Today’s Pat Thomson inspired post revolves around “Risks I will and won’t take”
Writing about the last paper that I read really brought home to me the fact that I’m looking at and engaging with the world of academia as an outsider, while simultaneously doing an apprenticeship to maybe join it.
I honestly don’t know where I want to end up after I finish my research, I’m rather hoping that the things that I learn and the experiences that I have offer me some signposts. The world of the mind and ideas is clearly appealing and I do feel that education is a noble cause but there are more options out there than universities and I might even be a little old to make a career here now.
But I’m certainly keen to better understand how Higher Ed works and it is a place where I do feel some sense of belonging. Which perhaps gives a lie to the title of this post but we’ll get to that.
So bearing these things in mind and considering that I’m investigating and examining the sector that I work in (and by extension, if not literally, the people I work with), I’m conscious of the impact that my words can have professionally. (I’m certainly more conscious of this now that I realise that this isn’t simply a digital diary but some people actually read it – thanks, by the way, I hope it’s of some value to you). One thing that I’ve been seeing in my research and in wider conversations is that words have significant impact in this world – if you’ve ever killed an hour or two of a meeting in an ongoing debate about which term to use and which term is completely inappropriate I think you’ll know what I mean. Which places me in the invidious position of trying to critically analyse the teaching practices of people that I work with or that I might one day work with. In a utopian world, this would be recognised as scholarship and a respectable pursuit of knowledge, whatever the findings are. Or, at this stage, whatever my half-baked opinions are. The pragmatic reality though is that there will probably be things that I have to say that people won’t want to hear and they could have a concrete impact on future employment prospects.
I have no doubt that many academics would genuinely believe themselves when they say – ‘if you construct a robust enough argument supported with sufficient evidence, I’m happy to have that conversation’ but we’re all human and even if it is only on a subconscious level, saying the wrong thing might leave a mark. As a professional staff member and not ‘part of the tribe’, this applies doubly I suspect, again, regardless of the best intentions.
So what risks will I and won’t I take? I’m not sure yet but I know that I did some significant modifying of some of the language that I used in my last post to tone it down – though I think it actually reads better as a result. One thing I’m noticing more and more in the papers that I’m reading is there is very little written that is directly critical of the teaching practices of other academics – maybe I just haven’t read enough yet, maybe this is simply good, objective research practice or maybe there is similarly an element of professional caution.
Is academia a workplace like any other? Going by the normalisation of academic staff attitudes towards organisational policies and initiatives displayed in this paper, it’s hard to believe so. As a professional staff member in a H.E institution it’s kind of fascinating to see a discussion of ignoring policy and procedures treated as a norm that management needs to work harder to mitigate – ideally by offering the staff greater incentives to comply. Maybe we also see it in the higher levels of the entertainment industry, where top stars are feted to keep the show running. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, is academia showbiz for clever people?
Brew, Boud et al explore these attitudes using the lens of Archer’s modes of reflexivity (2007) to try to better understand how mid-career academics’ preferences for reflecting on and responding to the world help to define the way they respond to policies and initiatives in their institutions. This is an interesting angle to take, particularly as they are able to use it to formulate some potential actions that management can take in the formulation of these policies etc to get greater buy in. The authors interviewed a diverse set of 27 mid-career (5-10 years experience) academics in research intensive universities in the UK and Australia and categorised their responses to policies/initiatives as aligning with one of the following four modes of reflexivity:
Communicative reflexivity: exhibited in people whose internal conversations require completion and confirmation by others before resulting in courses of action
Autonomous reflexivity: exhibited in those who sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action
Meta-reflexivity: characterised by internal conversations critical of one’s own internal conversations and on the look-out for difference in the social world around them
Fractured reflexivity: internal conversations intensify distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action (p.3)
A question that concerned me throughout however – and it was acknowledged at the end by the authors – was whether the authors identified these people as having one of these orientations before seeing if their attitudes or actions matched them. They did not – instead they mapped the individuals to these modes based on their attitudes and actions and accept that this is a relatively subjective approach to have taken. In the case of several participants, they even found that different things that they said in the course of their interview aligned to most or all of the four modes. As a series of signposts however, these modes generally appear to have stood up to scrutiny and reasonably reflect the set of different responses taken by the academics.
Some choice examples, including some transcripts:
A change that affected Shaun was degree accreditation by a professional body. This was deemed necessary to ensure continued student applications. His courses did not address the competencies needed in the degree. The consequence of this was that his teaching was taken away… Shaun describes this as a critical incident in his career:
[It was a] slap in the face, because an external accrediting body didn’t think my knowledge area was necessary to produce this… degree, as opposed to a university standing up and going, well no the tail doesn’t wag the dog, this is what we think is important to become a university graduate and that should inform what becomes a practitioner (Shaun, Aus, HS, SL, M, L.344-352) (P.5-6)
William refers to ‘red tape’ that surrounds teaching describing initiatives requiring writing learning outcomes and conforming to graduate outcome statements as ‘a fashion, a fad’ (L.257)
And Shaun again:
there are some faculty research priorities… which were suggested as being pillars that we had to try and perform under. I couldn’t tell you what they are, I haven’t paid attention to them because I remember looking at them and going, my area doesn’t fit under them. (p.8)
Now of course I’ve taken the more dramatic examples but there are many more that broadly paint a picture indicating that the academics in the study take a fairly self-centric viewpoint and few give much thought to bigger picture issues and needs in the institution. This isn’t to say that there aren’t also many instances of mystifying and seemingly counterproductive policies and procedures being put into place and the authors suggest that some academics would be better engaged if these were explained/justified more effectively.
Sensitivity to the ways in which those demonstrating communicative reflexivity work to maintain the status quo and the difficulties they appear to have in responding to change would suggest that attention needs to be paid to providing academics with thorough rationales for policy changes and that opportunities for these to be debated need to be provided. How such policies fit in with and/or enhance existing practice need careful consideration if they are to be implemented successfully. (p.11)
These people and those people who engage in meta-critical reflexivity, where they are able and willing to question their own internal conversations appear to be the easiest to work with in this space.
the people whose mode of reflexivity is meta-reflexivity could be the most helpful in policy implementation as their focus is likely to be on the smooth and equitable functioning of the university community as a whole. Harnessing the critical capacities of such academics and their concern for their fellow workers can be a useful asset for sensitive managers concerned to implement new initiatives (p.11)
When dealing with the autonomous reflexives, those people who – to paraphrase – pretty much just do whatever they feel is right – things get harder. (There is certainly never any question of entertaining the prospect that this behaviour is flawed)
for academics demonstrating autonomous reflexivity, teaching and learning policies are likely to pose the greatest challenges particularly if they are seen to take time away from research. For successful implementation, such people are likely to need incentives in terms of furthering their careers. (p.11)
The authors appear to largely give up on working with the final category, the fractured reflexives, those who struggle to deal with change at all
Academics whose mode of fractured reflexivity makes them unable to move forward may need professional counselling (p.11)
As a professional staff member – I would’ve said non-academic but have a particular dislike of defining things by what they are not – these descriptions do all ring true and something that I’ve been keenly aware of since I started this research (and long before, really) is that the question of culture in academia is a massive factor in the success or failure of innovation and change. In some ways this hangs on the question of whether academia is just another job – I’d be surprised to find anyone inside who would agree with that idea and maybe they’re right but maybe we also need to find a middle ground which recognises that complete autonomy and/or academic freedom simply isn’t a realistic expectation in the modern age – perhaps unless you’re working for and by yourself.
I’ve been playing a bit of Rocket League on the Playstation 4 lately and it’s had me thinking about what I do at work. The game is essentially soccer with rocket powered, jumping stunt cars – it can be played multiplayer with up to 8 people or individually with AI team mates and opposition.
I’ve been playing solo because my home internet is awful and it’s been fun but my AI team mate is a bit dumb. Or to be fair, his programming means that he has a tendency to just dive at the ball whenever I’m about to score a goal and knock it in the wrong direction.
So I’ve started trying more to create situations where I’m positioning the ball well near the goal and he can just charge in and score our goal instead. As long as the goals are being scored, the team wins and we make our way to the finals.
Which is something like what we do in education – create opportunities for students to learn. They still need to apply their knowledge and skills to kick the goal but we’ve set the stage for them to make this happen. And maybe this is what I do as a TEL edvisor. I’m not the one working with the learners, the teacher is. I might have a very clear idea of what goals can and should be kicked but so does the teacher and it’s fair that they are the ones that get to do so. (I’m not suggesting here that the teachers are dumb or have bad programming – the analogy fell down long before now – more that it can be exciting for us to see the opportunities for scoring learning goals and forget that we’re here to create opportunities for the teachers to score them.)
Maybe just playing the game (and it’s a fun game) and being on the winning team is enough.
I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.
I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).
As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.
We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.
I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.
What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?
What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.
Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.
So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.
I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.
When I tell academics what stage of my PhD I’m up to, they invariably smile wistfully and tell me that this stage is probably the best part of academia ever and I should just enjoy it. ‘It’ being the freedom of exploration and just meandering through the literature while I work out what I’m actually trying to do. There’s no overt pressure to publish – though the need to have my thesis proposal accepted looms over my head – and in some ways it’s the purest opportunity to be scholarly.
Which is fine and I do enjoy a good meander but the more I think about my question – currently What can TEL advisors do to better support TEL practices in Higher Ed – the more it seems to be leading down some quixotic path to single-handedly change centuries old organisational cultures. Actually tangible pedagogical questions seem kind of tangential to addressing the bigger issue of how to affect meaningful change. (I know I have a tendency to wildly overreach in projects). It seems as though I’m spending far more time thinking about organisational and structural kinds of questions than teaching and learning – I guess it’s all social sciences and the aim is ultimately to enhance teaching and learning but I sometimes wonder if I’m going the right way. This was magnified by the last thing that I read, a draft chapter that is going into a book on the practices and contributions of professional staff in Higher Ed. I will write up a post about it shortly but I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this instance – it feels like I should wait until the book is published.
In broad strokes though, there were some interesting – though perhaps not as revolutionary as the author seems to think – ideas about different organisational models for providing multi-disciplinary support in professional development. So, again, it almost feels as though I’m studying some aspect of management than education but it still seems quite valuable and – most importantly for me – practically applicable. It does feel as though large chunks are gradually coalescing – I need to talk about what TELT advisors (I should really say TEL edvisors but I just don’t know that this term does everything that I want it to) are and what we do and how we sit in the current H.E. context. This then leads into what teachers do here – there’s something about practices and how and where they overlap and how we can find synergies (who knew that was a word I would ever take seriously). From there maybe something about the practices of the organisational leadership and then wrapping it all up with an exploration of a host of practical actions and strategies to take us forward. But I’m not sure that this is researchy enough – however having somewhere to go afterwards stills seems vital at this stage.
Bringing this all back to my Pat Thomson list of PhD blogging topics, I guess this sits square in “Things that worry me about my PhD“. I understand that this is meant to be a research apprenticeship and that it’s not about solving problems necessarily but not ending up with something meaningful feels wasteful. I also get that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize and it’s just part of a lifelong journey, so maybe that’s how I need to think to avoid getting sucked into the trap of needing to solve all the problems yesterday.
One of the things that frustrates me most when I read a lot of academic writing is the distance between theory and action. So many papers seem happy to conclude that further research is needed and leave it at that. There’s often seemingly little if any followup. (Of course, I’m generalising, it’s the vibe)
This is why I was pleasantly surprised with the final chapter of Shove et al’s book. They’ve carefully built a case that examining practices in a particular way can help us to better understand them at a societal level and they wrap it all up with some broad discussions of how these ideas might then be put into practice in a social policy setting – particularly in terms of how we might try to address climate change.
The authors’ acknowledge that this is no simple thing, given that currently public policymaking appears to be largely dominated by “concepts from economics and psychology (e.g. theories of planned behaviour, models of rational economic action, representations of habits as drivers of behaviours etc.) and is for the most part untouched by developments in sociological theory” (p.139). (Don’t get me started on economics).
The core difference between the current approach taken to social change, particularly in terms of the practices contributing to climate change, and practice theory derived approaches lies in the current belief that the behaviour of individuals is shaped by attitudes and governments need to give people the choice to change their behaviours at this individual level. Choice is seen as a fairly big deal. Assuming that I understand what the authors have to say, their alternative is to work more to shape practices directly across populations by intervening in the availability of elements of the practices and the relationships between practices, as well as making more of an effort to do this in line with the existing local variations in practices instead of taking something of a cookie-cutter approach. (I’m pretty sure this is a gross oversimplification but that seems to be the broad strokes). They have a nice table to illustrate this:
This dominant paradigm of the ‘ABC’, in which A stands for Attitude, B for Behaviour and C for Choice (Shove, 2010), underpins two classic strategies for promoting more sustainable ways of life: one is to persuade people of the importance of climate change and thereby increase their green commitment; the second is to remove barriers obstructing the smooth translation of these values into action. Over the last few years, the language of motivators and barriers has been extended, behavioural economics has come into view and there is increasing reference to the need for a more holistic approach. However, none of this has altered the basic outline of what remains a thoroughly individualistic understanding both of action and change (p.140)
I have to say that while the assertions that the authors are making about overemphasising the idea of choice and people’s attitudes in changing their behaviour, I’m not sure that they utterly demolish the reasons for doing so. The points made though about how this overlooks cultural, geographical and historical contexts that help shape variations in practice between areas/groups/etc are valid and I would suggest that adding an examination of practices to the policy toolkit is highly sensible. From what I can see overall though, the methods for achieving change through these broader methods feel slightly hazy and seem to forget that there are many competing agendas at play (getting re-elected for example) that this holistic approach doesn’t necessarily play nicely with.
This argues for what Rip describes as a modest approach to policy, not based on a quest for control or an ambition to nudge the drivers of behaviour, but on a subtle and contingent ‘understanding of the sociological and economic nature of the processes they seek to influence’ (Grin et al., 2010:2007). Defined like this, policy making is not a matter of pursuing pre-defined outcomes by means of manipulating driving or obstructing factors. It is instead better understood as a more process-based ‘succession of short and fairly rapid steps’ involving sequences of ‘trial-and-error learning or ‘serial adjustment’, anchored in and never detached from the details and specificities of the practices in question (p.142)
As always, I try to bring the ideas in the literature back to my own day-to-day work in a university and frame it in terms of evolving teaching practices. I don’t disagree with any of the ideas here philosophically but have some serious pragmatic questions about how well this approach would be received by sceptical academics and how implementable it is.
The authors draw on earlier chapters in the book to identify four ways in which a practice oriented approach to change might be achieved:
In brief, the policy makers and other actors, past and present, can and do influence: a) the range of elements in circulation; b) the ways in which practices relate to each other; c) the careers and trajectories of practices and those who carry them; and d) the circuits of reproduction. (p.143)
A) The range of elements in circulation
In terms of climate change, the idea is to remove or reduce the bad ‘elements’ of practices rather than bad behaviours. The authors discuss this in terms of Japan’s “Cool Biz” initiative – which actually is quite fascinating. It’s mainly about changing office culture – supporting more casual, warm weather work wear than conventional suit and tie for men – to enable less use of air-conditioning (or keeping offices at higher temperatures – a range between 20-28 rather than the current 22-24). This program is in its 12th year now and other than some resistance from tie companies (really) and some initial uncertainty about cultural practices when meeting people from non-Cool Biz offices (workers took to carrying ties with them), it is a success.
Stories like these remind us that elements of meaning – including the meaning of office-wear, style and comfort – do not arrive fully formed but are reproduced and transformed in social situations that are already laden with significance (p.146)
I’m a little hazy on exactly how this differs from changing behaviours – it seems to be doing so from a slightly different direction from what I can see. In terms of my own work, I guess our equivalent is demolishing large lecture spaces.
B) Configuring relations between practices
This section talks at length about the relationships between cycling and driving. From what I can see, when you have a competitive relationship, one practice tends to need to lose something for the other one to benefit. How a practice is perceived depends on how it’s competitor is seen. So compared to walking, cycling was considered speedy but compared to driving, slow.
Thus far we have discussed driving and cycling in order to draw attention to the changing relation between practices, to the potential for symbiotic as well as competitive relationships and to the consequences of past configurations for the accumulation, character and durability (or otherwise) of relevant elements. Since policy interventions take place within and not outside specific histories of practice, issues of timing are crucial (p.148)
C) Configuring careers: carriers and practices
Most of what I got out of this section was about looking at defections from practices – what we can do to discourage someone from continuing in an undesirable practice. It took a big veer off into social theory territory and Bourdieu and I can see that this is an area that might be helpful to explore down the line but for now, it seems a little too tangential.
D) Configuring connections
Communities of practice feature in here and creating the conditions for practices to flourish. Most of the rest of it seemed to be about change management, which I’ve dug into previously and there didn’t seem to be much new.
In summary, taking a social/practice perspective – because there is social theory and there is practice theory too – offers some interesting new angles for implementing change and understanding practices.
I’ve enjoyed the ideas in this book and will certainly explore them further – I’ve particularly valued the authors methodical approach to breaking down the ideas and simplifying parts in the pursuit of higher truths. In terms of my work and my research, it’s certainly given me some ideas for understanding what third space TEL workers (I should really just say TEL edvisors) do and I think that where this will get particularly interesting is when I start to look at the crossovers between the practices of TEL edvisors, teachers, students and maybe even university management. I strongly suspect that this is where we will find (hopefully) some useful answers to the questions around how we can do TELT better.
Nothing like using a word that will be terribly dated in a week’s time in a title to anchor it in space/time. Language has been a particular interest in the last few weeks and months as I have worked with my TELedvisor co-convenors to explore the different role types and practices of TEL edvisors – notably academic developers, education/… designers and learning/… technologists. I presented about our work yesterday at our TELedvisors webinar – if you’re interested, I’ll add the video at the end of this post. The last 20 mins is discussion but it was a pretty interesting conversation. Dom McGrath from UQ was the other presenter and (happily) his work took a slightly different approach but I think we arrived at largely the same conclusions.
Language was still a challenge even as we discussed final touches on the paper this morning – the nature of design vs develop and what these practices really mean and also what the develop in Academic Developer really means. (My take is that it helps to see that mostly as a training role and keep ‘develop’ to the practice of building things like learning resources or curriculum but I don’t think we’re all 100% on the same page – which is fine because this is representative of the bigger issue around the lack of clarity in this language in our sector)
I’ve forgotten to look at my list of Pat Thomson PhD blog questions for a little while but here’s this week’s.
Am I too hard on myself?
Maybe? Probably? I hope that it’s more about an attitude of continuous improvement but I’m much more interested in the bits that can be better than the bits that are working – I’m happy to just leave them be. I know that perfect is the enemy of the good and I think I’ve made strides in accepting when things are good enough but I also like to think that I have high standards, so it’s a toss-up. My bigger worry is less that I am hard on myself but that this normalises being hard on others – by being open to (ideally constructive) criticism and perhaps trusting it more than praise – childhoods, ugh – I suspect that I might think everyone has the same attitude and is more accepting of criticism than they actually are. I guess it’s probably mainly a matter of walking more confidently on that fine line between helping and offending.