In 2007 I was lucky enough to be awarded a National Teaching Fellowship and – as part of this – received a wonderful present of £10,000 that enabled me to attend a Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference in Rotorua, New Zealand. This remains a high point of my academic career in terms of the fun and enjoyment of that teaching and learning event.
I took part in a pre-conference workshop which basically involved cycling around the mud and boiling sulphur pools of Lake Rotorua. But this activity was a cunningly devised meditation on peer review (of teaching practice)! Delegates were put into pairs; one of whom was a proficient cyclist, whilst the other wasn’t. The mentor stayed close to the novice and sought to reassure and help them to cycle safely. At the end of this bracing morning’s ride, the mentee then reflected on how the mentoring had been – reassuring? Helpful? Clear, and so on? And I haven’t even begun to wax lyrical about the immaculate conference organisation and extra-curricular trips to a Māori communal and sacred meeting ground or marae, plus watching fireflies in the antipodean darkness. Oh, and the sight of the Prince of Wales geyser blowing its top:
When I applied for an NTF my mentor – Prof Mick Healey, then at the University of Gloucestershire – advised that I could either put in a conventional application that recounted a chronological teaching and journey, or I could do something unconventional. Well, that was irresistible and I started my application with “Once upon a time…” And then proceeded to write about myself in the third person. The upshot was that one reviewer loved the quirkiness while the other hated it! Both however, very graciously, concluded that “James models his approach to learning on his own experiences as an early professional proponent of community development in the North East of England…There is strong evidence of your commitment and enthusiasm for providing students with the best learning experience with the goal of developing a cadre of committed community developers.” Additionally, “passion for his subject and for empowering students”.
I am absolutely clear that without my National Teaching Fellowship I would never have gained promotion to a Principal Lectureship. It has also led me into the supportive club that is the Association of National Teaching Fellows (ANTF), for whom I act as joint Communications Officer. NTF status has led me to research much more methodically aspects of teaching and learning, including: Inspirational teaching in higher education: What does it look, sound and feel like? (2017) in the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I was rather chuffed to see has been downloaded 1,500 times across 10+ countries! Likewise, (2017) Mobiles in class? Active Learning in Higher Education.
My own perception is that the award has also encouraged and impelled me to act as the grit in the oyster and critical friend, independent thinker/ awkward cuss, in relation to speaking out for higher education teaching and teachers through blogs (for the Guardian, WonkHE, BERA and Times Higher). I think there is considerable fear in academe just now, with colleagues on temporary and insecure contracts; expectations of doing more with less as austerity bites harder. Managers might construe this speaking out as being a loose cannon, or making waves….but at a time of climate crisis, fake news and global poverty, surely now is the time for us academics to step forward, speak up and speak out.
I try to enact the exhortation of philosopher of science JD Bernal: the individual to be citizen first, scientist second. By which he meant that whatever our job, profession or student status, we are first and foremost an individual citizen, capable of contributing to our geographical and interest communities.
My various spare-time ventures have fed back into student teaching and learning in the form of internships, graduate links, project visits, case studies, projects, dissertation topics and assignment tasks. Another example would be work on the role of churches – and the Church of England in particular – in delivering affordable homes using their land and buildings. The genesis of this was as an undergraduate final year Independent Study, which blossomed into a fully funded national initiative – Faith in Affordable Housing FiAH - that has been featured in published UK Government reports on rural housing issues and delivery of low-cost housing, such as Lord Taylor’s report, 2008: 110-111). The student and I became founder, volunteer, Board members, and - on graduation - she was employed as the FAiH Project Officer. The venture has operated under the wing of Housing Justice, and its work continues, with Welsh Government funding. The project has generated at least 100+ new affordable homes that would otherwise not have been built.
In conclusion I feel that my NTF has given me the freedom and licence to experiment much more adventurously than I might have otherwise, because I could lean into the cushion of my Fellowship, that reassured me that my peers valued my teaching and learning.
James Derounian is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bolton. James has a career spanning 40 years, related to community development, HE teaching, blended learning, rural social issues, diasporas. James is married to Linsey, a teacher and have an artist son, Sam.