Reconstructing Professionalism in University Teaching: Teachers and Learners in Action

Editor(s) Walker, Melanie
Publisher The Society for Research into Higher Education and the Open University Press
Published 2001
ISBN 0335208169
Reviewed by Monica McLean
Senior Lecturer in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Keele University
Review published 1 December 2004

I was inspired by this book. It is written by five academics from different disciplines researching an aspect of teaching and by Melanie Walker, an educational developer and researcher who convened and supported the group. In general, the six action research cases and the commentary by Walker are a critique of the predominance of the discourses and practices of 'quality culture' and 'managerialism'; and alternatives are promoted in the forms of 'critical professionalism', 'action research' and 'reflexive professional dialogue'. The book openly aims to influence higher education to take the direction of social justice.

Three chapters at the beginning, written by Walker, frame the project. The first discusses discourse for 'oppositional' university teachers who are focused on education for democracy. The second connects the practices and principles of action research to social justice, to successful praxis (interpellation of theory and practice); and, to the construction of a professional identity. The third emphasises the affective part of investigating one's own practice in collaboration with others. It also highlights the richness of theoretical resources that are thrown up by how the epistemological traditions of different disciplines shape what we understand by 'learning'.

Following these are six chapters, each an action research case. Described by Walker, pace Lyotard, as 'little stories' (petits recit), they are both about student learning and about being reflexive and collaborative as a form of teacher development. Each tells us about a substantive issue; about the processes of action research; about how practice can be related to literature; and, about how broad values are addressed in teaching; and. All are moving.

Here is a taste. Judy Wilkinson disturbed my stereotype of engineers in her account of setting up a mentoring system for first year students by speaking of love, humility and faith. And in a later chapter she exposes the limitations of how we normally think about 'effective' teaching by including in a new course the goal for her students of 'responsibility for the world'. A cooler Chris Warhurst models a particular form of evidence -based practice in justifying, planning and evaluating using debates to encourage critical thinking in management. Attempts to engage large classes in computing led Quintin Cutts to the conclusion that there are no right answers only dilemmas. Alison Phipps, teaching German cultural studies, uses the notion of mimesis (live performance) as an alternative to the usual functional performance indicators of student performance.

Project work is designed by Mike Gonzales to instil 'emancipatory spirit' into his Hispanic studies students. All academic pedagogic researchers used a range of innovative ways of collecting and sharing data and information

Melanie Walker concludes the book by linking knowledge, self and action in an argument that calls for a political project that promotes the idea of a 'new' and 'critical' professionalism of the university teacher. For her key concepts are reflexivity, self-identity, learning community, justice and fairness. She sees professional learning taking place through participation in a community of practice and the role of the educational developer and researcher as 'critical companion'.

Doubt and complexity are celebrated at a time when the drive is for prediction and control. In the same vein, the construction of teaching goes well beyond technique, method and design to considerations of public good, of power relations and to questions of what it is worthwhile to learn. Above all, it is inspiring to see enacted in specific teaching the idea that students are educated at university to take up critical stances in the world. Furthermore, the group appear to have made friends and had fun undertaking the project. The word 'authentic' is used frequently to make the point that this approach to professional development allows individual teachers to seek their own routes to enlightenment.

Given the ambition of the book to generate a new language for university life and for what counts as learning and teaching within in it, I would liked a discussion about how the approaches taken by this very small group could be encouraged and embedded on a wider scale. Nevertheless, inspiration flows from the ways in which the book goes against the grain of much current policy and practice.