Deepening the discussion of pracademia in education

I have previously asked whether pracademia is worth exploring, and it is a discussion into which I find myself repeatedly drawn. At last year’s (in person!) International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) conference, I was part of a symposium on pracademia with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, Leyton Schnellert, and Danette Parsley. That symposium resulted in plenty of stories shared from individuals, and ongoing discussions about the what, how, and why of pracademia. This year, during the 2021 ICSEI virtual conference, I was part of another symposium on pracademia with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, Sharon Friesen, Rania Sawalhi, and Carol Campbell.

In our symposium presentation–‘Pracademia in education: Identity, community and engagement’–Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, and I explored some of our thinking around the notion of pracademia. You can watch the 14 minute video of our single presentation above. We begin with Derek Walker’s (2010) definition of pracademics as “boundary spanners who live in the thinking world of observing, reflection, questioning, criticism, and seeking clarity while also living in the action world of pragmatic practice, doing, experiencing, and coping”, and go on to articulate our own definition of pracademia as space between and across practice and academia. A pracademic is someone simultaneously active in the worlds of practice (e.g. work in schools or policy making) and the academy (e.g. university membership and active scholarship).

During the symposium, Hannah Bidjlsma  asked where pracademics are employed (or as Trista paraphrased: ‘Where do pracademics live?’). Often the pracademic has their primary employment in one of these spaces, and either works voluntarily or in a smaller-scale capacity in the other space. For example, Trista, Paul, and I are active in school, university, and advisory board spaces, but much of our boundary spanning work is unpaid work that we do because we are driven by moral purpose, professional meaning, and our sense of belongingness and community. To explain what this can look and feel like, in my speech at the 2020 ICSEI conference, I said:

My voice comes from within the education system, yet as a pracademic, I am bestride both the practitioner world of schools, and the scholarly world of research. Alongside my full-time school day job, I am an adjunct at a university. My dual roles inform one another and give me a perspective quite different from those who advise from the sidelines. I am firmly embedded in what it feels like to be a cog in the school reform wheel. What I do every day in my lessons, meetings, professional conversations, and operational and strategic work, influences how I interpret education research. And the research I read and undertake influences my understanding of my daily work at school. In these ways I operate as a bridge betwixt and between research and practice.

An interesting development has recently been that two of we presenters have recently won awards for our scholarship, despite our primary roles being in schools. Paul won the 2021 Innovation Award (International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement and the Journal of Professional Capital and Community) for his study ‘Reconceptualising Collaboration in the context of Crisis Response and Systemic Improvement’. I won the 2021 American Educational Research Association Educational Change Emerging Scholar Award and the 2021 Michael Fullan Emerging Scholar in Professional Capital and Community Award. These awards indicate that those who work between and across the fields of practice and academia can potentially have meaningful impact on and across spaces.

Identity is as a key part of considering pracademia. During our recent symposium, Sharon Friesen talked about the pracademic as estranged ‘trickster’ who operates in the liminal space, between scholarship and practice, and who also questions and challenges both spaces. Rania Sawalhi shared in her presentation that her research found pracademics saw themselves as the ‘missing link’ between practice and scholarship. In our symposium presentation, Trista, Paul, and I explore pracademia as bridge, as mobius strip, and as the process of ‘breaking the wheel’. These metaphors reflect a few emerging themes – that pracademia is a complex space of the transitional, the chameleonic, the in-between, and the critical. Words that continue to emerge for me are duality, multiplicity, fluidity, and liminality.

In our paper for the Special Issue that Trista, Paul, and I are editing for the Journal of Professional Capital and Community—‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’—we develop our thinking further as we conceptualise pracademia, especially for the field of education. The more we explore it ourselves, and the more people reach out to us to talk about their own experiences, thinking, and research data, the more I see pracademia is as an emerging concept, space, and identity in education, with the potential to knit together the varied values, languages, reward systems, identities, and work of educators in policy, in schools, in universities, and across systems and spaces.