22 SES 08 B, Teaching and Learning: Professionalisation and Leadership
This paper draws upon the author’s emerging ideas derived from data that emerged incidentally from her research into academic life. The data suggest that certain fora are particularly conducive to promoting, amongst university academics, two complementary activities representing two sides of one coin: academic leadership and ‘led-ness’ (or development).
Academic leadership is not interpreted here as simply the work of people appointed to designated leadership roles; rather, the definition applied reflects current discourses in ‘new wave critical leadership studies’ (Kelly, 2014). Leadership ‘scepticism’ represents a dominant dimension of this scholarship, which includes consideration of whether leadership is a myth, or an ill-conceived concept. Most new wave critical leadership scholars (e.g. Alvesson & Spicer, 2012; Raelin, 2016; Uhl-Bien, 2006; Denis et al., 2012) denounce the hierarchical ‘solo’ leader model underpinning the designated-leaders-and-followers paradigm. Many criticise ‘pre-specification’ of leaders and followers (i.e. labelling or identifying people in a given situation or context as either leaders or followers), on the basis that everyone enacts both of what may be called leadership and followership. What is variously called, inter alia, ‘collective’, ‘plural’, ‘shared’ or ‘distributed’ leadership is central to this critical scholarship.
A key distinguishing feature of ‘new wave’ critical leadership perspectives is their shift of focus from the person(s) of the leader(s) onto ‘leadership-as-practice’, in which ‘the verb leading, rather than the noun leader’ is emphasised (Youngs, 2017). ‘New wave’ critical leadership scholarship makes a distinction between such ‘leadership-as-practice’ and hierarchical management role incumbency. Consistent with its discourse, Evans’s (2018) conceptual analysis identifies what she calls the theoretical ‘singular unit’ of leadership: an ‘episode’ of influence that prompts an individual’s change (however slight) of direction or position. She defines academic leadership as: ‘human agency that may reasonably be considered to prompt or have prompted or to facilitate or have facilitated an individual’s shift or deviation, without coercion, from a position or direction in relation to (the context of) academic activity or endeavour to what s/he (the individual) perceives as a superior position or direction: a “better way”’. It is this definition that is applied to this ECER paper.
The ‘other side of the coin’ to such academic leadership is what Evans (2018) call ‘led-ness’, and which may in some circumstances, depending on the focus and outcome of the leadership being enacted, be interpreted as ‘development’; the individual whose position or direction has shifted, however slightly, may be considered to have developed in some way, (however minute or expansive the development may be). Such development includes what is known as ‘informal’ and ‘implicit’ professional learning or development (Eraut, 2004; Evans, 2019; Hoekstra et al., 2007, 2009).
It is the combined activity of academic leadership and ‘led-ness’ (or development), that is the focus of this paper. More specifically, the focus is on where and how – in what kinds of contexts, fora, and physical spaces – such activity seems most readily to occur. Certain such contexts, fora and physical spaces – including, in particular, what are called ‘semi-social’ spaces and the semi-socialising that occurs within them – emerged incidentally from the author’s research as potentially conducive to academic leadership and ‘led-ness’ or development.
- What – if any – capacity does semi-social interaction have for fostering academic leadership and ‘led-ness’ or development?
- Is this capacity potentially greater than that of interaction in the designated academic workplace?
- What are the bases of any conduciveness to academic leadership and ‘led-ness’/development that semi-social interaction may be considered to have?
- How evident is such conduciveness within the European Research Area, and, in particular, within European universities?
- Does semi-social collegial interaction need to become more prevalent in European universities?
The analysis upon which the paper is based is exploratory. Impossible to answer with any certainty, the questions presented above broadly indicate, rather than rigidly direct, the paper’s focus. The paper takes the form of discursive propositional conjecture; research-informed evidence will be presented, but it will be emphasised that the paper’s focus represents one of several plausible explanations or arguments. The paper thus promotes discussion, encouraging criticism of the ideas put forward, particularly on the extent to which they are applicable to and resonate with different European contexts. The paper represents post-hoc consideration of the findings from research into academic leadership provided by (full) professors in the UK higher education sector. The research was completed 4 years ago and the issues raised are drawn from its reanalysed data. It thus represents secondary data analysis; it re-analyses data with a view to considering an issue that was not included within the original research focus, but which emerged as potentially interesting and worth further consideration. The questions presented in the section above therefore did not feature within the original research, and the issues upon which the ECER paper focuses were, at the time of data collection, nothing more than a faint blur on the radar of the researcher’s consciousness. The data reanalysed in this ECER paper are predominantly drawn from unstructured interviews with full professors, and supplemented by data from questionnaire responses and interviews with junior academics. Whilst all participants were based at British HEIs, several of them (almost 25% of professors) were natives of other (mainly European) countries. Their accounts of their native national contexts provide an interesting comparative dimension. From data derived mainly from a small number of interviewees who had worked at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, reanalysis suggests that the Oxbridge physical environment may be quite distinct in the opportunities it offers for semi-social collegial interaction that is conducive to various kinds of effective academic leadership and professional development or learning, through the kind of relationality that is becoming recognised in the ‘new wave’ critical leadership literature as effective in developing and otherwise influencing others (Bolden et al., 2012; Evans, 2018). The ECER paper will present such data, then extend it into consideration – supported by literature-derived evidence - of whether academic leadership and ‘led-ness’, including implicit professional development, potentially occur more easily and effortlessly in such semi-social spaces and environments than in designated workplaces, and, if so, why.
Reanalysis of the data revealed that semi-social collegial interaction is facilitated and perpetuated at Oxbridge by several factors, including most Oxbridge colleges’ physical proximity to social spaces, the blurring of boundaries between town and gown, and the fluidity that this physical context affords to socialising as an extension of working life, as university space ripples out beyond its official boundaries to soak into certain ‘public’ spaces, submerging and subsuming them within the peripheral Oxbridge environment. The significance of collegial socialising is its conduciveness to implicit professional learning and development, which occur incrementally and cumulatively – most often through small, barely perceptible, development ‘episodes’ (Eraut, 2004; Evans, 2014). The ECER paper will present evidence of several such episodes that occurred in physical spaces that served both as a social space, in which colleagues chatted over drinks, and as what van der Zwet et al (2011) call a ‘developmental space’. The semi-social nature and the external spatiality of such arenas, it will be suggested, potentially alters people’s mind-sets and priorities, promoting a form of spatially-determined empowerment whereby junior academics may capitalise on their senior colleagues’ greater (than normal) accessibility. Research (Evans, 2014, 2015; Garud, 2008) reveals this to typically occur at conferences. The findings have applicability beyond the Oxbridge environment by indicating that any space may become a developmental space by virtue of the nature of human interaction and cognitive activity that occurs within it, presenting enormous scope for other universities to exploit the potential of what Halford (2005) calls ‘hybrid workspace’, or perhaps, too, what Furnari (2014) labels ‘interstitial spaces’: ‘small-scale settings where individuals positioned in different fields interact occasionally and informally around common activities’, facilitating their professional development. The proposition put forward is that European universities have the potential to enhance academics’ professional learning by creating such development-focused semi-social spaces.
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