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"Excellence is not negotiable" - NAPP 2016

14 Jun 2016 - 12:30

Three things new academics should know: firstly, ensure that you have mentors within your faculty because “you’d be surprised at what you don’t know”; secondly, find out about the abundant resources available to you through your institution; and lastly, realise the networks of peers that you can build. These were words of wisdom from Professor Penny Andrews, Dean of Law at UCT to the latest cohort of academics attending the New Academic Practitioners’ Programme (NAPP). 

NAPP is a holistic induction programme at UCT, for new academics with less than five years’ experience in higher education. Its key focus is to strengthen resources and practices necessary for new academics to develop as educators, researchers and members of the UCT community. Every semester the programme takes 20 academics to the Mont Fleur Conference Centre in Stellenbosch on a residential workshop. The Centre, nestled behind sky-high trees, is the perfect place to get away from the everyday hustle and bustle and focus solely on one’s teaching practices. 

Over the years NAPP has evolved with the changing times. The latest cohort saw academics from a diverse range of backgrounds come together for the second run of the improved NAPP that puts the new academic at the centre of the programme, providing a space to stimulate discussion. One highly beneficial and interactive session - microteaching - sees participants prepare a 10 minute class and present it to their peers as if they were presenting to their students, after which they receive feedback from those present. Each session is also recorded for participants to reflect on at a later stage. 

For the first time this year a student panel was invited to talk to academics about what it means to be a student in higher education today. Participants found this session extremely helpful and enlightening as it allowed them to reconnect with what it felt like to be a student. Students touched on the importance of making individuals feel included when there are so many people in the room; an issue which was also raised during the microteaching sessions. What was reiterated throughout the workshops was that both sides, teaching and learning are important, as teaching can only be effective when student needs are well understood.

A range of topics was discussed at this year's NAPP including transformation in higher education, student-centred learning, challenges of curriculum alignment in assessment and teaching with technology amongst others. Of particular importance this year was the presence of the UCT Disability Service who facilitated a discussion on understanding disability challenges in the classroom. Some of the academics had previously been unaware of this service available to them and their students, particularly significant as almost half of the group raised their hands when asked if they taught students with disabilities.

Joining Professor Andrews, Dean of Engineering Professor Alison Lewis, another female at the top of her profession, used her experience to build on what had been said in previous workshops. Lewis delved into the history of what a university once stood for and quoted artist Jenny Holte, “Change is the basis of all history, the proof of vigour”. In her words “we need to acknowledge that what we are facing now is not a unique crisis in history. We are facing pressures and part of our role now as academics is to engage with what the model of the university looks like today, and at the same time, how we can engage with society around us.” 

Professor Andrews then shared what she believes are the four challenges, but at the same time opportunities, the university is facing. Namely: determining the institutional identity; identifying the institutional culture; the adoption of technology; and globalisation. She added that a major challenge facing UCT in particular is retaining its excellence while increasing its accessibility. “Excellence is not negotiable.” 

The final day of the residential workshop introduced the new academics to previous participants of the programme who shared with them the challenges of balancing one’s teaching, academic and family lives. 

NAPP provides vital insights and coaching to new academics but also ensures they develop these insights into practical examples. The teaching project stems from the continuous evolution of NAPP to become more responsive to the needs of teaching in higher education today. It requires participants to identify a problem they would like to improve on in their classroom. Then, with the help of the programme convenors, they develop interventions to resolve the teaching challenge. 

Following the residential retreat there are two, one-day workshops where participants will recap and build on what they have learned. On the final day, each participant will present their teaching project and whether their interventions were successful or not and why. 

Through the various workshops and providing a space for participants to bond (the residential workshop), collegiality and openness are promoted as academics feel comfortable enough to discuss their teaching practices with their peers. NAPP also sparks collaboration between academics who may otherwise never have met - creating a community of support and engagement.