21 Oct 2011
What unites those who joined SHED?
I sent a question to Shed-Share in the form of a conundrum. I, and colleagues at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, would like to develop a ‘special interest group’ to bring together university teachers who share an interest in the broad and undefined area of higher-education contributions to ….(something along the lines of … sustainability). I made the case that terms such as environment, sustainability, development, being ‘for’ anything in particular, and advocacy, tended to divide rather than unite, in the context of perceived roles for higher education. I wondered if others had something working elsewhere that succeeded in bringing disparate mind-sets together.
I think that it was a fair question. As I have researched the field for many years I have been thinking about it for some time now. But I did not have high expectations of an easy answer as I do not have one myself. In some respects my question was rhetorical, but in others it was a plea for a good discussion on a way forward.
I had six responses and I am grateful for them all. I was helpfully reminded that: this should not be a ‘special’ interest; that academics characteristically may not notice the wood for the trees; that the issues are value-laden and that values are deeply-culturally embedded; that we may, if we wish, blame our current situation on defective leadership; that even where things appear to be working well at a superficial level, they may not be deep-down; that as individuals we are capable of making highly subjective interpretations of even simple language constructs; and that there are amongst us colleagues with a far greater proclivity for the esoteric, or academic, than I.
Two colleagues emphasised the value of embedding our concerns within the label of ‘graduate attributes’ but did not say how successful their own experience of this approach had been. [My own research, publications and institutional role do emphasise graduate attributes, but my experience is that many university teachers interpret these attributes (including as they often do, ‘literacy’ and ‘teamwork’) as ‘skills’ and doubt the extent to which they should be ‘teaching skills’. Graduate attributes can easily become another dividing line].
But the situation is serious. No doubt we share common interests but we appear to have some mutually exclusive goals. We are not communicating effectively. We have different conferences, journals and embedded academic values. It would be difficult to interpret these as strengths as we are in danger of undermining our commonalities. For example, as peer-reviewers (in a profession that is heavily dependent on peer-review) we may damage even those academic endeavours that could lead to common purpose. We have constructed an academic divide to match that between the disciplines themselves and wonder why we are not making progress.
Please do respond, support, criticise or develop. Useful discussions could, as examples:
· Focus on bridging the most obvious divide amongst those likely to be reading these words [Those whose concern is ‘for’ sustainability, often in a human-centred paradigm and those whose focus is the environment, generally from an ecological and conservation perspective]. Pollution, habitat destruction, economic collapse and spiralling loss of indigenous cultures have failed to bring us together (sufficiently for Higher Education to unite) but surely something as basic as ‘HE’s role as ‘critic and conscience’ offers hope for mutual goal setting?
· Address the structural issues that currently keep education for sustainability/sustainable development/environmental education outside of mainstream debates in higher education, or consign them to box-ticking exercises. Could our peer-review processes become more respectful of new, interdisciplinary or just-different perspectives? Could we collectively become more focused on evaluating our impact on our students, before we get too agitated or complacent about whether or not we should be trying to influence our students? What else could we do, collectively, to make progress?
University of Otago