Thinking about my role as academic developer as being a Handal-type “critical friend”

This week, I gave a presentation on “supporting teachers at LTH to teach about sustainability” to an EU project with partners from universities in lots of different countries, and in the beginning I had to explain what my role of “academic developer” even entails, since this kind of job doesn’t exist at many universities. And even though I didn’t refer to the literature yesterday, the Handal-description of a “critical friend” is pretty close to how I see myself!

In 1999, Handal discusses that while critiquing research in order to improve and professionalize it is clearly part of the academic game, peer feedback on teaching is much less common. This is the article where the famous quote comes from, where speaking about teaching to colleagues is met with horror: “No, that would be comparable to speaking to them about their personal hygiene.” Teaching is personal in a way that research might not be, both because we are more used to criticism of research, and because the norms are a lot clearer, so we are more judged by how well we follow the rules than who we are as people. But developing as a teacher is of course both about learning to play by the rules, and then about stretching or even breaking them to support students best in their learning. A lot of how we teach intuitively is related to our personalities and the culture we draw our identity from. So of course getting feedback on that feels very personal, yet it is super important.

Handal explains the role of a “critical friend” as supportive and constructive — helping someone prevent running into disaster they do(n’t) see coming, or helping them climb out of a hole they dug themselves into. Or suggest the tiny tweaks that might make excellent teaching even more excellent. It is a relationship build on trust in the good intentions, personal integrity, and belief in professional competence. And it requires communication about goals, even though observations should include more aspects than just the ones that feedback was asked on for explicitly. A critical friend’s role is not to know all the solutions, but to ask questions and help the other friend with figuring out answers, or directions.

Critical friendships can develop organically or we can look out for them, or sometimes those friendships are organized for academic development purposes. For example, we use feedback from critical friends in the courses we teach: In addition to receiving peer feedback on written reports, we require participants to find a critical friend in their home department, discuss the report with them, and describe how their feedback influenced their thoughts. And then there are people whose job it is to do all the things described above: academic developers. In his 2007 chapter, Handal suggests “being a critical friend” as shared professional identity.

What I really appreciate about this chapter is how the discussions about professional identity are embedded in reflections about Communties of Practice, and how academic developers are part of (at least) two — their “home” in the academic development unit, but also the one with the teachers they work with. Plus possibly a third one where they “grew up” and formed a professional identity before moving into academic development. And navigating this is not without challenges, for example right now my teaching practice is being judged in the process of applying to LTH’s “pedagogical academy”, the same way as the teachers I am working with. So this is a very weird position pending the outcome (and possibly afterwards, who knows)!

There are also the two quite different orientations for academic developers (at the endpoints of a spectrum, obviously); being a “change agent” that goes into all conversations with an idea of a specific cultural change that they want to bring about, vs a “midwife”, who supports the teachers in whatever it is they need to do. I found that super interesting. and while it would never have occurred to me to label myself as midwife, I am definitely mostly motivated by supporting the teachers I work with in whatever way they need to be supported then and there. But there is also my underlying assumption, supported by my experience, that by working with teachers, their teaching will move in a more student centered and co-created direction, so I guess I do have an underlying cultural change goal.

Another, independent, role that is presented is that of the “fool” (the clown in medieval courts that tells the kind the things nobody else dares to say, but gets away with it because part of his role is saying outrageous things that are hilarious, so what if they make people think in new ways?). I can totally see some of my colleagues in that role sometimes, and I sometimes use it in the sense that I say stuff like “as an academic developer, here is what I HAVE to say because it’s my job…” (and then it’s usually things that I know we aren’t ready to take on yet, but I still think the overall direction is correct. I would not say that about things I don’t agree with…).

But coming back to being a critical friend. To me, that is really how I see myself, and how I want to be perceived by the teachers I work with: supporting them in whatever way I can in becoming better teachers, more confident in their abilities to teach, and to adjust their teaching, based on evidence they collect about their teaching, more willing to co-create with students. And a lot of my work is actually trying to get better in that role, reading more to better understand what is known in the literature about improving teaching and learning, and to apply this to the contexts the teachers I work with are in. What a great job to have :-)

Handal, G. (1999). Consultation using critical friends. New directions for teaching and learning, 1999(79), 59-70.

Handal, G. (2007). Identities of academic developers: Critical friends in the academy?. In Changing identities in higher education (pp. 69-82). Routledge.


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  1. Pingback: Recap of the first meeting of my new course "Teaching for Sustainability" - Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching

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