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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Can coaching bring back the joy to academic work?

By George Callaghan

Pause for a moment and jot down how many tasks and projects are currently at the front of your mind? You might already be thinking, “hold on, am I asked to pause, to stop thinking, stop doing, even for a moment? Does he not know how much I’ve got to do!” I would encourage you to give it a go.

Here are mine: write this blog, check work emails, check personal emails, re-read my Career Development Staff Appraisal Form for meeting later today, check train is going to be on time for said meeting, check if Waverley station has moved bike storage area since lock-down, check today’s to-do list I made yesterday, send the two qualitative interviews which have been transcribed to the printers…” OK, I will stop there – quite a long list which only took about 30 seconds to come up with. It also does not include other University work or general life stuff such as parenting, being in a relationship, owning pets, shopping and so on. The distinction between the private and professional life of academics is becoming increasingly blurred – and the pressure of work is becoming increasingly intense.

Then think back to when you embarked on your academic career, most likely full of excitement and joy at being able to pursue your intellectual passion for a subject, enthuse students, write papers, and successfully present at conferences.

What happened between the early excitement and present overload? How did our academic lives become so busy we barely have time for a coffee break, never mind time to think clearly and analytically? And crucially, what might we do about it?

While the answers to the changing nature of demands will be multi-factorial and include the marketisation of higher education and the pressure of research and teaching metrics, I argue in this blog that coaching offers a route-map to creating a more balanced and enjoyable professional life. It is an invitation to self-reflect, to recognise strengths, to develop insights, and to allow obstacles to be identified and overcome. This makes it a tremendously powerful staff development intervention.

Coaching can take several forms. For example, academic leaders and managers might use training to develop a coaching mindset. Here they would be using skills such as active listening and reflective inquiry to deepen the quality of their communication with colleagues. Alternatively, academic and professional staff might take dedicated one to one sessions with a trained and qualified coach.

Here, I begin to tell the story of how we are using coach training and coaching sessions to develop a coaching culture amongst academic staff within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University. The project is still in its early stages but is showing great promise.

The initial idea was sparked by some coach training I engaged with as part of my professional development. I had a lightbulb moment when I realised that the constant curiosity, invitation to self-reflect and absence of judgement which underpin coaching conversations fit wonderfully well with the academic labour process. Many of us are drawn to work as university academics because we value agency, autonomy, and self-direction. As we know only too well, the current intensification of academic work militates against these, produces feelings of frustration and can be overwhelming. Coaching, with its focus on open questions and reflective inquiry, signposts new ways forward. Open questions and reflective inquiry may even lead to insights where we remember the joy and love of our work.

The project involves an external coach organisation providing introductory coaching skills training to academic leaders and managers. The positive early feedback led to expanding this offer of training coaching skills and to set up an internal coaching service where one to one coaching supports colleagues through career transitions.

We are presently working on an evaluation project using grounded theory methodology to analyse the impact of the coach skills training. The data is presently being collected and analysed and our aim is to offer a paper on this evaluation to Studies in Higher Education later in the year. Here, I offer my own reflections on what appears to be working – as well as some thoughts on what I might have done better.

In terms of what’s worked I am both refreshed and relieved to find that informal feedback and my own observations indicate that coaching adds value to the academic working life. One of these is the invitation to leaders and managers to self-reflect. To “listen more and talk less”.

As part of my own self-reflection, I began to pay attention to how I behave in meetings. Not how I thought I behaved, but what I do. I thought I consistently listened intently to others before making my own contribution. In fact, I was half listening to comments while internally formulating my own ‘excellent, articulate and very powerful’ contribution! I barely waited for others to stop speaking before I started. Acceptance of this embarrassing revelation led to a change in my listening. I began to concentrate on what others were saying. Not just to the words, but also the emotion behind the words. I began to pause before replying or I invited someone else to come in first. These are particularly challenging changes to make when one is chairing meetings or in a leadership and management position. Interestingly, once I let go of feeling responsibility for being the one with ‘the answer’ I felt more calm – and better ideas emerged.

In group or one to one meetings, taking the time to really listen generates new insights and opens the door to new possibilities. For leaders this can also be rather humbling as one realises others have equally (or more) valid ideas and solutions. This type of facilitative as opposed to directive leadership is particularly suited to academia, where the apprenticeship for the job involves independent thinking and the development of critical questioning.

This shift to leadership habits which draw on coaching, for example moving from ‘telling’ to ‘listening’, has the potential to motivate and energise colleagues. This takes time but offers substantial returns. Telling and directing is quicker in the short term – perhaps you are familiar with colleagues hesitating before making decisions, looking to first run it past a head of department, research lead or some other authority figure? While this style of management and leadership works to some extent (courses still get taught and research still gets done), it can create a dependent relationship. Leading through coaching invites colleagues to take more responsibility for their own – and consequently the university’s – development and growth.

What might I have done better? What immediately comes to mind is that I could have been much more patient. As I became convinced of coaching’s effectiveness, I set high expectations of uptake and the pace of change. The take up of coach training by leaders and managers did pick up, but over months and years as opposed to weeks. The habit of self-reflection I am (still) learning to practise has been of great assistance. The realisation that I must meet colleagues where they are now, not where I am.

Please consider how adopting a coaching mindset may be of service in improving the leadership and management in your own institution. You might reflect and think it is all working fine, but if you realise there is room for improvement then coaching may very well be of service. In the meantime, stay curious!

SRHE member George Callaghan is Professor of Personal Finance and Economics in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the Open University. He is also a qualified coach with the International Coaching Federation and the Institute of Leadership and Management. If you would like to discuss any points in this blog, please email George.callaghan@open.ac.uk


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Overcoming Built-In Prejudices in Proofreading Apps

by Ann Gillian Chu

As I am typing away in Microsoft Word, the glaring, red squiggly underline inevitably pops up, bringing up all the insecurities I have with academic English writing, as an ethnically Chinese, bilingual Chinese-English speaker. So what if I speak English with a North American accent? So what if English has been my medium of instruction for my entire life? So what if I graduated with a Master of Arts with honours in English Language from the University of Edinburgh? My fluency in Chinese somehow discredits my English fluency, as if I cannot be equally competent in both. Because I am not white, my English will always somehow be inadequate.

The way others, and I, perceive my English ability reflects how ‘standard English’ as an idea is toxic to the identity-building of those who are not middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white men from the Anglophone world. April Baker-Bell talks about the concept of linguistic justice, arguing that promoting a type of ‘correct English’ has inherent white linguistic supremacy. Traditional approaches to language education do not account for the emotional harm, internalised linguistic racism, or the consequences these approaches have on the sense of self and identity of non-white students. Extending Baker-Bell’s theory, how would this apply to the use of proofreading apps?

Apps are created by people who have their own underlying assumptions and worldviews, even if these assumptions are not explicitly written in any of the apps’ documentation. When using these tools, users need to have a sense of the kind of assumptions these apps carry into their corrections. More importantly, as programmes are written by people and applied in a formulaic way, they should not have the power to define their users’ sense of identity, or even their ability to communicate in English. Algorithm-based tools will always fall short in understanding the nuances and eccentricities that make human writing exciting and intriguing. The app should not have authority over its users, and its feedback should never be taken uncritically.

However, proofreading apps could be used as a pedagogical tool when thoughtfully and critically engaged. Evija Trofimova created a resource titled ‘Digital Writing Tools: Spelling, Grammar and Style Checkers,’ which investigates how different proofreading apps can or should be used. Trofimova’s project assesses how each app can be used for best didactic experiences, with exercise suggestions and classroom activities available for users to begin to see these proofreading apps as a possible pedagogical tool, rather than law enforcement of sorts. Users of proofreading apps should always treat each ‘error’ as a learning opportunity, investigate the rule behind the correction, and actively consider whether it is indeed a correction they want to take up in their writing. If a correction is unexpected, users should be encouraged to investigate why the app suggested it and what is the underlying principle. Crucially, app users need to have a sense of where to draw the fine line between what is conventional (rather than right) and what makes writing comprehensible to readers, and what expresses the unique voice and identity of a writer. Writers should explore more ways to communicate within and outside of conventions, in a way that best represents them. This sort of creativity will go beyond simply relying on the algorithm of a proofreading app.

It needs to be said more often that English as an academic lingua franca is no one’s first language (see Marion Heron and Doris Dippold, Meaningful Teaching Interaction at the Internationalised University). Just because someone is a monolingual English speaker does not necessarily mean that they are good at academic English writing. Just because someone writes in an unexpected or unconventional way does not necessarily mean that they are wrong. An essential purpose of writing is to communicate. As academics, we need to ask ourselves, how much can someone deviate from a standard and still be comprehensible? How much room can we leave to allow students to be themselves and express themselves fully in their writing? How much are proofreading apps stifling their ability to flourish as writers? We are not teaching students to become machines. There is no point in having different students write the same essay in the exact same way. Rather, it is precisely their unique and different voices that should be celebrated.

In ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria, reading books about white, blue-eyed characters who played in the snow, ate apples, and talked a lot about the weather, which does not reflect her experience of the world at all. Growing up, Adichie struggled with characters in novels being made up of white foreigners from the West alone, as if the Western world is a cultural ground zero. She and other Nigerians are not represented in the literary works she read. Non-white proofreading app users may easily fall into the same impressionable and vulnerable position as Adichie did. These prescriptive ‘corrections’ made by proofreading apps, just like the children stories that Adichie read, implies an ideological position that a specific language standard, such as standard British or American English, is somehow superior and ‘correct.’ However, the West is not a cultural ground zero, nor is English a neutral medium of communication. Other varieties of English used in non-Western worlds, far from being inappropriate or incorrect, should be celebrated for their ability to reflect the culture and experiences of non-Western writers. The attempt to make a piece of written work meet certain linguistic standards should not be above rhetoric, creativity, and cultural expression.

What makes proofreading apps dangerous is that their underlying assumptions remain invisible to their users. A ‘correct’ grammar may reinforce existing biases in our society, creating linguistic violence, persecution, dehumanisation, and marginalisation, which non-standard English speakers endure when using their own language in schools and everyday life. One thing that stuck with me the most from my undergraduate degree is that proper English changes throughout the ages. What is now deemed suitable was once upon a time a deviant use of the language. And what is deviant now may become mainstream in the future. People have always reacted badly to these linguistic changes, but the changes in usage stick nonetheless. As users of proofreading apps and teachers of students who use these apps, it is important to encourage everyone to think about who the apps were built for and what purposes they were meant to serve. What spelling and grammatical rules do they enforce, and why? In After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, Willie James Jennings pushes against (theological) education that is ultimately set up for white self-sufficient masculinity, a way of organising life around a persona that distorts authentic identity. This way of being in the world forms cognitive and affective structures that seduce people into its habitation and its meaning-making. When a white Anglophone world is presumed as a norm, and others somehow have to cater to its expectations, it strangles intellectual pursuits from the perspectives of the other. It is the freedom of expression between interlocutors that will create a space for students from all backgrounds to flourish.

Ann Gillian Chu (FHEA) is a PhD (Divinity) candidate at the University of St Andrews. She has taught in higher education contexts in Britain, Canada, and China using a variety of platforms and education tools. As an ethnically Chinese woman who grew up in Hong Kong, Gillian is interested in efforts to decolonise academia, such as exploring ways to make academic conferences more inclusive.


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Covid-19 won’t change universities unless they own up to the problems that were already there

by Steven Jones

At a national level in the UK, two Covid narratives vie for supremacy. The first positions the government response to the pandemic as successful, pointing to a world-leading vaccine development and roll-out, a well-received furlough scheme, and an accelerated return to ‘normal’. The second positions the government response as calamitous, pointing to recurring misspends, accusations of corruption, and a death rate among the highest in Europe.

Within UK higher education, two parallel narratives have arisen. On one hand, sector leaders and institutional managers claim against-the-odds victory because most universities emerged reputationally and commercially unscathed from the most unforeseeable of global challenges. On the other hand, for many students and staff, Covid-19 further exposed the limits of market-based approaches to funding universities, and the harm done by corporate governance cultures.

Discursively, Covid-19 laid bare a higher education sector fluent in the language of competition but mostly unable to articulate its underlying value to society. Senior management teams continued to pore over league table performance indicators and rejoice in individual ‘excellence’, but struggled to co-create a narrative of common good and humanity in the face of a deadly virus.

Yet at the local level there was much of which to be proud: university staff listened to their students and put their needs first, recognising that welfare now took priority over academic outcomes. Learning persisted, even during the depths of lockdown, with pedagogies adapting and curricula evolving. The question now is how to reconcile a renewed spirit of collegiality and creativity with top-down policy wedded to the idea that universities are ‘providers’ and their students little more than consumers of a premium product.

The starting point may be to accept that UK universities were struggling long before Covid-19 struck. Many of the sector’s underlying problems were simply brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. This slower-burning crisis in higher education means that: 

  1. Relations between senior managers and their staff are broken. During Covid-19, university staff wondered why their efforts appeared to be appreciated more by their students than their employers. For those in positions of authority, the successful response of front-line personnel seemed almost to threaten their authority. Top-end remuneration had raced ahead of median campus pay for decades because governing bodies were convinced that the university’s most important work was undertaken by its executive. Suddenly, it appeared that collegiality at the disciplinary level was what mattered most. Institutional managers would no doubt retort that running a university by consensus is impractical, not least during a worldwide emergency, and that the financial sustainability of the sector was secured by their swift pre-emptive action. But to those on the outside, the simmering resentment between employers and employees remains unfathomable: how can those who lead the university be so far adrift of those who work for the university?
  • Relations between senior managers and students are also badly damaged. Partly this was the fault of policy-makers, for whom students were at best an afterthought. But instead of fashioning an alternative narrative, institutional management teams mostly followed the lead of a cynical government and framed students as potential individual rule-breakers rather than a vulnerable cohort of young people facing an extraordinary mental health challenge. One vice-chancellor foolhardily suggested that where students were forced into self-isolation it might engender a ‘Dunkirk spirit’. At times, international students were treated like cargo. In August 2021, over fifty UK universities clubbed together to charter flights and import students from China. Home students were also lured back on to campus prematurely, the risks to local communities apparently secondary to income from accommodation, catering and other on-site spending.
  • Ministers don’t listen to sector leaders. Despite institutional managers and their representative bodies dutifully following the marketisation road-map that policy-makers laid out, Covid-19 exposed a sector that had remarkably little sway over government strategy. Ministers showed no interest in University UK’s proposed bail-out package, with one Conservative peer pointedly suggesting that institutions show ‘humility on the part of those vice-chancellors who take very large salaries.’ This undermined the soft-power strategies of which sector leaders had boasted for decades. Some ‘wins’ for students did emerge, but they were invariably overstated: the government’s announcement of a £50m package of support in February 2021 was met with enthusiasm by sector representatives, leaving it to mental health charities like Student Minds to point out that this amounted to barely £25 per head. Ironically, when the government botched its A-levels algorithm, universities stepped in to bail-out policy-makers.
  • The business model on which universities operate is brittle. No-one would deny the reliance on overseas student income leaves the sector financially exposed. Many would go further and say that there’s something unethical – neo-colonial even – about charging sky-high fees to foreign students so that other university activity can be cross-subsidised. The most principled long-term approach would be for university leaders to reassert the common value of higher education, and seek to persuade the public that a system funded through progressive general taxation, akin to that of other nations, would be fairer and more robust. With graduates of English universities facing interest charges of 9-12% over four decades, there has never been a better time to make this argument.

In 2020, I wrote an upbeat piece in The Guardian suggesting that Covid-19 could change universities for the better. This is still just about possible. However, recent evidence suggests that there is no great eagerness on the part of management to seize the opportunity. Indeed, Covid-19 could change next to nothing, allowing sector leaders and institutional managers to distract from previous failings and double down on a failed corporate leadership model. At the national level, campuses have become battlefields for unwinnable ‘culture wars’, as right-wing politicians and media commentators take pot-shots at a sector lacking the confidence or guile to defend itself. At the institutional level, the cost-of-living crisis is already being used to vindicate new survivalist discourses that will later be used to rationalise further reconfigurations and cuts.

Covid-19 exposed the vulnerability of a heavily marketised university sector. As student loan interest rates rocket and staff pensions crumble, our sector leaders say almost nothing. Markets in higher education do more than monetise students’ learning; they co-opt and silence those whose primary duty it is to defend the universities that they manage.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester. Steven’s new book, Universities Under Fire: hostile discourses and integrity deficits in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) will be published in the summer.


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Working class and working in higher education?: Transition(s) from a sociology PhD

by Carli Rowell

Carli Rowell won an SRHE Newer Researcher’s Award to explore working-class early career researchers lived experiences of moving through a Sociology PhD and into the academic workforce. It makes visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The full report from this research award is available from the 2019 reports at Newer Researcher Awards | Society for Research into Higher Education (srhe.ac.uk)

This blog arises from a project which explores the lived experience of being working-class and moving through doctoral study into the academic workforce. It was motivated by the fact that higher education has historically existed for the working classes as a site of exclusion from participation, from knowledge production and from leadership. Despite the global massification of education, HE continues to operate as a classed pathway and bastion of classed knowledge (Walkerdine, 2021) especially so given academia’s classed ceiling. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. I reflect here on some of the key emerging findings (in depth analysis continues) and sketch out early recommendations based on project findings.

The project was underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, do first-generation working-class ECRs perceive their working-class background as affecting their experiences of and progression through doctoral study and into academia?
  2. How do they generate and navigate their own ‘strategies for success’ in their working context?
  3. What are the wider implications of these strategies for success, for example in their personal lives and/or their imagined futures in the academy?
  4. What can be done, if at all, by stake holders of UKHEs to address working-class doctoral students and early career researchers journey to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia?

A Bourdieusian approach to social class was adopted. Whilst participants self-identified as coming from a working-class background and as being a first-generation (at the undergraduate level), class background and first-generation status were further explored and confirmed through in-depth interviews. All participants were UK domiciled doctoral students and ECRs across a range of university types. Initially the project sought to explore working-class doctoral and ECRs from across the social sciences, but participant recruitment soon revealed a skewedness towards the discipline of sociology. Thus, the decision was taken to adopt a disciplinary case study approach, focusing upon the discipline of sociology. In total, ten of the 13 participants were working in academia and the remaining three were working in the third sector. 12 had completed their PhD’s and one participant had made the decision to leave academia prior to completing the PhD. 12 participants identified as White British, and one participant identified as North African.

What challenges do working-class doctoral researchers and early career researchers face? How, if at all do they overcome such challenges and what can be done to support them in their journeys to and through academia?

The Important of Working-Class ‘Others’ in Academic and Navigating Funding

In journeying to the PhD receiving scholarship funding was foundational to participants’ possibility of progressing to doctoral study. All of my participants received full funding and without this they would not have been able to pursue a PhD. In addition to funding, working-class ‘Others’ (or what I have termed to be very important persons (VIPs) in academia were also central to participants experiences of successful navigating the transition to doctoral study. The VIP, often academic points of contact, who are mostly (though not always) from a working-class background served an important function as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ to post-graduate study and academia. VIPs often sparked the notion that doctoral study was a possible pathway and provided a window into academia, demystifying academia and the postgraduate applications/scholarship process.

Participants’ accounts showed a range of barriers. Participants rejected the need to be geographically hyper-mobile in order to secure academic employment; they wanted and needed to care for family members and wished to remain connected to their working-class home and community. They spoke at length about the precarious nature of navigating the academic job market and academia per se; this alone was a key barrier to successful progression within academia. Participants also spoke about the multitude of skills and experiences they were required to demonstrate in order to navigate the academic job market. For working-class students who are the first in their family to study at university, knowing which endeavours to seek out and prioritise was a great source of confusion and anxiety. Uncovering how to play the game was not always easily identifiable.

Recommendations

This study leads to recommendations for institutions, funding bodies, and those working in academia in their recruitment, engagement and support with doctoral scholars and early career researchers from working-class backgrounds. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

(a) schemes aimed at demystifying academia and supporting working-class aspiring doctoral researchers through their doctoral applications and funding process;

(b) funding bodies recognising the precarious financial position of doctoral students, especially so for those from working-class backgrounds and thus financially supporting doctoral students during times of ill health and exceptional circumstances and providing funding to doctoral students for the period immediately following the submission of the PhD; and

(c) Academic hiring committees and funders, postdoctoral or otherwise, should not look more favourably on those applications where the applicant holder is moving to another university, and should accept that some applicants might just prefer to stay, without having an exceptional reason such as caring commitments, or other exceptional academic reasons.

The current academic landscape is marked by precarity and rampant competition for an ever diminishing pool of academic jobs, often short-term, temporary contracts that demand geographical mobility. This in turn has significant impacts upon the knowledge being produced within and across UK universities (and globally). Working-class doctoral students and early career researchers face considerable barriers in their journeys to and through a PhD and into academia. Whilst there has been considerable debate and discussion of the gendered and ethnic makeup of UK higher education there is no equivalent commentary or critique concerned with illuminating, calling into question and critiquing the absence of working-class persons from academia. The future of UK HE, its leadership and scholarship are currently under threat. The values of diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, especially that of class diversity, that universities are quick to espouse should be at the centre of HE policy and practice, especially at the postgraduate level.

Institutions and funding bodies need to take into account, and take action to address, the specific challenges facing working-class doctoral researchers and early career academics. Working-class people should be actively encouraged and supported in their journeys to and through doctoral study and into higher education. As part of this project, a workshop aimed at demystifying the post-PhD post-doctoral funding application process and academic labour market will be run in Autumn 2022.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.