Higher Education research and development … as a movie

I work in Higher Education as a researcher and academic developer, and I also love movies. So, obviously, I began to wonder what kind of movie best represents my work. I originally wrote this for HERDSA News to share my reflections with my colleagues in the same field.

What kind of movie encompasses our various activities: offering workshops for staff and students, teaching on a diploma in HE, developing institutional policies, researching, writing resources, and offering advice on academic practice? Here are some of my thoughts.

Are we in a mystery movie, perhaps? At least part of what we do is identify and solve the puzzles of scholarship and practice – how do you foster engagement in first year students? How can formative assessment best support learning? But higher education research and development is not a Psycho type thriller. Perhaps it’s more like the early Harry Potter movies before they got too sinister (though in our more paranoid moments we may suspect dark, market forces working in the background).

Are we the laconic gunslinger, like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of dollars? Or, because our work is very much a team effort, perhaps higher education research and development is more like The Magnificent Seven? Exciting, yes, but I think this is a damaging metaphor to adopt (and probably sexist). This makes us the good guys, but others have to be the bad guys. This metaphor would mean our colleagues are either villains to defeat or victims to protect, and neither of these are healthy relationships.

For the same reason we are not in a crime movie like The Untouchables. The lecturer that fails to engage their students is not Al Capone. We are not the higher education police. Nor are we in an adventure movie with some black and white story of good vs. evil. We are not Superman and this is not Star Wars. I don’t see us as cleaning up a corrupt town, policing crime, or fighting evil. In fact I don’t see anything wrong in higher education. There are things that can be improved, of course, but this doesn’t mean that we should see them as bad, evil and wrong. Our colleagues, our institutions, and their leaders are not the enemy, not criminals, and not evil.

Even if we’re not in a Western, it might still be important to see ourselves as higher education action heroes. This would certainly make our work meaningful and help us to keep going in the face of the inevitable slog, resistance, and the looong time it takes to make substantial changes. Yet I can’t see myself as Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, though perhaps I can identify with the hero in a teaching movie. Like Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, we make an inspiring difference (without demonising anyone).

What about a sports movie? Our work in higher education could be nicely framed as the struggle to transform a disorganised team into a winning team, like the Bad News Bears (OK, they didn’t actually win at the end, but they did improve beyond all expectations, and that might be enough). Perhaps we are like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, providing training and development for our colleagues, students and institutions? (Though I am dubious about portraying us as the master to our colleagues). The dull drudgery of some of our work—marking, transcribing, addressing the same issue again and again—could be nicely captured in a sports movie. Ideally it would all be portrayed in a montage of shots set to stirring music like Rocky training for his big boxing match (and hopefully unlike the soldiers slogging forward, constantly under fire in Saving Private Ryan where almost everyone is killed).

Higher education research and development might sometimes feel like a serious life work, but maybe we would be better to treat it more like a comedy (Back to the Future perhaps), or better still a musical like Singing in the Rain – There are problems to overcome, but let’s sing and dance while we deal with them.

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About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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