Thinking about my positionality as a teacher and researcher in academic development

Kirsty “gave me the task” to (that sounds harsher than it was — she pointed me to a super interesting article and we agreed to both) do a concept map following the Kinchin et al. (2018) article on “Researcher-led academic development”, so before I could do that, I had to read… And that spiralled a bit out of control, into considering my positionality as an academic developer in research and teaching. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

There are many ways in which to be an academic developer, and if you are one who is actively engaged in research, how does that influence your role and your relationship with staff and students? Kinchin et al. (2018) argue that researcher-led teaching, i.e. teaching that is informed by the academic developer’s practice as a researcher, will make them more credible through the shared experience. The authors use a framework by Bernstein that describes two types of discourses: The vertical about the underpinning values, and the horizontal on the content, and suggest that academic development units should explicitly model both the shared values within the academic development unit, and a diversity of research frames. They suggest that our teaching is shaped by both our own values about teaching and learning, and our research focus.

The method used in the study, that Kirsty suggested we try on ourselves, is concept mapping to the question “describe the dominant research frame that guides your practice as an academic developer“, where in the study, the interviewer keeps asking for improved explanations of the connections between concepts. The concept maps thus serve both as summaries of the interview, and are a tool for exploration of concepts and links.

This is what a first draft of my own map looks like, with a bit of an explanation in the figure caption:

I have a very strong feeling of responsibility to do things that are meaningful to me. Even though it looks like two separate branches in the figure, they really go together: Find meaning in life through becoming the person who I want to be, and creating the world I want to live in. The first one, person-formation, is one of the three roles of education, and one that I think we need to support students with more than we currently do. Becoming who you want to be means, not necessarily in that order, seeking out groups that do what you want to do and learn to operate in them, and acquiring qualification, skills and knowledge. The learning happening in all those contexts is helped by motivation that, for me, is mostly intrinsic (and I try to create conditions for intrinsic motivation in my teaching): Providing feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. My main focus in my research is on the relatedness part (marked in red) – using the model of Communities of Practice, and exploring concepts like trust, belonging, and co-creation. All of these have a strong connection to personal responsibility and person-formation, and are strongly linked with feedbacks to self-determination theory. The second branch, creating a world I want to live in, is reflected in my focus on teaching for sustainability, which includes supporting others’ person formation, and creating inclusive classrooms, which is then strongly connected with belonging, co-creation, … Ultimately, I believe that there is no sustainability without person formation, and that both branches are necessarily linked. Examples of some of my projects and how they relate to this framework are shown in green: I sometimes use extrinsic motivators, like using gamification to create conditions in which self-determination theory can be experienced, or creating a bingo, that through scaffolding contributes to creating intrinsic motivation. Also #WaveWatching and #KitchenOceanography use self-determination theory through autonomy (anywhere, any time, any content), competence (explaining everyday occurrences through your expert lens) and relatedness (community building on social media, …)

But of course, our research framework is only one relevant factor influencing our teaching. Kirsty then found another article on “Social identity map: A reflexivity tool for practicing explicit positionality in critical qualitative research” (Jacobson & Mustafa, 2019) that invites exploration of a different kind of positionality and how it influences us as researchers. They suggest a “social identity map” to help researchers reflect on their social location. Their map has three levels:

  1. what I would call “demographic” data, the “social identities”, e.g. class, citizenship, ability, age/generation, race, sexual orientation, cis/trans, gender
  2. how those positions influence our life
  3. more details on 2.

Even though they develop this tool to help researchers reflect about their power and privileges, I think this is super relevant for teachers, too! Positionality statements are not common in my context at all, but maybe they should be? At least reflection about it should be, and probably fairly often, too, because which facets of our identity are relevant probably depends on the context we are in (like with stereotype threat that can be triggered or not), and everything also changes over time. The map is only meant as inspiration, and of course other categories could be included (they suggest e.g. immigration status, religion, relationship status, employment status, political affiliation, commitment to social change), and the whole thing transformed into whatever makes sense to the person using it.

This is what my initial map looks like, with some explanations in the figure caption:

This is really difficult! I have never explicitly thought about many of those categories before. Some are easier: My upbringing with academic parents means that I grew up with high expectations put on me (not explicitly, it was just normal to be good at everything) but at the same time also the strong belief that I could do anything I set my mind to. I also grew up with a very high value placed on being able to work on whatever is interesting, and being able to follow my interests is definitely still extremely important to me (and that’s why I am doing this mapping right now instead of a million other things that I should probably be doing. See also my “even over” post a while back…). My class also means that money was never a concern _for me_, so I could afford to study “for fun” what I was interested in rather than looking at future job prospects, and I was able to move to different countries following the interesting topics (-> see again the high value of doing whatever is most interesting at any given time). My citizenship is a facet that plays out differently depending on where I am. When I was teaching academic development workshops for international teachers in Germany, I was German, but I had the identity of having lived in the UK and Norway, and that was relevant to make me relatable. Now, being German makes me a foreigner where I live, I am having to learn a new culture and language in addition to also being in a demanding job (and right now, that feels like something that requires a lot of energy that most people really don’t appreciate). But being German also comes with the privileges of having “the best passport in the world” (not sure if it is currently “the best” or “top 5”, but one that makes it very easy to travel, and to relocate), and in an academic environment there are also a lot of positive prejudices to coming from a German academic background that I do benefit from. At the same time, my race allows me to “pass as Swedish” until I open my mouth, which probably makes my life a lot easier many times. Being female means that I have had experiences of harassment and discrimination, and that has definitely influenced how I teach and what I teach. And then there are a lot of fields where I don’t really know what to do about them right now, but that I now realize I want to reflect on!
One additional category that is suggested in the article that I found directly relevant for me is “employment status”: Since I have a permanent position, I have the privilege of being able to do whatever I want (within reason, I guess, but still) and to not worry about money. That is a HUGE privilege that I am very aware of, especially relative to colleagues that are not in such a comfortable position, and thinking back about how stressful not having job security was for me a couple of years ago. Also “relationship status”: The authors probably mean it relating to romantic relationships, but to me the relevant aspect is that I actually have a lot of very strong relationships and a very strong support network, both in Sweden, “at home” in Germany, and even internationally. Without that, being abroad might be a lot more exhausting and probably not sustainable in the long run. I have worked on and with the ESWN “mentoring map” for a long time, so being aware of the importance of good networks has influenced my work substantially.

Starting to reflect about my positionality as academic developer, both as a researcher and a teacher, feels super meaningful. Since land acknowledgments and positionality statements are not something that is common in my context, there is still a lot of work to be done for me! But a quick search for teacher positionality revealed helpful guides like for example from Inside Higher Ed (where they also bring up the points of other roles that might impact our teaching, for me for example not being a parent, so not having to stay home with kids that are throwing up and also being able to fully rest when I am sick myself, or being an older sister, so having been used to some kind of teacher role all my life).

Now I am wondering where to take it from here, both for myself and then also in academic development workshops. How can I structure these types of reflections in a meaningful way? And how do we then talk about it?

Featured image because I took it yesterday and it feels like a good combination of being out in the fog but at the same time seeing tools that might (or might not) turn out to be useful in the future, but that are definitely good to have available just in case.

Jacobson, D., & Mustafa, N. (2019). Social identity map: A reflexivity tool for practicing explicit positionality in critical qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18, 1609406919870075.

Kinchin, I., Heron, M., Hosein, A., Lygo-Baker, S., Medland, E., Morley, D. &
Winstone, N. (2018) Researcher-led academic development, International Journal for Academic Development, 23:4, 339-354, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2018.152011

One thought on “Thinking about my positionality as a teacher and researcher in academic development

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

Leave a Reply