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Developing a Pedagogical Research Network: webs, strings and tightropes

Abstract:    This case study describes the approach taken to develop and sustain a pedagogic research culture and network within a Higher Arts Education Institution. Critical of top-down professional development interventions, and skeptical of the value and appropriateness of such approaches particularly for a professional group within an Art and Design context, the case study describes a more creative, consensual and capacity-building approach.
The pedagogic network described aims to develop a pedagogic awareness, stimulate research curiosity, generate and support research and involve practitioners at all stages of their research careers. These professionals may be ‘students’ teaching on fractional contracts, heavily involved in their own artistic practice and  just beginning to consider a Post Graduate Certificate in Learning and Teaching, to those at post doctoral and professorial level who might benefit from the development of a community of practice.

The approach taken and described provides a number of messages and recommendations for those working in the field of art and design education at both FE and HE levels. There is a salient point regarding the interface of teaching and research, and how reproductions of hierarchical notions of each are counter-productive. There are also messages regarding the ways in which communities of practice may be nurtured which better reflect the collaborative and capacity building ethos inherent in the core, political aim of widening participation.

Author information:  Dr Olivia Sagan is Senior Research Fellow (Pedagogy) at the Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design (CLTAD) at University of the Arts London

Date: March 2009

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‘The university should be a place of unconditional dialogue and critique, and critical resistance to all the power of dogmatic and unjust appropriation’ (Derrida, 2001).

Much professional development in Higher Education remains formulated from within a top-down frame of reference, a still common response to government directives (DfES, 2003). The procedure frequently adhered to is one wherein courses and events are ‘set up’ and colleagues invited, persuaded or directed to attend, with minimal consultation or systematic scoping of what interests, professional training needs or career aspirations are held by the practitioner. Regulatory discourses determining what is to be validated or not, which powerfully impact on the education of students, (Brown & Atkinson, 2005) similarly impact on trained, experienced professionals. There is a tacit belief that an interest can be ‘created’ and engagement assured. Of course, if you spray paint at a wall, some will stick, and some areas will even appear to have coherence, a picture-like quality. What this case study looks at is how, and more importantly why the further research interest and development of academic staff can and should be stimulated and sustained differently. While the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (2003) made clear a commitment to increasing and enhancing research in universities, rightly observing that ‘Research lays the long-term foundations for innovation, which is central to improved growth, productivity and quality of life’, this White Paper had less to say about developing, bottom-up, such research capacity, and still less about widening participation in research activity.

Part of my role as Senior Research Fellow for Pedagogy is to develop and sustain a pedagogic research culture across the university, a sprawling Higher Arts Institution consisting of 6 colleges, numerous sites, and an academic and technical workforce, many of whom are part-time, numbering many hundreds. Amongst them they share a zero to 100% interest in pedagogic research. It is a web of challenge to develop and grow this interest – but like all webs, it holds together through the strength of its central aim. I specifically believe that the eschewal of the top down, disassociated approach commonly enlisted by staff development departments is vital. This usually prescriptive approach, in taking practical, short-term roads with limited staff buy-in, fails, often, to help build the long term, more substantial avenues necessary to deeper academic research involvement. It is an approach which largely reproduces an asymmetric power dynamic rigid with anachronistic notions of higher and lower knowledges and academic versus practitioner. If we are satisfied to reproduce such messages in our Higher Education practice when working with colleagues and peers, then inevitably we are reproducing them in our dealings with students, and they are also, by extension embedded and implicit in our curriculum. The broader ethos and philosophical demand of Widening Participation has to become part of our own practice and thinking at every level of teaching and learning; thus widening the participatory interest of all staff in research has to be inherent to the aim of developing any research culture.

Developing a pedagogic research network does not come gratis; there are financial strings attached. While arguments could be (and are) vociferously made about how such staff development money could be better spent on student facilities and resources, links between research, research-based practice and enhanced student experience have long been established. Universities spend, and will continue to earmark substantial amounts on the professional and research development of their staff. The question is then not whether this should continue, but how, and how to maintain reasonable transaction costs which pay for first order activity – in this case bringing staff together in an academically constructive way - rather than being absorbed by potential second order activity (micro-management, bureaucracy, consultant fees, expensive and inappropriate or unnecessary training packages). The case described here falls well within staff development budgetary constraints. So what was done? What is the result? What is being done?

The development of a pedagogic research culture
The main elements set up in this venture were discursive events, support and dissemination – common elements in the establishment of any community of practice (Wenger, 1999). All events are scheduled at the beginning of the academic year to avoid, as far as is possible, major clashes with main events in the university diary. Email contact and publicity is used, with events being publicised first to the Network then across the university staff body. They are always free, and refreshments are made available to the busy practitioners who have often travelled to a different site and will dash back to teach. People are made to feel welcome to attend all, or part of an event as their time allows. Part of a longer term plan for next year is to provide podcasts of main events, as sound files of talks made available on the Pedagogic Research Network webpage this year proved popular.

Practitioner buy-in and ownership of events and activity are consistently aimed at, with format and texture carefully attended to. Events (with speakers commonly nominated by the network members) are kept sociable and informal, a ‘soiree’ approach to gathering people in a convivial, creative atmosphere which seeks to do away as much as possible with disciplinary demarcation lines (technical, academic, practice, research) and ensure a blend of people internal and external to the institution. We seek to invite speakers from a variety of art and design contexts, along with local practitioner/researchers, including both novice and established researchers. Interactivity and debate are stressed, along with a focus on the pedagogic. Speakers who are newer to presenting are offered support in all aspects of their presentation, and discussion is always oiled by a chair person whose role it is to ensure the constructive and supportive slant is maintained. These events, two early evenings and one main day event per term, have triggered collaborations and friendships, as well as further thinking and research debate.

It is important to track the growing network members in a database, and to regularly invite feedback regarding what kind of events, speakers and topics are of interest, as well as opinions about ongoing activity. This community of practice has mushroomed, with a growing interest too from practitioners in other institutions. It consists of people who are both regular faces, and those who attend the events less but ‘plug into’ the network through contact with myself or other colleagues, or through the website for updates, sound files and papers. This inevitably leads to calls for support.

Support for practitioners is crucial, but is often labour intensive and unpredictable in the level called for. I and one or two colleagues are contacted regarding everything form critical reading of papers and bids, through help with sourcing funding and courses, to last minute jitters about conference talks. There are many and regular emails which declare a fledgling interest in research but absolute bewilderment as to how to ‘get into’ it. There are requests bizarre and impulsive as practitioners creatively attempt to link different aspects of their professional life with pedagogic research – and many comments and pleas regarding elements of practice which are not decisively pedagogic or research oriented. Each and every request needs to be attended to. This point is perhaps the most important, as hand on heart, most researchers can point to opaque, often confused, sometimes serendipitous beginnings to their own research career and interest. It is in these fledgling emails and their interactions that the future research culture of the institution lies. First point of contact response can either encourage or thwart. It is also in such emails, conversations, calls and cursory comments that I often marvel at the creativity in raw research minds and ponder what is being lost if they are not given opportunities to develop.

Dissemination is another important area and the pedagogic research network sources, on behalf of its members and others, relevant funding opportunities, calls for papers, conferences and new publications. Working collaboratively with the CETL, when new funds have come into the network through successful bidding, practitioners have had priority alerting to possibilities to apply for research work within these projects, or to apply for small funds available for conference attendance and paper submission. New researchers as well as practitioners from the Postgraduate Certificate and Diplomas in Teaching and Learning are always offered the chance to present their work at whatever stage, and these opportunities have been found helpful in breaking into the sometimes citadel-like world of academia.

Finally, the Pedagogic Research Network is also given access to a steadily increasing online library of collected literature on art and design pedagogy.  This small but useful resource is accompanied by an Endnote reference library accessible to those writing papers and reports. A next stage is to formalise this resource and invite more contributors. We are also working closely with the university library service, to ensure that developing research curiosity is met with a parallel library offer.

So far we have evaluated the Pedagogic Research Network informally, and it is too early to identify clear ‘mistakes’. We have an increased number of practitioners on our database, more submissions of feedback and general enquiries, and a steadily growing attendance at events. An increased number of practitioners contact me regarding their research thoughts and bids, and there are exciting conversations developing in clusters of practitioner groups regarding research. Whilst there is a ‘feeling’ and observation of growth, it is yet one of fledgling growth, of beginnings and slowly laid foundations. This is not an overnight success - and, after my many years in education, I would be wary and sceptical were this the case! However, over the coming year the centre in which the network is based will be conducting an extensive self-assessment and review exercise, and a more robust measure of the Pedagogic Research Network will be taken. So far I have learned that any similar initiative within a university needs to sit firmly within, and work with, a broader framework for the development of its professional body. It needs to make those ties and connections; advertise well and in good time; keep its administrative processes clear, and overall, be responsive.

And yes, this venture is all a bit of a tightrope; people topple off the ‘research interest’ point of equilibrium. They become inundated with the overload of teaching and bureaucracy which Danvers (2003, p.53) argues works against a ‘creative and innovative culture of learning and teaching’.  Often they are not sufficiently supported within their departments and teams to participate in research activity, as suspicion or indifference to what research can potentially bring back to practice still remain in some pockets of the university. But the thing about webs, strings and tightropes is that they can pull you in, pull you back or even create a mesh to catch you.  That’s how I got into pedagogic research; I was hooked, I was pulled in, and have never looked back.

Brown, T., Atkinson, D. & England, J. (2005) Regulatory Discourses in Education: A Lacanian Perspective, (London, Peter Lang Pub Inc).
Danvers, J. (2003) ‘Towards a Radical Pedagogy: Provisional Notes on Learning and Teaching in Art and Design’. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 22(1), pp.47-57.
Derrida, J. (2001) ‘The Future of the profession or the Unconditional University’, in: Laurence Simmons and Heather Worth, (Eds) Derrida Downunder, p. 235, (Auckland, Dunmore Press)
DfES (2003) The Future of Higher Education, White Paper
Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice: Learning as a social system, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

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