Impactful teaching and learning in the slow lane

Newly minted associate professor Lia Blaj-Ward reflects on the idea of slow, caring scholarship as an enabler for diverse academic career paths

Lia Blaj-Ward is an associate professor at Nottingham Trent University.

Halfway through 2020, during a quiet week when undergraduate student teaching had just ended and master’s level students were about to begin their most substantial writing task for the year, I came across a piece about slow, caring scholarship. As an academic puzzling about my place on the recently developed Teaching & Scholarship career pathway, I found the idea inspiring.

The pandemic-induced pivot to teaching online that year was fast, furious, and frantic. An ethics of care and a renewed appreciation of the value of slowed-down, considerate engagement, however, underpinned the staff development experiences which made the pivot possible, with colleagues supporting each other to navigate the changed landscape.

The same ethos underpinned the staff-student interaction in the spaces newly created to accommodate learning and teaching. It made intuitive sense that scholarship activity, which, as defined by Advance HE, captures and reflects on learning experiences for the purpose of enhancing them, should also take a slow, caring approach.

New career pathways

In UK higher education, discussion of academic roles is still dominated by the teaching/research (or TEF/REF) binary view. HESA’s categories of “academic employment function” reflect this.

Academic career pathways, however, have become more diverse in recent years, as a renewed commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion among staff and therefore to greater quality of learning experiences for students.

At my university, for example, two newly developed pathways, Teaching & Scholarship and Teaching & Practice, sit alongside the Teaching & Research pathway, and carry parity of esteem.

Advance HE acknowledges that academic career progression is currently “a much more expansive and nuanced area than previously conceptualised” and invites reflection on how further expanse and nuance can be achieved. One avenue for this is to create an institutional environment which is supportive of slow, caring scholarship.

The notion of slow, caring scholarship aligns with that of the anchor institution. Anchor institutions invest in people, places, systems, and policies that drive sustainable development. They create a virtuous circle of investment in learning and growth that generate returns that help build capacity for further learning and growth – within the region in which they are based and in the communities their students and staff are connected to, locally, nationally and globally.

Making an impact

The Teaching & Scholarship pathway at my university recognises the importance of anchoring learning and teaching in carefully designed pedagogic research. It promotes the value of scholarship outputs which push the boundaries of a body of peer-validated knowledge focused on learning and teaching experiences rather than subject discipline content.

It offers a firmer basis for conversations about the role of higher education curricula in developing lifelong and lifewide learners, with far-reaching impact in local, national, and global communities. It is embedded in an ethos of slow, caring scholarship.

There are three principles of slow, caring scholarship: “publish and flourish”, cross-functional collaboration, and considerate scholarship project design.

Production of written outputs is core to the traditional understanding of professional academic identity. In the spirit of slow, caring scholarship, scholars of teaching and learning are encouraged to reframe the “publish or perish” imperative in academia as “publishing and flourishing” by generating not a maximum number of REF-standard deliverables but a range of output types and formats which emphasise collaborative learning and wellbeing, and share insights which resonate with different audiences beyond the academic world.

University teaching and learning that aim to prepare students successfully for lifelong and lifewide learning should be aligned to the variety of forms of teaching and learning which happen outside the campus walls.

Collaborative efforts

Progression along a pathway focusing on teaching and scholarship signals an institution’s commitment to creating collaborative learning environments not only for their students but also for their staff.

In my institutional environment, projects I have been supported to develop speak to the value of collaborative working and learning, particularly across the academic / professional services divide. Collaboration with professional services colleagues who brought a rich perspective on student academic experiences at university has led to two co-authored outputs in reputable academic journals.

An open access resource which celebrates innovation and resilience among colleagues in my field during the pandemic is co-edited with a colleague who is not in a formal teaching and learning role but who has an unparalleled depth of understanding of how university students should be supported to learn and develop in unusual circumstances.

Considerate design of scholarship projects is a third and equally important principle of slow, caring scholarship. As Cora Xu emphasises, it is important not to burden contributors and participants in our pedagogic research projects with our scholarly ambitions, refraining from including them in our data sets at all costs.

Instead, scholars of teaching and learning should set up projects which give contributors and participants an opportunity to engage on their terms, and to benefit in varied forms at all stages, from initial planning, throughout the process of generating insights, to the final output and impact planned beyond.

My institution’s Trent Institute of Learning and Teaching builds capacity for considerate scholarship project design among staff through peer mentoring, peer review of projects, and earmarking funding for student engagement in these. TILT application forms explicitly require an indication of how the project will generate value for applicants’ and contributors’ own learning and professional development.

Final reflections

To reach Associate Professor stage on the Teaching & Scholarship pathway, and to develop as a more rounded higher education professional, I have benefited substantially from an institutional environment built on the ethos of slow, caring scholarship. Two additional features of this environment stood out for me.

1. Cross-functional mentoring: some of my most valuable mentors have been professional services colleagues who were not close to classroom practice but had a deep appreciation of the value of university experiences for students and for those around them now and in the future. These colleagues have made me aware of the value of learning experiences outside academia and of ways to bring them into my work in a university.

2. Workloads which include space for “concept projects” with beneficial outcomes for all involved: to fine-tune my teaching so that it fully prepares my university students for a lifelong and lifewide learning experience, I used the volunteering allocation in my workload to host pre-18 participants on a work experience week at my university. Insights from designing and delivering this experience looped back into my teaching approach, and were validated through a Vice Chancellor’s Teaching Award.

Diverse career pathways enable anchor institutions to grow their positive impact within and outside campus walls. To help build capacity to generate impactful learning (lifelong and lifewide) and growth, reflective conversations need to take place about the shape of academic roles on diverse pathways and about ways in which progression can occur.

4 responses to “Impactful teaching and learning in the slow lane

    1. Apologies – Lia!! I need more coffee before I do battle with autocorrect clearly.

  1. Excellent article and so pleased to see you go from strength to strength as an academic and a trusted voice in higher education. I have personally learned so much from you and enjoyed the process!

  2. Excellent. article – thank you. We really must introduce this ethic of care into everything we do.

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