Ulrike Niens, Queen’s University Belfast
Reflecting on my experiences as an academic member of staff, who was not born in the UK but working in UK higher education, presented me with a number of challenges. For me it raised questions relating to identity, overlapping categories of inclusion and exclusion as well as a sense of exposure which I see partly reflected in my research, teaching and my daily academic work in general.
While the above description as an academic member of staff from a context outside of the UK certainly applies to me, I would not necessarily identify as an international member of staff. In fact, when asked to write for this publication I was not sure what my contribution would be as I would rarely consider myself an international academic;national identity is seldom an overt focal point in my daily activities and interactions with colleagues. However, while I have developed a strong sense of belonging to the country that I currently live in and its people I would certainly not consider myself local either. When introducing myself at a recent conference a colleague from South Africa joked and asked how many years I think I would have to live in Northern Ireland before I would stop qualifying my introductions with ‘I’m originally from Germany’. Given that I have now lived here for the past 15 years, this self-description is likely to accompany me until I retire or beyond that.
The focus of my work on peace and conflict and diversity and inclusion makes it very contextualized. In Northern Ireland, my role as an outsider, an international, is inbuilt and inevitable due to a lack of personal memories of the conflict and the difficulties of locating my position in terms of the two labels, Catholic or Protestant even if that labelling only refers to the community that people are born into rather than to their religious beliefs or socio-political affiliations. Similarly, my own perspectives on conflict and peace are deeply coloured by personal and collective memories situated in the German past and present as well as being informed by my understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Both of these have certainly contributed to my research interests as well as my research approach, which is variously rooted in post-positivism, interpretivism or constructivism, whereby my personal position may become evident to a limited extent. However, openly reflective approaches would be very much outside of my comfort zone.
Reflecting critically on the influence of social identities, values and assumptions on our approach to research and teaching has nevertheless been considered as crucial for educators in higher education. This is arguably even more important in the area of peace and conflict and inclusion and diversity where awareness of our own bias and prejudice becomes central if we want to encourage students to think critically about their own perspectives and to understand issues relating to inclusion, exclusion and conflict (Banks, 2001). Whether teaching about inclusion and exclusion, peace and conflict or about research methods and ethics, my students would thus become familiar with the associations and tensions arising from my own national identity, collective memories and experiences through examples relating to the holocaust and my role as a ‘foreigner’ in Northern Ireland. While increasing global understanding through critical reflection on our identities may be one way of interpreting the goals and purposes of internationalisation in higher education, another way to view it would be as a tool for capitalism (Teichler, 2004). Whitchurch (2010) argues that many academics need to take on roles that combine social responsibilities and market-driven considerations and as such I may be able to positively contribute to both facets of the internationalisation agenda for teaching that modern UK universities now expect from academics.
National identity has come to the forefront of my thoughts when I started writing this essay, in everyday life as an academic it represents just one of many categories of inclusion and exclusion which characterise my own academic experiences as well as the profession as a whole. Despite a systematic transformation of the higher education sector, which today often emphasises interdisciplinary work, disciplinary boundaries have been shown to retain their meaning for many academics (Henkel, 2001). Clegg (2008) also highlights the pervading importance of categories such as family background, gender, social class, and one might add national identity, ethnicity or race, in academics’ experiences of their professional lives and their sense of inclusion or exclusion from their professional communities. And yet, our multiple social identities are fluid and represent an active process of negotiation between our interpretation of our past, present and future selves and the given context (Billot, 2010). Academics thus struggle to refine and re-define their professional identities in the face of a continuously changing higher education sector and a professional community whose social practices are required to adapt to the changing social context.
In many instances, my identification as a psychologist rather than an educationalist or vice versa, as a researcher conducting quantitative and qualitative research in the company of colleagues who are more fervent advocates of one approach over the other, or as a White Western woman become much more pertinent categories in my own professional life than my national identity. My own references to such categories, my perception of their marginalised status in particular group contexts as well as other people’s preconceived ideas about their impact on my beliefs or behaviours thus provide a reference framework in which my identities may become salient or not. Identity salience thus becomes a response to a sense of threat or potential exclusion which, as I have become increasingly aware, affects to varying degrees anybody working within the profession. Negotiating such multiple identities, the potential tensions between them and withstanding the sense of exclusion seems closely associated with maintaining a professional status in a profession, where “you are only as good as your last publication” (Acker &Dillabough, 2007, p. 305). It may be particularly challenging in the changing context of higher education, where many academics feel under increasing pressure to work more effectively and to achieve higher standards (Churchman &King, 2009).
Having worked in UK higher education for a number of years made me appreciate the normality of shifting identities and experiences of inclusion and exclusion that are part of the “kaleidoscope” (Whitchurch, 2008, p. 88) which represents the divergent and changing identities of myself and my colleagues.
A sense of belonging and loyalty to this academic community as well as to the academic institution that I work in made me acutely aware of my vested interests which influenced this piece of writing. Not being used to writing in a reflective style has made it very difficult for me to embark on this essay. This was compounded by language issues of which I became increasingly aware of during the writing process. My English language skills have developed within the limitations of my usual reference frameworks. These entail face to face conversations, which may touch on personal issues usually referring to my present academic life in Northern Ireland rather than my past personal life in Germany, as well as professional encounters and writings, which generally focus on research and teaching. Finding the vocabulary to express myself in a way that bridges past and present as well as my personal and professional life has been a struggle. Additionally, my lack of familiarity with the language, style and focus required for writing a piece of personal reflection rendered me open to a sense of potential exposure and marginalisation and highlighted the interface between different academic writing traditions and national and professional identity as experienced through language.
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. The identities foremost on my mind when concluding this essay thus echo the divergent, contradictory and transitional image of the academic profession as I experience it in everyday life.
After a Psychology Degree at the Free University of Berlin, Germany, Dr Ulrike Niens completed her PhD and worked as a research fellow at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Since 2006, she is a lecturer in Education at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research and teaching focuses on peace education, identity and democracy in divided societies. Ulrike was honorary treasurer for the British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE) from 2005-2009 and is a member of the editorial board of Compare since 2009. email@example.com
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