I have recently finished the second course of the postgraduate of teaching in higher education. One of the required exercises in this course is to write a short self-reflective essay on academic identity. I have decided to publish a summary of this exercise below.
Academic identity is a complex concept and differs from every individual academic’s experience. The reason for this is that it constantly evolves as a continual reflective journey, as does one’s perception of what an academic life means. As it has been acknowledged, academic identity can be influenced by relations and experiences with peers, students, and family. Thus, the rapid development of the higher education sector has further highlighted the interrelationship between teaching and research and has encouraged further enquiry by universities and its faculty members.
From a personal perspective, I was attracted to academia because of its core values of scholar inquiry, intellectual challenge, and professional autonomy. However, my academic identity has been highly influenced and shaped by the opinions of peers, senior academic faculty advice, including my PhD supervisor, during my early years when I was conducting pre-doctoral research ten years ago. As with most PhD students, I was encouraged to explore current debates within my discipline from a theoretical and empirical viewpoint and based on my research training, I am able to contribute to debates in relation to my own, or other people’s research, and to provide comments on existing knowledge to a future generation of professionals and academics. Moreover, what became apparent during this process, was how the organisational culture in the faculty influenced me, as an emerging academic, to prioritize research activities over teaching commitments. During my doctoral studies I was required to teach thirty hours per term, mostly in the form of small group seminars. During this early period of my academic career, I was very motivated and committed to develop a balanced academic career, both in terms of research and teaching. I was truly committed to further develop, not only my research but also my teaching skills in order to be able to effectively transmit knowledge on to students. However, during the initial stages of my academic career in 2005, my supervisor as well as other senior faculty members strongly advised me to put all my efforts into research activities. They repeatedly said “…to develop a successful and sustainable academic career you need to devote all your efforts into research; teaching is irrelevant”. After the completion of my doctorate studies in November 2008, I did a two year postdoctoral research programme. During this period, and as a result of my focus on research, I increasingly began to disengage with teaching activities, realising over time that reengaging with teaching would not be an easy step. Some scholars have suggested that this as a common occurrence among young academics, especially during their pre (or early post) doctoral years, because their teaching responsibilities do not always match their requirements for a full academic career.
Upon reflection, and ten years after joining academia, I am now beginning to realise that the advice that I received during the early stages of my career had generated a highly biased research orientation in me, and this idea that teaching was a marginal value adding activity to my academic development. In line with the view of several scholars, I can now understand the detrimental effects that such a dichotomic view can have on academics.
Despite such preconceptions and limiting experience, my appreciation for the teaching practice started to change when I was appointed to a relevant teaching position in Spain in February 2011. Without any formal training, I started to teach mid to large student groups and supervise Master’s and PhD dissertations. During that period, I started to construct a broader academic identity by combining teaching with my research. Through this experience, I was able to recognise the benefits of combining my research and teaching activities, and as a result, I was able to integrate some of my research findings into my teaching. This synthesis, in turn, influenced my research approach in the sense that it started to take a more applied research perspective, inclusively working in close collaboration with industry partners. This has been an important pillar for the development of my current academic profile, and this link to industry has influenced my teaching pedagogy, which visibly has a grounded theoretical research-led focus. This has allowed me the opportunity to bring world-renowned research into seminars and lectures and explore such studies in the context of strategic and economic thinking. Moreover, in 2012 I also invited practitioners to run guest lectures and bring to the classroom a ‘real-word’ perspective and entrepreneurial spirit.
Further to this, on many occasions the research presented to students has come directly from my own research findings. On such occasions, I have noted more interest and engagement from the students, perhaps resulting from the fact that such sessions have had a first person narrative. For example, I have been doing research on how Amazon influences the entire publishing industry, and one of my lectures discuss on the economic assumption that companies are profit maximisers. Based on the findings of my research I demonstrate that Amazon maximises revenues instead. In the last twenty years the company hardly has achieved profits, whilst its revenues have increased exponentially. I can perceive and enhanced interest of the students when I explain this example. Interestingly, I have shared such research/teaching resources with other colleagues in the Business School, who have used them in their own classroom activities.
On other occasions, I have also presented related research from other authors, which I usually complement with current affairs in the media or from case studies. Economics has sophisticated processes and methods, and undergraduate students cannot be expected to know (all of) them. This combined with the fact that I also teach large groups makes it more challenging to develop interactive teaching resources based on research-based or research-oriented contexts that cater for individual learning needs.
My research has also benefited from teaching. Through revising the basics of Economic theories, I reinforced the fundamental principles of Economics which strengthens my academic writing. In a recent project, the construction of estimated demand functions was informed and enhanced through the revision of materials that I used when preparing my lectures. One of my senior colleagues who has extensive experience teaching and researching in economics, was impressed by the analysis and said “your analysis is one of the most elegant economic models I have seen in the last decade”. The article that contains this analysis has recently revised and resubmitted to Industrial Marketing Management.
Another important aspect of the teaching activity is the engagement in academic debate with students. My approach follows positivist pedagogy and hence my comfort zone resides in absolution as opposed to grey areas of interpretation. I have noticed that I have a preference for more mathematical discussions as opposed to dialogue on qualitative and theoretical debate. In that respect, coming to teach in a UK HE institution in 2013 signified a paradigm shift in my teaching approach, since the UK system is traditionally more based on the understanding of qualitative concepts, with further reinforcement with diagrams and case studies when necessary. In addition, the learning environment in the UK is different as group sizes are larger in comparison to Spain, with cohorts between 100 and 200 sat in large lecture theatres. For me, it has been difficult to engage students in large groups. One of the reasons may be the fact that students start losing their attention after 20 minutes, unless I can continuously surprise and engage them with the content.
My academic identity is highly influenced by the transition from research to teaching. As a learner in the college I was a pragmatic student, whereas participating in research during the last ten years allowed me to develop a more reflector side and have revelled in the fact that I could diversify as a learner and adapt to different learning contexts. This stance should be helpful in supporting students become adaptive in their own learning journeys, and move from being dependent and less confident learners to become more independent autonomous learners. This process has enriched my pastoral and academic support to students, increasing my respect to individual learners. Whilst it is true that these higher faculty expectations increase my level of stress, it is also a motivation and an opportunity to continuously improve as an academic. Consequently, my academic identity is in constant evolution, and is influenced and nurtured by students, colleagues and other external and internal factors.