Reading Group: Discussing “Becoming an Educator: Communities of Practice in HE”

Mary-Clare Hallsworth, Public Engagement Manager at Birkbeck, University of London summarises discussions from the latest London PEN reading group.

syd-wachs-120737-unsplashThis month we chose to step outside our usual public engagement sphere and read something that would help us hold a mirror to our work. The paper up for discussion was a book chapter ‘Becoming an educator: communities of practice in HE’ published in 2000 by Janice Malcolm and Miriam Zukas.

The paper is concerned with the interconnected relationship between research and teaching in higher education. In particular, it highlights concerns about taking teaching out of its disciplinary context by focusing attention on generic teaching skills rather than having teaching practice embedded within normal research practices. Sound familiar?

That’s what we thought too…

The paper was written in 2000 which says something about the predictability for the trend towards separating out research from teaching now we have REF, TEF and the upcoming KEF (Research Excellence Framework, Teaching Excellence Framework and Knowledge Exchange Framework respectively). Malcolm and Zukas argue that teaching practice will (and should) differ to some extent by discipline and that a more integrated understanding of the role of teaching and research is needed in the generation of knowledge. The same could easily be said for public engagement.

The paper prompted us to think about the separation of public engagement and research. We often hear “public engagement should be embedded within the research process” and this is what many of us spend our time trying to encourage, but to what extent does the environment we operate in help or hinder this?

One clear example of this conundrum is when we look at funding available for public engagement. All funding bodies advocate for public engagement activity to be embedded within the research process and not as an add-on. However, in order to promote and encourage this activity they have had to opt for providing separate additional funding – which sends a mixed message to researchers. Perhaps then research funding should automatically come with funds to be spent exclusively on supporting public engagement with research? But then, how would one make sure of quality engagement if plans and activities are not scrutinised by experts and peers through an application process? It would likely cause frightening problems for anyone trying to promote and advocate engagement work. Imagine taking away the ability to say ‘Funder X defines engagement as… [insert your favourite funder’s definition here] and you won’t get the money unless you meet this criteria’. Definitions of public engagement are debated quite enough as it is.

After discussing these challenges (and airing some other complaints) we began to think about models for our own practice and what integrated public engagement would really look like. Our favourite was a hub and spoke model: a central public engagement team offering training, advice and support, whilst maintaining close working relationships with engagement professionals embedded within departments or specific research projects. This provides the infrastructure to make sure engagement remains a priority at institution level but also the flexibility to adapt to the varying needs of different disciplines. It also enables learning, connectivity and collaboration across disciplines. I’m sure this model has been proposed elsewhere in more detail, if anyone has any links please pop them in the comments, especially if anyone has examples of where this has been achieved/tried. The appeal of the idea is partly in how you can imagine it working practically (given the resources!) in a variety of intuitional contexts as it would enable the shape of the infrastructure to mold to the shape of an institution.

It is safe to say the paper stimulated a lot of debate, much of which would take too long to distill here, but I hope to continue the conversations at our next meeting. It was a useful and interesting exercise to read research about a parallel issue within HE and certainly made us re-assess and reflect more critically about our own work.

Reference

Malcolm, Janice and Zukas, Miriam (2000) Becoming an educator: communities of practice in higher education. In: McNay, Ian, ed. Higher Education and its Communities. Open University Press/SRHE, Milton Keynes, pp. 51-64. ISBN 9780335207343.

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