Herdsa 2011

HERDSA 2011 program: Concurrent sessions

Graduate student research as life on the edge: Examining one's own learning environment

Vivienne Anderson

Qualitative social research is often fraught with emotional, political, and ethical dilemmas. These are generally framed in terms of a researcher-researched or outsider-insider binary. However, the researcher’s location in relation to research participants and the research ‘field’ is not always straightforward. Research often involves the negotiation of multiple accountabilities and competing stakeholder interests. Graduate student research that examines aspects of students’ own learning environments is a case in point.

In this paper I consider graduate student research on teaching and learning environments as ‘life on the edge’: risky business that exemplifies the political, ethical and emotional complexities inherent in qualitative social research generally. Using emotional geographies literature as a framework and taking an autoethnographic approach, I discuss some risks and dilemmas that I grappled with when researching aspects of my learning environment as a doctoral student during 2005 and 2006. After describing the research project and discussing my location as researcher-student-participant in relation to other stakeholders involved, I draw on excerpts from my fieldwork journal to illustrate the emotion work inherent in the research. I conclude with some suggestions as to how we might effectively support graduate students in doing ethical ‘edgy’ research on learning and teaching environments.

Exploring worldview, narrative, and institutional identity in Christian higher education

Christina Belcher, Graham Parr

As numbers of higher education institutions are increasing across the world, policy makers stress the value of Higher Education for “driving economic growth and social cohesion” (cf. OECD, 2006). The Bologna Process reflects a worldwide tendency toward standardisation in higher education, emphasizing “shared values and principles” and “common understandings” (Bologna Policy Forum, 2009). How then does a higher education institution develop and articulate an identity that is distinctive, one that meets the needs of its particular students and academics? The published ‘worldview’ of a Christian Higher Education (CHE) institution can be one way to locate its distinctive identity. Typically, this worldview articulates a set of underpinning theological values or principles in curriculum documents and promotional materials, which are constituted in and influenced by the day to day experiences of groups and individual students and teachers in the institution. This paper reports on a four year study investigating a CHE Institution in Canada, the ways this worldview has evolved over thirty five years, and factors mediating the emergence and experience of this worldview. The study is an institutional ethnographic inquiry into a particular site of Christian Higher Education (Smith, 2005) that seeks to better understand the notion of worldview. It is part of a broader epistemological inquiry into the nature of knowledge, identity and experience in higher education.

The efficacy of higher degree research discussion checklists on research candidate-supervisor communication

George Carayannopoulos

Measuring student experience in postgraduate research has become a critical metric in research training. Student evaluations and surveys have been used extensively to measure satisfaction on key areas such as research climate, generic skills, infrastructure and supervision.  The research discussion checklist (RDC) was designed as a starting point for discussion between candidates and supervisors on a number of specific issues such as authorship, frequency of meetings, graduate attributes and clarification of roles and responsibilities. The pilot study was conducted at a major Australian University from August to October 2010 with 19 student participants and aimed to address the issue of quality and standards in candidate-supervisor communication. The pilot involved the distribution and use of the RDC template amongst commencing higher degree research (HDR) students and their supervisors during the first semester of candidature. Candidates were asked to complete a questionnaire prior to using the RDC to indicate their perceptions on the template. The initial survey sought to ascertain: whether students believed such a measure would be useful; students’ perceptions of their responsibilities and expectations of supervisors. Participants were then asked to complete a follow up survey, exploring the merits of the RDC through the initial three months. The results obtained in the study suggest that a candidate-supervisor discussion checklist, employed at the beginning of candidature, is a useful formal mechanism to set mutual expectations. Further empirical investigation would be valuable to assess the impact of such a measure over a longer term, across different cohorts of students, supervisors and disciplines.

Thesis structure: Student experience and attempts towards solution

Susan Carter, Marion Blumenstein

Many postgraduate students grapple with the structure of their thesis. The generation of both research data and a deepened understanding of the topic often culminate in a reluctance to commit these to the written thesis. Writing necessitates linear simplicity, one word, one page, one chapter after another. However, a linear structure may seem unable to truthfully convey the rhizomatic entanglement that the research topic has become. To find out what was so difficult about designing a good thesis structure, we surveyed 92 research students, most of whom were doctoral students. We analysed the different stages of this structuring process: how firm they were about structure when they began the research, at what point they established the initial structure for the thesis, and whether or not they changed it. We were also interested to find out what kind of stories students envisioned their thesis as telling. This paper aims to give a better understanding of the student perspective of thesis writing which may be helpful for advising future students whose theses do not readily fall into a straightforward, formulaic structure.

Integrating learning and living: The lived experience of part-time business students

Stephanie Doyle

Research on the student experience has focused on full-time students in campus settings. Internationally growing numbers of students are enrolling in distance courses. Many of these students do not fit the profile of the traditional undergraduate, and may be in employment or have family responsibilities. This study explored the experience of students studying for a business degree offered as a distance programme. The study is based on interviews with 30 students. The interviews were designed to gain a deeper understanding about how participants went about learning as a distance students in business courses .A number of themes are explored including the motivations for enrolment, approaches to learning; effortful engagement with difficult concepts, learning as an individual or social activity; and integrating learning and work

Negotiating identities in a professional doctorate: Tracing student perspectives

Lois Meyer, Jan Ritchie, Lynne Madden

Professional doctorates have emerged as a new form of degree directed to research training for career professionals beyond the academy. Empirical studies have largely focused on structural components with limited investigation of the experiences of the student-practitioner and how they understand and are shaped by undertaking this type of doctoral program.  This paper reports on the first phase of a longitudinal qualitative research study tracing a group of professionals’ conceptions of their own learning and identities as they participate in a recently accredited work-based professional doctorate provided by a government health department and an Australian university. We focus on how these practitioners seek to mediate and make sense of the two potentially very different learning cultures of the workplace and the university as they engage in the early stages of the program. The findings to date suggest that undertaking a work-based professional doctorate by research requires considerable ‘identity work’ to negotiate and seek to integrate worker and scholar identities, practices and products and that this appears to be a complex and personally mediated process involving individual life histories, aspirations and connections to differing professional communities of practice.  We conclude that despite the labour involved in participating across workplace and university settings these professionals value the affordances provided by both sites of learning, are variously shaping into ‘scholar-practitioners’ and that their pathway through this professional doctorate is likely to have important implications for leadership within Australia’s public health workforce.

Work Integrated Learning for life: Encouraging agentic engagement

Deborah Peach, Judy Matthews

In a rapidly changing world where new work patterns impact on our health, relationships and social fabric, it is critical that we reconsider the role universities could or should play in helping students prepare for the complexities of the 21st century. Efforts to respond to economic imperatives such as the skills shortage have seen a rush to embed work integrated and career development learning in the curriculum as well as a strengthening of the discourse that the university’s role is primarily to produce industry ready or ‘oven ready and self basting’ graduates (Atkins, 1999). This narrow focus on ‘giving industry what industry wants’ (Patrick, Peach & Pocknee, 2009) ignores the importance of helping students develop the types of skills and dispositions they will need. To enable students to thrive not just survive socially and economically in a radically unknowable world, where knowledge becomes obsolete, we need to be ready to develop new futures (Barnett, 2004).

This paper considers the concept of ‘work’, the role it plays in our lives, and our aspirations to build sustainable, socially connected communities. We revisit the assumptions underlying the employability argument (Atkins, 1999) in the light of changing notions of work (Hagel, Seely Brown & Davison, 2010), and the need for higher education to contribute to a better and more sustainable society (Pocock, 2003). Specifically we present initiatives developed from work integrated learning (WIL) programs in the United Kingdom and Australia, where WIL programs are framed within the broader context of real world and life-wide curriculum (Jackson, 2010), and where transferable skills and elements of work-related learning programs prepare students for less certain job futures. Such approaches encourage students to take an agentic role (Billett & Pavlova, 2005) in selecting their work possibilities to develop resilience and capabilities to deal with new and challenging situations, assisting students to become who they want to be not just what they want to be. The theoretical and operational implications and challenges of shaping real world and life-wide curriculum will be investigated in more depth in the next phase of this research.

Sessional employment and quality assurance in higher education: A risky business

Suzanne Ryan, McNeil Karen, Bhattacharyya Asit, Groen Egbert, Nadolny Andrew

The international higher education sector is increasingly reliant on precariously employed academic staff who deliver a significant proportion of teaching load The “full-time, permanent, centrally-located teaching/research academic is no longer the norm” (Percy, et al., 2008:7).  Although more than 53% of university classes are taught by sessional or contingent academics, little is known about who they are and their impact on the quality of teaching and learning (Coates, et al., 2009).  Sessional academics hold a secondary status to the point that even official statistics on their nature and extent are notoriously unreliable (Coates, et al., 2009).  Despite a forecast shortage of academics in Australia (Hugo, 2008) and a major review of higher education finding that the recruitment and retention of academics is the biggest issue facing universities (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent, & Scales, 2008), doubt has been cast on the ability of sessional academics to contribute to the solution because of their perceived lack of quality (Coates, et al., 2009).  . Although this is increasingly viewed as a risk to the quality of teaching and learning, there is little research that tests the proposition.  We take up this challenge by analysing and comparing student course evaluations and the results of an online survey of sessional academics. Results show that the risk derives not from the sessionals themselves nor their teaching but from inadequate institutional support for and management of sessional academics. The paper begins with an overview of the literature before presenting the research methods, findings and finally the analysis and discussion.

Looking for women in Australian universities

Glenda Strachan, Kaye Broadbent, Gillian Whitehouse, David Peetz, Janis Bailey

There is increasing debate and discussion about the shape of the workforce in Australian universities, which are facing ‘a crisis’ in staffing that will inhibit their ability to undertake teaching and research The increasing number of reports dealing with staffing issues unfortunately do not disaggregate the workforce by sex. This paper presents a brief analysis of (mostly) publicly available data on university employment, exploring gender segregation in the university workforce, with a focus on vertical segregation amongst both academic and general staff. The paper compares segregation in academia against European Union figures, benchmarks academic gender structures against the Australian Public Service, and critiques a recent study (Diezmann & Grieshaber, 2010) that concluded that women and men are now being appointed in equal numbers to the professoriate. The work is part of a larger ARC Linkage project which will provide a more detailed report on employment in the sector. Our analysis to date shows that gender segregation has been reduced but is far from being eliminated.

Academic English – who sets the rules?

Pat Strauss

Universities in the Western world enjoy a privileged position particularly if their medium of instruction is English. The west is best mentality, which pervades higher education, is often perpetuated not only by those whom it advantages but also those whom it marginalises and L2 (English as a second language) students entering these institutions are often viewed as problematic. Postgraduate students who have been successful in their own countries, often employing English as a medium of communication, find themselves regarded as ‘deficient’ and are urged to seek remedial help for ‘their problems’. All too often intelligent and competent students begin to share this view of themselves as ‘lacking’ and this has a serious and detrimental effect on their self esteem and sense of agency The problem, of course, is that by the standards of English-medium western universities their English is often error ridden or stylistically flawed, and it would appear quite reasonable that universities, though their academic staff, impose language standards.  There are however difficulties with this approach. Ownership implies the right to decide what is acceptable but if English is recognised as a global language who owns it? It would appear that what counts as acceptable English needs rigorous debate among academics, and especially those of us who work in the field of teaching and researching English for academic purposes (EAP).

Research mentoring on the edge: Early career researchers and academic fringe-dwelling

Wendy Sutherland-Smith, Sue Saltmarsh, Holly Randell-Moon

Discourses of research leadership define not only what quality research leadership can and should be, but also identify those who speak and act with authority. Similarly, these discourses construct particular professional identities and idealised 'ways of being'. They provide possibilities for research leaders as well as those categorised as 'Early Career Researchers' (ECRs) to create alternative identities and representations of themselves. This study reports the views of 32 academics across 16 Australian universities in four States about research mentoring and leadership for ECRs. The primary interest was to explore how research leadership is conceptualised, implemented and negotiated in the disciplinary fields of business, nursing and education. Whilst a number of ECRs viewed formal research mentoring as taking a 'tick the box' approach that they believed of limited value, a number of research leaders had different views. Most senior research leaders viewed the systemic provision of assistance their universities offered in a positive light. The dissonance in views centred on the subject positioning of academics in research. The dissatisfaction expressed by ECRs, a number of whom positioned themselves as fringe-dwellers 'on the edge' of their institutional research culture, raises questions about research sustainability and succession planning in Australian tertiary institutions.

A failure of graduate attributes in accounting education

Jackie Yong, Suzanne Ryan, Christine Yap, Neelam Goela

This paper addresses the controversial issue of delivering graduate attributes in professional programs.  The tensions between institution’s desire for revenue, accreditation requirements for technical knowledge and employer needs for behavioural and higher order cognitive skills are explored through an Australian postgraduate accounting program.  Content analysis of program documents is combined with a student survey to find that program and course outcomes align closely with students’ perceived outcomes but largely ignore the graduate attributes required by the profession and more recently, government. The analysis provides a platform for faculty and their institutions to decide on the future directions of such programs.


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