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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The potential of automated text analysis for higher education research

by Stijn Daenekindt

Together with Jeroen Huisman, I recently published an article in which we mapped the field of research on higher education. In a previous blogpost we reflected on some key findings, but only briefly mentioned the method we used to analyze the abstracts of 16,928 research articles (which totals to over 2 million words). Obviously we did not read all these texts ourselves. Instead, we applied automated text analysis. In the current blogpost, I will discuss this method to highlight its potential for higher education research.

Automated text analysis holds tremendous potential for research into higher education. This because, higher education institutions—ie our research subjects— ‘live’ in a world that is dominated by the written word. Much of what happens in and around higher education institutions eventually gets documented. Indeed, higher education institutions produce an enormous amount and variety of texts, eg grant proposals, peer reviews and rejection letters, academic articles and books, course descriptions, mission statements, commission reports, evaluations of departments and universities, policy reports, etc. Obviously, higher education researchers are aware of the value of these documents and they have offered a lot of insightful case studies by closely reading such documents. However, for some types of research questions, analysing a small sample of texts just doesn’t do the job. When we want to analyse huge amounts of text data, which are unfeasible for close reading by humans, automated text analysis can help us.

There are various forms of automated text analysis. One of the most popular techniques is topic modelling. This machine learning technique is able to automatically extract clusters of words (ie topics). A topic model analyses patterns of word co-occurrence in documents to reveal latent themes. Two basic principles underlie a topic model. The first is that each document consists of a mixture of topics. So, imagine that we have a topic model that differentiates two topics, then document A could consist of 20% topic 1 and 80% topic 2, while document B might consist of 50% topic 1 and 50% topic 2. The second principle of topic modelling is that every topic is a mixture of words. Imagine that we fit a topic model on every edition of a newspaper over the last ten years. A first possible topic could include words such as ‘goal’, ‘score, ‘match’, ‘competition’ and ‘injury’. A second topic, then, could include words such as ‘stock’, ‘dow_jones, ‘investment, ‘stock_market’ and ‘wall_street’. The model can identify these clusters of words, because they often co-occur in texts. That is, it is far more likely that the word ‘goal’ co-occurs with the word ‘match’ in a document, then it is to co-occur with the word ‘dow_jones’.

Topic models allow us to reveal the structure of large amounts of textual data by identifying topics. Topics are basically a set of words. More formally, topics are expressed as a set of word probabilities. To learn what the latent theme is about we can order all the words in decreasing probability. The two illustrative topics (see previous paragraph) clearly deal with the general themes ‘sports’ and ‘financial investments’. In this way, what topic models do with texts actually closely resembles what exploratory factor analysis does with survey data, ie revealing latent dimensions that structure the data. But how is the model able to find interpretable topics? As David Blei explains, and this may help to get a more intuitive understanding of the method, topic models trade off two goals: (a) the model tries to assign the words of each document to as few topics as possible, and (b) the model tries, in each topic, to assign high probability to as few words as possible. These goals are at odds. For example, if the model allocates all the words of one document to one single topic, then (b) becomes unrealistic. If, on the other hand, every topic consists of just a few words, then (a) becomes unrealistic. It is by trading off both goals that the topic model is able to find interpretable sets of tightly co-occurring words.

Topic models focus on the co-occurrence of words in texts. That is, they model the probability that a word co-occurs with another word anywherein a document. To the model, it does not matter if ‘score’ and ‘match’ are used in the same sentence in a document or if one is used in the beginning of the document while the other one is used at the end. This puts topic modelling in the larger group of ‘bag-of-words approaches’, a group of methods that treat documents as …well … bags of words. Ignoring word order is a way to simplify and reduce the text, which yields various nice statistical properties. On the other hand, this approach may result in the loss of meaning. For example, the sentences ‘I love teaching, but I hate grading papers’ and ‘I hate teaching, but I love grading papers’ obviously have different meanings, but this is ignored by bag-of-words techniques.

So, while bag-of-word techniques are very useful to classify texts and to understand what the texts are about, the results will not tell us much about how topics are discussed. Other methods from the larger set of methods of automated text analysis are better equipped for this. For example, sentiment analysis allows one to analyze opinions, evaluations and emotions. Another method, word embedding, focusses on the context in which a word is embedded. More specifically, the method finds words that share similar contexts. By subsequently inspecting a words’ nearest neighbors — ie which are the words often occurring in the neighborhood of our word of interest — we get an idea of what that word means in the text. These are just a few examples of the wide range of existing methods of automated text analysis and each of them has its pros and cons. Choosing between them ultimately comes down to finding the optimal match between a research question and a specific method.

More collections of electronic text are becoming available every day. These massive collections of texts present massive opportunities for research on higher education, but at the same time they present us with a problem: how can we analyze these? Methods of automated text analysis can help us to understand these large collections of documents. These techniques, however, do not replace humans and close reading. Rather, these methods are, as aptly phrased by Justin Grimmer and Brandon Stewart, ‘best thought of as amplifying and augmenting careful reading and thoughtful analysis’. When using automated text analysis in this way, the opportunities are endless and I hope to see higher education researchers embrace these opportunities (more) in the future.

Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). He has a background in sociology and in statistics and has published in various fields of research. Currently, he works at the Centre for Higher Education Governance Ghent. You can find an overview of his work at his Google Scholar page.


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The (future) state of higher education research?

by Stijn Daenekindt and Jeroen Huisman

Parallel to the exponential growth of research on higher education, we see an increasing number of scientific contributions aiming to take stock of our field of research. Such stock-taking activities range from reflective and possibly somewhat impressionistic thoughts of seasoned scholars to in-depth reviews of salient higher education themes. Technological advancements (such as easy electronic access to research output and an increasingly broader set of analytical tools) obviously have made life easier for analysts. We recently embarked upon a project to explore the thematic diversity in the field of research in higher education. The results have recently been published in Higher Education. Our aim was to thematically map the field of research on higher education and to analyse how our field has evolved over time.

For this endeavour, we wanted our analysis to be large-scale. We aimed at including a number of articles that would do justice to the presumed variety in research into higher education. We did not, however, want the scale of our analysis to jeopardize the depth of our analysis. Therefore, we decided not to limit our analyses to, for example, an analysis of citation patterns or of keywords. Finally, to forestall bias (stemming from our personal knowledge about and experience in the field), we applied an inductive approach. These criteria led us to collect 16,928 journal articles on higher education published between 1991 and 2018 and to analyse each article’s abstract by applying topic modelling. Topic modelling is a method of automated text analysis and a follow-up blogpost (also on srheblog.com) will address the method. For now, it suffices to know that topic modelling is a machine learning technique that automatically analyses the co-occurrence of words to detect themes/topics and to find structure in a large collection of text.

In this blogpost, we present a glimpse of our findings and some additional thoughts for further discussion. In our analysis, we differentiate 31 research topics which inductively emerged from the data. For example, we found topics dealing with university ranking and performance, sustainability, substance use of college students, research ethics, etc. The bulk of these research topics were studied at the individual level (16 topics), with far fewer at the organisational (5) and system level (3). A final set of topics related either clearly to disciplines (eg teaching psychology) or to more generic themes (methods, academic writing, ethics). This evidences the richness of research into higher education. Indeed, our field of research certainly is not limited in terms of perspectives and unleashes “the whole shebang” of possible perspectives to gain new insights into higher education.

The existence of different perspectives also comprises potential dangers, however. Studies applying a certain approach on higher education — say, a system-level approach — may suffer from tunnel vision and lose sight of individual- and organization-level aspects of higher education. This may be problematic as processes on the different levels are obviously related to one another. In our analysis we find that studies indeed tend to focus on one level. For example, system-level topics tend to be exclusively combined with other system-level topics. This should not come as a big surprise, but there is potential danger in this and it may hamper the development of a more integrated field of research on higher education.

In our analysis, we also find a certain restraint to combine topics which are located at the same level. For example, topics on teaching practices are very rarely combined with topics on racial and ethnic minorities — even though both topics are situated at the individual level. To us, this was surprising as the combination of ethnicity and educational experiences is a blossoming field in the sociology of education. The fact that topics at the same level are only rarely combined is less understandable then the fact that topics on different levels are rarely combined. We hope that our analysis aids others researchers to identify gaps in the literature and that it motivates them to address these gaps.

A second finding we wish to address here relates to specialisation. Our analysis suggests that there is a trend of specialisation in our field of research. We looked at the number of topics combined in articles and we see that topic diversity declines over time. This is, on the one hand, not that surprising. Back in 1962, Kuhn already argued that the system of modern science encourages researchers towards further specialisation. So, it makes sense that over time, and parallel to the growth of the field of research on higher education, researchers specialise more and demarcate their own topic of expertise. On the other hand, it may be considered a problematic evolution as it can hamper our field of research to develop towards further maturity.

But what should we think of the balance between healthy expansion and specialization, on the one hand, and inefficient fragmentation, on the other? We lean towards evaluating the current state of higher education research as moving towards fragmentation. Other researchers, such as Malcom Tight, Bruce Macfarlane and Sue Clegg have similarly lamented the fragmented nature of our field of research. Our analysis adds to this by showing the trends over time: we observe more specialisation (not necessarily bad), but there are also signs of disintegration over time (not good). Other analyses we are currently carrying out also indicate thematic disintegration and suggest clear methodological boundaries. It looks like many researchers focusing on the same topic remain in their “comfort zone” and use a limited set of methods. For sure, many methodological choices are functional (as in fit-for-purpose), but the lack of diversity is striking. Moreover, we see that many higher education researchers stick to rather traditional techniques (survey, interviews, case studies) and that new methods hardly get picked up in our field. A final observation is that we hardly see methodological debates in our field. In related disciplines we often see healthy methodological discussions that improve the available “toolkit” (for example here). In our field, it appears that scholars shy away from such discussions and it suggests methodological conservatism and/or methodological tunnel vision.

There are still many things to investigate to arrive at a full assessment of the state of the art. One important question is how our field compares to other fields or disciplines. But if we were to accept the idea of fragmentation, it is pertinent to start thinking how to combat this. Reversing this trend is obviously not straightforward. But here are a few ideas. Individual scholars could try to get out of their comfort zone by applying other perspectives to their favourite research object and/or by applying their favourite perspective to new research topics. Related, researchers should be encouraged to use techniques less commonly used in our field and see whether they yield different outcomes (vignettes, experimental designs, network analysis, QCA/fuzzy logic, [auto-]ethnography and – of course – topic models). In addition, journal editors could be more flexible and inclusive in terms of the format of the submissions they consider. For example, they could explicitly welcome submissions in the format of ‘commentaries/ a reply to’. This would stimulate debate and open up the floor for increased cross-fertilisation of research into higher education and, in general, signal the maturity of research into higher education. Finally, there is scope for alternative peer review processes. Currently, only editors (and sometimes peer reviewers seeing the outcome of a peer review process) gain full insight in feedback offered by peers. If we would make these processes more visible to a broader readership – e.g. through open peer review, which still can be double-blind – we would gain much more insight in methodological and theoretical debates, that would definitely support the healthy growth of our field.  

This post is based on the article: Daenekindt, S and Huisman, J (2020) ‘Mapping the scattered field of research on higher education. A correlated topic model of 17,000 articles, 1991–2018’ Higher Education, 1-17. Stijn Daenekindt is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Ghent University (Department of Sociology). SRHE Fellow Jeroen Huisman is a Full Professor at Ghent University (Department of Sociology).


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Why we should care about comparative higher education?

by Ariane de Gayardon

In contrast to comparative education, whose history dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, comparative higher education is a relatively recent construct of research originating in the 1970-1980s. This early period gave us the first comparative instruments, still widely used today, as lenses to analyse national higher education systems. These include Clark’s triangle of coordination (1983), Altbach’s use of the concept of centre and periphery (1981) and Trow’s definition of elite, mass and universal systems (1973). Therefore, early on, comparative higher education proved very successful in increasing our understanding of higher education globally. But, since then, what has it accomplished?

While there are many users of comparative higher education – that is, researchers whose research could be considered comparative – there is still little written critically on comparative higher education research. The debate is alive, led by individual researchers, including Kosmützky, Bleiklie, and Valimaa. However, there is little acknowledgment of their efforts by users of comparative research, showing a clear divide between efforts to conceptualise and theorise comparative research in higher education and actual research practice. As a result, the field of comparative higher education is lacking rigour, as exemplified by the lack of appropriate rationales for sampling choices – why countries are included – in the vast majority of comparative papers (Kosmützky, 2016). This puts comparative higher education at odds with comparative studies in other disciplines, that have been focused on the comparative method as a way to reach causality or improve generalisation.

What researchers in comparative higher education have failed to achieve in the past 40 years is to elevate comparative studies in higher education to a (sub-)field of study. An academic field is built on the emergence of two dynamics: an intellectual debate and an institutional structure (Manzon, 2018). The debate around comparative higher education has been focused on proposing conceptual and theoretical frameworks, but it remains marginal. Additionally, questions that are still to be raised and answered include the objectives and purpose of comparative higher education, as well as what unites researchers undertaking comparative projects. At the same time, there is a lack of academic space for this debate to happen. Comparative higher education lacks specific journals – with the exception of the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education, societies and associated conferences, and research centres. Unlike comparative education, it has not yet permeated into the teaching function of higher education, with an absence of textbooks and dedicated degrees (although some courses do exist). Comparative higher education therefore remains on the margins, a practice of research that is still to be properly understood.

This deficit of reflective and critical thinking on comparative higher education matters. The use of comparative higher education for cross-country comparisons remains essential in understanding higher education systems. It provides unique settings to deepen our knowledge of higher education phenomena through the way they manifest in different environments and in contact with different cultures. This leads to improved theorisation of higher education phenomena that transcends borders, helping to fight assumptions and opening new avenues for conceptualising higher education. Consequently, it helps us understand our own higher education system better, through knowledge of the ‘other’ and combatting “comparative chauvinism” and “comparative humility” (Teichler, 2014). And because comparative higher education is not limited to international comparisons, it provides an opportunity to increase our knowledge of within-system variations through tools to analyse both the local and the global in higher education.

Comparative higher education research is also of tremendous importance to evidence-based policy. Higher education policies remain decided at the country (state) level in most countries around the globe, which means that comparison is essential to understand the consequences of different policies. Policy evaluation in higher education needs comparative studies, internationally and historically in particular. Understanding higher education policies beyond the national context is also important in a world where policy-borrowing and lending is prevalent. Knowledge of the ways different policies adapt in different environments helps prevent the spread of seemingly successful policies that would have detrimental consequences if translated elsewhere.

Finally, higher education research already evolves in an international context. Higher education stakeholders – students and faculty in particular – are mobile beyond borders, while knowledge does not know national boundaries. As a result, the vast majority of researchers in higher education have frames of reference that extend beyond their national context. This means that most higher education research might be unintentionally comparative. This is problematic in two ways. First, the way you do research is important to recognise and understand to reach research rigor. Second, researchers might not be acknowledging properly their positionality and bias, by not reflecting on what they know and don’t know about higher education globally.

After 40 years of existence, it might be time to stop and reflect on comparative higher education research and decide what its mission is. To do so, we can rely on endless research and debate in the field of comparative education, as well as a robust literature on comparative studies, that would provide strong basis for the construction of a field of comparative higher education. This reflection will help strengthen the higher education research done comparatively, leading to a tremendous increase in our knowledge of higher education generally.

References

Altbach, PG (1981) ‘The university as center and periphery’ Teachers College Record, 82(4): 601-621

Clark, B (1983) The higher education system : Academic organization in cross-national perspective Berkeley, CA: University of California Press

Kosmützky, A (2016) ‘The precision and rigor of international comparative studies in higher education’ in Theory and Method in Higher Education Research (pp 199-221) Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Manzon, M (2018) ‘Origins and traditions in comparative education: challenging some assumptions’, Comparative Education, 54(1): 1-9

Teichler, U (2014) ‘Opportunities and problems of comparative higher education research: The daily life of research’ Higher Education, 67(4): 393-408

Trow, M (1973) Problems in the transition from elite to mass higher education Berkeley, CA: Carnegie Commission on Higher Education

Ariane de Gayardon is a Senior Research Associate in the Centre for Global Higher Education at the UCL Institute of Education and is Assistant Editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education

Marcia Devlin


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Reimagining the lecture

By Marcia Devlin

The research around university learning and teaching shows that didactic teaching and passive reception do not result in deep, lasting or meaningful learning for most students. It is curious, then, that despite knowing this, we persist with lecturing at students in large groups in most universities. Worse, one of the most common lecturing practices is to ‘stand and deliver’ notes and/or PowerPoint slides.

It is important to acknowledge that lectures probably worked as a form of teaching for many academics – who were, as students, particularly intellectually able, intrinsically motivated and keenly focused and clear on their educational and vocational goals, that is, to continue to pursue knowledge throughout their career through research and teaching. But it is equally important to acknowledge that this approach is not effective for the majority of students, who go on to fill other roles and pursuits outside of academia. The challenge is that the lecture persists and is assumed to be the basis of effective teaching practice when it may or may not be, depending on the student and context.

If you doubt my argument, take the time to stand at the back of a typical lecture theatre (if many – or any – students have turned up at all past Week 5) and scan the students’ screens. You’ll see Facebook, Messenger and other social media channels getting a good workout, along with search engines and search terms that may or may not be related to the lecture topic. That kind of workout happens much less often in smaller classes where the teaching is interactive and the students are co-creating their learning through being engaged and active.

It should be said that not all lecturing is bad. A lecture hall can be led by a gifted, enthusiastic, well organised teacher with outstanding communication skills, who builds and maintains rapport, shows respect for students and their learning, engages all present in activities and critical thinking, enables collaborative approaches to problem solving within the class, provides stimulus for deep thinking during and after the lecture, makes concepts come alive through examples and the use of various media, provides ‘aha’ moments for those in the room, and so on.

The challenge is that the vast majority of lecturing is not like that, which is why students generally don’t bother coming and instead either watch it online (at double speed – ask a current student) or skip the class altogether.

At Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, Australia, we are acutely aware of the massification of higher education, the worldwide widening participation movement and the increased student diversity that this brings. We know that students’ lives are increasingly characterised by multiple and competing priorities in a distracting and at times overwhelming digital context. We understand that students want personalised, flexible learning opportunities that enable them to manage their multiple work, family, social and other commitments outside of university, while getting the most out of the financial and time investments they have made in study.

With all of this in mind, VU has radically and successfully reimagined our approach to learning and teaching by drawing on the evidence base of what works. We have, therefore, done away with large, passive lectures in first and second year and will do the same in third year in 2020. We have replaced semester-long units of study with a structure where students focus on and study one unit at a time over an intensive four-week period, in small classes of no more than 30 students, and through active, engaged, collaborative and deep learning with their teacher and fellow students. This is supplemented by both high quality online materials and wrap around, just in time, study and learning support. We call this The VU Way.

The focus is on the individual learner and their success. The impact has been extraordinary, with pass rates, grade distributions and retention dramatically improving in the units where this model has been introduced in both first and second year. This approach helps us address both our promise to be the University of Opportunity and Success, and the increasing accountability inherent in measurements of teaching and learning and in performance-based funding being introduced in Australian higher education. We hope that this approach and its extraordinary successes in terms of learning will continue to help us be competitive in a global tertiary education marketplace where transnational and globalised approaches to education are growing.

As the Australian economy moves, albeit very slowly, from a reliance on mining and manufacturing, to a new era in which new knowledge and ideas are precious commodities, universities have a critical role to play. Internationally, the role of universities is even more important as innovation, the transformation of businesses, technology and access to knowledge and education take place amid prevailing inequalities, political tensions, environmental challenges and huge economic changes.

While we tend to revere research that creates new knowledge in universities – and there is good reason to do so – we are significantly less enthusiastic about sharing that new (and existing) knowledge through our other core business of teaching. We need to be cognisant of the tendency to chase the prestige of research at the cost of effort and resource being put into university teaching quality and into university teachers.

Sharing knowledge more effectively

Many universities will be hesitant to move away from traditional modes of learning and teaching. Institutional culture, an undervaluing of teaching compared to research and the effort and the volume and breadth of the resources required to make a major transformational change in learning and teaching all probably play a part in the sector’s reluctance to significantly change teaching practices.

Of course, there are many alternatives to didactic, PowerPoint-driven stand-and-deliver lecturing that are currently used across the sector to great effect by individual teachers and teaching teams, including:

  • Blended learning, incorporating the integration of modern and interactive eLearning;
  • Flipped classrooms;
  • Problem-based learning;
  • Work-integrated and work-based learning of a wide range of types;
  • Simulations and other opportunities to develop practical skills; and
  • Collaborative approaches to constructing and sharing knowledge, incorporating multidisciplinary contributions from: internal colleagues (‘peeragogy’); external MOOCs; industry educational offerings; and formal recognition of prior and concurrent student real-life learning outside the classroom.

Much of what I have listed in this incomplete list will be familiar to many. There is, of course, significant innovation and outstanding teaching practice going on in pockets of the sector by individuals and small and larger teams. However, VU is the only tertiary institution in Australia to completely throw out the old way – including lectures – and truly transform university teaching and learning.

The VU Way won’t suit all institutions, and for those who would benefit from using it, the change may simply be too hard (it is certainly very hard). What is important is that the approaches to teaching used in universities must align and keep pace with the disrupted and changing contexts in which university education takes place and with the changing needs and preferences of students.

The lecture has never been recognised as the best way for the modern university student cohorts to learn. As the global, digital and societal upheavals we are experiencing continue, and we begin to see more examples of ‘the student-free lecture’ where no-one but the well-meaning, well-prepared lecturer turns up, the lecture as the staple approach to university teaching should probably start to go the way of the once ubiquitous handwritten overhead transparency. Both have probably had their day.

Professor Marcia Devlin is Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University, Australia and a Fellow of SRHE.  An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review in September, 2019.


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Redrawing research methods and rewriting data

by Kate Carruthers Thomas

The call for papers for the SRHE 2019 Conference slid into my inbox not so long ago, marking the point in the year when the mind must focus in the short-term, in order to benefit from all things Celtic Manor in the longer term! The conference theme: Creativity, Criticality and Conformity in Higher Education invites debate on transcending the traditional and building an innovative research culture. The theme is timely in view of my own recent experiments involving graphics and poetry in social sciences research.

One year ago, I sat with a mass of rich qualitative data I’d collected for Gender(s) At Work, a research project investigating gendered experiences of work and career trajectory in higher education (HE). I’d interviewed 50 members of staff, identifying as female, male and gender non-binary, working in academic and professional services roles within one UK university. I set about analysing the data using Massey’s theory of geographies of power operating within space. I wanted to explore ways in which gender operates as a ‘geography of power’ within HE and the extent to which participants’ diverse and complex lived experiences trouble the prevailing career narrative of linear, upward trajectory.

Clear space soon emerged between the rhetoric of gender equality and lived experiences in the workplace and throughout working lives. Despite decades of equal opportunities legislation and institutional equality policies, the glass ceiling remains a feature of our sector. Elements of less familiar career archetypes: the glass cliff (Ryan and Haslam, 2005; Bruckmuller et al, 2014); the glass escalator (Williams, 2013; Budig, 2002) and the glass closet (Merriam-Webster, 2018) also surfaced in the transcripts.  These metaphors, archetypal and architectural – were something of a gift to a researcher concerned with the relationship between space and power. I found myself experimenting – you might call it doodling – with visual representations of the glass ceiling,  escalator, cliff and closet.

Using the visual was not completely new territory for me; as a doctoral student I had employed visual mapping as a research tool (Carruthers Thomas, 2018a) and tentatively used abstract diagrams as aids to explaining my theoretical framework and findings (Thomas, 2016), but I hadn’t picked up a pencil with intent since school art lessons. Nevertheless, four cartoon characters emerged from my doodles; embodiments of gendered dis/advantage in the HE workplace.

Throughout the Gender(s) At Work project, I had been disseminating emerging findings through conference papers and PowerPoint presentations. I had written a chapter about my research methodology (Carruthers Thomas, 2019a). As academics we anticipate and reproduce such formats; they keep the academic wheels turning and form the building blocks of academic credibility. With data collection complete however, I was unsure that the temporal and structural constraints of these conventions were going to do justice to the volume of complex personal narratives entrusted to me by research participants. I was also becoming increasingly drawn towards McLure’s argument for

immersion in and entanglement with the minutiae of the data … an experimentation or crafting … a very different kind of engagement with data from the distanced contemplation of the table that is the arrested result of the process.

(McLure, 2013: 174-175).

In March 2018, the Sociological Review explicitly invited unconventional contributions to its conference: Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges. Still enjoying my experimentation with cartooning, I decided to explore the possibilities of communicating my research findings through a ‘graphic essay’ entitled My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. This would be in the format of a large-scale, hand-drawn comic strip conforming to the structural conventions of an essay or article. My proposal was accepted and the work began! The learning curve was precipitous!

 In June 2018, I exhibited My Brilliant Career? An Investigation at Undisciplining (Carruthers Thomas, 2018b) in the impressive surroundings of BALTIC Gateshead. The four A2-sized panels remained on display throughout the three days of the conference. It was strikingly different, communicating my research this way rather than hothousing it in a 20 minute Powerpoint presentation. Many delegates returned to the exhibit several times to look, bring colleagues, take photographs, ask questions. I engaged in discussions not only about the medium, but about the research process and findings too. And I myself engaged anew with the work, as an exhibit, rather than a cherished work in progress. I later translated the four panels into an A1-sized academic poster, displayed at the SRHE 2018 Annual Conference.

Meanwhile, another call for unconventional conference contributions in the form of poetic and performative work, had come from the Art of Management and Organisation (AoMO). This triggered a second experiment in creative criticality resulting in Glass, a long poem also based on the Gender(s) At Work data. Unlike graphic art, in poetry I do have a track record (Carruthers Thomas, 2018c), but had not considered blurring the boundary between poetry and academia until this call. Yet, as an academic my research practice involves collecting, analysing, distilling and presenting data. My research is a form of enquiry seeking enhanced intelligence and evidence to advocate organisational, structural and cultural change. As a poet, I follow a similar process to create a poem. More, or less, consciously I collect data: ideas, questions, emotions, sense phenomena, then manipulate language and sound to distil the data into poetic form. Glass brings these practices together.

To write it, I returned yet again to the interview transcripts, creating a poem comprising four sections – ceiling, escalator, closet and cliff – using participants’ words and a narrative framework featuring the researcher’s voice, using original poetry. Glass was deliberately written as a piece to be performed, another first, as I had only previously written poems for the page.

Even now, even now in my meetings

I’m still faced with wall to wall suits.

And I still hear my colleagues repeating

the proposal I tried to get through weeks ago

Great idea!

                                                                                (extract from Cliff, Glass 2018)

Glass and My Brilliant Career were created independently of one another, in different media but they draw on the same research data. This is not all they share. Both involved an extended process of analysis and representation; repeated revisiting of the data and work in painstaking detail. Both explicitly draw on and draw in, the affective, bringing the potential for surprise, humour, anger and pain into the room without apology. Finally, both also required me to allow myself to be vulnerable to audience resistance, discomfort, critiques on multiple levels and questions of academic validity.

Largely positive responses to the graphic essay and the research poem at those conferences set me thinking about ways to signpost the potential of creative approaches in social science research more widely and led to another experiment in academic practice.  I designed a multi-modal dissemination programme to take the findings of Gender(s) At Work out to UK universities and research institutes.  The programme featured six ‘options’ from which host institutions could select, mix and match: the exhibit My Brilliant Career? An Investigation; the research poem Glass; a conventional Powerpoint presentation of the research findings: The Workplace Glassed and Gendered and another giving an illustrated account of my emerging graphic social science practice: The Accidental Cartoonist. Building on both the research findings and visual methods, I also designed two participative workshops. Mapping Career challenged participants to develop meaningful visual alternatives to the reductive metaphors of career ladder and pipeline and On The Page explored the way simple visual and graphic methods might be used in research and teaching. I publicised the programme via email across the UK HE sector.

The response was extraordinary. Since November 2018 I’ve visited universities and research institutes from Edinburgh to London; Cambridge to Bangor. Audiences have included academics in all disciplines, professional services staff, senior management, conference delegates, Athena SWAN teams, women’s networks and mentoring groups, postgraduate and undergraduate students. I called the initiative the ‘gword tour’ after my blog the g word (that’s g for gender).   Six months, 30 ‘gigs’ – all that’s missing is the T-shirt!

One day I might be discussing Gender(s) At Work aims, research methods and findings to Athena SWAN leads and women’s networks; on another I’ll be delivering the Mapping Career workshop at a staff conference. I’ve presented The Accidental Cartoonist to academic developers and EdD students and encouraged academics to experiment with visual methods in their research and teaching practices in the On The Page workshop. Glass has been performed at some unlikely venues, including the Wellcome Sanger Genome Campus, the Stansted Airport Novotel – and to audiences somewhat larger than those at the average poetry reading!

How will you crack the glass enclosing some,

exposing some, blinding others

to their privilege?

Reflect on it.

                                                                                (extract from Epilogue, Glass 2018)

Throughout the gword tour I have diligently handed out structured feedback forms (in return for a free postcard), providing me with a continuous feedback loop and resulting in adaptation and tweaking of individual sessions throughout. Now the tour has concluded, a large pile of completed forms await me and I’m looking forward to getting the bigger picture. Meanwhile I’m already musing on two questions which have arisen throughout the past year. Firstly, whether and how addressing familiar topics through unfamiliar media can disrupt audience expectations and dislodge habitual responses to tricky subjects such as gender equality; secondly, whether what I have described in this blog constitutes being ‘differently academic’. 

By ‘differently academic’ I mean taking the opportunity to sit with our data for longer, deliberately to approach it from different angles, to explore its creative dimensions. I mean bringing data to diverse audiences, in diverse ways over an extended period, a process which has only further energised and deepened my engagement in the original research questions. Audience after audience has grilled me on my research rationale, process, findings, limitations and implications. Each time, their questions, comments and challenges have pushed my analyses further and opened new lines of enquiry.

I fully intend to publish my reflections on these questions in conventional academic formats: papers, articles and chapters.It may be that creative, critical work in our field can only gain academic legitimacy through this route.Meanwhile, other opportunities have arisen. Glass was published in the Sociological Fiction Zine in May 2019 (Carruthers Thomas, 2019b). I am currently working on a set of visuals for a new academic research centre and will be poet-in-residence at an academic conference in November 2019. The SRHE call for papers defines creativity as ‘transcending traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships’. I hope to continue to be creative and critical in my academic work, not for transcending’s sake, but ‘to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations’.

SRHE member Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University  kate.thomas@bcu.ac.uk  @drkcarrutherst Blog: – the g word https://thegword2017.wordpress.com/

References

Bruckmüller, S, Ryan, M, Rink, F and Haslam, SA (2014) ‘Beyond the Glass Ceiling: The Glass Cliff and its Lessons for Organizational Policy’, Social Issues and Policy Review, 8(1): 202-232

Budig, M (2002) ‘Male Advantage and the Gender Composition of Jobs: Who Rides the Glass Escalator?’, Social Problems 49(2): 258-277

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018a) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands, Abingdon: Routledge

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018b) My Brilliant Career? An Investigation. Graphic Essay exhibited at Undisciplining: Conversations from the Edges Sociological Review, Gateshead, BALTIC.  June 2018

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018c) Navigation, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Cinnamon Press. 

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019a) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in G Crimmins (ed) Resisting Sexism in the Academy: Higher Education, Gender and Intersectionality, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2019b) Glass. Sociological Fiction Zine, Edition #5 http://www.sofizine.com.

McLure, M (2013) ‘Classification or Wonder? Coding as an Analytic Practice in Qualitative Research’, In Coleman, R and Ringrose, J (eds) Deleuze and Research Methodologies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.  Chapter 9. pp.164-183.

Merriam-Webster (2019). [online] Available from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/glass%20closet Accessed 28 May 2019.

Ryan, M and Haslam, A. (2005) The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions, British Journal of Management, 16(2): 81-90

Thomas, K (2016). Dimensions of belonging: rethinking retention for mature, part-time undergraduates in English higher education, PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London

Williams, M (2013) ‘The Glass Escalator, Revisited. Gender Inequality in Neoliberal Times’, Gender & Society 27 (5): 609–629


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Practising a Pragmatic Critical Pedagogy in Higher Education

by Mona Sakr

Reflections on a workshop hosted by the SRHE Academic Practice Network

At a workshop on 8 May 2019 in the SRHE offices Jennifer Bain and Juliet Sprake (Goldsmiths University) shared their emerging conceptualisations of a ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’. Their ground-breaking approach comes about as a way to grapple positively with the tensions and affective dissonance that critical pedagogues encounter in the contemporary HE landscape, characterised as it is by neoliberal definitions of learning as consumption and the relentless emphasis on ‘student satisfaction’. What do we do with the uneasiness we feel? How do we move from our experiences of discomfort? Bain and Sprake shared in this workshop the spaces that they have created as a response to these questions, and, in particular, innovations emerging through a research and teaching project that they have conducted with partners in the Philippines.

The approach presented in the workshop hinges on the infusion of critical pedagogies with principles and processes that are essential to design education. Bain and Sprake argue that working with design mindsets and methods can enable us to find and make the micro-adjustments to practice that allow critical pedagogies to flourish in a potentially stifling wider climate. Through design, we can grapple with the contradictions and complexities we encounter as researchers and teachers without falling into a pit of despair. Through the design process, we identify responsive actions to the disjunctions and the dissonance. As we move against and around dominant neoliberal discourses of ‘learning as consumption’, the design process can inspire us to move on to the ‘what next’.

As participants in the workshop, we had the opportunity to try out for ourselves the design infused critical pedagogy that Bain and Sprake advocate. What Bain and Sprake call ‘pragmatic critical pedagogy’ was put to work in small groups where we decided on a particular problem statement relating to the research-practice culture of universities; statements such as ‘collaboration is time-consuming’ or ‘teaching-led research is undervalued’. We were then prompted through a series of design-focused questions to see the opportunities for design at work in the statement. We applied particular design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’ or ‘empathy’) to find new ways of seeing the problem. The point was not to ‘unsee’ the contradictions, tensions and frictions, but rather to see them from a different perspective, inviting new avenues for action.

Reactions to the task were enthusiastic. Discussion after the activity suggested that participants appreciated how the design nature of the task invited participants to launch into genuine and open dialogues with each other. At the same time, as you would expect, new points of tension emerged. What does the design process do to the affective dimensions of  critical pedagogy? Do design mindsets (such as ‘optimism’) override affective dimensions that might be a vital part of critical pedagogy? What happens to the anger, what Freire calls the ‘just ire’ (Freire, 2004), that comes with disjunction and dissonance? What happens when we push beyond despair to occupy an artificially induced space of optimism? How much of the design approach privileges working within the constraints and conditions of our situation (designing for an audience and to a brief), and therefore enables micro-adjustments that align with, rather than challenge, the status quo?

It is exciting to see that Bain and Sprake are currently extending their research, with support from the British Council, to look at how pragmatic critical pedagogies might play out on digital platforms. As they observed in the workshop, digital learning tends to be designed around behaviourist principles of learning, rather than tuning into the foundations of critical pedagogy. It will be fascinating to see how their explorations as part of the project ‘A Sustainable Framework for Design Thinking in Education’ might begin to unsettle the dominant models of digital learning and help to move the sector forward. 

SRHE member Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood at Middlesex University. Her latest book is Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives.

Reference

Freire, P. (2004). Pedagogy of indignation. Boulder, CO: Paradigm. 


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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me (e.henderson@warwick.ac.uk) to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.


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Insights for newer and emerging researchers of higher education

by Camille Kandiko Howson

This is a long overdue blog on my keynote Higher Education Research: A Personal Reflection on Policy and Practice at the 2017 SRHE Newer Researchers Conference (available on the SRHE website as well as a post-Keynote interview). In my defence, I was 8 months pregnant at the time and am starting a new job at Imperial College London. Which means that I have been reflecting on these insights myself, and in relation to colleagues (including those newer and emerging in their higher education careers as well as some very well-established).

Develop skill sets

Personal skills: A research career always starts with your personal skills. Through hundreds of interviews with academics and professional leaders, I have learned that research careers are hard work. A journal publication is akin to the tip of an iceberg of activity. Research requires tenacity, perseverance and loads of patience (from delayed trains to waiting for reviews to come back). Good public speaking requires a lot of practice (and do not read from your slides).

Collaboration skills: Find ways to work with those within your institution. This may be on projects related to your job or be more practical in nature. To progress you will need to work across institutions. This may be strategically for multi-institutional projects or to leverage resources. International collaborations are vital for niche expertise and comparative research. As you narrow your research specialism you will find there are usually a handful of people exploring similar topics. And working internationally does not need to entail a massive budget—I have long-term collaborators I have only met via Skype. Tip: this is a great website to find time zones to connect.

Methodological skills: Develop your methodological toolkit. This means going beyond a simplistic quantitative/qualitative divide. The methods should follow from the research questions and the best way to address them. I use various quantitative and qualitative analyses as appropriate, as well as concept mapping (and developed concept-map mediated interviewing), cognitive interviewing techniques, focus groups (I am a fan of 4-6 people, more than that and voices get lost) as well as interviews. Even more creative methods are being used – from photo elicitation to dance and Lego (which I personally get enough of at home). Tip: distinctive methods can go a long way in selling a research bid.

Writing skills for different audiences: There is no point in doing research if you cannot communicate the findings. There are very different writing styles for different audiences. Academic writing can be heavily referenced and jargon-heavy. The practitioner audience wants to hear the ‘so what’ answered. Writing for policymakers is tough, but at least is always brief. The public is a whole other beast – if your work has public interest I recommend professional media training, it really helped me with live radio broadcasts when you get five minutes to prepare. And when writing for students, it helps to “show your work”, not just the conclusion. I am still working on the skill of taking one piece of research and ‘translating’ it for different audiences (hence a massive pile of rejected journal articles from policy-oriented research projects).

Building a career

Be strategic: Be creative in approaches to roles and responsibilities to build longer term success. Can you turn an internal project evaluation into a research project? Can you repeat a pedagogical intervention each term to build up a longitudinal dataset? Or have a colleague to the same and work together?

Be green: Re-use resources and recycle your data. Within ethical boundaries, you can continually mine your own data. I managed to draw out the theme of ‘creativity’ for a journal special issue from  a large dataset on leadership.

Be free: You do not need external funding to do HE research (although it helps!). If you do not have, or are in between, funded projects, carry on small bits of longitudinal research or pet projects. I have seen full professors present on research they did ‘on the side’ over 5-10 years.

Be you: Develop your own strand or niche within a larger project. This may be within a professional position or a funded research project. You will always be assigned some roles, but seek out related activities that allow you some freedom to pursue your own interests.

Be savvy: This is not for novices, but if you start early it is a lot easier. Conducting a meta-analysis across projects and strands of research allows you to inform policy and have high impact. This can start with high-quality literature reviews or cataloguing studies in your research area.

Research impact

It used to be ‘publish or perish’. For better or worse, impact is the new name of the game now. Think of multiple audiences and what aspects of your research they may be interested in – this may differ for students, academics, institutions, government policy and the wider public. A straightforward way to have research impact is to bid for commissioned research projects: an eager audience already awaits.

Impact means getting your boots dirty – hit the rails, the road, the sky. You need to get your message out there. A tip for research bids – set aside plenty of funding to support dissemination. In addition to the SRHE blog, use Twitter to get your findings out, Wonkhe is great for policy, Times Higher Education has a wide readership and University World News has international reach.

Forging your own path

In the absence of large student cohorts, there are very few ‘traditional’ academic jobs in higher education studies; exceptions are the Master’s in Higher Education courses in the US or a few large-scale doctoral programmes. That means most higher education researchers have their own unique career path, often in hybrid roles with a mix of academic, professional services and managerial responsibilities.

To keep moving ahead in your career, build research networks across institutions and countries. If you do not know where to start, ask questions about someone’s research. Develop broad networks, including for professional work, research, across the sector, as well as policy influencers.

Get off your phone and email and be present and active at conferences; develop a public profile; request coffee chats with those whose work you like. Draw others in to your area of interest. I suggest informal mentors and champions as I have never found a formal scheme that seemed to work out. Find commonalities with others in related and semi-related areas (methods is always a good start). Tip: Write half an article then ask for collaborators rather than starting from scratch.

Challenges and opportunities

Sustaining a research career is not easy. You may encounter research and policy fads. There are endless calls for accountability and the resulting need to translate outputs to meet targets for your institution, REF and impact. It is also a lot easier to publish some kinds of research than others. Building networks can be daunting, and you will encounter tribes and territories and the intimidating disciplinary ‘old guard’ or ‘Mean Girls’-style cliques.

I know several colleagues who have built up professional and research expertise in a niche area or in a specific institutional context, and then feel stuck or are afraid to let go of what they have achieved to move on.

There is also the challenge of positional power in higher education. You might know more than your VC about access, but best not tell her that. Expertise and knowledge can be threatening to those above and around you – academia is not immune to the cry of “enough of experts”. Your research will always be more respected outside your institution.

However, chin up, as they say. Keep the big picture in mind and play the long game. Keep multiple strands of work going. Build supportive networks. Play to your strengths and build on your weaknesses. I need to force myself to stop and write instead of chasing the next grant sometimes. When tensions get tight, speak to facts. And be humble (at least on the outside).

Final points of wisdom

Your specialism will only ever be part of what your day job is; every HE role has its “bread and butter” elements (what pays your salary). Keep your career goals in mind (do you want to be a REF star? Do you want to have policy impact? Or institutional impact? Do you love teaching?

Don’t pull up the ladder behind you, build new ones to drop down. Provide and pass on opportunities to others. Some activities pay your salary, some offer generous or pitiful compensation, others offer prestige, networking, goodwill or, if lucky, a cup of tea and some biscuits. And a random one to finish, never put a country name or a discipline in a title (it is a turn-off to everyone else).

SRHE member Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship at Imperial College London. Camille is also a member of the SRHE Research & Development Committee


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Undergraduate experiences of the research/teaching nexus across the whole student lifecycle

by Tom Clark and Rita Hordósy

Within the landscapes of higher education, the integration of research and teaching is now seen as a crucial part of ‘the student experience’. Terms such as ‘research-led’ ‘research-intensive’, ‘research-oriented’, and ‘research-based’ are frequently used in the marketing strategies of HEIs to demonstrate the prestige, status and expertise of their teaching portfolios. It is tacitly taken for granted that research necessarily enhances the experience of learning. However, given the increases in the cost of university study, the continuing emphasis on ‘graduate outcomes’, and the popular and political denigration of expertise in a post-truth society, how contemporary students are responding to the emphasis on research remains a key point of concern.

Broadly speaking, the literature on what is termed ‘the research/teaching nexus’ (RTN) has focussed on four issues: the general lack of association between research outputs of staff and teaching evaluations; the differences that exist between and within HEIs in respect to the RTN; the attitudes of staff towards their different roles as researchers and/or teachers; and, the experiences of students, which are not necessarily positive. The vast majority of this empirical work has relied on research designs that are cross-sectional. Unfortunately, this means that the changing nature of the nexus as it is experienced by students across their degree has been largely unexplored. 

Taking a ‘whole student lifecycle’ approach, we have followed a diverse group of undergraduates within a ‘research-intensive learning environment’ as they made their way into, through, and beyond their programme of study (n=40). Interviewing them on three occasions throughout their studies, we sought to examine the dimensions through which students understood the relationship between research and teaching, and how these experiences are variously constrained and enabled.

Our findings suggest that the RTN is a dynamic process of development that is actively and affectively experienced by students across their degree programme. Multidimensional in nature, experiences of the RTN also changed over time. The key phases of development can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1. Phases of development in the research/teaching nexus

  Phase one Phase two Phase three
Focus of
disciplinary
knowledge
Broad Selecting Narrow
Relationship with
researchers
Distant Personable Close
Experience of
research
practice
Guided Problem-based Generative
Nature of
independent
learning
Answering Critical Discovering

However, because students also developed feelings and reactions to the nexus – and regardless of pedagogical practice or curriculum design – not all of the undergraduates we interviewed progressed through each phase in a uniform manner. The nexus could constrain as much as it enabled. These restraints were broadly concerned with a diminishing interest in the nature and utility of research; the lack of sufficient scaffolding around experiences of research and teaching; the perceived distance between students and researchers; and, issues related to participation, such as ethnic and/or class related identities. How students conceived and experienced the RTN was contingent on, and understood in respect to, other aspects of their lives. This included emergent individual interests, experiences of other students, developing career goals, and the wider contexts of higher education policy and practice within which participation takes place.

Taken together, our results highlight the need to problematize the normative presentation of research in terms of its relationship with learning and teaching. Research is not something that can be used with teaching to instantaneously produce better student experiences or graduate outcomes. In the context of an increasingly competitive global graduate labour market, there can be individual and collective benefits in connecting teaching with research, but these should not simply be assumed. Indeed, it remains important for HEIs to engage meaningfully with the RTN to understand how and why it is experienced in the way that it is, and, who might be excluded in the process. It should not be used as a cynical vehicle to justify academic research in the face of the rising costs of higher education level study. 

Dr Tom Clark is a Lecturer in Research Methods at the University of Sheffield. He is interested in all aspects of method and methodology, particularly with respect to learning and teaching. His other interests have variously focussed on the sociology of evil, student experiences of higher education, and football fandom. His textbook How to do your social science dissertation or research project will be published by Oxford University Press in the summer of 2019.

Dr Rita Hordósy is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Manchester. Her interests concern social justice issues in education, post-compulsory education trajectories, and comparing educational phenomena between national settings. She tweets as @rhordosy.


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The Intercultural Deterritorialisation of Knowledge: Al-Ghazali and the Enunciation of the Educator’s Rihla

 by Wisam Abdul-Jabbar

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

This study appropriates the notion of deterritorialisation, a process that determines the nature of an assemblage introduced by Deleuze and Guattari, to refer to Al-Ghazali’s conceptualisation of scholarship and methodology as the antithesis of the pursuit of a fixed area of research. The article focuses on the eleventh-century teacher, philosopher, and Persian theologian Al-Ghazali. It explores his pedagogical response to the dominant controversy of his age, the question of true knowledge and authority in an Islamic landscape that was brilliantly diverse but intellectually confusing. The article examines intercultural practices that challenge the institutionalisation of knowledge. In what sense can rihla be an educational practice to challenge the institutionalisation of knowledge? How can Al-Ghazali’s response to scepticism, knowledge, and authority inform practices in higher education today? Not only does this study aim to connect intercultural philosophical discourses to modern debates about academic expertise and the dissemination of knowledge, it equally seeks cultural and intellectual reconciliation, which is crucial today in a world that is becoming largely xenophobic, and entrapped in ethnocentric academic practices.

The aim of the paper is twofold. Firstly, the article employs the concept of rihla, as an intercultural practice that negates the notion of research as stasis and recovers its semantic origin of movement and process. Secondly, in my attempt to provide a theoretical framework for Al-Ghazali’s concept of rihla, which registers his response to skepticism, I draw on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of deterritorialisation. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari are French thinkers known for their collaborative works such as The Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). The concept of deterritorialisation refers to the disruption of a continuance, a movement or a process that determines the nature and the quality of an assemblage. In other words, deterritorialisation occurs when a rupture disrupts a cultural, religious or a sociopolitical assemblage.

Al-Ghazali’s methodological response to scepticism is marked by an understanding of academic scholarship as a moving interdisciplinary trajectory, always in flight, which ultimately enunciates rihla. Scholarship, therefore, materialises as an interdisciplinary zone whose trajectory deterritorialises the rigid lines of one discipline-based dissemination of knowledge. This article, thus, explores how Al-Ghazali negotiated epistemological notions such as “expertise” and “authority” within a thriving medieval interfaith and intercultural ambience marked by the convergence between knowledge and the public domain. Not only does this study aim to connect intercultural philosophical discourses to modern debates about academic expertise and the dissemination of knowledge, but it also challenges present-day divisive debates by extending the dialogical rhetoric beyond the Western landscape. To achieve that objective, this article first revisits two prominent events that sparked interest in how to generate and disseminate knowledge: the demise of prophecy and the encounter with foreignness as an intellectual entity. These two moments illustrate how a rupture in the Islamic epistemological assemblage initiated a profound intercultural encounter with foreignness and the resulting deterritorialisation that necessitated new educational practices. Accordingly, revisiting this encounter with the Judaeo-Christian and Hellenic traditions and examining how Islam and its ulama struggled but equally sought cultural and intellectual reconciliation is crucial today in a world that is becoming largely xenophobic and entrapped in ethnocentric pedagogical practices.

Al-Ghazali’s autobiography, travel experience and interdisciplinary training demonstrate his methodology. Hence, the significance of using Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual framework is essential in the sense that they conceptualise knowledge to be an assemblage of multiliteracies that provokes the deterritorialisation of academic disciplines that would otherwise degenerate into metanarratives. An actualisation of rihla qualifies the traveler to participate in this intercultural and interdisciplinary dialogue rather than being merely a distant, detached, and observer mentally trapped in an already-framed, meta-narrative academic discourse. A sabbatical leave, for example, is an opportunity to enact rihla as an alternative approach to common domesticated institutional comfort. To challenge the unadventurous, almost tourist-like stay, and become a more involved observer who is engaged in the transformative holistic experience of venturing outside one’s comfort zone becomes essential. It is an attempt to unpack the uncanny, nonconformist ways towards the acquisition of knowledge and reconcile our worldviews to what seemingly appears antithetical. I refer here to the culture of complacency that has crept into academia in which interdisciplinary academic rigour is mistakenly considered the antithesis of focused studies, which diminishes exposure to different theoretical lenses and pedagogical practices.

Such a culture runs the risk of having experts on postcolonialism who have never been to postcolonial countries except for short tourist-like visits, or tenured professors in international education who have never taught or studied abroad. It must be maintained here that for both Deleuze and Al-Ghazali, altthough the interdisciplinary dissemination of knowledge is fundamental, it is the absence of the diversification of knowledge that becomes an overiding concern. The Deleuzian notion of deterritorialisation can encourage institutions to look outside canonical methods of knowledge production and embed curriculum approaches that support the decentralisation of higher education. Similarly, Al-Ghazali, in his resilience and determination to abandon his post at Nizamiyya madrassa, was perhaps defying the notion of institutionalised knowledge. However, in the pre-modern Islamic world, the division between non-traditional learning experiences, such as rihla, and the institutionalised acquisition of knowledge, as represented by the madrassa, was not entirely unconnected and independent.

Al-Ghazali was troubled by how complacency in education amounts to sheer argumentation and malpresentation of knowledge. He pursued a line of flight that seeks intercultural connectivity. Rihla offers an opportunity to cross boundaries and relinquish regimented research. The medieval scholarly fascination with interdisciplinary rigour and multidimensional perspectives negates contemporary reluctance, often disavowed, to abandon disciplinary focus and figuratively sail perilously close to other academic shores. Moreover, unlike contemporary practices, Al-Ghazali’s understanding of interdisciplinary training is unfettered by academic departmentalisation. The initial stages of rigorous interdisciplinary training can be university-driven. However, it is detrimental once it becomes terminal. Al-Ghazali internalised that well-informed dissemination of knowledge is profoundly existential, intercultural and experimental. He is, arguably, one of the earliest proponents of the notion of lived curriculum.

Wisam Abdul-Jabbar is an adjunct academic colleague at the University of Alberta. His primary research interest is in intercultural education, curriculum theory, and multiculturalism. His previous articles have appeared in journals by Cambridge University Press, Duke University Press, California University Press and Routledge.

You can find Wisam’s full article (“The intercultural deterritorialization of knowledge: Al-Ghazali and the enunciation of the educator’s Rihla”) here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13562517.2018.1542378