Controversies, Debates, and Tensions in SoTL

Controversies, Debates, and Tensions in SoTL


Regarding debates in the
literature in this field there’s a long list, which in a way
makes it quite an exciting field. Some of the ones that I’ve been aware of
over the last few years, debates around whether we should be
distinguishing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning from Scholarly Teaching. Whether we should be distinguishing
it from educational research and my background is in education of higher ed
so I bump into that all the time I think we’ve had quite a few debates
around the language and the terminology and maybe as befits
an evolving field concerns about what is SOTL and what is not. And you know I bumped into a colleague
who’s still at this conference saying I don’t really know if I’m doing SOTL but I think I am and I wanted to come and find out and so I do adult developmental
psychology, and I think we’re having a bit of an identity crisis but we’re moving
through it, so it’ll be okay. It’s a lively field, SOTL, so there are
lots of different ways where we
differ. It’s a wide diverse range of people
in terms of intellectual background, in terms of tastes of evidence. So sometimes it turns into
a tension. I’m guessing that with our new
journal we may end up seeing some of that tension, though we intentionally picked editors who cover the range, so there isn’t a
particular methodological constraint built into the editing of the journal um sort of you know one big difference is in
social science verses more Humanity’s methods. To me I think both are good systematic ways to making and
learning from observations. Whether it’s a close reading of text or a
random assignment of students to two treatments I can learn something from both. What I
really care about most myself is that that person’s professional knowledge is used to
evaluate the products and do I expect every SOTL project to define an answer and
questions you know for ever? Probably not, but if
there is interesting student work and there is clear systematic professional judgment
made on the quality of that, and that person can say this is deeper
than I was seeing last year or possibly includes last year, or it’s been sustained over
several years so I don’t think it’s just a cohort effect. I’m happy with that. My colleagues in
Experimental Psychology don’t see it that way, you don’t have random assignments, you don’t have inferential statistics, it’s not really
something you can conclude. So that tension is in there. I think
one of the tensions in this field that I’ve been most close to you is about methods and about what it is we’re trying to do. Because underlying the methods is a
question about the nature of knowledge and the nature of, not to sound
highfalutin about it but the nature of truth. And much of that falls to the social science versus
humanities models of the Scholarship of Teaching and
Learning that connect with those disciplines that are practiced in the field if you
will. Several years ago at an ISSOTL conference, I left a session where somebody had been presenting a paper that he’d written
with a colleague. The colleague was the statistician on
the paper. And so when the guy gave the presentation he said I’m going to talk about the statistics,
I don’t really understand statistics as well as I probably should but here’s
what my colleague found and here’s what I think. And the session went on, it was all
good. I left the session and I got out into
the hallway and I over heard somebody talking about that session saying, well if you don’t understand
statistics, you don’t belong at this conference. I was happily right on my way to a
meeting of the humanities interest-group and was able to vent a little bit but it
got me thinking about you know what is it that
statistics offer that is different from the way I do research offers
because I do almost nothing that’s numbers. Like many humanists, I read my students work as texts, and I
read it closely, and I read it critically, and I look for
patterns that connect texts. So when I do my research I tend to sit
down with a collection of students writing and read it, and make notes, and underline,
and mark things, and look for the threads and the things that
can connect it. I’m also interested in the things that are
different. What is that one student who’s
doing it differently, doing. One that I’m very aware of because my field is English is the methodological
tension. I think in many settings the methods of the social sciences
seem to rise to the top and appear to take over. As someone in the humanities I want to
resist that but it’s sometimes hard to do, so many of my colleagues and I have been really working hard to insist that one of the things everyone needs to do is
to bring again the habits and values and methods
of their own discipline to this work, so historians can bring a sense of history to the work. Folks like me from English who
study literature can bring that close analysis of text to the work and so forth. There’s a methodological tension and
I think just continually reminding ourselves that
this is work that comes out of, and reflects disciplinary methods, questions, and values, is an important theme in the work. The way the field has
emerged in the United States in particular; we come up against the expectation
that we do social science research. If you’re going to study your students
learning, well you need to have pre-test and post-test and do some kind of
statistical analysis, and you need all these other things that
are completely outside of our expertise. I think the the main debate that I see, or
controversy, is around the notion of evidence. What constitutes knowledge about
something in this particular case, is knowledge about teaching and learning. I think it would
be wrong to assume that any one set of disciplines, from natural science, social science, humanities, has the answer to that question, and
that the rest of us need to follow along and do the same type of work. I think one of the SOTL values I think, as a new concept in higher education in
teaching and learning, is that it can explode the notion of
evidence and get us to rethink what we’ve
come to believe as evidence. Someone said to me once that natural scientists
evidence is ninety-nine point nine percent replicability, for social sciences, its P is less than 0.05, whatever that
means, for the Humanities, which I am
one, finding one other person who agrees with
you. Now, all of the those are forms of evidence,
depending on who you’re talking to. I think that openness, or at least the need to ask the question about “what
is evidence”, is what SOTL brings to the field, and
what new people can bring to SOTL, their
perspectives, especially people who are involved in interdisciplinary work. I think that new scholars will benefit
from knowing about the controversy of some people in terms of one’s disciplinary lense, it’s a large umbrella that welcomes both
humanities, social science, science faculty, and sometimes people feel like it leans too much
towards the social science research, which I’m a little biased because I am a
social science researcher, but there’s room for all disciplines, all lenses, and so humanities
play a big role in SOTL, although a developing role,
it’s probably more established for social science researchers and
scientific method. One of those tensions has to do with the relationship of the Scholarship of Teaching and
Learning to the whole body of research literature that comes out of education psychology, neuroscience these days, even professional development fields, but
what you might call the learning sciences. For many people, its a road into that literature, but it’s not doing the Scholarship of Teaching and
Learning isn’t necessarily the same as doing that kind
of research. It might make some people might be motivated to try that kind of
research but for the most part that’s not what it’s about. It’s about some people might
call reflective practice, practitioner inquiry. It’s about taking a close look at what’s happening in front of you. The student work, the student experience, that you are part of as a teacher or the experience in your
program not just a new course. That is not the same as being a formal education
researcher. It doesn’t mean that the word is less
important, or even necessarily less rigorous, it just is a different kind of enterprise. It’s important to think that
through when you get going, because people are going to ask you about that and you may not know right away. I know that
for myself the thought of internetworld of
the research at the learning sciences of education research was not a very welcome thought. I was not interested in doing that. I’m an
apologists and I’m interested in teaching and learning anthropology and related areas. I wanted to learn
more about how students learn in those fields and
discipline specific questions. I expected my colleagues
who teach more than I do, would have those kinds of questions, and
would not be drawn towards it. They would not see becoming an education researcher as an invitation, they would see that as a barrier. So it’s good to find your own answer to
that, and to realize that there are a range of answers possible. An important debate that has taken place in the SOTL
community for the past few years, quite a few years I think, is
around whether SOTL is a
theoretical field or not, to the extent to which we use theory in our reflections and inquiries. And so
that’s one aspect, and also with who the variety of theories that are being used
and the extent to which, it being such a diverse theoretical field,
it actually can be coming across as a rigorous field. I think it is likely that this is one of the debates that a newcomer to SOTL would come across. I think the work
of Mary Hooper and Pat Hutchins on this is
extremely illuminating and particularly the way they’ve identified how you can bring your own theoretical frameworks to your
practice and your own discipline based
priorities to your practice to examine your practice. That I think is very interesting. They’ve called this The Big Tent, but you know SOTL
being a big tent, which it is, and that to me is you know is one of the big
debates of SOTL. There are many of them of course, but
that’s the one which I would find interesting and I might come to the conclusion that at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter very much.There are so many benefits from engaging in SOTL that whether you are more or less theoretical, it may not much as much as one thinks initially. It is a field that’s rich with
opportunity, and it is a field that is rich with debate.
And I say rich with debate, not fraught. Rich with debate is a big difference. So we
could pick a number of debates, or controversies, contentions, confusions,
within the field because it’s complex and its
invited a lot of people in. People have a lot of different
stripes. So as soon as you do that, you are welcoming different points of
view, different understandings, differing
language. So if I was to pick one of those, let’s say… okay let’s pick a whopper just
for fun. The whole conception of what research actually is. That is a
wonderfully contentious issue within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. So I’ve written a chapter for book edited by Kathleen Mckinney, and the
chapter, I think the chapter is called “Square One:
What Is Research?” That fundamental question, a question
that you’re not going to see asked in physics now. But I work in medical education
where a number of my colleagues believe the gold standard is a randomized control trial. That to
them is research. If you’re not randomly assigning other people the
conditions or at the very least some kind of
intervention to one group rather than another. If you’re not
making those kinds of comparisons you actually not doing research. So to do
qualitative research, or to do research that actually isn’t
about whether or not something “works”, but rather just to try to describe the
complexities of the classroom. I have colleagues who need to be
convinced the that is even research at all, much less
that it is you know valuable, useful, research that
should inform their practice. As one of my colleagues
said in a completely different field, art education, after coming away from a
meeting on SOTL, where there were people from
medicine there, she said “Gary why are people so hung up on cause and
effect?” And I said “you know I don’t think those people would consider that a
hang-up.” There are these different cultures, and as in many interdisciplinary fields we have
going on in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, is different cultures coming together.
One of our great challenges is figuring out how do we navigate them. For people like me coming out of the
humanities one of the challenges is how do we make
available models for how to do Scholarship of
Teaching and Learning that build on the disciplinary expertise
of the people who are doing it. One of the ideas that drew me into
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning was the notion that it was grounded in
disciplines, and that I should be able to use the theories and methods
and approaches and assumptions and culture and
values and all those things of my discipline in studying students
learning in my discipline and I still believe that very firmly. But, I also know how often people, especially in the humanities, look at
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and say “I don’t really do Scholarship of
Teaching and Learning because I’m not doing that.” And you might have heard me do this, I go to sessions at the conference
every year and find myself standing up at the end of the session and saying about somebody’s presentation,
which they prefaced by saying, “I’m a humanist I don’t really do
Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, but here’s what I looked at in my class and here’s what I
saw.” And I say “Yes you are doing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, there’s a very wide range of ways of doing it. I think
that’s one of the key challenges that we have to get through —
one of many, we’ve got lots a border crossing issues in this field. For me that’s the one
that’s most salient.

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