Scholarship and Practice

Striving for a place on the inside: one story of finding a scholarship community in a ‘research intensive’ University

Bryony Black, Gareth Bramley, Kate Campbell Pilling, Louise Glover, Zoe Ollerenshaw, Laurence Pattacini, and Joan Upson

Introduction

This chapter is written by a group of University Teachers from a range of disciplines in the social sciences, based at a ‘research intensive’ university in the UK.  We came together through a university initiative designed to both kick start, and to support pedagogic research and scholarship activity for staff on teaching-focused or non-research contracts.

In this chapter we discuss our reasons for joining the group, the benefits we found from being part of this community, and its impact upon our own scholarship practice, jointly and individually, beyond the group.  We also explore, by reference to individual perspectives, the experience of the journey from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’, and our surprise at finding ourselves within a new scholarly community which we, and the University initiative, have created or allowed to emerge.

The Scholarship Circle discussed in this chapter was an initiative of the Faculty of Social Sciences seeking to facilitate the development of scholarship and pedagogic research within teaching-focused staff across the faculty. The Circle was not the first incentive focused upon the scholarly development of teaching-focused staff, but it has proved to be the most effective so far in terms of facilitating the skill set and confidence necessary for this group to develop as individuals, and as an effective community of scholars.  Previous initiatives had brought pedagogic expertise from within, and outside the University, together with our University teaching staff and certainly sparked our enthusiasm, but none had the means of following through by providing ongoing support and the development of the necessary skills set for our scholarship to take off.

All of the individuals within the Circle had accumulated knowledge, experience and ‘know how’ as professionals practising within their respective fields prior to taking on roles as University Teachers. It was this breadth and depth of experience that led us to understand that we could contribute to academic life and scholarship by harnessing existing ‘know how’, developed through technical and professional experience outside of the academy to solve ‘real life’ problems, and the accompanying ‘soft skills’ developed with that experience.

Within the body of this chapter/discussion we will further explore and share the development of the members of the Circle as individual scholars, and the group as a model for the development of scholarship within a department, Faculty or more broadly at institutional level, at a time when the measurement and narrative of Teaching Excellence within the UK Higher Education Sector has never been more prominent.

Gareth’s story: becoming an insider

I came to this scholarship circle with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. I felt extremely lucky to form such a support network with like-minded peers, as well as having access to dedicated support from our mentor David. However, this set up also led to doubt swimming around my head about my own ability to undertake scholarship, particularly in the form of published work. My experience of the circle took me on a magical mystery ride through stress, productivity, enthusiasm, doubt, understanding, weariness, nervousness and eventually to fulfillment! I would absolutely say that the ability to focus on a defined circle of scholarship was an extremely positive experience for me, and I particularly valued the openness and honesty of the circle combined with the musketeer like ‘all for one and one for all’ mentality. Looking back at the end, with published article in hand, I cannot thank our mentor and my fellow participants enough.

Scholarship confusion

Whilst as University Teachers we were acutely aware of the ‘need’ to undertake ‘scholarship’ as part of our contracts, prior to joining the group our primary challenge lay in defining the meaning of scholarship in this context. Had the teaching-focused label created its own mythology of a teaching ‘expert’ which University Teachers are then assumed to have to conform with? Did ‘scholarship’ mean simply embracing the general importance of best practice in teaching, or should it go much further than this to suggest tangible output and impact or a specific set of scholarly ‘spurs’ to earn?

As individuals we were unclear, not only about a definition of scholarship, but also about the purpose of scholarship in our subject areas. The confusion exhibited itself in three ways:

  • A doubt whether scholarship is viewed as important and useful, particularly when balanced against teaching content, knowledge and skills to students
  • A lack of clarity as to whether it is ultimately worthwhile for us as teaching-focused staff to invest the time in scholarship
  • The lack of tools available to individuals to develop their scholarship.

Despite the confusion as to both the meaning of scholarship, and the way in which this fits in with the role of a teaching-focused academic, everyone who joined the Circle expressed a desire to undertake scholarship in some form. Unfortunately, desire did not create an obstacle free path for any of us.

Laurence’s story: becoming an insider

The scholarship circle initiative gave me the confidence and the impetus to engage with pedagogical research, apply for small research grants and collaborate with students to reflect on my own practice and practices in our department. The support and knowledge provided, enabled me to submit and present papers at learning and teaching conferences, lead discussions at learning and teaching awaydays and write papers.

A major and thorny obstacle to overcome was that of time. We were each committed to our area of expertise (the content, knowledge and expert subject viewpoint of our teaching); however the push towards having more engagement with pedagogical research, or other scholarly output, conflicted with the need to keep up with the priorities, such as constantly evolving developments within a particular profession or subject area. This obstacle was exacerbated as most of us were expected to teach across a diverse range of subject areas at differing levels. Although many of us did recognise that exploring best practice in learning and teaching is essential, we also needed to develop and keep up to date with core knowledge which, in addition to all other facets of our teaching roles, could be all-consuming.

A further significant obstacle to overcome was both the perception, and the reality, of a lack of access to or awareness of scholarship-shaped tools to help us develop our skills. These tools could be the provision of specific guidance and support as to how to actually start along the journey of achieving scholarship, in light of our backgrounds and previous experience, together with solving the conundrum of how our teaching focused work could successfully form a more symbiotic relationship with scholarship. An unfortunate perception we carried, that is perhaps often a reality, is that research-focused staff may have clearer access to such tools.

Furthermore, some of us felt that becoming a ‘scholarly academic’ made us feel like outsiders from the profession or expertise base in which we began, but never truly insiders with more traditional academics. This feeling was deep-rooted because of a lack of confidence that scholarship is as intrinsically valuable as more traditional research. We all shared experiences of being perceived as not sufficiently skilled as an expert to challenge or to join academic educationalists; thus the feeling grew that we fell into a ‘no man’s land’ attempting mysterious scholarship without a clear appreciation of its value and purpose. Such a viewpoint of an outsider was perpetuated by our own teaching-focused employment contracts and career promotion pathways not including or specifically referring to ‘research’.

Despite, or perhaps because of the challenges outlined here, the ten of us that joined the Scholarship Circle were enthusiastic to engage with some form of scholarship of teaching and recognised the benefits of doing so. As one participant noted:

I both appreciate and respect this initiative as an essential tool in getting the ball rolling for us as individuals, and for those who will follow… There is an important pioneering aspect of our Circle, and we, individually and collectively have much to learn. (Participant A)

As time went on, we began to feel that the Scholarship Circle, rather than being the answer to our confusion, instead allowed for foundations to be established within the world of scholarship. One participant summarised this:

Once more, let me say at this point, that I both appreciate and respect this initiative as an essential tool in getting the ball rolling for us as individuals, and for those who will follow…There is an important pioneering aspect of our Circle, and we, individually and collectively have much to learn. (Participant C)

Bryony’s story: becoming an insider

Taking part in the Scholarship Circle gave me the confidence to take the lead on scholarship within my own department.  Having identified a gap in professional development opportunities for the increasing number of people on teaching only contracts, I led a session at an away day, focusing on developing a shared understanding of ‘scholarship’ and the range of activities this could involve.  Following this session I set up a Scholarship Group within my department to encourage others to set aside time for this important element of their work.  It took us a while to find an appropriate direction for the group, but it continues to thrive.

Discovering a scholarship community

We came to the Scholarship Circle for a range of reasons, but through it we had, almost accidentally, discovered a group of people with whom we shared common issues and a desire for scholarship that was not previously fulfilled or supported.  We all felt in some ways like outsiders, and this status was not just a question of not belonging to the ‘research active’ norm of our chosen disciplines, but also feeling an amateur within the realm of the educational specialists.

Many of the concerns and confusions discussed in Section 2 were dealt with through the Circle.  The Circle consisted of regular meetings which were structured around key tasks and outputs such as conducting a literature review or seeking ethical approval for a project. In addition to our group meetings we were each paired with another member of the circle with whom we had contact between meetings and who, as well as the Circle coordinator, reviewed our work. The mutual feedback of the buddy system together with the regular Circle tasks provided the motivation, tools and support needed to build confidence, facilitated a meaningful and efficient collaborative dynamic and provided further incentive to produce the work set up by the coordinator.  Perhaps unexpectedly, the buddy system did not merely give us support but gave us an additional motivation to continue in order to support our buddy. Typical quotes from our contemporaneous reflections illustrate the importance of the structure put in place by the coordinator:

a good supportive framework to encourage ways forward to write academic articles related to learning and teaching (Participant I)

the buddy system is also very motivating as you don’t want to let them down. (Participant G)

A vital achievement of the Circle was the creation of a forum in which participants felt recognised not merely for their existing professional achievements but also for their intellectual potential as scholars and as members of a community. One participant reflected on their feelings following the first meeting:

Excitement! – an active scholarly group which is motivated and positive in its contribution to learning and teaching related scholarship (Participant B)

This shared understanding and enthusiasm was useful to us in a number of ways; from practical constraints of ever-present issues with time management – as a group tasked with teaching and pastoral and administrative support for teaching it was easy to discuss this openly – to hidden issues such as lack of knowledge of the ‘tools’ of academic writing and the personal failure that we had not managed to chart our own academic progress, given our roles at a prestigious Russell Group university.

The individual vulnerabilities we all showed from day one gave us some confidence as a group, and again, this is evidenced in reflections from our group:

I am grateful for the comradeship of others in the circle, because we each understand what we mean when referring to the difficulties that we face as a group, whilst the rest of the world would have less/no sympathy (Participant D)

Joan’s story: becoming an insider

When the invitation went out to prospective members I ignored it. I assumed that it was a general circular and not directed at me. After all, why should it be? Then came the follow up and the enquiry about my availability, and by the time that we met over coffee in the Students Union my head was buzzing. In the weeks that followed it was like emerging out of a deep fog. I was not alone in assuming that there were mysteries that others knew but that I did not, and could not. One by one they would be revealed to the group and we could look round the room as each of us had that ‘light bulb’ moment of self belief.

No less important was the expert input from our Circle leader about the process and tools of scholarship, which helped us develop our understanding of scholarship itself and suspend our insecurities and open up to constructive criticism. We felt, and continue to feel, ‘behind the curve’ compared to research active colleagues, and the Scholarship Circle gave some of the tools that we needed to develop our skills.  We felt that a veil was removed to allow us to see the building blocks that had been kept ‘secret’ from us regarding our own research and writing. Some of the resources were new to us.  For example, as one participant reflects:

“Reading the Four Rhetorical Questions (Golden-Biddle and Locke, 2007) was like a ‘light bulb’ moment for me in showing the way forward” (Participant F)

Other resources were already known to us but the Circle helped us to chart a course through more generic scholarship tools and gave us a forum in which to raise specific questions.

Being ‘behind the curve’, we had little understanding of the time taken to develop an article and how that time might reduce with experience. We were quick to blame ourselves, as we perceived our ‘insider’ colleagues were able to create high quality research at pace.  The supportive structure of the Circle allowed us open and realistic discussion and perhaps, rather than seeking to navigate the existing insider/outsider landscape, it gave us confidence in becoming insiders of our own new gang.

Louise’s story: becoming an insider

The Circle helped to underline for me what teaching specialist colleagues such as our group can bring to University life and work using our experience plus how we can develop and evolve our skills including scholarship to meet new challenges within HE. I moved to higher education after a career to partner level as a solicitor in private practice. I teach on core modules related to my practice area and have leadership roles in the School on employability and civic engagement (including pro bono clinical education) – issues whose importance is increasingly recognised but which are perhaps traditionally less valued. My work with the TESS Circle has helped me to run a roundtable event on commercial legal clinics attended by many other universities and to give a strong role within that event to the voice of our respective students. I have also partnered with other colleagues within the University who have strong professional links such as architecture to identify and present on our unique ‘value added’ element and collaborated with a research-focused colleague on a publication.

What happened next?

We entered the Scholarship Circle on the understanding that it would offer us the chance to produce two academic papers over the course of a year – one solo and one collaborative.  Whilst this aim was not fully met, the Scholarship Circle acted as a catalyst for productivity.  In a group where none of us had previously had a paper published and few of us had presented at academic conferences, we found that the circle planted seeds, it changed perspectives, and it allowed us to see that which was previously hidden from us – in any given year our research-focused colleagues may have to cast tasks aside, or put work on hold, and we should not be so quick to judge our own lack of concrete product as failure, rather to see it as part of a natural cadence.

It became evident following the Circle that it had offered us a route to innovation.  Whilst three of the group did have papers published, equally as important was the range of other outcomes that came as a result of participation in the Circle. Most importantly, we realised that aiming solely to produce published articles was a limited view of what could be achieved through scholarship.  Following membership of the Circle, we presented at conferences locally, nationally and internationally, set up scholarship groups within individual departments and led staff training for teaching-focused colleagues, all of which would have been unlikely prior to engagement with the group.

Whatever the intention of the university in setting up the Scholarship Circle, the very existence of a university-led initiative to support scholarship for teaching-focused academics gave us renewed confidence and the impetus to go and ‘do’ scholarship. The group element enabled us to realise that scholarship is not necessarily a solo endeavour.  We continue to work together and with people we would probably never have met or collaborated with, without the Circle.

Kate’s story: becoming an insider

My first big step was seeing that I was a suitable person to be part of a scholarship circle. Our meetings were inclusive and supportive and showed me that I was not alone in my struggles and difficulties with what was deemed to be scholarship and how to evidence it. I found the collaboration with members of the circle rewarding and confidence building. It inspired me to develop other areas where I could carry out my own and collaborative research beyond the circle and that I did belong in the learning and teaching community.

Of course, time is still not on our side, but we have seen the value of making time for our scholarship, for working together, for breaking free from the teaching, leadership and administrative load of our jobs.  This is helped by the fact that we have each developed our own definition or understanding of ‘scholarship’, meaning that when we do create time we know what we want to do with it and we understand how it fits within our own view of our expertise and skill set.

The exciting part for all of us is that, almost two years on, we are all confident to say what we understand as ‘scholarship’, to tell others about our work and to help others to develop their own understanding of scholarship. We are no longer at the mercy of others who judge whether we have undertaken this mystical activity called ‘scholarship’; we have the agency to act as we believe is appropriate. Watch this space!


Reference

Golden-Biddle, K. & Locke, K. (2007). Crafting a theorized storyline. Composing qualitative research, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., pp. 26-46, doi: 10.4135/9781412983709

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Voices of Practice by Bryony Black, Gareth Bramley, Kate Campbell Pilling, Louise Glover, Zoe Ollerenshaw, Laurence Pattacini, and Joan Upson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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