What do academic developers do?






I’ve been an academic developer for several years now and friends and family still ask

What is it you do again?

I usually say that I help university lecturers to improve their learning and teaching. But “develop” is such a slippery word. What exactly does it mean?

A colleague and I recently posed that question to a room full of academic developers (yes, there are a lot of us about). To help them get started we suggested a few analogies.

Are you like property developers, knocking things down and putting up new constructions?

Perhaps you’re more like chess players, developing pieces by moving them into powerful positions?

The academic developers weren’t very keen on these commercial and managerial images for what they do. They preferred humanistic metaphors, seeing themselves as photographers bringing out latent qualities or gardeners coaxing a barren or overgrown area to fruition. One lively group chose the image of bacteria in a Petri dish. You can’t make colleagues develop, but you can create an environment where they thrive.

Looking afresh at our job titles was fun, but I had a serious purpose in mind. I wanted to show that the metaphors we choose influence how we think and what we do (Sfard, 1998). An academic developer who thinks of colleagues as chess pieces to be controlled will have a very different approach from one who sees them as diverse plants to be nurtured. And when we stop noticing these metaphors we may unthinkingly perpetuate old beliefs and unquestioned assumptions, making it difficult to introduce fresh insights and critiques of our thinking and practices (Sfard, 1998).

Hidden metaphors can be subtle as well as powerful. By digging into the layers of meaning under the word “development” Webb(1996) unearths the embryo metaphor:

 the idea of development as directed towards a given end and passing through a number of predetermined stages (p64)

that underlies much of our thinking about learning and teaching. This is an impoverished way of making sense of university lecturers’ continuing professional development.

Here are three words that I predict may get a bit slippery over the coming months:


Teaching * Excellence * Framework (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015).


What are the metaphors behind them? What new ones will be brought into play?

And what do they mean for everyone’s development?



With thanks to Sam Ellis and colleagues at SHED (Scottish Higher Education Developers) https://scottishhedevelopers.wordpress.com/



Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2015). Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474266/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice-accessible.pdf [accessed 16.11.2015]

Sfard, A. (1998) On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One Educational Researcher 27(2)pp 4-13

Times Higher Education Supplement (2015) Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF): everything you need to know available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-everything-you-need-to-know [accessed 16.11.2015]

Webb, G (1996) Theories of staff development: Development and understanding International Journal for Academic Development 1(1)pp 63-9





Slow Reading

This blog post previously appeared as “The Power of Patience” here: https://iad4learnteach.wordpress.com/

In my job as an academic developer, I encourage university lecturers to read widely about learning and teaching.  These days I’m also urging them to read slowly.  I want them to pay careful attention to a text, word by word, in order to work out what it really means for them.  I try to get them to engage deeply with short ‘teaching texts,’ both academic and non-academic, in order to gain insight into their practice as teachers (Loads 2013).  By ‘teaching texts’ I mean any writings that repay close scrutiny and that can tell us something about our teaching.  I encourage colleagues to read excerpts from academic papers, policy documents, poems and other writings.  I ask them questions about their individual responses:

  • What strikes you as surprising or significant about this text/line/word?
  • What questions does it raise for you?
  • What ambiguities and contradictions are you aware of?
  • What resonates with you?

These discussions open up the possibility of spontaneous readings that capture nuances and associations.  We then turn to a deeper level of contemplation when I invite them to make judgements about the relevance of their readings.  I help participants to make creative connections with their practice:

  • So what does this mean for you?
  • How can you relate this to something you already understand about your teaching?
  • Is there an important idea here that you can use in your thinking?
  • Have you ever experienced a situation that sheds light on this idea? (Kain1998)

Useful for lecturers, slow reading is also valuable for students.  In a series of videos that are at the heart of the Massive Online Open Course, “Modern and Contemporary American poetry,” Professor  Al Filreis (2013) facilitates a group of students in collaborative close readings of US poets including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein.  Many of the poems are considered “difficult” but Filreis coaxes his students to work together, teasing out a range of meanings, word by word.  He likens this slow reading to the slow food movement, and suggests that both can improve our health by aiding our respiration, digestion, sociality and mindfulness.

Students in Professor Jennifer Roberts’ (2013) art history classes at Harvard are also encouraged to slow down.  She insists that they go to an art gallery and spend three solid hours observing a single painting and noting their own observations before they consult any books or online resources.  Although they find the assignment bewildering and even painful, this gives her students insight into the experience of “deceleration, patience and immersive attention.”  Roberts claims that in a world where everything else is pushing us to speed up and to react to multiple distractions, such contemplative practices teach the value of patience and slowing down.  Deceleration is as important for the trained eye as for the novice; she tells how it took her 45 minutes to notice a tiny detail of a painting that contributed to her understanding of its meaning.  Nor is a contemplative approach confined to art history: she claims that other disciplines repay patient attention, whether the object is “a star, a sonnet (or) a chromosome.”

In her talk, the “Power of Patience,” Professor Roberts leaves us with a challenge: if we are to ask our students to make time for “concentrated, slow, non-distracted experiences of learning” how can we find ways to create these experiences in our own lives as educators?


Filreis, A. (2013) ‘‘Modern and Contemporary American Poetry’’ Accessed Nov  6 2015 https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpoetry

Kain, P. (1998) ‘‘How to do a Close Reading’’ Accessed Nov 6 2015


Loads,D. (2013) Collaborative close reading of teaching texts: one way of helping academics to make sense of their practice Teaching in Higher Education 18(8): 950-957

Roberts, J. (2013)   The Power of Patience : Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention Accessed November 19  http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience