Taking back space: Episode 1

At a risk of stating the blindingly obvious: teaching in higher education is changing: ‘The idea of the (largely) autonomous expert concerned in some measure with learning for knowledge, self-formation, citizenship or, even, democracy has been challenged […] to provide a new orientation to teaching and learning in universities’ (Jones, 2014:4). The introduction of workloads, to bring about equity and transparency, has contributed to the reduction of the role of the academic to tasks that can be quantified. This has been compounded by the marketisation of HE where every hour has a price tag. The unquantifiable value of space makes it, therefore, anathema to a marketised system. Preparation time is factored in to the workload calculation, but space to think, reflect and be creative cannot be quantified in this way. Workloads have no space for space.  This has resulted in a squeeze on all academic resources and an erosion of ‘space’ which traditionally afforded staff the opportunity for collegiality, a space in which to provide one another with ideas and share good practice in an informal but productive manner. The notion of space here goes beyond the notion of physical space to include temporal space; contractual space; third space; space to reflect; space for collegiality; space for innovation and creativity and space for individual and collective wellbeing. As one interviewee in a recent study suggested:

There was a time, harking back to the good old halcyon days, the senior common room was right beside the canteen, so you went in, bought your tea, and sat down, and you always knew there was going to be somebody there at half ten, and you always knew there was going to be somebody there at half past three … so we used to go and meet, you know.  And we could talk over our teaching.’ (Male academic 2 in Peat, J (2016:6))

Savin-Baden (2008) challenges the notion that academic thinking can take place in brief, cramped, working spaces, and argues that we need to recognise and promote the redevelopment of learning spaces in academic life. The erosion of collegial space in particular is of real concern – in a recent Guardian survey of 2,500 academics just under half of respondents reported feeling isolated – and we have been working on how to reclaim at least a portion in our respective institutions. This reclaiming of space serves a number of purposes: supporting staff wellbeing; engaging colleagues with their professional identity; facilitating curriculum leadership; and it can also assist us pedagogically in terms of programme design, assessment and feedback strategies, potential educational technologies, review and evaluation.

As educational developers, our focus is primarily on teaching and learning and reclaiming space for pedagogic development. In response to feedback from colleagues demonstrating a real desire to get together to discuss learning and teaching, we decided to move away from the traditional workshop approach and implement a number of different Learning and Teaching initiatives to foster meaningful engagement at Dublin City University (DCU) and Roehampton. They include The Sipping Point (DCU); Teaching and Learning Conversations (Roehampton), Programme Convener forums (Roehampton) and Departmental Teaching and Learning Away Days (Roehampton). These all centre on a number of key principles:

  • The space must be non-judgmental and non-outcomes focussed dedicated to learning and teaching;
  • The approach must be dialogic;
  • The space should be open to all colleagues who wish to engage in conversation about teaching in learning;
  • Conversation in this space is informal and provides the opportunity to air challenges, uncertainties and opportunities;
  • The space is governed by Chatham House Rules;
  • The space allows for focussed venting;
  • In this space, colleagues are ‘off duty’ and there is no pre-set hierarchy or allegiance that dictates procedure.
  • Line managers’ endorsement gives participants a sense of legitimate participation thus facilitating these initiatives
  • The space offers time off the treadmill and frequently includes food
  • The space provides a (rare) chance to make connections – with others on the same corridor or further afield who might share similar interests.

The ins and outs of how these initiatives have run and their outcomes are something we will explore in a later blog. Finding the time and space to bring colleagues together for anything other than the mandatory is a major challenge and yet that is not a reason not to try: the rewards for participating staff and for those facilitating go well beyond simply ticking a CPD box.

References

Jones, A (2014) Leading University Teaching: Exploring the uses of higher education research, SRHE Research Grant Final Report, Glasgow Caledonian University.
Peat, J (2016) Don’t put your head above the parapet: why academics don’t come for help, Educational Developments: SEDA 17.2 p5 – 6
https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/may/08/work-pressure-fuels-academic-mental-illness-guardian-study-health
Savin-Baden, M (2008) Learning Spaces: Creating opportunities for Knowledge Creation in Academic life. Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.


Authors:

Jo Peat is Head of Educational Development at Roehampton University
Judith Broadbent is Principal Lecturer and Learning and Teaching Lead in the Department of Media, Culture and Language at Roehampton
Clare Gormley is an Academic Developer with the DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit

1 thought on “Taking back space: Episode 1

  1. Jo, interesting article, thank you. Here at DMU, we have found a good deal of traction with Action Learning Sets. However, our ALS, offered in a range of contexts, have evolved somewhat into the kind of ‘learning spaces’ that I think you are referring to. We have left behind the ‘action’ imperative in favour of a space characterised by the key principles you cite. What is most valued by participants is the facilitated, non-judgemental, safe, confidential space where ‘focussed venting’ is allowed within an overall positive frame. Time and again, the feedback is that such spaces are all too rare in academia.

    Liked by 2 people

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