Academic developers as choreographers of professional reflexivity

Many of the discussions I’ve read about the ‘online pivot’ tend to centre the perspective of academics who were forced to adapt their existing materials at short notice for online delivery. In this interesting paper Stanton and Young describe what this shift meant for academic developers (pg 1) working within Centres for Teaching and Learning which were newly visible within the hierarchies of the university:

We describe how the move to online platforms unsettled existing hierarchies between faculty and academic developers and destabilised academic norms. The conditions of the pandemic opened up many more occasions for faculty to learn from academic developers. As we will argue, it also demonstrated the value of the academic developer’s approach to interactions with faculty.

They suggest a disposition (“to hold lightly to expertise, to trade knowledge and authority back and forth”) amongst academic developers which was well suited to the challenges of the pandemic. Their own work during the pandemic involved forming teams with learning technologists, forcing them to rapidly upgrade their level of technological expertise as academic developers. The point they make about the wider faculty is that the pandemic cast all academics in this position, as upskilling went from being an opt-in activity for suitably motivated academics to being a necessity in order to continue teaching during the pandemic (pg 2):

More radically, pandemic teaching put faculty in the position of novice. Before COVID, our audience consisted of faculty who stepped forward to work on their teaching, considering teaching development to be meaningful professional development. The pandemic changed this calculus. Faced with the challenge of online teaching, faculty who had never taken advantage of teaching support requested consultations and department workshops in large numbers.

This changed the dynamics of professional discussion as disclosures which once would have been made in private, if at all, instead became routine features of public dialogue within institutions as staff talked about the emotional experience of teaching and the challenge of ‘not knowing’ about the modes of teaching they were now forced to engage with. This went hand-in-hand with a newfound reflexivity as “demands of pandemic teaching prompted questions about pedagogical choice that had become rote and unexamined” (pg 2). Stanton and Young plausibly frame the academic developer as a choreographer of that professional reflexivity (my language, not theirs) who supports its development in individual and groups. This is partly a matter of drawing attention to the questions which the situation is asking of academic staff e.g. “What was class time for? What counted as participation? Whose needs were being met by a requirements to keep cameras on? Did deadlines matter, and how and for whom?”. The novelty of the online pivot meant that routine answers to these questions were impossible, meaning that academics had to think anew about issues which had once felt comfortably settled to them. The role of the academic developer supports them in this reflexivity, mediating between the demands of the institution and the everyday reality of staff. This included guiding them through the newly problematised relationship to the campus, in which it was suddenly revealed “how much of our teaching model relies on ready access to and seamless coordination with other residential sources, such as printers, library stacks, or rehearsal studios”.

They describe this process as “exhausting, but also clarifying” because it involves “making visible qualities of academic development that are harder to notice” (pg 2). This is an apt description of how the unfolding of the pandemic within universities acts as what Archer calls a ‘reflexive imperative’ in which the failure of habit to provide a guide to action requires people to think about the circumstances they’re confronting and how they might act in relation to them. This inevitably calls attention to persistent features of the environment (and roles people play within that environment) which had formerly tended to fade into the background. It’s in that role of choreographers of reflexivity that the aforementioned dispositions became crucial, as they explain on pg 3:

To hold lightly to expertise means that we turn to others when we do not have answers and seek to connect faculty (or ourselves) with other sources of teaching knowledge sinned and outside the institution. That humility and deftness, the willingness to find the best answer herever it may lie, has helped us to distinguish the signal from the noise so that we can recognise new patterns in our work and move forward.

Their focus is I think on how this style helps them given the kind of people they are relating to (“the paradoxical strength of being a generalist among experts”) but I wonder if the epistemic humility they describe is a strength mainly because of the novelty of the circumstances we confronted within universities during the pandemic. In a genuinely new situation there is no authoritative ‘best practice’ we can fall back upon, simply an evidence base that needs to be translated to speak to our present reality. The dynamic of expertise and humility they describe in this piece strikes me as a flexible orientation well suited to the paradoxical challenge of living in the end times. We can’t dispense with the past but it can’t tell us what to do in the present either.

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