All business schools employ individuals who have made the move from practitioner, to academic. Very often these individuals have attained seniority in their professional lives, and for them and others in less senior positions, this transition poses considerable challenges, not only for their work role, but equally for their professional and personal identities.
Pedagogical research or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is now a feature of the higher educational landscape, brought about in no small measure by policies that place a premium on evidence-based practice and knowledge exchange. This blog explores whether carrying out this type of research can help practitioners find their place in the academic world; aiding formation of professional identities that offer the self-salience and agency that many feel they lack when ‘crossing over’. In short; does the SoTL contribute to sensemaking and identity in the hyper complex world of higher education?
One of the key challenges of entering academia as a practitioner (either former or still practicing), is the adaptation to value systems and norms that are rarely made explicit. These are associated with status, decision making, authority, and accountability. In addition, practitioners will have prior assumptions about working in HE, which may range from it being a far easier path than their former professional one, to deeply ingrained beliefs in the usefulness of traditional research. Research also indicates that their assumptions about what it means to teach, can also be problematic, sometimes coming directly into conflict with those inherent within business schools.
Concepts and beliefs about professional identity are wide ranging - one strand of thought is that identities are relatively fixed, and become more so the longer the individual is employed in that profession. Another sees them as malleable and adaptive, exploring a whole repertoire of identities until they find one that ‘fits’.
Identities in HE are further complicated, given that there are so many different ways to become and be, an academic – many practitioners even chafing at the term ‘academic’ as being too suggestive of someone completely divorced from business realities. In order to transition between roles, individuals must create credible narratives – stories to tell, to themselves and others, about their function and usefulness in the new role.
Within my own business school, at the Open University UK, there is the additional challenge of many staff working semi-remotely, meaning they often lose those informal sensemaking opportunities that occur within a face to face environment; those activities that help them to see the institution in relation to their own role and identities.
The cost of not being able to find a way to ‘be’ in HE is high, and can result in lack of team spirit, mental illness, and finally attrition, as individuals return to their comfort zones in order to retain their equilibrium and sense of ‘self’, and autonomy. This autonomy, or lack of agency is characterised by low motivation, and can easily overlap into an individual’s personal life and worldview. As Boyd and Harris put it, ‘new lecturers are seeking credibility through knowing and constructing their pedagogy, but they pursue this within a complex and confusing context that involves a considerable amount of boundary crossing and uncertainty’.
As these individuals very often find it easier to create new narratives around student opinions of their teaching, and construction of teaching materials, this is often at the expense of building narratives around their research capabilities; this is particularly evident in the case of those without doctorates. In many cases, they may come into faculty as Teaching Fellows rather than lecturers, where research a fractional part of their contract.
SoTL is research into the methods and pedagogy of learning and teaching. Explorations can take the form of a ‘what works’ approach, straddling quality assurance and traditional research, to theoretically robust scholarship which draws on theories and concepts of learning and engagement.
In face-to-face teaching and learning, this research complements what HE teachers find out about their methods and approaches, by probing deeper into the student experience - drawing on the wider literature and exploring this in relation to their own practices, and those of others.
So, how can this help with identity transitions? And how is this particularly useful for those working for distance learning institutions or campus based hybrid situations?
As the individual engages with SoTL, they look beyond the validation of their own students, reaching out to align themselves with a community of practitioners who are also interested in this particular aspect of teaching.
Teaching is a rewarding but sometimes frustrating occupation and despite our best efforts, students can disengage, for several reasons. Carrying out SoTL uncovers issues that may have little to do with the individual teacher; access problems, student perceptions, and learning design, can all affect learner attrition.
In carrying out SoTL, individuals become more empowered by their research, by being able to look beyond their own teaching and institution to examine issues in relation to what is widely known about them. When equipped with this additional knowledge, they develop an increased understanding in the student journey, as it plays out beyond their particular module. Feelings of expertise are key to salient professional identities, alongside feeling like part of a community of practice. Yet, this research is often thought of as somehow not as powerful or transformative as traditional research. Business schools need to think more creatively about this research and how to incorporate it within their practice, or risk persistent levels of attrition amongst ex practitioners.
Jacqueline Baxter is Professor of Public Policy and Management in the Department of Public Leadership and social enterprise at the Open University Business School.