Covid disrupts our academic identities, and that’s something we should embrace

Andy Pitchford and Ed Stevens consider the risks to staff of being creative with teaching and learning.

Andy Pitchford is the Head of Learning and Teaching at the University of Bath


Ed Stevens is Manager of the Arts & Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London

Nobody really knows who first coined the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention”, but the last six months have left none of us in academia in any doubt as to its enduring power.

We all have stories of colleagues who, under great duress and in the midst of Covid-19 chaos, have deployed creative efforts to imagine new and sometimes beautiful ways to communicate, to help others to learn and to research. We may even have achieved some ourselves.

Adversity has forced us to innovate. It has also loosened the institutional shackles that may have constrained – or even killed off – innovative ideas in the past. Decision making processes have accelerated, spending on technologies has been swiftly authorised, and some have even dared to bypass committees!

While it’s refreshing to see such organisational flamboyance, and long may it continue, it’s easy to overlook some of the other forces at play that either foster or inhibit creativity.

Transforming our academic identities

Our new ways of working and living are having profound effects on our academic identities. With regards teaching there will be colleagues who only a year ago were very comfortable with the idea of carrying the title of “lecturer”, identifying as someone who transmitted their knowledge and wisdom in very traditional ways.

Now, in all kinds of institutions, the notion of “lecturer” embraces a much broader range of capabilities. Space has opened up for content providers, facilitators, curators, partnership workers and enablers and – for now at least – these roles are being recognised and respected.

Academic identities arise from the interactions between individuals and two key structures – discipline and institution. These structures leave marks on us, steering us to “proper” ways of acting as academics, shaping even what we have permission to think or imagine. They’re invisible binds that affect how we go about our day-to-day.

Over recent decades the imperatives of global neoliberalism have permeated academic identities with corporate discourses of “competition” and “excellence”. Think of those colleagues held up as “ideal” educators or researchers within your institution for insight into the extent to which it has bought into such discourses.

Pressure to conform to modes of performativity, to corporate academic identities, invariably lead to risk-averse, homogenised pedagogic and research practices. It feels safer to stick with traditional approaches, to reproduce what’s already legitimised and secure. In doing, we reinforce dominant expectations of the form of delivery required and the nature of relationships between academics, students and external communities. We also ensure that we’re perceived as “professional” by our peers, becoming part of the all-important “in-group”.

Daring to “unbecome”

Enter stage left Covid-19 which, with its attendant disruptions, has caused us to question what we might regard as “professional” and “appropriate”. Covid-19 provides us with an opportunity to dare to be “unprofessional”, to risk new ways of “being” and “doing” in the academy.

In writing about teacher professionalism back in 2007, Helen Colley used the term “unbecoming” to describe the ways some teachers seize their agency to move away from dominant academic and policy constructs of professionalism. The impacts of Covid-19 have provided space, environments and disruptive forces for both academics and students to “unbecome” from traditional corporate academic identities.

Authentic learning and hyperlocal engagement

With relation to pedagogic practices, the use of learning technologies has clearly come to the fore in these transformations. But as co-authors of a recent Handbook for Authentic Learning in Higher Education, we’ve also noted how authentic learning pedagogies provide such moments of “unbecoming”. Authentic learning experiences are where disciplinary knowledge comes to life through application, where students and staff deploy their understanding and capabilities to address real-world issues.

In this Covid-19 world, we’d particularly like to call to attention the relationship between institutions and place that are crucial to such experiences. Where universities wish to continue with residential or place-based education, whether that’s residential or “occasional”, they will need to rethink how students interact with the geographic location of the institution and the extent to which the environment provides a distinctive aspect of the university experience. We urge colleagues to consider how engaged academics, and engaged pedagogies, might play a role in creating distinctive and worthwhile learning experiences and moments for students.

On campus-based universities, there will be opportunities to open the gates wider to foster genuine interaction between students and neighbouring groups and communities, and to create meaningful learning episodes in these spaces. In city-centre locations, colleagues may have the chance to weave in moments of application on the university’s doorstep, to encourage learners to deploy their knowledge in ways that support people and organisations in the immediate locale.

In terms of engaged research practices, those activities rooted in university-community relationships and perhaps under the purview of new civic university agreements, Covid-19 has also brought new frames, new opportunities to “unbecome”. One such is hyperlocal engagement. Think of this as researchers engaging on their doorsteps. As Covid-19 has driven a rise in homeworking, some engaged researchers have considered how they might engage their own local communities in real world, socially distanced ways through playful, participatory engagement opportunities far removed from “traditional” research.

Witness, for example, sidewalk science where Dr Danna Staaf, a squid scientist, has answered questions from the local community through scribbling answers on the pavement! Other sidewalk science initiatives abound, covering anything from botanicals (pavement chalking to draw attention to wild flowers and plants in urban areas) to tick science (answering questions around Lyme Disease). These participatory examples provide opportunities for creativity and whilst they are hyperlocal, translation to social media forms (primarily Twitter) enable wider reach.

As many of us become homeworkers either full- or part-time, we traverse the boundaries between our academic and personal identities. Domestic spaces and responsibilities invade the professional, potentially weakening the grip of the institution on our academic identity formations. Agency may come to the fore and with this, the opportunity for us to shape our academic identities in new and creative ways.

Anxieties of “unbecoming”

This freeing of our imaginations may be simultaneously exciting and anxiety-provoking for, with an “unbecoming”, comes the fear of being deemed “unprofessional” by our peers, by those inhabiting traditional academic identities. The shame we might feel if we’re judged in this way may prevent us from taking risks.

Yet we have faith that there will always be innovative educators and researchers, many of whom will dare authentic learning or hyperlocal engagement approaches. Such academics will act as “lone warriors” defying the jealousies and shaming of the dominant group and / or the strength of institutional or disciplinary cultures, seizing their agency to imagine their academic identities anew.

The danger is that these “lone warriors” will forever remain such, constructed as “unprofessional”, “maverick” or “vocational”, low in status and integrity, unless those in leadership positions act to shift cultures. Leadership positions could be those at the very top but also, those responsible for recruitment, training and development. So “middle managers” in human resources, professional services and support departments, alongside heads of academic departments, schools or faculties.

In a sense we’re calling for a reimagining of public scholarship, an embrace of the civic over the economic. That part is easy. At least, we’d like to think so. The real challenge is to understand how new academic identities that emerge can be inculcated and supported, how we might shift expectations of academic careers so that people with appropriate capabilities can join the profession and make a difference. Necessity may well be the mother of innovation, but it probably takes a village to help it grow and flourish.

2 responses to “Covid disrupts our academic identities, and that’s something we should embrace

  1. It is tiring to read drivel phrases like “global neoliberalism”. I happen to have entered the higher education sector from the business community. Lots of wonderful experimental education techniques have been sponsored in my school because innovation is the lifeblood of success in the world of enterprise. Conformity among academic processes is a consequence of the fear of doing things differently from anyone else. This should be branded “global conservatism”. When I suggest innovations, the first response that usually emerges from lifelong academics is “is anyone else doing this?”.

    1. “.. is anyone else doing this?” Frighteningly too true at so many levels of education. How are students supposed to understand how innovation works if they do not see it in their own learning?

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