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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Fostering a sense of safety in higher education

by Lauren McAllister, Luke Ward, and Lauren Young

From left to right: Lauren Young, Lauren McAllister, and Luke Ward

As three lecturers who have taught on a postgraduate course for several years that covers topics around race, gender, identities, parenting, development, disabilities, mental health, wellbeing, and the associated experiences of managing these oppressive and regulatory discourses – we began to question how we can keep ourselves, and our students ‘safe’. We had reflected that we were not talking about a physical sense of safety here, but rather a felt sense of feeling understood, or perhaps even contained.

Having spoken to colleagues and other lecturers who similarly teach some topics that may be deemed ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’, we found that there was very little agreement with regards to how to approach some of these topics and discussions.

What does it mean to feel ‘safe’ within the higher education classroom?

Historically, this idea of a feeling of being ‘safe’ derived from feminist movements where a physical space was created for like-minded individuals to meet and explore their experiences (Flesner and Von Der Lippe, 2019). Within UK universities, safe space is also explored in the context of addressing sexual violence, harassment and discrimination (see: Anker and Von der Lippe, 2018; Uksaysnomore.org, 2022).  Research which did explore safety in the context of a relational sense in the classroom, either positioned the achievement of safety as unrealistic (Du Preez, 2012) or as necessary to ensure both educators and students feel comfortable unpacking difficult dialogues (Nolan and Roberts, 2021). Despite this discrepancy, there was a general agreement that lecturers felt anxious and ill-equipped when teaching sensitive/contested/difficult topics – often leading to them avoiding or minimising engagement in the teaching of such topics (Sue et al, 2010; Warde et al, 2022). We also noted that there was not a clear sense of agreement with regards to what is considered ‘sensitive’ in teaching. In fact, some pedagogical researchers argue that students experience topics differently, and assuming students homogenously feel safe fails to consider this diversity (Barrett, 2010).

As a result, we felt we had several core unanswered questions which drove our research, including: how then as educators do we manage the complexity of experiences, when topics are differently experienced? How do we balance our own anxieties around teaching topics that are differently experienced, and morally/ethically ensuring are students are feeling ‘safe’? And finally, are we as educators responsible for this management of the classroom space?

Our research: What did we do and what did we find?

Our research used collaborative methods to explore both students’ and lecturers’ experiences of ‘safety’ within the HE classroom. We conducted our project in four clear stages to ensure that lived experience was at the heart of any recommendations we established.

Firstly, we conducted five focus groups with students, unpacking the notion of safety and jointly creating a vignette which would be used to scaffold the lecturers’ focus group discussions. We then conducted four lecturer focus groups in which we similarly explored this notion of safety, before using the collaboratively created vignette. This vignette was presented in four stages, with discussion encouraged at each stage. The vignette anchored discussions and enabled lecturers to explore how they prepared for difficult topics; the management of an in-class disclosure; the impact of a dominant voice; and finally, how they end their sessions. Following the focus groups, both groups were thematically analysed separately, before themes were established across the groups, with the support of two students from the student focus groups. The final stage of the project was then to establish some useable recommendations in the form of a workbook/resource for lecturers, which was similarly created with the support of students.

Within the focus groups we found that both the students and the lecturers focused less on whether a topic was deemed ‘sensitive’ or not, and more so on the space ‘between’. Students for example talked about the need to feel heard, the trust between the group and the worry about how their contributions could be perceived. Lecturers noted the impossibility of being able to prepare students for challenging discussions, and many explored the need for students to feel uncomfortable and uncontained, as part of their learning.

Our findings raised two core areas of focus which we used as basis for the development of our workbook: the development of the foundation of relational trust, and the scaffolding of discussions. Building on scholars who positioned relationality as core to teaching and learning (Hobson and Morrison-Saunders, 2013), we developed the concept of ‘relational trust’. We conceptualised relational trust as this shared or mutual understanding between all members of the group (students and lecturers), of an expectation of disagreement, misunderstanding and challenge. We also recognised that this foundation was not a set or established entity, rather it was relationally created and needing to be continually nurtured through considered teaching and learning activities/experiences. In the implementation of our findings, we therefore began to focus less on the framing of a particular topic (ie as inherently safe, or not), and more so on ways through which conversations could be scaffolded within our teaching.

Ok, but what can I ‘take away’ from this and use within my teaching?

Based on the discussions with the students and staff, we can make several usable recommendations to support educators:

  1. Development of a classroom agreement: Firstly, we explored the importance of this foundation of relational trust, whilst also acknowledging that this foundation is never truly ‘set’ or done – rather it is something that needs to be continually nurtured (and revisited). Lecturers and students explored the benefits of a ‘class contract’ during the induction of a new group, whilst also acknowledging some key barriers to the effectiveness of this contract. We explored the importance of needing to revisit this class contract, acknowledging that this relational trust changes with the introduction of new members to the group, changes in topic, general changes in dynamic etc.
  2. Clear expectations of roles: Both lecturers and students lacked clarity with regards to the role of the lecturer – and in turn, the student – in the classroom space. In particular, there was a clear blurring of expectation of what was expected of the lecturer when engaging in discussions that may be considered challenging.  Lecturers generally have multiple roles within higher education, but our findings suggest there is an expectation for lecturers always to fulfil all these roles within the classroom, and that lecturer roles are not neatly compartmentalised into ‘teaching’, ‘module coordination’, ‘office hours’, ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘personal academic tutor sessions’ etc. Therefore, we explored the importance of having a discussion/activity where you actively engage with your students, considering the different expectations of the student, lecturer, and other facilities – to ensure that there is a mutual and shared understanding of roles.
  3. Scaffolding of discussions: Using ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) and trauma-informed pedagogical practices (Carello and Butler, 2013; Dana, 2018; Perry and Hambrick, 2008), as a basis, we recognised the multiple layers of comfort and safety and how these could be scaffolded within classroom discussions (see Figure 1). We have therefore provided a framework below through which lecturers can frame their discussions, enabling students to contribute and be heard in spaces that gradually feel more comfortable, negotiating possible language and elements of disclosure. For this activity, it is useful to consider an element of teaching, eg a core topic, an activity, discussion, skills practice, and reflect on/plan out how this might look, starting at the ‘individually’ zone and working your way towards ‘wider group/class’. For example, the activity might be a discussion point on ‘what childhood means to you’, which you may then ask students to (1) reflect on individually for a few minutes, and note this down on a post-it, before then (2) discussing this with the person next to them, noting areas of similarity and difference. Later, the students are then tasked with (3) forming small groups and assigning a particular developmental stage, asking them to mind-map the main themes of childhood for particular developmental stages. Before then (4) bringing the class together, asking each group, in turn, to share their discussions, starting with the group who was assigned the youngest developmental stage, working up to early adulthood, to produce a co-constructed developmental trajectory.

Figure 1: Zones of Comfort

Four circles all within each other showing how a task can gradually include more people (individual, pairs, small groups, and wider group)

Beyond these useable recommendations, we also argue that there needs to be more of a systemic shift within the university culture where work that involves caring for students needs is often undervalued or unseen (Baker et al, 2021). For example, some universities do not provide hours for staff to prepare and undertake course inductions which promote this relational trust, nor are they given time throughout the course delivery to consider activities that purposefully consider inter-class relationships.

Want to hear more? You can find us on Twitter: @Lauren8McA, @Lukewrd, @Laurenyoungcbt

Dr Lauren McAllister is a senior lecturer and programme lead for the MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health course at the University of Northampton.

Dr Luke Ward is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health and a registered therapist working with children, young people, and families who have experienced trauma.

Lauren Young is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health, a registered cognitive behavioural therapist, and a registered children’s nurse.

References

Anker, T and Von der Lippe, M (2018) ‘Controversial issues in religious education: How teachers deal with terrorism in their teaching’ in Schweitzer, F and Boschki, R (eds) Researching religious education: classroom processes and outcomes  Waxmann Verlag GmbH

Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) Ecological systems theory Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dana, D (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation WW Norton & Company

Perry, BD and Hambrick, EP (2008) ‘The neurosequential model of therapeutics’ Reclaiming children and youth 17(3): 38-43


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Will universities fail the Turing Test?

by Phil Pilkington

The recent anxiety over the development of AI programmes to generate unique text suggests that some disciplines face a crisis of passing the Turing Test. That is, that you cannot distinguish between the unique AI generated text and that produced by a human agent. Will this be the next stage in the battle of cheating by students? Will it lead to an arms race of countering the AI programmes to foil the students cheating? Perhaps it may force some to redesign the curriculum, the learning and the assessment processes.

Defenders of AI programmes for text generation have produced their own euphemistic consumer guides. Jasper is a ‘writing assistant’, Dr Essay ‘gets to work and crafts your entire essay for you’, Article Forge (get it?) ‘is one of the best essay writers and does the research for you!’.  Other AI essay forgers are available. The best known and the most popular is probably GPT-3 with a reported million subscribers (see The Atlantic, 6/12/2022). The promoters of the AI bots make clear that it is cheaper and quicker than using essay mills. It may even be less exploitative of those graduates in Nepal or Nottingham or Newark New Jersey serving the essay mills. There has been the handwringing that this is the ‘end of the essay’, but there have been AI developments in STEM subjects and art and design.

AI cannot be uninvented. It is out there, it is cheap and readily available. It does not necessarily follow that using it is cheating. Mike Sharples on the LSE Blog tried it out for a student assignment on learning styles. He found some simple errors of reference but made the point that GPT-3 text can be used creatively for students’ understanding and exploring a subject. And Kent University provides guidance on the use of Grammarly, which doesn’t create text as GPT-3 does ab initio but it does ‘write’ text.

Consumer reports on GPT-3 suggest that the output for given assignments is of a 2.2 or even 2.1 standard of essay, albeit with faults in the text generated. These seem to be usually in the form of incorrect or inadequate references; some references were for non-existent journals  and papers, with dates confused and so on. However, a student could read through the output text and correct such errors without any cognitive engagement in the subject. Correcting the text would be rather like an AI protocol. The next stage of AI will probably eliminate the most egregious and detectable of errors to become the ‘untraceable poison’.

The significant point here is that it is possible to generate essays and assignments without cognitive activity in the generation of the material. This does not necessarily mean a student doesn’t learn something. Reading through the generated text may be part of a learning process, but it is an impoverished form of learning. I would distinguish this as the learning that in the generated text rather than the learning how of generating the text. This may be the challenge for the post AI curriculum: knowing that is not as important as knowing how. What do we expect for the learning outcomes? That we know, for example, the War Aims of Imperial Germany in 1914 or that we know how to find that out, or how it relates to other aims and ideological outlooks? AI will provide the material for the former but not the latter.

To say that knowing that (eg the War Aims of Imperial Germany, etc) is a form of surface learning is not to confuse that memory trick with cognitive abilities, or with AI – which has no cognitive output at all. Learning is semantic, it has reference as rule-based meaning; AI text generation is syntactic and has no meaning at all (to the external world) but makes reference only to its own protocols[1]. As the Turing Test does not admit – because in that test the failure to distinguish between the human agent and the AI is based on deceiving the observer.

Studies have shown that students have a scale of cheating (as specified by academic conduct rules). An early SRHE Student Experience Seminar explored the students’ acceptance of some forms of cheating and abhorrence of other forms. Examples of ‘lightweight’ and ‘acceptable’ cheating included borrowing a friend’s essay or notes, in contrast to the extreme horror of having someone sit an exam for them (impersonation). The latter was considered not just cheating for personal advantage but also disadvantaging the entire cohort (Ashworth et al, ‘Guilty in Whose Eyes?’). Where will using AI sit in the spectrum of students’ perception of cheating? Where will it sit within the academic regulations?

I will assume that it will be used both for first drafts and for ‘passing off’ as the entirety of the student’s efforts. Should we embrace the existence of AI bots? They could be our friends and help develop the curriculum to be more creative for students and staff. We will expect and assume students to be honest about their work (as individuals and within groups) but there will be pressures of practical, cultural and psychological nature, on some students more than others, which will encourage the use of the bots. The need to work as a barista to pay the rent, to cope as a carer, to cope with dyslexia (diagnosed or not), to help non-native speakers, to overcome the disadvantages of a relatively impoverished secondary education, all distinct from the cohort of gilded and fluently entitled youth, will all be stressors for encouraging the use of the bots.

Will the use of AI be determined by the types of students’ motivation (another subject of an early SRHE Student Experience Seminar)? There will be those wanting to engage in and grasp (to cognitively possess as it were) the concept formations of the discipline (the semantical), with others who simply want to ‘get through the course’ and secure employment (the syntactical).

And what of stressed academics assessing the AI generated texts? They could resort to AI bots for that task too. In the competitive, neo-liberal, league-table driven universities of precarity, publish-or-be-redundant monetizing research (add your own epithets here), will AI bots be used to meet increasingly demanding performance targets?

The discovery of the use of AI will be accompanied by a combination of outrage and demands for sanctions (much like the attempts to criminalise essay mills and their use). We can expect some responses from institutions that it either doesn’t happen here or it is only a tiny minority. But if it does become the ‘untraceable poison’ how will we know? AI bots are not like essay mills. They may be used as a form of deception, as implied by the Turing Test, but they could also be used as a tool for greater understanding of a discipline. We may need a new form of teaching, learning and assessment.

Phil Pilkington’s former roles include Chair of Middlesex University Students’ Union Board of Trustees, and CEO of Coventry University Students’ Union. He is an Honorary Teaching Fellow of Coventry University and a contributor to WonkHE. He chaired the SRHE Student Experience Network for several years and helped to organise events including the hugely successful 1995 SRHE annual conference on The Student Experience; its associated book of ‘Precedings’ was edited by Suzanne Hazelgrove for SRHE/Open University Press.


[1] John Searle (The rediscovery of the mind, 1992) produced an elegant thought experiment to refute the existence of AI qua intelligence, or cognitive activity. He created the experiment, the Chinese Room, originally to face off the Mind-Brain identity theorists. It works as a wonderful example of how AI can be seemingly intelligent without having any cognitive content.  It is worth following the Chinese Room for its simplicity and elegance and as a lesson in not taking AI seriously as ‘intelligence’.


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Research co-creation may be the key to impact

by Finley Lawson

I have been using a design-based implementation approach to co-creating educational research since 2019 at Canterbury Christ Church University, where a cross-institutional team of teachers, researchers, and school senior leaders grapples with where and how to provide opportunities for students to become ‘epistemically insightful’ (equipped with an understanding of the nature of knowledge within disciplines and across disciplinary boundaries). Previous research by the Centre discovered that pressures within schools dampen students’ expressed curiosity in questions about the nature of reality and human personhood and limit the development of their epistemic insight into how science, religion and the wider humanities relate. We developed the Epistemic Insight Initiative to understand the kinds of interventions, tools, and pedagogies that would address the current challenges posed by a compartmentalised curriculum. The challenge we faced was how we could transform whole-school curriculum practice without removing teacher agency. We wanted to ensure that the intervention(s) met the needs and experiences of each school community, without becoming so contextualised that that the findings and approaches couldn’t be generalised to have wider applicability (and ultimately impact).

Part of our role as universities is to produce (and facilitate the production of) knowledge. As the REF puts it we should be “illustrating the benefits research delivers beyond academia, including how it brings tangible changes to aspects of society and life, and the public value it delivers”. Yet within educational research there is a perceived disjunct between the research undertaken by universities (or professional research organisations) and the research used and undertaken by teachers and practitioners in schools and other educational settings. This is highlighted in practitioner-focused literature where evidence-informed practice is often divided between desk based ‘research’ by teachers as separate from ‘academic research’ conducted by universities or research organisations – a model which emphasises the teachers’ role as a consumer rather than creator of research (Nelson and Sharples, 2017). This divide can also border on a dismissal of teachers’ ability to engage with academic research, by insisting for example that we shouldn’t “expect teachers to learn to read research” and our role as researchers should be to create “teacher-friendly research”, with the implication that this is somehow ‘less than’ academic research (Miller et al, 2010). Why is this divide important for SRHE? We are after all focused on higher education so, apart from a call to consider broader dissemination avenues for our research, why does it matter?

My answer is impact. Not solely, or even primarily, in terms of a ‘REF-able’ impact, but because we know that education research has the power to transform students’ experiences of learning and thus broaden their aspirations for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of literature on the importance of research engagement within initial teacher education and professional development (for example see Hine, 2013; Hagger and Mcintyre, 2000; Murray et al, 2009), the question of how to ensure that the research ecosystem is reciprocal (i.e. that teachers/practitioners are viewed as knowledge producers not just consumers) is still relatively under discussed. A research ecosystem can be seen as analogous to a natural ecosystem where knowledge is transferred between stakeholders in a process that leads to the emergence of systemic change. The current challenge is to ensure that knowledge flows from teachers/practitioners into the system; Pandey and Pattnaik (2015) discuss this within a university and Godfrey and Brown (2019) within a school but there is less research on bringing these “micro-systems” together into a mutually enriching “macro-system” (although research by Connelly et al (2021) in the Irish context is promising). Educational research is about improving the opportunities and outcomes for those in education. For this to happen the change/intervention must continue to be implemented beyond an individual project, and often within the constraints of existing curricula and assessment frameworks. This means that teachers and educators need to be seen not as a resource for ‘local expertise’ but as a crucial part of the research ecosystem.

The establishment and development of a co-creation relationship across a diverse group of primary and secondary schools has taken about three years and has been led by both teachers and school senior leaders. The linchpin for these relationships has been a shared recognition of the challenges identified within the previous research, and an interest in examining how school students can be better equipped to navigate disciplinary and curricula boundaries. This shared goal means that the school and research centre aims are aligned and therefore the core data collected can be standardised across the schools, but with the addition of contextualised questions that address the specific questions of each school. These local questions alongside school-level data for the core questions are shared with the school to support their practice and development plans. As a research centre we analyse data from across the partner schools, with the advantage that, as the research addresses shared concerns, teacher engagement with the research is high. This ensures a 95% plus response rate across multiple data collection points for each cohort. Teachers and school leaders receive training on the philosophical framework underpinning the research and the learning tools but work in collaboration with the centre to develop lessons and curricula that meet the aims of the research. As researchers we act in a quality assurance role during the intervention development, which means that the teachers are at the forefront of shaping the intervention for their students and within their institutional constraints. This close collaboration means that we address two of the key features required in building research in schools (a) “a willingness to embed the research activity into existing school systems” and (b) “access to sources of expertise and advice” (Sanders et al, 2009). In one school this saw a movement from 10 teachers being involved in the initial curriculum design (plus delivery by 7 members of the senior team) to, in the second year, the entire professional development programme being restructured around research-engaged Professional Learning Communities, where staff undertook their own action-research projects.  Now, in the third year, all staff including support staff are in mixed research teams as part of their professional development.

Sharp et al identify a range of benefits to schools in being research engaged, including teacher retention, raised standards and school development. The biggest impact we have noticed, shared by our partner schools, has been the combined impacts on teacher development/practice and their epistemic agency to investigate the educational questions that matter to them, empowered by an ethos that acknowledges that not every intervention will succeed. 80% of participating teachers in one school agreed that it has improved their understanding of disciplinary methods of their own discipline in relation to one they don’t teach. Across the schools, teachers have changed practice within their teaching and have been empowered to signpost students better to links with other subjects. As researchers, we have seen our work embedded in ways and places that we could not have envisioned and seen a genuine interest from schools to engage in research that required the time and expertise of sometimes the whole staff body (particularly in primary schools). This kind of impact with whole year groups, even whole schools, taking part in research-engaged curriculum interventions and redevelopment would not be possible were we using a ‘traditional’ research model that excluded co-creation. The power of co-creation is that these ‘interventions’, if they can still be called that, will continue far beyond the directly funded projects that started them, because those involved have ownership of what is taking place.

Our role now, outside the continued partnership, is to understand how we, in HE, can use our position to amplify practitioner voices, to share this practitioner research widely within the research landscape. We are still looking for the best way to support those teachers to share their research-engaged practice into teacher education directly (through knowledge exchange opportunities with students on QTS programmes) and with educational researchers. In placing practitioner research within the research landscape, we truly recognise its value within the research ecosystem and can share how generalised interventions/findings can be implemented in practice, in schools or other settings every day. We must ensure that our HE practice includes acting as a knowledge broker, supporting, and enabling the production of knowledge by the communities which HE serves and feeding that back into the wider research environment.

Finley Lawson is the Lead Research Fellow for Outreach and Schools’ Partnership, at the LASAR (Learning about Science and Religion) Research Centre at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. His recently-submitted PhD examines the implication of scientific metaphysics for incarnational theology (Christ, Creation, and The World of Science: Beyond Paradox). He is interested in the dialogue between STEM, Religion, and the wider humanities, and how this can be fostered in school curricula. Finley is the Lead Researcher on the OfS-funded Inspiring Minds Project. The co-created research with schools discussed here has been funded by the Templeton World Charitable Foundation and forms part of the wider Epistemic Insight Initiative. As a centre we would like to thank all the schools who have been actively involved in our research but in particular the staff and students at Astor School, Bromstone Primary School, and Wilmington Grammar School for Girls, who have been case study schools during the project and have been involved in publicly sharing their work and experiences.

Email: finley.lawson@canterbury.ac.uk; Twitter: @FinnatCCCU



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Research with international students: reflecting on an SRHE 2022 symposium

by Jenna Mittelmeier, Sylvie Lomer, and Kalyani Unkule

We were pleased to lead a symposium of international authors at the 2022 SRHE conference, focusing on Research with International Students: Conceptual and Methodological Considerations. This was an early session linked for our upcoming open access book of the same name, which we aim to publish in late 2023. This book, as well as our research resource website which led to it, focuses on developing critical considerations for researchers who focus their work on international students and their experiences in higher education.

Research with international students is a significant and growing area of research about higher education. This coincides with and derives from the exponential growth in international student numbers worldwide, making more visible an interest in their lived academic and social experiences. This is also an area that continues to attract newer researchers, particularly doctoral and student researchers who may have a vested interest in this topic as current or former international students themselves, and practitioner researchers who teach and support international students in their professional roles. Research on this topic is interdisciplinary (as with most other higher education research topics), attracting researchers from disciplines including education, sociology, psychology, human geography, business, and beyond.

Despite this growing interest, we note that there have been limited conversations about developing research with international students as a distinct interdisciplinary subfield. Similarly, there have been limited methodological guidance and considerations for how research might critically approach the wide-ranging topics that are being researched in this area. We have written previously about how these omissions perpetuate problems for this subfield and, ultimately, diminish the potential impact of research.

The most significant problem with research in this area is that it tends to frame international students through a deficit lens, depicting them as lower quality students who ‘lack’ skills necessary for success. This is seen through the large numbers of studies which attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘integrate’ international students into expected norms of study in their host institutions, making assumptions about their perceived lack of skills in areas such as critical thinking, language, or writing. International students are also often depicted through research as only experiencing challenges or problems, frequently described as vulnerable rather than capable, managing, or coping. At the same time, research tends to homogenise international students as a collective group or deduce their diversity only to nationality and macro-level cultures. These are among other conceptual concerns we have previously highlighted, which are rooted in limited criticality and nuance through research.

With these issues in mind, our aim in the symposium, as well as through our website and book, was to start a conversation about how research with international students might be designed better, more critically, and more ethically. In particular, we considered the nexus between conceptual criticality and practical methodological designs which can reposition and encourage new discourses about international students. Each of the four presentations highlighted how, within the book, we encourage researchers to develop stronger research designs in the future.

The first paper in the symposium was by Kalyani Unkule, whose presentation represented chapters in our upcoming book where authors re-conceptualise an idea or term that is often taken for granted in research with international students. Here, we argue for the ways that certain ideas within this research topic are often assumed to have a shared, collective meaning, which actually might be more nuanced or complex. Kalyani reflected on the meaning of the word ‘global’ and the tendency for binaries of local and global to limit our thinking in research and practice about international higher education. This is an important critique about the ways that ‘home’ and ‘international’ are seen as opposing binaries in research with international students, ultimately limiting the conceptual nuance of where students’ experiences and histories might intersect these two areas and be more ‘glocal’ in nature.

The second paper was by Tang Heng, whose presentation represented chapters which highlight problematic discourses that shape and frame research with international students. Her chapter focuses on stereotyping and how stereotypes about international students, often through methodological nationalism, are endemic in the ways that research is developed and designed. Tang focused particularly on how theoretical frameworks can perpetuate or relate to stereotyping, but in the book we also focus on other problematic threads through research on this topic: othering, dehumanisation, coloniality, and deficit narratives, among others. This highlights the issues that hold the research subfield back and represent areas for more critical development and reflection in future research.

This was followed by a paper from Vijay Ramjattan, whose presentation represented chapters in the book which show how common stereotypes and discourses about international students might be shifted away from individual deficiencies towards recognition of structural inequalities. Vijay’s presentation focused on deficit framings of language, where international students are often positioned as ‘lacking’ linguistic skills. However, this might be shifted instead to focus on structural oppression of multilingualism and multiple Englishes within institutions. This gives us one example of how researchers can conceptually move away from issues like biases, stereotyping, and deficit narratives by centring the structural roots that cause them.

Finally, the presentation by Samridhi Gupta and Thuy-Anh Nguyen shifted the focus towards practical research designs, demonstrating the section in our book which focuses on how research design choices can purposefully resist existing problems in knowledge creation with (rather than on or about) international students. Their presentation focused on co-designing research with international students, giving practical examples of two research methods which can be designed with students as partners. This demonstrates the ways that methodological choices are fundamentally intertwined with conceptual criticality, highlighting how the method we choose can resist and deconstruct the existing problems set out by previous presenters.

Together, our symposium aimed to open up new reflections and considerations for the historical trajectory of research with international students, considering new ways forward for the research subfield. Both the symposium and our upcoming book aims not to give answers for how to move that path forward, though, but rather to open up questions for individual researchers and the research community more broadly about where we might like to go from here. We ask, then: what should the epistemic space of research with international students look like?

More research resources on this topic can be found at https://researchintlstudents.com/. ‘Research with international students: Critical conceptual and methodological considerations’ will be published open access by Routledge, aiming for late 2023.

Jenna Mittelmeier is Senior Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focuses on the experiences and treatment of international students within the broader internationalisation of higher education.

Sylvie Lomer is Senior Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedagogy and policy enactment. 

Kalyani Unkule is Associate Professor at OP Jindal Global University in India. Her research complements her practice in intercultural dialogue and impact-driven projects in higher education internationalisation and spiritual learning.


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Education from scratch, or resisting the lure of the oven ready meal

by Karen Gravett

Ready meals can be enjoyable, quick and simple to make. And yet we know that prioritising a diet of oven ready dinners is not really good for us. What does this have to do with education? The educational equivalent of the oven ready meal is the ‘best practice’, the quick fix principle that seduces teachers into thinking that generalised solutions can solve knotty educational challenges.  In 2007, Gert Biesta explained clearly ‘Why what works won’t work’. Biesta’s argument is that generalised strategies for addressing educational challenges are problematic, as such prescriptions for practice severely limit the opportunities for educators to make judgments in ways that are sensitive to and relevant for their own contextualized settings.

Despite Biesta’s wise words, today the pressure upon university educators to fix educational issues – to resolve students’ dissatisfaction with feedback, to ‘solve’ student engagement, remains stronger than ever. Attempts to simply synthesise the findings of educational research are common, and requests that educators provide simple, digestible ‘best practices’ have assumed even greater volume.

It is easy to understand why. Simple solutions that promise ‘quick wins’ are intensely desirable in our busy and competitive sector, where evidencing teaching enhancement really matters. Complex conversations involving theory and nuance? Less so. Like an oven ready lasagne, the best practice solution offers speed, simplicity, and consistency, but perhaps little actual goodness.

But educators also know that the teaching environment is far from consistent. It is rarely simple. Rather, it is messy, emergent, patchy, emotional, material, complex, and shifting moment to moment. Indeed, the limits of context-free ‘best practices’ are only becoming more evident as student and staff populations diversify, and as educators understand more about how to recognise and respond to that diversity. If we take assessment feedback as an example, how can any simple solution claim to offer a context-free best practice? Yes, dialogic feedback has been shown to be useful and powerful, but we cannot simply ask teachers to engage students in dialogue and assume that they will take on board a teacher’s feedback, in order to develop themselves, and improve. There are multiple reasons why dialogue might be inhibited including poor communication skills, a lack of time and space, a lack of motivation, miscommunication, power relations between students and staff of race, gender, class and disability, technological affordances and constraints, and so on. The teacher needs to consider what is taking place within the situated practice (Gravett 2022), as well as their own values as a teacher, making judgments as to how to proceed within that specific interaction. As Sian Bayne and colleagues (2011) explain: ‘best practice’ is a totalising term blind to context – there are many ways to get it right’.

Inevitably, others will pose (at least) two objections to this call to embrace complexity. Firstly, they may say − but what is the point of educational research if it does not generate solutions, solve problems, and create scalable implications that can easily be placed in the educational microwave? I suggest that educational research is about giving colleagues the confidence to ‘educate from scratch’. It encourages teachers to think about the ingredients of teaching and learning. If we think about our example of the student-teacher feedback interaction, then yes dialogue is important, but educators need to take time to look at the ingredients of effective dialogue rather than assuming that meaningful communication is simple and easy to achieve. As Elizabeth Ellsworth explained: ‘Acting as if our classroom were a safe space in which democratic dialogue was possible and happening did not make it so’ (1989, p315). Space, time, relational connections premised on openness and trust, shared understanding, all of these are the ingredients of effective communication. Yes, fostering student engagement is important, but educators need to look at the social and material contexts of the specific class or interaction in order to consider what practices to employ at that moment, and moreover, how to evolve such practices as situations change.

So what does education from scratch mean? It means thinking about:

  • The uncertainty, risk and complexity inherent in educational practices
  • Our own values as teachers and the impact of these values on our teaching
  • The specific sociomaterial environment we are working within, both disciplinary and at the level of the class and interaction. What might be the material or temporal constraints that impact upon our practice?
  • The particular learners that we are working with in that context. What matters to them?
  • How we can evolve our practice as situations change?

The second objection may be: but today’s teachers don’t have time to develop thoughtful, relational pedagogies! I agree that time is often short. Education from scratch might not be easy or quick. But a permanent diet of ready meals, pedagogies bleached of richness and complexity, would be too high a price to pay. Rather, we can learn from educational research, and from the ideas of colleagues, in order to gain insights that direct our own situated judgments. To develop ‘different ways to see’ (Biesta, 2020).

Fortunately, there is a great deal of fantastic, and thoughtful practice in our sector, but we need to continue and expand upon this, inspiring educators to have confidence to explore their own situated learning environments and to value those nuanced, micro-moments of learning and teaching. By broadening our understanding, we can explore a wider range of meaningful, critical and relational pedagogies, that we might be able to use to develop educational interactions that really matter.

References

Bayne, S, Evans, P,  Ewins, R. Knox, J, Lamb, J, Macleod, H, O’Shea, C, Ross, J, Sheail, P and Sinclair, C (2020) The Manifesto for Teaching Online Cambridge: MIT Press

Biesta, G (2007) ‘Why “What Works” Won’t Work: Evidence-based Practice and the Democratic Deficit in Educational Research’ Educational Theory 57: 1-22

Biesta, G  (2020) Educational Research: An Unorthodox Introduction London: Bloomsbury

Ellsworth, E (1989) ‘Why Doesn’t This Feel Empowering? Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy’ Harvard Educational Review 59 (3)

Gravett, K (2022) ‘Feedback Literacies as Sociomaterial Practice’ Critical Studies in Education 63:2 261-274

Gravett, K (2023) Relational Pedagogies: Connections and Mattering in Higher Education London: Bloomsbury

Dr Karen Gravett is Senior Lecturer at the Surrey Institute of Education, where her research focuses on understanding learning and teaching in higher education, and explores the areas of student engagement, belonging, transition, and relational pedagogies. She is Director of the Language, Literacies and Learning research group, Co-convenor of the SRHE Learning, Teaching and Assessment network, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education. Her work has been funded by the Society for Research in Higher Education, the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, the British Association for Applied Linguistics, the UK Literacy Association, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. She is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.


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Interdisciplinarity

by GR Evans

Historian GR Evans takes the long view of developments in interdisciplinary studies, with particular reference to experience at Cambridge, where progress may at times be slow but is also measured. Many institutions have in recent years developed new academic structures or other initiatives intended to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. We invite further blogs on the topic from other institutional, disciplinary, multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives.

A recent Times Higher Education article explored ‘academic impostor syndrome’ from the point of view of an academic whose teaching and research crossed conventional subject boundaries. That seemed to have made the author feel herself a misfit. She has a point, but perhaps one with broader ramifications.  

There is still a requirement of specialist expertise in the qualification of academics. In its Registration Conditions for the grant of degree-awarding powers the Office for Students adopts a requirement which has been in used since the early 1990s. An institution which is an established applicant seeking full degree-awarding powers must still show that it has “A self-critical, cohesive academic community with a proven commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective quality systems.”

A new applicant institution must show that it has “an emerging self-critical, cohesive academic community with a clear commitment to the assurance of standards supported by effective (in prospect) quality systems.” The evidence to be provided is firmly discipline-based: “A significant proportion (normally around a half as a minimum) of its academic staff are active and recognised contributors to at least one organisation such as a subject association, learned society or relevant professional body.” The contributions of these academic staff are: “expected to involve some form of public output or outcome, broadly defined, demonstrating the  research-related impact of academic staff on their discipline or sphere of research activity at a regional, national or international level.”

The establishment of a range of subjects identified as ‘disciplines’ suitable for study in higher education is not much more than a century old in Britain, arriving with the broadening of the university curriculum during the nineteenth century and the creation of new universities to add to Oxford and Cambridge and the existing Scottish universities. Until then the medieval curriculum adapted in the sixteenth century persisted, although Cambridge especially honoured a bent for Mathematics. ‘Research’, first in the natural sciences, then in all subjects, only slowly became an expectation. The higher doctorates did not become research degrees until late in the nineteenth century and the research PhD was not awarded in Britain until the beginning of the twentieth century, when US universities were beginning to offer doctorates and they were established as a competitive attraction in the UK .

The notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ is even more recent. The new ‘disciplines’ gained ‘territories’ with the emergence of departments and faculties to specialise in them and supervise the teaching and examining of students choosing a particular subject. In this developing system in universities the academic who did not fully belong, or who made active connections between disciplines still in process of defining themselves, could indeed seem a misfit. The interdisciplinary was often disparaged as neither one discipline nor another and often regarded by mainstream specialists as inherently imperfect. Taking an interest in more than one field of research or teaching might perhaps be better described as ‘multi-disciplinary’ and requires a degree of cooperativeness among those in charge of the separate disciplines. But it is still not easy for an interdisciplinary combination to become a recognised intellectual whole in its own right, though ‘Biochemistry’ shows it can be done.

Research selectivity and interdisciplinarity

The ‘research selectivity’ exercises which began in the late 1980s evolved into the Research Assessment Exercises (1986, 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001, 2008), now the Research Excellence Framework. The RAE Panels were made up of established academics in the relevant discipline and by the late 1990s there were complaints that this disadvantaged interdisciplinary researchers. The Higher Education Funding Council for England and the other statutory funding bodies prompted a review, and in November 1997 the University of Cambridge received the consultation paper sent round by HEFCE. A letter in response from Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor was published, giving answers to questions posed in the consultation paper. Essential, it was urged, were ‘clarity and uniformity of  application of criteria’. It suggested that: “… there should be greater interaction, consistency, and comparability between the panels than in 1996, especially in cognate subject areas. This would, inter alia, improve the assessment of interdisciplinary work.”

The letter also suggested “the creation of multidisciplinary sub-panels, drawn from the main panels” or at least that the membership of those panels should include those “capable of appreciating interdisciplinary research and ensuring appropriate consultation with other panels or outside experts as necessary”. Universities should also have some say, Cambridge suggested, about the choice of panel to consider an interdisciplinary submission. On the other hand Cambridge expressed “limited support for, and doubts about the practicality of, generic interdisciplinary criteria or a single interdisciplinary monitoring group”, although the problem was acknowledged.[1]

Interdisciplinary research centres

In 2000 Cambridge set up an interdisciplinary Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. In a Report proposing CRASSH the University’s General Board pointed to “a striking increase in the number and importance of research projects that cut across the boundaries of academic disciplines both within and outside the natural sciences”. It described these as wide-ranging topics on which work could “only be done at the high level they demand” in an institution which could “bring together leading workers from different disciplines and from around the world … thereby raising its reputation and making it more attractive to prospective staff, research students, funding agencies , and benefactors.”[2]

There have followed various Cambridge courses, papers and examinations using the term ‘interdisciplinary’, for example an Interdisciplinary Examination Paper in Natural Sciences. Acceptance of a Leverhulme Professorship of Neuroeconomics in the Faculty of Economics in 2022 was proposed on the grounds that “this appointment serves the Faculty’s strategy to expand its interdisciplinary profile in terms of research as well as teaching”.  It would also comply with “the strategic aims of the University and the Faculty … [and] create a bridge between Economics and Neuroscience and introduce a new interdisciplinary field of Neuroeconomics within the University”. However the relationship between interdisciplinarity in teaching and in research has still not been systematically addressed by Cambridge.

‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’

A Government Report of 2006 moved uneasily between ‘multidisciplinary’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ in its use of vocabulary, with a number of institutional case studies. The University of Strathclyde and King’s College London (Case Study 2) described a “multidisciplinary research environment”. The then Research Councils UK (Case Study 5b) said its Academic Fellowship scheme provided “an important mechanism for building interdisciplinary bridges” and at least 2 HEIs had “created their own schemes analogous to the Academic Fellowship concept”.

In sum it said that all projects had been successful “in mobilising diverse groups of specialists to work in a multidisciplinary framework and have demonstrated the scope for collaboration across disciplinary boundaries”. Foresight projects, it concluded, had “succeeded in being regarded as a neutral interdisciplinary space in which forward thinking on science-based issues can take place”. But it also “criticised the RAE for … the extent to which it disincentivised interdisciplinary research”.  And it believed that Doctoral Training Projects still had a focus on discipline-specific funding, which was “out of step with the growth in interdisciplinary research environments and persistent calls for more connectivity and collaboration across the system to improve problem-solving and optimise existing capacity”.

Crossing paths: interdisciplinary institutions, careers, education and applications was published by the British Academy in 2016. It recognised that British higher education remained strongly ‘discipline-based’, and recognized the risks to a young researcher choosing to cross boundaries. Nevertheless, it quoted a number of assurances it had received from universities, saying that they were actively seeking to support or introduce the ‘interdisciplinary’. It provided a set of Institutional Case Studies. including Cambridge’s statement about CRASSH, as hosting a range of externally funded interdisciplinary projects. Crossing paths saw the ‘interdisciplinary’ as essentially bringing together existing disciplines in a cluster. It suggested “weaving, translating, convening and collaborating” as important skills needed by those venturing into work involving more than one discipline.  It did not attempt to explore the definition of interdisciplinarity or how it might differ from the multi-disciplinary.

Interdisciplinary teaching has been easier to experiment with, particularly at school level where subject-based boundaries may be less rigid. There seems to be room for further hard thought not only on the need for definitions but also on the notion of the interdisciplinary from the point of view of the division of provision for posts in – and custody of – individual disciplines in the financial and administrative arrangements of universities. This work-to-be-done is also made topical by Government and Office for Students pressure to subordinate or remove established disciplines which do not offer the student a well-paid professional job on graduation.

SRHE member GR Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


[1] Cambridge University Reporter, 22 April (1998).  

[2] Cambridge University Reporter, 25 October (2000).  


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Fun and games – nurturing students’ ‘being’

by Lucy Gill-Simmen and Laura Chamberlain

It is widely known that skills required by employers today are focused less on discipline specific skills and more on personal skills (also referred to as soft skills or human skills). For example, relatively recently, Tracy Brower in Forbes declared empathy to be the most important leadership skill. Other reports, such as those from the World Economic Forum and OECD, cite skills such as critical thinking, creativity, resilience, self-awareness and emotional intelligence among the top ten skills required in today’s workplace. In our changing world, with elevated awareness of issues such as climate change, sustainability, social justice and EDI, this tendency towards the personal skills should come as no surprise. This is because the skills required to address such issues are often human-centred. The gap between higher education and the workplace will only widen should we overlook our role as educators in developing these personal skills in students.

Drawing inspiration from the Dalai Lama who said ‘We are human beings not human doings’, educators need to find the right balance between the disciplinary content of a degree programme where students are ‘knowing and doing’ and the dimension of ‘being’. With a greater focus on ‘being’ which is linked to the development of personal skills, academics are required to embed areas of practice within their subject-specific classes to allow students to hone their skills. This is no easy feat since departure from a curriculum constituting the dissemination of knowledge and information causes consternation and demotivation amongst some academics who feel potentially deskilled. It isn’t far-fetched to imagine faculty declaring ‘we’re not here to teach them to be self-aware’.

There’s some merit in this way of thinking, since indeed we need to take care. Being human or at least openly demonstrating one’s human side in the workplace may come with its downsides too. There’s a viewed yet flawed tension between behaving in ways which show one’s human side and appearing unprofessional, particularly amongst women. The backlash against the Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin who was recently filmed dancing with her friends suddenly brought her professionalism into question. Known for her empathic leadership, this act of having fun became something that went against her. This aligns with the thoughts of some academics who mull over whether sometimes having fun in the classroom just seems wrong.

However, if it is our role to effect change in human beings, we must look beyond disciplinary knowledge and indeed the mode of delivery of knowledge which Freire (1970) in Pedagogy of the Oppressed refers to as banking. We must  ask ourselves how do we nurture student ‘being’? If we equate the development of personal skillswith being and becoming, we need to consider acts which shape and change the world. To do so we can consider the notion of praxis – action which embodies particular qualities.

Praxis is not a new phenomenon; Aristotle posited that praxis “was guided by a moral disposition to act truly and rightly; a concern to further human well-being and the good life”. If we adopt a praxis inquiry model, introducing context and ‘concrete structures’ into our management teaching as espoused by Freire (1972), we must equally consider how to foster the ‘being’ component of praxis. Traditionally, praxis pedagogies are found within disciplines such as nursing, teaching, and social work. We argue, however, that such pedagogies should not only be confined to the realms of human caring professions but should extend beyond and into other professions. Ironically, given the experience of Sanna Marin, even in politics we see the call for more empathic and emotionally aware leadership.

The discipline of business and management presents us with challenges. Given the sheer breadth of the discipline, we cannot always be sure of the contexts and influences that shape and provide sense-making in the world of work encountered by business and management graduates. This is also reflected in the dearth of signature pedagogies in business and management and the lack of definition when considering the ‘concrete structures’ we refer to earlier. Further challenges are presented in business and management, since how do we know what students will ‘be or become’ when they graduate? If a student studies dentistry, they are most likely to become a dentist, if a student studies law, there’s a good chance they’ll become a lawyer. However, graduates of business and management could become consultants, accountants, marketers or project managers to name but a few graduate destinations.

The knowledge that we need to provide to foster ‘being and becoming’ in business and management can appear rather elusive. Not only we, but other scholars too have asked the same question. For instance, Barnett (2009) asks: if a curriculum built on knowledge in higher education can be understood to be an educational vehicle to promote a student’s development, where are the links between knowledge and student ‘being and becoming’?

The meaning of praxis can be considered as ethical, self-aware, responsive, and accountable action and involving the reciprocal of knowing, doing and being (White, 2007). From our perspective,  knowing and doing are taught and assessed through discipline-based teaching and learning activities but this raises the question of how we embed the ‘being’. How can we ensure that business and management students are equipped to ‘be’ competent practitioners?

Although normally firmly benched in human caring professions such as nursing and teaching, we argue that there is a place for praxis pedagogies in business and management. Subscribing to a Habermasian school of thought, praxis requires knowledge of how to be a particular kind of person. In business and management, the particular kind of person is particularly difficult to foresee. Thus, the contextual element is difficult. However, we propose that steps need to be taken in the direction of the ‘being’ element of praxis. One way to do so is by drawing upon creativity and creative pedagogies as a means to developing students’ ‘being-in-the-world’ and to honing the skills leading to creativity growth.

Passive teaching methods, such as rote-memorisation and large-format lectures still dominate academia, despite research calling for more appropriate ways of instruction. This is where current practices diverge from the common mission of developing twenty-first-century skills in students. If learning goals should match teaching and learning activities, it is important to place higher education faculty into the discussion of creativity (Robinson et al, 2018). This is due to the nature of creative pedagogy, which is where to find many components which align with twenty-first-century skills important to future workforce needs. These include critical thinking, problem solving and innovation.

Along with two other colleagues (Dr Artemis Panigyraki and Dr Jenny Lloyd) we recently facilitated a creativity workshop at Warwick Business School in association with the Academy of Marketing. Designed for PhD students and early career researchers, we showcased some examples of embedding creativity into the curriculum. The aim of the workshop was to introduce new academics to innovative ways of teaching and to demonstrate how, through the adoption of different creative pedagogies, students could potentially gain alternative perspectives and views of the world and discover an alternative way of ‘being’. So as not to deviate too far from the academic discipline, we embedded the learning tasks within the discipline of Marketing. In doing so, we demonstrated how one can bring creativity to the classroom whilst still meeting the subject-based learning outcomes.

In line with Daniel Pink’s (2006) work on developing the right side of the brain, or the creative side, the workshop was designed around four different creative areas: the arts, design thinking, play/imagination, and storytelling. For each theme, activities were designed to immerse participants in a creative activity and in so doing allowed them to experience ‘being’ in an alternative and/or imagined world. Examples of activities were to imagine the discipline of Marketing as a song, and to select such a song to add to a Spotify playlist. Some participants found this challenging, others knew immediately which song they would select, despite having never been asked to do this before. They were immediately required to ‘be’ in a different space. Participants were tasked with sketching a product concept for a doorknob using both user-centered design and design-driven innovation. This pushed many participants out of their comfort zone, some declaring they ‘didn’t know how to draw’. Other tasks involved writing captions for The New Yorker cartoons, a form of play which measures whole-minded abilities. Following this task, many participants declared it challenging, whilst a few declared it fun. Specifically, they said coming up with the required elements of a caption such as rhythm, brevity and surprise did not come naturally. Other tasks included building a free-standing tower out of dried spaghetti and writing a story capturing a plot with morals, characters, and conflict. Each task held values that allowed for different aspects of ‘being’.

The characteristics of creative pedagogies which marked the ‘being’ emerged over the course of the workshop. We observed ‘being’ as ‘thinking differently’, ‘being playful’, ‘struggling’, ‘being a child’, ‘being innovative’, promoting changes in behaviours manifesting as sparking the imagination, bringing out the competitive spirit and experiencing joy. Participants were experiencing ‘being’ within the experience of exploration of the unknown. The variety of activities throughout the workshop allowed participants to experience different ways of ‘being-in-the-world’ (Denmead, 2010). Through this process, participants saw themselves in a different way and in a way that signified a change in their receptivity.

Many participants found themselves reverting to being a younger version of themselves as they were asked to think about stories which they enjoyed as a child. This was expanded as they were asked to  write a story; many noted they had not written a story since they were at school. They wrote stories of romance and demonstrated vivid imagination, which had perhaps long been hidden, thus they were ‘being’ in a space of former times, one where child-like imagination was revered. Spaces of struggle, of not knowing, uncertainty, open-endedness, frustration, of joy, and with a friendly, almost childlike competitive spirit were spaces beyond the norms of everyday behaviours and structures. The activities gave participants places in which to operate, to behave and to ‘be’. Participants were able to temporarily suspend ordinary conventions, the boundaries of structural obligation, functional pressures and engage in behaviours whose value was not immediately evident. They broke away from the normal constructed boundaries within which they are expected to exist and behave on a normal day and engaged in play. Many declared the activities as freeing and expressed their views of creativity as relating to freedom, noting they had a choice in how they executed the tasks and also in their outcome. Interestingly, there has been vast philosophical debate around freedom as constituting a significant part of ‘being’.

To develop the human skills sought after in the workplace, ‘being and becoming’ need to be central tenets of a higher education system. There is an inherent need for us to satisfy the third dimension of praxis, this is ‘being’. How do we do this? We do this through promoting different ways of ‘being- in-the-world’ and pushing the boundaries of the norms in higher education. Creativity and creative pedagogies are an effective way of doing this.

Dr Lucy Gill-Simmen is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing & Director of Education Strategy in the School of Business & Management, Royal Holloway, University of London. Follow Lucy via @lgsimmen on Twitter

Professor Laura Chamberlain is Professor of Marketing and Assistant Dean PGT at Warwick Business School, The University of Warwick. Follow Laura via @LMChamberlain on Twitter and @drlaurachamberlain on Instagram

References
Barnett, R (2009) ‘Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum’ Studies in Higher Education34(4): 429-440

Denmead, T (2011) ‘Being and becoming: Elements of pedagogies described by three East Anglian creative practitioners’ Thinking skills and Creativity6(1): 57-66

Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the oppressed Penguin Classics edition 2017

Freire, P (1972) Cultural action for freedom Ringwood: Penguin

Pink, DH (2006) A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. Penguin

Robinson, D, Schaap, BM and Avoseh, M (2018) ‘Emerging themes in creative higher education pedagogy’ Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

White, J (2007) ‘Knowing, doing and being in context: A praxis-oriented approach to child and youth care’ Child & Youth Care Forum 36(5): 225-244


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Doctoral Borderlands: an exploration of doctoral education and its possible futures

by Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein, Rille Raaper, Harry Rolf, Karen Gravett, Karen Smith, Neil Harrison and Susan Carter

At the SRHE conference 2021, we (Karen S, Neil and Susan) facilitated a symposium in two parts on Doctoral Borderlands. Together, the parts gave a guided tour through doctoral borderlands, the metaphor underpinning the Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue: ‘Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral education’ (Carter, Smith & Harrison, 2021). The reference to borderlands, drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) work, emphasised the transitionary and liminal nature of doctoral education, the crossings into the unknown, and the emergence or surfacing of (multiple) identities. In the symposium, ten authors shared overviews of seven of the Special Issue articles as starting points for open discussion around doctoral education and its future possibilities.

This blog post picks up three doctoral borderland trajectories taken by some of the SRHE symposium presenters. First, Karen Gravett starts by looking at how the form of the doctorate is changing and its impact on perceptions of the doctoral journey. Then Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper discuss being, becoming and belonging, particularly in the context of precarity. After this, Harry Rolf considers power in doctoral education, from the starting point of doctoral publishing.

Karen Gravett

Critical perspectives on doctoral education are needed now more than ever. It is increasingly apparent that the prevalence of new routes and possibilities for study, including professional and publication-led doctorates, combined with a competitive academic landscape, have reshaped the doctoral experience in new ways (Gravett, 2021). What it is to be a doctoral student and what it means to do a doctorate is evolving, and traditional stereotypes, of young, full-time, funded students are no longer fit for purpose.

And yet, the literature on doctoral education is rich with metaphors that describe doctoral study as a pathway or trajectory, while institutional rhetoric often evokes ideas of linearity and regularity. In my recent work (Gravett, 2021), I explore the power of these tropes and depictions, in order to ask: what do spatial narratives do? Are conceptions of linear journeys, or pathways from student to academic, from novice to expert, still fit for purpose? I invite readers to think with two of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) theoretical concepts, rhizome and becoming, to foreground the multiple and messy becomings that researchers experience, as they evolve throughout a doctorate and beyond.

In reconsidering narratives of the doctoral journey, I offer an irruption to widely accepted notions of learning as a linear pathway with a fixed end-point, and reflect on how new and traditional forms of doctoral study might be understood differently. Thinking differently about doctoral study offers new opportunities for writing: offering spaces to disrupt the traditional monograph that has dominated the doctorate to date, and openings for intertextuality and connection.

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Just as the form of the doctorate and the pathway through it are changing, the context in which doctorates are done and the impact on doctoral students’ identities are also changing, picked up by Namrata, Anesa and Rille.

Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper

The marketisation of higher education (HE) has seen a growing number of HE staff being employed on short term hourly paid contracts, which has also triggered much of the recent University and College Union (UCU) Four Fights Campaign in the UK. Our paper (Rao, Hosein & Raaper, 2021) explored doctoral students engaged in HE teaching in an era of precarity; within this context of increasing casualisation, the doctoral students, ‘the budding academics’, are seeking ways of getting their foot in the door and ‘becoming’ an academic. This desire for ‘belonging’ in the academy has seen them take up casualised contracts with the hope that they would one day land up a permanent contract.

Aside from the damage often caused by such casualised contracts to their developing professional identity, there is a growing concern that the precarious employment circumstances lead to them developing a fractured ‘cleft’ teacher identity, where they are continuously straddling the demands of being a researcher (as a doctoral student) and being a teacher negotiating the uncertainties created by such working conditions. Doctoral students’ understandings of university teaching are often framed by their own experiences of being a university student. We suggest their teaching should be shaped by a professional development programme. Access to such programmes is limited due to the nature of their casualised contracts and often very disparate depending on the institutional context.

These structural inequalities and precarious support practices compromise candidates’ holistic development as researchers and teachers. It’s more difficult for them to be fully productive university teachers, which in turn has a knock-on impact on the quality of university teaching and their experience as doctoral students. Therefore, there is a pressing need for universities to consider ways in which doctoral students can belong to and become and be (remain) active citizens who are aware of their responsibilities, but whose rights are addressed both as students and aspiring academics.

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Doctoral student engagement with and in the academy is underpinned by power, a theme continued by Harry.

Harry Rolf

The landscape of doctoral education is contradictory and conflicting, shaped by invisible power structures and taken-for-granted practices arising from research performance and productivity measures. An emphasis on publishing in doctoral pedagogy means that this is increasingly a landscape that doctoral students must cross to achieve academic and future career success.

My analysis (Rolf 2021), applying a lens of data feminism to publications by doctoral students at an Australian university, shows a borderland where crossings by students and supervisors were frequent but where few stayed for long. Travellers crossed in teams which over time exhibited different approaches to the practice of publication, from teams led by a strong ego-centric researcher to teams where publication was a collaborative effort, but where power was not evenly distributed. Travelling with an experienced guide provided doctoral students with greater access to networks, and if they travelled frequently, more opportunities to publish along the way.

The analysis raises important questions about power and experience in doctoral supervisory and publishing teams, including questions that go beyond the scope of publication data; for example, what does good collaboration look like in doctoral supervisory teams, how are those doctoral supervisory teams formed, what practices do those supervisors bring, and are more diverse expertise or experience brought to supervisory teams and properly recognised? And looking beyond the immediate supervisory team, how can doctoral students find other networks and teams with the knowledge and tools to help them find safe passage, and success, on their borderland crossing?

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Our 2021 SRHE conference symposium managed to cover many of the uncertainties, transitions, dangers and hopes of doctoral borderlands, doing pretty well at representing the Special Issue, which houses thirteen full articles and two Points of Departure (think-piece provocations) covering a range of topics relating to doctoral education. The Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue, the stimulus papers and the discussion in the SRHE symposium that followed demonstrated the changing landscape of doctoral education in terms of the different forms and format of the doctorate, the context of doctoral study, the nature of doctoral research with research that crosses disciplines and professions, the roles and responsibilities that doctoral students have and the expectations that are placed upon them, and the different backgrounds and multiple identities that doctoral researchers bring to their studies. This changing landscape means that doctoral students have different challenges to negotiate, and that the guides through the landscape, and the guidance and support for doctoral students needs also to change. Such changes can open up new possibilities for future doctoral education, which, as the SRHE symposium showed, will benefit from productive professional conversations about doctoral pedagogy and its development.     

For more information, please contact Dr Karen Smith, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, email: k.smith27@herts.ac.uk

References

Anzaldúa, G (1987) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute

Carter, S, Smith, K, & Harrison, N (2021) Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral educationTeaching in Higher Education, 26 (3): 283-292 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1911098

Deleuze, G, and Guattari, F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia London: Continuum

Gravett, K (2021) ‘Disrupting the Doctoral Journey: Re-imagining Doctoral Pedagogies and Temporal Practices in Higher Education’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 293–305 doi:10.1080/13562517.2020.1853694

Rao, N, Hosein, A & Raaper, R (2021) ‘Doctoral Students Navigating the Borderlands of Academic Teaching in an era of Precarity’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 454–470 doi:10.1080/13562517.2021.1892058 

Rolf, HG (2021) ‘Navigating Power in Doctoral Publishing: A Data Feminist Approach’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 488–507 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1892059


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Quality teacher educators for the delivery of quality education

by Desiree Antonio

A spectrum of interesting critical issues related to ‘quality’ were brought to light during the SRHE Academic Practice Network conference on 22-23 June 2021. The conference Qualifying the debate on quality attracted my attention and I was keen to share my perspectives on the implications of having quality teacher educators in order to produce quality classroom teachers.

 My substantive work as an Education Officer, supervising principals and teachers in our schools and secondly as an Adjunct Lecturer teaching student teachers in a Bachelors of Education Programme, positioned me an inside observer and participant in this phenomenon. My doctoral thesis (2020) explored teacher educators’ perceptions about their continuing professional development and their experiences as they transitioned into and assumed roles as teacher educators. Hence, I am quite pleased to write this blog that captures the essence of my presentation from the conference.  

Ascribing the label of “quality” to education has different meanings and interpretations in different conditions and settings. ‘Quality’ depends on geographical boundaries and contexts, with consideration given to quality assurance, regulations and established standards using certain measures (Churchward and Willis, 2018). Attaining ‘quality’ can therefore be elusive, especially when we try to address all the layers within an education system. The United Nations sustainable development goal number 4 is aimed at offering ‘quality’ education for all in an inclusive and equitable climate. But this quality education is to be provided by teachers, with no mention (as is generally the case) of the direct input of teacher educators who sit at the apex of the ‘quality chain’. These teacher educators work in higher education institutions and are tasked with the responsibility of formally preparing quality classroom teachers. The classroom teachers in turn would ensure that our students receive this inclusive equitable quality education within schools and other learning institutions.

Although the lack of attention to teacher educators’ professional development is now receiving more attention, as reported in the literature, this once forgotten group of professionals who make up a distinct group within the education sector need to receive constant support and continuous professional development. This attention will enable  them to offer improved quality service to their student teachers.  Without giving teacher educators the support and attention they deserve, quality education cannot be realised in our classrooms. Sharma (2019) reminds us that every child deserves quality classroom teachers.

Responsibilities of teacher educators

An understanding of what teacher educators are expected to do is therefore critical, if we are to recognize their value in the quality chain. Darling-Hammond (2006) opines that teacher educators must have knowledge of their learners and their social context, knowledge of content and of teaching. Furthermore, Kosnik et al (2015) explain that they should have knowledge of pedagogy in higher education, research and government initiatives. Teacher educators must also have knowledge of teachers’ lives, what it is like to teach children and also the teachers of children; they therefore should have had the experience of being teachers (Bahr and Mellor, 2016). In essence, they should be equipped with teachers’ knowledge and skills, in addition to what they should know and do as teacher educators. It appears that the complexity of teacher educators’ work is usually underestimated and devalued. This is evidenced especially when it is taken for granted that good classroom teachers are suitably qualified to become teacher educators and that they do not require formal training and continued differentiated support as they transition and work as teacher educators in higher education.

Improving the quality of teacher educators’ work   

Targeted continuing professional development (CPD) of different types and forms that address different purposes according to teacher educators’ needs and that of their institutions is suggested. I have recommended (Antonio, 2019) a multidimensional approach to teacher educators’ CPD. This approach takes into consideration forms of CPD (informal, formal and communities of practice); types of CPD (site-based, standardised and self-directed); and purposes of CPD – transmissive, malleable and transformative proposed by Kennedy (2014). Teacher educators must have a voice in determining the combination and nature of their CPD. Notwithstanding, there needs to be a ‘quality barometer’ which gives various stakeholders the opportunity to assist in guiding their development. Their CPD must have relevance in this 21st century era.

Interventions as a necessity

The idea that teacher educators are self-made, good classroom teachers who can transmit these skills and knowledge into higher education institutions without formal training as teacher educators should be examined decisively. Systems need to be established for teacher educators to be formally trained at levels beyond that of ordinary classroom teachers. However, their CPD should be fostered under the experienced supervision of professors who themselves have been proven to be 21st Century aware in the areas of technological pedagogical content knowledge, as well as other soft skills. No one should be left untouched in our quest to providing quality education for all. We must be serious in simultaneously addressing the delivery of quality education at every level of education systems. Our children deserve quality classroom teachers and quality teacher educators hold the key.

Desirée Antonio is Education Officer, School Administration within the Ministry of Education, Sports and Creative Industries, Antigua and Barbuda. She has been an educator for nearly 40 years. Her current work involves the supervision of teachers and principals, providing professional development and contributing to policy development. She has a keen interest in Continuing Professional Development as a strategy that can be used to assist in responding to the ever-changing challenging and complex environment in which we work as educators.

As an Adjunct Lecturer, University of the West Indies, Five Islands Campus, Desirée teaches student teachers in a Bachelors of Education Programme. Her doctoral thesis explored the continuing professional development of teacher educators who work in the region of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. Her involvement over the past year in many webinars and workshops with SRHE inspired her to develop and host an inaugural virtual research symposium on behalf of the Ministry of Education in May 2021, with the next to be held in 2022.

References

Antonio, D (2019) Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of Teacher Educators (TEs) within the ecological environment of the island territories of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) PhD thesis submitted in accordance with the requirements of the University of Liverpool

Bahr, N and Mellor, S (2016) ‘Building quality in teaching and teacher education’ in Acer, ACER Press. https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=aer

Churchward, P, and Willis, J (2018) ‘The pursuit of teacher quality: identifying some of the multiple discourses of quality that impact the work of teacher educators’ Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 47(3): 251–264 https://doi.org/10.1080/1359866X.2018.1555792

Darling-Hammond, L (2006) Constructing 21st-Century Teacher Education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(3), 300–314. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487105285962

Kennedy, A (2014) ‘Understanding continuing professional development: the need for theory to impact on policy and practice’ Professional Development in Education, 40(5), 688–697 https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2014.955122

Kosnik, C., Menna, L., Dharamshi, P, Miyata, C, Cleovoulou, Y, and Beck, C (2015) ‘Four spheres of knowledge required: an international study of the professional development of literacy/English teacher educators’ Journal of Education for Teaching, 41(April 2015): 52–77 https://doi.org/10.1080/02607476.2014.992634

Sharma, R (2020) ‘Ensuring quality in Teacher Education’ EPRA International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research (IJMR) 5(10)


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When can we get back to “normal”? Long term predictions of the impact of Covid-19 on teaching in UK universities

by Katherine Deane

Probable Timelines

January – July 2021 – Expect to need to maintain non-pharmaceutical interventions – including social distancing, face masks, cleaning, and rapid tests. Exact interventions may vary with government guidance.

January 2021 – Rising levels of Covid-19 in the community after Christmas mixing may lead to further lockdown conditions.

February-April 2021 – End of Phase One vaccination program. Levels of Covid-19 in the community expected to be initially high, likely requiring some social restrictions to continue in the first few months.

April-July 2021 – End of vaccination of remainder of population. Covid-19 levels dropping across these months. Social restrictions likely to be reduced as the months progress.

Summer 2021 – End of pandemic in UK. Able to stop all non-pharmacological interventions.  Staff recover and take holiday.

Autumn 2021 – Start of term with normal teaching program.

The current situation in UK universities

Most universities are providing limited face-to-face teaching using non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent transmission such as social distancing and additional cleaning protocols. Some universities have implemented higher quality interventions such as the use of face masks indoors, and the availability of asymptomatic swab testing on campus. A few universities have gone to completely online provision. All of these interventions have helped reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in UK universities.

The initial exponential growth of Covid-19 cases at the start of term in many universities has slowed down. Some of this reduction has been due to non-pharmacological interventions and university specific restrictions on student activities. However the level of Covid-19 in the community has had significant impact on the levels in universities. So, claims for the efficacy of the Covid-19 safe workplace interventions are yet to be proven, particularly in the context of higher levels of community Covid-19 (Manchester University, 2020).

It is expected that the levels of Covid-19 in the community will continue to be high during winter months as the virus spreads more easily in indoor unventilated environments, and survives for longer in cooler temperatures (Huang, 2020).

Medical risks from Covid-19 are not equitably distributed. People at increased risk from Covid-19 are older, male, have other illnesses, or are from Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic populations (Williamson, 2020; ONS, 2020). It is recognised that young students are at low risk of having a poor acute reaction to being infected from Covid-19. But their risk of infection may be higher as students often live in overcrowded accommodation which substantially increases the risk of Covid-19 transmission (Williamson, 2020). Whilst a severe reaction to Covid-19 is rare, it’s not impossible, with a number of infected Manchester University students ending up in Intensive Care (Parker, 2020). Finally students are in contact with lecturers and support staff who represent a much wider range of ages and medical risks. They are also in contact with the local community and some students (e.g. those in health faculties) are in contact with patients, all of whom could be at higher risk from Covid-19 infection (SAGE, 2020).

A survey of staff at the University of East Anglia identified that about half of respondents were at greater risk from Covid-19 themselves, and/or were in households with people at greater risk or had caring responsibilities for people at greater risk (Figure 1: UCU UEA, 2020). This highlights how complex and interconnected modern society is. It is impossible to segregate those at greater risk from Covid-19 (SAGE, 2020; Griffin 2020).

Figure 1: Would you class yourself or those in your household as moderate or high risk from Covid-19? (UCU UEA 2020)

We now have a better understanding of Long Covid (ie symptoms for more than eight weeks) (Sudre et al, 2020). Long-COVID is characterised by symptoms of fatigue, headache, breathlessness and loss of sense of smell; but also evidence of organ damage (Dennis et al, 2020) and increased risk of neuropsychiatric complications as well (Butler et al, 2020). Long Covid occurs in one in 20 people infected with COVID-19 (Sudre et al, 2020). However it appears to be more common in younger age groups, and affects around 10% of 18-49 year olds who become unwell with COVID-19. It can be severe enough to prevent patients from returning to work or study, and can last for many months.

What happens next?

There is excellent news about a number of vaccines which have been shown to create good levels of immunity (Gallagher, 2020a; Gallagher, 2020b; Bosely 2020; Roth 2020). All the vaccines need two injections to be effective. The government plans a massive roll-out of vaccinations with GP practices (Kanani, 2020) supplemented with vaccination centres set up in conference centres, sports halls, community centres. The immunisation plans start in care home residents and staff at the start of December, with all high risk people and health and care staff immunised by the end of February 2021 (JCVI, 2020; Rapson, 2020). The vaccines would then be rolled out to everyone else with the aim to have the whole adult population of the UK vaccinated by April 2021. This would have massive impact as it would deliver herd immunity (estimated at 60-70% immunity) and stop the pandemic in its tracks. However a number of issues could lead to delays: vaccines need to be approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA); some stocks of vaccines are already manufactured but more need to be created; vaccines need to be transported to the UK (which may be affected by Brexit); the -80oC cold storage of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the transport process is challenging and failures will lead to the vaccine being unusable; finding sufficient staff to deliver the vaccines will be hard when the NHS has 100,000 job vacancies; and concerns about vaccine safety may lead to hesitancy and lower than needed uptake. Overall, the estimate of a successful vaccination program being completed by April is the very best case scenario.

Other factors such as greater availability of rapid Covid-19 tests will reduce the frequency of people having to isolate for extended periods of time, so social restrictions are likely to be reduced as the year goes on. However the risk of being infected with Covid-19 will remain relatively high during the first quarter of 2021. Until the population have been fully vaccinated, the proposal of allowing Covid-19 to circulate unchecked in order for the population to develop herd immunity from infections has been refuted as impractical and unethical (Griffin, 2020) and could actually increase the infectivity and lethality of the virus (Spinney, 2020; Bonneaud, 2019). Therefore universities need to be cautious and pragmatic and understand that both the spring and summer terms will almost certainly still need non-pharmacological interventions in place in order to ensure the safety of students, staff and the surrounding communities.

Impact on teaching practice

The University and College Union’s national position is that all university courses should be offered remotely and online, unless they involve practical training or lab work (UCU, 2020), for both the spring and summer terms in all universities. However, few universities have adopted this position. If face-to-face teaching is to continue it should remain at current levels with social distancing, with inevitable consequences in terms of room capacity and the need for repetition of teaching sessions in order to reach entire student cohorts.

As vaccinations start to be rolled out, individual risk levels may reduce, but overall the university community remains at high risk from infection, and of transmitting that to the community they live in (SAGE, 2020; McIntyre, 2020). So whilst it is expected that Covid-19 levels will reduce substantially as we head towards the summer, care should still be taken to reduce transmission on campus.

In addition university management should recognise how tired and burnt out their staff are, with the substantial effort of keeping universities running mostly virtually, and trying to maintain the quality of teaching alongside their own concerns about their health and the health of their friends and families. Many will have suffered losses; many will have supported students dealing with losses. Staff will need time to recover, to take holidays that were not taken during the pandemic, and to decompress from this stressful period of over-work. Then they will be able to return to campus in the autumn of 2021 able to teach effectively.

Don’t just return to ‘normal’

Not all of the pandemic lessons have been negative. I am a disabled lecturer who uses a wheelchair and has an energy limiting disability. I have found virtual working a huge advantage. Other staff with disabilities, caring responsibilities, or just long journeys to work may find the greater flexibility to work more from home also helpful. This flexibility will allow easier management of responsibilities in work and the rest of life. Students with similar issues may find accessing a university level education easier if some or all of their course was delivered virtually. It will be a challenge for university finances, but the opportunity for greater equity of access to university level education is undeniable.

SRHE member Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening

Reference UCU UEA. 2020. A survey of UCU members’ opinions on the impact of Covid-19 on teaching and workload at UEA. University and College Union, University of East Anglia Branch. November 2020. Available from k.deane@uea.ac.uk on request