Academic Micro-Cultures: Q&A with Katarina Mårtensson

Jessica Snow, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning 

April 21, 2017


Dr. Katarina Mårtensson is senior lecturer and academic developer at Lund University, Sweden. Her work includes supporting organizational development through academic development, scholarship of teaching and learning, and leadership.

Mårtensson's research and publishing focuses on social networks, academic microcultures, and academic leadership, and her PhD-thesis in 2014 was titled Influencing teaching and learning microcultures: Academic development in a research-intensive university. She is co-president elect of ISSOTL, the International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and was between 2013-2016 co-editor of IJAD, the International Journal for Academic Development.

She was featured as a keynote presenter at the 2017 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching.

Q: What is an academic microculture?

A: I would say that an academic microculture is a group of people who work together within an academic setting such as a university or college, whose microcultures might differ slightly from those of other organizations. For example, a family is a kind of microculture, a group of friends who hang out together is a microculture. In academia, they would be groups of people who work together or are defined by organizational boundaries as a group, a department or a unit within a department, or a teaching team in a program. They develop habits that guide their interactions, as any group develops norms over time and begins to share the same values.

One of the reasons academic microcultures are so interesting is that if we are going to develop organizations in terms of teaching and support for student learning, we need to understand more about how these norms, traditions and values are developed and how they in turn influence individuals. That is what I do as a practitioner and it is what I’m interested in as a researcher.

Q: Can you provide a couple of examples as to how academic microcultures might work with respect to teaching and learning?

A: There is a team of instructors who work in the Faculty of Arts at my university (which is also a research-intensive university). They came up with an idea for an international master’s program which was kind of unique in Europe and that attracted students from all across the world. They allotted time to the students outside of regular classroom and office hours, organized dinner events, helped them find places to live, access medical services, etc. They sat in on each other’s lectures to understand each other’s part of the curriculum so they could build a very solid program. They brought students with them to an international conference, where they were introduced as “future colleagues” rather than students. All of this has shaped this group, knitted them together and made them want to make the extra effort.

Another example is from a junior academic at my institution. The first time he was grading students, he asked the advice of a more senior colleague who responded, “you should be really, really critical of students’ work. Give them as low grades as possible because they will definitely complain and when they complain, you can raise the bar slightly and they will be satisfied.” The junior member of staff was appalled by this so he wrote a paper titled “The Enemy Among Us?” referring to how he experienced his senior colleagues think about students as the enemy among us.

These are two very different groups that have developed drastically different teaching and learning cultures over time.

Q: What implications do these diverse academic microcultures have for institutional-level policymakers?

A: The problem with policies is that there usually is no “one size fits all.” There will always be a variety of interpretations of any policy and people will need to adapt it to their own ways of practicing and thinking about teaching and learning. When we started to study microcultures, we interviewed deans, people who chaired committees and department heads and asked them, “Where do you have high-quality teaching microcultures? Or a group of people who are excellent in both teaching and research?” And they couldn’t answer.

One of the early results was that policymakers usually don’t know what a good academic microculture looks like in relation to high-quality teaching. They usually can identify where it doesn’t work but not where it does – at least according to our results. The implication for a policymaker is to learn how to identify the variety of microcultures, what to look for and how to exemplify where it works well.

Q: Have you done research or come across research that looks for ways to effectively formalize or give structure to that process of identifying and highlighting strong academic microcultures?

A: Not yet. When institutions try to highlight teaching learning practices, it is more focused on the individual. It is usually done with teaching awards or recognition on the website. I think there is more work to be done on highlighting the more collegial nature of teaching and learning quality.

One of the starting points for all of this work involves the pedagogical courses for instructors and faculty members on campus. One of the things we’ve established in literature is that the effects of those initiatives depend largely on the collegial context that the individual works in. They might be very inspired by ideas, educational research and literature and go back to the classroom to try new things. However, the academic microculture will determine, in some sense, if any kind of development of teaching and learning will have effect. Can you discuss your challenge with your colleagues? Will they say it costs too much or don’t go that way? Can you try out new ideas? Ideally, the learning environment where you work as a faculty member should encourage and push you, gently, in the direction of constantly developing teaching and sharing that as a collegial endeavour.

Q: That takes us back to our conference theme, Creating a Learning Culture: Conversations that Matter. How do those conversations between colleagues really contribute to creating a culture that is supportive of teaching and learning?

A: We call them significant conversations because they influence you as a person. They challenge your thinking in a way that actually makes you develop your thinking, when they are emotionally rewarding and intellectually intriguing. People in academia do tend to have a few such colleagues or even partners or friends to have those conversations with. They would be the colleagues you turn to, to say “I had a class today and it didn’t really go very well. I don’t know what was wrong but here’s the description of my perception of the situation. Could you try to help me understand what went wrong? You wouldn’t turn to just any colleague with that sort of question. You would turn to a colleague you trust. They won’t just pat you on the shoulder and say “Oh, you’ll do better next time.” They would seriously try to help you out.

Q: Are there any other ideas relating to your keynote that you would like to develop? 

A: One common question involves the part students play in academic microcultures. Are students part of the academic microculture or not? In our study, we also interviewed students. The difference in interviewing a student is that they might form part of that microculture for a semester, a year or a few years and then they move on to other things. Whereas people we consider as members are the more permanent staff. They are building and creating the culture that we are studying. That, of course, is something that could be challenged and in the best of worlds, students are considered members of the academic microculture and allowed to be co-creators of the academic microculture.

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