Tuesday, 15 September 2015

New article out in IJAD - Jawitz and Perez

A new article from the Structure, Culture and Agency team is out. By Jeff Jawitz and Teresa Perez from the University of Cape Town, it presents data from a UCT case study on the attitudes of academics towards professional development with regard to the teaching role. The article is extremely valuable, firstly in its treatment of the concept of agency in institutional settings, and secondly  in the manner in which it depicts attitudes towards teaching in a climate where research is still privileged in relation to incentives, performance criteria and individual attitudes. The study is based on one institution, but the trend is representative of other data collected in the broader NRF funded study, and trends evident nationally and internationally.  Pleasingly, it suggests that the tide might be changing somewhat, as there is slightly more valuing of professional development with regard to the teaching role in this institution than previously. Whether this trend is due to the tireless efforts of those in academic development who advocate for the status of teaching, or whether it is simply the outcome of a younger generation of academics whose views on teaching and research are different to those held previously, or the result of an acknowledgement by senior managers that the incentivizing of research over teaching is having deleterious consequences - especially in a country where matriculation rates and participation in high education is inadequate - is not clear. Based on my experience at the two South African universities where I have been working in the past few years, and my engagement in national forums, I think it might be a combined outcome of all of these trends. 

Here is the detail about the article: 

International Journal for Academic Development, 2015 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2015.1081852

Investing in teaching development: navigating risk in a research intensive institution

It is often assumed that academics working in a research intensive university are unlikely to invest in the professional development of their teaching. Institutional structures and culture tend to undermine investment in academicsteaching role. This study, conducted at the University of Cape Town, draws on an analysis of the environment within which academics make decisions to invest in their role as teachers. While acknowledging the privileging of research embedded in the institution, a significant group of academics have found ways to assert their academic identities as teachers despite the possible consequences and risks that this position entails.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

We've been busy!

The Structure, Culture and Agency team have been busy. Two new research articles emanating from the project have been published:

James  at the writing retreat, 2015
Garraway, J. 2015. Academic staff development in foundation provision. South African Journal for Higher Education, 29 (1) 26 - 44.
Foundation provision is a specially funded student support initiative for disadvantaged students in South African universities. This research focuses on foundation academic staff development. As with staff development more generally, there is a focus on improving classroom practices to support student learning. Although general and foundation staff development practitioners experience similar difficulties in carrying out their work, there are also particular structural and cultural constraints in foundation academic development. This research analyses foundation staff development as an activity system, using Engestrom’s version of activity theory, in order to better understand and expose tensions in staff development. Issues that are highlighted using this methodology are: confusion between the object of staff development and the means to achieve it; the means to achieve the object may be insufficient; and structures/cultures such as short contracts and marginalisation may constrain how staff development is taken up.

Quinn, L. and Vorster, J. 2015. Pedagogy for fostering criticality, reflectivity and practice in a course on teaching for lecturers. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher EducationOnline.
Lynn and Jo at the writing retreat, 2015
Using the concepts of criticality, reflectivity and praxis, the paper presents an analysis of our reflections on participants’ responses to the assessment requirements for a course for lecturers on teaching.  The context in which the course is being taught has changed considerably in the last few years in terms of the mode of delivery, as well as the number and diversity of participants. Our analysis has generated insights into ways in which the course is not meeting all the learning needs of the participants, nor preparing them adequately to demonstrate, in writing, Their learning. Using insights gained, we suggest pedagogic processes and strategies for ensuring that the course focuses on both writing to learn and learning to write; And for assisting participants to acquire the practices to demonstrate their learning in written assessment tasks, using the requisite literacy including criticality, reflectivity and praxis.

A colloquium entitled Contextual Approaches to Professional Development with Regard to the Teaching Role was held at Devon Valley, Stellenbosch, on the 27 July 2015. (The programme is attached). This featured presentations on the research as well as presentations by others in Southern Africa who are conducting research into contextual approaches to academic development. In all, 70 people attended and 20 presentations were made. The day culminated with a panel about theories that may inform research into this field. The final set of findings and recommendations on the basis of the research should be completed in August or September, and will be sent to relevant organizations and role-players. The Structure, Culture and Agency project has funding from the National Research Foundation until the end of 2016. Activities in process and plans are for a book on "Theorising learning to teach in higher education: Sociomaterial, social practice and realist approaches" to be edited by Brenda Leibowitz, Vivienne Bozalek and Peter Kahn, and a monograph on the findings of the project. 

Colleagues at the colloquium, including from the Free State, Rhodes and beyond

John Hannon from La Trobe University and Peter Kahn from Liverpool University, at the colloquium and the retreat. 

Saturday, 30 May 2015

New article from the Structure, Culture and Agency Project

A new article from the Structure, Culture and Agency Research Project has appeared in Studies in Educational Evaluation (vol. 46, p 4 - 10), by Susan van Schalkwyk, Nicoline Herman, Brenda Leibowitz and Jean Farmer. Entitled Reflections on professional learning: Choices, context and culture, it is based on the case study of Stellenbosch University. 

Here is the abstract:

Understanding factors that enable and constrain the professional learning of academics for their teaching role provides insight into the complex space within which this teaching resides. The work of social realist Margaret Archer informed an analysis of multiple data sources as part of an exercise towards critical reflection and introspection about professional learning at the university. The data confirms previous work, but also takes the conversation forward. The university teacher – seen to be making choices, within a particular context and informed by her perceptions of the prevailing culture and her personal priorities – is central to this discussion. Academic development practitioners should consider how they might influence dominant discourses, and enhance the dispositions of teaching academics to support quality teaching. 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Organizational Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities Conference

Vivienne Bozalek, Wendy McMillan and I just attended the OLCK Conference in Milan at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore - a beautiful old campus. So old that some of the venues had relics on display, one even had a necropolis from the third century AD - I hope that is not a metaphor for the university today! The conference has a focus on organizational management and a theoretical underpinning of the conference was a practice based approach. It was extremely friendly and non-pompous, and one great feature during the parallel sessions was a series of symposia on a theme,

for example authorship, with three presentations and  after each presentation there was a respondent, before the discussion was opened to the floor. This worked particularly well.

A highlight was the second keynote by Silvia Gerardi, who spoke both on affect and on theorizing practice (Gerardi, S. 2012. How to Conduct a Practice-Based Study: Problems and Methods, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar). Her writing is very accessible for those who want to be introduced to theorizing about practices. There were several innovative ways of presenting and communicating at the conference, one of which was a talk artist, who drew on a large surface while Silvia was talking. (See at the beginning of this post.) Another was the conference dinner, where a pianist was accompanied by a percussionist and an artist. His completed work is also shown here.

I gave a presentation on the Structure, Culture and Agency (S, C, A) project. The paper was asking some questions about the kinds of theories we use in our research, how we go about choosing them,  whether theories can be combined, and how. I used the data from the project to illustrate these points, showing in the process that some issues are better explicated through a social realist approach, and some issues through a practice based/socio-material approach. However, there are aspects of these two approaches where they appear to be commensurate, and aspects where they do not appear as commensurate. I am hoping that these questions will receive more airtime in the future, as myself, Vivienne Bozalek and Peter Kahn are planning to edit a book on the question of theorising learning to teach and I am hoping that quite a lot of the data from the S, C and A project will be featured in the book.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Can theory enable us to speak back to power?

As a new contributor from Melbourne, I am most impressed by the longevity and depth of the Structure, Culture and Agency research project. 
I would like to introduce myself as a researcher at La Trobe University, taking part in an international study with Brenda (and others) on the topic of knowledge practices in teaching & learning. The study is bringing together a corpus of interview data from five universities in the UK, South Africa and Australia, led by Tai Peseta from Uni of Sydney. The title is "The flow of new knowledge practices: an inquiry into teaching, learning and curriculum dynamics in academic work-groups", where workgroups is a term used by Trowler to describe how academics put their new knowledge and know-how about teaching and learning to work. This study looks like it shares ground with the Structure, Culture and Agency project. 
The study also offers the rare prospect of a team of researchers bringing different theories and approaches to one investigation– in particular the two approaches mentioned in the 'Focus on Theory' posting of 28 January, namely on critical realism and sociomaterialism. 
I plan to contribute to the planned Critical Realism colloquium on 27 July, which Brenda mentioned in the Focus on Theory posting. I concur with Brenda that these theory issues matter: teaching and learning practice in higher education are at risk of being framed through a deracinated, "what works" lens, particularly when learning technologies are present. It also matters to articulate a response to the discourses of neo-liberal organisational change that now inform academic practice – these discourses invite us to align academic identities with our performance measures, to be reset like a timer every year. 
Can theory enable us to speak back to power?
Back to contesting theories/approaches: sociomaterialism and actor network theory is my bent: While the possibility of a theory face-off or debate between critical realism and sociomaterialism may be exciting, I am more interested in the intersections between the two approaches: to what extent are they incommensurate, their ontologies contradictory? How does each understand agency and practice from the same data? What are the dimensions of practice? And can each theory/approach make a contribution to the pressing issues in higher education in concert and find common ground?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Focus on theory in relation to professional academic learning and development

Advance Notice

'Dissemination' -  see Mail and Guardian
of 30 January 2015
The structure, culture and agency research project is in its second phase and beginning of its fifth year of funding from the National Research Foundation. The purpose of the second phase is to deepen the analysis of the data collected in the first phase, and to disseminate research findings. To this end we will be having a colloquium in Devon Valley, Stellenbosch, on 27 July 2015.

The intention behind the colloquium is threefold:

·      To share findings from our Structure, Culture and Agency multisite research project
·      To provide a platform for research for colleagues outside of the project, who are taking a contextual approach to professional academic development.
·      To generate recommendations for national and institutional professional academic development strategies and further questions for research.

We have confirmed plans for a special issue of the South African Journal of Higher Education (SAJHE), due out in the second quarter of 2016, on the topic of contextual approaches to professional academic development (or 'professional learning', which provides more emphasis on what the academic does, than on what is done to or for him or her). The deadline for submissions will be the 31 July 2016 –more information to follow shortly on this blogsite.

Focus on Theory: Critical (and Social) Realism and Practice/SocioMaterialism

If all goes well the colloquium will be followed by a late afternoon/early evening focus on two approaches to research on professional academic development: critical (and social) realism and a practice-based and socio-material approach. The idea would be to discuss, with panellists, what kinds of insights can be generated with these two theoretical approaches.

Why this focus on theory?

Educational research that informs practice, for example with regard to higher education teaching and learning, has become increasingly informed by theory over the past few decades. This is perhaps partly due to the maturing of educational development as an academic and professional field (vis the increase in Masters and PhD programmes in the area, Postgraduate Diplomas in Higher Education Teaching and Learning, in South Africa and elsewhere). Many international educational journals, for example the International Journal of Academic Development (IJAD) expects a sound theoretical base for articles that it publishes.  But questions still remain, about which theories we should use to inform our research or practice; how important is one’s choice of theory; what issues we take into consideration when selecting a theory; how important is selection of theory in relation to issues such as personal values and philosophy of life and ethics?  Various people such as David Gosling (2003), Paul Ashwin and Etienne Wenger-Trayner (2013) have written about the issue of theory in relation to education. The issue requires further consideration, especially when the language theory is so often opaque to the uninitiated. When people have not mastered the respective logics and vocabularies, (which is fair enough, considering that it takes a while to master specific bodies of theory, and one cannot have in-depth knowledge, or would not necessarily choose to have in-depth knowledge of all) theory can divide people or impede communication. Within higher education the literature on how lecturers learn to teach has not teased out the implications of any of the dominant approaches of the twenty-first century, let alone of these two.

Why these two theories?

Perhaps ‘approaches’ is more appropriate than ‘theory’, since there are a variety of takes on critical realism (here we draw on the work of Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer, Andrew Sayer and Dave Elder-Vass, and they differ on many points), and possibly an even greater variety of takes on practices and socio materialism (here again, writers such as Theodore Schatzki and the feminist socio-materialists like Karen Barad would have quite different views on agency). One reason accounting for the focus on these two approaches is the Structure, Culture and Agency research project, which was based on social realism loosely defined. This approach has many advantages for a contextual approach to professional academic development, especially in relation to the study of change, and the role of structure and agency.  Our project has already published one or two papers using the work of Archer (see our list of publications). However there are many valid criticisms of Archer’s take on agency, most notably of her depiction of reflexivity. Although Archer does describe practice in human activity and development, and although she takes into account material resources as an aspect of structure, there is a strong possibility that a practice based approach will contribute more to our understanding of professional academic development, than social realism alone. – if nothing else, it would complement our understanding.

These two approaches are in many respects in contradiction (approaches to agency and the individual; and transcendence or categorisation, and a stratified ontology, being aspects of critical realism in contradiction to the view of practices as typified by Fenwick et al, 2013, drawing on feminist socio-materialists, for example.) An important difference is how culture and text is viewed - as ‘real’, within a realist approach. This has significant ramifications for approaches to teaching and learning, as differences between realists and practice-based writers have demonstrated.  In some respects there are also similarities: a non-Cartesian view of practice and emotion not divorced from cognition and intellectual activity, (as pointed out by Sue Clegg in her presentation on critical realism - http://youtu.be/v79aIto70U0). These two approaches thus provide a fruitful basis for a discussion on what theory can do, which theory, how we choose theory, and so on.

Why does this deserve attention (and now)?

Is this a rarefied debate about nothing crucial? On the contrary, the ramifications of these approaches, about issues such as agency, responsibility, development, and distribution of resources, are crucial if one believes that teaching and learning is a political project, in the pursuit of social justice. We hope to take this discussion forward at the colloquium, and possibly in the form of a book thereafter.

- More about these up and coming events shortly. Comments to this posting are welcome.


Ashwin, P. 2009. Analysing teaching-learning interactions in higher education: Accounting for structure and agency. London: Continuum.
Fenwick, T. and Nerland, M. (eds). 2013. Reconceptualising professional learning: Sociomaterial knowledges, practices and responsibilities. London: Routledge.
Gosling, D. 2003. Philosophical approaches to academic development. Eggins, H. and MacDdonald, R. (eds) The scholarship of academic development. Buckingham: SRHE and OUP. 70 – 79
Schatzki, T. 2002. The site of the social: A philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. Penn State University Press.

Wenger-Trayner, E. 2013. The practice of theory: Confessions of a social learning theorist. Farnsworth, V. and Solomon, Y. (eds) Reframing educational research: Resisting the ‘what works’ agenda. London: Routledge.