Identity, community and trajectories – Jawitz (2009)

The following is a bit of a reaction to one of the readings set for Week 1 of the NGL course. The reading was actually part of the old version of the course and it was brought over into this offering as it gives a brief summary of some of the academic perspectives around identity, trajectories and community.

To be up front I’ve never been a big fan of the Communities of Practice (CoP) model. Initially because my first experience of CoPs were flawed attempts to use the CoP model to increase the engagement of academics with learning and teaching. They always failed to create a sense of community (at least beyond the small handful of people who were driving the creation of the CoP) and because I’m almost inherently opposed to the “happy-clappy we all one big community” ethos that underpinned the approach.

So it was with some relief when Stephen Downes expressed a distinction – that I felt much more at home with – between groups and networks and extended by others. It was also nice to hear Goodyear and Carvalho (2014) suggest

some writers and educational practitioners enamored of the ‘communities of practice’ or ‘learning communities’ labels can be accused of undue romanticism (n.p)

Some of this perspective may be evident in the following.

Academic identity

Jawitz (2009) has a particular focus on identity in higher education (the context for the case being explored) which may make this a little less directly applicable to some NGL participants but works for me.

The argument is that identity is influenced by both individual and structural aspects, especially the communities the individual belongs to. In terms of higher education Jawtiz (2009) suggests that both “the discipline and the institution play an important role in the development of academic identity” (p. 242).

Which perhaps points to some of the trouble I have with my identity as a teacher/researcher/academic.

Which discipline do I belong to? My academic career has perhaps been best defined as moving disciplines and rarely feeling as if I belong. I started in academia teaching Information Technology. From one perspective that was very satisfying, focusing on the technology and manipulating it to do useful things for yourself. Not having to worry about the messy complexity and intransigence of people (did students count?). But then I started building (e-learning) systems to be used by other people, and they didn’t.

That led to a transition to the Information Systems discipline. A discipline that looks at the combination of the hardware, software and wetware required to get such systems working. This is where my PhD is situated, but I wasn’t there long enough to belong. It doesn’t help that it’s not the most settled and confident of disciplines. On one side the IT/computer science folk think they are the only ones that know about hardware/software, and on the other the remainder of the business disciplines think they are the only ones that know about the wetware. The idea the at the combination of these perspectives is different doesn’t fit within our hierarchical world.

From Information Systems I moved briefly into central learning and teaching at a University. Talk about a hierarchical world and a place I never fit. The assumptions underpinning such work just never worked for me (nor perhaps me for it).

So now I find myself employed as an education academic. Someone responsible for teaching pre-service educators (teachers). I’m approaching the end of my 3rd year in this role and at my current institution. I think I’m only starting to feel like a resident of Toowoomba/Darling Downs, the trek toward seeing myself as a teacher educator is taking a bit longer. There are a lot of reasons for this.

Jawtiz (2009) suggests that for academics

teaching is viewed as a generic activity that lies ‘on top of’ the ‘real’ academic work, namely research, and is ‘unconnected with the disciplinary community at the heart of being an academic’ (Neumann 2001, p 144) (p. 242)

While this resonates with my experience in other disciplines. I don’t think this can apply to education academics. Anecdotal observations of my colleagues seems to suggest that particular perspectives on teaching are a core of the discipline and of their identity. For some this is evidence by their strong identification with being a teacher of a particular specialisation/discipline (early childhood, primary, mathematics etc) that is strongly connected with their pre-University teaching career. A connection that I perhaps pay more attention to than they due to it being absent for me.

That said, the suggestion that teaching can be “characterized as an individual private affair” (Jawitz, 2009, p. 242) still largely remains the case. In part due to the increasingly online component of teaching, which due to the LMS remains enshrined as private due to default access control. However, I wonder if it is also due to a combination of limited time and because of how core particular approaches to and conceptions of teaching/learning are to identity. I’ve observed quite strong defenses of particular approaches to teaching amongst my education colleagues. Perhaps a little stronger and typically better informed than those I’ve seen from my colleagues in other disciplines.

I wonder, if an education academic’s identity is more tightly dependent on conceptions of learning/teaching/education, it would have to be harder to get them to adopt new approaches (e.g. NGL) than other academics. In particular when those approaches that challenge any of the pillars of that individual’s identity. For example, a move to online learning when all prior experience of teaching has been in the face-to-face classroom. What might this say about the challenge facing the education system from the type of NGL factors we’re looking at in the NGL course?

Research alert: I wonder what research has been done exploring the interaction between “teacher identity” and online learning? Not the conceptions of teaching stuff (e.g. Gonzalez, 2009), but teacher identity.

Given the on-going rhetoric about how university-based teacher educators are so disconnected from the realities of teaching in a school, I find it interesting to observe how their prior roles as “school teacher” continues to be an important part of their identity.

Identity construction and participation

This is where Jawitz (2009) draws on situated learning theory, communities of practice, and activity systems to explain how participation in a community can influence (be influenced by) identity formation. The idea is that different types of participation leads to the evolution of practices and the shaping, re-shaping and transformation of identities. The “paradigmatic trajectories” are introduced.

Adapted from Jawitz (2009, p. 243)
Trajectory Description
Inbound Where newcomers’ identities are invested in their future as full members of a specific community of practice.
Boundary Where newcomers aim to sustain participation and membership across the boundaries of different communities of practice.
Peripheral Where newcomers do not aim for full membership but where limited ‘access to a community and its practice … (is) significant enough to contribute to one’s identity’.
Outbound While being directed out of a community may involve ‘developing new relation- ships, finding a different position with respect to a community, and seeing the world and oneself in new ways’

When I think about my own trajectory I wonder whether I need to have only one label? Do I have to focus on one community/network?

For me, membership of a number of communities is inherent in the position. I’m potentially a member of: the school (organisational unit of academics in my current university); researchers looking at higher education’s attempt to harness ICT and pedagogy; people teaching ICT and pedagogy to pre-service educators; developers of Moodle plugins etc. Almost by definition I’m a boundary rider.

Is this again another reason why networks are a better fit than communities?

Some of the networks I’m happy to remain on the periphery (e.g. learning analytics researchers) and others I’m almost certainly going to have to head inbound (some slower than others) simply because I engage with that network more than others. For example, while I don’t feel like I’m currently a full member of the school, I can feel how the shared experiences (especially with the universities various administrative processes) is exerting its gravitational pull and dragging me in.

While agency is mentioned as a major deciding factor in the trajectory an individual takes, I can’t help but feel that’s a little simple. What about the agency of the other members of the community, the nature of the community etc? What are the factors that influence the individual’s agency? e.g. does my continuing sense of limited membership of these communities arise from the fact that I’m a cynical introvert incapable of making a connection? Or perhaps I’m a truly innovative, deep thinker destined to never find a home? (more likely the former I think)

It’s some of these questions which are possibly most interesting to me and the task of how to design NGL learning environments.

I imagine that the identity/CoP literature has addressed these and related questions.


Gonzalez, C. (2009). Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: a study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses. Higher Education, 57(3), 299–314.

Goodyear, P., & Carvalho, L. (2014). Introduction: Networked learning and learning networks. In P. Goodyear & L. Carvalho (Eds.), The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks. New York: Routledge.

Jawitz, J. (2009). Academic identities and communities of practice in a professional discipline. Teaching in Higher Education, 14(3), 241–251.

4 thoughts on “Identity, community and trajectories – Jawitz (2009)

  1. From my experience in both tertiary & secondary teaching I have seen the Communities of Practice approach fail. This is always due to the higher-ups, with all their experience & wisdom!, deciding that the CoP approach NEEDS to be adopted by ALL staff. This is problematic since, again in my experience, there’s always the weakest link (usually more than one) staff member that either doesn’t care or thinks the idea is ridiculous.

    That is why I love my Personal Learning Network because I’m hanging out (digitally) with people who are like-minded or at least willing to consider and criticize constructively. These people I’ve either “found” or they’ve found me via comments we’ve made on Twitter, FB groups etc.

    I’m all for cultural change in the workplace & dept. system (think “red-tape”) but forcing people together in a CoP and expecting it to work is idealistic.

    1. one more thing….I found this sentence interesting (actually it brought up all sorts of emotions for me) – “But then I started building (e-learning) systems to be used by other people, and they didn’t.” I used basic web design with FTP a decade ago and wordpress/edublogs sites today. I’ve actually had colleagues tell me that I’m making them look bad, like I’m trying too hard….pretty difficult to feel like you belong when others think all your ideas are competitive! I find this attitude startling since I thought “teaching” was about learning as much as possible.

  2. Pingback: Identity, community and trajectories - Jawitz (...

  3. Pingback: Me as a teacher | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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