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Amanda Chapman, A (re)negotiation of identity: from ‘mature student’ to ‘novice academic’
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9 January 2012
To be presented at the Widening Participation Conference 2012 'Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education', 24-25 April 2012
A (re)negotiation of identity: from ‘mature student’ to ‘novice academic’
Dr Amanda Chapman
This paper draws on doctoral research and examines the shifting identity of mature students during their first year of undergraduate study. Mature students often suffer from Imposter Syndrome (Clance & Imes, 1978). Whilst they can actively engage in the learning aspect of student identity, they can often feel alienated and marginalised by the dominant discourse of student social life. Employing Communities of Practice as a theoretical framework, the paper argues that mature students often align themselves to the community of ‘academia’ rather than ‘student’. This gives rise to the notion of ‘novice academic’ as an identity structure.
Interview with author
The research paper you are presenting is titled 'A (re)negotiation of identity: from ‘mature student’ to ‘novice academic’'. I’m interested in learning why you chose to pursue this piece of research: Why these issues in particular?
Why did I choose this issue? I didn't as such, it chose me! The original focus of my PhD was academic literacy but identity issues kept cropping up in the data. The concept of 'student' was problematised by the mature group I followed through their first year. Some were proud to be considered students but others wanted to be distanced from the very idea. All felt they had to qualify and justify their decision to enter higher education to themselves as well as family and friends, with phrases such as 'I'm a student now...but I used to be a manager and I'm going to be a teacher'. Those who wanted to be distanced had complex relationships with the younger students and had different ideas of what university was for.
So my PhD evolved into an exploration of the positioning of mature students and their identity shifts, and ultimately became far more interesting in the process.
What are the key findings of your research? Were there any findings your found particularly surprising?
As the students progressed through their first year they negotiated and constructed new identities and for all, this was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
I was quite surprised by the feeling of dislocation from the younger students. This came about from different attitudes to studying and very different ideas about what the first year of undergraduate study was for. This seemed to get worse as the year progressed with the mature students embedding themselves within their subject areas and some of the younger students adopting a 'strategic learner' approach of doing 'just enough to pass'. Group work became a particular area of conflict.
The mature group identified far more with the academic community of practice rather than the student community of practice. Therefore the term 'novice academic' describes their experience more accurately.
That's great, thanks. Your comments about the younger students chimes strongly with recent discussions I have had with some academics that large number of students arrive at university without any knowledge or skills in learning itself. As such, the first thing needed is to 'learn how to learn'. It is interesting that you find mature students demonstrating this need less.
OK, final question: Where do you see this research and yourself heading in the future? Are there particular themes or strands of the work that you particularly want to follow up on?
A number of themes came out of this research project. Some need further work but others just need writing up, if only I had the time! I have developed a model for persistence for mature students that I intend to write up this summer. This resonates with retention literature and hopefully will make interesting reading. The other area which needs more work is something that was peripheral to my main topic but is fascinating and that is the emotion of assessment. In the literature this is usually seen as anxiety with exams etc but I want to look at the emotion surrounding essays - especially the ability to 'let go' when the deadline approaches. This seems to be particularly hard for high achievers.
15:37 on 27 February 2012