The Value of SoTL: Reflections on ‘Becoming’ an Early Career (Teaching) Academic

Doctoral education can be considered an ‘apprenticeship’ (Park, 2015); where a new generation of practitioners (doctoral students) engage in on-the-job training (research and teaching) to become sufficiently adept at a profession (academia). In the first year of my doctoral studies (early 2010s), I remember attending a talk about ‘becoming an academic’, where we were told the typical academic career involved three key elements, largely split on a 40:40:20 basis:  

  • Maintaining a world-renowned research profile; 
  • An impressive teaching portfolio, across all levels, ideally externally recognised; 
  • A commitment to public life through involvement and engagement of relevant parties – ranging from administrative tasks, contributing to the workings of the institution, right through to public engagement events with the people we worked with outwith the ‘academy’. 

The initial reaction within the room was one of fear and trepidation. How could one person do all those tasks in a 9-5 week, with occasional (but infrequent) weekend and-or evening working, taking advantage of a generous holiday allowance, and balancing a semblance of family life on the side? Myself, and most of the people I was doing my PhD with, were struggling already with the demands of that (see Levecque et al, 2017; Evans et al 2018); how could this pressure get worse? Wouldn’t it get easier when you’re qualified? 

I quickly realised through the relationships I built with academics I worked closely with that the short answer to this was no’. Striving for all three aspects led to burnout, exhaustion, physical and mental health difficulties, and complete disillusionment of the positives within academia (see Woolston, 2018). What did this mean for us, on the training path of ‘becoming an academic’? 

However, the longer, perhaps more accurate answer is ‘yes, but…’. Yes, it gets easier – you know the inner workings of policy and practice, the intricacies of the expectations, and the first-time anxieties fade. You learn the diversity of roles within the ‘academy’ – that the model so often spoken about is one of many possible ‘academic’ roles. However, it remains as the archetypical goal for ‘success’ in academia, with anything different perceived as holding less value. 

The ‘Value’ of Teaching and Scholarship 

Why is the belief that teaching and scholarly research is of ‘lesser’ value than disciplinary research been so pervasive? Hints to this can be found within research conducted by Bennett et al (2018), who explored the introduction of ‘Teaching Academic’ roles within an Australian institution. ‘Teaching Academic’ roles were perceived as a ‘negative career move’ for those transitioning from posts with research included in their workload model, and ‘career limiting’ for those beginning an academic career. Through data collection (13 focus groups with 115 academics), they explored strongly held beliefs about these roles among the academic community, ranging from the perception of value:  

“Anyone who is a purely teaching person is never going to feel as valued as a research person, ever… that’s just not the way universities are run” (Participant O – Bennett et al, 2018: 274) 

– to confusion over the ‘place’ for them within the institution: 

“The research end of the spectrum has a very well-defined culture about expectation, but at the teaching end of the spectrum we are grappling with those expectations” (Participant SL – Bennett et al, 2018: 275) 

In their theoretical analysis of the data gathered, Bennett et al (2018: 280) presented a thematic map (Fig 1, below) outlining what they considered to be the key issues behind the resistance and dissidence among the workforce.  

This is the image of the thematic map Sharon is writing about for more details follow the Bennett et all 2018 reference which is at the end of the blog post

Key points from their analysis demonstrate the role that clarity has to offer in establishing value. On the left, we see confusion leading to the ‘othering’ of roles; on the right, we see the playing field being a little more level. A lack of resources, investment, and inspiration helps sustain a hierarchisation of academic roles. When these things are tackled, we move closer towards parity between what is considered ‘of value’. 

Establishing Value 

I’ve been in the very fortunate position to have taught throughout my doctoral studies (2013-18) and then hold continuous (albeit insecure) employment since submitting my PhD in 2018. Perhaps even more fortunate that these positions have all been held at my alma mater, which is an institution investing a great deal in boosting the roles of teaching staff, and has already embedded many of the ‘role clarity’ suggestions by Bennett et al (2018). Unfortunately, this isn’t the norm for most doctoral graduates, who must fight to find their sustained place within the policies and practices of the ‘neoliberal university’ (Taylor & Lahad, 2018) – balancing fixed-term posts with extra-curricular activities, valuing-adding content to make one’s self stand out among the vast number of candidates vying for the same positions (Reynolds, 2020). 

Becoming an academic does not have to be everything, all at once, in a chaotic deluge of activity. We don’t all need to be doing the same roles, and one path is not inherently more ‘successful’ than the other. Teaching pathways should be presented as a viable option for ‘success’, and not relegated to the sidelines as an option for those who have ‘failed’. The opportunities we have, in becoming teaching academics, allow us to carve a better place to work, informed by an evidence base, produced through the scholarship we conduct as educational researchers and educators. The old division between research and teaching needs to be reduced – particularly when we pride ourselves on ‘research-led’ teaching. Scholarship, or scholarly research, is just as valuable to the academe, and the more these divisions are broken down, the better our teaching and research will become. The next step is to make security – in all academic roles – available to more staff (see Krockow, 2019; Kezar et al, 2019; McAlpine & Amundsen, 2018) to facilitate long term collaboration and growth, in order to do what we do best: research led-teaching. 

References 

Bennett, D., Roberts, L., Ananthram, S., & Broughton, M. (2018). What is required to develop career pathways for teaching academics?. Higher Education, 75(2), 271-286. 

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature biotechnology, 36(3), 282. 

Kezar, A., DePaola, T., & Scott, D. T. (2019). The gig academy: Mapping labor in the neoliberal university. Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Krockow, E. (2019) Don’t let your academic career determine your every move – Should early career researchers be expected to relocate regularly in order to land a permanent job?, LSE Blog March 21st. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2019/03/21/dont-let-your-academic-career-determine-your-every-move-should-early-career-researchers-be-expected-to-relocate-regularly-in-order-to-land-a-permanent-job/  

Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879. 

McAlpine L., Amundsen C. (2018) Identity-Trajectories of Early Career Researchers. Palgrave Macmillan, London.  

Park, C. (2005). New variant PhD: The changing nature of the doctorate in the UK. Journal of higher education policy and management, 27(2), 189-207. 

Reynolds, C. (2020). ‘The academic job market: what we know now’, LSE Blog, July 10th. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/careers/2020/07/10/the-academic-job-market-what-we-know-now/ [Last accessed 30/11/2020]. 

Taylor, Y., & Lahad, K. (2018). Feeling academic in the neoliberal university. Springer International Publishing AG. 

Woolston, C. (2018). Feeling overwhelmed by academia? You are not alone. Nature, 557(7706), 129-129. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s