Working with theory – go hard or go home

everyday-im-husserlnThis moment has been coming for a while. My background is in science, and I’m now working in academic development. So in the past when people have talked about theorists such as Bourdieu, Foucault, Derrida and the gang, I’ve struggled to understand. When I saw that Dr Remy Low was giving a talk called ‘How to do things with theory’ , I was so there!

Remy took us on an exciting romp through phenomenology, critical theory and post-structuralism, enlivened by poetry, memes (including the one above) and music videos. Obviously there was only so much he could cover in two hours, but it was a great introduction. His talk has made me more aware of the theory-lite nature of my own research to date. And I’m not the only one. The lack of theory in higher education research has been pointed out several times e.g. Ashwin (2012), Hutchings (2007). A whole issue of HERD was devoted to the topic ‘Questioning theory-method relations in higher education research’.

My research is crying out for it. I’m interested in many different topics in higher education, and making better use of theory will help me tie those interests together and see them in new and exciting ways.

So I now need to leap in and start reading.  My plan is start with theorists who write about education or higher education. My ideas so far include Raewyn Connell, Sue Clegg & Catherine Manathunga. Other suggestions for reading are very welcome.

I know that some of the writing might be difficult to understand. But as a colleague pointed out, statistics is difficult and off-putting for those who don’t have a statistics background.

So here goes. See you on the other side!


It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

Making a place

I’ve just finished reading this book – Making a Place: An oral history of academic development in Australia, edited by Alison Lee, Catherine Manathunga and Peter Kandlbinder.

Here are my fairly rough notes and reflections. I found the book to be very frank about academic developers’ experiences, as most of the interviewees have now retired so they can really spill the beans without fear of repercussions!

  • It’s good to know the history of the field in which I’m working. In fact, I think it should be mandatory reading for all new Aussie academic developers.
  • I enjoyed reading about the contributions of people who didn’t necessarily publish or publicise their work – they just got on with doing it.
  • I loved Barbara Falk’s description of the early seminars she ran on uni teaching – still mostly the same topics 50 years on.
  • There are many quotes that still have resonance today e.g.

‘It was vital to have senior people who saw academic development as valuable because one of our biggest problems was that the Deans were always fighting for money. Very often they saw academic development as a waste of time and money.’ (p87) –  Terry Hore & Ian Thomas

‘ …what you got was the setting up of deans of teaching and learning, pro vice-chancellors of teaching; a whole organization sort of alongside the academic development units. I have a feeling that that really sidelined some of the academic development units…’ (p129) – Roger Landbeck

  • I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the history of my own academic development unit (ADU), which was established in the 1980s. Apparently the University of Sydney was ‘the last major university in the country without an ADU….I came to the CTL in 1982 and in the beginning there was just the Director (Michael Dunkin), Mike Prosser and me. We were like a beleaguered little ship in the night.’ (p159) – Jackie Lublin. It was great to read about how everything started, and to be aware the origins of some of the programs we still offer today.

You can read more about the how and why the editors conducted the study here.

Walk off the street and start teaching


Arty Guerillas, Flickr

When I tell friends and family what I do, I say ‘I teach university teachers about teaching’. People often nod and mention a terrible lecturer they had when they were at university. In a recent article in The Australian a trio of authors from University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education say that:

One can literally walk off the street and start teaching in a university. This makes for a rather unusual profession. This needs to change.

Their article is in response to a report by the Grattan Institute which agrees that teaching quality at universities needs to improve. A 2010 survey of 20 Australian institutions found that 37% of academics have never undertaken any form of teacher training. The Grattan report proposes the creation of 2,500 teaching-only positions, to be allocated on a competitive basis across 10-12 institutions. The authors acknowledge that while

…there is no clear evidence that teaching-only roles, in themselves, lead to a better-quality student learning experience…teaching-focused roles can offer potential for better recruitment, development, and recognition of individuals with high-level teaching skills, free of dominating research considerations. (page 49)

The authors of the Australian article say that this solution risks creating ‘a dichotomised university workplace in which the benefits to students are more imagined than real’ – because it doesn’t address the quality of teaching of the majority of staff.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) in the UK has introduced a national Professional Standards Framework which might prove a useful model for Australia. Richard Brawn of the HEA was in Sydney in April and said that while postgraduate certificates in higher education teaching are useful for those with no previous qualifications in higher education, other routes are needed for experienced staff. He spoke about the ‘immunisation effect’ of postgraduate certificates– once you do it, you never have to think about teaching again.

The ‘immunisation effect’ doesn’t seem to be true for my university. I’m about to start teaching one of the units in our Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education) – this afternoon in fact.  Research on our program shows that staff who complete it provide their students with a better learning experience and are more likely to receive teaching awards and grants than staff who do not participate in the program.

ANU scrapped its Graduate Certificate and is going with the HEA scheme, but the two are not incompatible.  I can see a role for formal programs, alongside informal forms of professional development, such as peer observation of teaching and mentoring.

Sexism in higher education research?

On a day when my twitter feed was full of sexism and scandal, I downloaded a new paper by Peter Kandlbinder, called Signature concepts of women researchers in higher education teaching and learning. It’s just been published in Studies in Higher Education, which is one of the gee whiz, gold star, highly ranked higher education journals.

Apart from the fact that the title reminded me of signature dishes of famous chefs, the paper was both useful and shocking. Useful because it draws attention to the contribution of four female researchers in higher education teaching and learning: Sheila Slaughter, Carolin Kreber, Angela Brew and Sarah Delamont. The signature concepts of these researchers are academic capitalism (Slaughter), scholarship of teaching (Kreber), teaching-research nexus (Brew), and postgraduate supervision (Delamont). Kandlbinder also identifies the pathway that each researcher adopted which led them to becoming known for their signature concept: create a unifying concept (Slaughter), publish in multiple journals (Kreber), link two fields together (Brew), and provide advice for practitioners (Delamont). Kandlbinder also notes that each researcher began exploring their signature concept during their doctoral studies.

Now onto the shocking bit: Kandlbinder chose to include a couple of comments from anonymous reviewers, I think on his earlier paper on Signature concepts of key researchers in higher education teaching and learning. One of these reviewers said:

“…higher education [research] is…dominated by the names of ‘seven old men, mostly now retired, who are linked to old concepts, largely generated 30 to 40 years ago with little to recommend them since’.” (p3)

I’m shocked that Kandlbinder included this comment in his paper. While I respect that it is the perspective of the reviewer, and that it might be an opinion shared by others, I find the comment to be harsh and unhelpful.

I’m not saying that sexism in academia doesn’t exist – a recent thesiswhisperer post and associated comments talk about this, and the issue has been explored by many researchers such Joan Eveline in her book Ivory Basement Leadership. I’m saying that comments along the lines of ‘old men, old concepts’ don’t help anyone. Why devalue someone’s work because of their gender or age?

In the Acknowledgements section, Kandlbinder thanks the six (!) anonymous reviewers of, I assume, his paper Signature concepts of key researchers in higher education teaching and learning, which talked about the work of seven male researchers. He says that the reviewers encouraged him to go back at look at his data to find the contributions of female researchers. So that’s fantastic, good on those reviewers. But don’t diss the guys just because they are guys. I’m all for critiquing the concepts – and will do so in my next post on student approaches to learning.