Drawing on our literature review, one of the areas we were keen to explore was the use of metaphor to characterise work in academic development.

Academic developer ‘identity’ has been described and conceptualised in a range of ways, often expressed metaphorically. For example, Handal (2008) speaks of the educational developer as ‘critical friend’; Ashford et al. (2004) have drawn metaphorical comparisons such as ‘midwife’ and ‘jester’; and Land (2001, 2004, 2008) has set out a widely cited and adapted framework of orientations for academic development, using metaphor to give shape to the categories. Kinash and Wood (2011) explore metaphor (bridges, swimming) to describe their role and suggest that academic developers’ sense of who they are is often bound up with others’ identities (for example, subject-based colleagues.)

Building on this research, we asked interviewees about metaphors they would use to describe their work. Some of those who offered metaphors appeared to be describing their experience of working in their role. It is like,

  • ‘pushing jelly uphill’,
  • ‘walking through fog’,
  • ‘turning the juggernaut’ or
  • ‘a balancing act’.

These all involve an element of engaging with or overcoming a challenging task.

Geographic metaphors were also invoked. One interviewee characterized her/himself as a ‘A nomad that visits other people’s territories’. Yet, another is ‘an experienced map reader’, who ‘knows the territory’. The academic as traveller is compelling and aligns with many of the more literal discussions of place explored within this study.

More broadly and with a nod towards a creative angle was the interviewee who considered her/himself to be “a designer, a designer of learning environments”.

Other metaphors described relationships with others in the institution, with the academic developer being a “translator”, or “the heart” in the circulation system, “pushing blood to the brain” – senior management – and to “the extremities” – staff with teaching responsibilities.

Others presented a vision of their role or mission: “freeing people from shackles”, or nurturing “a fire”.

An awareness of audience and expectations was evident in these responses, too, with two interviewees distinguishing between metaphors (above) that described their actual situation and those that described what was expected of them: to be “a bridge”, “links in a chain” or “spokes in a wheel”, connecting the centre with the outer edges.

Finally, there were references to organic, insect metaphors: ‘beehive’ and ‘spider’s web’.

“… The metaphor that I like for myself is this whole notion of like a fire, the whole notion that people want to develop learning and teaching on the whole, and you just need to be able to place some ideas very lightly, and nurture the fire. The thing is you have [to] sort of hold the space I think, because you can’t … if you put loads of your own logs on it then it just squashes everything and people then think they can’t develop it themselves. But if you don’t do anything then the whole thing dies [… ] cos it takes an awful lot to keep going in this day and age when learning and teaching isn’t valued so much […] I like to try and create the energy in the situation so that they can develop their ideas. (IL)

” […] For me – some of the key things are being able to think outside the box and allow yourself and allow others to be creative in thinking. It’s freeing themselves from the shackles … it’s … ‘cause educational development now is more about efficiency and effectiveness. There’s this huge layer of accountability over everything. And sometimes you have to free yourself from stuff to be able to think about different ways of doing it. […]it’s about freeing yourself from the way you’re doing things and what you’re trying to do to get that clarity and think well are there different ways you can do this. (IB)

‘I think that if I have a metaphor about what I feel that I do, and what skills I have to offer when I’m working with an outside group, I design learning environments. You can think of what a designer does in the world of art and architecture and so on. And you can make parallels because there’s, there’s a creative, almost an aesthetic element about it. But also it’s a craft. You have to know the tools you can use. And you have to know the limitations of the environment that you’re designing. It kind of fits, because you design for a particular environment.’ (IA)

‘There is no bridge, if you know what I mean, like I can’t be the bridge. I’m just the person on the other side of the bridge. They need to build that bridge (IO)

This description offers a flavor of the way in which metaphor was invoked and a fuller discussion of the use of metaphor in this study is included in the e-book, another output from the project.

  • Ashford, R., Handal, G., Hole, C., Land, R. Orr, M. and Phipps, A. (2004) Who are ‘we’? Who are ‘you’?, Who are ‘they’? Issues of role and identity in academic development.’ in Elvidge, L. (ed.) Exploring academic Development in Higher Education. Cambridge. Jill Rogers Associates.
  • Handal, G. (2008) Identities of academic developers: Critical friends in the academy? In R. Barnett and R Napoli, eds. Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives. London: Routledge
  • Land, R. (2008). Academic Development: Identity and Paradox. In Changing Identities in Higher Education: Voicing Perspectives. Eds. Barnett, R. & DiNapoli, R. Routledge. London: Routledge.
  • Land, R. (2004). Educational Development: Discourse, Identity and Practice. Maidenhead, Open University Press, McGraw-Hill.
  • Land (2001) ‘Agency, context and change in academic development’ IJAD 6;1 4-20.
  • Kinash, S. and Wood, K. ‘Academic developer identity: how we know who we are’. (2011) IJAD 18:2 , 178- 189