NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Wellbeing is not a Metaphor (it’s a Manifesto): Reflections on reflexive creativity

Those of us who work in higher education will be aware of two broad facets in relation to wellbeing at work: That institutions are in some manner concerned about, it and that our workplaces and cultures are not always particularly good for wellbeing.

By Associate Professor James Oliver

Those of us who work in higher education will be aware of two broad facets in relation to wellbeing at work: that institutions are in some manner concerned about it and that our workplaces and cultures are not always particularly good for wellbeing. For example, with a quick search of the articles published in Times Higher Education[1], you will find that staff and student wellbeing and mental health is a common theme, with multiple content each year.

Wellbeing is becoming another trope (and casualty) of our enhanced metrics mindset, something to be accounted for and managed, along with other key tropes of work life measurement: time, productivity, and impact.

Anyone with a university email will also be used to being regularly communicated with in relation to university wellbeing campaigns, commitments, advice, and audits. Given the workload and contractual situation of many staff, this can sometimes appear deeply ironic, and that’s without factoring in the differentiations of work-life balance or cultural load

In my own shared experience, it appears very much like wellbeing is becoming another trope (and casualty) of our enhanced metrics mindset, something to be accounted for and managed, along with other key tropes of work life measurement: time, productivity, and impact. If the trend is in the direction of measurement, then, there is also a corollary and flattening trend to treat wellbeing as a metaphor; and substantive, ontological and equitable well-being is obviated, for the institution as much as the individual. Poet and academic, Susan Harlan writes with sharp wit about such context and related things.[2]

Administrative, corporate, and managerial processes and structures for wellbeing do not actually manage or administer wellbeing. So, if “the research” within our universities suggest that we need more “human-centred design” or that “creativity promotes wellbeing”, where is the actual time and space for this agency (beyond an administrivia approach)? Within a hegemony of time-space compression, what we all really want, and need, is more time-space, but compressing and condensing them with metrics does not actually produce more, time or space. Knowing this, and following from Doreen Massey, we want a different or rather, differentiated time-space for wellbeing. This may sound hypothetical, but it should also be understood as dialectical: how about wellbeing not as a homogenous metaphor and metric, but as directly differentiated and related to the various impact and engagement aspirations and responsibilities to support both the research and development of staff and students, core and connected community.

How about wellbeing not as a homogenous metaphor and metric, but as directly differentiated and related to the various impact and engagement aspirations and responsibilities to support both the research and development of staff and students, core and connected community.

I have written for public health journals and for public policy on contexts of positive mental health and wellbeing and participatory practice in the arts and creativity. In large part to challenge or differentiate on bounded or deficit models of wellbeing. Much of that orientation was also founded on my cultural ontology of Gàidhlig and Hebridean house ceilidh, of visiting and sharing stories, song, music, language, and knowledge, in communal and cross-generational openness. Embodied and emplaced expression, inter-action or participation, material and sensory, or intellectual and imaginative, we can call all this creativity part of wellbeing. But participation is not what is being measured, it is ontologically present, it is differentiated time-space.

My own conclusion is this series of words below, my own form of speaking space, a written time-space of spoken word, an anthro-poetry. It is an open work, spoken words that will find their own relationship with your body, and therefore has no obvious grammar, whether you read them in your mind or out loud. These are just words but not as metaphor.

 

These Are Just Words

 

The arts
creativity and wellbeing
intersect
in a plurality of ways
there is no grammar
that’s obvious
but there is sense
in the making
and doing.

Our complexities
and consequences
across these inter-relations
are wide
as our imaginations
and the scope
is more
than the sum of human needs
or desires
feelings and experiences
but understanding. 

All these ways
of being
human
socially
culturally
psychologically
personally
and with community
relevance
profound.

Attendant also
to publics
expectations
to political discourse
about value added
institutional structures
and what can be
exploited
extracted
economically
ethically
and
yet.

Some might say
what is the use
or
show me the money
and what
or who
are you curing
to be
or not to be
and anyway
that is not art
you cannot sing
but also
you are not alone
tell me your story.

The arts
creativity and wellbeing
fundamentally
ours
inherited
ineffable feelings
relationships
making our worlds
and we hope
culturally safe
special.

This is ordinary
and enduring
an effective
ontology
unflattening the material world
making meaning through relationships
negotiating boundaries
and being and
not being
overwhelmed
too much.

These are just words.

[1] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/appoint-pro-vice-chancellors-staff-well-being-sector-told

[2] https://www.mcsweeneys.net/authors/susan-harlan


James Oliver is an Associate Professor of Design at RMIT University, and a transdisciplinary academic with more than 20-yrs of research, teaching and engagement practice. He has extensive experience in supervising research projects and research training, particularly practice-based research. An important aspect of James’ work is in the area of Indigenous Practice Research, in international context and collaboration with artists and educators across Australia and Canada. James is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Monash University where he is a member of Wominjeka Djeembana.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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