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New academics feel they are not "seen or heard"

29 Jul 2016 - 15:00

An academic passionate about the professional development of others is sadly an increasingly rare find in the ever more competitive academic world and yet that is exactly what Dr Kasturi Behari-Leak is; she is committed to improving professional development programmes across the South African Higher Education landscape. Speaking to her passion Dr Behari-Leak recently completed her PhD on the challenges, constraints and opportunities faced by new academics. 

Her thesis, Conditions enabling or constraining the exercise of agency among new academics in higher education, conducive to the social inclusion of studentsaimed to interrogate what “new academics understand and believe in order to improve professional development programmes.”  

Using an alternative method of data capture, photovoice, Dr Behari-Leak asked participants to document the challenges they faced across institution, faculty, department and the classroom in a series of photographs. She then conducted ‘data workshops’ where participants could reflect on their past year in academia and also gain some insight as to how to navigate the road forward. The benefit of this method was that it broke down the cultural barriers such as language for participants who were speakers of languages other than English. 

On analysis of her findings Dr Behari-Leak could confidently say that there is a lack of departmental and faculty support for academics. “A lot of new academics feel invisible in their first years, and feel that they aren’t seen or heard”. They rely on staff development programmes to network with others in similar situations and to find a sense of community. According to Dr Behari-Leak new academics who are given the largest workload, receive little support to develop as teachers and researchers. One participant in her study decided to leave higher education because she felt that it was not a good place to grow.

Her study asserts that “if we want to make sure that new academics stay, we must find better ways of supporting them. We cannot rely solely on programmes but heads of departments, peers, colleagues and institutions must also play a role.”

As the convenor of the New Academics Practitioners’ Programme (NAPP) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Dr Behari-Leak has implemented a range of methods used in her PhD to help new academics to adjust more easily to the demands of university life. In her opinion, universities need to move away from generic staff development programmes and move towards addressing people’s real challenges in their classrooms including the issues of race, class, gender, language etc. She feels that in this way, programmes can become “more robust, responsive and meaningful.”

Looking forward, she hopes to use the findings from her PhD to improve the staff development programmes at UCT and other South African universities. “Although the participants in the study were from a particular site, the findings are applicable across the board.” As a starting point she has re-curriculated the current NAPP offering to open up dialogue spaces for university teachers to share their challenges and opportunities. She aims to organise a regional colloquium in the Western Cape to collaboratively address the challenges faced by newcomers to higher education. At a national level she is the deputy chair of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa.

Dr Behari-Leak’s PhD is part of a larger National Research Foundation project on Social Inclusion in Higher Education. It was conferred by Rhodes University in 2015.