Doctoral Research & Thesis

‘The academy & community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’

Supervisors: Dr Yann Lebeau and Professor Victoria Carrington

The full thesis can be accessed via this link –

https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/58557

ABSTRACT

The research explores ‘community’ as perceived and experienced by academics associated with one higher education institution. Focusing on the meaning and experience of community, the research reveals living academic identities wrought by the concrete reality of experiencing community in its various forms. ‘Authentic voices’ in this context means voices that are firmly rooted in day-to-day lived experience and not abstract or institutionalised. The imperative for the research lies in the quest to break free from the constraints of the calculative thinking that pervades higher education. The dominant tone of the literature on academic community is disconsolate but not despairing. The dominant language is that of professional practice and values. The empirical dimensions of the research comprises a series of extended conversations and focus groups with twelve academics and a heuristic analysis, channelled through five themes, seeking the individual’s idea and experience of community and its orientation to their status, their academic practice and their institution and environment. The original contribution to knowledge is the revelation of the significance of value and values in the meaning and experience of community and how these may be applied in a theoretical and practical context when constructing and understanding community both as a concept, and as lived experience. Value and values are brought together in a suggested new model (called the ‘infinity model’), a relational construct that signifies the formation and experience of community through a continual or infinite dynamic between ‘value and validity’ (centred on status and institution), and ‘values and virtue’ (centred on practice and elements of community), realised through the nexus of individual or collective agency. The new model has research and agentic potential as a framework for both investigating and realising the social relations of the intellectual field.

*Viva held on 27th November 2015 – thesis passed with ‘no corrections’*

Julie’s doctoral research explores ‘community’ as perceived and experienced by twelve individuals who have academic roles at one higher education institution.  Individual perspectives and experiences of community and also of university-community engagement are subjective and diverse.  However, being connected to or being a part of the university community, the status and strength of those connections and indeed the durability of the community itself appear to be significant for many who are in and around higher education.  When invited to talk about any aspect of community, all decided to focus on the university rather than anywhere else, although they did occasionally refer to experiences of community outside the university.  More often, they referred to others who are not formally members of the university but whom they considered to be a part of their research or teaching community.  This was evidenced by aspects of their academic practice that could clearly be categorised as community university engagement; for example, collaborating with an expert patient who is acting as a co-investigator in their research project or involving service users in their teaching.  All the research participants had been involved in community university engagement in some form or other.

What makes for an engaged research community?

Is being connected to or being part of the university community, the status, strength and durability of those connections, vital to engaged academic practice?

Is ‘community’ actually a good thing, something we should strive for?

Ron Barnett labelled academic community as a ‘pernicious ideology’, along with entrepreneurialism, competition and quality.  He says that it is in its interests to convey the impression that it is a community when its actual dispositions, and indeed, behaviours are quite to the contrary; it can take a pernicious or a virtuous form.  The dispositions of the research participants varied widely.  For example, if you focused solely on the experience of community in relation to aspects of their day-to-day academic practice and put aside those tricky issues in relation to e.g. the organisation or status, you would find people feeling ‘deeply connected’ and ‘involved’.  Another factor was the stage of an individual’s career.  The research participants included post-doctoral contract researchers, senior lecturers, professors, emeritus professors and someone who had no official status; positions affect dispositions.

Barnett concludes that unlike the other pernicious ideologies, academic community could be turned into a virtuous ideology if effort is put into bringing it about.  He refers to the potential of community and individualization working hand in hand, as ‘parallel tracks’ (Barnett 2003 p112).  Julie’s research may be viewed as a part of that effort to turn academic community into a virtuous ideology, as signified by her own motivation to undertake the research in the first place and by some of the research participants who spoke of their desire for a greater sense of community at their institution.

At the broadest level, Julie is researching the culture of higher education as it relates to idea of community. The impetus for the research came from her professional role as a middle-manager in higher education, responsible for delivering part of a national governmental programme on public engagement which aimed to change the culture of the sector (a programme that has provoked debate and controversy inside and outside the sector).  Philosophically, she is committed to the idea of university-community engagement and to the public role of higher education.  This is due in part to her professional background and the very reason she came to work in the sector in 2005, in a newly formed role dedicated to managing her institution’s relations with external communities and organisations, primarily in the public and voluntary & community sectors.

Peter Taylor, who has written about making sense of academic life, suggests that academics have to learn to work with two ‘publics’, the general community and the disciplinary community.  They live by two sets of rules.  He thinks of academic identity in terms of levels of layers or symbols which reflect the diversity in the meanings attached to the term ‘academic’(Taylor 1999) .  Julie’s own research revealed living academic identities wrought by the concrete reality of routines, status, and in particular, relations with and within the university community in its various forms.

Sue Clegg describes the university itself as a deeply ambiguous space, referring to pressures and contradictions which both restrict and make possible the living out of personal projects. The university is described as sending out ambiguous messages about what is valued at any particular time, and that espoused and actual values did not seem to match (Clegg 2008 p336).

Julie’s research provided a deliberative space in which my participants were able to reflect on that ambiguity, on their relationship with the institution and on their own thoughts about some of the institutional narrative i.e. the university’s Corporate Plan; what it means to them and how it compares with their day-to-day reality of living the university community.

The stories told by the research participants when reflecting on their idea and experience of community revealed deeply held values which were only hidden from view if you cared not to look and listen.  These values manifested themselves not only in day-to-day academic practice but also in responses to situations when the participants felt challenged.  Their academic practice was demonstrated in the following ways –

They understand how people outside the university may feel

They try to bring the voice` of the community into the institution, into the university environment through their research

They engage with those hidden stories and experiences; they knock on the door and ask people what they think

They invest time and effort into creating and sustaining a learning community by cultivating collaborative practice at a team level

They nurture individuals, take them by the hand and say what is going to happen, how we’re going to try and make it happen

They mentor younger colleagues in a non-line management way and are rewarded with a greater understanding of their own academic practice

They have a strong sense of boundaries and roles.  They recognise the need for hierarchies but say that each level must work as it should do

They get their sense of value and belonging from their engagement and from their research

Julie was drawn in her research towards the need to find the ‘authentic’ voices in higher education; a need prompted by the sense that in her professional role in the field of community university engagement, where her task was to create the official narrative on community university engagement, she was not altogether hearing them.

Barnett reflected on the possibility of the authentic university.  He explored it as a ‘feasible utopia’ but acknowledged that dystopias are never far away.  He referred to a ‘dominant self-deceiving mode of being’ whereby a university exhibits ‘bad faith’.  For example, when it persuades itself that it can do none other than orient itself towards income generation as its dominant mode of being.  Or when the term ‘academic community’ is blithely used to capture a university’s self-image, even though the physicists will have nothing to do with the sociologists, and there is a constant state of tension between the academics and the managers (Barnett 2011 p137).

Barnett also asked whether the university misunderstands the truth about itself or does it understand the truth but blocks it out?  He concluded that it is neither one thing nor the other and recognised that authenticity is acted out every day both in tiny occurrences at an individual level and in large activities.  This is reflected in the actions of the research participants who understand the nature of the institution and of their environment, and who in their different ways demonstrate a ‘feel for the game’ when negotiating their own position and dealing with situations that they are faced with.  As Barnett concluded, authenticity becomes possible precisely where authenticity is threatened; it is won in a milieu of inauthenticity.

References

Barnett, R. (2003). Beyond All Reason: Living with Ideology in the University. Buckingham, SRHE and Open University Press.

Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.

Clegg, S. (2008). “Academic identities under threat?” British Educational Research Journal 34(3): 329-345.

Taylor, P. G. (1999). Making Sense of Academic Life: Academics, Universities and Change, Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

 

 

 

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