What do academic developers do?




I’ve been an academic developer for several years now and friends and family still ask

What is it you do again?

I usually say that I help university lecturers to improve their learning and teaching. But “develop” is such a slippery word. What exactly does it mean?

A colleague and I recently posed that question to a room full of academic developers (yes, there are a lot of us about). To help them get started we suggested a few analogies.


Are you like property developers, knocking things down and putting up new constructions?

Perhaps you’re more like chess players, developing pieces by moving them into powerful positions?


The academic developers weren’t very keen on these commercial and managerial images for what they do. They preferred humanistic metaphors, seeing themselves as photographers bringing out latent qualities or gardeners coaxing a barren or overgrown area to fruition. One lively group chose the image of bacteria in a Petri dish : You can’t make colleagues develop, but you can create an environment where they thrive.

Looking afresh at our job titles was fun, but I had a serious purpose in mind. I wanted to show that the metaphors we choose influence how we think and what we do (Sfard, 1998). An academic developer who thinks of colleagues as chess pieces to be controlled will have a very different approach from one who sees them as diverse plants to be nurtured. And when we stop noticing these metaphors we may unthinkingly perpetuate old beliefs and unquestioned assumptions, making it difficult to introduce fresh insights and critiques of our thinking and practices (Sfard, 1998). Hidden metaphors can be subtle as well as powerful. By digging into the layers of meaning under the word “development” Webb(1996) unearths the embryo metaphor:

 the idea of development as directed towards a given end and passing through a number of predetermined stages (p64)

that underlies much of our thinking about learning and teaching. This is an impoverished way of making sense of university lecturers’ continuing professional development.

Here are three words that I predict may get a bit slippery over the coming months:


Teaching *  Excellence * Framework (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015).


What are the metaphors behind them? What new ones will be brought into play?

And what do they mean for everyone’s development?



Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2015). Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474266/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice-accessible.pdf [accessed 16.11.2015]

Sfard, A. (1998) On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One Educational Researcher 27(2)pp 4-13

Times Higher Education Supplement (2015) Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF): everything you need to know available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-everything-you-need-to-know [accessed 16.11.2015]

Webb, G (1996) Theories of staff development: Development and understanding International Journal for Academic Development 1(1)pp 63-9



With thanks to Sam Ellis and colleagues at SHED (Scottish Higher Education Developers) https://scottishhedevelopers.wordpress.com/

Daphne Loads is an Academic Developer in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh.

photo (2)

This blog post previously appeared in my blog:  Staying Alive: surviving and thriving in academia








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