SoTL Blog and Webcast Series

Blog Posts

No, not those “kids”, and we shouldn’t date ourselves here, now should we? We thought that beyond the more formal parts of an institutionally-appropriate website, we should introduce ourselves a bit more informally and let you know about how we want to use this space. 

First, the new Jane and Ron Graham School for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning:  whew, that’s a mouthful!  Jane and Ron Graham are the benefactors who made this whole initiative possible. Yes, they gave us a generous donation, but just as important they believed SoTL offered a strategic opportunity to create important change in education. Jane is a retired teacher – one of our own! She knows the importance of making data-driven decisions in teaching, and believes that improving teaching and learning is fundamental to society. Her husband, Ron, is an engineer and they have also done major things in the College of Engineering over the years.  And they’re both rabid UofS Huskie supporters, and they’ve done some miracles for our athletic programs. Go Huskies!  The UofS community at large owes a great deal to this dynamic duo. And the new School for SoTL is one way they are spreading their influence far beyond the gates of our own university.  SoTL, and the development of leaders in SoTL, will benefit Canada and the world. This is not a “blah blah, thanks to our donors” acknowledgement; this is a heartfelt tribute and admiration for truly great people who are dedicated to making the world a better place. People like Jane and Ron matter. That’s why it’s the first thing we wanted to say.

So here we are, full of life and energy, and ready to participate in significant ways to the wonderful work that has been happening in SoTL for a number of years. We want to promote and support great research, of course, but we also want to offer graduate academic programs that will help develop leadership in SoTL, and amplify its influence. Ambitious, yes, but also humbled and buoyed by the amazing SoTL work already happening in Canada and elsewhere.

And we want you to join us!

Where was SoTL all my life?  As I’ve learned, talking to colleagues across the country this year, I’m among a long list of academics who were interested in SoTL research throughout our careers, but didn’t realize it was “a thing”. We just wanted our own teaching to be better, and our students to learn better, and to enter into a larger conversation with colleagues who were interested in many of the same things.  It was practical.  We worried about teaching and how our students learned.  We worried about how we designed our classes, and whether we were doing it the best way we could?  We worried about our disciplines and whether the next generation of scholars were growing into the challenges we knew they were going to face. 

Yes, we worried.

And then there was SoTL – almost a permission to look into things we knew were important, but that weren’t recognized in the disciplines as “legitimate” research. That wasn’t a problem for me.  I am an education professor, so looking into these kinds of questions were always seen as legitimate. But I marvel at the courage of my SoTL colleagues in other disciplines. They had the chutzpah to take a side step from their own disciplinary research – in chemistry, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, or economics—and concentrate their research programs on teaching and learning in those disciplines.  Sounds easy.  But it’s hard, and risky.  Everyone understands when an anthropologist digs up some fragments of pottery and makes some astonishing findings. It’s cool; it’s disciplinary; its expected. But someone who plants their feet and says they’re interested in how to create better anthropologists? How that angle on the discipline matters? These are strong people.  They’re not taking an easy path. But maybe, just maybe, they’re doing work that will change their disciplines, and through their influence, change … everything else.

SoTL seemed to take flight because it was “discovered” in higher education.  Yes, permission was given to academics to look into <gasp> teaching and learning in their disciplines.  How freeing!  How revolutionary! Do you mean to tell me that we can actually do research on our own teaching and how it influences learning?  It’s legitimate?

Yes, and even more, it’s important.

But here’s the thing.  The same thing is just as important in other levels of education – especially secondary and post-secondary schools.  When we looked around and talked to our colleagues in the k-12 sector, they told us they were SoTL scholars too. That wasn’t how it was labelled – they called it evidence-based teaching. They used data to inform their teaching; every day they entered a classroom they were doing research into what made learning better.  It was a stunning moment for us, as we looked into creating a new school for SoTL. In its natural emphasis on higher education—teaching and learning in the disciplines—SoTL had missed a connection with educators teaching in those same disciplines in the secondary schools.

So, here’s an idea. As SoTL scholars, let’s look at the full continuum of learning and teaching. Higher education may have given an updraft to SoTL research and teaching, but it’s not exclusive. Our colleagues in K–12 education are grappling with many of the same issues and challenges we are.  Let’s lock arms and find some answers to how we can be better teachers, and inspire better learners, regardless of their grade level.

I want to make a simple point here, and one that is no doubt gathering steam across Canada. We need to understand how indigenous perspectives intersect with our work in SoTL. We need to understand indigenous and cross-cultural research methods, and we must – yes, must – face up to how the systemic racism that has infected so much of society might also be embedded in our SoTL research. It hides in the questions we explore, and the questions we don’t.  It is hard-wired into the ways we judge what is credible research, and the reasons we reject or discount some research as weak or not rigorous. And it is lurking in what we have come to accept as the academically credible ways to report the results of our research. Higher education is steeped in tradition, and some of that is warm and inviting. But some of our traditions also provide safe shadows for racism, and we have to shine a bright light in those shadows.

What got me thinking about this (again) was an introduction to volume 9.2 of CJSoTL by the always insightful and socially conscious, Elizabeth Marquis.  She calls out the possibility of falling into “pedagogical somnambulism”. Marquis counselled us,

At the same time, taking Winner’s lead, the notion of countering  somnambulism might also encourage us to ask,“as we ‘make things work’, what kind of world are we making?” (1986, p.17). How do teaching and learning strategies and practices relate not only to the learning outcomes listed on syllabi, but also to the (re)production of what Winner calls “psychological, social, and political conditions”? (ibid). These questions, which echo ideas articulated by some critical pedagogues,also resonate with the kinds of ‘bigger questions’ Bloch-Schulman and colleagues (2016)  encourage SoTL scholars to explore in a  recent article  in Teaching and Learning Inquiry. While ‘what works’ questions remain vital, so too can SoTL scholars contribute importantly to exploring the ways in which educational practices shape and are shaped by our social worlds.

(Marquis, E., 2018) 

One of the things I’ve come to love about SoTL is its penchant for breaking with tradition and stretching the limits of what it means to be a scholar. So many people I’ve met in this movement are strong, principled, and motivated to take very real chances with their careers by doing research that is sometimes not very well understood in the academy nor judged generously for promotion, tenure, and advancement. They’re brave. I know that kind of bravery is important, and I believe it means that SoTL may also offer a place to genuinely and openly encourage the exploration of indigenous perspectives on research into teaching and learning. I don’t pretend to know what those perspectives are, but I’d love to learn. Wouldn’t you?

References 

Bloch-Schulman, S., Wharton Conkling, S., Linkon, S.L., Manarin, K., & Perkins, K. (2016). Asking biggerquestions: An invitation to further conversation. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 4(1), 1-7. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.1.12

Marquis, E. (2018). Countering Pedagogical Somnambulism: An Introduction to Issue 9.2. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9 (2). https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotl-rcacea.2018.2.1

Winner, L. (1986). The Whale and The Reactor. Chicago: University of Chicago.