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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The Chair

by Paul Temple

The best novel about university life – and I’m afraid this isn’t up for debate – is John Williams’ Stoner. Published in 1965, its setting is the micropolitics of the English department of a US Mid-Western university, from the 1920s to the 1950s: “A terrific novel of echoing sadness” is how Julian Barnes sums it up on the cover of my edition.

The Netflix series The Chair, with the Korean-American actor Sandra Oh (you may have seen her in Killing Eve) as the newly-elected chair of the English department of a “lower-tier Ivy”, has some similarities with Stoner. The story here also revolves around the micropolitics of an English department, exposing the tensions between older academics whose professional lives have centred on a single narrow (but is it?) topic – Melville in one case – and younger ones, notably Bill Dobson, whose popular classes play around with modish themes. (I assume his use of chalk on an actual blackboard – do they really still exist? – is intended to demonstrate iconoclasm.) But whereas the departmental chair in Stoner is creepily vile, in The Chair she exhausts herself with emotional labour (“playing nice” as an exasperated colleague puts it) trying to help everybody, even when that isn’t possible (Dobson’s joke Nazi salute in class doesn’t go down well).

TV dramas set in workplaces such as police stations or hospitals tend to take a single case which absorbs the characters involved to the exclusion of all other business (Line of Duty or Unforgotten, say), sidestepping what must actually be the complex, confusing reality of these settings. That sort of dramatic plotting can’t easily work with universities, which perhaps helps to explain why campus TV adaptations tend to be satire (The History Man) or knockabout comedy (A Very Peculiar Practice). The Chair, though having elements of both satire and comedy, is more nuanced, with the Sandra Oh character having to deal with declining enrolments, preventing Dobson becoming his own worst enemy (unsuccessfully), supporting a black woman in her struggle to gain deserved tenure, as well as coping with single parenthood. In that it portrays the “one damned thing after another” aspect of university management, The Chair is perhaps a more accurate reflection of university life than Line of Duty is of police work, but what do I know? (The issue of faculty tenure, which features significantly in The Chair, interestingly seems to assume quite a lot of prior knowledge of university processes on the part of the viewer: perhaps the producers think that graduates will be the main audience.)

Departmental chairs, or heads of departments in the UK, are classic middle-management jobs, an insulation layer between senior management and the workforce, but usually without the authority or resources to respond effectively to the needs of those for whom they’re supposedly responsible. It’s significant that in both Stoner and The Chair the university top brass feature only as distant, vaguely threatening, entities, divorced from the action at the departmental battlefronts. The main exception in The Chair is the man from Communications, sent over to the department to deal with the “reputational management” issues that Dobson has supposedly created: Dobson here shows hitherto unexpected reserves of restraint by not punching him in the face.

The Chair can be viewed as a case-study of institutional change, with structural pressures of declining enrolments, changing expectations of academic life, and student activism coming into sharp focus at the micro-level of the department. The chair herself becomes the personification of all this, the point around which swirl the conflicting pressures of institutional structures, power distribution, and individuals’ goals. In university life, it’s the detail that counts, and The Chair gets this brilliantly.

They’re apparently thinking of a second series: I’ll be watching.

Dr Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, London. His latest paper, ‘The University Couloir: exploring physical and intellectual connectivity’, will appear shortly in Higher Education Policy.


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Generous scholarship: a vision for academic life

by Ruth McQuirter Scott, Dragana Martinovic, Snežana Obradović-Ratković and Michelle K McGinn

The life of a scholar is often portrayed in popular culture as one of lonely struggle and pressure. It starts at the postgraduate level, when students work to meet the expectations of their programs and supervisors, jumping one hurdle after another until they complete their studies. If they are fortunate enough to land an increasingly rare full-time academic position, they discover a new set of expectations to fulfill. In application and renewal processes, most universities favour single-authored publications in tier-one journals, along with a research record that shows how the scholar is carving out a unique niche in their respective field. This portrayal of academic life is supported by studies that report pressure to publish, competition, isolation, and managerial influences on academic work (eg Castro-Ceacero and Ion, 2018; Dakka and Wade, 2019; Kyvik and Aksnes, 2015; McCarthy and Dragouni, 2020).

We believe there is a better way of living as academics, one that nurtures the strengths of colleagues and leads to mutual growth for novice and seasoned scholars.

Our group of four academics from two Canadian universities has been collaborating as writers for over 10 years. We represent a variety of roles in academia: professors, a research officer, and a university senior administrator. Since 2007 (until interrupted by the pandemic), we have facilitated residential academic writing retreats, bringing together new and experienced academics, postgraduate students, and outside experts for a week-long writing experience in a rural setting.

At our first writing retreat, we were introduced to the term “generous scholarship” as proposed by Constance Russell (2006). We were intrigued and excited by this term, which we felt captured a central component of the writing retreat and resonated with our approach to scholarly life. Sally Stewart Knowles, a retreat co-facilitator from Australia, was also inspired by the conversation at that 2007 retreat to argue that residential writing retreats foster generous scholarship (Knowles, 2017). Although neither Russell (2006) nor Knowles (2017) provides a clear definition of generous scholarship, we continued to be enticed by the term’s potential. This emerging concept seemed to suggest an intentional, collegial approach to scholarly endeavours that departs from the market-driven, individualistic view of scholarship so commonly present in academia.

To understand what generous scholarship could mean, we systematically examined these and other publications in which “generosity” was mentioned in the context of academia and elicited five key principles that characterize generous scholarship: social praxis, reciprocity, generous mindedness, generous heartedness, and agency.

To illustrate these five principles of generous scholarship, we use the example of our residential academic writing retreats. We provide a short overview of our writing retreat structure, define the five principles, and discuss the ways in which retreat participants enact these principles.

Writing Retreat Structure

Inspired by Barbara Grant’s (2008) model of residential academic writing retreats, our retreats consist of five days dedicated to individual writing projects, workshops, work-in-progress groups, and one-on-one consultations with shared meals and informal gatherings in a natural environment. Although most of the days are spent writing, we carve out time for discussions, reviewing each other’s work, and socializing. Accountability and on-site collegial support are embedded in the retreat structure, which promotes writing process and productivity, fosters learning with and from others, and builds a community (McGinn et al, 2019; Ratković et al, 2019).

Principles of Generous Scholarship

The five working principles frame generous scholarship as intentional, reflective, and collegial academic praxis.

Social praxis. Generous scholarship emerges within collaborative and collegial communities of scholarly practice. Our writing retreats enable participants to live and work together in a shared space. A sense of community is built through scheduled work-in-progress groups and workshops as well as meals, informal conversations, and walks in nature. Many new connections, relationships, and collaborative research and writing teams are established as people meet colleagues at various career stages and from different disciplines, departments, and institutions.

Reciprocity. Interrelations within generous scholarship are based on reciprocity through peer-to-peer learning and non-hierarchical mentoring. A key component of our writing retreats is the work-in-progress groups that meet each evening to present and respond to written work. The groups are mixed in terms of fields of expertise, academic roles, and career stages to provide multiple perspectives and rich discussions. When a writer’s work is being featured, another participant acts as a note taker, enabling the writer to focus on comments and suggestions from the others. Participants take turns over subsequent evenings, with each participant serving as writer, contributor, and note taker. The participatory and interactive workshops provide further evidence of reciprocity in action as participants exchange ideas, knowledge, and experiences.

Generous mindedness. Generous scholarship involves acknowledging other people’s situations or perspectives and committing cognitive resources to advance those individuals and their scholarly work. The workshops during our writing retreats foster generous mindedness as workshop facilitators and participants draw from their varied backgrounds and disciplines to inspire and inform each other’s academic practice. During work-in progress groups, writers are asked what type of feedback they wish to receive. Readers are asked to focus on specific aspects of the draft, or to respond to the overall piece. This practice helps readers to focus their responses and to make their feedback meaningful.

Generous heartedness. Generous scholarship requires empathy and emotional support for others. Generous heartedness has been a key feature of our writing retreats. We are open to adapting workshop content and the retreat structure to the needs of participants, and are flexible in expectations (eg participants spend parts of each day in ways that they deem most useful: reading, resting, or taking walks in nature). Emphasis is placed upon the importance of careful listening and attending to the emotional needs of writers as they share unfinished work during work-in-progress groups. A generous spirit is also fostered among participants through communal meals, informal walks, and evening activities.

Agency. Generous scholarship involves deliberately choosing and taking action to contribute to the scholarly community, the field, and society. It demands consciously embracing and modelling all the principles of generous scholarship. As organisers, we use our agency to structure and facilitate the writing retreats. We also engage as writers and participate in all workshops and work-in-progress groups. Many retreat participants demonstrate their commitment to generous scholarship by returning year after year to this community of scholars. Participants often report creating their own writing groups and retreats. Some have published scholarly work about writing retreats (Winters et al, 2019).

Conclusion

We acknowledge that following the principles of generous scholarship may challenge institutional structures that reward individualistic, competitive approaches; it can be difficult to navigate the logistical and human factors inherent in building a community of scholars. Our own writing retreats face an annual financial challenge, as we must repeatedly convince internal funding providers of their value. However, we are determined to overcome such barriers to enact and enable generous scholarship, and we look forward to returning to our residential writing retreats when pandemic restrictions allow. We have also found that following the principles of generous scholarship enhances, rather than undermines, academic productivity and personal satisfaction (Ratković et al, 2019). Furthermore, we are encouraged by the structures recently built into academia that might provide opportunities and spaces for enacting generous scholarship, such as open-access publishing and knowledge mobilization.

We invite you to consider generous scholarship in your own academic life and to share with SRHE blog readers examples of generous scholarship already present in your practice.

Ruth McQuirter Scott is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada, where she is Assistant Director of Teacher Education and teaches Junior/Intermediate Language Arts. Ruth’s research interests are in the effective infusion of technology in education. Connect via rmcquirter@brocku.ca or on Twitter @wordstudy

Dragana Martinovic is a Professor at University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and a Fields Institute Fellow. In her research, Dragana explores knowledge for teaching mathematics, ways in which technology can assist in teaching and learning of mathematics, and epistemologies of STEM disciplines in relation to teacher and K–12 education. Connect via dragana@uwindsor.ca

Snežana Obradović-Ratković is Research Officer and Instructor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests include migration, indigeneity, and reconciliation; transnational teacher education; research education; decolonizing arts-based methodologies; mindfulness and well-being in higher education; academic writing and publishing; and generous scholarship. Connect via sratkovic@brocku.ca

Michelle K McGinn is Associate Vice-President Research and Professor of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Her primary interests include research collaboration, researcher development, scholarly writing, and ethics in academic practice. She is a co-investigator for Academic Researchers in Challenging Times. Connect via Twitter @dr_mkmcginn or mmcginn@brocku.ca

References

Grant, B (2008) Academic writing retreats: A facilitator’s guide. Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia

Knowles, SS (2017) ‘Communities practising generous scholarship: Cultures of collegiality in academic writing retreats’ in McDonald, J and Cater-Steel, A (eds), Implementing communities of practice in higher education (pp 53–80) Springer

McGinn, MK, Ratković, S, Martinovic, D, and McQuirter Scott, R (2019) ‘Creating and sustaining a community of academic writing practice: The multi-university residential academic writing retreat model’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds) Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 136–148) Brill/Sense

Winters, K-L, Wiebe, N, and Saudelli, MG (2019) ‘Writing about writing: Collaborative writing and photographic analyses from an academic writing retreat’ in Simmons, N and Singh, A (eds), Critical collaborative communities: Academic writing partnerships, groups, and retreats (pp 149–168) Brill/Sense.

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge Jeanne Adèle Kentel for first introducing us to Russell’s (2006) use of the term “generous scholarship.” We extend our thanks to the many colleagues who have practised generous scholarship alongside us during the writing retreats and in other academic spaces. Details about our analysis process and an elaborated discussion of the principles of generous scholarship are presented in a paper currently under review for publication. Authorship of this blog and the associated paper has been shared equally.