10 Resistance is Useless

Author: Celia Popovic

Vignette:

Maisie is invited to represent her educational development department at a University -wide meeting organised to plan for the introduction of peer review of teaching. The intention is that instructors will visit each other's classes and provide feedback to their colleague on the experience. She is shocked at the level of concern, even outrage at the plan. Some members of the meeting are openly resistant to the idea of peer review, seeing it as  a managerial tool. Maisie decides to hold her counsel at this meeting, planning instead to talk with her fellow educational developers about what its role is in embedding peer review of teaching as a practice.

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Educational developers often find themselves steering a path between competing interests. Power comes in many forms. There is the overt and obvious power of those in authority and the covert power of faculty members. At times we may find ourselves required to promote university policy that may not sit well with our personal values or what we know to be best practice. At the same time, we may find those to whom we are expected to promote policies are resistant to them.

In this section we ask you to consider power, who has it, who thinks they have it, who might negotiate to access it and the experience of powerlessness. At the same time we introduce the construct of resistance and the ways in which educational developers can and do get drawn into the politics of dissent.

If you were Maisie, what would you do?

If she moves ahead with a project aimed at introducing peer review of teaching at this stage, how might she increase her chances of success?

Universities can be an odd combination of authoritarianism and democracy. All is well when all agree on the balance of power. For example, if a Vice Chancellor/President has an authoritarian management style in an environment where the majority of faculty and staff welcome strong leadership; all will be well. Similarly in a culture where collegial discussion and agreement are highly valued a management style that embraces collective approaches will be a good fit. However, in most instances there is a clash of some degree. Educational developers may get caught up in the (metaphorical) cross fire.

Situations are rarely as clear cut as the descriptions above suggest. What is one person's 'strong leadership' may be another's 'dictatorial behaviour', 'collegial discussion' for one may be 'weak leadership' for others.

Universities are different from many workplaces as those with administrative power may not have the power to effect change as is possible in a commercial setting, for example. This does vary across countries. In the UK, for instance, post changes made by the Thatcher government in the 1980s, faculty no longer have the protection of tenure provided in North American universities. Academic freedom in the US and particularly in Canada is interpreted differently and with greater effect, than in the UK.

While these differences abound, to be successful as an educational developer we must learn to navigate and negotiate with those who have power and exercise it, those who have power but do not realize it, and those who feel disempowered.

If Maisie tried to impose a peer review of Teaching policy on a reluctant or openly hostile group of faculty members, she is doomed to fail. The policy may be adopted by the faculty council, the requirement to engage built into tenure and promotion documents, but without authentic engagement it will be a pointless activity. Faculty may observe each others' teaching but they may judge each other as uniformly excellent and provide nothing of meaning as feedback.

Maisie might be better advised to talk to the faculty, possibly one on one over a coffee to find out their views about the new policy and what they would find helpful. This might reveal that the faculty are committed to improving their teaching, but because of a lack of trust which may or may not be based on facts, they are resistant to ideas that appear to come from the administration. Maisie will need to find a way to align herself with the faculty, while avoiding a sense of undermining the administration. And this is the rub. How would you navigate that divide?

In the resources below, we have included some links to distributed leadership. As a newly appointed educational developer I thought of leadership as something that applied only to those in positions of power - by which I meant managers, directors, heads. Gradually, I realized that leadership is something that can be present or absent in any situation. Anyone can be a leader, and those appointed as leaders can choose not to lead. As educational developers we may tend towards empowering others to lead. Perhaps we should also acknowledge our own power, and our responsibilities to lead.

Resources

Shannon Dea, A Brief History of Academic Freedom, October 8, 2019, University Affairs.

Distributed Leadership in the Australian Higher Education Sector

Jones, S. & Harvey, M. (2017). Revealing the nexus between Distributed Leadership and Communities of Practice,Chapter 8. In J. McDonaldand A. Cater-Steel (Eds). CommunitiesofPractice – Facilitating social learning in higher education. Singapore: Springer, pp. 313-327. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-10-2879-3

Scholarship of Leading, University of Toronto

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2 comments on “10 Resistance is Useless

  1. If I were an academic facing Maisie's proposal, I think my thinking might be in part influenced by Maisie's own SoTL credentials. I suspect others might to, in such a hostile environment as the scenario infers. I think that asking what 'we' would like would certainly help, since it dampens out to some extent the idea of managerial imposition. I might also favour an agreed group of reviewers, also with some form of academic credentials based in published research. I'd also be more open if the peer review process wasn't hard-wired into other evaluation mechanisms like promotion, yet could still go in an academic's 'jacket'.

    1. I think the peer review that was intended in this vignette, was peer review of teaching. We have changed the wording to try to make that clearer.
      However, that is an interesting idea, of introducing a peer review of research as an educational developer - and the issues of credibility and agency that this raises.

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