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Framing Our Professional Identity: Experiences of Emerging Caribbean Academics.

In the context of changing global landscapes wherein higher education institutions (HEIs) are becoming increasingly internationalized (Altbach and Knight 2007; Churchman and King 2009; Hyde, Clarke, and Drennan 2013), there is an ever-present need to address the complexity of professional identity formation, growth, and response of those who work therein (Nixon 2001; Rhoades 2007; Clegg 2008). Yet, Clarke, Abbey, and Drennan (2013, 9) alluded to a reality that "professional identity is an area that has not been well researched in any great depth among the professions let alone in higher education". Thus, while there is a growing literature in developing countries that center on the issue of professional identities in HEIs (Nixon 2001), the area remains relatively underdeveloped (Archer 2008; Rhoades 2007; Trede, Macklin, and Bridges 2012). In fact, much of existing literature in the area, emphasizes the experiences of in-service teachers and graduate students in HEIs (Clarke, Abbey, and Drennan 2013). What remains absent within considerations of professional identity therefore are:

(i) explorations of identity formation that capture the ways in which academics "come to possess the constructs and ideas that inform their professional identity" (Clarke, Abbey, and Drennan 2013, 7);

(ii) Ihe potential relevance oi local context and cultures in professional socialization or identity formation (Bcijaard, Meijer, and Vcrloop 2004; Trede, Macklin, and Bridges 2012) and;

(iii) the role of networks as a critical response to the challenges of identity formation (Ibarra, Kilduff, and Tsai 2005), particularly for new comers to the academic community (Archer 2008; Gourlay 2011).

In the Caribbean, there is a growing desire to institutionalize a culture of best practice in the transformation of the academic workforce within HEIs. However, these efforts are often curtailed by the lack of evidence based strategies that configure the professional identities and lives of academic faculty. The main focus in Caribbean literature has been on identity formation among teachers and health care professions. Even there, researchers have limited their examinations to the narratives of nurses and midwives who live and work outside of the region; namely North America and England (Hallam 2012; Larson et al. 2013). Moreover, the literature on professional identity in the education sector is also limited to analyses of structural and cultural aspects of primary/elementary and secondary/high schools, including issues related to high stakes testing, dress codes, and training programs for understanding professional identity formation of practicing teachers (Ali-Yamin and Pooma 2012; Antoine 2012; Barrow 2013). The main objectives of this article therefore are to:

(i) interrogate our experiences of learning about, defining, and shaping of our professional identity within HEIs in the Caribbean;

(ii) highlight the role of informal networks in the professional development process, and;

(iii) assess the utility of situated learning theory for making sense of, and reconfiguring, experiences of emerging academics.

We hope that by so doing, this research will: (i) provide needed initial insights into professional identity formation among emerging women academics in HEIs of the Caribbean; (ii) raise pertinent questions about the effectiveness of institutional structures and/or processes that affect and/or can frame professional identities, and; (iii) reinforce the role of alternative networks and processes that aid in the reflection on, and formation of, professional identities in such contexts.

Higher Education in the Caribbean

Over the past three decades there has been a notable expansion, diversification and reorientation of higher education in the Caribbean. Today, there are "over 150 institutions of which 60% are public, 30% private and the remaining 10% exist with some government support" (Tewarie 2008, 3). These HEIs in the Caribbean include a regional university, national universities (in Guyana, Jamaica, Belize, and Trinidad and Tobago), many private yet relatively small universities (including offshore medical and other United States (US)-sponsored institutions), a university college in the Bahamas as well as community and teacher colleges in most of the territories. Institutional offerings range from certificate programs (continuing education), associate, bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees across various disciplines and time frames.

In addition, it is important to recognize the ways in which our higher education system in the Caribbean is fashioned on a highly centralized and hierarchical model that was inherited from the British education system (Blair 2013). Thus, while issues of access, economic relevancy, and rationalization in higher education are major colonial legacies (Tewarie 2008), one major deficiency remains the lack/absence of scholarship that questions the structures and practices of HEIs as it relates to their communities of practice. At a deeper structural, and perhaps, historical level, the ongoing silence around issues of academic practice and its implications for institutional contexts, culture, and for young or emerging academics remain unaddressed.

In considering the transformative value of HEIs in the Caribbean, we therefore aim to make a case for greater consideration of the role of the academic community and more specifically, interrogation of the structures, relations, and practices that frame the professional identity of its members. We argue therefore that the persistence of divisive and hierarchical aspects of the post-colonial Caribbean impede the possibilities for open educational structures and collaborative learning opportunities. Where such exclusive environments and inherent dynamics exist, we support the need for informal, and perhaps, formal networks; where possible. These can serve as critical structures and processes wherein emerging scholars could begin to reconstruct and reframe their professional identities.

St. Lucian Women Academic Research Network (SWARN)

We are all nationals of St. Lucia and graduates of the same regional university with between four to ten years since the completion of our doctoral programs. We are also all in the process of defining and negotiating our professional identities, albeit we are at various junctures of this process. We all work in departments where the ratio of male to female is almost equivalent. For two of us, our departments are more female oriented. Hence, we did not see the issue of female representation as a major issue in our academic space. As emerging faculty members therefore, we centered on issues related to teaching, research, and publication, as overall expectations of faculty members. This focus informed our theoretical framework for the study. This will be discussed in the following section of this article.

In 2013, we met as a group to discuss a possible collaboration and an opportunity to co-mentor. At the time, we recognized that, despite our doctoral research experiences, there was little socialization into the role of an academic and strategies for negotiating academic life. We also deliberated on the need to advance the socio-historical fabric of St. Lucia, to build on the work of pioneering scholars and activists like Sir Arthur Lewis and Sir Derek Walcott. We decided on the formation of SWARN.

As part of this reframing process, we have formed SWARN to use open talk between ourselves as a way of learning; to actively engage in collaborative practice, local community involvement, as well as to develop and secure our professional development. It is through such questioning, locating, and making sense of our own identities as relative newcomers, that we attempt to crack the silence on the unwritten rules and practices related to the construction of professional identity in the Caribbean context. We also attempt to make visible, alternative ways of learning how to participate in, and redefine the process of, journeying into professional life.

Situated Learning Theory and Professional Identity

Professional identity remains a widely contested and complex construct (Coldron and Smith 1999; Clegg 2008; Sims 2011; Trede, Macklin, and Bridges 2012). For some researchers, it entails the combined acquisition of technical knowledge, practice based pedagogical curricula, values, dispositions, and related skills associated with professional work (Reid et al. 2008; Irby 2011). Others offer more nuanced descriptions that capture:

(i) a sense of membership and allegiance to teaching and research activities of one's discipline and academic community (Clarke, Abbey and Drennan 2013; Becher and Trowler 2001);

(ii) more fluid understandings that draw on the multiplicity of learning and academic spaces (Skegg 1999; Clegg 2008; Sutherland and Markauskaite 2012);

(iii) a critical self-evaluation of one's judgment of the dispositions of that professional practice (Paterson et al. 2002).

One dominant socio-cultural perspective in the literature is that professional identity develops over time, based on the acquisition and distribution of professional knowledge, skills and values within a Community of Practice [CoP] (Lave and Wenger 1991; Daly, Pachler, and Pickering 2003; Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour 2007). Wenger (1998, 151), for instance, espoused that "identities in practice is defined socially not merely because it is reified in a social discourse of the self and social categories, but also because it is produced as lived experience of participation in specific communities". Where identities are constructed through participation of members in, and interactions within, the CoP, Wenger (1998) perceived learning as participation and participation as identity. In this sense, participation serves as the axis upon which individuals who enter professional practice are socialized into and reflect upon the processes, relationships, values, and specific behaviours that frame one's professional identity. Three main aspects of importance within this nexus therefore are the: (i) commitment to cultural expectations that define the relationships within the community; (ii) co-creation of practices within which academics engage, and; (iii) specific sites of influence.

Participation and identity formation however remain fluid concepts within the CoP (Wenger 1998; Trowler and Knight 2000). From this perspective, new lecturers acquire changing knowledge, skills, and values related to the formation of their professional identities. This is acquired through certain paradigmatic or learning trajectories as they interact with seasoned or older members of the CoP (Wenger 1998; Lave and Wenger 1991). We note that these interactions traditionally rely on the willingness of, and hierarchical relations between, new and seasoned participants. Lave and Wenger (1991) thus concede to the ways in which power relations (depending on the conditions), structural arrangements, and cultures of the community, frame the types and intensity of participation as well as the relations of power between new and seasoned participants. In such cases, other researchers acknowledge that the outcomes of such processes may lead to withdrawal, struggles to meet, or comply with, expectations of these structures, and related tensions over how to respond to such (Lave and Wenger 1991). It is within such parameters that professionals begin to (re)negotiate the complexities of such space, (re)locate the meanings that lie therein and (re)construct their professional identities over time (Lave and Wenger 1991; Hunter, Laursen, and Seymour 2007).

Notwithstanding the theoretical utility of situated learning theory (Trowler and Knight 2000; Fuller et al. 2005) and its practical significance as a professional development strategy (Wenger, McDermott and Snyder 2002), many scholars have raised some burning issues as it relates to realities within the CoP (Gourlay 2011; Clegg 2008; Sutherland and Markauskaite 2012). In New Lecturers and the Myth of 'Community of Practice,' Gourlay (2011) questioned the functionality of the CoP model based on fragile assumptions that are related to consistency and centrality of shared repertoire, mutual endeavor, and expert-novice interaction. Of critical importance here, is the need to examine the structures, social processes and attributes that frame, or not, expert-novice interaction. Other researchers also draw on the need to further address:

(i) the quality of the interactions for professional socialization of new lecturers in academic spaces (Trowler and Knight 2000; Gourlay 2011);

(ii) the ways in which the expectations of the profession are communicated (Reid et al. 2008);

(iii) the impact of power relationships on participation and learning in the workplace (Fuller et al. 2005; Roberts 2006), and;

(iv) the relevance of agency for interpretations of and response to the expectations of professional identity (Trowler and Knight 2000; Clegg 2008; Sutherland and Markauskaite 2012).

It is in such contexts researchers have begun to rethink the dynamics of the CoP and address the potential role of networks in supporting, mentoring, and sustaining collaboration among faculty (Cordoba and Robson 2006; Hodgkinson-Wiliams and Sieborger 2008; Henrich and Attebury 2010). However, although "networks have been thoroughly studied as conduits for information and resources; we know little about the role they play in creating and shaping identities" (Ibarra, Kilduff, and Tsai 2005, 362); particularly in geographic regions like that of the Caribbean. We hope therefore that, by scrutinizing our own learning and participation experiences as relative newcomers in academe, we can offer critical insights into the socialization processes, structures of academic practice, related struggles, and the nature of social interactions embedded within our academic institutions. By so doing, we also aim to make visible not only the structural facets of our experiences, but also alternative discourses, spaces, and systems of social support that can facilitate constructive participation and learning within CoPs.

Research design

Within the socio-cultural perspective of situated learning theory, identity and practice remain continuously yet mutually connected. In testing this supposition, Wenger (1998, 146) called for empirical examinations of "the process of ... mutual constitution" between the community and the individual. In supporting this proposition, researchers also noted that identity is constructed through self-evaluation, reflection, and introspection (Lave and Wenger 1991; Paterson et al. 2002). These are produced within specific historical, institutional, and discursive sites (Hall 1996).

In taking this position further, we employed the use of a collaborative autoethnographic (CAE) approach that is "simultaneously collaborative, autobiographical, and ethnographic" (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2013, 17). Through a dual lens, CAE focuses not only on self as a subject of study that transcends a narration of personal history, but does so collaboratively within a team of researchers (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2013). Some of the definitive features of CAE are its' exploration of researcher subjectivity, concern for understanding of selves in relation to others, and the need for community building. The utility of CAE presented an enriched understanding of how emerging academics continuously negotiate their professional identities to collectively build a healthy community of practice and to advance their professional development. More specifically, the use of CAE, allows for dialogic engagement of each other's stories, situated selves, and for collaborative exchanges and interrogation of our professional stories. Collectively, these provide a reflexive tool, a method of inquiry, and an opportunity for reframing, reconstructing, and (re)conceptualising our professional identity.


To make sense of the processes that define our professional identity, we have collaborated on the process of writing, reflecting and interpreting our experience. As a starting point, we offer our professional portraits.

Talia Esnard left St. Lucia in 1999, after doing the first year of the Bachelor of Science degree, to continue her university education in Sociology at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus in Trinidad and Tobago. She graduated in 2001 with First-class Honours in Sociology. In 2007 she was conferred with a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the same discipline. She subsequently served for eight years as an Assistant Professor in the Center for Education at the University of Trinidad and Tobago; where she was responsible for training teachers within the Social Studies/Sociology specialization. In 2016, she returned as a Sociology Lecturer, within the Department of Behavioural Sciences, at the University of the West Indies. Although her doctoral work addressed the challenges of fostering entrepreneurial orientations for higher education institutions, her post-doctoral work has focused primarily on issues affecting women in entrepreneurial and educational spheres.

Christine Descartes left St. Lucia to continue her undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine, Trinidad, after completing the first year of the B.Sc. at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. She graduated with First-class Honours with a B.Sc. in Psychology and a minor in Sociology and Gender Studies. Thereafter, she began her PhD in Developmental Psychology and subsequently graduated in 2010. Since then she held the position of Instructor in Psychology at the Department of Behavioural Sciences for three years before becoming a full time lecturer at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine in 2014. While her research areas specifically focus on child and adolescent problem behaviours and trauma, she currently researches on issues of post-traumatic stress following hurricanes or other natural disasters within the region.

Kyneata Joseph began her tertiary education in St. Lucia at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. In 1999 she left for Trinidad to complete a Bachelors of Arts degree in History at the University of the West Indies. She was awarded the degree in 2001 but continued on at the UWI having been awarded a post graduate scholarship which allowed her to complete a Doctor of Philosophy in History in 2008. Dr. Joseph joined the faculty at the University of the Southern Caribbean in 2009 as a lecturer in History, in the History and Social Studies Department. Her area of specialisation is the migration, labour, environmental and ecological history of St. Lucia.

In 1993, Sandra Evans started her Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics with a French minor at the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College in St. Lucia. She first came to Trinidad in 1994 to continue to read for her first degree at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus. This move was largely influenced by her mother whose mantra was "Le ou ni an bon endikasyon ou kay sa twape tout sa ou vie (1)". She was awarded the first degree in 1996. In 2000 she completed a Master's degree in Linguistics at the Universite de Toulouse le Miral in Toulouse, France. She returned to Trinidad in 2002 and later pursued doctoral studies in linguistics at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus. She graduated in 2013 with High Commendation. She is currently a full-time lecturer in Linguistics and is also the coordinator of the Linguistics programme at the University of the West Indies at St. Augustine. Her doctoral research focused on the language and disadvantage before the law in St. Lucia. She has expanded her research on the topic to other creole-language situations in the Commonwealth Caribbean.

Data collection

As part of this process, we all reflected and expounded on the notion of professional identity, the experiences that influenced these understandings, as well as the impact of these interpretations on our professional life within and outside academe. These reflections and understanding were produced in the form of individual narratives. "Close narratives ... can ... [display] how larger social structures insinuate their way into individual consciousness and identity, and how these socially constructed 'selves' are then performed for (and with) an audience in this case the listener/interpreter" (Reissman 2008, 115-116). In our case, we all consciously attempted to self-identify critical incidents relative to our experiences. Even then, we all remained cautious of our vulnerability during that process and of what we disclosed (Chatham-Carpenter 2010).

To do this, we met once a month over a two-year period to discuss issues related to our personal lives and experiences, deficiencies of our academic experience, and the framing of our roles and activities in and outside academe. In the case of the former, we frequently connected or started our meetings with updates on personal journeys, challenges and/or accomplishments. These opportunities are usually used to provide messages of support, or perhaps even a listening ear, to another member of the group. We also see these moments as opportunities to vent in a trusted space where we are all open. Deliberations on the latter, that is, our academic experiences, have raised many questions related to: (i) our own perceptions of professional identity in our academic contexts; (ii) adequacies of experiences related thereto, and; (iii) the possibilities for developing the needed skills, values, and behaviours consistent with professional identity in academia.

Data analysis

Once these narratives were completed, they were then distributed through email, manually coded, compared by each person, and then discussed as a group. To process the data, we had two face to face meetings and one Skype conversation. During these times, we attempted to identify emerging or recurrent themes that define the processes, related tensions, and complexities that frame our professional identity. The underlying purpose of this approach was the need for multiple perspectives that come from being framed as a(n) "researcher/researched, subject/object, and insider/outsider" (Coia and Taylor 2009, 15). This kind of communication and comparative analysis was purposefully used to improve issues of trustworthiness, validity and credibility in the interpretations (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2013). While we acknowledge that such processes do not allow for generalizations, they can certainly be beneficial to others who find themselves in similar situations or facing similar issues.


Professional identity remains a complex construct that is located within deep seated socio-historical and cultural contexts. Given that, our narratives pointed to several themes that cut across issues related to: (i) the hierarchical and fragmented nature of academic institutions; (ii) the related tensions of participation and learning; and (iii) the possibilities for networks as structures of hope.

Hierarchy, Individualism and Fragmentation

The notion of a CoP proposes that engagement between new and senior members is essential for creating, building, and expanding knowledge. Thus, the underlying expectation is that like-minded intellectuals can share ideas, learn from experienced others, and co-create professional knowledge. However, one central theme in our narratives was the way in which the hierarchical nature of our institutions and the self-serving ways of more senior colleagues, framed an isolated and fragmented academic community.

In providing examples in which institutional individualism shapes academic thinking (Sutherland and Markauskaite 2012), Esnard noted that she "began to slowly recognize the academic culture of the day, the tendency for colleagues to work in silos and the subtle ways in which [persons were apprehensive] of any form of sharing, socializing and supporting". In lieu of forging any degree of collaborative or mentoring opportunities, she shared an incident in which she was greeted with private conversations with senior faculty members, who held negative evaluations of collaborations, both as a process and as a mark of professional distinction. This stands in sharp contrast to the communal environments from which we all came and which we hoped would somehow exist within the institution. What surfaces in such cases is what Becher and Trowler (2001) depict as a kind of academic tribalism where senior faculty overtly maintain the established practices and exclusive status quo of the organization.

This kind of closed communication, adverse learning trajectories, and isolated intellectualism remain the source of much dejection. Thus, we all remain troubled that after many years of serving in various capacities at our respective institutions, that we are still somewhat contending with feelings of 'otherness' rather than that of 'likeness'. We all concurred that these were manifestations, albeit to varying degrees, and symbolic representations of broader dismissive tendencies among a few members of the academic community. Thus, social criteria like gender, nationality, academic status, and age continue to shape our experiences in academe.

In unpacking these, we recognized the processes by which higher education has been developed, mainly within three Caribbean territories, where scholarship has been largely limited thereto. We are also somewhat perturbed by other subtler forms of stereotyping that materialize from the double bind of being women, and, non-nationals. Esnard, recalled for instance, two separate conversations with two senior male members of staff who referred to St. Lucian women as aggressive, with a tendency to assert themselves. The perception was that this characteristic was not good for one's reception in academia. We reject and denounce such claims. In fact, we pondered on the extent to which these can be located within broader gender based contradictions; where such characteristics like assertiveness, competitiveness, decisiveness, and individualism are typically used to describe successful male academics (Acker and Webber 2007). In such contexts, women are usually perceived as less competent, more effeminate and more deserving of a lower academic status than their male counterparts (Ridgewayl997). Without any specific research on this within HEIs in the Caribbean, we are also unsure as to whether such perceptions extend to St. Lucian males, to other St. Lucian women across other HEIs, and, are shared by other male members of the academic community. We do agree however, that these implicit expressions are part of larger and more complex hierarchical structures that compound the realities of women even in academia (Acker and Armenti 2004). This reality has received little scholarly examination in our Caribbean contexts. With the increasing representation of women in Caribbean institutions of higher education, this kind of examination is of urgent importance.

We also saw these perceptions and stereotypes associated with the notion of a 'junior faculty' as a distinctive but additional layer of our academic life. What exists therefore is a silent dismissal of new faculty where a few senior academics treat their junior colleagues with silence, dismissal or rejection, based on related questioning of the ability of junior faculty to be successful in such a politicized space. On one level, this junior/senior divide expresses itself in terms of academic status and/or length of time as an academic in the particular institution. On another level, we saw these kinds of messages, as a reflection of the ageist nature of our academic environments, and by extension, the broader paternalistic nature of our Caribbean societies. Thus, despite our legitimate entrance into academe, the peripheral position which we occupy, and from which Wenger (1998) hopes for professional advancement, there are strong messages of singularity, particularly from senior members of faculty. The environment can therefore be likened to an antagonistic and contentious platform that is rife with feelings of supremacy and misgivings.

Learning to become an academic in these sites of influence therefore becomes one of navigating historical structures and cultural practices that are nested and sustained within our everyday academic life. Where these practices are interrogated, there is an ever-present need to address stratifying factors (such as gender, nationality, and age, just to name a few) which complicate the challenges of building an academic community, or communities of support, in higher education. We contend therefore that, where such practices exist, these undermine any form of constructive intermingling between emerging and senior members of faculty. Such practices also deflect attention away from authentic collaborative practices or mentoring opportunities that can promote collegiality or desire for team ethos, development of members' competencies or expertise, and other scholarly activities that allow for the advancement or use of professional knowledge.

This pervading sense of disengagement also has tremendous implications for the applicability of situated learning theory and the CoP model in institutional contexts such as these. Thus, one unexplored consequence of institutionalized partitioning is that there is "low group entitativity ... [and] ... understanding of what local educational identity might be" (Blair 2013, 4). Another consequence of such structures, is that it also "engenders an ethos of dependence and patronage and so deprives people of dignity, security and self-respect [that] impedes the material, social and spiritual advance of the majority of people" (Best 2000, 247-8). Our own examinations and reflections confirmed these feelings of demoralization and disorientation and their impact on learning and framing our professional identity. As a case in point, Descartes revealed that, "the struggle and pressure to be part of such an academic community seems overwhelmingly daunting and almost unattainable". Esnard suggested that in her initial years of being in academe, she "lost [herjself and [her] purpose for academic life...[and that she] had no clue what [she] hoped to become professionally". Likewise, Evans admitted that she came to a point where she was "neither consciously, nor purposefully working on constructing or developing a professional identity". If unaddressed, we contend that such blindness can be detrimental to the professional trajectory of emerging faculty.

These sentiments, as well as the evaluations of prospects for learning while participating, were also central in the Joseph's and Evans' subtle detachment from their academic institutions. It is in such contexts and with these experiences in mind that we support Fournillier's (2010) argument that such divisive structures and processes in Caribbean institutions can be compared and linked to the historical divide and rule system of the slave plantation. Thus, like a plantation system, there are "well defined boundaries and ... a marked internal hierarchical structure" (Smith 1967). There, power becomes expressed in the extent to which order and authoritarianism are held as definitive aspects of Caribbean social structure (Thame 2014) that constrain any form of organic interrelations and opportunities for social mobility (Smith 1967). Thus, where academic seniority frames and legitimizes institutional individualism, there is little room for negotiating, participating, and learning on the basis of the same. In this sense, power, hierarchy, and authority become privileged over that of sharing, collaborating, and knowing. It is here that emerging or early career academics are peripherally located within the academic community, and where, they must find alternative strategies for successful participation.

Tensions and struggles of participation

Participation and identity also remain central to the CoP. Yet the nature and context of the participation, its impact on learning and identity remain relatively unaddressed. To tease these, we begin to problematize the major assumptions embedded in the theoretical conceptualization of participation as learning and learning as identity. One major proposition is that identity is constituted through the (re)negotiation of meanings that are acquired in dialectical relationships between the individual and his/her socially structured environment (Lave and Wenger 1991). In critically reflecting on our own narratives, we saw this interaction process as limited, power driven, and riddled with many tensions related to our roles and boundaries as well as the cultural relevance of our scholarship and/or practice. Collectively these situated, yet dialectical, trajectories clouded our own identification with the expertise of senior faculty and by extension, navigation of our professional identity.

Role tensions

Discussions on this issue of participation among SWARN members point to the ways in which our early exposure to teaching within the university context (as indicative of academic participation), narrowed our participation in related academic activities and, inadvertently, our learning trajectories. Descartes, for instance, wrestled with the fact that her "current disposition is still firmly grounded in [her role as a] teacher [rather] than as [a] researcher". She traced this aspect of her emerging professional identity to her "previous position as a [teaching] Instructor" wherein there were no requirements [as indicated by a senior member of staff] for research and publications". Likewise, Esnard recalled that, because of her initial status as a part-time member of staff in the organizational hierarchy of her institution, she "became preoccupied with teaching rather than immersing [herself] in other scholarly related activities including research and publication thereof". Here, we believe that the focus on, and weight of teaching, for us, as emerging academics, confine possible learning trajectories. We also contend that without equal exposure to all aspects of academic life at the early stage, emerging academics will be disadvantaged in their efforts to develop the range of skills, attitudes, and dispositions that are consistent with the expectations of a CoP. Given the emphasis on the creation of research cultures (Skelton 2012), there is a greater need for open dialogue on academic assessments (Reid et al. 2008).

Boundary Tensions

The intricacy of identity formation also increases where professional staff interface with multiple professional boundaries within continuously changing landscapes (Whitchurch 2008). Within such intricate contexts, professional identity is often viewed as a personal struggle within which one must make sense of competing experiences, positions and perspectives (Samuel and Stephens 2000; Paterson et al. 2002; Peel 2005; Roberts 2006). Thus, Evans stressed that her dual status as an academic and a graduate student complicated the understanding and contouring of her professional identity over time. She purported that "during [the writing of her PhD thesis she], had not developed any...conscious sense of a professional identity". In fact, Evans recalled that she felt "more like a graduate student who lectured, whose main priority was to complete a thesis ... [rather than to] develop a scholarly profile through research and publication". While Evans is now in the process of "reconciling personal feelings with those of her professional undertakings ... [she] is yet to experience feelings of personal performing the [teaching, research and service] roles that are expected ... by the university". The issue here is one of shifting identities, in which her formative understandings of professional identity framed by her earlier exposure to, and work with, teaching centered institutions are at odds with that of the centrality of research and publication within her current university. What is clear however is that her increasing integration in her academic community strengthens her identification with the activities of that space. However, her professional development continues without any kind of mentoring from senior male or female colleagues. It is in such contexts that on-going socialization, validation, and negotiation processes encourage emerging members to see themselves as a valuable part of the organization (Trede, Macklin and Bridges 2012).

Tensions around Practices of Nationalism and/or Regionalism

Professional identity formation can also be seen as an ongoing process of reinterpretation (Beijaard, Meijer and Verloop 2004). Like a typical SWAN that feeds in both water and land, we are emerging St. Lucian academics who locate our identities in the complex spaces of where we came from and where we currently exist. More specifically, our aspirations and identities feed from the social landscapes and realities of both St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago. Thus, although we work and reside in Trinidad and Tobago, we remain continuously nestled in the navel of our St. Lucian society. We share the cries and concerns of Sir Derek Walcott (2007, 6) who once asked in 'A Far Cry from Africa':
where shall I turn? Divided to the vein? I who have cursed the drunken
officer of British rule, who choose between this Africa and the British
tongue that I love? Betray them both or give back what they give? How
can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and

Thus, as we begin to open and span our wings into academic skies, we reflect on these questions of identity, mother land and mother tongue, and consciously attempt to come to terms with our complex identities. In so doing, we strive to revisit, reconnect, redefine our commitment to professional advancement in the transnational spaces that we occupy and to the development of our homeland that we have left.

In more practical terms, we wrestled therefore with the relevance of our nationality and cultural heritage to our own research and activist agendas. For instance, while Joseph made a connection between her research, her nationality, and her commitment to the advancement of historical knowledge, she also grapples with the need to teach, write, and to relate the histories of the Caribbean. To a lesser extent, she connects her storying to wider developmental issues facing the region. She made the following statement:
While Walcott writes in poetry and St. Omer writes in oil paint, their
subjects are always the same; the landscape and people of St. Lucia. I
guess I fall in that noble/nobel tradition. Writing of St. Lucia's
past, its people, its ecology, its brave moments is what I write and
it's how I see myself as a professional. In this my professional and
personal identities are very much related ... I am a professional; I am
also a St. Lucian based in Trinidad. How does that impact my situation?
I now realize that my professional identity is fluid, the pieces come
together like a jigsaw puzzle ... I pick up pieces and they become part
of my identity as a professional.

Likewise, Evans tussled with the personal desire to "create a stronger and better St. Lucian society" with that being in "a different country ... social and cultural space, of which [she] was not a natural part". We recognize therefore the complex ways in which we carry souls of contending cultures while living in a divided space.

These have produced many conflicting moments of estrangement and belonging. Thus, while for Evans, teaching a French-Lexicon Creole course gives her a sense of pride and connectivity to the intellectual space that she now occupies, she remains continually haunted by a strong sense of belonging at the national level. After all, se la nou sdti! (2) It is only natural that we sometimes long for home, for an environment where Kweyol, as the language of that space is celebrated, frames situated meanings, and where we are embraced by those with whom we remain bonded. We also recognize the many threads of our Caribbeanness. The latter is sometimes overshadowed by wider, yet limited cross-cultural experiences, that are needed to frame a more regional aspect of her professional identity. In a similar vein, Descartes drew on her urge to "give back to her country by extending [her] research there" and her own considerations of how being a Caribbean scholar can affect the framing of her professional identity. Both Descartes and Evans remain continually troubled by the need for a greater sense of belonging in their academic spaces, engagement in more noticeable efforts of national advocacy, and, wider regional experiences within which they can become professional academics.

We concede therefore that while these academic and personal agendas could create multiple identities around practices of nationalism and regionalism, they can also create growing tensions around the development of a research agenda. We also contend that such perception of research conflicts are often further complicated by the lack of collegiality at the institutional level, and a related lack of shared repertoires around culturally relevant scholarly activities. It is here that the need for an identification with, and commitment to, Caribbean scholarship becomes important. The ways in which national and regional research interests can be merged are also areas of concern. This requires research and scrutiny of Caribbean academic communities, scholarship, and research epistemologies.

Networks as Structures of Hope

Inside the university, Trede, Macklin and Bridges (2012) argue that the essential role of the university, as it relates to professional identities, is to constantly monitor the extent to which their institutional frameworks, conditions, and assessment regimen promote opportunities for professional development. As insiders, we also have an outsider status (Collins 2010). As non-national women in largely male dominated institutional environments, we believe that we are particularly disadvantaged in so far as we are forced to independently prove our worth as academics. It is in such contexts that the role of informal networks remains critical to academic support and success of women in higher education (Burt 1992; Lin 1999) and the formation and enhancement of their professional identity (Ibarra, Kilduff and Tsai 2005; Dobrow and Higgins 2005).

In that regard, SWARN members concurred that the network provides a critical, or emancipatory, space through which we can define and reframe their professional identities. More specifically, we have embraced a Frierian notion of hope as an ontological need and impetus within which one can focus on 'goal directed thinking ... along with motivations to initiate and sustain usage of these routes' (Synder 2000, 25). In many ways therefore SWARN is evolving into a structure of hope, in so far as it drives its members to critically explore more democratic learning trajectories and spaces to steer trangressive practices within professional identity formation and development. Our primary goal therefore has been to secure the personal and professional enhancement of our members, while giving back to our communities through research and social advocacy. Specifically, we use SWARN to go beyond the restrictive boundaries of our academic communities. To do this, we first see the network as a transformative vehicle through which we can harness our own personal and professional odysseys that are grounded in the collaborative, supportive, and non-competitive orientation of the network. This has started an informal process whereby we can build authentic personal and professional relationships.

To initiate this process, our group provided a space and a mind-set within which we have been able to address more consciously our own understandings of our professional identity and assess the impact of socio-cultural contexts on our professional identities. As an initial founder of the group, Esnard recalled that her turning point came with the invitation to join an informal group of locally and internationally based Caribbean scholars who all faced similar experiences of academia. She concluded that these informal interactions provided "influential moments" within which she was forced to "define who [she] was professionally" and to give serious thought to forming other supportive learning and collaborative networks. One understanding is that the sharing of goals and strategies for academic success within the network can provide critical processes for removing the initial confusion about our new roles as academics (Gourlay 2011). Thus, Descartes confirmed that "being a member of SWARN, has also made [her] even more conscious of who [she is], where [she] came from, where [she is] heading, and [her] role as an academic". Joseph also declared that "such a group is also instrumental as a space to thrash out concerns and ideas about being an academic, a woman academic, a non-national academic, a young academic". Thus, for all, SWARN provides needed strategic and psychosocial support; neither of which were adequately communicated or granted within their existing academic circles, communities, or institutions.

Where "a culture of professional development is critical because it promotes a subtext of change and learning" (Blanton and Stylianou 2009, 85), we assert that emerging scholars must explore alternative frames of reference within which they can reflect and reframe the structures and spaces of professional identity and practice. At an ideological level, therefore, we also reject notions of ourselves as disembodied workers who are forced to separate our personal and professional lives. Thus, the sometimes-personalized use of meeting time allows for the holistic development of our members. Esnard for example, is a mother, a wife and an academic. We therefore not only acknowledge her responsibilities outside of the university, but also the ways in which it affects her own ability to integrate her personal and professional life. We have therefore adopted flexible practices that meet her maternal and professional complexities. These may include an extension of a deadline, a change in meeting date or time, at times a change in location or in the case of a death in the family (as in the recent case of another member)--time to grieve before the resumption of group meetings. To some extent, we saw this as a direct consequence of early upbringings where attention to family life, relationships, and friendships, still remain important values that we uphold. Through these strategies, we have been able to validate our own struggles (both personally and professionally) and frame constructive practices that help us negotiate our integration and participation in our academic communities. In so doing, we have also created a co-mentoring relationship that is centered on equity and the need for mutual advancement. Working together, sharing similar experiences, interests, and ideas as well as acknowledging each other's vulnerabilities and challenges, we have been able to strengthen our trust within the group. The intimate nature of the group, its trustworthiness, both provide opportunities to honestly explore issues related to defining and shaping our professional identity. While we acknowledge the ways in which this challenges mainstream notions of the intellectual, the intellectual process and space, we see these processes as functional to our personal and professional advancement over time.

Discussion and conclusions

Increasingly, global patterns shape the changing dynamics of, and practices in, higher education. Where these global environments and related institutionalization of best practices determine the quality and comparability of higher education and research, universities are forced among other things, to nurture and support their academic faculty to maximize their engagement and potential in academe. Yet, in countries like the Caribbean, where little attention has been given to the role of academic faculty in such social transformative processes, it becomes instructive to assess the nature and dynamics of professional identity.

The main objective of the article was to assess the utility of the situated learning theory for the understanding of identity formation among emerging academics in HEIs of the Caribbean and for identifying the challenges of transforming academic communities in such contexts. For Handley et al. (2006, 644), the application of situated learning to understandings of professional identities, brings to the forefront discussions of "who we are, and in which communities of practice we belong, and are accepted". A collaborative approach forced us to be honest and to challenge each other's assumptions, while situating our reflections. Additionally, this approach not only raised an awareness of our collective realities, but also, of the complexities that frame our experiences. In our case, we noted that the exclusive and insular nature of our institutions created a deafening silence around the experiences of emerging faculty across all our disciplines and this had implications for their professional development, and by extension, the future of the academic community. Thus, the prevailing anti-collaborative climate did not support constructive learning, co-creation of knowledge, or commitment to a CoP. Such restricted levels of participation created many tensions and confusions around notions of professional identity and practice in academe. While we acknowledge that there are growing conversations around these issues, we recognize that these have not been converted into any form of tangible action.

This article was also driven by the need to assess the utility of situated learning theory in understanding and explaining our own situations. We conclude that the focus on participation, learning, and identity remains central to this process. Theoretically, these findings also point to the need for more contextualized examinations that assess the normative claims around the notion and value of the CoP. Within such questioning, one must begin to tease out issues related to the structural, historical, and relational aspects of the community that affect professional identities of academics, particularly, for those in the early stages of their career. In so doing, future research centered on women, should also tease more pointedly, the potential relevance of 'intersectionality' as an interpretative framework to make sense of related experiences of women in Caribbean institutions of higher education. Findings suggested that future explorations should also differentiate and compare the nature of the dynamics that shape professional identity of academic faculty across individual and institutional levels, informal and formal settings, nationalist and cross-cultural lines, as well as across genders. We contend that this kind of theorizing can unearth the dynamics at work within interlocking systems of oppressions within academic environments that may be similar to those described in the article. It is here that the work of Collins (1998, 2010) can provide critical insights into the relevance of social constructions and criteria for understanding contextuality. If interrogated, these can point to more liberalizing professional development strategies and mentoring practices that can create and sustain communities of practice inside and outside of the university.

At the practical level, we all consider SWARN to be an alternative, yet liberalizing, network that promotes participation. We can compare this to a koudmen, (3) where social support and collaboration are integral aspects of developing a community. It is in such contexts of social relationships that learning also takes place (Handley et al. 2006). For us therefore, this confirms the utility and effectiveness of informal social networks as an alternative structure that can foster healthy yet alternative communities. We assert that these are capable of transforming and empowering the practices of those who participate in such networks. It is here that we make the case for much needed rethinking and refinement around ideas related to professional development, mentoring, collaboration, agency, and mechanism for learning within CoPs. While the vulnerability of self-studies may not be embraced as an approach going forward, we do encourage others in similar situations, to speak, while reaching out. Addressing these gaps remains critical for engendering professional development activities that can foster collegiality, collaboration, and transformative practices within higher education in the Caribbean.


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(1) This is communicated in Kweyol, as the native language of St. Lucians. It means, "when you have a good education you will be able to get everything what you want."

(2) English translation; "that is where we are from".

(3) A Koudmen is a French Creole word that refers to a group work project. This is a popular means of individual support and community building in St. Lucia.
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Author:Esnard, Talia; Descartes, Christine; Evans, Sandra; Joseph, Kyneata
Publication:Social and Economic Studies
Geographic Code:5TRIN
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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