This paper explores the notion and practice of collaboration as it occurred in a CUTSD (Committee for University Teaching and Staff Development) funded project called TULIP (Tertiary Undergraduate Literacy Integration Program). A particular feature of the Project involved us in working collaboratively with lecturers from different disciplines and different tertiary institutions around the issue of first year student literacy. One of the insights from the Project is that the notion and practice of collaboration is problematic. Collaboration, we found, needs to be flexible, critical, and practical - central to the processes of changing the social and discursive practices and understandings of participating teachers. But it is this very centrality, we believe, that problematises what is generally understood by the term 'collaboration'. We find it useful to think of collaboration as a process of involvement in social meaning-practice and interactions that are relational and hybrid. When we collaboratively discussed our actions and judgements, along with our nagging doubts and glimmers of insights, the conversation gradually became more inclusive. We developed a process of flexible collaboration that enabled us to articulate divergent practices and that confronted multiple realities in education. In doing so, we were led to examine the social functions and effects of the meanings we made; the politics of our texts.
The definition of action research we used as a starting point was that of Kemmis and McTaggart (1989). They describe it as a collaborative process which begins from participants' exploration of their current ways of understanding their circumstances in order to define the problem and their values, moves to planning and implementation of possible strategies, and culminates in evaluation and re-planning through participatory modes of learning and working. According to the literature on critical theory and the critical theoretical approach to action research, it is possible for action research projects to contribute to institutional change (Hall, 1996). In fact, according to Carr and Kemmis (1986), who draw on Habermas (1982), organisational and cultural change is an ultimate purpose of action research.
We found that 'flexible collaboration' was integral to changing the practices and understandings of participating lecturers so that they could enhance students' literacy within their classrooms. Our definition of 'flexible collaboration' draws on Lather's (1991) view of reciprocity, which 'implies give and take, a mutual negotiation of meaning and power' (p. 57). We also saw our collaboration as being shaped by emancipatory aspirations that offered a powerful opportunity for praxis in that it enabled people to change by encouraging self-reflection and a deeper understanding of their particular situation. Drawing on the process of reflexivity (Richardson, 1994), we interrogated the ways in which meaning and power were negotiated in our collaborative endeavours, keeping in mind, of course, that meaning and power will always remain problematical (Grundy & Hatton, 1995). We were thus led to problematise the process of collaboration, formulating instead a notion of 'flexible collaboration', that enabled all of us involved in the project to move towards socially critical outcomes. This paper explores the flexible collaboration that was integral to the TULIP Project.
It is our belief that a 'true' collaborative culture, as distinct from Fullan and Hargreaves' contrived collegiality, is one that begins from the recognition that the language and ideologies of collegiality and collaboration are often used to sell to teachers the contradictory notion of increasingly centralised authority alongside a divesting of central responsibility to schools (Smyth, 1995). While Smyth is talking about schools, we would make the same argument for tertiary teachers and tertiary management.
The TULIP project was not part of a management strategy, and therefore had a degree of autonomy from managerialist imperatives; but, we were aware that versions of 'contrived collegiality' are commonly associated with external funding of any project, implying a top-down model of change (Johnston & Proudford, 1994). We were mindful, too, of the comment by Blackmore (1999) that 'action research and teacher/academic partnerships have now been adopted as management strategies to implement government policy, often neutralising their political, critical and democratic intent' (p. ii). The key structural feature that seemed to us to allow some empowerment was that we ourselves were in the same structural position as the people we were inviting to be participants. Therefore, their calculus of the 'cost benefits of collaboration' (Smyth, et al 2000, p. 91) in regard to their participation did not have to include that this was management trying to sell them something, or putting them under scrutiny.
Our meetings with the participating lecturers took place on a weekly basis, and, initially, we directed and shaped our colleagues' ideas regarding what constitutes literacy in a tertiary classroom. We acknowledge the unequal power relations suggested at this early stage of the project, with the control of the power lying with the initiators of the project (Gore, 1991). However, we felt comparatively comfortable with this initial direction, as lecturers had chosen to participate in the project, because of their concerns regarding student literacy, and their desire to be part of a research project that was designed to address this concern. Then, as the project progressed, we engaged with our colleagues in devising ways of countering the occasional student hostility that sometimes resulted from ways of teaching and learning that were unexpected in their particular disciplines. This disruption to their teaching called on us to be flexible in our approach to collaboration. Sometimes, we would be supportive, providing a sympathetic ear to stories from the classroom. At other times, we would be somewhat confrontational, as we asked them to articulate their understandings clearly to the group, who would also question their pedagogical approaches. Ultimately, we found that our flexible collaboration was very much a reciprocal process, as we learned from each other's experiences, shared beliefs and values, and felt collectively empowered in our teaching.
The literacy strategies that our participating lecturers trialled emerged from our version of what counts as literacy teaching. So, one of our major priorities was the need to create a shared language in order to be able to talk across disciplines. For example, while we saw literacy as a 'dynamic, evolving social and historical construction...constructed by individuals and groups as part of everyday life' (Luke, 1993, p. 4) the lecturers generally had a deficit view of literacy, seeing it as being able to read and write, which they decided, most students couldn't do to a standard required for tertiary learning.
At one of our first meetings, the following comments were made:
|Social Science Lecturer: They can't read or write. They can't pronounce the words in the readings, much less work out what they might mean from the context.
Nursing Lecturer: I'm really looking forward to getting started on some of your strategies, but I can't see, at this stage, quite how it's going to work, because the students' own reading and writing is so bad, usually.
Our response: It seems to us that you are seeing literacy in quite narrow terms, as being able to read and write. Being 'literate' in the academy entails much more than reading and writing; it involves understanding the culture, and discourses, of the academy, as well as understanding how to access the particular language of the discipline.
One of the early difficulties we noted in our collaboration was that we have particular ways of looking at and approaching literacy learning that were generated through our own understandings, experiences, and reading of the literature. We were mindful of Grundy's (1982) comment which saw one aspect of action research as one in which the project 'would be instigated by a particular person or group of persons, who, by reason of their greater experience or qualifications, would be regarded as 'experts' or 'authority figures' (Grundy, 1982, p. 24). We acknowledge this perspective, and, as the next section will show, tried to find ways of being both 'experts', and 'co-learners' when collaborating with the participating lecturers.
The following comments indicate how the challenge of developing a shared language was realised during the course of the project.
|Environmental Science Lecturer: Early on I was struck by coming from a different discipline. And that was why I was fascinated by the role play that you were talking about, and how could I change it to fit into a science context. I knew you were talking a different language, but I didn't necessarily understand the language all the time. It was intriguing.
Nursing Lecturer: I felt a bit isolated by it, but that was no problem. I tried to get as much out of it as I could, but I just accepted that it was a different discipline, different language, and I obviously had large gaps in my knowledge.
Social Science Lecturer: I think it's because it's within your language that the recipes have been developed. It's not natural for us, or expected that we do these things as part of our discipline, and therefore you need a starting point because it is just not natural to do that in that discipline.
Our response: The strategies are to provide you with a guide for use in the classroom. We have presented each step to be followed, but we really would suggest you modify this to suit your particular situation. Above all, don't be worried if the steps don't seem to work out for you, or even if the strategy does not seem to go as planned. Part of our work together is to evaluate what works, how it works, and why it works, in each discipline. So, don't be worried about deviating from our 'plan'.
One of the early aspects of this process was that the lecturers, generally, followed each of the steps provided for implementation of the strategy, even though, both during the tutorial/lecture itself and on later reflection, they could see it would have been more effective to have modified the steps to suit their particular classroom situation. As the above response makes clear, we were at pains to suggest that they did not have to follow the steps as written.
We were, in a sense, directing the lecturers to teach in ways they had not considered before. The following is a discussion that focuses on this issue:
|Environmental Science Lecturer: I think TULIP activities exposed some things the students were not good at - ie writing, analysing written material, sharing opinions, sharing their writing skills - and they therefore came to resent the fact that their frailties were visible to everyone else in the class. I suspect that focussing on communication skills in science is almost unheard of - at least in these students' minds. I suspect that if communication and literacy issues were pushed in other science units, those units might get a reputation for being difficult and students might avoid enrolling in them.
Our Response: So, is your concern more to do with the student hostility, or with the possible threat to your teaching load if this particular unit got a 'bad' reputation for being difficult?
Social Science Lecturer: I don't think it's an either/or situation. One of my students said she thought she was back in primary school.
Environmental Science Lecturer: In the last two or three weeks I've found it hard going. I think they're reacting to being pushed. I've been leaning on them pretty hard to try and encourage them to be involved in discussing the issues, but also to be involved in TULIP activities and thinking about issues, thinking critically about anything. And they just don't want to. On Monday, one of the two women who refused to be involved directed some quite serious hostility towards me when I asked her a direct question about information. She was very sullen, and that was directed at me personally.
During the part of the project, when this hostility began to emerge, we were reminded of Ellsworth's (1989) writing on the problems of 'empowerment' and her criticisms of critical pedagogy. We noted Ellsworth's charge that critical pedagogy can become positivist itself, stressing who we 'should be' and what 'should be' happening in our classrooms (p. 299). Furthermore, the concepts of 'empowerment' and 'voice' can be fraught with difficulty once they are extended beyond the level of rhetoric. Nevertheless, what struck us in particular was the way that lecturers spoke so freely of their classroom dilemmas, denoting a sense of trust in the collaborative process and the support of their peers.
|Environmental Science Lecturer: I think that's something I've picked up, that what works for one person may not be the best means, so diversity is a good thing. Science, I know there's controversy within science, but basically it tends to be pretty 'factual', and that dictates how you approach the subject. But, at the same time, it stimulated me to say, well, does my subject area have to be so didactic, so black and white.
Social Science Lecturer: The TULIP activities assisted greatly in showing students the processes of reflection and consolidation of lecture material and in some deep reading of certain chapter segments or articles. My teaching had to change in that I had to be organised before a tutorial, something I did not always do before. I also changed my teaching of some lectures by trying to integrate breaks to write and think about things in the lectures.
Nursing Lecturer: I believe my involvement with TULIP has enhanced students' understanding of the unit content. I believe this occurred because TULIP encouraged me to explore and use a range of teaching styles I might not have otherwise used. TULIP has given me the freedom, or perhaps the permission, to experiment with my teaching. TULIP has aroused within me a passion for my teaching.
It is our belief that when collaboration is undertaken by colleagues who experience similar constraints and possibilities within a power structure, the result can be educative, empowering, energising, critical, affirming, and flexible in a way that no managerialist contrived collegiality can be. Further, we believe that collaboration and collegiality can be re-appropriated from the managerialist discourse in a way which renews their links with the emancipatory discourse from which they came.
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|Contact details: Dr Patricia Cartwright, Australian Catholic University, Aquinas Campus|
Phone (03) 5336 5390 Fax (03) 5336 5325 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Cartwright, P. and Noone, L. (2001). Collaboration in teaching and learning: Insights from TULIP (Tertiary Undergraduate Literacy Integration Program). In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 124-132. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/cartwright.html