Currently reading: “Five moves towards an ecological university” by Kinchin (2023)

How can we imagine future universities that are less market-driven and more socially just, focussed on community and sustainability? Possibly by using a different metaphor, that of ecology, according to Kinchin (2023), who also suggests five “moves” that would be required to move towards an ecological university. A super interesting perspective! (Thanks for sharing this article with me, Kirsty! :-))

Ecology is all about “becoming” rather than static “being”: interconnected changes with many diverse organisms involved, that interact in weird and wonderful, and completely nonlinear, ways. It is also about resilience to disruptions because somewhere in some niche in the broad diversity of ecosystems, someone has adapted to similar conditions already and can be learned from, and if one component for some reason fails, other components will move in and fill the void.

But how can universities develop in that direction? Kinchin (2023) suggests five “moves”:

Construct an institutional natural history

Our current focus on Excellent Research leads to streamlining of research ideas and methods. Encouraging engagement in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) could, to some degree, counteract this — for small, unfunded research projects it is possible to explore questions outside of the mainstream in unconventional ways, leading to a much broader perspective and many more voices being part of the discussions, thus more innovative and sustainable solutions.

Explore narrative ecologies

Having barriers to entry into “legitimate SoTL” means de facto denying access to people who are not experts yet (or experts, but from a different discipline or culture), but would potentially develop to become more interested and more professional in the field and could make substantial contributions. Cultivating a “narrative garden” means providing spaces for new ideas and alternative views.

Using the example of adapting to online teaching after covid disrupted business as usual in 2020, Kinchin (2023) argues that in systems where there are more alternative forms available in parallel, any one disruption will likely not be as disruptive to the whole system, since it might disrupt or close down some, but not all available options, and in some ecological niche there will be some experience to build on readily available.

Value post-abyssal thinking

How we think about knowing and development of knowledge, our epistemology, is often very much shaped by the discipline we work in, and especially in STEM traditions, recognizing knowledge created outside of STEM epistemologies is often difficult; and there is a huge gap in conversations between “science” and “indigenous knowledge”. Knowing two or more epistemologies is similar to being bi- or multi-lingual, as it opens up new horizons, new bodies of knowledge, and new ways of connecting and building on each other, so it is a very desirable trait, bringing the two sides of the abyss together — into post-abyssal thinking.

Develop ecological leadership

Ecological leadership is shared leadership in communities, based on relationships and conversations within themselves and with other communities, rather than a leader who is mostly outside of the community, yet deciding on directions.

Develop sustainable pedagogies

Focus on learning outcomes and the idea of teaching as transmission hinder the development of the “new ideal student”, who is reflected and aware and working towards a sustainable future. Therefore we need to develop new ways of learning in a sustainable way.

So far, so good. I love how using different metaphors changes how we think about concepts (see also metaphors for learning here, and personal theories of teaching here), and I see a lot of value in the ecology metaphor explored here! But what I am wondering is how to actually get there, and I think it’s worth pondering for each of us individually. The five moves are of course a helpful start, but what does it mean for my own work as academic developer? We already have a focus on SoTL in a non-gatekept way (or maybe we are still gate-keeping too much? Something I need to reflect on). Whether we do enough to bridge the abyss and decolonize the curriculum can be debated (actually no, we don’t do enough there yet!). I’m involved in several grass-root initiatives that I hope will lead to leadership in an ecological way, and I believe that this is the way to go (also see co-creating and the role of feeling connected and being part of a community for motivation and development). And lastly, the development of sustainable pedagogies is a big part of my work and what I see as my role. Much of what I am reading and writing (here and in other places) comes from the attempt to learn more and have better ideas in this area. And to get into more and better conversations, so please be in touch! :)

Ian M. Kinchin (2023) Five moves towards an ecological university, Teaching in Higher Education, 28:5, 918-932, DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2023.2197108

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