Sheila Trahar, University of Bristol
The back story
Listening to Academic Voices: International Stories of the UK Experience, like all publications, has a story and, like the stories that its contributors tell, one that is chequered and multilayered. The story reflects the rapid changes that we are experiencing in higher education in the UK;it seems, therefore, appropriate to tell it here.
In 2010, Fiona Hyland, the Academic Coordinator of ESCalate, the Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Education, and I were awarded a small grant from BAICE to build on the very successful BAICE/ESCalate funded event Developing Intercultural Competencies in International Higher Education Communities: Initiating European Conversations that we ran in 2009. The purpose of that event was to turn our gaze to the European mainland, rather than, as is more common in the UK, to Australia or the USA, to identify what we could learn from our colleagues about their experiences of greater student diversity in their higher education constituencies. In many mainland European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, the situation is complicated further by the increasing use of English as the language of instruction. Given that English is not the vernacular of those countries, this is, understandably, leading to a range of different complexities from those that we may encounter in the UK and which are becoming well documented (e.g. Teekens, 2009).
Petra de Vries, writing in Times Higher Education (08/09/11) expresses this pithily:
What about our beautiful Dutch language? Was it really sensible to force unhappy Dutch lecturers who spoke English badly to discuss difficult subject matter with equally unhappy Dutch students – all because there might be one international student in the class?
We invited Hanneke Teekens of NUFFIC, the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education and Professor Matthias Otten, from the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, two key proponents of the notion of ‘internationalisation at home’, to lead our event. Our third guest was Professor Martin Haigh from Oxford Brookes University, who has written extensively on internationalisation of higher education, challenging, in particular, the parochial attitudes of many local UK students towards their non-UK colleagues. Following that very stimulating day of conversations with our Dutch and German speakers, and with several participants who travelled from the Netherlands and Sweden to join us, we decided that a similar day, one that provided academics from different contexts, ‘transnational academics’ (Kim, 2009), with the opportunity to share their experiences of working in UK higher education would both complement and extend our insights. Much is made in the literature of the lost opportunities for learning from ‘international students’ and the need for academics to be more critically reflective about their approaches to learning and teaching in order to ensure greater inclusivity in the classroom. Similarly, there is much to learn from our academic colleagues who are from different contexts and academic traditions yet, as Kim (2009, p.398) says ‘it is not yet clear to what extent the new forms and types of transnational academic mobility have impacted on the recognition and promotion of diverse academic cultures’. Given that there is not a great deal of research that addresses the experiences of academics who are working in UK HE and who have been educated in different contexts and academic traditions, we decided that our subsequent event would focus on those experiences. We were conscious, however, of our ongoing resistance to labels such as ‘international students’;’international academics’, but, as we were struggling with how best to plan and promote such an event so that it would be valuable to an optimum number of people, rather than alienate them because of the terminology, life intervened. As a result of changes to the structure and funding of the Higher Education Academy, ESCalate, which had match funded the 2009 event was no longer able to commit financial support;we needed to re-think.
Listening to academic voices
In March 2011, ESCalate published the Discussion Paper The Doctorate: International Stories of the UK Experience that I edited. I had been both impressed and humbled by the stories told by the 10 doctoral researchers about their UK journeys and so Fiona and I decided to produce a similar publication, one in which ‘international academics’ would be invited to give their accounts of life in UK academia. A call via the BAICE and ESCalate websites drew several offers and all those interested were invited to come to Bristol in March 2011. We spent a stimulating morning getting to know each other, sharing experiences and mapping out the shape of the publication. During that meeting, I became aware of how many of my experiences bore similarities with those of others and this reminded me that feeling that one is an ‘outsider’ to a group of people can occur in so many contexts and situations;my not being an ‘international’ member of staff need not deter me from writing of some experiences of my own, where they resonated with those of the contributors. My notes from the day, circulated to the participants, record very powerful statements – ‘I don’t know where I come from’;’I wear my nationality as a loose garment’;’Does being ‘international’ give more licence to challenge?’
The agreement was made to write a reflective piece, maximum 3,000 words, and to share the writings with each other in order to encourage deeper reflection. We were interested in the idea of writing collective biographies (Davies &Gannon, 2006) but this was decided to be too complex a process, given the geographical distances between us. The original group of writers changed somewhat because, unfortunately, one of our group was made redundant and had to return to her home country and, with the imminent demise of ESCalate, Fiona Hyland moved to another post – further examples of how the stories told here and the process of gathering and producing them – reflect acutely the turbulent times in which we live. I am a little sad that, in the end, we were unable to include more stories but our hope is that others, in reading this publication may be interested to tell their own.
I decided not to contribute a story but to write the introduction to the publication, including elements of my experiences, as they seem appropriate. In this introduction, I share my readings of the stories. Inevitably, those readings draw on what resonated with me, my experiences, interests, values, beliefs and my ongoing research into the lived experiences of those of us who find ourselves in these increasingly complex institutions called universities.
Reflective writing – and its value in listening to – and hearing – academic voices
In reading the stories, I quickly became acutely aware of the contributors’ comments about their difficulty in writing reflectively, in a style that they considered not to be academic or scholarly. This style of writing can, undoubtedly, render the writer more vulnerable than a more distanced, ‘traditional’ objective style, yet I was surprised to read of the writers’ struggles, given that I find each story eloquent and insightful for this more personal telling. In addition, I am also fascinated by how each writer then reflects on the affordances of this style of writing with which they are less familiar and even uncomfortable. Ulrike Niens, for example, writes: ‘The process of reflection and writing for this article thus required me to uncover some of the colourful glass pieces within the kaleidoscope which appears to constitute myself in its ever changing window of identities which mirror divergent contexts, boundaries and past experiences’ using this metaphor to capture the shifting nature of identities very powerfully. Kim (2011) talks of how ‘mobile academics’ are engaged in reflexive knowledge creation. Similarly, Bönish-Brednich, a German academic now working in New Zealand, writes ‘we become the Other in both worlds and as a result will always be reflexive about our place in academic environments’ (2010, p.170). I propose that all academics are engaged in reflexive knowledge creation;it is more that not many of them choose – or have the opportunity – to speak about this process.
Each one of the contributors, in their different ways, links their story with the broader context of international higher education, reflecting on how their different experiences render them more able to empathise with students and doctoral researchers coming to the UK from other contexts. Ulrike Niens writes of how she draws on the ‘tensions arising from my own national identity’, having been brought up in Germany, in her teaching about inclusion/exclusion, peace and conflict and research methods. I find it interesting that each refers to teaching, rather than to research;this may be because teaching ‘is often more difficult to accomplish in a foreign culture than research’, (Foote et al., 2008, p.170 in Green &Myatt, 2011).
Terra Sprague uses baseball as a metaphor for her story, writing as a North American who is working both as a Research Fellow and as a doctoral researcher. Her story intrigued me as she writes of feeling that people do not know how to ‘position’ her;she inhabits different spaces in the building where she works and the university’s email systems are, apparently, unable to cope with her having these different ‘identities’. She contrasts this sharply with the US context where it is much more common for doctoral researchers to ‘perform’ different roles. I am fascinated by what she perceives to be ‘differences’, in particular in the way that time is used, for example, the shorter holidays taken in the US than the UK and the differences in statutory maternity leave. Her perspective makes for an interesting contrast with that of Irene Macias who writes of how, after having lived for so many years in the UK, she still struggles with the idea of a working lunch and with people eating through meetings. Intriguing examples of how it is not until we encounter ‘difference’ that we reflect critically on our own practices.
Labels – loose or otherwise?
There is, understandably, a sense of resistance to being positioned as an international academic that permeates the stories. I share this discomfort about positioning and being positioned and have written elsewhere about my resistance to homogenising terms such asinternational students, home students, and also about my own resistance to being positioned in any way, whether this be ethnically, theoretically or methodologically (Trahar, 2011). Joanna Al-Youssef writes: I suddenly realised that I would be exploring a layer of my identity that is so vague and feels almost artificial as it appears to be the creation of others’ perceptions outside of myself rather than a real part of me;an ‘international’ member of staff…I struggle with this term. Emotions aside, the word ‘international’ means to me, personally, a national-Other, someone from a different ‘place’, a different nation.
Each contributor, in different ways, reflects on this positioning as having both advantages and limitations and, in spite of our avowed resistance to these ‘labels’, the stories provide me with different insights into the academic environment in which I work, causing me to reflect on my rationale for adopting particular practices. I have similar experiences in all of my interactions with students and researchers from other contexts and it is in this liminal space, what Diversi &Moreira (2009) refer to as ‘Betweener talk’, that lie rich opportunities for learning. This notion of ‘Betweener talk’ reflects the postcolonial concept of unhomeliness, the discomfort that can often be felt when we are met with values, beliefs that are very different from those that we hold. This is a fertile space as, if we can sustain this discomfort, rich insights into the lives of others – and our own – can occur.
As I indicated earlier, while there is very little published research that focuses on ‘international’ or ‘transnational’ academics’ experience of working in UK higher education, such research as there is affirms that, sadly, we often overlook the rich resource of academics from different contexts and the opportunities to learn from them. Green &Myatt’s (2011) narrative study of new international academics in Australia concluded, ‘There was nothing…to indicate that their value has been recognised within their work units, or the wider university’ (p.43). None of the writers in this publication make any reference to this lack of recognition. Irene Macias, however, in reflecting on the conflict she experienced in writing her contribution ‘not using the expected academic discourse’ draws an analogy between being an academic who is not using her first language and ‘the risk of inadequacy, and of not being perceived favourably because the medium in which you are delivering your content is not quite as polished and sophisticated’. I would disagree on that latter point, but, in a recent research project that I undertook to explore academics’ experiences of greater diversity in UK higher education, I interviewed 4 academics who were not from the UK. This had not been my intention – it was happenstance – but it was the academics who were relatively recent newcomers to the UK who talked of feeling that their academic colleagues were not interested in their experiences from their own contexts. Those who were more established had clearly been able to influence – and quite significantly the practices in their disciplines. All of the writers in this publication are well established in their UK contexts – Terra Sprague is the most recent arrival – and this may therefore be why none of them report any of these rather negative experiences.
To end this introduction, I return to Diversi &Moreira (2009):
We, the authors, will continue to study the theories and the English language, but let us, all of us, also write from visceral experience in the process. Besides turf, there is nothing to lose and much to be gained. (p.209)
I have gained much, not only from reading and commenting on the stories told here but also from the whole process of gathering them, meeting and talking with the contributors and reflecting on how these stories link with broader concepts in higher education. My message to the authors, therefore, is that nothing has been lost in their stories of their visceral experiences – not even turf – and much gained, certainly for this reader and, I suspect, for many others.
Many thanks to BAICE who funded this project and to Dr Fiona Hyland, whose input helped to secure the funding and who was very much a part of it until she left the Graduate School of Education.
Bönisch-Brednich, B. (2010) Migrants on campus: becoming a local foreign academic. In B. Bönisch-Brednich &C. Trundle (Eds) Local Lives: Migration and the Politics of Place (pp 167 – 182). Farnham: Ashgate.
Davies, B. &Gannon, S. (2006) Doing Collective Biography. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Diversi, M. &Moreira, C. (2009) Betweener Talk: Decolonizing Knowledge Production, Pedagogy, and Praxis. Walnut Creek, Ca: Left Coast Press.
Green, W. &Myatt, P. (2011) Telling tales: a narrative research study of the experiences of new international academic staff at an Australian university. International Journal for Academic Development 16 (1) 33-44
Kim, T. (2009) Transnational academic mobility, internationalization and interculturality in higher education. Intercultural Education 20 (5) 395-405
Kim (2011) Transnational Academic Mobility and New Knowledge Creation: a Biographic Narrative Account of Two Distinct Periods in Intellectual History. Paper presented at The Value of Narrative Inquiry, Life History and Autoethnography in Research in higher Education Symposium, European Conference on Educational Research, Berlin, September 2011.
Trahar, S. (2011) Developing Cultural Capability in International Higher Education: a Narrative Inquiry. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.