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Developing academic practice as fragmentation and the problem of definition

Gough, A.Martin (2009) Developing academic practice as fragmentation and the problem of definition. In: 3rd international conference on Preparing for Academic Practice “Beyond teaching and research: inclusive understandings of Academic Practice”, 13-15 December 2009, St Anne’s College, Oxford. (Unpublished) (KAR id:25280)

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In comparison with accounts explaining how we may view academic practice as a coherent whole from a theoretical perspective (e.g. McAlpine & Hopwood; CETL), I contribute, through involvement in two projects (CETL1; CETL2), to how and why the engagement in developing as an early career academic is fragmentary.

The latter project has, employing exploratory methodology, been enquiring into evaluation of development provision with respect to participant learning and attainment (impact levels 2 and 3 of the Rugby Team Impact Framework, after Kirkpatrick), asking to what extent can assessment of participants be deployed in development events, especially those which do not lead to an award? Local comparative analysis of the PRES and CROS surveys finds one common perception to be that development is ‘done to’ researchers rather than by them and for them. The fieldwork, group discussions and individual interviewing and questionnaires, has focused upon the experiences of participants in development events, including some staged to include additional assignments for assessment.

Participating is seen as valuable in its own right for learning, assessment being seen as unnecessary by some, and grading offensive by those evoking a ‘romantic’ narrative. Other participants, especially those at development events which are not normally complemented by an assignment task, are largely open variously to assessment that is for learning and of learning. A conclusion is that the tail of summative assessment, where that is defined according to the needs of accredited and award-bearing provision, does not wag the dog of learning through committed purposive participation. At the same time, there is a strong indication that the selective integration of tasks into development provision, as means by which the performance and competence of participants may be assessed, would constitute a fruitful investment of resources.

Through success or failure in, through appreciation of or dissatisfaction with, development provision, there is an undercurrent around participants’ views which endorses the ‘add on model’, the skills in question being seen as extra content competing for attention (Pearson & Brew, p137; Cargill, pp84+96). They do a course on teaching, a workshop on presenting and on writing abstracts, etc. They are concerned about achieving under each of these headings alongside their main research project, as discrete fragments of their working consciousness. The fragmentary experience may partly be a function of institutional convenience, packaging provision as a series of discrete entities. But I propose that the ground for this goes deeper, down to our understanding of academic practice as a concept. Conceptual analysis will find essentialism and the family resemblance approach to definition (Wittgenstein), and then the default alternative of essential contestability (Gallie), inadequate, despite these offering foundation for coherence of the concept. Offering potentially more enlightenment about academic practice are a pair of alternative theories borrowed from Philosophy of Art, the institutional theory (Dickie), and ‘anti-definition’ (Binkley), the former being perhaps more at home here in academic practice than in the world of Art, the latter perhaps resonating closely with epistemological anarchism (Feyerabend).

I shall present the outline of the project and the interim findings, and the problematic about definition, using powerpoint, for 20 minutes. I shall then pose questions for 10 minutes of small group discussion which reflect the qualitative research questions used in the project methodology. The final 15 minute plenary will hear back the groups’ views, in turn serving as comparative data to the interim findings of the ongoing project, as well as providing opportunity for wider theoretical discussion.


Binkley, T. (1976) ‘Deciding about Art’; in Aagaard-Mogensen, L. (ed.) Culture and Art, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press; and (1992) in Sim, S. (ed.), Art: Context and Value, Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp257-277.

Cargill, M. (2004) ‘Transferable skills within research degrees: a collaborative genre-based approach to developing publication skills and its implications for research education’. Teaching in Higher Education, Vol.9 (no.1), pp 83-98.

CETL: Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice, University of Oxford (2007) ‘Statement on Academic Practice’,

CETL1: ‘Defining “Academic Practice” and developing and piloting profiling tools to log students’ progress in developing academic practice’, project funded by the Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice.

CETL2: ‘Evaluation of Researcher Support Programmes: Assessment within Development Events, and the Attitudes and Experiences towards Academic Careers Provision, of Early Career Academics (ECAs)’, project funded by the Centre for Excellence in Preparing for Academic Practice.

Dickie, G. (1974) Art and the Aesthetic: an institutional analysis, Cornell University Press.

Feyerabend, P. (1975) ‘How to defend society against science’, Radical Philosophy, no.11, pp3-8.

Gallie, W.B. (1955-56) ‘Essentially Contested Concepts’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol.56, pp167-198.

Kirkpatrick, D.L. & Kirkpatrick, J.D. (2006) Evaluating Training Programmes (3rd Ed.), Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

McAlpine, L. & Hopwood, N. (2006) ‘Conceptualizing the research PhD: Towards an integrative perspective’, paper presented at the Society for Research in Higher Education annual conference, Brighton, UK.

Pearson, M. & Brew, A. (2002) ‘Research Training and Supervision Development’, Studies in Higher Education; Vol.27 (no.2, May), pp135-150.

Rugby Team Impact Framework (2008),

Wittgenstein, L. (1967) Philosophical Investigations, (3rd Ed., trans. G.E.M.Anscombe), Oxford: Basil Blackwell, paras.66-67.

Item Type: Conference or workshop item (Paper)
Projects: Defining ‘Academic Practice’ and developing and piloting profiling tools to log students’ progress in developing academic practice, Evaluation of researcher support programmes: assessment within development events, and the attitudes and experiences towards academic careers provision, of early career academics (ECAs)
Subjects: L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC5201 Education extension. Adult education. Continuing education
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BC Logic
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2300 Higher Education
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BD Speculative Philosophy
Divisions: Divisions > Directorate of Education > Centre for the Study of Higher Education
Funders: Research England (
Depositing User: Martin Gough
Date Deposited: 14 Aug 2010 14:37 UTC
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2022 10:40 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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