South African Journal of Higher Education

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A university department as a community of practice: A quality promotion perspective

EM Bitzer


Wenger (2000, 229) describes communities of practice as the ‘basic building blocks of a social learning system’ since they are the ‘social containers’ that make up such a system. By practising in academic communities, academics define with one another what constitutes academic competence and, for that matter, what constitutes quality. Departments as spaces for enhancing learning and scholarly work in universities have received some attention (Ylijoki 2000; Blackwell 2003; Ramsden 1998; Middlehurst 1993), and other authors (e.g. Knight and Trowler 2001) have emphasised the practice of induction and socialisation of staff into university departments. It appears, however, that the issue of communities of practice, as experienced and cultivated within university academic departments in South Africa, has received minor attention and is, therefore and arguably, in need of further exploration.
By using a case study and appreciative enquiry methodology (Bushe 1998;
Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros 2003; David 2006) the study analyses a  departmental quality review project, reports on the results of the project and more importantly, critiques the way in which quality assurance processes operate within and potentially contribute to a community of practice. One way in which the article might enhance the debate concerning higher education as a social space is teasing out an argument of whether
or not departmental quality reviews might potentially enhance or limit notions of a community of practice. Findings might prove useful for academic staff, staff developers and departmental leaders such as department chairs and deans.
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