HERDSA 2012: President’s address at the closing

The President of HERDSA, Winthrop Professor Shelda Debowski, spoke to all of us after the final general session at the end of the conference. (As an aside, a Winthrop Professor, at the University of Western Australia, is equivalent to a full Professor (Level E) across the rest of Australia. You can read about it here on page 16 if you’re interested. For those outside Australia, the rest of the paper explains how our system of titles fits into the global usage schemes.) Anyway, back to W/Prof Debowski’s talk!

Last year, one of the big upheavals facing the community was a change at Government level from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council to the Office of Learning and Teaching, with associated changes in staffing and, from what I’m told, that rippled through the entire conference. This year, W/Prof Debowski started by referring to the change that the academic world faces every day – the casualisation of academics, disinterest in development, the highly competitive world in which we know work where waiting for the cream to rise would be easier if someone wasn’t shaking the container vigorously the whole time (my analogy). The word is changing, she said, but she asked us “is it changing for the better?”

“What is the custodial role of Higher Education?”

We have an increasing focus on performance and assigned criteria, if you don’t match these criteria then you’re in trouble and, as I’ve mentioned before, research focus usually towers over teaching prowess. There is not much evidence of a nuanced approach. The President asked us what we were doing to support people as they move towards being better academics? We are more and more frenetic regarding joining the dots in our career, but that gives us less time for reflection, learning, creativity, collegiality and connectivity. And we need all of these to be effective.

We’re, in her words, so busy trying to stay alive that we’ve lost sight of being academics with a strong sense of purpose, mission and a vision for the future. We need support – more fertile spaces and creative communities. We need recognition and acknowledgement.

One of the largest emerging foci, which has obviously resonated with me a great deal, is the question of academic identity. Who am I? What am I? Why am I doing this? What is my purpose? What is the function of Higher Education and what is my purpose within that environment? It’s hard to see the long term perspective here so it’s understandable that so many people think along the short term rails. But we need a narrative that encapsulates the mission and the purpose to which we are aspiring.

This requires a strategic approach – and most academics don’t understand the real rules of the game, by choice sometimes, and this prevents them from being strategic. You don’t stay in the right Higher Ed focus unless you are aware of what’s going on, what the news sources are, who you need to be listening to and, sometimes, what the basic questions are. Being ignorant of the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education won’t be an impenetrable shield against the outcomes of people reacting to this report or government changes in the face of the report. You don’t have to be overly politicised but it’s naïve to think that you don’t have to understand your context. You need to have a sense of your place and the functions of your society. This is a fundamental understanding of cause and effect, being able to weigh up the possible consequences of your actions.

The President then referred to the Intelligent Careers work of Arthur et al (1995) and Jones and DeFilippi (1996) in taking the correct decisions for a better career. You need to know: why, how, who, what, where and when. You need to know when to go for grants as the best use of your time, which is not before you have all of the right publications and support, rather than blindly following a directive that “Everyone without 2 ARC DPs must submit a new grant every year to get the practice.”

(On a personal note, I submitted an ARC Discovery Project Application far too early and the feedback was so unpleasantly hostile, even unprofessionally so, that I nearly quit 18 months after my PhD to go and do something else. This point resonated with me quite deeply.)

W/Prof Debowski emphasised the importance of mentorship and encouraged us all to put more effort into mentoring or seeking mentorship. Mentorship was “a mirror to see yourself as others see you, a microscope to allow you to look at small details, a telescope/horoscope to let you look ahead to see the lay of the land in the future”. If you were a more senior person, that on finding someone languishing, you should be moving to mentor them. (Aside: I am very much in the ‘ready to be mentored’ category rather than the ‘ready to mentor’ so I just nodded at more senior looking people.)

It is difficult to understate the importance of collaboration and connections. Lots of people aren’t ready or confident and this is an international problem, not just an Australian one. Networking looks threatening and hard, people may need sponsorship to get in and build more sophisticated skills. Engagement is a way to link research and teaching with community, as well as your colleagues. There are also accompanying institutional responsibilities here, with the scope for a lot of social engineering at the institutional level. This requires the institutions to ensure that their focuses will allow people to thrive: if they’re fixated on research, learning and teaching specialists will look bad. We need a consistent, fair, strategic and forward-looking framework for recognising excellence. W/Prof Debowski, who is from University of Western Australia, noted that “collegiality” had been added to performance reviews at her institution – so your research and educational excellence was weighed against your ability to work with others. However, we do it, there’s not much argument that we need to change culture and leadership and that all of us, our leaders included, are feeling the pinch.

The President argued that Academic Practice is at the core of a network that is built out of Scholarship, Research, Leadership and Measures of Learning and Teaching, but we also need leaders of University development to understand how we build things and can support development, as well as an Holistic Environment for Learning and Teaching.

The President finished with a discussion of HERDSA’s roles: Fellowships, branches, the conferences, the journal, the news, a weekly mailing list, occasional guides and publications, new scholar support and OLT funded projects. Of course, this all ties back to community, the theme of the conference, but from my previous posts, the issue of identity is looming large for everyone in learning and teaching at the tertiary level.

Who are we? Why do we do what we do? What is our environment?

It was a good way to make us think about the challenges that we faced as we left the space where everyone was committed to thinking about L&T and making change where possible, going back to the world where support was not as guaranteed, colleagues would not necessarily be as open or as ready for change, and even starting a discussion that didn’t use the shibboleths of the research-focused community could result in low levels of attention and, ultimately, no action.

The President’s talk made us think about the challenges but, also, by focusing on strategy and mentorship, making us realise that we could plan for better, build for the future and that we were very much not alone.

 



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