HERDSA 2012: Informal Communities of Practice: What are the advantages?Posted: July 4, 2012
One of the talks I went to today was on “Money, Mountains and the Law, The powerful process of interdisciplinary collaboration”. I’m afraid that I can’t give you all of the names of the presenters as there were two physical and three virtual (Edit: The speakers were Leslie Almberg and Judy McGowan – thanks, Leslie!)- and the paper was submitted by Symons (spelling corrected!), Almberg, Goh and McGowan, from Curtin in Western Australia.
The academics in question all came from different disciplines, and different generations and cultures of academia, and found that they had a key thing in common: they considered themselves to be “constructive dissenters”, people who are not happy with how things are in their own patch but rather than just grumbling, they’re looking to make positive change. In this case, these academics had to stop outside of their own discipline, looking in a framework for embedding language elements into their courses, and their similarities were identified by a facilitator who said, effectively, “You’re all saying the same thing from your own discipline.”
The language expert, in this case, worked as interdisciplinary hub – a meeting point for the other three academics. For me, what was most interesting here was how the community of practice was defined between people with similar ideas, rather than people from similar disciplines.
One of the academics, who self-described themselves as an end-of-life academic, was musing on the difference in the modern academy from the one that she had originally entered. The new academy is competitive, full of Roosters (in the strutting sense, rather than the sitting on eggs sense [ Edit: Roosters don’t sit on eggs, do they?]), and requires you to be constantly advertising your excellence. (I’ll speak more on this in another post.) This makes it harder to form an in-discipline community of practice, because there’s always the chance that you will think about the person across from you as a competitor first and a collaborator second.
The advantages of the interdisciplinary community of practice, as outlined in the talk, is that it is outside of your traditional hierarchies, formality and established space for competition. It doesn’t matter if you tell someone your amazing teaching secret – you won’t be competing against them for promotion. Better still, telling someone something good doesn’t have to make them (if they’re keyed this way) feel bad because you’re outperforming them on their home turf.
In the words of the speakers: these interdisciplinary communities of practice are “organic, outside of hierarchies and silos, provide support mechanism, remove the undercurrent of competitiveness and liberate”.
This forced me to carry out some reflection because I am, to a great extent, someone who would be easy to describe as a rooster. I am a very visible, and mildly successful, early career academic who has a number of things to talk about. (Long time readers will know that an absence of content hasn’t actually slowed me down yet, either.) I try very hard to be inclusive, to help, to be a mentor in the small circle of expertise where that would apply, and to shut up when I can’t help. I work with just about anyone who wants to work with me, but I do expect people to work. I collaborate inside my school, outside of my discipline and outside of my University and, to be honest, the feeling of liberation of working with someone else who has the same problems is fantastic – it makes you feel less alone. The fact that I can share ideas with someone and know that we’re building bridges, not being boastful or accidentally (but implicitly) belittling people who haven’t achieved the same things, is one of the best reasons to work ex discipline.
But I realise that I would not be some people’s first choice to work with because I am still, to many interpretations, a rooster. Obviously, I have a lot of personal reflection left to do on this to work out how I can still achieve and maintain a position as a positive role model, while being fairly sure that I don’t end up as a point of division or someone that is seen as a glory hound. I would be slightly surprised if the last were felt widely but it’s a good time to step back and think about my dealings with the people who are more successful than me (have I been resentful or subordinate?) and the people who are on my level (are we helping each other?) and those people who might benefit from my help (am I helping them or am I being unapproachable)?