stood in front of a classroom ready to deliver a lecture, I had exactly the same feelings: I was humbled that people would choose to listen to me; in awe of the process of education that has given me so much; and, overcome by feelings of being a fraud.

I sent a tweet about feeling like a fraud, and the best response was from the ever awesome Professor Alistair McCulloch from the University of South Australia, who tweeted back say: when you stop feeling like a fraud, you become one.

It has been an amazing week – not without it struggles. But it is a week that made me feel incredibly lucky in leading the life I do.


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4 Responses to A scholarly life: reflecting on my week

  1. Cecilia Stenstrom says:

    So grateful to have someone like you James who takes the time to write and share informed thoughts with recent experiences to produce a blog that encourages and challenges me, the reader, to reflect, consider and ultimately appreciate that which I have & done and provide motivation to keep learning and doing. Thanks

  2. Clare Fraser says:

    “I honestly believe that education is the greatest mechanism for social justice: it is how we can confront the injustices across the world including poverty and persecution.”

    I agree 110% and really needed to reflect on this today. Thank you, James.

  3. Loulani says:

    You are such a romantic, James. A real softie. Anyway wonder what Hanson thinks of Kosher foods?

  4. Paula Sanchez says:

    Dear James,

    I have been lucky to have heard some of your talks and lectures (last at the SoNM Future’s Forum this year). It is funny that when I first met you in a workshop last year I thought “who is this guy that everyone talks about?”, “what is so special about him?”, the same question I asked myself every time I saw your picture in the big billboard on Parramatta campus.

    Now that I have read your blog I feel that I got to know you and the way you think better, I got it! You are a very special person yet humble and that is a quality I admire on people. Also the fact that you have not forgotten your roots.

    Overcoming the obstacles and, in many cases, perceived difficulties is not easy. As you and so many people around us I am also a migrant who came to Australia with my parents and sister escaping from a dictatorship and looking for a better life. having lived the turbulent times under a military regime, being an activist and spending time in prison has made me strong and resilient. I learnt a lot from my experiences and, as you, still learning from life, my children, students, colleagues, supervisors, people that has not given up on their ideals and who actively try to make this world better.
    I am so grateful I am here today, life is good and what you say about obligation is so true! I hope this doesn’t sound cliche but I really believe in what Martin Luther King Jr said about that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter in all aspects.

    Gosh I am really reflecting today hehe. To be honest this is the first time I have responded to a blog and I do not normally tell my story to people (well..part of it), I guess your words inspired me. Thank you!

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