What happens if you put academics from different disciplines in the same room and ask them to talk to each other?

Anyone who is trying to facilitate change in higher education settings knows that it’s a challenging thing to do. As the famous analogy goes, “changing a university is like moving a graveyard— you don’t get much help from the people inside”. While I like this analogy a lot, it often makes me think of cases, especially from my own experience, which tell a different story of how it is to change universities.

There are many people within universities who’d absolutely love to change things and would even be willing to put in much of their own time to do that. Some are actively working on that—for example, there are several “super supervisors” who are doing their part in trying to make doctoral journeys more pleasurable and successful for those who choose to embark on the long and winding road of pursuing a doctorate. Doctoral researchers need all the help they can get, and having a good supervisor is the least they should be entitled to.

Not all doctoral researchers are so lucky, however. Because of that, there should be other channels of support offered for doctoral researchers, to facilitate peer learning. In 2017 my colleague asked if I’d like to take part in an interesting pilot project, supported by the Student Life initiative of the University of Jyväskylä.  As it was extremely relevant for my doctoral work, I agreed.

We established two multidisciplinary peer-mentoring groups in the pilot, each consisting of 4-5 doctoral researchers and two senior researchers. The groups met four times within one academic year. In the three-hour meetings they could discuss whatever they wanted to—supervision, mobility, academic writing, publishing, time management, practical tips related to doctoral studies, you name it. And then we, the research team, asked “how was it?”

What did we study exactly?

The pilot project basically had two aims. First, we wanted to provide practical information for the University of Jyväskylä about the usefulness of multidisciplinary peer-mentoring groups. These results were communicated to the university after the pilot ended (several times, in a ceterum censeo manner), and in September 2020 the university started to organise peer-mentoring groups as a regular, open-for-all practice. Success!

The research-based aim, on the other hand, took a bit of time to form. None of us researchers were those who normally formulate clear research questions before generating any data (do those researchers really exist anyway?). So, we decided to start generating data and see what “jumps out” of it later. Two themes/articles did, one of which is now published.

In this first piece we ended up looking at three questions:

  1. “What types of individual changes result from participating in multidis­ciplinary peer-mentoring groups?
  2. What types of institutional changes regarding academic work do the participants think should take place?
  3. What are the main contributors to the participants’ experiences and perceptions regarding change” (p. 20).

In sum, we ended up looking at change and what those who do not typically have a lot of power within university settings (doctoral researchers, non-permanent faculty) have to say about what is and what ought to be? In this way, we wanted to argue that multidisciplinary peer-mentoring groups held a strong potential in causing more wide-reaching change, if implemented as a regular practice on a university-level.

What did we find out?

After interviewing all thirteen participants, three times each at different stages of the pilot, we found out that not only were there several individual changes that took place, there was also a great deal of talk about what should change. For example, the participants gained many new perspectives, had their current ideas and views strengthened, received many practical tips regarding academic work, as well as “tacit knowledge” which is not part of formal curricula.

However, they realised that doctoral researchers of the university were not in a similar position in terms of supervision, for example: Some had excellent supervisors, some barely spoke to theirs. The participants also wished there was a stronger academic community, either in the department or the university in general. Also new arenas for sharing knowledge and good practices was hoped for, as was improvement for the academic work culture.

Why does it matter?

While many of the above issues probably don’t come as a surprise to higher education researchers, who routinely discuss these issues with each other, they were somewhat surprising to the participants themselves, who didn’t have many expectations regarding their participation. Yes, many expected something good to come out of the multidisciplinarity but, as one of the participants said in one of the interviews, it is sometimes difficult to expect something or to ask questions if you don’t know what to ask in the first place. In other words, these issues only emerged as a result of hour-long discussions and sharing of ideas with other people from various faculties—in a group where at least one person did know what to ask.

We—higher education researchers—can keep discussing the state of academia as much as we want. We can keep trying to change things as much as we want. And we should, because right now, higher education isn’t in a particularly great state. But we cannot change things alone, or just by discussing with other higher education researchers, because that will quickly turn into useless echo chambers. In many cases it already has. For example, earlier this year I attended a wonderful webinar on internationalisation. At the end of a presentation, one participant pointed out that all things said and discussed were great, but it felt like they were the same topics that were complained about already 20 years ago.

So, we need help—a lot more help. And what we suggest in our article is to put as many people from as many different faculties and career-stages as possible into one room (virtual or not) for several hours to discuss whatever they feel like discussing. As a result, potential issues begin to emerge, and the awareness of the issues within one’s personal situation or department are suddenly put into a much wider context.

Of course, some corners of universities might oppose this suggestion because, as one of the participants was pondering, “peer-mentoring groups might be risky for the university because people talk to each other about the stuff that’s going on within the university walls.” True or not, it’s about time to start thinking of different venues and arenas for sharing knowledge.

And not just within our academic tribes and territories, but with everyone.

The article Multidisciplinary peer-mentoring groups facilitating change? A critical educational praxis perspective by Melina Aarnikoivu, Matti Pennanen, Johanna Kiili, and Terhi Nokkala has recently been published in a special issue of Learning and Teaching: “Walking on the Edge: Educational Praxis in Higher Education”, guest edited by Lill Langelotz, Kathleen Mahon, and Giulia Messina Dahlberg.

Melina Aarnikoivu is a postdoctoral researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. In her research work, she focuses on doctoral education, academic writing, and crowdsourcing as a qualitative methodology in higher education. She can be followed on Twitter.

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash

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