‘Academic community’ is a wide-ranging concept, covering the totality of work in higher education in acquiring and disseminating knowledge. It is usually used to suggest a body of people engaged in research in a specific discipline, or at a particular level. Other than that, it is rarely mentioned – but things are changing.
Some academics are now building the idea of ‘academic community’ directly into their undergraduate courses, either as stand-alone classes or as entire modules. Teaching about academic community is not just another way of teaching transferable skills – it is about much more than that.
Academic community classes encourage students to consider the bigger picture of what, why, and how they are studying. Part-philosophy, part-practical skills, such classes invite students to focus on questions that may not have easy answers, and to question the instrumental economic model that currently dominates in discussions of UK HE.
Some of the areas covered in academic community classes might include:
The role of the student vis-à-vis the lecturer is a good place to start. By asking your students to consider their role and responsibilities, and what they might expect from a lecturer, you will help them to move beyond being passive ‘consumers’ (of information as well as university services), to engaging actively in the production of knowledge.
Assessment – why, and how?
All students know that assessment exists, but few will have asked themselves why it exists, and in the form it does. You will do your students a great service if you engage them in discussion on this topic, and put it to them that assessment is the most effective way of measuring learning, and that that, in its turn, assists in effective teaching. This can also lead to a discussion of the actual assessment guidelines in your institution. Students need to know how they are assessed, so it is vital to be transparent about what you and your colleagues are looking for at the earliest possible opportunity. Revisit this throughout their time at university, using examples where possible.
Relationship to knowledge
Students may not have been asked to examine what they think knowledge is before – and you can help them to do so by asking them to unpick concepts such as ‘authority’, ‘expertise’, ‘originality’ (see below) – all of which will enable them to understand how knowledge is formed through a process of testing, agreement, and consolidation over time. Understanding how authority or expertise in a field is formed through such processes as peer review, for instance, will also enable the student to take a critical approach to source material, and to undertake research more efficiently and reliably.
Ethics and academic integrity
A good place to start under the heading of ‘ethics’ is with the concept of academic integrity. While this is rarely mentioned explicitly these days, it is implied in universities’ ongoing concern with plagiarism and collusion, among other matters. Making academic integrity a centerpiece of your discussion will allow students to understand the values behind the prohibition on plagiarism. This will enable them to have far wider discussions about, for instance, cultural conceptions of originality, using secondary material, and accurate and consistent referencing practices. Students will also understand that their practice is part of the wider work of the university and community as a whole, which is held together by the same code of academic integrity.
All these questions help your students become critical, competent thinkers, able to assimilate complex areas of knowledge, parse relevant material, and to make clear, rational, respectful arguments based on ethically sound research practices. But you should also teach your students how to adhere to professional standards of presentation, including editing, revising, and referencing skills. Remind them that high standards make a community robust and sustainable.
Being part of something greater
The concept of academic community is a valuable one for students to learn early on in their careers, with long-term benefits for all, both in academia and the wider workplace. By making ‘academic community’ an explicit part of your teaching, you can give students the gift of understanding their essential role in the shared endeavor that is the modern university.