Author Archives: Colin Simpson

Research update #23 – The ‘troublemaker’

I went to a cross institute training thing last week and for some reason we did an icebreaker exercise where we had to introduce the person that we were sitting next to to the room.

I was sitting with a long-time colleague from the central IT unit, who said that he was going to introduce me as a ‘troublemaker’. At first I laughed and suggested that ‘disruptor’ is probably a better term. I won’t deny for a second that I care about what we do and how we do it as a university and I will ask challenging questions and push for change where I think it’s necessary. I certainly don’t buy into the logical fallacy of appeal to authority as a source of all wisdom.

He did say that he appreciated the fact that I was reasonable and put forward logical arguments in my advocacy. He said it was also appreciated that I wasn’t overly demanding and didn’t constantly hassle the IT team. This just made me wonder if this wasn’t why I generally don’t feel like I’m actually achieving much of what I set out to in my dealings with the central teams. Maybe I need to be less reasonable and more persistent.

The fact that I’m considered to be a ‘troublemaker’ rather than an engaged participant in the system suggests to me that our system is flawed, particularly in terms of the relationships between the central units that ‘own’ the systems and people in the college teams that work the most closely with the people that the systems are intended for – well, the teaching side of this at least. This isn’t to say that the central units don’t work with teachers and students but it’s rarely a long term relationship. For all the talk of cooperation and collaboration, the communications and governance structures are very much set up in such a way that the central units dictate the conversation and the policy directions – and I’ve been told directly by them that they don’t exist to serve the needs of the teachers and learners, they exist to serve the university executive.

Fortunately this reinforces a discussion that I had with my supervisor Peter last week, where I mentioned once again that I feel like the work that I’ve been doing and the things that I’ve been reading are all heavily oriented to ideas around how H.E. institutions work and particularly in relation to TEL edvisors / Third Space TEL workers. I feel that this is an important part of the question (what can TEL workers do to better support TEL practices in H.E) but it’s far from all that I want to cover. That said though, the broad vision that I have – what do TEL workers do, how do they sit in the organisation, what do teachers do, what are the overlaps that create opportunities for better collaboration – is probably far too large to do justice to in a thesis. Peter suggested that a solid mapping of how different TEL support units in Australian institutions work could grow to be a significant piece of work in itself. I think this still lets me explore what TEL edvisors/works are and do, so maybe this is enough. I’m sure there’s also a decent discussion to be had about how different universities create opportunities to support TEL practices by the ways that they structure their support teams. All of this seems a little removed from teaching and learning per se to me – considering that it’s a PhD in Education – and almost more tied to organisational/management type ideas. Maybe it’s just broadly sociological or anthropological or something.

Anyway, it’s given me more to think about and should make it easier to dive into the literature once more.

On a side note, I came across an article about some anthropological research into why professors don’t adopt innovative teaching methods – which was kind of the initial premise of my research – and, surprise, it’s at least partially to do with not looking foolish in front of their students. (Which I’ve suspected for some time – my reasoning being that one’s capital in a university is one’s intelligence and looking like you don’t know something appears to be regarded as a cardinal sin. Which is crazy because it’s impossible to know everything – particularly when it’s not your discipline – and admitting this (and trying to rectify it) is clearly an indicator of intelligence. Anyway, it’s well worth a read – I do wish they’d cited the actual research though. (I also recognise that it’s a more nuanced issue than I’ve painted)

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/07/06/anthropologist-studies-why-professors-dont-adopt-innovative-teaching-methods 

 

Selected tweets and notes from HERDSA 2017

Here’s a Storify that I created from tweets I made at the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference in Sydney last week.

This is slightly scattered – in addition to notes and photos from the sessions that I attended are some retweets from parallel sessions  – but there are some great ideas and rich resources to ponder.

https://storify.com/gamerlearner/selected-tweets-from-herdsa-2017-5959908843787735b36ae10e

 

Research update #22 – The Outsider

Today’s Pat Thomson inspired post revolves around “Risks I will and won’t take”

Writing about the last paper that I read really brought home to me the fact that I’m looking at and engaging with the world of academia as an outsider, while simultaneously doing an apprenticeship to maybe join it.

I honestly don’t know where I want to end up after I finish my research, I’m rather hoping that the things that I learn and the experiences that I have offer me some signposts. The world of the mind and ideas is clearly appealing and I do feel that education is a noble cause but there are more options out there than universities and I might even be a little old to make a career here now.

But I’m certainly keen to better understand how Higher Ed works and it is a place where I do feel some sense of belonging. Which perhaps gives a lie to the title of this post but we’ll get to that.

So bearing these things in mind and considering that I’m investigating and examining the sector that I work in (and by extension, if not literally, the people I work with), I’m conscious of the impact that my words can have professionally. (I’m certainly more conscious of this now that I realise that this isn’t simply a digital diary but some people actually read it – thanks, by the way, I hope it’s of some value to you). One thing that I’ve been seeing in my research and in wider conversations is that words have significant impact in this world – if you’ve ever killed an hour or two of a meeting in an ongoing debate about which term to use and which term is completely inappropriate I think you’ll know what I mean. Which places me in the invidious position of trying to critically analyse the teaching practices of people that I work with or that I might one day work with. In a utopian world, this would be recognised as scholarship and a respectable pursuit of knowledge, whatever the findings are. Or, at this stage, whatever my half-baked opinions are. The pragmatic reality though is that there will probably be things that I have to say that people won’t want to hear and they could have a concrete impact on future employment prospects.

I have no doubt that many academics would genuinely believe themselves when they say – ‘if you construct a robust enough argument supported with sufficient evidence, I’m happy to have that conversation’ but we’re all human and even if it is only on a subconscious level, saying the wrong thing might leave a mark. As a professional staff member and not ‘part of the tribe’, this applies doubly I suspect, again, regardless of the best intentions.

So what risks will I and won’t I take? I’m not sure yet but I know that I did some significant modifying of some of the language that I used in my last post to tone it down – though I think it actually reads better as a result. One thing I’m noticing more and more in the papers that I’m reading is there is very little written that is directly critical of the teaching practices of other academics – maybe I just haven’t read enough yet, maybe this is simply good, objective research practice or maybe there is similarly an element of professional caution.

Thoughts on: Responding to university policies and initiatives: the role of reflexivity in the mid-career academic (Brew, Boud, Lucas & Crawford, 2017)

Is academia a workplace like any other? Going by the normalisation of academic staff attitudes towards organisational policies and initiatives displayed in this paper, it’s hard to believe so. As a professional staff member in a H.E institution it’s kind of fascinating to see a discussion of ignoring policy and procedures treated as a norm that management needs to work harder to mitigate – ideally by offering the staff greater incentives to comply. Maybe we also see it in the higher levels of the entertainment industry, where top stars are feted to keep the show running. If politics is showbiz for ugly people, is academia showbiz for clever people?

Brew, Boud et al explore these attitudes using the lens of Archer’s modes of reflexivity (2007) to try to better understand how mid-career academics’ preferences for reflecting on and responding to the world help to define the way they respond to policies and initiatives in their institutions. This is an interesting angle to take, particularly as they are able to use it to formulate some potential actions that management can take in the formulation of these policies etc to get greater buy in. The authors interviewed a diverse set of 27 mid-career (5-10 years experience) academics in research intensive universities in the UK and Australia and categorised their responses to policies/initiatives as aligning with one of the following four modes of reflexivity:

Communicative reflexivity: exhibited in people whose internal conversations require completion and confirmation by others before resulting in courses of action

Autonomous reflexivity: exhibited in those who sustain self-contained internal conversations, leading directly to action

Meta-reflexivity: characterised by internal conversations critical of one’s own internal conversations and on the look-out for difference in the social world around them

Fractured reflexivity: internal conversations intensify distress and disorientation rather than leading to purposeful courses of action (p.3)

A question that concerned me throughout however – and it was acknowledged at the end by the authors – was whether the authors identified these people as having one of these orientations before seeing if their attitudes or actions matched them. They did not – instead they mapped the individuals to these modes based on their attitudes and actions and accept that this is a relatively subjective approach to have taken. In the case of several participants, they even found that different things that they said in the course of their interview aligned to most or all of the four modes. As a series of signposts however, these modes generally appear to have stood up to scrutiny and reasonably reflect the set of different responses taken by the academics.

Some choice examples, including some transcripts:

A change that affected Shaun was degree accreditation by a professional body. This was deemed necessary to ensure continued student applications. His courses did not address the competencies needed in the degree. The consequence of this was that his teaching was taken away… Shaun describes this as a critical incident in his career:

[It was a] slap in the face, because an external accrediting body didn’t think my knowledge area was necessary to produce this… degree, as opposed to a university standing up and going, well no the tail doesn’t wag the dog, this is what we think is important to become a university graduate and that should inform what becomes a practitioner (Shaun, Aus, HS, SL, M, L.344-352) (P.5-6)

And this:

William refers to ‘red tape’ that surrounds teaching describing initiatives requiring writing learning outcomes and conforming to graduate outcome statements as ‘a fashion, a fad’ (L.257)

And Shaun again:

there are some faculty research priorities… which were suggested as being pillars that we had to try and perform under. I couldn’t tell you what they are, I haven’t paid attention to them because I remember looking at them and going, my area doesn’t fit under them. (p.8)

Now of course I’ve taken the more dramatic examples but there are many more that broadly paint a picture indicating that the academics in the study take a fairly self-centric viewpoint and few give much thought to bigger picture issues and needs in the institution. This isn’t to say that there aren’t also many instances of mystifying and seemingly counterproductive policies and procedures being put into place and the authors suggest that some academics would be better engaged if these were explained/justified more effectively.

Sensitivity to the ways in which those demonstrating communicative reflexivity work to maintain the status quo and the difficulties they appear to have in responding to change would suggest that attention needs to be paid to providing academics with thorough rationales for policy changes and that opportunities for these to be debated need to be provided. How such policies fit in with and/or enhance existing practice need careful consideration if they are to be implemented successfully. (p.11)

These people and those people who engage in meta-critical reflexivity, where they are able and willing to question their own internal conversations appear to be the easiest to work with in this space.

the people whose mode of reflexivity is meta-reflexivity could be the most helpful in policy implementation as their focus is likely to be on the smooth and equitable functioning of the university community as a whole. Harnessing the critical capacities of such academics and their concern for their fellow workers can be a useful asset for sensitive managers concerned to implement new initiatives (p.11)

When dealing with the autonomous reflexives, those people who – to paraphrase – pretty much just do whatever they feel is right – things get harder. (There is certainly never any question of entertaining the prospect that this behaviour is flawed)

for academics demonstrating autonomous reflexivity, teaching and learning policies are likely to pose the greatest challenges particularly if they are seen to take time away from research. For successful implementation, such people are likely to need incentives in terms of furthering their careers. (p.11)

The authors appear to largely give up on working with the final category, the fractured reflexives, those who struggle to deal with change at all

Academics whose mode of fractured reflexivity makes them unable to move forward may need professional counselling (p.11)

As a professional staff member – I would’ve said non-academic but have a particular dislike of defining things by what they are not – these descriptions do all ring true and something that I’ve been keenly aware of since I started this research (and long before, really) is that the question of culture in academia is a massive factor in the success or failure of innovation and change. In some ways this hangs on the question of whether academia is just another job – I’d be surprised to find anyone inside who would agree with that idea and maybe they’re right but maybe we also need to find a middle ground which recognises that complete autonomy and/or academic freedom simply isn’t a realistic expectation in the modern age – perhaps unless you’re working for and by yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More creating opportunities and less kicking goals

I’ve been playing a bit of Rocket League on the Playstation 4 lately and it’s had me thinking about what I do at work. The game is essentially soccer with rocket powered, jumping stunt cars – it can be played multiplayer with up to 8 people or individually with AI team mates and opposition.

I’ve been playing solo because my home internet is awful and it’s been fun but my AI team mate is a bit dumb. Or to be fair, his programming means that he has a tendency to just dive at the ball whenever I’m about to score a goal and knock it in the wrong direction.

So I’ve started trying more to create situations where I’m positioning the ball well near the goal and he can just charge in and score our goal instead. As long as the goals are being scored, the team wins and we make our way to the finals.

Which is something like what we do in education – create opportunities for students to learn. They still need to apply their knowledge and skills to kick the goal but we’ve set the stage for them to make this happen. And maybe this is what I do as a TEL edvisor. I’m not the one working with the learners, the teacher is. I might have a very clear idea of what goals can and should be kicked but so does the teacher and it’s fair that they are the ones that get to do so. (I’m not suggesting here that the teachers are dumb or have bad programming – the analogy fell down long before now – more that it can be exciting for us to see the opportunities for scoring learning goals and forget that we’re here to create opportunities for the teachers to score them.)

Maybe just playing the game (and it’s a fun game) and being on the winning team is enough.

 

 

Looking for a new narrative

I woke from a dream this morning – no, it’s ok, I’m not going to tell you about it in detail – and am now wondering about the kind of story that I see myself living in.

I have a lot of obstacle/barrier dreams, the frustrating kind of dreams where you are trying to do something simple but you never seem to be able to get it done because things are always not going to plan. (My dentist tells me that I grind my teeth in my sleep – I’m guessing that this is why). I’m now starting to wonder if this shapes my outlook on the world in my waking hours – if the story that I see myself living in is an ongoing struggle against the things getting in the way of what I’m hoping to achieve. (At an unconscious level at least).

As someone with a keen interest in storytelling, it occurs to me that this is a fairly common model for narratives – at least in the Western tradition that I’m most familiar with. We have a hero (clearly me, because if you can’t be the hero in your own story, then when?) who needs to do something, overcomes opposition/barriers to do so and is generally triumphant. This is almost invariably the model in video games, where you also develop skills and/or acquire resources that help you to overcome increasingly challenging obstacles (or enemies) until the final “boss fight”. Or take a romantic comedy – the hero (or heroine) has a goal but obstacles get in the way (more often hilarious misunderstandings or their own character flaws) that need to be addressed before they achieve their objective.

We all instinctively understand this model and this is why it’s the in-between material in the story (what do we know about the character, what unusual scenario did they confront, what other incidental things happened) that we use to judge whether it’s a good or a bad story – which is to say whether or not it is well told. When things don’t go to plan and the hero doesn’t achieve their goal, well, we have mental models for this as well so it’s not necessarily a surprise but because it’s still an outlier in many ways, the story seems to carry extra emotional weight.

I think maybe the way that I’m currently looking at my PhD topic sits firmly in this (former) narrative structure. The hero (either teachers or intrepid TEL edvisors) want to enhance teaching and learning using technology (because there are bucket-loads of evidence that this can help) yet there are barriers (cultural, competence-based, resource related and ???) that prevent this from happening. The quest is to overcome these barriers so that teaching and learning is enhanced and everyone lives happily ever after.

What if, however, this whole storytelling model is wrong?

What if it is grounded too much in this idea of competing and opposing forces where only one can triumph? I’ll happily acknowledge that most of these issues are far more nuanced than this makes out and the conflict of needs/priorities is generally not oppositional or malicious but I have to wonder whether our (or my) storytelling model is sophisticated enough to deal with this. How often have I taken circumstance as a personal slight and missed an opportunity to work with instead of against it. I read somewhere recently that brain scans indicate that when people read something online that goes against their beliefs, the brains first immediate response is to go straight to the defensive part of fight-or-flight and our capacity for cognition and understanding drops instantly. So it’s not just me struggling with our conflict based paradigm perhaps at least.

Something else I’m mindful of here is the impact of the Western emphasis on individualism vs collectivism. I like people but, as an introvert, I’m also pretty happy with my own company and I’m mindful that maybe in my story, as the hero, I expect myself to do most of the work. I understand rationally that this is simply just not how things will or can happen and that it takes a village etc etc but this is the model of many of the stories that we tell. The hero might get some help from friends but they largely resolve the quest on their own.

So if our (my) current story isn’t the best one, then what is? Is there are better way of looking at this question of how we can better support TEL practices than simply overcoming obstacles and getting from A to B? I have to give credit to my supervisor here, who, when I was putting together my initial PhD proposal suggested that I change the focus from barriers to more positive strategies. I think perhaps what I missed was that it doesn’t just need to be positive strategies for overcoming the barriers – because this is still a barrier-centric position.

I don’t have the answers but I like that I can at least see more clearly that there are different paths.

Research update #21 – Where is this going?

When I tell academics what stage of my PhD I’m up to, they invariably smile wistfully and tell me that this stage is probably the best part of academia ever and I should just enjoy it. ‘It’ being the freedom of exploration and just meandering through the literature while I work out what I’m actually trying to do. There’s no overt pressure to publish – though the need to have my thesis proposal accepted looms over my head – and in some ways it’s the purest opportunity to be scholarly.

Which is fine and I do enjoy a good meander but the more I think about my question – currently What can TEL advisors do to better support TEL practices in Higher Ed – the more it seems to be leading down some quixotic path to single-handedly change centuries old organisational cultures. Actually tangible pedagogical questions seem kind of tangential to addressing the bigger issue of how to affect meaningful change. (I know I have a tendency to wildly overreach in projects). It seems as though I’m spending far more time thinking about organisational and structural kinds of questions than teaching and learning – I guess it’s all social sciences and the aim is ultimately to enhance teaching and learning but I sometimes wonder if I’m going the right way. This was magnified by the last thing that I read, a draft chapter that is going into a book on the practices and contributions of professional staff in Higher Ed. I will write up a post about it shortly but I’m not sure what the etiquette is in this instance – it feels like I should wait until the book is published.

In broad strokes though, there were some interesting – though perhaps not as revolutionary as the author seems to think – ideas about different organisational models for providing multi-disciplinary support in professional development. So, again, it almost feels as though I’m studying some aspect of management than education but it still seems quite valuable and – most importantly for me – practically applicable. It does feel as though large chunks are gradually coalescing – I need to talk about what TELT advisors (I should really say TEL edvisors but I just don’t know that this term does everything that I want it to) are and what we do and how we sit in the current H.E. context. This then leads into what teachers do here – there’s something about practices and how and where they overlap and how we can find synergies (who knew that was a word I would ever take seriously). From there maybe something about the practices of the organisational leadership and then wrapping it all up with an exploration of a host of practical actions and strategies to take us forward. But I’m not sure that this is researchy enough – however having somewhere to go afterwards stills seems vital at this stage.

Bringing this all back to my Pat Thomson list of PhD blogging topics, I guess this sits square in “Things that worry me about my PhD“. I understand that this is meant to be a research apprenticeship and that it’s not about solving problems necessarily but not ending up with something meaningful feels wasteful. I also get that it’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize and it’s just part of a lifelong journey, so maybe that’s how I need to think to avoid getting sucked into the trap of needing to solve all the problems yesterday.

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice, Chapter 8 – Every day life and how it changes, Promoting Transitions in Practice (Shove, Pantzar and Watson,2012)

One of the things that frustrates me most when I read a lot of academic writing is the distance between theory and action. So many papers seem happy to conclude that further research is needed and leave it at that. There’s often seemingly little if any followup. (Of course, I’m generalising, it’s the vibe)

This is why I was pleasantly surprised with the final chapter of Shove et al’s book. They’ve carefully built a case that examining practices in a particular way can help us to better understand them at a societal level and they wrap it all up with some broad discussions of how these ideas might then be put into practice in a social policy setting – particularly in terms of how we might try to address climate change.

The authors’ acknowledge that this is no simple thing, given that currently public policymaking appears to be largely dominated by “concepts from economics and psychology (e.g. theories of planned behaviour, models of rational economic action, representations of habits as drivers of behaviours etc.) and is for the most part untouched by developments in sociological theory” (p.139). (Don’t get me started on economics).

The core difference between the current approach taken to social change, particularly in terms of the practices contributing to climate change, and practice theory derived approaches lies in the current belief that the behaviour of individuals is shaped by attitudes and governments need to give people the choice to change their behaviours at this individual level. Choice is seen as a fairly big deal. Assuming that I understand what the authors have to say, their alternative is to work more to shape practices directly across populations by intervening in the availability of elements of the practices and the relationships between practices, as well as making more of an effort to do this in line with the existing local variations in practices instead of taking something of a cookie-cutter approach. (I’m pretty sure this is a gross oversimplification but that seems to be the broad strokes). They have a nice table to illustrate this:

social practice table

(p.141)

This dominant paradigm of the ‘ABC’, in which A stands for Attitude, B for Behaviour and C for Choice (Shove, 2010), underpins two classic strategies for promoting more sustainable ways of life: one is to persuade people of the importance of climate change and thereby increase their green commitment; the second is to remove barriers obstructing the smooth translation of these values into action. Over the last few years, the language of motivators and barriers has been extended, behavioural economics has come into view and there is increasing reference to the need for a more holistic approach. However, none of this has altered the basic outline of what remains a thoroughly individualistic understanding both of action and change (p.140)

I have to say that while the assertions that the authors are making about overemphasising the idea of choice and people’s attitudes in changing their behaviour, I’m not sure that they utterly demolish the reasons for doing so. The points made though about how this overlooks cultural, geographical and historical contexts that help shape variations in practice between areas/groups/etc are valid and I would suggest that adding an examination of practices to the policy toolkit is highly sensible. From what I can see overall though, the methods for achieving change through these broader methods feel slightly hazy and seem to forget that there are many competing agendas at play (getting re-elected for example) that this holistic approach doesn’t necessarily play nicely with.

This argues for what Rip describes as a modest approach to policy, not based on a quest for control or an ambition to nudge the drivers of behaviour, but on a subtle and contingent ‘understanding of the sociological and economic nature of the processes they seek to influence’ (Grin et al., 2010:2007). Defined like this, policy making is not a matter of pursuing pre-defined outcomes by means of manipulating driving or obstructing factors. It is instead better understood as a more process-based ‘succession of short and fairly rapid steps’ involving sequences of ‘trial-and-error learning or ‘serial adjustment’, anchored in and never detached from the details and specificities of the practices in question (p.142)

As always, I try to bring the ideas in the literature back to my own day-to-day work in a university and frame it in terms of evolving teaching practices. I don’t disagree with any of the ideas here philosophically but have some serious pragmatic questions about how well this approach would be received by sceptical academics and how implementable it is.

The authors draw on earlier chapters in the book to identify four ways in which a practice oriented approach to change might be achieved:

In brief, the policy makers and other actors, past and present, can and do influence: a) the range of elements in circulation; b) the ways in which practices relate to each other; c) the careers and trajectories of practices and those who carry them; and d) the circuits of reproduction. (p.143)

A) The range of elements in circulation

In terms of climate change, the idea is to remove or reduce the bad ‘elements’ of practices rather than bad behaviours. The authors discuss this in terms of Japan’s “Cool Biz” initiative – which actually is quite fascinating. It’s mainly about changing office culture – supporting more casual, warm weather work wear than conventional suit and tie for men – to enable less use of air-conditioning (or keeping offices at higher temperatures – a range between 20-28 rather than the current 22-24). This program is in its 12th year now and other than some resistance from tie companies (really) and some initial uncertainty about cultural practices when meeting people from non-Cool Biz offices (workers took to carrying ties with them), it is a success.

Stories like these remind us that elements of meaning – including the meaning of office-wear, style and comfort – do not arrive fully formed but are reproduced and transformed in social situations that are already laden with significance (p.146)

I’m a little hazy on exactly how this differs from changing behaviours – it seems to be doing so from a slightly different direction from what I can see. In terms of my own work, I guess our equivalent is demolishing large lecture spaces.

B) Configuring relations between practices

This section talks at length about the relationships between cycling and driving. From what I can see, when you have a competitive relationship, one practice tends to need to lose something for the other one to benefit. How a practice is perceived depends on how it’s competitor is seen. So compared to walking, cycling was considered speedy but compared to driving, slow.

Thus far we have discussed driving and cycling in order to draw attention to the changing relation between practices, to the potential for symbiotic as well as competitive relationships and to the consequences of past configurations for the accumulation, character and durability (or otherwise) of relevant elements. Since policy interventions take place within and not outside specific histories of practice, issues of timing are crucial (p.148)

C) Configuring careers: carriers and practices

Most of what I got out of this section was about looking at defections from practices – what we can do to discourage someone from continuing in an undesirable practice. It took a big veer off into social theory territory and Bourdieu and I can see that this is an area that might be helpful to explore down the line but for now, it seems a little too tangential.

D) Configuring connections

Communities of practice feature in here and creating the conditions for practices to flourish. Most of the rest of it seemed to be about change management, which I’ve dug into previously and there didn’t seem to be much new.

In summary, taking a social/practice perspective – because there is social theory and there is practice theory too – offers some interesting new angles for implementing change and understanding practices.

I’ve enjoyed the ideas in this book and will certainly explore them further – I’ve particularly valued the authors methodical approach to breaking down the ideas and simplifying parts in the pursuit of higher truths. In terms of my work and my research, it’s certainly given me some ideas for understanding what third space TEL workers (I should really just say TEL edvisors) do and I think that where this will get particularly interesting is when I start to look at the crossovers between the practices of TEL edvisors, teachers, students and maybe even university management. I strongly suspect that this is where we will find (hopefully) some useful answers to the questions around how we can do TELT better.

Research update #20 – Language language covfefe

Nothing like using a word that will be terribly dated in a week’s time in a title to anchor it in space/time. Language has been a particular interest in the last few weeks and months as I have worked with my TELedvisor co-convenors to explore the different role types and practices of TEL edvisors – notably academic developers, education/… designers and learning/… technologists. I presented about our work yesterday at our TELedvisors webinar – if you’re interested, I’ll add the video at the end of this post. The last 20 mins is discussion but it was a pretty interesting conversation. Dom McGrath from UQ was the other presenter and (happily) his work took a slightly different approach but I think we arrived at largely the same conclusions.

Language was still a challenge even as we discussed final touches on the paper this morning – the nature of design vs develop and what these practices really mean and also what the develop in Academic Developer really means. (My take is that it helps to see that mostly as a training role and keep ‘develop’ to the practice of building things like learning resources or curriculum but I don’t think we’re all 100% on the same page – which is fine because this is representative of the bigger issue around the lack of clarity in this language in our sector)

I’ve forgotten to look at my list of Pat Thomson PhD blog questions for a little while but here’s this week’s.

Am I too hard on myself?

Maybe? Probably? I hope that it’s more about an attitude of continuous improvement but I’m much more interested in the bits that can be better than the bits that are working – I’m happy to just leave them be. I know that perfect is the enemy of the good and I think I’ve made strides in accepting when things are good enough but I also like to think that I have high standards, so it’s a toss-up. My bigger worry is less that I am hard on myself but that this normalises being hard on others – by being open to (ideally constructive) criticism and perhaps trusting it more than praise – childhoods, ugh – I suspect that I might think everyone has the same attitude and is more accepting of criticism than they actually are. I guess it’s probably mainly a matter of walking more confidently on that fine line between helping and offending.

Thoughts on: The Dynamics of Social Practice; Chapter 7, Representing the Dynamics of Social Practice (Shove, Pantzar and Watson, 2012)

This chapter primarily sums up the core ideas of the book (probably should’ve read it first). If I was to sum up the summary, I’d say that their argument is that streamlining the various elements of practice into materials, competences and meanings helps to understand practices in a broader context (and thus the emergence, evolution, dissemination and decline of practices). They also spend some time explaining the different relationships that practices have with both time and space – in a nutshell, time and space shape practices and practices shape (our perceptions of) time and space. Finally they touch briefly on the fact that practices affect power and privilege and, again, vice versa. (There’s also a bit of stuff about how and if practices compete with one another and where people sit in terms of practices – are they simply automaton style ‘carriers’ of a practice or are they more?)

To unpack this a little further:

Simplifying the definition of practice

Two quotes explain the decision making process pretty well – both on page 97.

We come back to the more complicated challenge of conceptualising elements in a moment but one obvious development, at least as regards more classically social theories, is our inclusion of materiality as a constitutive element of practice. Though barely mentioned iby Giddens (1984), artefacts, technologies and infrastructures feature in Schatzki’s account not as parts of practice, but as aspects of ‘arrangements’ to which practices are tied (2010b: 135)

and

we took our inspiration from Reckwitz and from his suggestion that practices consist of interdependent relations between elements including ‘forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, “things” and their use, a background knowledge of in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge’ (2002)

By looking at Reckwitz’s list in particular, we can see how Shove et al have streamlined emotion and motivational knowledge into ‘meaning’, which has also allowed for broader social contextual factors to play a part. This works well for me because it’s important to recognise that a practice exists within a larger context and is impacted by other people.

The authors also try to broaden our idea of practices to encompass the micro-changes and variations that occur between performances, practitioners and contexts. They note that:

‘theories of practice are commonly thought to deal better with routine reproduction than with innovation… however this is not the only way to go. Throughout this book we have been keen to build on the observation that not all enactments of practice are consistent or faithful and that each performance is situated and in some respect unique. In addition, in some small way each enactment changes the elements of which practices are made. (p.98)

Shove et al come back again to the significance of material elements, which speaks in some ways to the bigger question about how deterministic these can be in driving and/or creating practices. They observe that ‘numerous studies suggest that technologies and artefacts ‘script’ bodily performance and the types of competence required to produce configurations that work (Akrich, 1992)’.

On the question of how much impact people have on their practices, the authors stress that ‘practices are active integrations of elements’ (p.100) – the implication clearly being that it’s people that need to be doing the integrating.

One consequence, then, is that human agency is loosely but unavoidably contained with a universe of possibilities defined by historically specific complexes of practice. It is in this sense that practices make agency possible, a conclusion that is not all incompatible with the related point that practices do not exist unless recurrently enacted by real-life human beings (p.100)

All of which is getting a little philosophical for me but we press on. Well, we press on in some ways into even more philosophical areas in some ways relating to the nature of time and space. (Which I maintain would exist perfectly happily without the existence of people at all and so what we are probably actually talking about here is our perception of space/time – just for the record)

Practices in time and space

In exploring the relationship between practices, time and space, the authors find that there are four, not-incompatible ways of thinking about both time and space in terms of practices. They launch out of the blocks with this idea:

Should we view space and time as resources for which practices compete, in effect treating them as additional elements? Alternatively would it make better sense to think of space and time as coordinates in terms of which the location of a practice might be described and plotted? Or should we go along with Schatzki’s interpretation of activity timespace (Schatzki, 2010b) as something that is forged in the moment of doing, and through which past and future are integrated? (p 100-101).

At which point I start to scratch my head and hope that my assumption that Schatzki is referring to perceptions of time is valid. Because otherwise I don’t buy it. The authors spend a fair bit of time on the different ways of view time and space in terms of practice and I don’t see any of them as necessarily wrong, just valid in different situations. What I’m most interested in what it means in terms of overall application.

So, to precis, time is a limited element in that when you are performing one practice, you aren’t performing another. However, because we prioritise practices, we schedule them in ways that help us to achieve as much as we possibly can. Now the authors don’t get into this idea but I’d suggest that part of the way that we do this is by understanding that a practice has time as one of its attributes – we know that it will take 5 mins to brush our teeth – and we factor this into the way that we schedule things. So, so far, time shapes our practices and our engagement with them. What gets interesting is that this goes the other way, to an extent. Practices also shape our time. Certain practices are commonly only done at certain times – brushing your teeth before going to bed, for instance. So the meaning of a practice comes into play. At a larger scale, the kinds of practices that we engage in shape the way that we structure our week – weekdays for ‘work’ and weekends for ‘leisure’. So as I say, there are a number of different kinds of relationships between practices and time and they are not mutually exclusive. Going to work shows us that we don’t always control our time when it comes to practices either, so we need to be conscious of the fact that there are limitations on when we practice.

Societal rhythms are defined by the recurrent scheduling and sequencing of specific practices and, over the longer run, changing patterns of daily life reflect the dynamics of social practice (p.103)

The authors go on to discuss how practices exist when they aren’t being performed and their answer is that the persistence of the elements of the practice across time are what enable this. Seems obvious enough.

Similarly the relationship between space and practice has a number of facets. Some practices require more space than others and this impacts on our ability to perform them. Dedicating a space to a particular practice (e.g roads and driving) means that this space is no longer available to other practices (e.g farming). The need to have access to a large space for a particular practice adds a barrier to accessing that practice – more of an equity/societal issue perhaps and more on that shortly. Space impacts the way that elements travel (e.g to a mountain top) and this shapes the availability of a practice. However space might also see a number of practices co-existing within it – cyberspace for example. Looking at things the other way around, practices also influence space. Consider a kitchen and the way that this room is largely reconfigured for the practice of cooking. Without cooking, we would have no need for kitchens. This reconfiguration of the space can also serve to perpetuate the existence of the practice.

As driving and flying reconstitute space and time around them, they help embed the future inevitability of driving and flying. Both become necessary if life is to go on within the reconfigured spacialities and temporalities these practices have engendered (p.105)

So the core of Shove et al’s point is that time and space are more than just elements.

Space and time are not elements equivalent to those of materiality, meaning and competence. They do not circulate in their own right, nor are they shared and stored in the same way. Equally spatial and temporal coordinates do not merely define the settings and scenes in which practices are enacted. Arrangements of time and place are structured by past practices and are themselves relevant in structuring future pathways of development and/or diffusion. In this role, they act like elements in that they constitute media of aggregation and storage, holding the traces of past practice in place in ways that are relevant for the future, and for the perpetuation of unequal patterns of access. (p.106)

Dominant projects and power

The final section kind of continues on with this theme, digging more into how and why certain practices and the projects that they are associated with, become dominant in a society. (Spoiler, it’s about having power and access to resources).

Those who have the means to engage in valued social practices are in an especially privileged position in that is is they who contribute to the direction in which such practices develop. The specification of relevant elements and their circulation/distribution are in this respect intimately connected (Bourdieu, 1984) (p.106)

The authors wrap up this chapter by noting that sometimes those people with power will seek to shape the meaning surrounding a practice (e.g. washing hands) to help them make a profit. They talk about a soap manufacturer working with the church (among others) to reframe the notion of dirt and its undesirability to ultimately sell more soap.

Some stray ideas

A few thoughts came to mind as I read this chapter, triggered largely by this final sentence

The question is then whether policy makers can intervene in the dynamics of social practice and if so how, on what basis and with what chance of success? (p.107)

Bringing this all back to my work and my research, I need to think about this in terms of good TEL practices, TEL edvisors and teachers/lecturers. If practices are to some extent determined by the powerful, we either need to find someone with enough power to impose them or get the powerful to embrace them. Or both, really.

I also wonder what the role of time and space in Higher Education is – new purpose built teaching spaces are being designed and constructed that will presumably try to shoehorn people into particular teaching practices by removing the option of other approaches. The time needed to teach effectively with technology/online is also something that I assume has been explored but I need to look further into this because I really get the feeling that the unions negotiating our contracts aren’t.