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.

‘Pracademic’: Just another made-up edu-word?

IPDA conference virtual presentation – with Trista Holloweck and Paul Campbell

While the idea of the scholar-practitioner is not new, and the term ‘pracademic’ has been smattered in research literature across various fields, the concept of the pracademic is only recently beginning to gain traction in the education community. It remains scarcely documented and has not yet been comprehensively theorised. So, is the term ‘pracademic’ just another made-up edu-word, a senseless attempt to label and divide educators along research-practice lines, or a concept worthy of inquiry and elaboration?

In my view, the notions of pracademic and pracademia are worthy of exploration. In some ways, all educators are pracademics, whether that be scholars who engage practitioners in their research, or practitioners who engage with research and those working in the academe. It can include the myriad of collaborations and interactions between those operating mostly in schools and those operating mostly in universities. Yet, much scholarship still fails to make it to those working in schools, and the expertise and wisdom of practitioners is still often missing from research and policy conversations about education.

Pracademia might be seen as a space or spaces; or as a stance, a deliberate situatedness in the grey, messy in-between space. It encompasses a way of being that embraces the bridging or knotting together of research and practice in ways that engage with multiple stakeholders or influence in multiple directions.

In my book Transformational Professional Learning: Making a Difference on Schools
(2020), I explored my own positionality as a pracademic, after hearing myself labelled as such by Professors Andy Hargreaves and Christian van Nieuwerburgh. I wrote in the Introduction:

“The unique perspective I bring to the field of professional learning is one of boundary-spanning teacher-leader-researcher who works to bridge the gap between research and practice. In the structure and writing of this book I model the way that I bring the lens of practising teacher and school leader to research, and bring a research lens to my daily work. I connect the dots between scholarly and practical domains, to operate in the space (or as the bridge) between the world of education research and that of classroom and school. This bridging work brings a research lens to schools, where teachers and school leaders enact theory into practice, tempered by their wisdom of practice and the emotional and human elements of education that shape their behaviours each day.”

In the Foreword to that book, Andy Hargreaves also described the emerging pracademic voice in education:

“Deborah Netolicky is part of a new breed of thought leader in education known as the pracademic. My autocorrect function on my laptop sometimes translates this as paramedic!! In fact, the two words and the worlds they capture are not all that far apart. … Pracademics span the worlds of research and practice. … the pracademic is here to stay, and Deborah Netolicky is providing us with an excellent example of what we can uniquely learn from this new kind of voice that has come onto the modern educational landscape.”

Moving beyond that book, and those reflections, led to more conversations with other pracademics, and further conversation around pracademic spaces, identities and behaviours. At the International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI) conference in January, my ‘extreme speech’ on the main stage explored pracademic identity, and I was part of a symposium on pracademia—with Trista Hollweck, Paul Campbell, Leyton Schnellert and Danette Parsley as discussant—titled ‘Pracademics: Exploring the tensions and opportunities of boundary-spanners who straddle the worlds of academia and practice’.

Now, as these conversations continue, tensions and complexities around pracademia in eduction continue to bubble up. Trista, Paul and I are now editing a Special Issue of the Journal of Professional Capital and Community on ‘Pracademia: Exploring the possibilities, power and politics of boundary-spanners straddling the worlds of practice and scholarship’. Yesterday, we presented some of our thinking at the virtual International Professional Development Association conference. Questions with which we engaged include:

  • What is a pracademic and who decides?
  • What does it mean to be a pracademic in different educational spaces?
  • What issues and/or tensions arise in the complex negotiation of the dual worlds of practice and scholarship?
  • What role do identity and belonging play in pracademia?
  • What does pracademia offer the field of education? 
  • Is the term limiting or empowering, divisive or productive?

We also shared three metaphors we are playing with that represent the ways in which we are defining the concept of pracademia with all its plurality, complexity and multiplicity.

Watch this space as this work continues to grow.