Category Archives: academics

Research update #36: Playing well with others

The nature of my research topic, with a focus on the status of professional staff in an academic world, feels risky at times. While I know that academic staff occupy edvisor roles as well, I have a feeling that I’ll be digging into sensitive areas around the academic/professional divide that often seem to be swept under the carpet because they raise uncomfortable questions about privilege and class in the academy and some entrenched beliefs about what makes academics special. It would be incredibly presumptuous for me to think that my ideas are all necessarily right and the point of research is to put them to the test and see where they take me but there’s a fair chance that some of what I’m going to have to say won’t always be well received by some of the people that I work with and who pay me. The other big issue is whether if my findings demonstrate a blind spot to professional staff in academics, those same academics responsible for assessing my research will see the value in my work.

Fortunately at this stage I don’t have my heart set on a career as an academic – I really do like doing what I do – but it seems imprudent to prematurely cut one’s options. I am conscious that I need to be more researcherly or scholarly in the language that I use in this space. I sent out a slightly provocative tweet yesterday, prompted by a separate (joke) tweet that I saw which said that the fastest way to assemble a bibliography was to publicly bemoan the lack of research in topic x. 

After 36 hours I’ve had no literature recommended but a university Pro Vice-Chancellor replied suggesting a collaboration on this area of mutual interest. Which surprised and flattered me greatly, considering that I was concerned that I’d come across as a little bolshie in my questions. Maybe it’s wrong of me to see academics as some kind of monolithic whole.

Maybe the trick is to just worry less and be honest. You can’t please everyone and if you can stand behind your work, maybe that’s enough.

I’m not sure. We seem to live in incredibly sensitive times.

 

 

Thoughts on: Agency and stewardship in academic development: the problem of speaking truth to power (Peseta, 2014)

In some ways this is a ‘thoughts on thoughts on’ as I’m writing about Tai Peseta’s summary reflection at the end of a special issue of the International Journal of Academic Development focusing on the politics of academic development. Specifically, it asked writers to respond to this theme:

amid the array of contested and politically difficult agendas, how do academic developers enact and imagine a future for themselves (and the profession) in ways that recognise and take seriously the business of their own political power, and in particular, their responsibility to speak truth to power (p.65)

I’ve been going to IJAD a lot in my reading because of those that I consider to be the three main edvisor roles – academic developer, education designer and learning technologist – it is academic developers that appear to dominate the research space. Which does make me wonder whether it is a role that is more dominated by people in academic (rather than professional) positions than the other two. Something I’ll be keeping an eye on.

The more time I spend looking at this particular role-type, the more I’m seeing the terms academic and educational developer used interchangeably, which doesn’t help my current line of thinking about education designers/developers primarily as people working with academics to design and built learning resources and online course sites. However it does fortunately still work with my other ideas that titles in the edvisor domain are all over the shop. 

Anyway, much of this is by the by. Peseta elegantly ties together the core ideas of five papers about academic developer practice across Europe, Canada and Australia into a wider discussion about how much power or influence ADs can or should exert in their institutions. The broad tone is that this power is far more than I have personally seen but she does note that there can often be a tendency in these kinds of papers to be slightly celebratory and overstate things. 

A second reading however is that while the collaboration portrayed in this account contains all the hallmarks of a cautious victory narrative, there remains an underlying question about the possible kinds of representation of academic development initiatives. In reflecting on our modes of justification, I find myself asking who is offering this story? How is the discursive field organised to enable this particular account of it?My goal is not to be cynical but rather to open up the spaces and meanings that illustrate the spectacle of academic development’s political power (p.67)

This mention of cynicism in particular brings me to what I found to be one of the most interesting parts of the author’s reflection. I must confess that in working in an environment where cynicism seemingly abounds, it is easy to travel down the same path. When mystifying decisions are handed down from on high with minimal or laughable consultation, information is fearfully hoarded by people that lack the capacity to use it well and there is a generally pervasive belief that most people don’t care about teaching and learning (vs research), it can seem like a natural progression to simply go with the cynical flow. Fortunately my job leads me more often than not to those people who do care about education and who are capable, so this at least tempers those inclinations.

It was revealing to see today in the results of the National Tertiary Education Union survey of 13500 university workers that only 27% expressed confidence in the people who run their various institutions. Sadly, clearly cynicism is the dominant culture. When we get to this state, I suspect that our ability to understand and empathise with the people that we work with and the cycle only worsens. Peseta discusses the Polish study in this issue where educational reform leaders described three institutional responses to change and characterised academics variously as:

…traditionalists, individualists, unaware, in pain, irrational, lazy, or inert. Each of these three logics permeates the policies of academic development in different ways with different reasons and leads to any number of reactions about the merits of institutional initiatives: pernicious, naive, neutral, welcome, celebratory and necessary. What is to be (or has been) our response to the contradictory reactions about our work as academic developers? What conceptual tools are at our disposal to understand the origins of these perceptions and to see arguments about them as a necessary part of an academic developer’s political repertoire. (p.67-68) 

 

There are some big ideas to unpack in this. The educational reform leaders in this study may well be right in their summary of many of the academics that they have tried to work with but they may equally have misunderstood what has led to these behaviours. They may be grossly oversimplifying the nature of their academics, which is a human thing to do when we find ourselves in opposition to someone who doesn’t share our vision. Their rejection of this vision then calls our own abilities into question and so rather than interrogate those, it’s far more comforting to attribute resistance to lesser personal qualities. (Which isn’t to say that they can’t be present as well, just to complicate matters).

At the heart of these issues (for ADs) I would suggest is the triangular relationship between institutional management, academics and academic developers. ADs are routinely forced into a position where they are tasked with effectively driving compliance to institutional policies and initiatives by offering training in ‘doing things the new/right way’ or trying to advocate best practices to the powers that be. This, to me, seems to be the issue of where and whether ADs should assert their political power. When things take the former route

Too heavy an emphasis on compliance without critical engagement leads to dull, bureaucratic box-ticking , and effectively hollows out academic development of its intellectual contribution. Similarly, accepting and lamenting resistance without considered debate or challenges entrenches tradition unthinkingly. Although both positions are productive and necessary for academic development to flourish as a critical encounter, they each contain an uneasy energy characteristic of Di Napoli’s (2014) agonistic spaces. Yet is in in precisely these spaces tha academic developers realise and grasp the power they have to form and practise their judgement, developing a feel for the game and what it means to be in it. In these spaces, the question which usually lurks is ‘what do I do with the power and influence I have?’  (p.66)

This is also perhaps where Peseta and I diverge a little – and I’ll readily accept that my experience in Higher Ed is limited to one institution – but, as a professional staff member, I’ve never had a feeling of any political power. This may simply be a reflection of my particular context or my lack of experience in politicking and the fact that the author and most of the authors of the papers in the special issue do feel that they have some degree of power has to make me wonder if ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. So this in itself has been something of a breakthrough in some ways and is giving me a lot to consider.

The author and the authors of the papers in the special issue spell out a number of strategic approaches to developing and exercising their power that are worth exploring. Many of them seem highly valuable but a handful I’d question.

From them we learn something about how teaching and learning issues unfold into urgent institutional problems; we develop an insight into the different ways academic developers read the rhythms of their contexts, draw on research, assemble arguments, and galvanise people and resources to reformulate and address the challenges before them. Most importantly, we get a sense of how a particular course of action is justified and argued for over others (p.67)

This to me positions ADs as providers of frank and fearless advice that draws on scholarly practices that senior academics and institutional management (generally the same thing) are more likely to respond to. It puts advocacy front and centre (alongside research) as a key practice of ADs. This is something that I’ve rarely seen specifically listed in job advertisements and position descriptions for these kinds of roles, although maybe it sits under ‘advise’. This certainly lends weight to my feeling that Peseta and the other authors largely see AD roles as being occupied by academics. This is extended in the discussion of the Norwegian paper

… we are privy to the insights of a very experienced group of academic developers and this shows in several ways: in their description of the political context and their participation in it; in their deployment of expertise (institutional know-how and educational research); their sense of what to argue for and what to withdraw from; and more generally, in the way they understand the possibilities and limits of academic development (through their choice of a sense-making framework: discursive institutionalism. This piece really shines when the sense-making apparatus kicks in: levels of ideas (policy, programme and philosophy); types of discourses (coordinative and communicative); and types of ideas (cognitive and normative)… It seems to me that one of the compelling lessons from this paper is about inducting academic developers into the scholarship of the field as an opportunity to debate and defend a set of views about higher education (p.68) (emphasis mine)

This quote leaves me a little unclear as to whether Peseta is suggesting that ADs should be inducted into the scholarship of the discipline being taught or broader scholarship about teaching and learning. (That’ll teach me to only read a summary of a paper and not the paper itself. Fear not, it’s on the long list). One question or idea that has come up a number of times in discussions within the TELedvisor community is whether academics need to better understand what edvisors do but I can see a strong case for going the other way. (Even when we assume that we know). If it is about delving into disciplinary scholarship (e.g. microeconomics) I’m less convinced, as much for the sheer feasibility of it all. Maybe being to ask questions about approaches to teaching and learning that align better to disciplinary practices and scholarship is a practical middle-ground.

Moving on to the study in the special issue by Debowski, Peseta notes a different strategic approach being taken by Australian ADs.

We find an Australian academic development scene keen on a model of partnership with its political allies: from external quality agencies to teaching and learning funding bodies. The politicisation is plausible enough but the distributed nature of the political game carries noteworthy and worrying epistemological effects. The first is that the job of academic development shifts to one of ‘translation’ and ‘implementation’, suggesting in part that the intellectual puzzles of learning and teaching in higher education have more or less been settled. Moreover the thorny and substantial issue of what (and whose) knowledge is being ‘translated’ and ‘implemented’ is left unattended. A second effect is tying oneself too closely to the external political game is that it can divert attention away from a commitment to the project of knowledge-making. (p.68)

Part of me has to wonder whether this different approach – between Norway and Australia – is reflective of national cultural characteristics or if it is simply a matter of the specific examples being examined. If my feeling that ADs don’t carry a lot of power in Australia is widely true, it would make more sense to lean on other authorities to help get things done.

Peseta draws her reflection to a close by reasonably asking

whether academic developers are eager to imagine themselves in the role of steward, where there is a job to be done in caring for the field – its history, ethics and politics – in ways that are future looking. It does seem to me that a condition of scholarship lies in academic developers’ disposition to scholarliness and scholarship, as well as a desire to know and immerse themselves in the peculiarities that comprise the field. If we are to better support academic developers in navigating the messy politics of the agency game, then we need more occasions to dispute, debate and deliberate on what it is that we offer learning and teaching in higher education. We need occasions to test our politics with others in and outside of the field. (p.69)

I would love to see this happening but having had a taste of institutional and academic culture where this absolutely does not happen, I can completely understand ADs wanting this but choosing to spare themselves from banging their heads against a brick wall. (And I thought I was going to be less cynical in this post). Maybe banging our heads against walls is a necessary part of a practice though.

I’ll wrap this post up with one more quote that I want to include but couldn’t find a way to fit into the discussion. I’ll certainly be reading more of this special issue as it clearly speaks directly to my research and hopefully I can also use it to spark wider discussion in the TELedvisor community.

What feels fresh and thrilling to me is that the lens of political ontology unlocks two important aspects of the work. First, it draws attention to the matter of justificatory politics, inviting us to interrupt the discourses that structure the accounts of our work as academic developers. While institutional capture provides academic development with much sought-after leverage and profile, it has the uncanny effect too of infantilising academic developers’ professional imagination such that our identities, values and actions can appear to outsiders as inseparable from what an institution requires. Second, the focus on ontology locates these interruptions as individual and collective acts of political agency, inciting us to lead more public conversations about our values at exactly the time when higher education’s purpose has multiplied. Without these conversations, there may be a temptation to position academic developers flexible and enterprising operators advocating on behalf of greedy institutions (Sullivan, 2003) regardless of their own professional and personal values. Many of us would baulk at this suggestion while reflecting on its distinct likelihood (p.66)

No punches pulled there.

 

Research update #35 – Writing like a proper academic

My writing style in this blog is intended to be conversational and focused on using the act of writing to help me to give form to my ideas. So sometimes it can be insightful and sometimes it can be somewhat more rambling. I’ve been very conscious the whole way through that this is not the style that I will need to employ when I’m actually writing my thesis.

Interestingly (perhaps) I had a bit of a mental to-and-fro in that last sentence between using ’employ’ or ‘use’. Nine times out of ten I would’ve gone with ‘use’, as I believe in simple and concise language but maybe because I’m thinking about how I will need to write in the future, I went with the more formal ’employ’. Or maybe the rhythm of the words worked better with ’employ’ as there is something strangely musical in language that seems important when I write. Anyway, I did mention that I can sometimes be rambly.

This self-consciousness about my writing style has risen up a little lately as I’ve been reading some of the blog posts of my SOCRMx colleagues. Many of them are doing the MOOC for course credit, so it could simply be that they are writing as they believe they are expected to or perhaps have gotten into the habit of doing, but it is still a style that I feel somewhat removed from.

Which is why I was happy to come across this post from one of my two favourite PhD gurus, Inger “Thesis Whisperer” Mewburn. With a title like “Academic writing is like a painful upper-class dinner party” you can probably work out where she is going with it. In a nutshell, her argument is that to be taken seriously in academia, you need to write like an “uptight white person”.

Meaning essentially that caution, nuance and form rule the day, with the choice of words offering worlds of hidden meaning about your actual, never to be expressed feelings. Using ‘assert’ rather than ‘argue’ is effectively a headbutt to the credibility of the author that you are discussing as it suggests that they are incapable of rationally supporting their idea and instead need to resort to an appeal to authority to make their point. (I have a feeling that I’ve probably used ‘assert’ at some point when I simply felt that I’d been overusing ‘argue’ so I’ll be paying particular attention here)

All of which brings me back to something that I’ve previously reflected on here, which is that your reader – and more importantly your reviewer and assessor’s personal tastes can carry far more importance in how your work is received than your ideas. I can appreciate that forms of communication evolve over time and become significant because they demonstrate an understanding of certain key concepts of scholarship but overall I find it a shame that vital ideas might be disregarded because they aren’t expressed in the appropriate fashion. A few commenters at the end of the post were outraged that Inger was reinforcing this dominant paradigm and vowed never to buy her book but I think they missed the point. Inger was talking about what is and they are focused on what should be. Her core idea was that communication should still be clear and accessible where possible but that it will be read in particular ways by an audience and it is important to be mindful of how that audience reads if you want to communicate with them.

She also includes a link to an incredibly handy verb cheat sheet divided by whether you think the work that you are describing is awesome, neutral or poor. She makes the point that this is written for research in her domain – part social sciences and part education – and people need to find their own but given that her domain is mine, I’m pretty happy to have it as a starting point.

Thanks Thesis Whisperer

Thoughts on: Reconceptualising academic work as professional practice: implications for academic development (Boud & Brew, 2013)

I’ve been really struggling to process my thoughts on this paper for the last week. I’ll read a few pages, furiously scribbling notes all over it, and then need to step away to deal with my responses to it.

Now this isn’t particularly uncommon for me as it helps me feel that I’m part of a discourse and I try to create action items for future followup, particularly with citations. It often also feels like the most convenient place to jot down other ideas, like the spectrum of edvisor practices that I’ve started on the bottom of page two there. But I think I’ve probably written more on this paper than most because while I agree with most of the broad principles, the lack of understanding that it demonstrates of the practices of academic development and the capacity of academic developers to effect significant change in the institution undercuts much of what it has to say. Which surprises and disappoints me, particularly because I’ve spoken to one of the authors on several occasions and have great respect for his other work and I’ve read many of the other author’s papers and hold her in similar esteem. She has also, according to her bio, worked as an academic developer and co-edited the academic journal that this paper appears in, which makes it even harder to understand some of the misperceptions of this kind of work.

Which leads me to question my own perceptions. Am I overly defensive about what feels like an attack of the competence and professionalism of my colleagues and I? Is the environment that I work in uniquely different and my attitudes towards the development of academics that far out of the norm suggested by this paper? Perhaps most importantly am I taking this too personally and is my emotional response out of proportion to the ideas in the paper?

I suspect that part of my frustration is that the paper begins by talking about something which sounds like academic development but which ends up being a call for a complete revision of all aspects of academic practice and an implication that academic developers should really do something about that.

Assuming that academic development or academic developers are even actually necessary in the first place. There are a couple of telling remarks that, to me at least, strongly imply that academic development is a cynical exercise by university management to impose training on an academic staff that doesn’t need it – they did a PhD after all – in the interests of ensuring compliance with organisational policy and being seen to do something.

Or to put it another way (emphasis mine):

The development of academics is based on the notion that institutions need to provide opportunities for their academic employees to develop across a range of roles. Any initial training (e.g. through undertaking a PhD) is not sufficient for them to be able to meet the complex and increasing demands of the modern academy. Their development is an essentially pragmatic enterprise aimed at making an impact on academics and their work, prompted by perceptions that change is needed. This change has been stimulated variously by: varying needs and a greater diversity of students, external policy initiatives, accountability pressures and organisational desires to be seen to attend to the development of personnel. (p.208)

“Varying needs” almost seems to be used as a get-out-of-jail free card for those apparently rare instances where an academic might benefit from some additional training to be able to meet their responsibilities in teaching, research, service and potentially management.

There’s another section where the authors discuss the challenges of academic development. It’s close to a page long – 4 solid paragraphs, 22 lengthy sentences – yet it lacks a single citation to support any of the assertions that the authors make. The main argument made is that academic developers (and their units) don’t provide academics with the development that will help them because the developers are beholden to the agendas of the institution. The same institution, I should mention, that is governed at an executive level by senior academics who presumably have a deep understanding of academic practices.

Like most forms of education and training, academic development is continually at risk from what might be termed ‘provider-capture’, that is, it becomes driven by the needs of the providers and those who sponsor them, rather than the needs of beneficiaries’ (p. 210)

The main objection that the authors appear to have is that the institution takes a simplistic approach to training – because, reasons? – that implies that academics don’t already know everything that they need to.

…academic development has a tendency to adopt a deficit model. It assumes that the professionals subject to provision lack something that needs to be remedied; their awareness needs to be raised and new skills and knowledge made available. The assumption underpinning this is that without intervention, the deficit will not be addressed and academics not developed. (p.210)

Correct me if I’m wrong but I suspect that this is precisely the attitude that lies at the heart of the teaching practices of many academics. The students need knowledge/skills/experience in the discipline and its practices and the teacher will help them to attain this. Is the implication that academics deserve to be developed better than their students? Does it suggest a deficit in the pedagogical knowledge of academics? I would argue that this description undervalues the sophistication of work done by both academics and academic developers. Which the authors hypothetically note but then immediately discount based upon…? (Emphasis mine)

Such a characteristation, many developers would protest, does not represent what they do. They would argue that they are assiduous in consulting those affected by what they do, they collect good data on the performance of programmes and they adjust what they do in the light of feedback…they include opportunities for academics to address issues in their own teaching, to research their students’ learning and to engage in critical reflection on their practice. Developers undoubtedly cultivate high levels of skill in communicating and articulating their activities for such a demanding group. Nevertheless they are positioned within their institutions to do what is required of them by their organisation, not by those they claim to serve.  (p.210-211)

It’s hard to go past “those affected by what they do” as an indicator of the attitudes towards academic developers. I’d also make the point that I’ve come across few institutions with a comprehensive, practical strategy on teaching and learning and it generally falls on academic developers to use their extensive professional knowledge and experience to offer the best advice and support available in the absence of this.

The other significant point that I feel that the authors have completely missed – again perhaps surprisingly given their experience – is that, in my experience at least, academic professional development is almost never mandated and simply getting academics to attend PD is a task unto itself. The authors must certainly be aware of this, having written a recent paper (2017) that I found invaluable about academic responses to institutional initiatives. (Spoiler alert, it’s like herding sleeping cats). Academic developers are painfully aware of this – imagine spending days preparing a workshop or seminar only to have two attendees – and this if nothing else necessitates design of PD activities that are as relevant and attractive to academics as possible. I won’t dispute that the further away academic development teams are from academics – e.g. centralised teams – the harder it can be to do this and the more generic content becomes but even these areas have a deeper understanding of academics and their needs than is implied. (And I still have more to say about the practical realities of delivering PD that can wait for now)

Now that we’ve gotten past that – and it was something that I evidently needed to say – we start to get to the nub of what the authors would prefer instead of this ‘deficit model’.

The authors draw on Schatzki’s (2001) work in Social Practice theory, which is an area that I’ve spent some time looking at and which I see the value of. My introduction came through the work of Shove et al (2012) who present a slightly different perspective, a more streamlined one perhaps, but fundamentally the same. Where Shove et al identify three major elements to practice – meaning, materials and competences, Schatzki is a little more granular and includes elements such as emotions/moods, projects, tasks and ends. Arguably these could sit in the three elements of Shove et al but there might be something in looking more deeply at emotions/moods particularly. Maybe I’ll end up taking a Shovezki based approach to practice theory.

At the risk of oversimplifying it, from what I can see practice theory necessitates taking a more holistic perspective of being an academic and recognising that the different practices in the bundle of practices (or is it a complex – one or the other) that make up “being an academic” all occur in a specific context involving the practitioner, time, space and the larger meaning around what is being done. These sub-practices – such as teaching, research, service – can be in competition with each other and it is necessary to factor them in when providing PD training that relates to any other of them. Now this is an avenue of thinking that I’ve been pursuing myself, so obviously I’m pretty happy with this part of the paper. When we look at why an academic doesn’t undertake an activity to enhance their teaching, the current research rarely seems to answer – ‘well it was partially because they had to put together an application for research funding and that took priority’. This much I appreciate in the paper.

Where I think the paper runs into trouble though is that it makes a case for a slightly hazy approach to re-seeing academics practices as a whole, taking into consideration the following six factors that shape them:

  1. Embodiment – “It is the whole person who engages in practice, not just their intellect or skills… Desires, emotions and values are ever present and cannot be separated out” (p.212)

  2. Material mediation – “Practice is undertaking in conjunction with material arrangements. These may include objects such as raw materials, resources, artefacts and tools, physical connections, communication tools, organisms and material circumstances (Kemmis, 2009). These materials can both limit and enable particular practices” (p.212)

  3. Relationality – “Practice occurs in relation to others who practice, and in relation to the unique features a particular practitioner brings to a situation. Practice is thus embedded in sets of dynamic social interactions, connections, arrangements, and relationships” (p.212)

  4. Situatedness – This I’d call context – “…in particular settings, in time, in language… shaped by mediating conditions…” that “may include cultures, discourses, social and political structures, and material conditions in which a practice is situated” (p.213)

  5. Emergence – “Practices evolve over time and over contexts: new challenges require new ways of practising” (p.213)

  6. Co-construction – “Practices are co-constructed with others. That is, the meaning given to practice is the meaning that those involved give it” (p.213)

In my personal experience, I don’t believe that many academics give their practices, particularly teaching, anywhere near this level of reflection. It’s probably fair to say that few academic developers would either, at least not consciously. The authors believe that using this new practice frame

“…moves academic development from a focus on individuals and learning needs to academic practice and practice needs; from what academics need to know to what they do to enact their work” (p.213-214)

Maybe it’s just my professional background but I think that I pretty well always frame learning objectives in terms of the tangible things that they need to be able to do. On the other hand, my experience with academics is largely that many of their learning outcomes for their students begin with “understand x” or “appreciate the concept of y”. It’s not my job to be a discipline expert and I have no doubt that these are important learning outcomes to the academics – and I might still be misinterpreting how the authors are thinking about practices and learning design.

They go on to make an important point about the value of situated learning in professional development – conducting it in the space where the teacher teaches rather than in a removed seminar room in a building that they never otherwise visit. This makes me think that it would be valuable to have a simulated workspace for our students to learn in and I’ll give that some more thought but the logistics seem challenging at the moment as we undergo massive redevelopment. (This also acts as a pretty significant barrier to providing situated professional development, as teaching spaces are occupied from 8am to 9pm every day).

There’s an additional idea about the format of assessment conducted by ADs and what more beneficial alternatives might be considered.

“Learning is driven by, for example, by encountering new groups of students with different needs and expectations, or by working with a new issue not previously identified. Success in learning is judged by how successfully the practice with the new group or new issue is undertaken, not by how much is learnt by the individuals involved that could be tested by formal assessment practices” (p.214)

I completely support this approach to learning but I cannot see how it could ever be implemented with current staffing levels. If we’re going to think seriously about practices in an holistic way, perhaps a wider view needs to be taken that encompasses all of the participants in co-construction of the practice. This is probably where I think that this paper falls down heaviest – there seems to be a wilful blindness to ability to enact these new approaches. I also don’t see any academics ever moving to this kind of approach in their own teaching for the exact same reason.

This brings me to my larger challenge with this paper – from here (and perhaps in ignoring the logistical issues of situated learning in teaching spaces), there seems to be an expectation that it is up to academic developers and/or their units to make a lot of these significant changes happen. I can only imagine that this comes from the openly held perception that ADs are tools of ‘university management’ – which I will stress yet again is made up of academics – and that ADs are able to use these connections to management to effect major changes in the institution. I’m just going to quote briefly some of these proposed changes because I think it is self-evident how absurd that would be to expect ADs to implement any of them.

We suggest that a practice perspective would thus place greater emphasis on the development of academics:

(2) as fostering learning conducive work, where ‘normal’ academic work practices are reconfigured to ensure that they foster practice development; (p.214)

And this

“Working with individual academics to meet institutional imperatives, for example, curriculum reform, comes up against various stumbling blocks where academics complain that they are overworked, that there is too much to take on and that their colleagues are not supportive of what they are trying to do. Practice development means working with how that group juggles various aspects of their role and their attitudes and beliefs in relation to that. It is about how the group interacts in pursuing its practice, how and where interpersonal relationships are take account of the being of its members, how power and authority are negotiated, whose ideas are listened to and taken up and whose are denied” (P.215)

So, I’ll change the entire culture of academia and then after lunch… I know that sounds cynical but if the VC can’t enact that kind of a mindset shift…

I don’t disagree with any of these changes by the way but even in my relatively short time in the H.E. sector I have had it made painfully clear to me that the expertise of professional staff is basically never considered in these processes, so this paper is wildly misdirected.

The paper wraps up with a few more achievable suggestions that I think ADs have known for a long time already and try to enact when possible. Offering training or advice about something (e.g the grading system in the LMS) is going to be more valuable in some temporal contexts (weeks of semester) than others, learning more about academics and their particular practice needs – again, generally teaching as I suspect there is hierarchy of things that academics never want to have their knowledge questioned on – discipline knowledge, research skills, teaching and then technology. I might look into how often academics go to research training after they finish PhDs. I suspect it will be rarely – but I don’t know. (I should probably know that)

The authors also suggest that ADs might take a project based approach, a consultancy one or a reflective one to their development work and I would consider that communities of practice probably sit well with the latter.

Ultimately, while I am broadly supportive of many of the approaches and the more holistic viewpoint put forward in this paper, expecting ADs to implement many of the larger changes seems to demonstrate a lack of awareness of the powerlessness of people in these kinds of roles. What is proposed would largely require a significant cultural shift and to be driven from the top. Of course, the latter paper by Brew, Boud et al (2017) shows the utter folly of expecting that to succeed.

 

 

 

Thoughts on: Academic developers as change agents: Caught in the Middle (Hicks, 2005)

Maybe it’s just a happy coincidence but I picked up a paper that I’d made a note to read in full after skimming it a while back and I don’t think I could’ve found something that aligned more with the questions that I asked myself in my post here about values vs value and the way that edvisors sit between teachers and the institution.

Hicks, who leads an academic development unit in an Australian university, delves deep into this issue of the two masters that academic developers serve – the institution and the academics/teachers. As far as I can make out, she uses the relatively well established definition of academic developers as people providing professional development training to academics. She references Nunan, George and McCausland to specify that this is

directed towards both inducing change towards institutional directions and working with teachers in areas of change that they initiate in their local contexts (Nunan, George & McCausland, 2000 p.85) (p.176)

I have to assume that the “they” in “they initiate” refers to the teachers, though it could be read as the academic developers as well. Teachers kind of makes more sense.

She ran a handful of focus groups with a small sample of academic developers – it’s not apparent whether it was at her own institution or not, which seems significant because even if you made it clear that you’re wearing a researcher hat, I would suspect that this would potentially inhibit completely open discussion. But then, I don’t know what kind of relationship she had/has with her team.

What emerges from these focus groups is that the space occupied by academic developers sees them torn between supporting the implementation of change that comes down from “management” and trying to serve the needs and interests of teachers/academics in their own practices. Despite numerous references to management, it’s not explicitly stated whether this is at a Chancellery level, with policy direction coming from former academics at the top of the university tree or “professional” management. Probably both although, again, I’d suggest that the professional management side has little to nothing to do with educational policy and few institutions would accept them trying to dictate the kind of behaviour that academic developers are tasked with embedding.

Hicks draws heavily from the ideas of Bourdieu to frame this conflict in terms of power relationships and this works for me for the most part, as navigating these is a pretty substantial factor in this kind of work. It was a little bit of a shame though that they didn’t really lead to any particularly meaningful conclusions

If universities are to get the most out of their academic development function in times of change, then these tensions need to be recognised, understood and dealt with in a way that takes account of all perspectives – management, academic staff and academic developers (p.182)

I certainly agree that this isn’t the most useful state of affairs but ‘something really should be done by someone’ doesn’t offer much in the way of a direction forwards. She does state that this is part of a broader research project, so I guess I’ll explore this for further clues. This should also not be taken to say that this isn’t a valuable paper – it lays out very clearly the issue and makes solid use of transcripts from the focus groups to highlight the voice of the academic developers.

There were a few other questions though that I felt went begging somewhat. It wasn’t explained whether the academic developers were in professional or academic roles (or came from academic roles), which I think makes a difference in the way that they are perceived by academic staff (and presumably also by management.) The lack of clarity about who management is I think is also a missing piece. I agree that being a change agent with a sometimes excessive focus on compliance can be a substantial part of the role (although if you want to talk about being the compliance police, look more at the VET sector) but I think we’re missing the continuity part of this role. The support of current, successful practices that are largely independent of change. In fairness, this wasn’t the thrust of the argument and it is the change aspects that bring the tensions between ‘management’ and academics into sharp relief.

There were also some great references for me to pursue – Land has been recommended before but it was particularly interesting to see that Land (2001) has

identified twelve different orientations to the practice of academic development (p.176)

A final question that came to mind, which once more seems to come back to my favourite paper of recent times by Brew et al (2017) about academic resistance to university initiatives, is exactly why there is so much conflict about change between academics and management. Is it that management is pushing clearly bad policy (not impossible) or that academics just don’t see the personal benefits of it (also feasible). Presumably a far more complex mess than either of these but one which could help take some of these ideas a little further.

Research update #28: Value vs Values

Looking over the suggestions for the types of sub-questions I might consider, I noticed that in one of them that it was unclear whether it referred to value (in terms of worth) to the institution or values (in terms of principles/beliefs).

My intention was value (worth), as this seems to me to be an important thing for TEL edvisors to demonstrate in terms of being seen to merit our place in the institution. Thinking about values (principles/ethics) though and how they might shape a teacher’s perception of whether TELedvisors are here to help them with teaching & learning or whether they (we) are more like cogs in the institutional machine, sent to give them extra work to do or judge their work.

Because I think it’s reasonable to say that there is a divide between the management/executive level of the institution and the teachers. Brew et al (2017) probably bring this into the sharpest relief, exploring the four key ways that teachers respond to (and generally ignore) initiatives from management. Thirty plus years of NeoLiberalism and the progressive shift to a culture of managerialism in H.E. have seen any number of changes wrought by management and change fatigue is well recognised in the sector. (Dobson, 2000; Trowler, 2014; McInnis, 1998)

The relationships between TELedvisors and the Institution and TELedvisors and teachers are quite different and I don’t think I’ve paid this enough attention until now. While TELedvisors rely on the understanding of ‘the institution’ to support our roles and practices, their (our) day to day practice relies far more on building relationships with teachers. If teachers aren’t confident that our values are aligned in terms of prioritising scholarship over the broader institutional financial imperatives, building this trust can be a challenge. (This of course presumes that these academics/teachers have these values in the first place and aren’t more interested in pursuing their research, students be damned. I still choose to believe that the majority do care about their teaching)

In a nutshell, when I look more deeply at what perceptions are held by whom, I think I’ll be looking for different things from different sources. I need to not make this explicit and provide people the opportunity to answer without being led, but I suspect that these factors will be significant.

Coming to the Pat Thomson question of the week – “The feedback that helps me most is…” the conversation that lets me chew over my thoughts and raises questions and ideas that weren’t even necessarily meant. When I asked which meaning of value had actually been intended, the discussion moved to concepts and approaches of teaching but the value/values seed had already taken root. (Maybe down the track something will click into place with concepts and approaches as well – I have a new paper to explore on the subject at least)

One side thought that I suspect I already know the answer to – I have a strong urge to say “we” and “our” when discussing TELedvisors but I think I need to get into the habit of referring to them/us in the third person. Perhaps less so in a blog post but almost certainly in actual academic writing, so maybe it would be best to just do that here anyway.

Thoughts on: The Herckis research in progress into barriers to TEL in Higher Ed

L. Herckis, personal communication, July 10, 2017

I’ve been banging on about this a bit here recently but that’s only because I’m enjoying the new perspective on this issue, which is kind of at the heart of my day to day work and my own research. Unlike most if not all of the other research that I’ve read in this space, this comes from an anthropological background and seems far more interested in looking beyond what academics say to explore what they actually mean when it comes to talking about their teaching and learning (and particularly TEL and innovation practices).

I don’t think that people often go out of their way to be deliberately deceptive in the way they discuss or think about their teaching practice (we have committees and office politics for that – zing) but I think we all also like to consider ourselves as the heroes of our own narratives and this can get in the way of truly understanding what (or who) gets in the way of innovation and iteration. (I don’t believe in change for change’s sake either, just to be clear – I think it’s just as important to identify and celebrate the things that we do that works and support them, but that’s a matter for another day)

As a baby researcher (no, that sounds weird, let’s try pre-researcher – presearcher?) and one with minimal knowledge of anthropology, I won’t presume to comment on the methodology, suffice to say it seems sensible  – mixed method including an ethnographic observation, surveys and interviews – and appears to already be yielding interesting results in the early phases of the work and analysis.

Given that this is research in progress, I’ll just highlight what I’ve found to be key points so far.

The author mentions ‘refinement’ as a stage in the innovation process – which I would take to be an evaluation and iteration/modification process – which is nice but it seems to be so rarely implemented formally that it might be nice to break this into these two parts. More than anything though, these challenges indicate to me that there might need to be support from someone (or a team) that is able to offer a more holistic perspective on an innovation process – I would suggest, unsurprisingly, working collaboratively with an education design support unit (TEL edvisors if you will), so that some of the issues relating to the transitions to different stages of the process are mitigated because there is constancy of people involved.

Some nice stuff about the needs for a more collaborative model of teaching innovation. Getting this message across (for me at least) is one of my challenges – I was told pretty categorically this week by a senior member of the exec that teaching is an individual endeavour and that a community of practice is probably a waste of time (that’s paraphrased)

Overall it seems as though this work aims to lead to solid, practical and applicable outcomes. One of my greatest concerns about entering research is whether it might have a practical application, beyond just being a contribution to the wider pool of understanding. Some have told me that the latter is the primary purpose of research, which feels limiting to me so it’s nice to see a different take.

Many factors identified that impact of the success of an innovation project, including the very hard to untangle political and psychological. Interestingly, many issues seem resolvable far more simply than one would expect if there are visible career benefits or opportunities to work with respected peers, which makes me think that some of the barriers raised and emphatically identified as insurmountable are largely made of bluster.

Coming back to my earlier comment about the difference between what people say and what they think, Herckis uses techniques from her discipline to cleverly swerve around this. Framing questions in terms of ‘what would your (very similar to you) colleague think about this issue?’ lets people filter out their own personal biases and answer a question more objectively. Perhaps it lets them move past the need to be the hero of their own story and be consider it from a slightly more critical perspective.

I might just summarise the rest of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and revealing findings to date.

After surveying participants about their attitudes to SoTL (and SoTEL) and their perceptions of their institutions attitudes to the same, it emerged that the gap between these attitudes worked in different ways, depending on whether you are an early career teacher or a senior one. I have to note that different institutions have different organisational structures for their academics and there is more to this than simply being an early or late career teacher. Being more research oriented or having tenure, for example, are obviously going to shape attitudes and behaviours as well and there are always going to be a raft of local cultural factors at play too. That said, the fact that there are differences in outlook based on this seems like a pretty big deal.

When early career teachers feel that the institution values teaching less than they do (significantly), they are less inclined to innovate. With senior teaching academics however, in this instance they are more likely to do so, perhaps because they see it as their duty to help the institution raise the bar. This sounds somewhat like a question of power or privilege – don’t want to rock the boat vs not having to care – and probably more than anything else in this paper has started me thinking that different approaches need to be taken in my teaching/TEL edvisor role with junior and senior staff.

A couple of final factors come to play more than I had considered – and this is perhaps a disadvantage of my outsider role. While the ever-present time, capability and resourcing issues are at the forefront of academic resistance to revising their approaches to teaching and innovation, the prospect of working on this with an esteemed colleague, of future professional opportunities or of receiving good press can push these concerns to the background.

An overemphasis on student satisfaction measurements was identified as a major barrier, the fact that many (untrained) teachers lean very heavily on how they were taught, misalignments between institutional change and teaching needs and a belief that there is little to be learnt from teaching approaches in other disciplines also all crop up. Almost all of which I put down to issues surrounding culture, ultimately.

Definitely looking forward to the next phases of this particular research and working out how to make use of it in practice.

 

 

 

 

 

Research update #24: The community

I mentioned recently that I’d come across some interesting anthropological research suggesting that the key reason that academics rarely innovate their teaching is fear of looking foolish in front of their students. There was a whole thing about it in the Times Higher Education at the time and it sparked some interesting discussion in the TEL edvisors SIG forums. Media being media of course, it was far from the whole story and the researcher – Lauren Herckis – was able to help correct the story a week later.

Anyway, one of my favourite parts of the PhD (thanks once more Pat Thomson) is the peek through the door it offers me to the global community of scholars. (That reads far more pretentiously than is intended). But if I wasn’t working on mine and found this work to be particularly pertinent, I probably wouldn’t have reached out to the author to ask if there is a paper or book or something that this research came from. (As the THE article was remarkably vague on that). Turns out that it’s a work in progress but Lauren was happy to share what they’ve done so far, making the point that the later stages of the research and data analysis are still in train.

I have no illusions that all academics are as generous with their time and work but on the whole, those that I have reached out to that are working in my field have helped me to feel as though I’m part of something bigger. Maybe as a PhD student rather than a rival researcher in competition for research funding it might be different but I haven’t had that sense – it’s really felt more like sharing an interest that perhaps not that many others do.

I’ll probably write something more about the paper in progress shortly – after checking I’m not travelling too far into spoiler town or whatever the academic equivalent is – but I’ve already found it interesting in framing the discussions that I’ve had at work and in trying to better understand some of the (sometimes unfathomable) resistance I encounter to new ideas about teaching and learning. The difference between the ways that attitudes in early career vs senior academics relating the value of teaching overall has particularly given me a lot to ponder.

Building rapport between Educational Developers and Academics/Teachers

Our colleagues in the great white north – the Canadian Educational Developers Caucus – have produced a rich looking guide to building rapport between ed developers and academics/teachers.

I haven’t had a chance to dig into it deeply (it’s more than 100 pages) but this looks pretty valuable.

The guide – and an earlier one called the Education Developers Portfolio – can be found here https://www.stlhe.ca/affiliated-groups/educational-developers-caucus/guides/

Research update #22 – The Outsider

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.