Falling Flat on My Face

It’s not a great way to start the New Year, but, as they say, shit happens.

After a particularly delightful dinner at WAQU with friends to celebrate the arrival of 2012, we were taking a leisurely walk home when my foot hit an unreasonably raised piece of pavement, my body flew in the air and my face landed on hard concrete. The street was so poorly lit that I was virtually in darkness, but I felt my nose crunch and tasted grit in my mouth (is this what it’s like when someone bites the dust?) My Titanium designer glasses conveniently broke into two neat halves, putting a nice dent between my eyebrows, as I found out later. Surprisingly, I got up and felt well enough to walk the rest of the 5 minutes home.

I was so relieved that no bones had been broken that I felt quite blase about what seemed like a continuous nosebleed. I was also grateful that between us we seemed to have an endless supply of tissue which was put to good use. My face felt tingling but not painful. It wasn’t until I looked in the mirror in the lift that I realised the extent of the injury. Suffice to say that my face was a bloody mess!

Fortunately, most of the injury was of the abrasive kind, and after giving me a tetanus shot, the very nice young doctor I saw assured me that the only concern he had was infection of the grazed skin. As the red scabs formed on the skin, I felt both relieved and worried. Relieved that the healing process had begun, but worried how long it would take to look ‘normal’ again.

In order not to frighten friends, I decided that we should cancel the drinks with our neighbours and the lunch with Swedish visitors that were scheduled this weekend. But I can’t keep hiding at home. I’ve enrolled in a course next week that I have been looking forward to. Cancelling is not an option, but going out and facing strangers in my current state is going to be a challenge. If only I could wear a burqa or even one of those face masks that were fashionable during the SARS and Avian Flu outbreaks in Hong Kong!

Out of habit I Googled for some ideas of how to cope. Would you believe it, there’s a blog post called ‘The gift of failure: ten reasons why falling flat on your face is a good thing’. As someone who have written about ‘The Art of Failure‘, I wasn’t immediately cynical about this piece, but I’m still struggling to apply all ten reasons to my current situation (I’ve substituted ‘falling’ for ‘failure’ throughout):

  1. Accept falling as part of life—I suppose this makes sense as we move into old age.
  2. Falling means you have the courage to try—well, true, if I stopped walking I wouldn’t fall.
  3. Falling teaches you something—yes, that I should sue North Sydney Council for unsafe pavements and inadequate street lighting!
  4. Falling strengthens character—I’ll let you know after tomorrow; it’s very likely that I’d have developed very thick skin by the end of the week. So that’s character, I suppose. Also the scars that I will have on my face is sure to make me look strong.
  5. You can become a mentor (for resilience and fortitude)—wow! That’s a real plus. I must make a documentary about how I endured this experience.
  6. Falling stretches you—this is a bit of a stretch, I think it’s unlikely that I would have developed an appetite for wearing stiletto heels to retrace my footsteps on that street to see whether I will survive the uneven pavement.
  7. Real friends emerge during falling—that’s true, but I will forgive them for not ever wanting to walk with me again.
  8. Fallings are often opportunities in disguise—I haven’t thought of that! Perhaps I can take the rest of the year off work on sick leave? Write a novel about falling on my face which will become a bestseller, and eventually a Hollywood movie?
  9. Falling is sometimes intentional—no, surely not!
  10. Falling fosters creativity—yes, I’ll have to be very creative about how to look ‘normal’ in the next few weeks/months!

If you have any creative suggestions about how to cope with a sudden facial disfigurement, I’d like to hear from you.


In Praise of Karen

Today is my daughter Karen’s birthday. While looking through my computer this morning, I found this little speech I gave at Karen’s 21st  Birthday Party, which took place six months after her real birthday. Those words still reflect my feelings about her, especially now that she has become mother to a wonderful little girl just like herself.


I’ve known Karen for a long time—you can say from the beginning. One thing that everyone who knows  Karen would agree is that Karen always knows what she wants. And this happened from Day One. Even though the doctor predicted that she would be born in late June, Karen decided otherwise. It was a long wait in the July heat of Toronto. Karen decided to arrive three weeks later. You see, nothing has changed, 21 years later, Karen still has her birthday exactly when she wants it—six months  later…

Apart from being amazingly independent, even when she was a baby, Karen has always known how to stand her ground against aggression and intimidation.  One incident when she was in infant day-care illustrates this: little five-month-old Anthony got a nasty scrach on his nose because he grabbed some toy that Karen was playing with.

However, Karen’s ability to stand her own  ground is not incompatible with her boundless generosity. As many of you would agree, Karen is one of the most generous people known to the world. Apart from buying postage stamps to write to her huge number of pen-pals, she used to spend all her pocket money on gifts for her friends.

There’s no need to detail Karen’s academic and artistic achievements, which are well known in this company. As her mother, one thing I’ve always appreciated about Karen is her capacity for delight in the simple things in life. As a child and later as an adolescent, she had never ever asked for the sorts of things kids nowadays demand of their parents—designer clothes, technological gadgets, luxury goods—she’s always grateful for what she’s given.

But her greatest gift is her ability to experience the wonder of the world around her, without the cynicism and worldliness that kids nowadays seem to take on as soon as they turn five. I remember  Karen explaining to me why she had always kept her child-like capacity for delight and wonder. She said that she once read in a story where someone  had  said, ‘When we were children, we always wanted to be grown up. Now that we’re adults, we’d give anything to be children again.’ So Karen decided that she was not going to grow up in a hurry.

It has been a great joy for me having Karen as a daughter. I hope that she will always be my friend. Happy Birthday, Karen.

Cry, the Clever Country

Earlier this month we heard news that Australian climate scientists were receiving abuse e-mails and phone calls threatening death, violence, and sexual attacks on their family members. Sadly, this is in fact old news, as Bob Beale wrote recently in Uniken:

… our best and brightest climate scientists are being publicly belittled and derided by everyone from top-rating shock jocks to obscure and anonymous bloggers; their research findings are challenged by armies of armchair experts; their motives are questioned and their participation in public debate is portrayed as self-serving and driven by greed for research grants. Even the alternative Prime Minister – Federal Coalition Leader Tony Abbott – infamously dismissed the “so-called settled science of climate change” as “absolute crap”.

Belatedly, less than a week ago, Science and Technology Australia has launched a new ‘Respect the Science‘ campaign to counter the flood of misinformation and vitriol directed at scientists. The Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb even appealed to the readers of a Sunday paper, ‘Don’t wait till it’s too late‘, but it doesn’t look like he’d have the last words, as the paper promised ‘Next week: an alternative view’. It seems that climate science is a bit like the latest TV or movie show, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Some years ago I wrote an article ‘Globalisation, Reflexivity and the Practice of Criminology‘ in which I discussed the German sociologist Ulrick Beck’s idea of  ‘reflexive modernisation’ that marks the transition from industrial society to risk society. Beck’s analysis points to two developments that seem particularly relevant to the plight of climate science:

  • Demystification of science—Science, whose truth was once respected and accepted unquestioningly by non-scientists, is treated as contestable and open to critique.
  • Non-experts as co-producers of knowledge—The authority of scientific knowledge is established on the basis of political compatibility, media representation and personal ability to persuade rather than factual information. Policymakers, the media and other non-experts are no longer simply consumers, but co-producers of  scientific knowledge.

Criminological researchers have become used to the politics of emotions that dominates law-and-order issues. While I respect colleagues’ attempts to make criminology more of a science by adopting a ‘crime science’ approach, the fate of climate science has confirmed that public policy is rarely determined by rationality and evidence, especially when established interests or norms are challenged.

Is there anything that researchers can do to bring some rationality, if not civility, to public debates about policy?

Last year Ben Newell, a psychologist, and Andrew Pitman, a climate scientist, published an article ‘The Psychology of Global Warming: Improving the Fit between the Science and the Message‘ in which they highlighted the necessity, when communicating complex scientific results, of taking into account the way people ‘process information, deal with uncertainty, and form attitudes and opinions’. While many of the suggestions are sensible and helpful, I’m particularly drawn to the one relating to ‘framing issues’:
Information processing does not occur in an emotional vacuum; processing of the affective content of information or the emotional reactions that information evokes contributes strongly to perception and understanding of evidence (e.g., the effect of increased CO2)
The suggestion was for researchers to:

Use vivid images of global warming (e.g., shrinking glaciers, melting ice sheets) to engage emotional processing, but do so judiciously to avoid emotional numbing or a “despair” response.

The importance of understanding the role of emotions has been recognised in criminal justice policy since the advent of the restorative justice movement almost two decades ago. Nevertheless, many public debates about sentencing and penal policy are still dominated by fear and ignorance.

It is easy to feel pessimistic about the future of science and the politics of policy, but we should take heart from the courage and integrity of our scientists in braving the avalanche of abuse and attack coming their way.

The sad thing is with all the spin and denial in the world, we cannot wish the devastation of climate change away.

Act now, Clever Country, or cry later.

The Power of Crowd

I have never heard of crowdfunding until my daughter Karen decided to self-publish Kinds of Blue, an anthology of short comics she put together on depression (see her blog on the genesis of this project).

I was aware that she has been working on a ‘graphic’ nonfiction with a bunch of friends and has approached numerous publishers to get the anthology published. It had been demoralising to be met with deafening silence or an occasional rejection note, but Karen is always resourceful.

Plan B is to self-publish, but who will pay for it?

Karen found Pozible, a site for Crowdfunding Creativity, and worked out how much she needed to raise in order to cover printing and postage costs. There were ‘rewards’ for donors (such as a copy of the book, a sketch by one of the artists, or the original artwork of the book cover) who pledge support for the project, but until the funding goal is reached, no one needs to pay anything. The whole book is free for anyone to read online before they make a decision to support the project.

This sounded a bit fanciful at first, but when Karen launched the campaign on 15 June 2011, the response was instantaneous. The social network went into overdrive, with Twitter, Facebook and e-mail messages flying around the globe, being retweeted and forwarded to an unknown number of recipients.

The donations also came thick and fast—the dollar amount went up every time I refreshed the Pozible webpage.

Amazing things began to happen: Scott McCloud, a guru of comic-making, not only decided to become a donor, he also wrote a piece promoting the book on his website. Karen and her friends were delighted and amazed.

It only took two days to raise 100% of the funding goal, and donations are still rolling in. As of this minute, there are 124 supporters and 114% of the funding goal has been raised (see FAQ for what next).

There is no doubt great celebration and rejoicing among the contributors. Very soon, their book will become real.

The crowd has made it happen.

Rainy Days and Mondays

Last week when I was having my monthly meeting with one of my PhD students, we talked about how to stay on top of the vast literature she had to read, and in encouraging her to approach her reading more proactively, I mentioned the fact that I used to often fall asleep reading difficult books. My student laughed and said that she was surprised to hear that; she obviously felt guilty about doing the same when she was studying. Perhaps students think that their PhD supervisors are superhuman, and they never succumb to the same evil forces that cause students to procrastinate, avoid work, hit writer’s block, lose confidence, despair of ever finishing their work, or fall into depression.

Of course, we rarely share our horror stories with students—those weeks of tearing our hair out trying to understand the obscure writing of some theorists, months of struggling with a paper or book that seems to be going nowhere, moments of deep disappointment when our book manuscript is rejected by a publisher, or the times in our lives when all of our problems seem insurmountable.

When we moved from Toronto to Sydney over 25 years ago, our friends Richard and Diana gave us a cute little picture book as a farewell gift: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It was about a boy who woke up one morning to find that he had gum in his hair, his best friends had deserted him, and everything seemed to have gone wrong. The point of the gift was the punchline where Alexander decided that he was moving to Australia.

But of course those who moved to Australia do not always find a land of milk and honey. Our first years in Sydney were difficult and tumultuous. I missed our friends, the network of support we had, and the comfort of the familiar. In a shockingly short time, our 20-year relationship came to an end. And though we tried our best to protect our children against the pain and disappointment of a broken family, the wounds inflicted by the divorce took a long time to heal, and left behind a scar that may never disappear. Even so, life went on, and in time lots of good things happened, and we have all carved out a new life for ourselves. We even became Australian citizens.

It was about this time four years ago that I met up with Richard and Diana at their house in Toronto. They had just moved back from Oxford. I was so pleased to see them again after my visit to England, where on an impulse we went to see Cirque du Soleil at the Royal Albert Hall (and got the worst seats in the house). We had a lovely dinner that night and caught up with all the news about our families and our respective research projects. Even though Richard told me in an earlier email that he had to cancel his keynote speech at a British conference because of some ‘health issues’, I never asked him or Diana about them, thinking that they would have told me if they had wanted to. I said good-bye cheerfully, confident that we would all meet again as we had every few years since I left Canada.

Less than five months later I got the shocking news of Richard’s death. I found out too late that he had been suffering from a painful illness for a few years and it had taken its toll on him. Richard was my teacher, supervisor, mentor, colleague and friend. He was a truly great scholar and probably the world’s most generous supervisor. He was always extremely prolific and full of enthusiasm about ideas and new challenges. Though he had achieved more than anyone I know in both scholarly research and institution building, he was never going to rest on his laurels. That he ended his own life was something I would never have thought possible.

Perhaps like most students, I had always regarded Richard as superhuman; it had never occurred to me that he would need help, or that he would be vulnerable to the dark forces of depression. But what kind of social researcher was I that I never saw that he was struggling, never asked what was wrong, and never found out what happened in the previous years? What kind of friend was I that I waited for him and Diana to tell me?

Today, thanks to some brave public figures and concerned people who openly spoke about the depression they or their family members suffer, we are much more aware of how common and how debilitating it can be. Like Alexander, we sometimes have our ‘terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day’ and we often get over it, but we have very little sympathy for those who can’t. Successful people, especially, are expected to be able to ‘pull themselves together’ and ‘get used to it’. On the other hand, people with multiple problems such as poverty, illness, drug addiction and so on, are left to cope on their own with their endless stretches of very bad days.

Maybe the problem seems too big, too difficult for each of us to deal with, so we leave it to governments, the mental heath system, and the experts to take care of. But I am sure that as friends, family, or even strangers, we can learn to recognise the signs, to reach out, to show that we care, and it is just possible that we can make a small difference.

Global Citizenship

This is a short introduction I gave at the UNSW Connections in Learning and Teaching Seminar ‘How do we help students to become global citizens’ on 10 May 2011.  

The Concept of ‘Global Citizenship’

According to handout of the seminar, global citizenship involves words such as:

  • Being culturally aware
  • Respecting diversity
  • Acting in socially just/responsible ways.

For me, to be global is to escape the provincial, the narrow vision of our own world, our own interests, our own culture. Both socially and intellectually, to be global is to go beyond the particular, the familiar and the comfort of being accepted. To be global is to push boundaries, to question assumptions, to be curious about what lies beyond, and to take actions that broaden our knowledge and experience.

Citizenship implies a set of rights and responsibilities. To be a global citizen is to see the world as ours to nurture, to preserve, and to keep safe. We have a duty to speak out when human rights are violated, to assist when people are suffering—from man-made conflicts as well as natural disasters, and to respect the sovereignty, values and traditions of all peoples.

How do we engender global citizenship among our students?

There are no easy answers. Students come to university primarily to seek knowledge, to build intellectual capacity, and to secure credentials for future employment. Global citizenship is best developed through courses and activities that aim to achieve the following:

  1. Develop among students a strong awareness of their own identity and place in their community;
  2. Provide a tool-kit for critical and creative thinking, both within their own disciplinary expertise and (eventually) beyond—in other words, a capacity to analyse and innovate;
  3. Encourage an attitude of openness and curiosity about the world and how differences are to be understood and valued;
  4. Develop the skills to communicate to a wide range of people—this may include verbal and written communication, technological knowhow, knowledge of how organisations work, linguistic competencies, cultural awareness and leadership capabilities;
  5. Encourage and nurture participation in activities that broaden experience, strengthen inter-group understanding and connection, deepen commitment to the betterment of society, empower students to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, train students to undertake advocacy roles, and mentor them through projects that require flexibility, innovation and resilience.

How do we know that our graduates have these capabilities?

We may never know, but we can get some idea of this from a number of sources:

  • Self-assessment by students – what changes have they observed in themselves, what skills/knowledge have they learned, what insights have they gained from the courses/activities?
  • Peer-assessment by other students
  • Process and outcome assessments in courses/activities
  • Assessment by employers, third parties
  • Students’ employment (and leadership positions) after graduation and their career path
  • Self-assessment by alumni years after graduation

Mother’s Way

This is my first Mother’s Day as a grandmother. I can’t help thinking about how things have changed since my mother’s time and wondering what things will be like for my granddaughter.

Mother was lucky enough to have two grandchildren before she died. My brother married young and his children gave her some of the happiest times of her life.  But mother had died of cancer well before she reached my current age.

Yes, life expectancy was lower in mother’s generation, but she was more at risk than others even among that generation. She was born of a poor peasant family in China. Her father became an opium addict and would have sold her for money had she not escaped from home. Since the age of nine she had worked—doing odd jobs, cleaning, and then as an amah (servant) in Hong Kong. She never went to school but somehow got by, even learning enough English to work for ‘foreigners’. She married a carpenter and had seven children—one boy and six girls, I was the youngest. My father also became an opium addict and was a burden rather than a help. He died shortly after I was born. With the death of two daughters from malaria and one daughter given up for adoption during the war, mother single-handedly brought up the remaining four of us. She worked as a servant for almost 50 years. Poverty meant she had few choices. But somehow she always knew that my life would be better.

Fast forward to today—as a woman of good health, I am expected to live to over 90 years of age. Thanks to my sister and a Canadian family who supported me after mother’s death, I’ve had the kind of education mother could only dream of. With education and hard work, I’ve worked in jobs that pay me a hundred times more than what mother got through hard work alone. With access to childcare and school education, my ex-husband and I were able to bring up two wonderful children. Living in Australia with a healthy economy, a stable political system, and access to one of the world’s best health and social security services, I’ve had a great deal of opportunities and freedoms not available to mother and most women of her generation in developing countries. In my case, education had made all the difference.

My children both have university degrees and are secure financially. They’ve had a relatively privileged life with access to many educational and recreational opportunities. They’ve been supported by networks of friends and extended families. They, like me, have never experienced wars or catastrophes, except through watching the news or reading fiction. But unlike my generation, they are not as hung up about building careers or job security. They are technologically savvy and socially connected. They are creative and adaptive to the challenges of a knowledge economy.

My daughter is a talented writer who shares my passion for creativity. She is now looking after her daughter full time. She is a loving mother, extremely knowledgeable about child rearing theories and practices, and infinitely devoted to her daughter’s wellbeing and development. Though exhausted and sleep-deprived from eight months of broken sleep and on-demand breastfeeding, she has kept up her writing, albeit in a more modest way than before. Her blogs document the ups and downs of her life’s journey, both before and after motherhood. Her Twitter messages not only give regular updates of her daughter’s routines (eg 5 am feed, though she spares us the nappy changes), but also link readers to interesting news and commentaries about recent events. I never tire of looking at the archive of photos and videos of the baby through her Flickr site, and find the new Path app a great delight. Motherhood has never been so rich and so richly documented.

On this Mother’s Day I feel a special connection to my daughter as a mother. I am very grateful that she has made it possible for my partner and me to spend time with my granddaughter every week. As I flipped through the photos and videos of my granddaughter on my iPhone, I relived the joyful moments many years ago of watching my own children learn to sit, to crawl, to walk, to talk… Also rising from the depth of the dusty archive of my memory were forgotten moments of the comfort of my mother’s hand—the world might have been scary, the future uncertain, but for those moments I felt secure knowing that my mother was close by.

Though I often worry about what the world would be like for my grandchildren, I know that what will always propel them towards hope and happiness is this unforgettable and inexhaustible fountain of their mother’s love. That is the mother’s way.