Should support staff teach students in higher education?

May 23, 2011

I feel that Smith and Rust’s contribution in the latest edition of the Innovations in Education and Teaching International deserves the attention of everyone involved directly or indirectly in teaching in higher education. The article begins with a discussion about the links between teaching and research in the university as well as a discussion of Wegner’s ‘communities of practice’. Smith and Rust helpfully summarise Wenger’s work (‘communities of practice’ I fear is becoming a unscrutinised  catchphrase in some sections of higher education and I found their paragraph on Wenger useful):

According to Wenger (1998, pp. 72-85) a community of practice has three key dimensions: it is a ‘joint enterprise’ involving the ‘mutual engagement’ of its members, who are bound together as a ‘social entity’ with a shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that they have developed over time. These key requirements of joint enterprise, mutual engagement and social entity all seriously beg the question, who do we see as being members of the community. All too often, the concept ‘academic community’ is used in exclusive ways referring solely to the academic staff of the university. My emphasis (p. 116)

Later in the article Smith and Rust turn their attention to the work of ‘support staff’ in the university.

There have been significant increases in the numbers of staff in central support units (and therefore even further distanced from the academic community than those in academic departments) – e.g. librarians, computer technicians, counsellors, those in human resources, the registry, estates, and corporate services. There is now a need for these roles, too, to be brought into the academic mainstream instead of looking in from the outside. Members of human resources could teach in business studies or public administration, for example: counsellors could teach in psychology; librarians in publishing; computer technicians in maths, stats and computing; estates staff in land management; and corporate services in business and marketing. All of these individuals have vital and important skills and experience they can bring to academic teaching and research and to the tutoring and development of students (p. 120)

Now this is challenging bit, but the more radical proposal is to come. They continue:

In the genuine research-based academic community it is the role of support staff which needs to see the greatest changes. Indeed the demarcation between support staff and researchers and teachers should vanish with job descriptions which combine administrative and technical work with tutoring, small group teaching, and research assistance. There are, of course, at least two groups of support staff who, as well as increasing their own academic role, will also need to be centrally involved in gradually implementing the suggestions we are proposing. First, Human Resources units will have to identify the nature and extent of changes in the job descriptions of posts and develop policies and practices to recruit the ‘new breed’ of candidates to fill support staff positions. Second, Learning and Teaching units will have to develop training schemes to enhance the abilities of support staff to contribute to the research based education of students. It is in these ways that support staff can be integrated fully as equal members of the academic community and thus lose their second-class citizenship. (p.120)

At first reading Smith and Rust appear to be seeking to break down the divisions between academic staff and other staff. However the language used here seems to maintain the dichotomy between ‘support’ staff and academic staff. Perhaps the problem is in the term ‘support staff’. Whether educational developers (‘non-academic’ in some institutions), librarians, counsellors, estates staff etc., there is an underlying suggestion that support staff are not players in the ‘main game’ of higher education and are useful, but not essential to the main game. Nothing could be further from the truth of course.

Overall this article makes radical proposals and raises questions for further in-depth discussion. Can we create a true community of practice across our universities?


Pete Smith and Chris Rust, “The potential of research-based learning for the creation of truly inclusive academic communities of practice,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 48, no. 2 (2011): 115-125.

Words I don’t like 1: Training

April 27, 2011

There are quite a few words I don’t like when talking about educational development. ‘Training’ is among these words. Why do lecturers ‘teach’, but educational developers ‘train’? Why is somebody who teaches students a lecturer or a teacher, but anyone who teaches lecturers is deemed to be training rather than teaching?

The difference may seem insignificant to some but I passionately believe that higher education is a valid and legitimate field of study and there is no difference between those who teach and research about higher education and the things that go on in universities and those who teach and research about sociology, physics and nursing. This is why I like to see educational developers have job titles which indicate this (Lecturer/ Senior Lecturer. Professor etc.)

Teaching quantitative methods

January 18, 2011

Part of my job in teaching the the LLAS research methods workshops is to teach the sections on questionnaire design and quantitative methods. As the workshop is taught over just two days it is difficult to know what exactly to teach and how to present it. If I was teaching such a course in a regular classroom setting over the course of a semester I would probably do a short lecture followed by a two hour ‘lab’ exercise.

I feel I have quite a strange relationship with quantitative methods. I wasn’t great at maths at school, but statistics were to become an inevitable part of my A-levels subjects (business studies in particular) and my undergraduate and master’s studies in geography. Few of my fellow students seemed to enjoy these courses, but I quite enjoyed them. I even gained something of reputation for “liking stats”. If my memory serves me correctly my multiple regression model of UK population change was awarded a higher mark than anything else I studied on my master’s course.

I remember Tony Moyes, the geography lecturer who taught statistics at Aberystwyth saying that the stats course may turn out to be the most useful thing we ever learn in a geography degree (I’m sure he said it something like that anyway!). Despite using qualitative methods in my PhD thesis, it has turned out to be a very useful skill, especially working a humanities department where few colleagues have experience of questionnaire design or statistical analysis packages. My teacher at the University of Bristol was the late Les Hepple. It was only in a tribute to him that I learnt that Les’s A-level background was actually in arts type subjects. However, he not only become an expert user of statistics, but he also contributed to the theory of spatial statistics.

In all honesty, I still find stats quite hard and like everything else in life there is always more to learn. However, I have managed to find some good resources from the US which have given me lots of ideas about the best way to teach quantitative methods. If you would allow me to generalise the broader curriculum in the US means that teaching non-specialists is a normal part of the teacher’s job. A couple of years ago whilst browsing my (Canadian) sister-in-law’s bookshelves I found an old edition of David Moore’s Statistics: Concept and Controversies which struck me as a book which was written for the exact audience I intended it for. His verbal reasoning approach to statistics seemed to be perfect for the humanities audience. Today I came across the lectures of Dan Judge on YouTube. So far I have only watched the first three parts of lecture 1, but I love the approach he takes. It’s a lecture by a guy writing on a white board but he makes it so engaging using language to which his audience can relate. I will definitely be recommending these to our workshops participants.

The higher education classroom: a private space? 2

January 13, 2011

I enjoyed Tuesday’s session on the classroom as a private space. One of the key mantras of talking about education is that “it varies by discipline”, something which those of us who work for subject centres constantly remind each other, but are nevertheless apt to forget. In medicine, I learnt, is quite common to have to have a number of teachers with different medical and non-medical specialisms in the classroom together, so teaching is widely observed by peers as well as students. However, I enjoyed Laurie Taylor’s take on teaching observations:

Targett also denounced the HEA suggestion that university teachers should have their teaching observed “more than once”. He believed that this proposal not only constituted an “invasion of privacy” but might also prove “seriously inhibiting” to the several hundred totally untrained and seriously underpaid postgraduate students who currently carried out the bulk of the university’s teaching functions.

(Times Higher Education, 6th January)