This article proposes that in a context where the roles assigned to academics are increasingly complex, where academic work is visibly managed and monitored with an emphasis on teaching quality and professionalised practices, better understandings of academic identities might emerge from a focus on the teaching dimension of the academic role. It seeks to capture this dimension through a theoretical framework that takes account of the context and realities in which academics operate. It examines this complexity through a set of policy initiatives aimed at enhancing the teaching function in UK universities, and a brief report on a study of 18 UK academics focusing on the nature of academic labour. It argues that the teaching dimension of the academic role cannot be usefully studied from outside the context in which academics evolve and construct their apprehensions of teaching practice, and without paying attention to the degree of agency available to them in the context where they operate. It points to the negative impact of competing initiatives directed disjointedly at teaching and research.