Monday, 15 December 2014

New article from Structure, Culture and Agency Team

A new article has just been published by members of the Structure, Culture and Agency research team. By Brenda Leibowitz, James Garraway and Jean Farmer, the article in Mind, Culture and Activity is titled:

Influence of the Past on Professional Lives: A Collective Commentary. Here is the abstract:
Brenda, James and Jean at work on the article

This collective commentary is based on the narratives of the author-protagonists, three South African
higher education developers who were involved in political activism during their youth. The commentary investigates the continuities between the author-protagonists’ youth and their later professional engagements. Drawing from social realism, the concepts of agency and reflexivity provide a helpful analytic lens. Together, the narratives suggest that these concepts may be more complex when viewed against individual narratives and that some of the differences between social realist Margaret Archer and her critics are worth bridging. Undertaking an investigation of one’s own past is beneficial for professionals engaged in higher education development.

You should be able to download the first 50 copies from:

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Jean Farmer's Poster at the SRHE

Jean Farmer at the SRHE NR Conference, in front of her poster
Here is some wonderful news from Jean Farmer. She is at the SRHE conference, but first attended the SRHE New Researchers conference. She writes: "I won first prize at the SRHENR conference.  A certificate. 50GBP voucher. And my poster goes up on the website and in the London offices of SRHE. My poster has much less information than the other posters but it was judged on poster as well as presentation. 'Enthused discussion of her work and clear explanation of a methodology and thought-provoking method'."

Jean's PhD is part of the Structure, Culture and Agency research project.  

Congratulations Jean!

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The SCA study as ‘currency’ for change: reflections on what this might mean going forward

A key component of the entire SCA project has been that of reflection. Our very first data collection activity required us to reflect on institutional positions, polices and perspectives with regard to teaching and learning. We also essentially asked our interviewees to reflect on their own professional learning, and at then at various points in the project, we as the research team were asked to reflect: on the experience, on the collaboration and on our own professional learning. And then we were asked to contribute to this blog – to share through this less formal yet equally revealing medium, an experience, a process, an event, that came about as a result of the study. Thus, some further reflections …
I spent quite a bit of time contemplating what might be an appropriate title for this posting. What did I really want to say in reporting on a particular outcome of the study? Telling a story was one thing – and might have some value or generate some interest – but my sense was that the sub-text would be more interesting. I was curious about the extent to which my enthusiasm about what had been achieved (uncovered?) as a result of the study at my institution might be clouding my judgment as to what was really happening – and potentially could happen – in changing conversations about teaching and learning at my institution.
But first the story …
As part of the larger study and working with the different data sets (document analysis, survey and in-depth interviews) we (Brenda, Nicoline, Jean and I) worked on our institutional case study report. This was a challenging process as we grappled with issues around audience (who would read this tome?), and argument (what message did we want to get across?). We were fortunate, however. Brenda, as the principal investigator on the project, provided much of the preamble for all of the institutional case studies and this provided an immediate way into the writing process. Nicoline and Jean were both working on their PhDs which were situated within the study. Their scholarly insights helped to strengthen the analysis and the discussion. We shifted between using ‘report-like’ text and following a more discursive approach – highlighting enablers and constraints for the professional learning of academics in their teaching role while seeking to understand what this might mean for teaching and learning at the institution. The institutional case study report is available on request (email, its contents are not the focus of this posting. What is interesting is how the document emerged as an instrument for change.
The case study report served at the institution’s Committee for Learning and Teaching at a time when a task team had been commissioned by the Committee to investigate the Promotion and Recognition of Teaching at the institution. This proved serendipitous as the task team took the research findings as set out in the case study report on board as a point of departure for their work. As their set of ground-breaking recommendations (including issues relating to promotion, teaching sabbaticals and fellowships, and peer review of one’s teaching) went out to faculties for comment, an opportunity arose via the annual in-house Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference to capitalise on these different outputs and activities. Thus we conceptualised a closing event for the conference that would bring together the findings from the case study report and the recommendations of the task team in a unique way exploring: “New ways of talking about teaching: Acknowledging teaching as an institutional good”.
The session was made up of short inputs on key aspects from the case study report and the task team’s recommendations. These were interspersed with opportunities for ‘multi-group brainstorm’ sessions during which responses from the audience of over 100 academics were captured in real time and displayed on the screens in the venue. The excitement was palpable and the response both positive and interesting as people spoke about how the recommendations will let them ‘come out of the teaching closet’, but also how they expressed concerns about what exposure of their teaching practice to peer review might mean for them.
I believe the event was special and it felt good to end the conference on a high note. But what about that sub-text I spoke of earlier? The interesting bits lie beneath the story. There is the issue of agency, both corporate and personal. In conceiving the session with colleagues from the Centre for Teaching and Learning in the way that we did – using the audience, the technology – represented a considerable risk on my part as the one who would have to stand in front and manage the process. I was willing to take the chance because I believed that the institutional case study report provided credibility and substance. As a group we were confident as we sought to ‘deal’ with audience in a currency we felt they would understand and value (research!). This same ‘currency’ was recognised when the task team referenced the study in their report.
Another issue relates to the responses of the academics. The excitement about the different recommendations made to recognise teaching, on the one hand, and the hesitancy to accept a review process on the other hand. These are matters that are unfolding as I write and as the faculties submit their responses to the recommendations. Already applications for teaching fellowships have been called for. It will be instructive to see how these processes evolve.
But finally, it is about effecting change (dare we use the word ‘transformation’) across the system. It is about a multi-site study funded nationally to support such change. It is about how change takes time (this SCA study has been ongoing now for four years), and how those of us in academic development (agents) have to take risks both individually and corporately to use what has been achieved to challenge existing structures and adopt new discourses around teaching and learning. To date the project has generated a number of outputs in the form of journal articles (over and above the different institutional case study reports). The three PhD students have all made significant progress and as I write, a number of other publications are in various stages of preparedness. This is important not only for the contribution this makes to scholarship, but also because this is the currency we need to use to effect change, to enable us to take risks and to stand up ‘at home’ for what we believe in so that we might alter the landscape. I remain cautiously optimistic.