Negotiating Professional Identities in Higher Education: Dilemmas and Priorities of Academic Staff

Article excerpt

Introduction

The project offers a case study of academic staff from one faculty in an English Higher Education Institution. What started out as a management exercise in identifying how staff spent their time, was re-conceptualised as practitioner research exploring the complexities of how academic staff sustain professional identities and the implications for how they prioritised the various aspects of their work. The aim of the project was, therefore, to investigate the work patterns of academic staff and, with particular reference to professional identity, to illuminate how they prioritise competing demands. An additional 'development dimension' was intended to promote discussion and debate amongst academic staff to generate new perspectives and new ways to address dilemmas inherent in the competing demands on their time.

First, we briefly outline the context for the case study in terms of the University, Faculty, staff background and composition. Secondly, there is a short summary of key elements of the methodology and of the methods used for the collection and analysis of data. Thirdly, we outline some theoretical resources that we have found helpful in our -efforts to construct meaning from the data. Fourthly, we present our account of how participants have experienced dilemmas in their day-to-day work. This involves an exploration of tensions between what academic staff feel they ought to do, what they feel obliged to do and what they feel is possible. Finally, we summarise the paper by drawing out some of the key strands that have emerged from the project so far.

Context

The University began its life as a Church of England College in 1841 to train teachers 'of the working poor'. Throughout its history it has been mainly associated with teacher education although it has diversified substantially in recent times. The University has approaching 6,000 students and the School of Education and Theology represents the largest faculty in terms of student numbers. It is a teaching-led (rather than research-intensive) institution with a strong vocational bias addressing the needs of the 'real' world (Harley, 2002).

The work is centred around the teaching of large numbers of predominantly undergraduate students and postgraduate (PGCE) students training to be teachers. Teacher education is funded by Central Government to tightly regulated standards and with a robust inspection regime OfSTED (Office for Standards in Education). The courses are popular and the University has a strong reputation for its teacher education.

The University does not receive research grants from the funding bodies and has little research funding to draw upon. As a result, the research base is, understandably, relatively low. Taught masters courses are offered in Education and Theology and there are a small number of research students. The research activity is growing from a low base. There is now a greater emphasis on research and scholarship and a number of staff aspiring to and attaining higher degrees have brought about this change over the last five years.

Most academic staff in the faculty, as is common in teacher education departments, began their careers in schools often having distinguished themselves in their teaching and/or management role in the compulsory education sector. They can be said to have excelled as practitioners and that, as a rule, was the reason for their appointment. A number are ex-heads or have been senior managers or curriculum advisers. Some of the Theology staff are also qualified teachers, as incidentally so too are several of the administrative staff. The common provenance of the staff and their shared history combined with the fact that they are, mainly, preparing students for a career in teaching might have quite a bearing on their professional identities. Staff define themselves primarily as teachers and their professional identity is strongly bounded by their snared background. …