Traditionally, it has been assumed that, once an academic holds a Master’s degree or PhD in their discipline, they can share their knowledge and teach students effectively. Most, though, don’t have a teaching qualification, nor have they been offered any opportunities to develop as teachers while studying towards their advanced degree.
This means that many lecturers feel like they have been thrown into the deep end at the start of their teaching careers. There has been some work in this field and many universities now offer formal and informal academic staff development opportunities.
But there is far more to good university teaching than just being able to project your voice, prepare a good PowerPoint presentation or keep your students interested. Academics’ deeply held views about their students must be challenged. They need to question seriously how issues of identity, belonging, privilege, diversity, racism and sexism can be addressed explicitly in the classroom.
Who is best placed to shape university teachers who are more than just technically proficient? This work is done by academic developers in teaching and learning centres in most universities. However, we believe that to do this work well, academic developers themselves need to engage deeply with questions of teaching, curriculum design and transformation.
How academic development has changed
The field of academic development first emerged in South African higher education in the mid-1980s. Its initial purpose was to support the small numbers of black students who had been admitted to historically white, English-speaking universities earlier that decade.
This approach to academic development was in line with the view that students lacked some of the requisite skills and knowledge to learn successfully in their new contexts.
By the early 1990s it became clear that not only were students under-prepared for the university context, but that academics were ill-equipped to teach a rapidly growing and increasingly diverse student body to learn successfully. Academic development then also started to concern itself with curriculum and staff development.
Many academics have common sense views about student learning. They tend to believe, for instance, that if a student is failing a particular course this is a reflection only on the individual student’s abilities.
These and other normative views about teaching and learning need to be challenged. Those who have been in the field of academic development for a few decades have developed more nuanced conceptions of teaching and learning and have been instrumental in helping to build the now extensive knowledge base of the field.
Developing the developers
In South Africa, there are ongoing and urgent calls from a number of quarters for the transformation of higher education.
This discussion is happening alongside debates worldwide about how best to professionalise academic staff. Each country brings a particular set of challenges or circumstances in its own higher education landscape to the table.
Rhodes University’s Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning offers a postgraduate diploma in higher education. There has been, in recent years, an increasing demand for the centre to organise academic staff development courses for a number of institutions in South Africa and on the continent.
We felt it would be more beneficial for the field if the centre worked with academic developers rather than directly with academic staff. This equips academic developers with the knowledge and skills they need to offer staff development courses to the lecturing staff in their own institutions.
Why this approach works
The resulting postgraduate diploma for academic developers is, as far as we are aware, the first of its kind in the world. The programme this year welcomed its third cohort of academic developers from universities around South Africa. The country’s Department of Higher Education and Training funds bursaries for course participants, demonstrating the government’s commitment to improving higher education.
The diploma offers spaces for academic developers to have serious, intellectual conversations. Some of these are about the nitty-gritty of teaching. Other debates deal with the broader context referred to earlier. The course participants consider, for instance, how institutions, teachers, curricula and teaching need to change to contribute to enabling all students to access the “goods” of the university.
Once this work is done, academic developers can return to their own institutions armed with knowledge and skills that can be shared.