Cancer, and what turns up

I’ve been writing this blog for less than three years.  It has brought me friends and ideas, and it has given me a space to write and think that isn’t governed by higher education’s metrics of performativity. What’s on this blog is my responsibility and my fault, and counts for nothing, anywhere, except in terms of whether or not it enables people (especially me) to think about something. Nothing is measured; nothing is traded.  I truly love this.

Mostly I’ve written about how innovation in educational technology and university strategic planning have converged in a difficult economic climate to produce the current working conditions for tenured, adjunct and administrative higher education workers.

But what’s here is now also a bit about the reshaping of identity experienced through working with illness. Being diagnosed with cancer means some plain-talking about the fact that for all the hype about disruptive innovation, real disruptions still come up from the bodies of workers, not the business plans of venture capitalists.  I don’t know how this will turn out for me, but I’ve taken a decision to spend some time thinking about how the structural overloading and underresourcing of higher education isn’t sustainable in human terms.

Richard Hall, in a very powerful piece about working with depression, puts this reshaping simply, in a way that I feel connects us all, whether we are well or unwell:

I had always battled to be at work, because if I could not be there I was a failure, right? Without my labour, what was I? What am I? What is my point? Alienated at and through capitalist work, which demands that we are resilient, efficient, productive, whatever.

I think this blog is now also a way of speaking against the culture of whatever that is causing so many higher education workers to experience their labour as a kind of drowning. Since writing about being diagnosed with cancer I have been contacted by so many people who have shared with me their own sense that things are not right as they are—that we have nothing left to give, and that the benefits of change management driven by performance-based funding models and ranking schemes are actually very minimal when institutions are already going flat out.

Many people have also said that they have no sense of what they can do. I think what we can do is write this out together. Exactly the same technologies of networking and presence that enable the marvels of our age — massive virtual lecture halls of alienated crowds listening to tiny video briefings by celebrities while research teams capture every click and eyeball flicker — are the technologies that make it possible for us to achieve networks of global solidarity scaled to our human capacity to attend and think.

So I am really glad to be part of Bon Stewart’s research into networked identity practices, not just because it has brought me into the company of a group of thinkers I like and admire very much.  In a way that is suddenly rather obvious, I feel I do need to understand how working with illness is a mirror held up to all the other kinds of work that we do— the way we trundle on, and the values we uphold, as though illness were not possible, and mortality not relevant.

Most higher education institutions are governed by strategic plans that are intimately linked to the marketing discourses of whatever we’re trying to sell.  Most higher education workers are valued according to the contribution they make to the key performance indicators underwritten by these plans.  All higher education institutions are aware of the powerful upstream churning of ranking instruments, and the assumptions that they make about what counts as good, better or worthless. Our external stakeholders are governments and, increasingly, business councils; closer to home we service industry partners and students, and the people who pay for students to be here, and we manage more or less to offer something to our communities, including local employment.

But we are fantastically bad at recognising that we also have an obligation to ourselves, to each other, and to those that we love and love us—and that to meet this obligation also needs some strategic thinking, high level communication, and effective critical reflection as we go.

The most extraordinary and challenging blog I have read since being diagnosed is just closing. Australian cultural historian Denis Wright has been writing about his experience of cancer, and now he has died, just over a week after his last post.  His blog My Unwelcome Stranger was named after the largest gold nugget ever found, the Welcome Stranger:

My search in this blog is for the ‘gold’ that may be yielded by my ‘Unwelcome Stranger’. I have seen some of it shining already… The unwelcome stranger is mine: it did not result from outside infection or some similar circumstance. It resulted from an incident within myself, the cause of which I will probably never know, though I do have my theories. But it is because it is mine, I have to recognise and accept that, and deal with it on those terms

This is where I am: supported by family, friends, colleagues and connected strangers, I’m thinking through the disruption of cells that’s evidently been going on for a while. Oddly, this turns out to align with everything else this blog is about: the paradoxical value of hospitable practices. Derrida, never short of a big idea, writes in a way that is persuasive to me, that in the culture of unconditional hospitality, the roles of guest and host become indivisible from one another. Until now, I’ve used Derrida’s thoughts on hospitality in thinking about the design and management of learning environments both online and on campus, in untangling the assumptions that separate teaching and student practices, and in understanding how workers and employers relate to one another. Who is the guest? Who is the host?

And now, Derrida’s bracing “Let us say yes to who or what turns up” is there as a discipline, a mantra, and something really worth exploring in thinking about how the bodies on which we all depend enact their continuous, invisible routines and disruptions, while we go about our lives and try not to think too hard about what time we have left, or what it means.

Thanks beyond anything to people who have joined me at this time in writing and thinking about the impact of what turns up. I’ll keep adding blog links here. But for now, just thanks.


On what has turned up at my house, I really appreciate

On living with what has turned up in other lives, these have been directly helpful to me, and I’d be very glad to link to others who are writing or thinking about what it means to work through illness, if anyone wants to suggest them:

I have colleagues and friends living working with serious illness who choose not to write it out in this way, but who have reached out to me, with kindness, support and candour about what comes next when we say yes to what turns up.  Thank you so much.

And Rustichello, fellow traveller, you know who we are.

4 thoughts on “Cancer, and what turns up

  1. I’ve just clicked the “Like” button here, Kate, but I do wish there was a “Love” button. For that is what I want to say to you, and to send you, after reading your post. Your writing is always honest and lucid and wise. But seeing you squaring up to this huge challenge and responding as you are, with courage, grace and generosity… I’m truly humbled. As I’ve shared with you already on Twitter, I wish you all the strength and courage you need.
    x C.


  2. Dear Kate,

    Most of all I want to pay tribute to your calm forbearance and courage and to say that i am thinking of you with love.

    It is interesting that some similar ideas come from different sources.
    On what turns up: I would aspire to bear witness, to just be with, with not knowing non-judgement. Aspire is one thing do is another. I admire your capacity to be with what is coming up for you.
    On Derrida: he has stuff in common with Zen (the notion of words and differance for example) Here, host and guest inter-are. Interbeing. one is the other. Co-dependent arising. call it what you will. best wishes


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