I often say my work is my hobby, and I don’t mean that because I ‘volunteer’ the usual 2-unpaid days work a week on top of my contracted hours (UCU 2016), or because like many educators I don’t have the emotional or intellectual energy to pursue other interests (hooks 2010). I say this because after 20 years in the sector my belief in the crucial role of higher education in society is unabashed. Moreover, in recent troubled times I find comfort in my work as an academic developer. Through my service to the educator I am in the service of social justice.
Academic Development & Educator Wellbeing
As a consultant in academic practice I work directly with educators, managers and leaders working in the (predominantly UK) Higher Education sector, which recently has included college HE. The main focus of my work is in supporting HE providers in delivering a positive learning experience for the entire learning community: learners, educators, support, and academic staff. There is a lot of investment in the HE experience of learners, and so interest in developing pedagogic competencies in staff. But as I remind my clients, the educators’ pedagogic competence is only half the picture. Educator wellbeing is at the heart of good pedagogic practice; a flourishing educator will offer great classes, which will enthuse learners, which in turn energises the educator. I have evidence to suggest this virtuous cycle can be realised through the scholarship of teaching and learning–led academic development (Lawrence, 2017). Things are not however, quite so simple.
Although TEF is putting teaching on management agendas, depleted academic staff are not always thrilled to be spending their precious time in the academic development workshop. How do I engage the exhausted educator who sees this as yet another demand on their reduced energies? Or harder still work with the hot-shot professor who may be suffering a case of unconscious bias toward me, a working class woman with a regional accent, who occasionally uses a walking aid, is of mature-ish years and has nothing but a discipline specific PhD to her name? In the college setting, the inverse seems to come into play: I’m a threatening Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, with a PhD and extensive HE experience but no record of working in industry or in the vocational sector.
Sincerity, Society and Motivation
My passion for my work, and profound pleasure in the disciplinary expertise of my colleagues drives my workshops forward (I love working with interesting, clever people, devoted to their students. There are many people like this in HE, with the added bonus in College HE of being grounded in an active culture of effective widening participation). My energy and enthusiasm is borne from a sincere belief in the value academic development has to the wider goal of Higher Education, and the role HE plays in our society. It is my privilege to reignite educators’ passion for teaching, to remind them of the important role they play in our society – they are not only integral to the creation of engineers, historians or allied health professionals, they are integral to the creation of critical thinking citizens (Freire 1998; hooks 1994, 2010). In the (paraphrased) words of Leesa Wheelahan ‘critical thinking graduates are more tolerant, have a stronger sense of social justice …. and don’t vote for Trump’ (Wheelahan 2017). Motivation indeed.
Sustaining Enthusiasm – Authenticity and Scholarship
I look to the scholarship of my heroes to sustain me. I’m a bell hooks (note bell hooks does not capitalise her name) and Paulo Friere completist, and a novice student of Dewey. My collection is spread about the house: by the kitchen chair; next to my bed; in my study; on my desk. When needing strength I open their pages, and can find something that inspires, comforts and empowers at every turn of the page.
hooks has faced discrimination I can’t even imagine, and triumphed by being always true to her ethic. She eschewed a career in US Ivy League universities to work in a community college, turning down financial reward and academic prestige to serve a learning community similar to that found in college HE. She did so as this, she tells us, is where her heart is; where the best work can be done, and the biggest difference to injustice can be made. This kind of authenticity is crucial in the practice of academic development. When I worked with educators in college HE I hope my sincere belief in the importance of our role rang through the session and beyond.
Authenticity and Wellbeing
This authenticity is, I recognise, good for wellbeing. In the increasingly marketised HE sector the numbers and workload can distract us from our real work. We can find ourselves working to agendas that do not fit our personal ethic. The thing is, losing your moral compass can happen insidiously. In the competitive academic-jobs market there is rude temptation to quell this moral disquiet, to ‘go with the flow’ rather than challenge a tricky working culture or practice.
To sustain my enthusiasm I need to be true. But how can to remain true in this context? I build scholarly reflection into my working day. In my #HEwellbeing research I have found that educators are more likely to ruminate than actively reflect. These are quite different things. Getting into the habit is difficult, so I have established a strategy that works for me - I need a prompt.
Prompting Scholarly Personal Reflection
I have a picture of Patti Smith above my desk, I read her works, listen to her music and see her play as often as possible. Similarly to hooks, Smith is true to her ethic and artistic sentiment. She believes in her place in the world, and is proud of her place on the margins. When I see her picture I am reminded of all this and inspired. When this is coupled with the scholarly texts that surround me, I feel empowered.
So I pause and listen to my inner voice. What is my gut instinct telling me? Why am I uncomfortable with this piece of work? How can I turn this around? I might not have an immediate answer, but I am aware of the problem, and I can rouse the courage, and the conviction, to act. This conviction to discern and speak the truth is an important professional strength. I may find there is an agenda I am not aware of that explains a specific decision made further up the strategic chain, or the leader I am working with is so preoccupied with the numbers they haven’t recognised ethical complexity. Either way, an honest conversation moves things forward and serves our higher goal.
We must remember to exercise our academic freedom, and have the courage to do so with honesty, integrity and respect. In so doing we can only be hopeful for the future. And in hope we find a resource of energy, which may encourage our ongoing passion for our work in higher education, at a university or college based setting.
Dr Jenny Lawrence PFHEA, AFSEDA was a Scholarship Development manager for the Scholarship Project, working with East Coast College, University Centre Yeovil and North Lindsey Colleges. She is now a Teaching Enhancement Advisor at the University of Hull.
The author can be contacted through twitter @jennywahwah or by emailing email@example.com
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. London: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community. A pedagogy of hope. London: Routledge.
hooks, b. (2009). Belonging: A culture of place. London:Routledge.
hooks, b. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. London:Routledge.
Freire, P. (1998) Pedagogy of Freedom. Ethics, Democracy and civic courage. USA: Rowman and Littlefield.
University and College Union (2014). UCU Survey of work related stress survey. Summary of fundings. Retrieved from https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/6908/UCU-survey-of-work-related-stress-2014---summary-of-findings-Nov-14/pdf/ucu_stresssurvey14_summary.pdf
University and College Union (2016). Workload is an education issue: UCU workload report 2016. Retrieved from https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/8195/Workload-is-an-education-issue-UCU-workload-survey-report-2016/pdf/ucu_workloadsurvey_fullreport_jun16.pdf
Wheelehan, L (2017) Why isn’t there more higher education in colleges? AoC College HE research and scholarship conference. Birmingham. June 27th 2017.