Teaching Awards: A writing rollercoaster

Ed: With RMIT’s Teaching Awards season underway, this week we welcome a team from the University of Canberra writing on the process of making applications for national citations.

Guest Post: Coralie McCormack, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Canberra.

An expanded version of our rollercoaster ride can be read in ‘Things fall apart so they can fall together’: uncovering the hidden side of writing a teaching award application, McCormack, Vanags and Prior (2014). We offer the expanded narrative (and this quick précis) as a companion to accompany other award applicants and their writing guides on their journey, whatever shape it takes.

Waiting in line (Who we were/still are):

Our rollercoaster ride occurred in 2010 when I was an academic developer within the University of Canberra’s Teaching and Learning Centre. I have a passion for evaluating learning and teaching, developing teaching philosophy statements, teaching portfolios and narrative approaches to teaching and research. I specialise in capacity building for leadership in learning and teaching through institutional and national teaching awards, mentoring programs, writing as a method of inquiry and teaching and learning communities of practice such as TATALs (Talking about teaching and learning). In 2010, I assisted Thea and Robyn with their successful applications for an Australian Learning and Teaching Council Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.

ClimbThea was an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Canberra with a fervour for knowledge and understanding, and an ability to use everyday language and examples to explain concepts. These skills and her focus on student feedback enable students to overcome their negative preconceptions of difficult topic areas. She received an ALTC Citation “For using active learning to demystify psychology, inspiring student engagement with the ‘hard, boring’ topics to create exciting learning interactions”.

Robyn was a Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry at the University of Canberra. She uses four main strategies to help students learn: deconstructing complex material using simple explanations, presenting complex processes through animations, illustrating complex molecules through computer simulations and demonstrating complex processes through easy-to-understand drawings. She integrates these with examples that can be applied in everyday life. Robyn received an ALTC Citation “For using ‘step-wise’ knowledge building approaches to help reluctant learners understand and apply complex concepts in difficult biochemistry areas”.

The ride experience:

Meredith Seaman’s post suggests that this type of writing “…does not usually come naturally. It’s hard work and a new style…” We would concur and go as far as to say that writing a UpsidedownCitation application feels like you’re on a rollercoaster where things fall apart before they can come together for submission and success. What we are wondering now, is whether this is something with which others are familiar? Maybe you have ridden the writing rollercoaster as a teaching award applicant. We suspect this rollercoaster is also a ride we take in other writing contexts, such as performance appraisal reports and promotion applications.

The wash-up:

When our ride was finally over we took time to investigate this previously hidden side of writing from an autoethnographic perspective. Our collective story recounts the sense of feeling ‘at home’ as practitioners recognised by our institutions in various ways. However, this was followed by a sense of becoming and being ‘unhomely’ as we gathered speed on the downhill. As time passed and we went through the cycles of re-writes and reflection, our writing gathered momentum and Thea and Robyn began to feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar world of learning and teaching discourse. With this new momentum the we began to enjoy the process, the rollercoaster, we felt a sense of ‘homeliness’. After submission and success we felt a sense of personal transformation through learning and growing ourselves as teachers.

If the stages of ‘homeliness’ and ‘unhomeliness’ identified in our story are replicated in the experiences of others it could reasonably be asked whether the benefits are at least as great as the physical and emotional effort needed to achieve success, particularly for early career academics pressured from all sides to perform as teachers and as researchers.

The inevitably nomadic lives of academics adds a final footnote to all of this. Two years on and our team is now spread across three universities but we’re still able to collaborate electronically (most recently in the HERDSA article and this blog post) and we’re all still engaged in the scholarship of learning and teaching.

But back to where we started, at the title of Meredith Seaman’s contribution: ‘Teaching awards – worth the paperwork?’ And our answer? A definite YES!

For more information:

  • Teachers, academics (and academic developers) might like to visit the resources for the Promoting Excellence Network  hosted at the University of New South Wales.
  • McCormack, C., Prior, R., & Vanags, T. (2014). ‘Things fall apart so they can fall together’: Uncovering the hidden side of writing a teaching award application. Higher Education Research and Development. DOI:10.1080/07294360.2014.890569

Contact:  Coralie.McCormack@canberra.edu.au

Share your thoughts about any aspect of the Teaching Awards process in the comments section!

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