Phenomenological Bewilderment in a University Setting

Feature Articles / October 2011

Josina van den Acker

Josina van den Acker

This article is written in the context of the global need to act sustainably, which according to Smith and Stewart (2010) requires that we open our selves to opportunities to work together, collaborate and see our needs differently.

The main part of this article is written as a letter to an imagined person. As an autoethnography it may help the reader to imagine a better way of addressing diversity in the global context of higher education, and bridge the gap between cultures as a form of Performative Social Science (PSS) where imagination is communicated as knowledge of the world, and contextualized in the dialogic communication-act that is co-constructed at once between senders, receivers and the field (Crouch, 2007).

Though some people argue that a focus on autoethnographic lived experience is narcissistic, a study that discounts the role of the researcher who explores the culture and its process of which s/he partakes is not providing a holistic view of a studied (sub)culture: ‘the experience is you and you are part of the experience’ (Dethloff, 2005, p. 5), and ‘we must embrace the biases of the researcher to develop a much richer understanding of the context studied’ (ibid, p. 57) that mixes with biases of other members of a (sub)culture. By offering an authentic representation of the experience as participant of a (sub)culture and of professional life in general, the reader is asked to self-reflect on personal experiences as related to the text so as to transcend the purely personal (Ellis & Bochner, 2000).

The context of the story that follows is an Anglo-Saxon university that previously was an Institute of Technology. The institute is located in one of the last colonized states of an immigrant country.  The fact that this historical background has been naturalized seems to partly explain the author’s experience of dehumanisation and powerlessness. It also explains the institution’s ‘factory’ climate where problems are dealt with in a reactive, punishment-happy kind of way. A humanistic-psychological focus lacks, so there is little room for (re) structuring and (re) formulating problems, assuming that the solution is inherent to the ways in which the problem is framed.

The university has an Indigenous Learning Centre on which it prides itself, but the pride is politically coloured. Despite the rhetoric of self-management, in a practical sense the centre is powerfully influenced and authorized by non-Indigenous university-politics. The centre consists of Indigenous and non-Indigenous teaching staff of which only one person has a PhD. This person is a Dutch migrant and she writes the letter below. Her expertise is in understanding and working with the dynamics in cross-cultural education. She had expected – perhaps inappropriately – that she had been employed so the centre and the university would use her expertise. But to date this expectation proved false or inappropriate. Apparent conversations with migrant colleagues indicate that there is a general lack of interest in the skills, knowledge and life-experience of teaching- and research-staff, and that this attitude is endemic to the (academic) culture of this part of the country. It appears to be more important to fit the curriculum and operate as a cog in the machine than to be an autonomously thinking and operating academic and a completed identity.

The university also prides itself on housing a large range of migrant academics and international students. So it developed a diversity policy. But the policy cannot find root. There is too little willingness to explore the deeper layers of the organisation’s culture (e.g. dominant worldview, discourse, myths and metaphors). As a self-regulating biological organism that adapts itself as it interacts with the world-out-there, the university continues to emphasise assimilation: an attitude that is in sync with the culture that dominates this part of world.

The author of the story below was born and raised in The Netherlands, a country that struggles with a recently developed and politically motivated ‘us versus them’ culture and fundamentalism, following the murder on a Dutch film critic (Beck, in Volckmann, 2011, p. 1). The Dutch traditionally pride themselves on their liberal thinking and their negotiation-culture with for example community policing as an alternative form of law enforcement. They look for ways to improve the workplace as a micro-culture that is fractal to the larger (cultural) group mind locally and globally. As migrants they do not see themselves as completely integrated and still identify as Dutch (Van Wamerl, 1993, p. 70), though the outside world continues to stereotype the Dutch as ideal migrants who give up their own language and adapt completely to the new culture so as to become invisible (Van Wamel, 1993, p. 4). In immigrant countries this stereotype is maintained so as to suit a politics of assimilation. A country that has no intentions whatsoever to adapt itself to its immigrants accepts Dutch migrants provided they do not change the image and contents of the ‘host’ society (ibid, p. 49).

But is such a politic helpful when a country tries to deal with problems such as fundamentalism whilst enveloped in a period of premodern-modern-postmodern-integral transition? Beck (in Volckmann, 2011) suggests that any cultural ‘trait’ is a dynamic with correlating solutions where the human organism interacts with life conditions (p. 7). Such dynamics need to be respected: By activating all the value structures ‘emerging through differences, bringing with them the richness of their past. That’s key’ (p. 8).

The letter below draws from personal diary-notes that were not meant to blame or shame anyone in specific, but written to set up dialogue in higher education institutions. The broader intellectual public has the right to know what the effects are of a disallowing of different cultural dynamics. A global academic audience begs the question as to how to best use the intellect, and as Jung suggested, ‘as much more than an instrument that divides (but) the force which turns something infinitesimally small into the infinitely great’ (as cited in Raff, 2000, p. 103). Further, when, why and how to implement integral leadership in the academe, ‘how to read weak signals, how to construct unique solutions, and the architecture that matches the movement of people through different stages’ (Beck, in Volckmann, 2011, p. 8)?

Struggling with Masculine Intelligence

I was born and grew up in The Netherlands that according to Hofstede (2005) has a ‘feminine’ culture that typically emphasizes negotiation and detests polarisation (thus for example has multi-party governments). Such a culture also cares for community and the ‘underdog’ in a broad sense. Now a migrant in an Anglo-Saxon and as such (again according to Hofstede) ‘masculine’ culture, I try to come to grips with the lack of space for difference and negotiations. I regret the disconnection from oneness, the demand for and admiration of  ‘muscle-strength’, the general lack of care for the underprivileged, and the accepted norm of assimilation as a form of adaptation to a changing global world. There is little room for accommodation, which startles me. I find myself looking for a theoretical explanation.

Piaget described intelligence as a process of learning where individuals adapt to so as to handle the environment (Verdult, 2001, p. 54). Adaptation occurs by way of assimilation where new knowledge is adapted to existing cognitive structures, but also by way of accommodation where existing structures adapt to new knowledge.

If we apply Piaget’s theory to the process of cultural learning in the world of today, we see that assimilation is most common practice. Most cultures have a group mind that forces individuals to adopt a new persona and as such merge with the dominant worldview, discourse, myths and metaphors. But I would expect different behaviour from an academic culture.

Though not an uncommon dynamic in a corporate organisation, I had not expected a higher education institution to encourage competition. Telling its international students and staff that they have to learn and understand the local perspective sets up a dynamic that covertly blocks the ‘Other’ at the gateway. Such a strategy seems contrary to a university’s policy that promotes diversity and a global perspective. A more critical attitude and aptitude of self-reflection would be more appropriate, including the historical cognition of colonisation that continues to influence politics in this country and subsequent institutional oppression.

Feeling frustrated with the lack of opportunity to enter into dialogue with colleagues (which is something I am used to as part of my culture), one day I found myself in a prayer type of position, begging my way out whilst reflecting on the situation that left me in what was in hindsight a sorry state of affairs for a period of more than 6 months. I tried to come to a resolve and spoke to a metaphoric Jeannie.

Dear Jinn

I seek connection with you, to help me see something I cannot on my own. It relates to my being unable to be in dialogue with my Indigenous colleagues in the workplace, and my inability to be in dialogue with the strategic leaders of our university. I am unable to move through this brick wall and beyond this ceiling where we stay at a distance from each other. I am historically and culturally not used to the activity of putting a ceiling on dialogue. Is this part of my Dutch identity?

I like to watch the stars each morning I wake up, and restore the connection I have with them and our planet Earth. I need this reconnecting with the whole as the partitioning of the world of politics distresses me too much. I know that the remembering of this connection is something I have in common with many people, and perhaps especially with the Indigenous peoples who used to be or still are nomadic. I too am a nomad of sorts. Though 50 years of age, I still don’t own a house or a piece of land. I have an amount of possessions that fit into my sedan. I don’t have a lot of money in the bank or anywhere else. I have moved and still move from place to place as a housesitter: a dynamic I needed to get used to if only to be able to complete my PhD study with little cash in hand. But I have never complained for I accept my sole responsibility.

Spiritually, I have even come to appreciate and understand the value of this life-style. I have a better understanding of how to connect with the land and create a sense of place. Furthermore, I now better understand the possibility of an evolving and transformative cross-cultural higher education with educators as mediators who move across the globe and acknowledge the living earth as a self-regulating system, or Gaia (Lovelock, 2001). This education moves away from glocalisation: something Robertson (in Reid & van den Akker, 2007) refers to as the ongoing tensions and at times symbolic violence that occur when two countervailing tendencies –homogeneity and heterogeneity – are part of social life (p. 120).

Physically, all of my blood-family lives in Holland and my parents are well in their 90’s, so I have needed to move backwards and forwards – living there, then here – for reasons only migrants can fully appreciate. But for much of the time I live in a young and immigrant country with all of the tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. So I navigate between three cultures: the Dutch, the non-Indigenous and the Indigenous. I do not identify fully with any one culture or any of its politics, for I understand all sides but do not align with anyone.

Mentally, do I fit the second tier category? As you know, the term ‘second tier’ refers to Beck & Cowan’s Spiral Dynamics (1996/2006) and its use is inspired by the works of Ken Wilber. Wayne Carr (2011) describes second tier people as human beings who ‘can share the same reality space much more easily and deeply because they have less “overlay” and fewer “read-ins” on top of what is. When second tier people meet, there is more of a convergence (or perhaps “meta-convergence”) of points of view (rather than being spread all over the map with points of view that tend to cancel out each other and create stalemates)’. They engage in non-dual space and the saying ‘namaste’ (the deity in me recognizes the deity in you) describes their practice. Carr believes that this non-local consciousness plays a huge part (mostly unconsciously) in how we navigate through our lives. ‘But wide-spread skepticism has prevented most people (beyond pre-rational) from exploring and understanding the incredible implications of non-local consciousness in all aspects of life’. Second tier educators and other practitioners, then, could be seen as less interested in matters that relate to strategies, systems, concrete plans or propositions. They relate more easily to issues concerning aspiration, inspiration and sensorial communications between the human and the non-human worlds. I certainly refer the sensory self that holds no judgment but simply accepts the -ism of all.

Socially, my teaching and research practice is driven by a dream, or vision for a cohort of educators/ researchers/ students to teach/ learn as one, to ponder and wonder together and respond as ‘right educators’ (Krishnamurti, 1978). To practice vulnerability in dialogue (Bohm, 1996), to feedback and vision develop, with a focus on intention and attention, not rules. I take note of a ‘double discourse’ (Harrison, 2007) that is reproduced in-between the student and teacher through what is taught and in what is considered knowledge (p. 42). The discourse is double because self-similar to a widespread and organized power of compulsive thinking (Tolle, 2005) that in collaborative research can be undone from its bad effects and a low socio-emotional tone. The importance for me is in my sense that this tone resonates compulsive obedience (Montessori, 1948/1989, p. 123) and maintains the collective story: a story that in terms of Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), resonates at the level of myths and metaphors that find expression at the levels of paradigm or worldview, system and the obvious. Higher education institutions usually control this context and supply its dominant logic (Bussey, 2010).

In my personal professional world, teaching/ learning/ researching is one and the same activity in and as a whole. There have been three or four examples in my life where learning organisations explored the nexus between those, more or less successfully. But they came and went when a cramping set in… This cramping, as I see it in hindsight, occurs when the veil of ignorance wins out. When a ‘rite of passage’ is resisted from a space of righteousness and need to win at all cost. Though often not (yet) recognised, the cramping is a result of an adopted mechanism associated with group mind that can be recognised.

From my Maori mentor I learned that recognition is not cognition. Ormsby-Green (2007, p. 147) points out that the word cognition assumes ‘the illusion of gaining realisation or perception’ whilst the word recognition acknowledges that everything we have is already known, though not necessarily consciously available. We may have lost sight of something or it may have been inaccessible to us for some time, and we can rediscover it, sometimes in its entirety so that we experience ‘a return of understanding’ (ibid, p. 227). Recognition is ‘a state above the emotional ladder’ (ibid) and thus outside of the emotional body. The emotional body is part of the mind which ‘includes the emotions and non-physical aspects such as memory, reaction’ and the like (ibid, p. 17). Recognition takes place in the realm of the spirit, also considered the ‘native’, uncorrupted being and the unit of ultimate awareness (ibid, p. 18).

So now I think I have told you enough about me and given you enough context to talk about something that perhaps concerns you, too.

I began a PhD-study back in 2003 at a university in Holland where I was first introduced to complexity theory. How much I felt right with that thinking-style! But I could not continue my study here for I wanted to return to this powerful country where I am now, to explore the dynamics in cross-cultural higher education in vivo whilst theorising them by making use of complexity theory and audio-visual media. At first I went to a university that supported the post-colonial paradigm, and found that the fixation on politics worked antagonistically. I found out that I could not work within this paradigm. I know that all education is political, but to me politics need not be a point of fixation. Education can be far more humanistic in a non-dogmatic and political sense. I know it can operate in a collaborative and integral manner from my own experience at a Dutch teacher-academy where I did four years of training in Expression & Communication.

Yes, what is said about Indigenous education is true. From personal experience as a teacher in an Indigenous desert community, I know that Indigenous education consists of poor relations and educational failure. I also know that a lot of theorists have grappled with and sought solutions for the effects of colonisation, intergenerational transfer of disadvantage, resistance, alienation and culturalism to highlight the complexities of Indigenous education. But what has not been explored is a reflexive approach. Self-inspection and communication are not encouraged in a climate where the attention is fixated on being right, having to win at all cost and making someone wrong. A shift in focus on the area where not only Indigenous but also all people struggle is, I argue, more productive. In My PhD thesis I tried to mitigate the strain that contemporary cross-cultural higher education has placed on both its students and teachers: a strain that has been intensified by focusing on boundaries, identity politics, personal and tribal needs for admiration, material gain, a sense of power, superiority, specialness or some sort of gratification in physical or mental form.

Hitherto, there has been little response and interest from the Indigenous education community, and I wonder whether this has everything to do with the pain-body of which Tolle speaks. To date I have also had little support from the academe in which I engage, which not only surprises but also concerns me. Instead they invent new values and think that these inventions are enough to build on. From my perspective if universities seek to strengthen their adaptive capacity or organizational fitness, they embrace the challenge (Dimitrov, 2005) not by adding new values to frame the rational, as Bussey (2010) argues, but an awareness of humanity’s place in the resonance of the vital force, behind which the dance of opposites such as yin and yang, male and female, darkness and light, earth and heaven, fullness and emptiness (Elder, 2008, as cited in Van den Akker, 2009, p. 3). A recycling of existing belief-systems maintains deep unconscious cultural tropes that societies and civilizations rely on for inner meaning and sustenance (Bussey, 2010). They help keep intact a common agreement in what is told as a common story—otherwise called a history that is littered with judgments, expectations, significances, considerations, etc. to order our relationships across a wide spectrum, including the personal, interpersonal and transpersonal and the various ecologies that flow across and through cultural spaces. As such we see a collective ego or group mind that organizes itself into something ordered, stabilized and structured: a system, which effectively is the enactment and structuring of unorganized information.

I do not know your experiences, but I have certainly seen my fair share of the effects of such a system on humanity’s well-being as a whole. It simply is not a sustainable practice. When an educational organisation sees it as a priority to engage with this history so as to assist community-development, the dynamics in the space between people from different cultures will remain centrifugal whilst the ‘site’ of negotiation increasingly hardens. When I dare discuss this machinery I tend to encounter a massive amount of opposition. For example, this occurs when I bring to the fore that it is not only Indigenous people who struggle with assimilation. The tussle is shared with Non-English Speaking Background women and perhaps also men, and especially those who work in Indigenous education.

So why discuss this machinery, you ask? For me it is about opening up the sandbox. The need for this is shared with other members of the LinkedIn discussion group ‘Future of Learning: Changing Education Paradigms’. One member explains that “the current industrial model of education is no longer suited for this era”. In my PhD study I talked about the world in terms of spatiotemporal relations and that focusing attention on the image of the “cross” is useful to understand the dynamics of cross-cultural education. The dynamics at the heart or centre of the cross are representative of the space between, where two (II) parties meet in an “eye to eye” (I to I) meeting and through which an unspecified amount of time flows, much like sand in an hourglass. But essentially embracing otherness means embracing the self that is other to the not-self: This not-self is not constant. It essentially exists of that which wants to belong and fit in, but it never will for that is not its real game.

When I run through nature for example, or connect with the stars and the ground beneath my feet, when I suspend my not-self, I am my self. And I understand better the difference between the not-self that merges with the self to fit into the workplace. So here we get to my core focus of discussion where I will talk about my current workplace as a micro-culture that is fractal to a larger group mind that is completely disconnected from oneness:

In response to our recent charade that is a bi-annual staff-meeting of sorts our director spoke of a school review and handed out a draft Executive Organisational Chart. We were told that the chart will be implemented as soon as next year. We were asked to email any ideas to the director, and I wondered why email and not personal contact? I also wondered whether there will be any return feedback or whether the feedback and therefore organisational learning will remain single-loop? In protest (‘It is not right! It is unacceptable! It is terribly, terribly wrong!’) I find myself engaging in a set of dynamics akin to a wormhole, where for example Argyris and Schön (1974) tell us that single-loop learning occurs when given or chosen goals, values, plans and rules are operationalised rather than questioned. When the emphasis is on techniques and making techniques more efficient and when any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective (Usher and Bryant, 1989, as cited in Smith (2001/2009). An alternative is double-loop learning that, in contrast, involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems that underlie actual goals and strategies (ibid).

As I said earlier, I am not used to one-way and blocked communication. This type of one-directional style of working does not agree with what I want as an educator and member of a learning organisation. I am used to an education that is holistic in theory, in practice and in research. I am used to double-loop learning as part of an integral paradigm that is not only theorised but also practised and evaluated on a weekly basis as a collective. Though I understand the background of one-directional communication, I protest the degree of intolerance that I am supposed to tolerate. It is difficult for me to accept that their memories of pain and struggle have to be projected onto others who their pain-body sees as ‘wrong’ in some way. Most of my Indigenous students seem to come from a place of resolution within themselves, but I have also met many Indigenous and older colleagues who prefer to withhold information and come from a rather averse kind of place. Many a time it is difficult to get through the veil of bureaucratic discourse or the ‘racist’ drawcard and feel included as a normal human being. Often I feel as if a kind of initiation ritual is imposed onto me. Is this dynamic in any way related to me? Or is it politically induced? I do not know and I am left to guess whether perhaps it is my white skin or my Non-English Speaking Background that unsettles some people and makes them demand that I just fit in or get out.

I have not told you yet that I began to work here as a novice academic back in June, 2010, and had not ever before encountered such stifling dynamics, not even at the Local Council back home in Holland where I worked for a while. To make some sense from the situation at this university, I asked colleagues in other departments how they handled the situation. I found that many appeared to struggle with the effects of universities’ bureaucratic management systems that are definitely not effective, and especially not if organizations seek to innovate (Autier, 2001). An educational working environment does not improve by focusing on processes and procedures whilst disregarding the dynamics in communication-processes. Strategy and technicality akin to a technical institution does not appear to befit an academic culture that lives with the legacy of critical engagement. Furthermore, any educated educator would know the pedagogical and andragogical perspective that both teaching and learning involve the detection and correction of error (Argyris and Schön, 1978, p. 2).

So how come the stranglehold of knowledge/power is so persistent in this culture?

Jinn, I know that you will allow me to take a deeper cut by telling you more about what happened within the first three months of my employment at this university so as to better understand the power of group mind.

First I need to tell you that I came to this other side of this massive country to take up the position that I was offered here. So I came here as a complete stranger to a new landscape. And I had expected some sort of understanding and a welcome to this workplace, also because of its values of

  • Integrity – being consistently honest and trustworthy in all activities
  • Respect – having regard for self and others
  • Fairness – ensuring just decisions through open decision-making
  • Care – acting to ensure the welfare of others

Was that an inappropriate expectation?

Do you find it strange that I felt deeply unsettled in this completely new environment when I found that there was not any support system for me? The university offers all sorts of policies, rules, regulations and working parties that are meant to operationalise the values, but none of them work. The system as a whole simply does not align. Why?

I think because self-reflection, reflexive education and communication are not understood at its core roots. But what do you think is at the root of it all?

Anyhow, could you allow me a bit more time to talk about the effects on my psychological well-being?

I felt upset when two of my line-managers called me up for a meeting to discuss my performance. They seemed to have been supportive of my efforts to date so did not understand why suddenly the change in tone. During the meeting I was shouted at for more than one and a half hours long. It was not a Work Performance Review or a Work Performance Planning meeting, and held just three months after I started work here.

I had not yet had an induction or any other type of meeting in which there was space and time for discussion around what was expected from me and what I could expect from them. Neither had there been a meeting around plans for progress in my career. Policy dictated that such a meeting should have taken place within the first two months of employment, but it never happened. I was not even aware of the policy! The Human Resources person should have observed and helped enact this policy and the procedures. But instead she partook of this meeting as the third person and in support of my line-managers. I had never met this woman before, but here she was coopting with my line-managers and also approaching me aggressively, especially when I said that I felt unsafe in this meeting-space and could not talk: No, I was to talk! It was me who supposedly had ‘bad’ communication skills and it was me who needed to learn about this culture’s ways of working!

The procedure that unfolded would not have been tolerated even in a courtroom! Without any evidence or examples I was accused of ‘rude and arrogant behaviour and inappropriate ways of communicating with staff and students’, of ‘lack of respect for others’, of ‘inappropriate behaviour in the classroom’, of ‘disobeying directive from line manager’ and of non-attendance at my desk (despite policy that gives academics freedom of movement). All of these claims were not reflected upon by the accusers themselves, and contrasted sharply with accepted academic practice. There was no space for discussion let alone dialogue.

I felt myself shutting down completely, and could not return to work for more than a week. Because I had not yet built up enough sick leave I was not paid for that period of time.

When I was commanded to return to work, I felt vulnerable and uncertain around my performance for a period of more than six months. I came to work every day but wanted to escape and could barely handle the nervous tension in my body. I had never been attacked this way before in my entire working life. To the contrary, I was used to being acknowledged for the ways in which I taught and facilitated students but also staff in their ways of learning and teaching when requested.

I so longed for some sort of acknowledgement and respect, but never got it. Yes, I wanted a reward, but had not expected payback! I was being bullied into submission so as to support management with inconsistency in practice. I was being dumped with a ‘mentor’ who turned out to coerce with all the opposing colleagues. I was being deceived and lied to. Communication lines I had established with my students were cut and I was being discredited for my expertise and professionalism, e.g., by not being notified of decisions that were made during management meetings and not being consulted or invited to express my views and opinions on curriculum development including purpose and methods of delivery. I became used to getting a no-response as a response when I asked for clarification, or asked for a way to move forward in my academic career as a researcher. Nobody else at this teaching centre has a PhD, so was I wrong for having one?

‘Workplace mobbing’ is a term used to refer to abusive behaviour that is prolonged or systematic in nature with the intent to try and drive the worker from the workplace (Government of Western Australia, DCEP, 2007, p. 15). It tolerates and condones behavior that is not easy to identify as having bias against minority groups including their own, intimidation, harassment, poor interpersonal and communication skills and the build up of feelings of rage and loss of control.  All of these are symptomatic of bullying behaviour (ibid).

But so what? Nobody at this university seemed to care or be in a position to do anything about workplace mobbing, other than tell all academic staff off for ‘bad’ behaviour.

I am still not clear about why exactly I was employed in this workplace, despite my asking for clarification. Was it for my doctoral qualification and expertise in the dynamics in cross-cultural education? If so, why was I employed in the ‘minor’ academic position of Associate Lecturer and as such no formal approval to engage in higher levels of the academy? If I was not employed for my academic qualifications, then why was I employed? Was it for my Non-English Speaking Background? What did one want to learn from me? Or was I only here to be taught a lesson as a kind of payback for an historical event that is not part of my history and culture? How can a culture of trust be built in a politics of suspicion and on top of a layer of hostility toward the Other? To date I do not understand how a university’s two separate policies on diversity and Indigenisation of the curriculum can coexist, and there is nobody who will enter into a discussion or dialogue with me. I have sought to discuss matters with management including the university’s Vice Chancellor, but I continue to be approached aggressively. Dialogue is ideologically and practically impossible.

In conclusion, my premise is that we cannot make a better tomorrow without exploring a better way today: a better way of being in the present.

Related to the proposed organisational chart and apparent theory-in-use in course design and delivery, I do not consider it is necessarily the curriculum but the way in which a curriculum is interpreted where the problem lies. The information is interpreted in a less abstract and holistic manner than I am used to. Abstract thinking, judging and problem resolution normally belong to a group’s ability to think in a formal-operational manner, but here the curriculum is interpreted in more of a concrete-operational thinking style. It is seen as important to tick the boxes and be rewarded by those from ‘the top’. Curriculum is not as a verb, where the road is to be walked together, one alongside the other in acknowledgement of oneself.

For a whole year now I have lived and still live with the question: why was there and is there never any dialogue (Bohm, 1996, Freire, 1972; Ife, 1998) in this workplace called a university? Why is there only debate and gossip? I struggle with a practice that is contrary to the theories we teach our students and contrary to the policy around diversity.

As Argyris and Schon (1978) suggest, where something goes wrong, an initial port of call for many people is to look for another strategy that will address and work within the governing variables. It involves following routines and some sort of preset plan, is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control. Though a more creative and reflexive approach is desirable, it involves reflection as something fundamental: a confronting of basic assumptions behind ideas or policies, and testing of hypotheses and processes. For a climate change in every sense of the word, ‘deep change is needed in attitudes or else we all remain victims to the political spin and media invention’ (Rea, 2011).

Closing Thoughts

The author of the letter above took the courage to share her fears, frustrations, sense of loss and powerlessness in the context of an Anglo-Saxon university that has recognised its problems around diversity and indigenisation and developed policies to address these. But the policies do not get any footing for major issues are not addressed at core-root level with the result that the university lacks coherence. The lack of opportunity to enter into dialogue with colleagues leaves the author in a prayer type of position, begging her way out whilst reflecting on the situation that left her in what was in hindsight a sorry state of affairs for a period of more than 6 months. The letter tells of someone who was raised in a feminine culture and is used to dialogue with colleagues and working with people who think in a formal-operational manner. Now working in a ‘masculine’ culture she feels powerless, but copes – handles the stress by reflecting on the strain that people across the globe need to deal with: a strain that has been intensified by the political focus on boundaries, identity politics, personal and tribal needs for admiration, material gain, a sense of power, superiority, specialness or some sort of gratification in physical or mental form.

The author gives some background knowledge around her own motivations – spiritually, mentally, physically and socially – and tells of her experiences in learning organisations. She tells of her practical idealism that dwindles in a culture where egos vie for a position, where groups coerce against others, where negotiation-power lacks and where ‘old-fashioned’ concepts of law enforcement apply that seem to relate to a concrete-operational group mind. She struggles to find her identity in a culture that demands her assimilation but that itself refuses to accommodate her presence. She struggles with the organisation’s lack of double-loop learning, and a distinct lack of organisational self-reflection emerges from her story and begins to irk, leaving the reader with a range of questions around education in general and cross-cultural higher education in particular, including:

  1. Is partitioned learning wanted (similar to disciplines) or interdisciplinary work?
  2. Is the focus on local, national, global or ‘glocal’ priorities?
  3. Is learning deemed important or is achievement?
  4. Is the social/environmental/economical sustainability nexus accounted for in teaching practice, if wanted?

Perhaps the account resonated with and even helped the reader to experience and see alternatives in an attempt to bridge the gap between cultures in an academic and global context. Perhaps more discussion is needed, and your feedback would be deeply appreciated.


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Beck, Don Edward & Cowan, Christopher C. (1996/2006). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Vlaues, leadership, and change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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 About the Author

Josina van den Acker, PhD, describes herself as a migrant between cultures, especially the Dutch, white Australian and Aboriginal Australian, Dr. José van den Akker has over 15 years of experience in facilitating individuals and groups of people in personal and professional development including re/integration and vocational training programs. For the last 11 years she has focused her energy on researching dynamics in cross-cultural education and organizational contexts. She takes a special interest in the metaphor cross, group mind/ herd instinct, the freedom to either or not identify with the part of mind that is structured in time and space, and rehabilitating the self-in-relationship.

Deeply committed to the active role of holistic and ecological ideas in transforming contemporary society and culture, José hopes to facilitate the opening up of dialogue among intercultural and interpersonal researchers’  and the development of awareness of human conditioning and its responses, both collective and personal.


2 thoughts on “Phenomenological Bewilderment in a University Setting

  1. Andrew

    Hi Josina,
    I got a lot from reading your essay.
    I would like to make contact with you, but i can find no conact details, i wonder, would you be so kind as to write to me andrewjamescampbell(at)

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