National Teaching Fellowship and interdisciplinary professionalism

by Paul Maharg on 03/10/2011

I’ve been awarded a Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellowship — here’s a list of this year’s Fellows, and we’ll be awarded our Fellowships at a dinner event on Wednesday.  I have to say I have mixed feelings about belonging to groups such as this.  When I was made a Senior Fellow I had thought that the SFs would be used much more by HEA than they actually were: titles that reward you for what you’ve done in the past seem rather empty to me, unless they draw together a group of people determined to do better things in the future.  Will that happen with the NTFs?  We’ll see — there’s a website and email list, which is more than the SFs had; and there seems to be a set of aims and a infrastructure, which looks hopeful.  And there is one important reason why a lot more should happen: NTFs are given £10,000 to spend on professional development projects.  What will I spend the money on?  Read on…

One thing I’ve been absorbed by is the way in which different professions ‘professionalize’, that is, create identities that they inhabit within the profession.  In Law we can learn much by examining how Theology, Medicine, Philosophy, Literature, Art and other professions and humanities induct students into ways of thinking about the world, its objects and  relationships — one reason why Law’s Beyond Text project at Edinburgh University, and its associated volumes (one of which I’m editing) is so interesting.  I want to explore that in more depth in a book project, to be published ideally in the Emerging Legal Learning series or elsewhere as an edited collection of essays.

I’m not the only person interested in this.  So is Michael McGhee, some of whose interests in philosophy, education and theology are close to mine.  We’re neighbours on one of Orkney’s Northern Isles, Papa Westray, or Papay, to give it its local and ancient name.  He has written on Higher Education and philosophy, and many related topics.  On one of our walks our conversations were so fascinating that it became clear to me, in the way that such things do on Papay,  that we needed to work on a joint project — possibly a conference and a book.  Now conferences are valuable for many things, but increasingly I’ve become dissatisfied with the level of analysis and rigour to which one’s ideas and their representations are subjected by other members of the conference.  And the usual format of 3 x 20 minute papers in 90 minutes doesn’t really cut it.  Nor, for that matter, does the usual blind review format that’s the staple diet of our peer review systems — but that’s another story (briefly visited by Nigel Duncan and I in an article published in the Int Rev of Law Computers & Technology).

Michael suggested a form of conferencing that had worked well for him in the past — not a conference but a convivium, where the focus is on participants (not delegates) living briefly but intensely together, sharing social and living space in order to develop ideas, writing, themes.  So papers might be presented in sessions, but the individual papers would be subject to much more focused critique, development, construction, co-construction in the midst of living with each other; and the book would be developed as a true community project, rather than largely in the minds of the editors.

An island as small as Papay is ideal for such an event; though there are logistics (board & lodging, travel to a very remote island) that obviously need sorting out.  So we’re planning the event for a week or so in either summer 2012 or 2013, and the NTF funds will be invaluable in bringing it into being.

That’s one project.  I guess there will be funds left over — what else?  Don’t know!  Maybe Wednesday, and discussions with other NTFs (I see Sarah Greer, Greenwich, another lawyer and also from a Humanities background, is among this year’s Fellows) will throw up ideas.  And in case HEA, reading the first paragraph, gets the idea that I’m not grateful — well, I am, very much so, humbled and excited by it.  The award itself is a hand on our shoulder, not in celebration but a reminder to those of us lucky enough to receive it, a constant pointing back to the core of what university always has been and always should be: learning, communication, wisdom, community.

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