Graham Parr

Teaching-focused academics: five ways to beat the struggle for identity

An academic career centered on teaching should not be associated with a dead-end, or second-rate professional life. It is at the teaching coalface that the capacities that will enable students, academics, and universities to face the challenges of a changing world will be developed.

To support this work as the meaningful undertaking that it is, what kind of professional development would meet the identity, community and skill needs of academics?

We developed a collaborative program of professional development – targeting skills in education research – at a large Australian university. The results make a case that collaboration is key when building educational research knowledge and skills in higher education. In turn, these skills, and the communities of practice in which they are embedded, are essential to meaningful work for academics with a teaching focus.

In 2012 at Monash University, only two years into the introduction of education-focused academic roles (EFAs), a review by senior leadership showed that staff employed in the new roles felt isolated and underprepared.

This was the context we were responding to when we developed our professional learning program, the ‘Higher Education Research’, or HER, program. We took a route that would simultaneously address the perceived lack of capacity in specialized education research and the sense of isolation. The HER program parted ways with traditional interventions that look to ‘upskill’ individuals and centre on a particular new technology or methodology. Instead, we created an authentic social context in which participants could feel part of a scholarly community and build networks across disciplines and faculties.

The HER program ran in two cohorts, each lasting 18 months. They began with a series of four day-long workshops. Four months of workshops covered the knowledge and skills needed to plan and carry out a learning and teaching research project. Each research project would see participants examine an aspect of their own educational practice and then work towards the dissemination of their research. Full details of the project and what it involved can be found here.

From the focus groups, we were able to make a richer qualitative assessment in which five key themes emerged:

Struggle – Many said they initially struggled in the new roles as EFAs without sufficient support from the institution. They felt the pressure of needing to produce education research outcomes (such as evaluations of teaching and learning programs) that they felt ill-equipped for. However, they found that the stable structure offered by the HER Program was supportive. They characterised it as a safe container, nurturing them as they learned new skills.

Identity – HER participants developed new feelings and ideas about having ‘education-focussed academic’ as a professional identity. The HER Program generated a sense of community among EFAs that helped to alleviate their feelings of isolation and created a sense of belonging. One said, “We were able to meet people across the university who had similar ideas and that was great. I think it put us on the map a little bit more.” EFA communities became particularly important as EFAs otherwise felt alone as academics committed to teaching in their discipline.

Social relations – HER participants changed how they saw, acted on, and related to the social context of their work. Some described the growth in confidence they felt as they struggled together, developing comradery and solidarity that came with it. The program shaped later initiatives made by the participants, with some offering formal professional development and informal mentoring to their colleagues. Effects cascaded beyond the university when participants presented their education research activity nationally and internationally at conferences. These ripples connected participants to mentors, to mentors’ peers and the wider education research community.

Leadership – The HER program helped participants to develop as leaders. Some took up leadership positions in learning and teaching in their Department or Faculty, but leadership also encompassed the ways others perceived their expertise. They reported demonstrating in very practical ways how they led learning and teaching, such as by mentoring colleagues and leading quality professional development programs in their School or Department.

Criticality – The program helped academics to see their practice as university educators in more critical terms. Said one, “Even though HER was really about doing education research, I think my reflective practice probably improved as a result of being involved in the HER program. Even though your reflection wasn’t predominantly on what happened in the classroom, it was on your research project, it’s kind of difficult to uncouple those two things … I think my teaching became better with that reflective practice”.

The HER program was not a one-off event, but an on-going, collective effort to craft genuine research projects relevant to participants’ everyday practices.

This is why it had such an impact long after it ended. By actively taking part in developing academic communities, program participants were then able to seek out opportunities to connect with and influence their peers, spreading the benefits of the program through their institution.

The article makes six key recommendations for other universities who are seeking to build the capacity and expertise of education-focussed academics and maximise their impact at their universities.

By supporting programs like HER and seeing to it that they align with their university’s values and goals, leaders can put into practice the principle that teaching and education research are scholarly activities valued by the institution.

Dr Joy Whitton is a freelance consultant and until recently was Senior Project Coordinator at Monash University. Her research focusses on professional learning, and creativity in higher education teaching and learning. 

Associate Professor Julia Choate is the director of physiology education at Monash University.  Her research focuses on enhancing students’ university experiences, by developing employability skills and improving learning through innovative teaching practices

Graham Parr is Associate Dean (International) and Associate Professor of English and international education in the School of Curriculum, Teaching and Inclusive Education, Faculty of Education, Monash University