The Early-Career Teacher

Recently, I mentioned the Australian Research Council (ARC) grant scheme, which recognises that people who have had their PhDs for less than five years are regarded as early-career researchers (ECRs). ECRs have a separate grant scheme (now, they used to have a different way of being dealt with in the grant application scheme) that recognises the fact that their track records, the number of publications and activity relative to opportunity, is going to be less than that of more seasoned individuals.

What is interesting about this is that someone who has just finished their PhD will have spent (at least) three years, more like four, doing research and, we hope, competent research under guidance for the last two of those years. So, having spent a couple of years doing research, we then accept that it can take up to five years for people to be recognised as being at the same level.

But, for the most part, there is no corresponding recognition of the early-career teacher, which is puzzling given that there is no requirement to meet any teaching standards or take part in any teaching activities at all before you are put out in front of a class. You do no (or are not required to do any) teaching during your PhD in Australia, yet we offer support and recognition of early status for the task that you HAVE been doing – and don’t have a way to recognise the need to build up your teaching.

We discussed ideas along these lines at a high-level meeting that I attended this morning and I brought up the early-career teacher (and mentoring program to support it) because someone had brought up a similar idea for researchers. Mentoring is very important, it was one of the big HERDSA messages and almost everywhere I go stresses this, and it’s no surprise that it’s proposed as a means to improve research but, given the realities of the modern Australian University where more of our budget comes from teaching than research, it is indicative of the inherent focus on research that I need to propose teaching-specific mentoring in reaction to research-specific mentoring, rather than vice versa.

However, there are successful general mentoring schemes where senior staff are paired with more junior staff to give them help with everything that they need and I quite like this because it stresses the nexus of teaching and research, which is supposed to be one of our focuses, and it also reduces the possibility of confusion and contradiction. But let’s return to the teaching focus.

The impact of an early-career teacher program would be quite interesting because, much as you might not encourage a very raw PhD to leap in with a grant application before there was enough supporting track record, you might have to restrict the teaching activities of ECTs until they had demonstrated their ability, taken certain courses or passed some form of peer assessment. That, in any form, is quite confronting and not what most people expect when they take up a junior lectureship. It is, however, a practical way to ensure that we stress the value of teaching by placing basic requirements on the ability to demonstrate skill within that area! In some areas, as well as practical skill, we need to develop scholarship in learning and teaching as well – can we do this in the first years of the ECT with a course of educational psychology, discipline educational techniques and practica to ensure that our lecturers have the fundamental theoretical basis that we would expect from a school teacher?

Are we dancing around the point and, extending the heresy, require something much closer to the Diploma of Education to certify academics as teachers, moving the ECR and the ECT together to give us an Early Career Academic (ECA), someone who spends their first three years being mentored in research and teaching? Even ending up with (some sort of) teaching qualification at the end? (With the increasing focus on quality frameworks and external assessment, I keep waiting for one of our regulatory bodies to slip in a ‘must have a Dip Ed/Cert Ed or equivalent’ clause sometime in the next decade.)

To say that this would require a major restructure in our expectations would be a major understatement, so I suspect that this is a move too far. But I don’t think it’s too much to put limits on the ways that we expose our new staff to difficult or challenging teaching situations, when they have little training and less experience. This would have an impact on a lot of teaching techniques and accepted practices across the world. We don’t make heavy use of Teaching Assistants (TAs) at my Uni but, if we did, a requirement to reduce their load and exposure would immediately push more load back onto someone else. At a time when salary budgets are tight and people are already heavily loaded, this is just not an acceptable solution – so let’s look at this another way.

The way that we can at least start this, without breaking the bank, is to emphasise the importance of teaching and take it as seriously as we take our research: supporting and developing scholarship, providing mentoring and extending that mentoring until we’re sure that the new educators are adapting to their role. These mentors can then give feedback, in conjunction with the staff members, as to what the new staff are ready to take on. Of course, this requires us to carefully determine who should be mentored, and who should be the mentor, and that is a political minefield as it may not be your most senior staff that you want training your teachers.

I am a fairly simple man in many ways. I have a belief that the educational role that we play is not just staff-to-student, but staff-to-staff and student-to-student. Educating our new staff in the ways of education is something that we have to do, as part of our job. There is also a requirement for equal recognition and support across our two core roles: learning and teaching, and research. I’m seeing a lot of positive signs in this direction so I’m taking some heart that there are good things on the nearish horizon. Certainly, today’s meeting met my suggestions, which I don’t think were as novel as I had hoped they would be, with nobody’s skull popping out of their mouth. I take that as a positive sign.


HERDSA 2012: Final Keynote, “Connecting with the Other: Some ideas on why Black America likes to sing Bob Dylan”, Professor Liz McKinley

I’ve discussed this final talk in outline but it has had such an impact on me that I wanted to share it in its own post. This also marks the end of my blogging from HERDSA, but I’m sure that you’ve seen enough on this so that’s probably a good thing. (As a note, the next conference that I’ll be at is ICER, in September, so expect some more FrenetoBlogging (TM) then.)

Professor Elizabeth (Liz) McKinley has a great deal of experience in looking at issues of otherness, from her professional role in working with Māori students and postgraduates, and because she is of Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa and Ngāi Tahu descent herself. She began her talk with a long welcome and acknowledgement speech in an indigenous language (I’m not sure which one it was and I haven’t been able to find out), which she then repeated in English, along with an apology to the local indigenous peoples for her bad pronunciation of some of their words.

She began by musing on Bob Dylan, poet, protest song writer, and why his songs, especially “Blowing in the Wind”, were so popular with African Americans. Dylan’s song, released at a turbulent time in US History, asked a key question: “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” At a time when African Americans were barely seen as people in some quarters, despite the Constitutional Amendments that had been made so long before, these lyrics captured the frustrations and aspirations of the Black people of the US and it became, in Professor McKinley’s opinion, anthemic in the civil rights movement because of this. She then discussed how many of Bob Dylan’s other songs had been reinterpreted, repurposed, and moved into the Black community, citing “Mr Tambourine Man” as covered by Con Funk Shun as an example of this. (I have been unable to locate this on Youtube or my usual sources but, I’ve been told, it’s not the version that you’re used to and it has an entirely new groove.)

Reinterpretation pays respect to the poet but we rediscover new aspects about the work and the poet and ourselves when we work with another artist. We learn from each other when we share and we see each other’s way of doing things. These are the attributes that we need to adopt if we want to bring in more underrepresented and disadvantaged students from outside of our usual groups – the opportunities to bring their talents to University to share them with us.

She then discussed social justice education in a loose overview: the wide range of pedagogies that are designed to ameliorate the problems caused by unfair practices and marginalisation. Of course, to be marginalised and to be discriminated against, we must have a dominant (or accepted) form, and an other. It is the Other that was a key aspect of the rest of the talk.

The Other can be seen in two very distinct ways. There is the violent Other, the other that we are scared of, that physically repels us, that we hide from and seek to destroy, sideline or ignore. This is drive by social division and inequity. When Gil Scott-Heron sang of the Revolution that wouldn’t be televised, he was speaking to his people who, according to people who look like me, were a violent and terrifying Otherness that lived in the shadows of every city in America. People are excluded when they don’t fit the mainstream thinking, when we’re scared of them – but we can seek to understand the other’s circumstances, which are usually a predicament, to understand their actions and motivations so that we can ameliorate or remedy them.

But there is also the non-violent Other, a philosophical separation, independent of social factors. We often accept this Other, letting it be different and even seeking knowledge from this unknowable other and, rather than classify it as something to be shunned or feared, we defer our categorisation. My interpretation of this non-violent other is perhaps that of those who seek religious orders, at the expense of married life, even small possessions or a personal life within a community that they control. In many regards this is very much an Otherness but we have tolerated and welcomed the religiously Other into our lives for millennia. It has only been reasonably recently that aspects of this, for certain religious orders, has now started to associate a violent Otherness with the mystical and philosophical Otherness that we would usually associate with clerics.

Professor McKinley went on to identify some of the Others in Australia and New Zealand: the disadvantaged, those living in rural or remote areas, the indigenous peoples. Many of the benchmarks for these factors are set against nations like the UK, the US and Canada. She questioned why, given how different our nations are, we benchmarked ourselves against the UK but identified that all of this target setting, regardless of which benchmarks were in use, were set against majority groups that were largely metropolitan/urban and non-indigenous. In New Zealand, the indigenous groups are the Māori and the Pacific Islanders (PI), but there is recognition that there is a large degree of co-location between these peoples and the lower socio-economic status groups – a double whammy as far as Otherness goes compared to affluent white culture.

Professor McKinley has been heavily involved and leading three projects, although she went to great lengths to thank the many people who were making it all work while she was, as she said, running around telling everyone about it. These three projects were the Starpath Project, the Māori and Indigenous (MAI) Doctoral Programme, and the Teaching and Learning in the Supervision of Māori PhD students (TLRI).

The Starpath Project was designed to undertake research and develop and evaluated evidence-based initiatives, designed to improve educational participation and achievement of students from groups currently under-represented in degree level education. This focuses on the 1st decile schools in NZ, those who fall into the bottom 10%, which includes a high proportion of Māori and PI students. The goal was to increase the number of these students who went into Uni out of school, which is contrary to the usual Māori practice of entering University as mature age students when they have a complexity in their life that drives them to seek University (Liz’s phrase, which I really like).

New Zealand is trying to become a knowledge economy, as they have a small population on a relatively small country, and they want more people in University earlier. While the Pākehā, those of European descent, make up most of those who go to Uni, the major population growth is the  Māori and PI communities. There are going to be increasingly large economic and social problems if these students don’t start making it to University earlier.

This is a 10-year project, where phase 1 was research to identify choke points and barriers in to find some intervention initiatives, and phase 2 is a systematic implementation, transferable, sustainable, to track students into Uni. This had a strong scientific basis with emphasis on strong partnerships, leading to relationships with nearly 10% of the secondary schools in New Zealand, focused on the low decile groups that are found predominantly around Auckland. The partnerships were considered to be essential here and the good research was picked up and used to form good government policy – a fantastic achievement.

Another key aspect, especially from the indigenous perspective, was to get the families on board. By doing this, involving parents and family, guardian participation in activities shot up from 20% to 80% but it was crucial to think beyond the individual, including writing materials for families – parents and children. Families are the locus of change in these communities. Part of the work here involved transitions support for students to get from school to uni, supported by scholarships to show both the students and the community that they can learn and achieve to the same degree as any other student.

One great approach was that, instead of targeting the disadvantaged kids for support, everyone got the same level of (higher) support which normalised the student support and reduced the Otherness in this context.

The next project, the MAI programme, was a challenge to Māori researchers to develop a doctoral programme and support that didn’t ignore the past while still conforming to the academic needs of the present. (“Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, 1999, was heavily referenced throughout this.) Māori students have cultural connections and associations that can make certain PhD work very difficult: consider a student who is supposed to work with human flesh samples, where handling dead tissue is completely inappropriate in Māori culture. It is profoundly easy, as well as lazy, to map an expectation of conformity over the top of this (Well, if you’re doing our degree then you follow our culture) but this is the worst example of a colonising methodology and this is exactly what MAI was started to address.

MAI works through communities, meeting regularly. Māori academics, students and cultural advisors meet regularly to alleviate the pressures of cross-cultural issues and provide support through meetings and retreats.

The final project, the Māori PhD project, was initiated by MAI (above) to investigate indigenous students, to understand why they were carrying out their PhDs. Students were having problem, as with the tissue example above, so the project also provided advice to institutions and to students, encouraging Pākehā supervisors to work with Māori students, as well as the possibility of Māori supervision if the student needed to feel culturally safe. This was a bicultural project, with five academics across four institutions.

From Smith, 1997, p203, “educational battleground for Māori is spatial. It is about theoretical spaces, pedagogical spaces, structural spaces.” From this project there were differences in what the students were seeking and the associated pedagogies. Some where seeking difference from their own basis, an ancestral Māori basis. Some were Māori but not really seeking that culture. Some, however, were using their own thesis to regain their lost identity as Māori.

The phrase that showed up occasionally was a “colonised history” – even your own identity is threatened by the impact of the colonists on the records, memories and freedoms of your people. We had regularly seen colonists move to diminish and reduce the Other, as a perceived threat, where they classify it as a violent other. The third group of students, above, are trying to rebuild what it meant to be Māori for them, in the face of New Zealand’s present state as a heavily colonised country, where most advantage lies with the Pākehā and Asian communities. They were addressing a sense of loss, in the sense of their loss of what it meant to be Māori. This quest for Māori identity was sometimes a challenge to the institution, hence the importance of this project to facilitate bicultural understanding and allow everyone to be happy with the progress and nature of the study.

At this point in my own notes I wrote “IDENTITY IDENTITY IDENTITY” because it became clearer and clearer to me that this was the key issue that is plaguing us all, and that kept coming up at HERDSA. Who are we? Who is my trusted group? How do I survive? Who am I? While this issues, associated with Otherness in the indigenous community, are particularly significant for low SES groups and the indigenous, they affect all of us in this times of great change.

An issue of identity that I have touched on, and that Professor McKinley brought up in her talk, was how we establish the identity of the teacher, in order to identify who should be teaching. In Māori culture, there are three important aspects: Matauranga (Knowledge), Whakapapa (ancestral links) and Tikanga (cultural protocols and customs). But this raises pedagogical issues, especially when two or more of these clash. Who is the teacher and how can we recognise them? There are significant cultural issues if we seek certain types of knowledge from the outside, because we run headlong into Tikanga. These knowledge barriers may not be flexible at all, which is confronting to western culture (except for all of the secret barriers that we choose not to acknowledge). The teachers may be parents, elders, grandparents – recognising this requires knowledge, time and understanding. And, of course, respect.

Another important aspect is the importance of the community. If you, as a Māori PhD student, go to a community and ask them to answer some questions, at some stage in the future, they’ll expect you back to help out with something else. So, time management becomes an issue because there is a spirit of reciprocity that requires the returned action – this is at odds with restricted time for PhDs and the desire for timely completion if you have to disappear for 2 weeks to help build or facilitate something.

Professor McKinley showed a great picture. A student, graduating with PhD gown surmounted by the sacred cloak of the Māori people. They have to have a separate graduation ceremony, as well as the small ‘two tickets maximum’ one in the hall, because community and family pride is strong – two tickets maximum won’t accommodate the two busloads of people who showed up to see this particular student graduate.

The summary of the Other was that we have two views:

  • The Other as a consequence of social, economic and/or political disaffiliation (Don’t pathologise the learning by diagnosing it as a problem and trying to prescribe a remedy.)
  • As an alterity that is independent of social force. (Welcoming the other on their own terms. A more generous form but a scarier form for the dominant culture.)

What can we learn from the other? My difference matters to my institution. We need to ensure that we have placed our ethics into social justice education – this stance allows us how to frame ethics across the often imposed barriers of difference.

Professor McKinley then concluded by calling up some of her New Zealand colleagues to the stage, to close the talk with a song. An unusual (for me) end to an inspiring and extremely thought-provoking talk. (Sadly, it wasn’t Bob Dylan, but it was in Māori so it may have secretly been so!)

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.


Identity: Who am I?

The theme of last week’s HERDSA conference was supposed to be ‘connections’ and, while we certainly discussed that a lot, the fundamental requirement for a connection is that there is something similar between two points that allows them to connect in the first place. The underpinning of all of the connections was knowing enough about yourself or your area to work out who you could or should connect with. Even where we talked about inter-disciplinary issues, we established a commonality in our desire to learn from others, a need to educate. This was a discussion of greater identity – what we were beyond the basic statements of “I am from discipline X” and an affirmation of our desire to be seen as educators.

I have some more posts to make on the final talk on HERDSA, which moved me a great deal and gave me some very interesting pathways along which to think, but today I’m going to restrict myself to musing on identity and how we establish it.

Indigenous identity is an important part of life in Australia, whether those who wish to ignore the issue like it or not. The traditional owners of the land had ways very different from those of the white colonists and the clash of cultures has caused a great deal of sorrow and loss over the years, but it has also given rise to a great many meaningful and valuable opportunities where two cultures sit down and attempt to view each other. Something I find interesting, as someone who works with knowledge, is the care and attention given to statements of who people are, within their own culture.

When the speaker, about whom I will write much more, stood up to give the final keynote of HERDSA, we had already had her identified by her people and her place in New Zealand, and she spoke in another tongue when she began speaking, as the indigenous peoples here also often do. Because she is indigenous to another land, she then apologised for her pronunciation of local words because, of course, it is not as if this is British films of the 30s and every foreigner speaks the same ‘foreign lingo’. Her identity, her cultural locale, her zone of expertise and stewardship were clearly identified before she spoke but, as she immediately acknowledged, her status and place did not grant her mystical insights into the issues of local people. I found this very respectful but, of course, I look in from outside, without a clear notion of my own identity, and therefore I cannot speak for the traditional people of the region of Tasmania which I was visiting.

When I am introduced to people, my bio says something like this: “Nick Falkner is the Associate Dean of Information Technology for the Faculty of…” and then goes on to mention my linkage to the school of Computer Science as a lecturer, and I will probably mention my PhD if it hasn’t been put into the title. Why? Because it helps people to place me in context, to value the weight of my words, to determine if the knowledge that I speak comes from a point of authority.

But is this my identity?

My PhD is not the same as an initiation into sacred knowledge. We accept that gaining the PhD is the first step along the road, and not more than that. It is at best the journeyman qualification: apprenticeship complete and trade competent but not yet a master. Journeyman comes from the French journee (day) and refers to the fact that you can charge a wage for a day’s work – you have established your value. However, with increasing pressures on the PhD completion time, tied to funding and available resources, you cannot chip away at your task of knowledge until your apprenticeship is complete, regardless of the time it takes. Now, your supervisor, in the role of master, examines your works, guides you towards crafting that can be completed in time and then stamps you ready (with the help of many others) with a possible burden to be incurred as you pick up the additional skills.

There is so much disparity in what a PhD means, by discipline, by country, even by University within a state, that it is the loosest possible description of journeyman possible. No trades body would certify an electrician under such a rubbery and relaxed definition, without reserving the right to assess their skill at the trade.

So, in my bio, when I recite my list of the symbols and people that I come from, I list one that is either highly meaningful or absolutely meaningless, depending on where it comes from. But this is the line of my academic knowledge – my descent. And, on writing this, I realise that I have no idea who the supervisors of my supervisors were. I can tell you that I was the student of Dr Andrew Wendelborn and Dr Paul Coddington but there, it stops. Of course, I realise that there are people who can, and do, trace their thesis path back to Isaac Newton but, in our culture, where knowledge is largely mutated in transmission, rather than held sacred in one form as immutable knowledge, a grand truth handed down from the ancient and unknowable entities of the past, such a descent is an accident of structure and geography.

When someone calls himself a man of a tribe, they are saying much more than “I live in this area”, they are identifying themselves as someone who is linked to a tradition and carries on the essential knowledge of the tradition. This is part of their fabric.

When I call myself an Associate Dean, a lecturer, or a Computer Scientist, I’m telling you what I do, rather than addressing my fundamental identity. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I need to move myself to a place where I only pass on immutable knowledge or that I need to start some connection with the sacred. I have no real connection to the mystic and never really have, despite some false starts. But I have always been a thinker and now I’m thinking more about why I work the way I do – mostly it’s because I don’t know how to quantify myself or assess my worth except in terms of the things that I produce, the jobs that I do, the titles that I can present when asked a question that I loathe: “what do you do?”

For me, the answer for many years has always, implicitly, been “Never enough” and, on reflection, this is the answer of a man who really doesn’t understand his own nature enough to know when he can rest, or when he is done. My apprenticeship is long over and I am becoming more and more expert every day. But before I can claim mastery, I have to have knowledge and part of that knowledge is knowledge of myself.

Calling myself Nick Falkner is a label – it says nothing about who I am. In many senses, knowing what I am is identifying those aspects to which I could apply a modifier such as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ with a real sense of being able to achieve a change. I am the only Nickolas (middle names suppressed to avoid identity theft) Falkner that there is so I am the best and worst. I seek a functional model of my identity that allows me to able to improve myself and identify when I am heading the other way.

It is, of course, possible to be a disrespectful man of a tribe, a betraying man, a gluttonous woman, an untrustworthy elder, an ungrateful child. But this says nothing about the gender as a whole, and less about actual identity, and, frankly, falling back to those accidents of birth that define physical and spatial characteristics (including the location of birth or residence) seems rather weak in terms of the  nature of identity.

Looking back through this blog, my identity becomes more clear to me but, because I am still unsure, I will probably spend some time working on this – drawing diagrams, thinking and discussing my thoughts with my wife. My partnership, my relationship, my bond with my wife is a core part of my identity but, of course, it is a shared component and describing myself in terms of this alone is like calling San Francisco “the place between the bridges”. We lose the point inside the connections.

Am I an educator? Am I a teacher? There is a subtle difference in that educators can plan and direct education, whereas teachers teach, but this is an empty sophistry for a busy century so let us establish a rough equivalence. Am I more than this? Am I a transformer? A creator?

I am leaving my journeyman days behind me. I am now on the path to mastery but the real question is, always, “Master of what?”

I look at the questions of identity that I have been posing, in reaction to HERDSA, in reaction to my increasing exposure to the nature of people and self that is now surrounding me as I learn more about the Australasian indigenous cultures. It is time to look at everything I’ve been doing and work out, behind the name and the titles and the qualifications that I have put in my biography for so long (as if they told anyone who I was), and think about who and what I actually am.

Because, of course, once I have mastery of that, then I can help other people. And, if I know anything about myself, it is that helping people is and will hopefully always be one of the best pieces of my identity.

HERDSA 2012: Final general talk – that tricky relationship, University/School

When working in Higher Education, you fairly quickly discover that there is not actually a genuine continuum between the school level and the University level. School curricula are set, with some input from the higher ed sector, mostly by school and government, but they have little-to-no voice at the Higher Education level. We listen to our peers across the water and around our country, adopting ACM and IEEE curricula suggestions, but while we have an awareness of what the different sectors are doing (in terms of local school and University) it’s certainly not a strong, bi-directional relationship.

That’s where the Australian government reforms of 2009, designed to greatly improve participation in University, get interesting. We’ve been told to increase participation from lower SES groups who hadn’t previously considered Higher Education. We, that is ‘we the university’, have been told this. Ok. Great. Now some people will (flippantly) start ranting about how we’ll have to drop quality standards to do this – an argument that I feel is both incorrect and somewhat unpleasant in its tone. Given that we haven’t gone out of our way to try and form a continuum before, well some people have but with limited success, we can certainly address some of the problem by identifying higher education as a destination to students who may not have been aware that it was even an option for them.

This is where the work of Dr Karma Pearce comes in, won “Building community, educational attainment and university aspirations through University-School mentoring partnerships”. Dr Pearce’s research was based on developing student aspirations from traditionally disadvantaged regions in South Australia. The aim was to look at the benefits of a University/High School mentoring program conducted in a University setting, targeting final year secondary school students from the low SES schools in the area.

We are all aware of the problems that disadvantaged schools face and the vicious circularity of some of these problems. Take Chemistry. To teach chemistry properly, you need teachers and lab resources, including consumables. It’s not like a computer lab that can be run on oldish equipment in a room somewhere – chemistry labs have big technical and safety requirements, and old chemicals either don’t work or get consumed in reactions. If your lab is bad, your numbers drop because the teaching suffers. If the numbers drop below a certain level for schools in South Australia – the class gets cancelled. Now you have a Chem teacher and no students. Therefore, repurposed teacher or, shortly, no teacher. (Of course, this assumes that you can even get a chemistry teacher.)

The University of South Australia had recently build new chemistry labs in another campus, leaving their old labs (which are relatively near to several traditionally disadvantaged areas) free. To the researcher’s and University’s credit (I’m serious, kudos!) they realised that they could use these labs to support 29 secondary school students from schools that had no chem labs. The school students participated in weekly lecture, tutorial and practical chemistry classes at Mawson Lakes campus, with the remaining theory conducted in their own schools. There were two High School teachers based in two of the schools, with a practical demonstrator based at Mawson Lakes. To add the mentoring aspect, four final year undergraduate students were chosen to be group mentors. The mentors required a minimum of credit (B) level studies for three chemistry courses. The mentor breakdown, not deliberately selected, was three women and one man, with two from private (fee-paying) schools and two from regional state schools. Mentors had transport provided, a polo shirt with logo, were paid for their time and received a significant amount of mentor training as well as a weekly meeting with a University coordinator.

The mentors assisted throughout the 26 week program and, apart from helping with chemistry, shared their experiences of University as they worked with the students. Of the 20 secondary students who completed the program (10 F, 10 M), they indicated in surveys that they thought they now understand what Uni life was going to be like but, more importantly to me, that they thought it was achievable for them. From that group, 35% of them had family who had been to University, but all of the secondary participants who made it to the end of the program had enrolled to go to Uni by the end of their Year 12 studies.

In discussion, a couple of points did emerge, especially regarding the very high teacher/student ratio, but overall the message from the research is pretty positive. Without having to change anything at the actual University level, a group of students, who didn’t come from a “university positive” environment and who were at some of the most disadvantaged schools in the state, now thought that University was somewhere that they could go – their aspirations now included University. What a fantastic result!

One side note, at the end, that I found a little depressing was that some students had opted to go to another University, not UniSA, and at least one gave the reason that they had been lured there by the free iPad that was being issued if you enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. Now, in the spirit of full honesty, that’s my University that they’re talking about and I know enough about the amazing work done by Bob Hill, Simon Pyke and Mike Seyfang (as well as a cast of hundreds) to completely rebuild the course to a new consistent standard, with a focus on electronic (and free) textbooks, to know that the iPad is the icing on the cake (so to speak). But, to a student from a disadvantaged school, one where a student going into medicine (and being the first one in the 50 year history of the school) is Page 3 news in the main state newspaper, an iPad is a part of a completely different world. If this student is away at a camp with students from more privileged background, this device is not about electronic delivery or lightening the text book burden or interactive science displays and instant communication – it’s about fitting in.

I found this overall talk very interesting, because it gave an excellent example of how we can lead educationally by sharing our resources while sharing the difficulties of the high school/University transition, but it also made me think about how students see the things that we do to improve their education. Where I see a lab full of new computers, do students see a sign of stability and affluence that convinces them that we’ll look after them or do they see “ho hum” because they’re only 21″ screens and not the i7 processor?

Once again, when I look at things from my view, what do my students see?

HERDSA 2012: Connecting with VET

As part of the final session I attended in the general conference, I attended a talk by A/Prof Anne Langworthy and Dr Susan Johns who co-presented a talk on “Why is it important for Higher Education to connect with the VET sector?” As a point of clarification, VET stands for Vocational Education and Training, as I’ve previously mentioned, and is generally concerned with trade qualifications, with some students going on to diplomas and advanced diplomas that may be recognised as some or all of a first-year University course equivalent. If a student starts in a trade and then goes to a certain point, we can then easily accept them into an articulation program.

The Tasmanian context, a small state that is still relatively highly ruralised, provides a challenging backdrop to this work, as less than 18% of school leavers who could go on to University actually do go on to University. Combine this with the highest lower socio-economic status (SES) population by percentage in Australia, and many Tasmanians can be considered to be disadvantaged by both access to and participation in University level studies. Family influence plays a strong part here – many families have no-one in their immediate view who has been to University at all, although VET is slightly more visible.

Among the sobering statistics presented, where that out of a 12 year schooling system, where Year 12 is the most usual pre-requisite to University entry, as a state, the percentage of people 15 years or older who had year 10 schooling or less was 54%. Over half the adult population had not completed secondary schooling, the usual stepping stone to higher education.

The core drivers for this research were the following:

  1. VET pathways are more visible and accessible to low SES/rural students because the entry requirements aren’t necessarily as high and someone in their family might be able to extol the benefits.
  2. There are very low levels of people articulating from VET to Higher Ed – so, few people are going on to the diploma.
  3. There is an overall decline in VET and HE participation.
  4. Even where skills shortages are identified, students aren’t studying in the areas of regional need.
  5. UTAS is partnering with the Tasmanian VET provider Tasmanian Polytechnic and Skills Institute.

An interesting component of this background data is that, while completion rates are dropping for the VET skills, individual module completion rates are still higher than the courses in which the modules sit. In other words, people are likely to finish a module that is of use to them, or an employer, but don’t necessarily see the need of completing the whole course. However, across the board, the real problem is that VET, so often a pathway to higher ed for people who didn’t quite finish skill, is dropping in percentage terms as a pathway to Uni. There has been a steady decline in VET to HE articulation in Tasmania across the last 6 years.

The researchers opted for an evidence based approach to examine those students who had succeeded in articulating from VET to HE, investigating their perceptions and then mapping existing pathways to discover what could be learned. The profile of VET and HE students from the SES/rural areas in Tas are pretty similar although the VET students who did articulate into Uni were less likely to seek pathways that rewarded them with specific credits and were more likely to seek general admission. Given that these targeted articulations, with credit transfer, are supposed to reflect student desire and reward it, or encourage participation in a specific discipline, it appears that these pathways aren’t working as well as they could.

So what are the motivators for those students who do go from VET to Uni? Career and vocational aspirations, increased confidence from doing VET, building on their practical VET basis, the quality and enthusiasm of their VET teachers, the need to bridge over an existing educational hurdle and satisfaction with their progress to date. While participation in VET generally increased a student’s positive attitude to study, the decision to (or not to) articulate often came down to money, time, perceived lack of industry connection and even more transitional assistance.

It’s quite obvious that our students, and industry, can become fixated with the notion of industrial utility – job readiness – and this may be to the detriment to Universities if we are perceived as ivory towers. More Higher Ed participation is excellent for breaking the poverty cycle, developing social inclusion and the VET to Higher Ed nexus offers great benefits in terms of good student outcomes, such as progression and retention, but it’s obvious that people coming from a practice-based area, especially in terms of competency training, are going to need bridging and some understanding to adapt to the University teaching model. Or, of course, our model has to change. (Don’t think I was going to sneak that one past you.)

The authors concluded that bridging was essential. articulation and credit transfer arrangement should be reviewed and that better articulation agreements should be offered in areas of national and regional priority. The cost of going to University, which may appear very small to students who are happy to defer payment, can be an impediment to lower SES participants because, on average, people in these groups can be highly debt averse. The relocation costs and support costs of moving away from a rural community to an urban centre for education is also significant. It’s easy sometimes to forget about how much it costs to live in a city, especially when you deprive someone of their traditional support models.

Of course, that connection to industry is one where students can feel closer when they undertake VET and Universities can earn some disrespect, fairly or not, for being seen to be ivory towers, too far away from industry. If you have no-one in your family who has been to Uni, there’s no advocate for the utility of ‘wasting’ three years of your life not earning money in order to get a better job or future. However, this is yet another driver for good industry partnerships and meaningful relationships between industry, VET and Higher Education.

It’s great to see so much work being down in both understanding and then acting to fix some of the more persistent problems with those people who may never even see a University, unless we’re dynamic and thoughtful in our outreach programs. On a personal note, while Tasmania has the lowest VET to HE conversion, I noticed that South Australia (my home state) has the second lowest and a similar decline. Time, I think, to take some of the lessons learned and apply them in our back yard!

HERDSA 2012: Final general session – connecting with the community.

Today I’m sitting in a session whose theme is engagement and connection, with the community, with Vocational Education and Training (VET) and the university-school relationship. All of this goes to our greater role in the community, as knowledge leaders, as mentors and in giving value to the community as a whole. This post is the first of a couple that I want to make about this session.

It would be fairly easy to only think about the students who are already in your class and, given that they’ve got in, that it is up to the student to do all of the heavy lifting to stay there but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there are many students who, for reasons beyond their control, will have difficulty even making it to University, let alone staying there.

The first talk discussed the issues from the rural Canberra perspective. For those who don’t know, Australia is heavily urbanised with a coastal major city focus. There is still a rural community but with 201o numbers of rural population estimated at less than 2.5 million and steadily declining, Australia’s population heart is its cities. The declining rural employment sector and the movement of population, jobs and resources to the cities is leading to a drop in standards of living and rising unemployment. This is accompanied by a low percentage of families who have engaged in higher education and a very low level of attainment of the final years of secondary education. These low engagement rates with high secondary and higher ed make perfect sense when lifetime jobs are there without much further training, or with low levels of VET assistance, but become a trap once unskilled or traditionally apprenticed roles start to dry up.

The Commonwealth Government (that’s the Australian Federal Government for those who don’t know that we’re a commonwealth) has identified that they want to see a lot more low socio-economic status (SES) participants in higher ed by 2020 as they are largely unrepresented in the existing higher ed community. As people who did not traditionally attend University, this is a rich source of new students – assuming that we can solve some of the key problems in engaging, preparing and retaining these students.

Barbara Cram presented a paper on “Establishing a regional enabling pilot programme through uni-community engagement” which deals with the rural catchment area around the University of Canberra. Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is situated in the middle of a rural area and U Canberra sees itself as the University of the surrounding district. (The Australian National University is also in Canberra but, I believe, tends to focus on urban students from around Australia.) In the areas surrounding Canberra, roughly 8% of people have Bachelors’ degrees, well below the national levels, and, more depressingly, up to 50% of students who finish their schooling do not go on to either employment or further study. The social implications of this are profound – a community steadily heading towards disengagement and multi-generational unemployment, reducing opportunities further.

University of Canberra’s goal was to enhance regional participation in higher education in a thin market but what does it take to establish a new program in a regional town using a community-based participatory approach? The strategy is to use a community-based partnership strategy to develop community trust and to ensure that the community sees the value of the offering. Two course styles were offered: a community capacity development course (volunteer training and Certificate IV courses), or an enabling (university preparation) course. The community that U Can were working with, the town of Merimbula, decided that an enabling course was the best way forward.

The UCanReach program ran over 14 weeks, 2 evenings a week, and allowed participants to study three units: Learning at University, Communicating for Professional Futures (analysis of, and practice in, the range of text types of u/grad study), and Understanding Community (critical analysis, active participation, independent learning, primary and secondary research and academic literacy). The support provided here was considered critical to the success of the program, including in-house tutoring if students had particular difficulties and taxi vouchers to get people to the course if required. The support, from library resources to putting books into local bookshops, was based on the principle that all barriers to attendance should be reduced.

The overall results were very promising. From the 16 students who started, 14 stayed to the end of the course and, in an equivalence test to assess their University entrance rank, scored in the band 74-89 (out of 100). The benefits identified, through surveying, included the obvious educational benefits, economic and financial benefits, employment prospects, personal/family benefits and the community/social benefits. Ultimately, the last should be no great surprise, because there is less need to give support to these people and this reverses the overall trend of decline.

The major lessons learned here were that communities do place high value on university-community engagement but they need long lead times to ensure broad community-based promotion and ensures sustainable class sizes. Localisation into the community is important. You need to train local tutors in overall resources, keep links between the university and the students to maintain motivation, but relationship with other universities in the region is also important as enabled students may move to other Universities. However, support can’t finish at the end of the course. The presenter identified that there is still a need to provide scholarships for graduates wanting to study in Canberra.

The risks for the future, given how fragile this engagement is and that ongoing support is required, include the increasing costs for the students. When first run, the only cost was $40 for the textbook. Now, student amenities fees are going to add $200 for this. It is, of course, the mistake of privilege to make such statements as “well, if it’s important, then it’s only $200” and pick something that we perceive as a luxury for the target group to forgo. I found this talk interesting from many perspectives and also went up to thank the presenter for their efforts in trying to make a positive change to their region which, ultimately, will have great benefits for the community.

HERDSA 2012: What is the New Academy?

I attended some (more) interesting talks today on building research capacity, how we build the connection between education and research (the dreaded research-teaching nexus) and how we identify ourselves as academics. If I were going to summarise all three of these talks, it would be as:

How are we defining the Academy of the 21st Century?

There is no doubt that research is a crucial component of what we do – you can’t even be registered as a University in Australia unless you pursue research – but it often seems to be the favoured child in any discussion of importance for promotion and allocation of serious resources. Now I realise that a lot of work is going into fixing this but research has, for many years, counted for more.

So it’s interesting that, as Winthrop Professor Shelda Debowski, UWA, observed after returning from her Churchill Fellowship, we don’t really bother to do as much training as we should for research. Research success doesn’t automatically flow from finishing a PhD, any more than a PhD is an indication of readiness or aptitude to teach – yet many early researchers don’t get a great deal of development assistance. This leads, in some cases, to what Debowski refers to as middlescence: a great PhD but after 5+ years it all dies.

Succesful research requires many capabilities and ongoing learning and, while our universities try to support this, we’re not often sure what the best way is to support this. Staff are seeking guidance – research leaders are keen to help. How can we connect them usefully and efficiently? For me, I rephrase the question as:

How are we defining the Research Academy of the 21st Century?

Research is a simple world with a complex set of concepts behind it. Are we looking at the basis of inputs, outputs, strategy and impact? Are we looking at industrial interaction with collaboration, engagement and support? Are we being productive and effective, innovative and creative? There is, for many people’s careers, not much room for failure.

The PhD used to be all that was needed, in theory, because we had the time to make some mistakes, to find our feet, and to iterate towards a better model. Not any more.

My take on this, to go on from what I was saying in the last post, is that we can define the New Research Academy in terms of its environment. Like any species, the New Research Academic must adapt to the environment that they are in or they will perish. Climate change is a threat to the world, similarly Academy Change is a threat to the old inhabitants. The New Academy is fast, hungry, competitive, resource starved, commoditised, industry linked and, above all, heavily dependent on the perception of our efforts. The speed of change makes a difference here because if you were raised in the gentler environment of the Old Academy, but have been around for 20 years, then you have probably achieved enough success to survive. If I may take another biological example, you have accumulated enough resources that you can survive the lean years or the harsher years. The New Academy has frosts and only so many places available for the tribe. You build your resources quickly or it’s over.

Unless, of course, you can find a group to support you. Returning to Debowski’s material, she points out why development of researchers is so critical:

  • Start with PhD – used to be the only thing that you needed to do.
  • Now you have to understand how it fits into strategic research areas and areas of strength (broader sphere of understanding)
  • Need to hook in with a research community (this is your resource sharing group)
  • ECRs need to have to develop: communication skills, team and collaborative skills, project management, track record/profile, time, priority, career management, and grant seeking behaviour
  • Research managers and leaders need to take a professional stance to support this: induction, culture setting, human resource management practices, strategic management, financial management, relationship building, mentoring and sponsorship, project management, risk management, media/promotion.

But, looking at that final list, do some of those look like the behaviours of a professional research academic? I’ll come back to this.

Debowski finished by emphasising the role of mentors and, in the Old/New Academy framework, this makes even more sense. A new PhD student has only a limited amount of time before poor performance effectively removes them from the appointment and job pool – they don’t have time to waste taking false paths. A mid-career researcher needs to work out which path to take and then has to optimise for it – do I continue teaching, do I focus on research, should I take that Associate Deans position? This is where a mentor is vital because the New Academy has a cold wind blowing through it. Huddled together, we’ll see Summer again – but, of course, you have to huddle with the right people.

This brings me to the next talk, on How Universities Connect Education and Research, presented by Professor Lawrence Cram. This was a very interesting talk, dealing with complexity theory to explain the small-scale chaotic relationships in trying to explain which actions get people promoted these days. This is a very mechanistic approach to life in the New Academy. Which X do I need to maximise to achieve Y? Cram, however, very nicely identifies that X is in fact a set of things, Y is a different set of things, and the connections between them operate at different levels at different times.

Cram identified the outputs of Universities as experience goods, where the product is hard to observe in advance, in terms of characteristics such as quality or price, but you’re quickly aware of how good they are once consumed. This generally requires you to sell your product on reputation but once this reputation is established, your pricing model (market position) tends to stay fairly stable. (Amusingly, dropping the price of experience goods, because we’re unsure of how the goods are created, may result in uncertainty because people will make up reasons for the price drop that generally include drop in quality, rather than efficiency of delivery or something positive.)

This makes mapping inputs to outputs difficult and explains why such measurable outputs as number of students, pass rates and research publications are far more likely to form the basis of any funding. Cram is looking across a very large area with a very large number of questions: does research success generate a corresponding success ‘buzz’ in the student body? Does research discovery parallel or assist the student with their own voyage of discovery through their courses?

Ultimately, directives from senior management drive a functional and idealistic approach that produces graduates and intellectual property, but most universities are struggling to unify this with directives and government funding, compared to what students want. Linking this back to the roles that we are expecting research managers to take, we start to see a managerial focus that is starting to dominate our professional academic staff. I rephrase this, and segue to the next talk, as:

How are we defining the Professional Academic in the 21st Century?

The final talk used identity theory to examine the different work ideologies that academics espouse. Wayne O’Donohue presented his and Richard Winter’s paper on “Understanding academic identity conflicts in the public university: Importance of work ideologies” and it was both an interesting presentation, as well as being a full paper that I hope to finish reading this evening.

Fundamentally, managerial and professional ideological beliefs differ on how academic work should be organised. As I have mention throughout this post, we are seeing more and more evidence of creeping requirement to become managers. Managerialism, according to Winter and O’Donohue, has moved us into market-driven entities that regard students as commodities. Consumers need to be swayed by branding and pandering to preferences – we risk basing the reputation of our experience good upon a good marketing campaign rather than a solid academic reputation.

The conceptual framework for this work is that the two identities are, effectively, at odds with each other. Academics who are forced to be managerial find themselves at odds with their idea of what it means to be an academic – they are not being who they want to be and are at odds with what their University wants them to be. If we are to be good managerial entities then we focus on competition and consumer preferences for allocating resources. If we are to be good academics, then we focus on economic and social welfare of all members, stressing normative goals and beliefs. It is hard to think of two more opposing points within this sphere and it is no wonder that the people surveyed by Winter and O’Donohue had to be censored to remove obscene language that reflected their frustration at their own perception of their role.

We know that the market is not all that good at managing public good items. We know the benefits of the educational system in breaking the poverty cycle, reducing crime and violence, improving families, but the market would have to change its short-term benefit model in order to factor this in. We are looking at the substantial differences of short term economic focus versus long term social welfare focus.

Ultimately, the dissonance generated by people doing things that they were asked to do, but didn’t want to do, causes dissatisfaction and cynicism. Dispirited academics leave. Leaving, of course, those who are willing to adapt to the more managerial focus to then rise through the ranks, take positions of power and then impose more managerial focuses.

So what is the New Academy? Is it really a world of bottoms on seats, feudalist in its enforced fealty to existing barons to see you through the lean years, unconnected to funding models and overly metricated in strange ways?

If you want my honest answer, I would say “Not yet.”

Yes, we are heavily measured, but we still have the freedom to challenge and correct those measurements. A great deal of work is being done to produce instruments that give us useful and applicable information, as well as ‘handy’ numbers.

Yes, it helps to be in a research group, but informal communities of practice, faculty and university initiatives, external funding sources such as OLT, ALTA and the ARC do not require you to sign your swords over to a baron or a King.

Yes, we are measured as to our student intakes but we are still, in many important ways, academically free. We can still maintain quality and be true to our academic heritage.

You don’t have to take me word for it. Read everything that I (and katrinafalkner) have been blogging about. You can see all of the work being done, that we have seen at this conference, to draw us all together, to make us remember that we are strong as group, to provide useful metrics, to collaborate, to mentor out of the desire to help rather than the desire to control and the work being down to find and advertise our identity and the way that we can achieve our goals.

Yes, the idea of the New Academy is intimidating, and I write as one who was lucky enough to ride the wave of the new expectations, but in the same way that we bring our students together to learn and explore the benefits of collaboration and social interaction, I am convinced that the best rebirthing of the Academy will occur as we continue to share our work, and meet to discuss it, and go back home and be active and build upon everything that we’ve discussed.

And, being honest, sometimes it just takes sticking to our point, when we’re right, and not doing something that we know is wrong. I know that these are times when people are scared for their jobs, and I’m certainly not immune to that either, but the question comes down to “how much will you put with?” Let me finish with two final questions, which are also, I’m afraid, a call-to-arms:

What have you done today to define the Academy of the 21st Century in a way that matches your ideals and intentions?

What will you do tomorrow?

HERDSA 2012: Informal Communities of Practice: What are the advantages?

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.

I have a blog!

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)?

HERDSA 2012: Integrating concepts across common engineering first year courses

I attended a talk by Dr Andrew Guzzomi on “Interdisciplinary threshold concepts in engineering”, where he talked about University of Western Australia’s reconfiguration of their first year common engineering program in the face of their new 3+2 course roll-out across the University. Most Unis have a common engineering first year that is the basis for all disciplines. This is usually a collection of individual units each focusing on one discipline, developed and taught by academics from that discipline. For example, civil engineers teach statics, mechs teach dynamics, but there is no guaranteed connection or conceptual linkage between the two areas. This is despite the fact that statics is effectively dynamics with some key variables set to zero. (Engineers, you may now all howl in dismay!)

This work looked at what the threshold concepts were for engineering. These threshold concepts are transformative, in that if you understand them it will change the way that you think about the discipline, but they are also troublesome, they need work to teach and effort to learn. But, in theory, if we identify the right threshold concepts then we:

  • Focus teaching, learning and assessment activities
  • Renew otherwise crowded curricula

This is a big issue as we balance the requirements of our students, our discipline, our professional bodies and industry – we have to make sure that whatever teach is appropriate and the most useful (in all of the objective spaces) thing that we can be teaching.

Dr Guzzomi then discussed the ALTC (Australian Learning and Teaching Council) project that supported the basic investigation to conduct an inventory of what all groups considered to be the core threshold concepts. UWA was the case study, with an aim to reducing a guide for other educators, and to add back to threshold concept theory. This is one of the main contributions of the large-scale Australia-wide educational research support bodies: they can give enough money and influence to a project to allow change to occur.

(I picked up from the talk that, effectively, it helped to have a Chair of Engineering Education on board to get an initiative like this through. Even then, there was still resistance from some quarters. This isn’t surprising. If we all agreed with each other, I’d be shocked.)

The threshold concept identification required a very large set of workshops and consultative activities, across students and staff both within and without the discipline, starting with a diversification phase as concepts were added, and then moving to an integration phase that rationalised these concepts down into the set that really expressed the key threshold concepts of engineering for first year.

The implementation in Syllabus terms required the implementors to:

  • Focus teaching and learning on TCs
  • Address troublesome features
  • provide opportunities to experience variation (motion unit taught using variation theory, when students work at indiv tables, doing different problems at different tables but pool similar answers for comparison to show the difference in approach and answer)
Then developed concept maps for each unit, showing inclusion, requirements and examples, used with, dependencies and so on.
This was then turned into a course implementation that had no lectures at all: courses were composed of four individual units that had readings, tutorial-like information sessions and 2 hour studio session that comprised practicals and more interaction sessions. I did ask Andrew about the assessment mechanisms in use and, while they’ve been completely rebuilt for the new course, they are still reviewing these to make sure that they exercise the threshold concepts appropriately. (I’ll be sending him e-mail to get more detail on this.)
Their findings so far are that these concept identification exercises have revealed the connections between the disciplines and the application of the same concepts across the whole of the discipline. Three concepts were identified as being good examples of concepts that have a reach that spread across all disciplines (integrating threshold concepts):
  1. System identification: where you work out which system he problem fits into to allow you simplify analysis
  2. Modelling and abstraction: where quantitative analysis is facilitated through translation to mathematical language and students use judgement to break system into salient components for modelling
  3. Dimensional reasoning: Identifying the variables needed to describe a complex system – making sure that equations balance.
The conclusions were relatively straight forward:
  • Rather than a traditional and relatively unlinked common foundation, teaching integrating concepts is showing promise
  • Threshold concepts provided the lens and developed approach to integrated disciplines
  • Teaching through variation supports student diversity in solutions
  • This approach reveals connections across engineering disciplines beyond those in which they later chose to specialise
UWA and U Melbourne run a very different degree program from the rest of us, so it’s always interesting to see what they are up to. In this case, there’s a lot going on. Not only have they done a great deal of surveying in order to find the new threshold concepts upon which their courses are now built, but they’ve also completely changed their teaching style to support it, with much greater use of collaboration and team work. I’ll be very interested to see some more follow-up on this after it’s run for the full year.