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‘All for one and one for all’: building communities of learning through staff learning and teaching scholarship circles

This third blogpost in our series of ALT Conference 2020 contributions comes from a team of people at the University of Sheffield: Gareth Bramley, Louise Glover, David Hyatt, Peter Odell, Zoe Ollerenshaw, Jennifer Seymour and  Joan Upson here outline their thoughts on scholarship circles for staff working in teaching focussed roles. Read about their experiences below and feel free to leave comments and questions

All for one and one for all’: building communities of learning through staff learning and teaching scholarship circles

Little did we know when we all sat down to consider our presentation for the ALT Conference in Stirling this year how pertinent the title of our workshop would be!

We intended to discuss the role of a teaching-only specialist within Higher Education and how this role has morphed over time.  We wanted to explore how it feels in an academic world, particularly in a Russell Group setting, to be fully “teaching – focussed”, rather than having any contractual research expectation.

All of us in our presenting ‘group’ come from various professional and non-professional backgrounds with a variety of limited training as educationalists, but have found ourselves suddenly badged as a teaching specialist principally on the basis of the emphasis of our workload allocation. This was not our training or our “profession” and yet here we are with differing lengths of experience (some of us after tens of years and some of us after only 2 years!) viewed as teaching specialists. But what does this mean; and where does the idea of pedagogical scholarship become relevant?

The TESS (Teaching Excellence in Social Sciences) Scholarship Circle was initially configured by our mentor in this endeavour (David Hyatt), from the School of Education, and designed to encourage a commitment of time, courage, and ambition from the group members. Individually and as a group, the aim of the Circle is not only to explore the process of pedagogic and scholarly research, but to encourage the development of an effective community of scholarship.

Our contention is that the guidance and support that we can give one another in this role is paramount to both individual and group development, and that this may in turn facilitate the development of other colleagues both within the University of Sheffield School of Law, and across the wider Faculty and University. In addition, our ‘end results’ may periodically add to the educational academy. TESS works to bring teaching specialists to simply give themselves the time and space to focus on pedagogical research, and to explore the thorny concept of scholarship.  The circle certainly was a catalyst for our deeper exploration of scholarship, it planted the seed of what we could do, and captured our enthusiasm and natural drive. However, although the circle allowed shared experience of time pressures on teaching specialist staff, it was acknowledged it could not solve this time pressure and that other forces external to the circle needed to work better to address this in order for scholarship to flourish.

The structure of the Scholarship Circle model required invitees to make a commitment to the group by attending 7 workshops over a period of as many months and within that time there were tasks or “homework” set which aimed to develop a piece of writing or research that any circle member just hadn’t, for a myriad of reasons, been able to focus on.  We all explored what it is like; these things always end up on the back burner when marking, module development and personal tutees demand slices of our time. Such balancing of priorities and deadlines emphasises the nature of the teaching contract.

One element that was central to the conception of the circle was a commitment to a decentred pedagogy – one in which the facilitator was not viewed as the omniscient font transmitting wisdom but as a collaborator in the process of scholarship generation. It speaks to the significance of a consideration of power relations in pedagogy and also resonates with constructivist and andragogic orientations to learning – we learn in social situations (collaboratively), we learn when we are engaged, we learn when we can see the opportunity for immediate application to our learning. The fact that we are writing this together (where some of us engaged in the circle over two years ago) is testament to the impact of constructing engaged, collaborative and purposeful learning environments.

Each member of the circle was asked to write down their reflections as they progressed through the circle workshops, and then were asked to thematically analyse the collection of reflections as a whole. It was clear from such an analysis that each circle member had slightly different experiences, but all experiences featured themes of noting the collegiality of such a venture, the ability to share and exchange feelings about scholarship openly, and the opportunity to garner dedicated, structured support to developing scholarship. What struck one member in particular on joining the circle was that, as the most junior member, her ideas and thoughts were really welcomed and valued, despite being sat amongst Senior Lecturers and Deputy Heads of Faculty. Another “condition” of us being “accepted” onto the TESS was that we would assist David in sharing our reflections of the process with a view to developing our research in this area with a view to publishing our findings.

One unfortunate feature of the TESS scholarship circle was that it had to come to a formal end. However, a hugely beneficial feature of this circle being established, is that this presenting group from the School of Law have since found they have continued to provide each other support in each other’s learning and teaching scholarship – thus, an ongoing scholarly informal group has been maintained and has fed into other collaborative work within and outside the circle.

One formal plan arising out of the TESS circle is to produce a co-authored reflective article with our mentor. Within this article, honest conclusions of our experiences on the TESS Circle will be shared. These include observations in relation to our confidence as individuals and as a group, in addition to initiating a thirst for further exploration, presentation and writing. Further, from our reflections, it is noted that the breadth and depth of our conversations have developed intellectually and we regularly find ourselves in scholarly discourse just because we can! This new enthusiasm is something that we hope to share both internally in the School of Law, and more broadly – hopefully at the very least, by encouraging the development of other scholarship circles far and wide!

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