Article of the month – Issue 1, 2021

‘Academic identities in contemporary higher education: sustaining identities that value teaching’, by Velda McCune (free to view until 28th February 2021)

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At a time when the whole world could do with some TLC due to the coronavirus pandemic, McCune makes the case that deep care for transformative teaching is core to universities providing the learning experiences that will prepare students for complex and uncertain futures. Written before Covid-19, her focus on sustaining identities that value a deep care for teaching and a will to teach is particularly prescient and important in a world that has become seemingly more unsettled and challenging in recent times.

McCune’s research was carried out in a research-intensive institution which has historically placed more value on research than teaching. Twelve experienced academics, from different disciplines and deemed to be invested in teaching, participated in semi-structured interviews where they shared experiences of learning, teaching and assessment. While the context is a research-intensive institution, the time pressures, competing demands of multifaceted roles, and the increased metrification of higher education would resonate with academics in other types of institution.

Contemporary higher education is undoubtedly complicated and replete with often conflicting demands on people’s time, their priorities, and challenging to the values they hold; McCune’s study shows that maintaining and sustaining an identity that values teaching within a research-intensive institution involves commitment, conviction, and extra effort on the part of the academic. The importance of the participants’ own experiences of being taught, of positive role models, and of developing competence shaped the narratives that supported the coherence of their multifaceted academic identities that included a deep value of teaching, which might well be at odds with the prevailing institutional context. While the participants clearly faced challenges in balancing diverse roles, the pressures of time, and the prioritisation of particular work practices, they also shared narratives where their teacher identity sat comfortably alongside other facets of their academic identities.

Yet tensions within academic identities frequently do exist and, as McCune reminds us, are often exacerbated by polices, processes and measurement mechanisms that valorise some practices over others. Such approaches can channel academics down particular pathways while closing down others and seem counter to Boyer’s (1990, p.27) call that academic talent ‘be celebrated and not restricted’ and that academics will move around the different scholarship domains (research, teaching, integration and engagement) during different seasons of their career and fuel McCune’s own call that different aspects of identity be brought to the fore at different points in time without penalty to the individual academic’s career.

It is beneficial for academics to engage reflexively with the tensions that exist in their academic identities, McCune suggests; but in time-pressured academia, finding opportunities to work through the tensions of academic roles is difficult. Educational development, McCune argues, can provide those spaces to challenge discourses and practices that devalue teaching and support academics in becoming more reflexive about their ongoing development as higher education teachers. I would argue that such approaches to educational development, that are built around critically reflexive conversations, share the deep care for teaching that McCune explores in this article, but here support academics’ transformative learning and professional development.

In a context where the foundations of the operation of higher education have been shifted fundamentally, it seems imperative that the identities of those who value teaching are recognised, sustained and developed. This will benefit not only students through the high-quality learning experiences those teachers facilitate, but also the teachers themselves, the subject disciplines they work within, their institutions and ultimately society itself.

Karen Smith, Executive Editor

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