Transforming university teaching?

Daphne Loads  How can university teaching be transformed?  What is the role of universities in transforming an unequal society?  I’ve just finished reading a book that faces up to both of these tough questions: “Re-imagining academic staff development: spaces for disruption,” edited by Lynn Quinn.  As an academic developer I have responsibility for helping lecturers to reflect on what they do.  I am always on the look-out for readings that will spark conversations with colleagues who are yet to be convinced that their teaching can or should have any role in transforming an unequal society.  I’m also eager for ideas that will develop and challenge my own uncertain thinking about the ethical and political dimensions of my work.  This enticing title promises imaginative and disruptive possibilities on both counts and it does not disappoint.  The contributors draw on more than 10 years of collaboration in academic staff development in South African Universities, and it seems clear to me that their experience and theorising have worldwide relevance.

Quinn and her colleagues are concerned with disruption, which they define as “adopting a stance of questioning, challenging and critiquing taken-for–granted ways of doing things in higher education” (p1).  Sioux McKenna reminds us that it is down to academic developers to bring about this disruption.  She challenges us to take our places as deeply committed activists who can provide a theorised space for interrogating what it is to be an academic.  I find this challenge daunting.  I don’t usually see myself as an activist, but the alternatives she suggests are rather unattractive:  a bunch of insensitive outsiders, lackeys of management and/or collaborators in the neoliberal project of degrading disciplinary and academic values.  Zoe Belluigi’s Chapter: Provoking ethical relationships, is not an easy read, but it repays repeated interrogation and reflection. Belluigi’s starting point is that higher education has been complicit in perpetuating structural privilege and disadvantage, and that academic staff development has a role to play in the dismantling of those structures.  By presenting her work on a formal staff development programme as the offering of a series of “spaces” – safe, critical, reflective and discursive – and by identifying ways of working directly with “difference”, she begins to suggest ways in which old patterns can be disrupted.  Along the way she offers insight into the helpfulness for academic development of different conceptualisations of the self and the social, and the status of experience and the literature in the programme.  Her text is “interlaced” with comments from participants and alumni.  I was a little disappointed that these comments, some rather bland certainties, did not live up to the subtleties of her theorising.

Overall, this is a lively, engaging and encouraging book.  It has helped me to see continuities and discontinuities between experiences in my own country and those of academic developers in South Africa.  It has provided me with some responses to colleagues who ask what politics has got to do with university teaching.  Finally it challenges me to face up to my own responsibilities as an academic developer to contribute to the disruption of old habits and to remind colleagues of “the idea that universities have a role to play in transforming an uneven society.”(p16)


Quinn, L. ed., (2012) Re-imagining Academic Staff Development: Spaces for disruption Stellenbosch : SUN MeDIA


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