Social work doctoral education is centered on preparing students for research and publication. Most doctoral students, however, will have some responsibility for teaching during PhD programs, and preparation for this role varies between programs. Many programs offer limited opportunities for doctoral students to practice the tenets of experiential learning theory where they reflect, think, and act on their teaching practice to develop the related competency. As doctoral students in a school of social work we began a teaching peer-support group to address this gap.
This collaborative autoethnography examines the impact of our peer-support group for doctoral student adjuncts at a large public university. We reflect on the group’s impact on our teaching, the gaps it filled in our learning, and its impact on the isolation we felt during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Our research questions were: 1. How do teaching peer-support groups assist doctoral students/candidates with strengthening their teaching practice? 2. What gaps does the teaching peer-support group fill for those in doctoral education? 3. How does a teaching peer-support group help support (or not) doctoral instructors’ feelings around isolation and COVID-19?
Collaborative autoethnography positions us as both researchers and participants, allowing us to interpret our experiences through their connections to our sociocultural context. The collaborative approach allows for collective interpretation of individual experiences, adding depth to the analysis. We invited any doctoral students who were currently teaching or were preparing to teach to join the teaching peer-support group and a diverse range of students attended regularly. Of this group, four participants decided to write autoethnographic reflections and analyze them together for this paper. All authors completed one round of coding followed by a meeting to resolve any disagreements. Themes were identified individually and then discussed and altered collectively.
Three themes emerged from the reflections: isolation, support and comradery, and pedagogical reflexivity. Our findings indicated that all members felt a sense of isolation in their teaching, exacerbated by but present before the COVID-19 pandemic. The peer support group functioned as a source for support and comradery for members, leading to both practical resource sharing and emotional support. Pedagogical reflexivity emerged as an overarching theme covering ideas of power, gatekeeping, and identity. The group provided the opportunity to challenge ourselves, be challenged by others, and to reexamine our teaching practices and philosophy. These findings mirrored the benefits of mutual aid groups familiar to social work practice.
Conclusions and Implications
Our experiences demonstrate the need for and value of a supportive teaching environment for doctoral students. Based on our experiences and our findings here, we recommend that schools of social work create opportunities for doctoral students to offer peer support to each other while they teach. Doctoral students can develop formal or informal networks for support to serve as a space for reflexivity. These networks constitute spaces where they can critically review and process their teaching experiences to improve their teaching practice. While our group evolved organically, schools and administrators should encourage students to form similar groups.