Footnotes is a remarkable book. Let’s start with that. As I plodded along at my slower than ‘politicians run marathons’ pace (see later in the post) last night I was thinking about the review I wanted to write. I didn’t really know whether it should go on my running blog or my academic blog so I’m putting it on both. As I turned left to avoid yet another uphill (and because it felt like a lovely random thing to do in the rain – getting lost on an estate just down the road from me) it struck me that the book has made such an impression on me because it’s about everything that makes me who I am. It’s about nature and running and literature and it’s about being an academic. Maybe not explicitly so but I think many academics, maybe particularly in the humanities and social sciences, will recognise so much of the emotion of this book. I now understand why Kath has been urging me to read the book ever since she picked it up some time ago.
My left turn was a mistake, or rather the almost immediate right turn I took after it was because I zigzagged down the hill and cut off the opportunity to zigzag back up without running the same road twice (Vybarr Cregan-Reid doesn’t like retracing steps either! I’m going with first name only for the rest of this post – hope he doesn’t mind – but surname just felt so academic and formal) so my legs stopped working and I had to walk. As I puffed up the hill I thought back to the beginning of the book. I am cautious about running books. I am sensitive about my running. I am so keenly aware that I am a rubbish runner and only slowly getting my head around the idea that it doesn’t matter. ‘I am lost on Peckham Rye’ is the opening sentence and from there I’m in. It’s a book about running and it starts with being lost. That means it can’t be a book about road running and races and going as fast as you can from A to B because people who do that sort of thing don’t get lost (maybe they do but I don’t think of them as the sort of people that go anywhere one could get lost). The book is full of the sort or running that instinctively makes sense to me – outdoors, connecting with nature, evoking landscape and literature, tapping into something that isn’t quite explainable.
There is a fair amount of explaining though and Vybarr explores the science of running in the book and I like that. I like to understand what is going on as I run, what individual bits of my body are doing and how that fits together, what I could (should?) be doing to help, how and why some runs are awesome but many just are. Why the first couple of miles often feel so hard, and why taking my shoes off on the beach and running barefoot was one of the hardest runs ever physically yet one of the best. Some of the answers are in the book but it’s not sports science book. It doesn’t spoil the magic of running by over- analysing or over explaining. Vybarr, I think, accepts and knows that running is more than science, it’s also magic.
The sections on runners’ highs are fascinating and I agree that all the science on this still doesn’t really capture it. I’m also slightly envious that Vybarr seems to get to that runner’s high far more often than I do – mostly I don’t go far enough to get the full hit but I do think I sort of get a mini version of a runner’s high that kicks in immediately after running. Kath calls it my ‘she won’t stop talking’ phase when we run together. I don’t think I talk out loud when she’s not there but I wouldn’t bet on it. I do know that it is often the only time I really feel positive about my running, it’s where I feel strong and capable.
I’ve got up the hill and my legs don’t really want to get going again but on I go. I’m on an odd run for me. I didn’t really want to go and realised it was because Kath had been out at Bolton Abbey earlier in the day and I think I was envious of her running there and grumpy about having to run at home. So instead of going a usual route towards track, wood and eventually canal, I stayed on the roads and had a nosey round the local area. It was quite fun looking at gardens and little streets and alleys I don’t normally see but as I started a stretch of long straight road I thought about the importance of running in nature and how Vybarr captures the difference between running indoors or even in cities and running in green spaces so perfectly. I ran on the road and kept having to hop back onto the pavement to avoid cars. That’s what it felt like. How can a little residential estate be so busy? (Ok so there were maybe 6 cars in that 20 minute stretch but it felt like an assault on my running calm). Footnotes captures how important outside is and how treadmills have very little to do with real running! I may have got a little over excited at the mention of Foucault in the book – as I did with Bleak House and the other surprising number of law related references. I shall leave you to find the connections between treadmills and Foucault for yourself but I smiled as I thought about that on my run, quickened my step and turned off to cross the canal bridge and run at least a short section along the canal. I could feel the stress leaving me as I turned to run alongside ducks, one with what might be a third brood of tiny little ducklings, further along there were a couple of swans and I desperately looked around for a heron but couldn’t see one. I crossed at the next bridge still thinking about how wildlife and what I see or don’t see can sometimes have a huge impact on my run and am reminded of one of one of my favourite sections in the book – the razorbill on Lundy. I won’t spoil it for you – read it in the context of the chapter it’s in but think about this:
‘Sometimes they fly because they need to hunt, or migrate; sometimes it is only to enjoy the sensual excitement of flight. This is where the joy is to be found: in using ones’s body and its expressive impulse for its own sake, for no other outcome but itself.’
I plodded on still smiling from the memory of that passage mixed with my own memories of puffins on the Farne Islands and the graceful flight of gannets at Bempton Cliffs and pushed up a little slope and turned right – again unusual. Normally I’d walk up the big hill towards home now but I wasn’t quite done running yet. I glanced at my watch and chuckled at my pace. And as the pace sort of registered in my brain my stomach plummeted. There are two tiny little sections in the book that nearly ruined the entire thing for me. This is not really about the book, it says far more about me than anything else. On page 220 (obviously I don’t remember this while running!) there is one sentence that floored me. Vybarr describes what sounds like a stunning run from St Juliots in North Cornwall. I loved reading the description of the run, the links to literature (Hardy), the fact that it was a tough run and he needed a lift back to his car (this would happen to me all the time except that usually I just have to walk back because there’s nobody to come get me, or I have to get a bus or whatever) – all this resonates. Then the following line stopped me in my tracks ‘I later work out that I have been running 12-minute-miles – these are the sorts of times politicians manage in marathons’. I stared at the page for a bit. And then I stared a bit longer. Then I carefully put the postcard I’d been using as a bookmark into the book, closed it, put the book down and walked away. ‘Right, ok then’ I remember thinking ‘so this isn’t a book for me after all’. In my mind I have put it on the ‘books for proper runners and not me’ shelf, right alongside Run Fat Bitch Run (which you might recall I hated). Everything in the book had been speaking directly to me – almost as if the book had been written for me to remind me that how I think and feel about running is ok, it’s better than ok. That line shattered that. I nearly put it back on the shelf and didn’t finish it. I didn’t really quite understand how someone who could articulate so much of how I feel about running could be so utterly dismissive of 12-minute-miles. I tried to explain this through tears to Kath who simply said ‘yes I wondered when you’d get to that bit. I knew you wouldn’t like that’.
As I turn left to make myself run up a hill rather than avoid it I’m angry. 12-minute-miles are fast miles for me. Mostly I run slower than politicians manage in marathons. Sometimes I wish I didn’t but there it is, I do. Part of me wants to challenge Vybarr to run some of these West Yorkshire hills with me, that’ll teach him – no hills like these bastards in London. And then I remember that I can’t run them either and even if I could, I’d still be slower! And as I push the last few steps up the hill and force myself to keep running on the flat I also force myself to accept that the comment about 12-minute-miles is a comment situated in the context of Vybarr’s running, not mine. That pace may well be utterly awful for him, it may well be a sign that the route got the better of his legs, that’s what that’s about really – not me being someone who runs slower than politicians do in marathons.
The second comment is about marathons. Vybarr recalls his 2012 London Marathon (lovely and funny read this) and notes that his official time was a ‘horrific’ 5 hours. Really? Horrific? I’d love to have a marathon time that started with a 5. I have run two. Nearly 7 hours and nearly 6 and a half hours. I rolled my eyes and read on.
So there’s a sentence and a word I don’t like in the book. Everything else is, I think, pretty perfect. The book has had an influence on my running. I took my shoes off on the beach and ran when we were at Seahouses a few weeks ago. I was tempted to take them off yesterday and feel the warm rain on my feet but I haven’t run barefoot. I need to try it on softer surfaces first. It has helped me connect more with the environment I am running in – or do so more consciously which then bizarrely leads to less thinking. It’s made me determined to increase fitness so that I can do those 7 or 8 miles runs more comfortably. I think I agree that they are a really nice distance – no major concerns about fueling and far enough to achieve the almost meditative state you get when you finally find your rhythm. The book has also made me think about literature and whether maybe I should revisit some classic authors. Should I maybe go back to Dickens and Hardy and others with a focus on nature and movement and place? Could I read Bleak House, for example, not as a lawyer but as a runner? How different would it be? And finally the book has taught me something really important about academia. If academics can follow their passion and write about something that truly brings them alive, they can create magic. I love this book for that alone and as I continue to run (at my pace!) I am getting closer and closer to figuring out what I want my magic to be. On this run though I reach my driveway before I can grab hold of ‘it’ so for now, thank you to Vybarr for sharing his magic and if you haven’t read the book yet; what are you waiting for?
A little earlier this year something possessed me to think it might be a good idea to present something at the Excellence in HE conference that Leeds Beckett hosts annually. It’s run by the quality team so goodness knows what I was thinking. I either wasn’t or I was feeling disruptive and a bit naughty.
I have some poorly thought through thoughts on Excellence in HE and have spent some time doing a few bits of research that speak to the issue. I’ll come back to that in a moment. When the day came and I stood at Crossflatts station in the rain I was cursing myself. A day, a WHOLE DAY, away from writing my book and having to engage with people who can say ‘Excellence in HE’ with a straight face.
I actually had a great day. After the usual welcome we heard from Ant of WonkHE who told us all about TEF and how it tells us nothing about teaching (or excellence) and how the results are totally meaningless but there is some quite interesting data we should all go away and look at – because it tells us something – even if that something isn’t about teaching. I’m ok with that. The day had started with something that made sense. Then came the second keynote on the role of governing bodies in HE. I’m afraid I tuned out. I heard ‘accountant’, ‘leadership foundation’ and ‘committee of university chairs’ (or something) and saw white slides with lots of black text and I was gone – I spent a delightful 40 minutes in my own head – sorry. My bad, I’m sure.
Then we had coffee and split into groups. I’d really wanted to go to the session on Research Informed Teaching but I couldn’t – I had to be in the Learning from Research session to give my talk. The first presentation was great – about dissertation bootcamps and a field trip to Malham youth hostel to walk, think, write. How awesome is that. Such a great opportunity to engage properly with students and treat them as humans rather than numbers. What a great way to foster individual excellence and to inspire and be inspired. Then I was up. Not using a powerpoint confused the organisers for a minute or two but then I was off. The paper after mine was also interesting – matrix learning and resilience in a number of disciplines. The last paper I didn’t really ‘get’ (and I heard it twice because it was repeated in the afternoon) – it was about Dance education and university students going into schools to teach dance (I think, but I sort of tuned out. I needed more coffee and was getting hungry).
After lunch the sessions were repeated so the Dance paper was first up and then it was me again and then my colleague Teresa told us about her work on transition from 6th form to university and how we can’t really expect students to be independent learners overnight. Then we had coffee and finished with a plenary summarising all sessions. It had been an unexpectedly good day.
So what were my thoughts on Excellence in HE. Well I’m interested in the rhetoric around excellence. And I think it’s all wrong. Excellence is a buzzword – it’ll fall out of favour soon enough and we’ll all be talking about something else. It’s hard to define and we all see it differently. But because it is hard to define we struggle to measure excellence so we measure a proxy or rather lots of proxies instead and pretend that they tell us something about excellence but usually they don’t – they tell us how many students got jobs or how much they earn or what grades they came and left with. Excellent teaching is measured in module evaluation scores covering all sorts of proxies. But when, through my research and informally, I talk to people about excellence it is rare for tangible things that can be ticked off lists to be mentioned – usually it is about the emotion of a situation or context, about how a teacher made us feel, how a research paper made us think, how a well timed and well constructed question by a teacher made us see something in a different light altogether. Excellence is not always (or even often) synonymous with a good student experience of being happy and getting what you want – students I spoke to often talked about excellent teaching making them deeply uncomfortable and being very challenging.
I’m also interested in how universities present ‘Excellence’ claims and mostly on the websites I studied they don’t unpick their assertions at all. Some (guess which ones) claim they are excellent teaching facilities and offer excellent student experience because they are highly ranked research institutions. Others claim to offer excellent teaching because their staff all (or mostly) hold teaching qualifications and others claim that excellence because their staff hold professional (industry) qualifications. None of those claims are justified or explored further. Anyway, I rambled on about all of this for a while but my thinking sort of got to this: We need to move away from thinking about excellence as something that can be achieved, measured or even really articulated and accept that it means different things to different people – as such we can all be excellent to some people (students, colleagues, managers, funders….) some of the time but we can never be excellent to everyone or even to some all of the time (and for me that means choosing who is my priority – some things that make it more likely that students get an excellent learning experience might be in conflict with what management expectations of my excellence are – guess who wins). Also, because excellence means different things we can and should take a more personal approach to excellence and remember that our students are not numbers, they are people, people who all have the potential to be excellent some of the time. I think, and this was prompted by one of the comments in the plenary, that we need to shift our focus away from what good or excellent teaching is because that isn’t getting us anywhere and instead think about what conditions we need to create to allow for excellent learning. I said in the first iteration of my paper that inspirational teaching might be excellent teaching and that was picked up in the plenary with a throwaway remark that I had possibly just come up with that on the day or ‘maybe she had thought about it before’. I wasn’t quite in punching distance to the bloke who said that (of course it was a bloke) but I thought that was a bit rude and I wondered whether he would have said it about a bloke. He also didn’t use my title when he referred to me but he did use the title when he referred to one of the blokes. Every day sexism for you but that’s not the point of this post…
I’ll keep thinking about this stuff. There’s something about the way we talk about excellence in HE that is fascinating.