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NTFS 2023: Reflections from the field: purpose, values and impact

11 Aug 2023 | Professor Richard W Whitecross New National Teaching Fellow, Richard Whitecross, Head of Law at Edinburgh Napier University, reflects on the interweaving themes of his claim for the prestigious fellowship and offers advice for prospective applicants.

There is something inspiring, and just a little daunting, preparing a National Teaching Fellow claim. Listening to others in online sessions or videos left me in awe at the work others across higher education do. Indeed, I found myself reflecting on what they raised in their presentations and in their online details as National Teaching Fellows. In 2021, I applied and was successful in my application for Principal Fellowship. Preparing for that allowed me to step back and look at my work. Thankfully, I have lots of notebooks! 


One element that I probably did not include in my applications is that my PhD is in legal anthropology. I became used to writing, in my untidy approximation of a doctor’s scrawl, a daily journal. This has become a habit and one that I maintain as much for the insights into my practice as my mental wellbeing. Lecture halls, seminar rooms, academic meetings, and the university campus rather than paddy fields and smoke-filled kitchens are my “field” of enquiry.  

Ethnographic observation was described as “deep hanging out”, but it is so much more than that. Since returning to university teaching in 2012, I have accumulated 23 journals. They record what went awry, what surprised me and importantly, my emerging sense of purpose. I want to engage with students and to support all of them. However, I am particularly concerned with those who are marginalised or are the first in their families to enter higher education. My notebooks provided an important source of examples, many now forgotten, that helped me to map out my approach to the three NTF criteria. That was a useful starting point. I recommend that you keep a record.  


Evidencing your claim is important. This was very clear in the feedback to an early draft by our institutional TEAL, who was amazing. Finding a way to articulate what you want to say takes time and feels awkward. We work with and are helped by others all the time. This can make a claim focused on what you have done and feels a bit boastful.  

Fortunately, by coincidence, I was working with two colleagues on a book chapter. It focuses on the importance of our values and how these inform our professional practice. This meant that I was thinking a lot about what it is I do and its impact. More recently, as I have worked across and beyond my institution over the past nine years, I have had to take time to understand a wide range of perspectives.  

It's personal

The personal is never that far from what we do. As a child in early 1970s Scotland, my mother, a midwife, worked closely with ethnic minority families. From her, I absorbed a concern for our ethnic minority students. Similarly, as an adult, I was diagnosed as dyslexic. Learning why I make the same mistakes (I leave off verb endings), and more about my dyslexia, enabled me to guide colleagues on doing more to support students.  

Both examples have been supported by colleagues in our Department for Learning, Teaching and Enhancement (DLTE). It would be fair to say that it is through my DLTE colleagues, that I became so interested in and passionate about teaching. When I arrived in 2012, I began a two-year Pg Cert in Learning and Teaching. Alongside that I became heavily involved in doctoral supervision and mentoring. 


I was fortunate to be involved with our Teaching Fellowship for several years. This allowed me to learn from other colleagues from across different schools. When Edinburgh Napier introduced ENRoute, a scheme for recognition accredited by Advance HE, I found that as a reviewer I was actively thinking about my own practice. Learning what others are doing has been informative and inspirational. ENRoute encourages an active approach to our professional practice that was fundamental to my application. 


As Head of Law, I have been keen to develop close ties with DLTE. Importantly, my colleagues in DLTE have responded positively. Learning to work with DLTE and to have confidence to ask for their input has been invaluable to me. You may wonder why, “learning to work”? Well, we need to understand each other – we are human. It is best to avoid assumptions that can lead to misunderstandings (and mutual frustration). Being able to have open conversations has been essential.  

Finally, let’s be honest. Academic leadership brings many challenges. For me, the National Teaching Fellowship was about my willingness to take risks, to lead by example and to find ways to work with colleagues in a meaningful way. I know from conversations with other heads of subject that we can and do feel isolated. To have a sounding board you trust and have confidence to ask, “can you help me with …?” is crucial. Preparing my claim, underscored for me that I have been supported in many ways by my colleagues at Edinburgh Napier. 


Richard Whitecross was appointed Lecturer in Law at Edinburgh Napier University in 2012, promoted to Associate Professor in 2017 and to Professor in 2020 where he is the Head of Law. His research interests include migration and asylum law, equalities, child and family law, as well as legal anthropology.

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