|Title||Feeling Our Way: An ethnographic exploration of university staff experiences of ‘soft skills’ learning and development programmes|
Despite their ubiquitous presence in higher education (HE), staff learning and development programmes (LDPs) featuring soft skills remain a largely uncharted dimension of global university culture. Few studies have explored their meaning for participants or the relationship between LDPs, self-care and managerial practices.
This study used autoethnography to explore staff experiences of learning and development programmes (LDPs) within one HE setting. Fieldwork included personal participation in a variety of LDPs and 25 semi-structured interviews with participants from a cross section of programmes and work sectors. Symbolic ritual and ritual interaction theory were used to interpret study data. Findings suggest that, as social worlds, LDPs featuring soft skills offer and fulfill practical and affective functions. From a social interaction perspective they emerged as an embodied, enjoyable andcommunal component of staff training and development, providing actors with a space, in which they can temporarily redefine themselves vis-à-vis the group and the wider social world. The ritual aspects of the LDP social world helped to create for participants a sense of passage with a beginning, middle and completion phase, which in contrast to the unending state of liminality associated with modern life, may help explain their appeal to temporary and part time staff, myself included. On some programmes the focus was on performance management (e.g. leadership skills), on others self-care (e.g. meditation, resilience), however most included both. Theatrical and dramatic devices were frequently used as motivational tools, encouraging academic staff in particular to emotionally invest in an increasingly mandatory entrepreneurial culture, with which they might otherwise be reluctant to engage.
As ‘social worlds’ with neoliberal directives, LDPs promote various self-governance activities in the form of self-entrepreneurism and novel, corporate versions of selfcare. I propose three major subdivisions; self-entrepreneurial activities, self-care, and self-examination, which together constitute a hybrid form of self-governance. By emphasising self-responsibility they avert wider discussions concerning participation, power and inequalities in HE. The categories of ‘career nomad,’ ‘reluctant entrepreneur’ and ‘course hopper,’ that participants were seen to embody in this study, may prove useful for further research into modern workplace identities, while myobservations concerning liminality in the modern workplace has implications for the future direction of staff learning and development. Study outputs focused on sharing results with senior stakeholders involved in strategic planning of future LDPs, and considering more collaborative and holistic ways to promote staff wellbeing within the organisation.