Developing Academic Communities through Fulbright Programmes
For many research active and engaged faculty pressure to publish and collaborate in their research is a very real struggle. Typically, faculty members have determined the nature and extent of their professional development; most often driven by career progression ambitions and research interests. Pressure for change has meant that for most research active and research engaged faculty their projects and studies now take place within a context where there is tension between the rigour, relevance and accountability in their research publications and the needs of society in general. Going forward faculty professional development will involve their ability to maintain the relevance of their research interests to their academic community; and to the practice community. This has implications for their core research, professional collaborations and inter-disciplinary orientations. Thus, understanding how these collaborations are created and maintained is invaluable.
This study aims to explore the structure of international scholarly partnerships and research collaborations and their impact on the professional development of faculty in higher education. Three key sets of research questions guide the study:
- What is the underlying structure of scholarly partnerships? What are the key contributors and their networks; the development points; and promising research collaboration opportunities?
- How are an individual’s incentive, content and interaction dimensions of learning supported through the use of learning partnerships, academic communities of practice and social networks?
- How do individual faculty members experience perspective transformation on their professional and personal identity through the social, personal and situational contexts of their scholarly partnerships and research collaboration?
This study draws on several theoretical frameworks. The Learning Partnership Model (LPM) core assumptions are that, knowledge is complex and socially constructed; the self is central to knowledge construction; and authority and expertise are shared in the mutual construction of knowledge among peers (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004, p. xxii).
Communities of practice include a domain of knowledge, a community of people who care about this domain, and a shared practice that they are developing to be effective in their domain (Lave & Wenger 1991; Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2002). Communities of practice thrive where the goals and needs of an organisation intersect with the passions and aspirations of the participants. Muijis, West and Ainscow (2010) emphasise the way individuals gain entry and are given opportunities to become included in the community. Oreszczyn, Lane, and Carr (2010) identify the relevance of boundaries in communities and networks of practice and Weerts and Sandmann (2010) explore how faculty evolve in their thinking and understanding in respect of the relevance of their research interests both to their academic community; and to the practice community.
Mezirow’s (1991) transformative learning theory depicts ways individuals identify and challenge underlying assumptions, prompting changed perspectives that lead to taking new roles and actions. Therefore, changes in thinking that lead to new worldviews, and new perspectives on personal and professional lives (Cranton, 2006; Tennant, 2012) will inform current debate on how scholarly partnerships impact on the evolving professional identity of faculty (Beauchamp &Thomas, 2009).
In order to solve complex problems, faculty research projects must bring people with different yet complimentary skills together that require trans-disciplinary (Stokols, 2006; Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2007) and cross-functional collaboration. Collaboration patterns differ among disciplines (Glanzel & De Lange, 2002) and countries (Wagner and Leydesdorff, 2005). Therefore, social relationships and social networks are important in understanding how scientific communities and scholarly partnerships are formed and how they support collaborative research projects and initiatives (Santonen and Ritala, 2014).
This study is in two phases, using a mixed methods design and purposeful sampling. Participants were selected on the basis that they have received a Fulbright award and are currently employed as faculty members. Phase I began with eighteen interviews (deMarrais & Lapan, 2004; Roulston, 2010) completed in 2015 with faculty from UGA, USF, Duke, and WIT to understand their perspectives in three areas: personal and cultural growth, professional development and social supports. We explored incidents when faculty felt they experienced personal, professional or situational growth during or after their Fulbright awards. The intent of the interviews is to deepen our understanding of participants’ perspectives of the impact of their Fulbright Scholar experiences. Five further interviews are scheduled to take place (February 2016) at Duke University, UCD, NUIM and DCU.
Phase II will involve the construction of a survey informed by the interviews from Phase I. The survey portion of Phase II will be piloted with all Fulbright scholars working at UGA and USF to obtain a broader understanding of Fulbright Scholar perspectives of the key constructs of personal, cultural growth, professional development and social supports as well as any other key constructs generated from the in-depth interview studies. The last step in Phase II is to examine the initial survey to understand its effectiveness and make any necessary changes to enhance its usefulness in preparation for distribution outside of UGA and USF. The survey will then be distributed nationally to all Fulbright Scholars at UGA, USF, DUKE and Ireland.
This research involves human subjects. Each American university site has IRB approval (UGA, Duke and USF). Formal approval is pending from WIT for the Irish faculty interviews. Dr. Graham Cagney is the principle investigator for the overall project with co-investigators at each university site who are members of the faculty at each institution. Letters of invitation were issued to Dr Graham Cagney to conduct the research with her co-investigators and faculty participants.
Each university is the site of a stage in Phase I therefore no external sites are involved. Consent forms are part of the protocols submitted for IRB and ethical review: there is no external or internal funding from U.S. sources at this stage. Seed funding to support travel to initiate the IRB processes in the three American universities and to conduct research interviews was awarded to Dr Graham Cagney by the Irish Research Council ‘New Foundations’ programme.
Preliminary results offer insights into the first empirical study to examine the perspectives of Fulbright awardees on the impact of the experience on their learning and career development, their abilities to enhance international scholarly collaborations, and to engage in partnerships for relevant interdisciplinary research.
Results confirm the importance identified by Santonen and Ritala (2014) of making connections to several key authors who are well connected to other central scholars. Well-connected Fulbright scholars had a better experience and performed better than less well connected ones.
Problems related tendencies to geographical or institutional clustering, in addition to questions regarding how to ensure the inclusion of new members outside the current community were confirmed. Scholars’ experiences were varied and limited; planning of the research project and acclimating individuals to environment and culture were problematic. In some cases faculty receiving the scholar had no idea they were coming. The results further emphasise the individualised nature of the Fulbright opportunity, and the importance of being able to survive alone.
Participants reported tendencies to ‘homophily’ (particularly within scientific communities) research partnerships tending to recruit and work with those who mostly share similar perspectives (McPherson et al, 2001), this being in addition to language and proximity played a key role in their ability to successfully develop of scholarly collaborations. To overcome these, some scholars sought out other opportunities, resulting in the development of scholarly relationships and partnerships with individuals, from different disciplinary backgrounds.
The study confirms an increase in individual cultural understandings and improved learning in teaching and research; and a more open attitude toward future engagement in international and inter-disciplinary research collaborations. Further analysis will test the Santonen and Ritala (2014) suggestion that a large amount of international and interdisciplinary research collaboration encourages dissemination of knowledge, capabilities and insights.
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