It's Been a Wonderful Life | Identity (Social Science) | Motivation

High Educ DOI 10.


‘‘It’s been a wonderful life’’: accounts of the interplay between structure and agency by ‘‘good’’ university teachers
Brenda Leibowitz • Susan van Schalkwyk • John Ruiters Jean Farmer • Hanelie Adendorff

Ó Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Abstract This study is set in an era and a context in which extrinsic forms of motivation and reward are offered by higher education institutions as a means to enhance teaching, and in which teaching is effectively undervalued in relation to research. The study focuses on the role of agency in professional development and demonstrates the relevance of Margaret Archer’s description of the interplay between structure and agency for understanding how academics enhance their teaching in research-intensive universities. Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted by a team of academic development advisors in order to obtain accounts of teaching academics of their becoming good teachers, in their own words. An analysis of the transcripts of the interviews with the lecturers demonstrates how dimensions such as biography, current contextual influences, individuals’ dispositions and steps taken to enhance teaching interact in a spiralling manner to generate a sense of self-fulfilment and agency. Intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivation, is shown to be significant in propelling individuals towards action. The article concludes with an assessment of the implications of the interplay between structure and agency, the need for an enabling environment with a key role for intrinsic motivation for professional development strategies, in research-intensive universities. Keywords Agency Á Structure Á Teaching Á Professional development Á South Africa

Introduction ‘‘It’s been a wonderful life, and when I die, I think I hope to have the satisfaction of knowing that perhaps a lot of young people have enjoyed my subject. What more can I ask for?’’ (Percival) Percival is a Professor of Microbiology, and although formally retired, he still teaches on a medical undergraduate programme at a research-intensive university in South Africa. Two years in a row he has been nominated as the lecturer who made the most significant impact
B. Leibowitz (&) Á S. van Schalkwyk Á J. Ruiters Á J. Farmer Á H. Adendorff Centre for Teaching and Learning, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa e-mail:


and while there are faculties or departments where teaching is overtly valued. The tension that exists between research and teaching. In so doing we hope to contribute to the ongoing international debates around the nature of the ‘professional learning’ (Brew 2004. the complexities bedevilling higher education internationally. We believe the question of agency and how it may flourish in relation to contexts which might be enabling or constraining. The University admits amongst the highest academic achieving students in the country. this is not uniform across the campus. of university teachers. and Wilmott 1999). grants and incentives for good teaching and teaching enhancement. depending on the socio-political and material conditions which influence them. is an international phenomenon that has been well-documented in the literature (Chalmers 2011. and values such as commitment to the academic discipline or to the students.High Educ on one of the university’s top thirty-first-year students’ academic achievement. typically at research-intensive universities. which actively promotes the status of teaching and provides opportunities for academics to enhance their professional development. Percival’s statement provides a glimpse of his personal biography. p. and indeed. It is our intention that some of the implications of this analysis will offer insights for the professional development of academics in their teaching role. teaching and community interaction as integrated has been the focus of a number of institutional discussions. and with regard to education (Crawford 2010. The study was undertaken to support the work of this Centre. For example several years ago it was announced at the University Senate that salary improvements would be made to academics who were internationally ranked researchers. In this article we explore the interplay between structure and agency via an analysis of the accounts of becoming good teachers by a group of teaching academics deemed successful by first-year students at a South African university. Much of this work highlights the impact that this tension has on the professional learning of academics and the extent to which they may elect to seek to enhance their teaching practice (Herman and Cilliers 2008). we thus take the position that good teaching and the debates that inform what good teaching is and should be. cannot be discussed in a purely technicist and a-social manner. a drive to see the three academic roles of research. 2007) with regard to society and individual mobility. An understanding of agency and its workings can provide guidance for the professional development of academics in their teaching role (Kahn 2009) and the facilitation of change in higher education (Clegg 2005). Given the social complexities informing the institution in which this study was conducted. A decade ago the University signalled the intention to become a research-intensive institution and has succeeded in making strong progress in this direction. The University has a Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL). specifically in a research-intensive institution. 5). These emotions and values play an important role in what is increasingly referred to as the ‘‘interplay’’ between structure and agency (Archer 2000. Luckett and Luckett 2009. and displays a variety of emotions such as joy or satisfaction. During this same period. Since then. it has made contradictory policy level statements with regard to the role of teaching. Yet while there is an intention to recognise teaching. Setting and motivation for the study The University at which the research was conducted is what is referred to in South Africa as a ‘‘historically advantaged’’ or ‘‘historically white’’ institution. The account of 123 . but remains socially and racially exclusive. Austin and Chang 1995). is significant in the light of the increasing trend towards awards. however.

2004). on how good lecturers become what they are. ‘Being and becoming’ good lecturers Important contributions to the literature on good lecturers and their professional development have focused variously on the qualities or attributes of the good lecturers. practice and talent. is that of intrinsic motivation. (2009) study described both innate qualities and characteristics. and refer simply to ‘good lecturers’ with both dimensions as understood. The third aspect of the literature on good teaching and the development of good teaching. The literature on the professional development of teaching academics provides many examples of the influence of institutional context. whilst granting individual actors the potential to influence the broader educational settings and their own professional lives. through reflection’’. For example one of Trigwell’s characteristics is that good teachers should ‘‘be good learners. and students and lecturers. prepared to learn from their own practice. who argue that reflection includes a consideration of the purpose of—or values associated with—teaching. for example intrinsic motivation or the act of constant reflection.High Educ the interplay between structure and agency as described by Archer offers a means to take into account the social complexities of power and inequality in which all action occurs. Less has been 123 . In this section we consider these three foci. McLean (2006). (2001) and Rowland (2000). 2007). For example. p. demonstrates that good teaching is something that develops over time. (2009) was found to be a highly significant factor in sustaining lecturers’ commitment to good teaching practices. Nixon et al. emphasizing spaces for engagement between students. p. as he describes practice as ‘‘extensive. 66) provides a list which suggests that in fact attributes of being a good lecturer are not that easily distinguished from attributes of becoming a good lecturer. Given this interrelatedness of the characteristics of good lecturing and of becoming a good lecturer. highlighting student-centred approaches. One of the most commonly cited deliberate actions ¨ to enhance teaching. namely context. Other structural features such as the discipline. When asked to describe their characteristics as good lecturers. Important work on the attributes of good lecturers has been conducted by Chickering and Gamson (1991). The practice of reflection is given further consideration by Lea and Callaghan (2008). pertains to the influence of context. such as humour or passion. Berliner’s triad of influences shaping the good lecturer. ‘‘greedy’’ universities place too much pressure on academics (Wright et al. and by Carpenter and Tait (2001). Allied to the notion of reflection on the values or purpose of education. which in Leibowitz et al. Trigwell (2001. as argued by Schon (1987) and Kane et al. for the purposes of this study we do not make a distinction between the two. as either enabling or constraining good teaching practice. and to acknowledge the influence of these situations. 465). Universities influence the impact which professional development initiatives may have on teaching (Stes et al. academics in the Leibowitz et al. as well as developmental attributes that allowed them to grow or become good lecturers. and that it is intentional. and the additional contribution that may be offered from the perspective of structure and agency. that is helpful to understand the professional development of lecturers. culture and learning have a strong influence on teaching (Lee 2009) and the department or workgroup also influences approaches towards teaching and learning (Trowler 2008). (2004). and a significant third element considers the role of external features such as the institutional context. deliberate’’ (2001. implying that reflection on practice leads to improvement. is that of reflection. with its messages about knowledge.

and what role does individual agency play in relation to structure? The literature on good teaching provides many examples of these dimensions of good teaching. why do some people become good teachers and others do not? Why are some teachers more motivated to enhance their teaching than others? What role does personal biography play. He or she has powers of acting and of transforming society (Archer 2002). we maintain. 123 . these material elements are taken for granted. than others. on the complementarity of distribution and recognition) in order to stress the importance of the material aspects of context. The answer to this series of questions can be found. p. thus the desire to act. leading to new emergences. as is evident in the comment about his teaching ‘‘life’’ by Percival in the introduction. Structure and agency may once again interact or interplay. Our concerns prompt judgment about what matters. and most constraints except the most dire can be circumnavigated. nor is he or she entirely determined by structure. possibly because in the environments giving rise to this literature. such as technology support or tutors. Even if we assume that good teaching can be developed and is not purely innate. 196). p. 196). provide a ‘‘commentary on our concerns’’ (2000. One would have to refer to a larger body of literature on social justice (see for example Fraser 2003. the question still arises. From our interactions with the world. what role does the specific context play. These circumstances are not of our choosing. but does not provide an explanatory framework about how it all fits together. Structure consists of the rules and resources that may constrain or enable action.High Educ written in the literature on professional development about the significance of the material aspects such as funding and resources. new properties. in the work of sociologist Margaret Archer. or the resources allocated to teaching. Examples of rules and resources could be the rules for promotion. 462) with some structural properties having more constraining power. where these constraints have ‘‘differential malleability’’ (1982. as they have the ‘‘power to modify the cognitive goal’’ (2000. for example family or careers. which refers to change of structure over time. such as agency. ‘‘positive feedback from practical reality signaling (some) performative achievement’’ (Archer 2000. and what to care about. In countries such as South Africa where funding for higher education is lower than the international norms (National Advisory Council on Innovation 2006) and where there are great material disparities between institutions (Council on Higher Education 2006). emerge and these are irreducible to what came before (Archer 2000). this aspect of context cannot be ignored. which is a matter of ‘‘what we care about in the world’’. These concerns are invested in various aspects of our lives. p. A crucial aspect of the interplay between structure and agency with regard to enhancing one’s own performance would be sense of competence. from the developed world. The individual is not entirely free and autonomous. Emotions. to maintain a relationship with the environment. Via an ongoing internal conversation. p. In the next section we describe those aspects of her account of the interplay of structure and agency that are useful for understanding being and becoming good lecturers in higher education. 195). p. or to disrupt that relationship. one of the most important of which for professionals is selfworth. The interplay of structure and agency Archer locates her ideas on the interplay of structure and agency within the ‘‘morphogenetic’’ approach (1982). but with varying degrees of effort (Archer 2000). Out of the interplay between structure and action. on the interplay between what she refers to as ‘structure’ and ‘agency. Emotions play an important role. or are more difficult to change. our personal identity emerges. 15). our fundamental concerns (2002.

It avoids the tendency of academic developers to ‘‘impose their own views on others’’ (Kahn 2009. The students write letters to the lecturers. In 2006 the University adopted a strategy to enhance the learning experience of the first-year student. 30). This interpretive study is what Crawford (2010) and Clegg (2005) would refer to as a ‘‘bottom up’’ account. are also invited to the dinner. our concerns or commitments attain a ‘‘unique pattern’’ (Archer 2000. One purpose of this initiative was to spotlight the commitment and dedication of lecturers of first-year modules. which generates our personal identity. known as the ‘‘First-year Academy’’. which she describes as the capacity to express what we care about in social roles that are appropriate in doing this (2002. The interview approach was adopted as an attempt to enable the interviewers and interviewees to surface a ‘‘sense of who they are and what their current experiences meant for them’’ (Taylor 2008. The lecturers write replies. p. The research design of this study is described in the next section. Such a social role could be that of a ‘‘lecturer’’. When there is alignment between an individual’s commitments and their social roles. is the outcome of a ‘‘continuous sense of self’’ (2000. explaining why they have nominated them. Archer maintains that our personal identity. If being a good lecturer is important to one’s sense of self worth. Research design This study became possible due to a task the authors of this paper were engaged in as part of their work to enhance the stature of teaching at the university. then one would be spurred to cognitive action if one’s sense of competence was affirmed.High Educ which she refers to as ‘‘reflexivity’’ (2007). According to Wenger. we attempt to demonstrate how this interplay between structure and agency holds in the specific context of teaching in higher education. p. In order to explore what could be learnt from this group of lecturers about good practice and support for good practice. 2009) and in 2010. p. a team of researchers from the CTL embarked on a small-scale research project to interview a selection of these lecturers in 2008 (see the outcome in Leibowitz et al. that we acquire at maturity. Archer’s theories have been elaborated in general sociological texts. 206). A small-scale initiative launched as part of this strategy was the ‘‘Rector’s Dinner for Top Achieving First-year Students’’. ‘‘Identity is produced as a lived experience of participation in specific communities’’ (1998. p. If it is enhanced via participation in a community of practice. and presumably within prior communities. In this study. 151). 9). this helps to explain why an individual’s biography is relevant to the story of one’s becoming a good teacher. 17). focusing on how the lecturers describe their attributes and their engagement with their own professional development. they are invited to a dinner with the University’s Principal. 240). The team devised a semi-structured interview schedule (see Appendix 2) focusing on how the lecturer perceived him or herself as good and what he or she did in order to 123 . and at the beginning of the following year. whom these 30 students nominate as having made the most impact on their achievement. with a message of support for the students. The 2010 study is the focus of this article. social identity is achieved (Archer 2000). essential in order to flourish as a good teacher. also evident in the sense of continuity of identity and commitments of Percival. This sense of identity leads to creativity and meaning making. The emergence of agency as a positive response to a sense of self worth and competence would also support the account of identity as emerging from an individual’s trajectory within a community of practice (Wenger 1998). In this scheme a list of the 30 most successful first-year students is compiled each year. p. Out of this emerges for many of us a social identity. The lecturers. p.

their control over the telling of their stories was necessary. had been nominated in a previous year or who had received other teaching awards at the University (and who had not been interviewed by the team previously). and preferred to choose those who had either been nominated by more than one student in the same year. contextual influences. Lecturers gave examples of how their families and childhoods—whether these were middle class or working class—influenced them to want to become good lecturers. drawing on a set of codes that were developed by the team in the earlier study. In some cases the lecturers followed up the interviews with written accounts or provided further information and examples of their work. since the family is a key influence in 1 All first names are pseudonyms. dispositions of the lecturer (emotions and attitudes). We did not seek to define what we considered to be good lecturers. Ten academics agreed to participate in the audiotaped interviews. However we believed that given our focus on human intentionality and agency. used as subsections for the findings in the next section. Edwards 1997). they tend to portray a more unified and organised sense of who they are than might be the case in reality (Taylor 2008. make strategic and rhetorical choices about how they portray themselves (Cousin 2009. In Wendy1’s case biographical influences included that she struggled with mathematics as a student (possibly a constraining influence). The frequency of these references is not surprising. Findings: becoming a good lecturer Biography Biographical influences featured prominently in the motivation to become a good lecturer in several of the accounts and generated the personal identity that Archer refers to. We do not believe that the fact that the nominations came from academically strong students distorted the study unduly in favour of an elite or elitist group. We were aware that they. race and gender. 123 . but that a model lecturer provided her with the impetus to teach well. which lasted between half an hour and one and a half hours (see Appendix 1). as many of the interviewees subsequently stressed that they were surprised to have been nominated by the strongest students. or to sustain him or herself as a good lecturer. They believed they cared more about the struggling students. like all individuals in interview situations.High Educ become. and are themselves influenced by the ceaseless interplay between structure and agency in earlier phases of an individual’s life trajectory. This selection was conducted according to criteria which ensured a spread in terms of level of seniority. and steps taken to enhance teaching. These influences are part of the ‘‘given’’ in an individual’s trajectory. but rather selected academics out of the group that had been nominated by the 2010 top performing students. The ten interview transcripts were subjected to thematic content analysis by the different members of the research team. p. 2007) on structure and agency. The codes. discipline. 30). Because they are constructing their identity and sense of self as they tell their stories. Our intention was to hear from the lecturers in their own words. but revised in the light of the data and in reading of the work of Archer (2000. are: biography. thus an enabling influence.

I do realise how happy I am and how blessed I am. ‘‘Son. that gives you an idea as to why I so love my subject. so I need to do something in small ways also on their behalf….’’ (Wendy) 123 . Both John and Jaco were nominated for awards previously and so to work with them was a dream come true really. in an agentic fashion. so it allowed me time to go and collect samples of mud from the streams and so on…. where family and community aspirations or forms of resistance motivate him or her. Wendy taught in a tertiary institution for disadvantaged students in the largely rural Northern Cape Province before arriving at Stellenbosch University. I have never forgotten it because many fathers push their children to go and do something they don’t want to do. in that whole class that were with me in primary school in Wolseley I think I am the only one who got out of that situation. The insights they acquired from these experiences better positioned them to respond to the diverse needs of the students they now encounter at the University. The dramatic. Cyril and Mahlubi were high school teachers and both were involved in the provincial administration responsible for schools. And those are the things that drive what I am doing. so he said. because everyone is trying to be good at what they are doing and be good lecturers and make Maths 1 enjoyable… That drives you to be as good as them and to be inspired by what they have done. my whole life actually has been a hobby.High Educ individuals’ educational biographies (Leibowitz 2009). I’m not very good at sport.’’ (Percival) In the following account Cyril’s motivation for becoming a good lecturer draws strength from the fact that he might be the only one of his peers from a rural school for black children in apartheid South Africa that reached university: ‘‘I grew up in very difficult circumstances and if I think back today. I never forget those who were with me and especially if I go back to my family and I see the people who were with me at primary school. is illustrated in Wendy’s comments: ‘‘Last year I taught in John’s group and that I must also say I was privileged last year to teach within a group of people.’’ (Cyril) This is an example of what Yosso (2005) calls ‘‘community cultural wealth’’. Percival’s account shows how his father supported his developing a love for his subject: ‘‘I remember saying to my father. that is what you must do’’. and positive influence that a workgroup (Trowler 2008) can have on enhancing teaching. The family is the primary socialisation agency in general (Bernstein 1990). but I’m very interested in microscopy’’. I can tell you in all honesty that I never changed. because it has always been with me. and in relation to education and literacy in particular (Hannon 1995). Current contextual influences The second set of influences on the lecturers’ becoming and remaining good teachers derived from their immediate work contexts. if that is your interest. Prior professional experience is another form of biographical influence mentioned by some of these good lecturers. to succeed in education. ‘‘You know Dad.

with which he identifies. are the many emails that I get from students and it’s strange. it’s really well thought out lessons…. so if you know you are not doing a good job and you can see this in students’ reactions and in their marks. whom it prompts towards further action. Archer sees constraints 123 . and that built me’’. attributes much significance to the role of the emotion of self-worth within an individual’s reflexivity. suddenly when you start to feel ‘‘I need a sleep now’’. or they go over to the research and just by nature of trying to be a good researcher your teaching is going to be neglected. In this extract Cyril explains how he comes to know that his teaching has meaning for his students: ‘‘the only barometer that I have to measure [my good teaching]. who talks about walking out of a good lecture feeling ‘‘on a high’’. teaching. then here pops up this email… those are the little things that happen to you that drive you and tell you. There needs to be a sense of fit between their aspirations and interests. they always come very late at night. it’s hours of preparation. rather mechanistically. then it is a natural thing to think how you can do it better. especially for professionals.’’ (Cyril) Archer (2000. Mahlubi appreciated the current University principal’s vision of a pedagogy of hope for the University. It was incredible. Receiving mixed messages at the same institution was also highlighted as a negative influence: ‘‘One thing that has bothered me from the beginning… is that there are two messages that are being shouted loud and clear and they’re conflicting. This is evident in the comments by Kirsty. as resources within the structure. community interaction and research. however. It makes it really difficult when you are starting out here…. there must also be some recognition of what it takes to be a good lecturer because it’s not just standing up there. and those of the lecturer. i. This positive feedback about his competence spurs the lecturer on to do more. to the country with its research ratings system and a world-wide university culture.High Educ The interplay between structure and agency is illustrated in the extract below. ‘‘January I was at Predac (the 4 day teaching seminar for newly appointed lecturers). 2007). the pressure to perform well in all three roles.e. ‘‘It is an uphill battle’’.’’ (Wendy) The reach of the environment extends beyond the university itself. in the sense that the students attracted to the University are part of the given elements that a lecturer has to respond to. a person actually does want satisfaction out of their work. She is constantly driven towards achieving this sense of competence and fulfilment: ‘‘It’s a two-way process. in which the appreciative behaviour of students motivates the lecturer to enhance his teaching. those emails never come during the course of the day.… that maybe what I am doing has meaning. which leads Kirsty to observe about maintaining good teaching. Other aspects of the immediate context which are either enabling or constraining are resources. Cyril mentioned as a negative influence. The students’ cultural capital could also be considered. Another enabling factor is the policy environment. The institutional context is both constraining and enabling. Mahlubi said.’’ (Kirsty) The positive role played by students in enhancing a lecturer’s sense of agency can be attributed to the interplay between structure and agency. I think many people just become so despondent then eventually they just remain in the teaching side of things. such as services provided by the Centre for Teaching and Learning. the support that you gave us. it’s writing out notes for the students.

so I feel that part of my responsibility of being employed as a lecturer is providing a service and I think that that’s an understanding that contributes to me doing my best because I feel students are here and I’m here to provide a service for them. p. who teaches isiXhosa to non-native speakers of the language. These would all reside within the notion of agency. a great step towards unity in diversity and nation building’’. These responses depend partly on the severity of the constraints. attitudes and emotions. as circumnavigable. A significant disposition for academics is curiosity about the discipline. and partly on the level of agency of the individuals. or even curiosity about students and student culture. actually unleash creative energy.’’ (Wendy) Lecturers also mentioned values that pertain specifically to the South African sociopolitical context. One could argue that Wendy. consciously volunteered to teach first-year students in 2011. depending on our ‘‘knowledgeability and commitments’’ (2007. in which we included values. who would simply see this as a constraint. 123 . They require more energy and expense to resist. who as a senior professor. I am also preparing for all those who will get to the class of that teacher one day. The values of sustainability and human rights motivated Cyril to teach geography to pre-service students: ‘‘To me the most important thing in my teaching is what underpins my teaching.High Educ other than the most stringent. unlike many academics at the University. Crawford (2010) writes that the constraints or enablements in a structure only have impact if individuals perceive them as being relevant. That is what is at the basis of why I am doing what I am doing… That’s why I can work right through the night just on one lecture because I know I am not preparing for the students in my class. is that of lecturer dispositions. He also volunteers to teach first-year students in order to learn more about how the new school curriculum is preparing students for university. Mahlubi. Servaas is fascinated about modern pop culture and the lyrics in the music the students listen to. The data from this study suggests that constraints may be absolute or partial. Dispositions The second dimension we used for categorising data in relation to ‘‘becoming’’. He was responding to a widely held belief at the University that the quality of new first-year students was deteriorating due to the reforms in the school curriculum. is motivated by the value of diversity and what he refers to as ‘‘nation building’’: ‘‘I am driven by the passion to teach my language and cultures to our students. In his case this perceived problem led to a positive and agentic step. ‘‘I think there is one mortal sin and that is probably boredom. I would be simply bored out of my wits to just repeat the same stuff’’. as Archer suggests. In this study no lecturers mentioned extrinsic factors enabling their sense of agency and most provided examples of how their own values motivated them to sustain themselves as good lecturers. (2001) refer to commitment to one’s students and commitment to society as attributes of a ‘‘new academic professionalism’’. Well into his fifties and a professor of theology.’’ (Cyril) Nixon et al. and in a small number of cases. Wendy typifies this commitment to students: ‘‘it’s a very expensive exercise. 10). An interesting example of the importance of perception is Servaas. Kirsty or Cyril have the energy to circumnavigate the constraints generated by mixed messages with regard to the role of teaching. It’s more respect for the other. He is driven by his love for innovation.

The significance of the interplay between structure and agency The study supports the notion of an interplay between structure and agency. it is also attitudinal. p. a way of responding analytically or critically to information that comes his or her way. or self-consciousness. and steps taken to enhance teaching. ‘‘OK let me look where I can do better. is advanced as emerging from the ways in which we are biologically constituted. Biographical and immediate contextual features constrain or enable the lecturer to exercise agency. the way the world is. innovating. 123 . Sizwe writes notes about his reflections after each lesson: ‘‘I make sure that after each and every lesson. I sit down and say. As an example of practical steps taken. and impacts on. what are the common threads in the students’ comments. 50) puts this succinctly. ‘‘so I stopped doing [an activity in the classroom]. which. Agency is not free floating. because I felt that was a bit unfair to them. This is not surprising. The interviews demonstrate that being a good lecturer involves a great deal more than a static set of skills. Cyril described his reaction to the letter from the top-performing student in this manner: ‘‘Oh I can tell you I am very critical about my own work and I’m very aware of all my gaps…. could also be seen as an activity undertaken to improve teaching. engaging in scholarship. Many of the respondents mentioned constant and careful preparation. I can call it ‘‘in-service training’’. or let me rather put it. but emerges from. and where did I push them too fast?’’ (Sizwe) While reflection may be an act that a lecturer consciously performs. and from the necessity of our human interaction with our external environment’’. what I have helped her to start to see…. and on occasion. Archer (2000. current contextual influences. which has been demonstrated in relation to the dimensions of biography. by working against the grain. only Cyril mentioned writing a paper about teaching for a scholarly journal. personality attributes or knowledge. given the low value traditionally accorded to publishing on teaching as opposed to publishing in one’s disciplinary area of expertise. in line with Berliner’s triad of influences on good teaching (2001). the various contexts and personal attributes. I sit down. it can be quite interesting to go and analyse what were the things.High Educ Steps taken to enhance teaching Reflection is the most common enhancement activity cited by the lecturers. it gave me a better understanding of what she is getting from me. so I am open to any criticism that students have’’ (Lee Anne). Agency in the higher education teaching and learning domain is exemplified by many self-initiated activities such as reflection. I looked through that booklet that we got after the award ceremony. Wendy successfully introduced an essay into the mathematics class.’’ (Cyril) Reflection is also about being open to criticism from others. in research-led institutions. and where did I lose my students. But for the first time when I started to read what [the student] wrote about me. ‘‘Our continuous sense of self. lecturer dispositions. Another step taken was to innovate.

Appendix 1: Lecturers interviewed See Table 1. A one-size fits all approach becomes inappropriate in this situation. for example working class students entering academia (Clegg 2005). Acknowledgments Thanks to Kevin Williams for providing a constructive and critical response to a draft of this paper. It suggests maximising the lecturers’ commitments. The interplay between structure and agency has implications for strategies for the professional development of academics. Thus this interplay points to the importance of contextually sensitive professional development. on having experienced ‘a wonderful life’. counteracting a culture which undervalues teaching—the features which might constrain the emergence of agency—are very possibly more appropriate elements of such a strategy. perhaps it is time to take into account and respond to the biographical and structural features that have constrained or enabled an individual academic’s trajectory. 123 . contexts such as the one referred to in this study. are also important. In the same way that educators are frequently exhorted to take into account their students’ prior learning. that one can assess how aspects of an environment may influence the interplay of agency and structure. than extrinsic forms of motivation such as greater awards or rules or exhortations of how to teach better. To gain a more embracing understanding of the concept. Certain enabling structural elements. especially material. their sense of self-worth. values. where constraints might be more subtle. and most significantly. and that continue to do so. ultimately. It points to the need to take institutional context as well as lecturers’ contextually influenced biographies into account. Thus it is only by investigating the interplay between structure and agency comparatively. points to the need for close attention to institutional cultures and discourses that value teaching as an important aspect of the academic enterprise. and to the need for the promotion of opportunities for academics to take conscious steps to enhance their own practices such that they too might reflect. The removal of disabling rules. in conditions of deprivation as well as contexts of plenitude. and of intrinsic motivation in particular. and teaching and learning enhancement policies and programmes. The concept of agency is often deployed in relation to individuals having to go against the grain in obvious ways. Recognising that there are many more facets to being and becoming effective in one’s role as university teachers—and acknowledging that these multiple facets interact in a variety of ways—offers a cautionary to heads of academic departments and academic development practitioners not to take the lived experience of the academics they work with at face value. The significance of human agency.High Educ This study has taken place in a specific research-led and comparatively privileged institutional context in South African terms—one that features only some aspects of structure. Even a university teacher who has been recognised for her or his good teaching has in all likelihood done so as a result of a unique interplay between the structure and agency that comprise their lived experience. are taken for granted by individuals in a setting like the one described in this study.

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