Faculty researchers awarded for excellence

15 May 2017
Professor Helen Sword
Professor Helen Sword

Faculty of Education and Social Work academics Professor Helen Sword and Dr Ritesh Shah received accolades at last week’s University of Auckland Research Excellence Awards.

Professor Helen Sword, Director or the Centre for Learning and Research in Higher Education, received a Research Excellence Award. Her citation acknowledged her use of an impressive array of methodologies and her ability to challenge the conventions of academic writing in a way that exposes the myths that hinder research creativity and clear communication. Through her research, Professor Sword clearly issues a resounding call to arms “against the lure of scholarly jargon”.

Professor Sword’s latest book titled Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, published this year by Harvard University Press, is based on her interviews with 100 academics in 15 countries, as well as questionnaire data collected from over 1,200 more.

Fans of her research include Steven Pinker, the celebrated Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and the half-a-million viewers of her 2013 TED-Ed video titled “Beware of Zombie Nouns”.

One of the many rave reviews her work has received was perhaps inadvisedly written in the voice of Sam Spade, aka Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 fictional private detective, in Times Higher Education. In the review, Spade is made to muse: “This gal has the old moustaches in her sights… If this gets out, academics will start reading work from other areas, and cooperating on research and teaching projects… Rubes might start to think for themselves, and then where would we be?”

At the awarding ceremonies (from left): Associate Professor Martin East, Cassie Shah, Dr Ritesh Shah and Associate Professor Carol Mutch.
At the awarding ceremonies (from left): Associate Professor Martin East, Cassie Shah, Dr Ritesh Shah and Associate Professor Carol Mutch.

Dr Ritesh Shah, Senior Lecturer in the School of Critical Studies in Education, was thrilled to receive an Early Career Research Excellence Award: “For me, it was a huge honour to be recognised alongside colleagues from across the University who are engaged in cutting-edge scholarship, critically questioning the way we see the world and having real impacts on society.”

Dr Shah investigates how education in conflict-affected areas can contribute to a more just, equitable and peaceful world. His scholarship has been utilised by a number of United Nations agencies and non-government organisations.

With international colleagues, Dr Shah developed a conceptual framework for understanding the role that education serves in peacebuilding efforts, which has been used in wide-scale empirical research in Myanmar, Indonesia, South Africa, Pakistan, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr Shah has also developed an evidence-based and well-argued critique of the use of the term “resilience” within education in post-traumatic contexts. This caught the eye of the World Bank no less, and prompted the organisation to reconsider its definition, policies and funding priorities for building resilience in developing nations.

Dr Shah’s academic head, Associate Professor Carol Mutch, notes that as well as having made his mark on the international stage, Dr Shah “is prepared to go where he is needed whether it be post-conflict Timor-Leste, post-disaster Banda Aceh or the Gaza Strip.” 

Over 30 million children are out of schools globally due to conflict and humanitarian crises. Dr Shah hopes that his research will give voice to individuals, such as teachers in refugee camps or schools in communities under attack, who can provide sanctuary, safety and the potential for transformation in the midst of such turmoil.

“Their role is not merely instrumental in improving access to education or supporting students resilience. These individuals have their own voice, experience and agency in the midst of crises – and that needs to be heard,” Dr Shah says.