How academic developers think about relationships between teachers (a lot of Roxå & Mårtensson papers, plus some others)

Our work as academic developers at CEE is based on how we think that relationships between teachers work, and using that to influence their conversations in a way that improves teaching. Here is (part of) the literature we base this understanding on (a lot of this from in-house research, or close collaborators).

Roxå & Mårtensson (2009) explore “significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena”. I find it quite difficult to summarize Roxå & Mårtensson articles, because I am talking so much with both that in a way it feels like obvious common knowledge to me. But let’s see. The main message of this article is that

  • teachers have “significant networks” where they talk privately and openly with trusted colleagues about their teaching
  • these conversations are perceived as “intellectually intriguing”, so not just venting and emotional support!
  • the significant relationships often persist over a long time
  • these discussions happen “backstage” and are substantially different from discussions happening on the formal, public “front stage”
  • networks are larger and conversations more frequent when the departmental culture is supportive of such discussions
  • most teachers have about 5 people that they have “sincere discussions” about teaching and learning with, those people are usually from within the discipline and/or department

This research has had a big influence on how we do academic development here at Lund University and in other places — we help teachers build significant relationships that they are likely to maintain over time, by for example grouping teachers from the same departments together in our courses, so they start conversations that they are likely to have many opportunities to continue and following up on, when they meet at the coffee machine or in more official contexts. We encourage departments to send groups of teachers to us for “collegial project courses”, where we help existing clusters of teachers to further develop aspects of their teaching together. All our courses offer plenty of opportunities for informal conversations through coffee breaks, project work, small group conversations.

Roxå & Mårtensson (2013) investigate “how leaders can influence higher education cultures”. The assumption is that universities consist of lots of people that don’t actually want to be led and don’t react well to top-down leadership, but that all the conversations above can be influenced. On any given topic, there are probably some few people that have very strong opinions — either for (called “plus plus” PP) or against (called “minus minus” MM) — but that most people are actually somewhere in the middle with only slight preferences for (“plus minus” PM), or against (“minus plus” MP). Typically, the PP and MM people are also the ones who are most strongly engaged and most vocal. Trying to influence MM people is unlikely to be easy, and might even mobilize them to put more effort into counteracting whatever strategy people try to implement. Likewise, focusing too much on PP, especially in form of additional resources rewarding the desired behavior, might get MM’s attention and build stronger fronts. But getting the PM people more engaged and move them slightly more towards PP, and bringing some people over from MP to PM can happen relatively easily, so the middle is where academic development should put their focus. The article ends with three lessons, which we are all doing in our work at CEE:

  1. Engaging the silent majority in open discussions by trying to engage everybody in discussions
  2. Letting people discuss what they themselves find meaningful (in our courses there are always opportunities to pick topics for group projects etc), but influence the conversations indirectly by feeding relevant material into the conversations (we always have literature seminars where participants bring what they find relevant for their questions, but we require that it’s peer-reviewed publications)
  3. influence the format of the conversations into a scholarly direction (e.g. by having conferences on teaching etc).

Another really influential article is Roxå & Mårtensson (2015) on microcultures, where they present a framework for how groups of people operate depending on their level of shared responsibility and level of trust. In this 2×2 matrix, they find

  • “The Commons”, where there is both an experience of shared responsibility and high level of trust. Here, people feel that they are “in this together” and consequently work well together and feel that they belong
  • “The Market”, where there is a shared responsibility, but not a lot of trust. People co-exist but “look after themselves” and there are contracts in place to ensure that things happen as agreed upon
  • “The Club”, where there is no shared responsibility, but a high level of trust. People feel that “we’ll always support each other”, but friendship and consensus are highest priority and nobody rocks the boat
  • “The Square”, where there is neither a shared responsibility nor trust. The sentiment here is “who are these people?”

Having this framework in mind is helpful when considering how to approach for example a department, and might also highlight which aspects to focus on developing if we want to ideally work in “the commons”.

Now moving on to literature that isn’t produced in-house:

Simon & Pleschová (2019) explore the role of trusting relationships in facilitating change in teaching practices at the university level by looking at how academic development workshops influence how participants’ relationships with their significant teaching colleagues (most often the PhD supervisor or course responsible) change. Through the academic development workshops, participants gain confidence and skills in talking about teaching, which then leads to better conversations. Interestingly, they find that trust is most often described as “not expecting harm” (which I find quite sad).

Based on this study, they recommend

  • to not select participants based on their significant relationships (and while this sounds absurd, it is maybe not as uncommon as one would think to selectively approach teachers with invitations that seem to not be in a department with a strong teaching culture already!)
  • to explore participants’ networks with them, e.g. by involving them as allies or critical friends. Or maybe even by making people think about who they want to talk about their teaching with more?
  • to help participants find more connections and grow their network (for example by letting them work in small groups over longer periods of time?)
  • to establish permanent teaching units (like us) that can provide continuity in conversations and networks to people who might not find it in their colleagues

Following up on this, Simon & Pleschová (2021) explore “PhD students, significant others, and pedagogical conversations”. The importance of trusting relationships for academic development” in a quite similar study. They find that changing significant others does not seem to be strongly to how much the PhD students trust them. This is potentially linked to just no other people being around to replace the significant others (sad!!). But the absence of trust makes conversations less frequent, and limits the topics being discussed. From this study, they recommend again to help PhD students map their most significant teaching relationships, and encouraging them to use them more, as well as extending their network.

This last point is one I consider really important, and that we can definitely do better than we are at the moment!

Featured image: My screens decided to switch off before I could take a picture with my wave screen saves on them. I guess that’s my cue to go home soon…

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks–exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559.

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2013). How leaders can influence higher education cultures. Perspectives on Pedagogy and Practice, 4.

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2015). Microcultures and informal learning: A heuristic guiding analysis of conditions for informal learning in local higher education workplaces. International Journal for Academic Development, 20(2), 193-205.

Simon, E., & Pleschová, G. (2019). The role of trusting relationships in facilitating change in teaching practices at the university level.

Simon, E., & Pleschová, G. (2021). PhD students, significant others, and pedagogical conversations. The importance of trusting relationships for academic development. International Journal for Academic Development26(3), 279-291.

Leave a Reply