By: Launa Gauthier
Doctoral student at the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University and Educational Development Associate at Queen’s University Centre for Teaching and Learning
Door #1: An Introduction to SoTL
At the beginning of graduate school, when anyone asked what I studied my reply was often a bland, “I’m interested in teaching and learning in higher education.” Statements like these were quite obviously revealing of my intellectual wandering and inner search for a scholarly home. My introduction to SoTL was as a first year master’s student in education. I was working as an RA on a committee that was tasked with developing an institution-wide teaching and learning plan for my university. The committee chair was one of my professors who knew of my research interests and he invited me to be a part of the team. I had no RA experience and very little theoretical knowledge about teaching in higher education at the time and my practical experience had been in international K-12 contexts. He still insisted I would be a good fit for the role. I hesitated; he gently nudged me to get involved with the committee. In those committee meetings, I listened to professors speak passionately about teaching and articulate the various debates about the stature of teaching within their disciplines. They griped about the challenges associated with making change within an institutional reward system that placed high value on research and left most teachers with little time or incentive to improve their teaching.
Door # 2: SoTL as a Vehicle for Change
It was on this committee that I came to know people who cared about challenging the status quo around teaching in higher education. They used SoTL as a vehicle for both exploring and communicating a vision for institutional change. I saw the committee members act as translators of SoTL work. Collectively, they drew on their theoretical and practical knowledge of teaching and paired it with institution-wide data on teaching and learning to devise a plan for promoting and supporting effective teaching at our university. My biggest take-away was that improving teaching requires a strategic focus on teacher learning and on meeting people where they are in their development as learner-teachers. This experience opened another door to SoTL for me; it was a catalyst for my future research on teacher development in higher education.
For my M.Ed. research, I devoted hours to sifting through the SoTL literature and coming to know some of the seminal names like Boyer, Shulman, Kreber, Felton, and Ramsden. Most notably, I confidently linked my own research to SoTL (At last, a scholarly home!). Now at the doctoral level at Queen’s, I use SoTL research to inform my teaching, I conduct research on teacher learning and also have (and will continue to) researched my own teaching. By digging deeper into SoTL as student, I see the value of taking a scholarly approach to my teaching and the impact that enacting SoTL has made on my ability to contribute to numerous SoTL conversations in journals, at conferences, in my educational development work, and through my teaching.
Door # 3: Student Involvement in SoTL and Institutional Visions of Teaching and Learning
I am surprised by the general lack of awareness about SoTL at my own institution, outside of our Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the faculty and staff who are our SoTL champions across campus. Let me offer two anecdotes as examples of incidents that prompted my concerns.
In my educational development work with fellow grad students and post docs who teach, I’ve encountered a number of people who have never heard of SoTL. On one occasion, I casually brought up the idea of researching teaching at a student committee for TA’s that I help to coordinate. One student replied, “A research project on my own teaching? Wow, you can do that? That would be cool!” Yes, it is cool. At Queen’s, some students and post docs encounter SoTL when they complete one of our Teaching Enhancement Modules. The SoTL module asks them to research a SoTL issue in their own discipline and discuss appropriate educational research methods and potential implications for their research. Our CTL offers support if people want to conduct the actual project but this is not a requirement for completing the SoTL module. I see each of these situations as opening a door for students who may not have encountered SoTL otherwise. There are some other universities in Canada that also do a good job at opening these doors and introducing students to SoTL (see for example, Guelph’s Inquire Certificate program and McMaster’s Student Partners Program). They also actively report on how students engage in SoTL research that informs change to teaching practices, academic policies, and course design across their institutions. I would argue that this extension of tracking the impact of student SoTL work and disseminating it is one key feature that sets programs apart from the rest.
The second thought provoking incident happened when I was meeting with a volunteer committee to adjudicate an institutional award for educational leadership for which faculty, staff and students are eligible. I was one of two graduate student representatives on the committee, alongside faculty members and one administrator. Our discussion centred on whether or not SoTL was a requirement for educational leadership. I was taken aback when a faculty member responded, “Well, students don’t do scholarship of teaching and learning!” so therefore, SoTL should not be included as criteria for the Award. I immediately countered, “Students DO do scholarship of teaching and learning!” and my mind quickly flashed to all of the examples I could draw on, in an instant, to prove my point. I decided to reserve my comments for a future conversation. This person’s comment sparked the question for me about our institutional knowledge of and appreciation for students’ involvement in SoTL. At this point, another door to SoTL opened in front of me.
I know that at Queen’s, recommendations have been made for hiring more faculty for teaching-focused tenure track positions that also have a focus on the SoTL. Yet, I wonder about our vision for cultivating the future generation of scholarly teachers and SoTL researchers? Shulman (2002) invites us to consider how SoTL can inform professional, pragmatic, and policy interests in higher education. He suggests that professionalism is the most important reason for investing in SoTL. I reflect on his notion of professionalism – the obligations and opportunities of being a scholar and educator in a particular discipline – in light of the responsibilities we have to cultivate a future generation of scholarly teachers who engage in SoTL work. As scholars, we have responsibilities to our disciplines to not only continue to research and build scholarly networks but also to teach the next generation of academics. I argue that teaching should include exposing students to SoTL as well (be it through scholarly teaching or directly involving them in SoTL research). The big question is: how? As I’m learning more about the place of SoTL in the academy and in my own university, I understand that institutional vision informs the answer.
Patricia McDougall, Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning at the University of Saskatchewan, writes about crafting a vision for SoTL at her institution. She notes,
“I am reminded that SoTL is in part about building on reflective practice to spark the passion that people bring naturally to their teaching. For those who want to engage in this work, we need to: (1) make SoTL easier by building capacity, (2) make SoTL valuable, and (3) build focal areas of strength.” (McDougall, 2013, pg. 1)
Her first point concerns me because sometimes through our efforts to make things easier for people we end up compromising on quality. In the case of SoTL, I would argue that our priorities should not necessarily be to make SoTL easier but rather make it more accessible, especially to students. Involving students as partners in SoTL research is one pathway but it is critical that students have equal opportunities and exposure to SoTL work (see Felton et al., 2013 for a discussion on creating a more inclusive SoTL).
To her second point about value, I return to Shulman’s (2000) comments on disciplinary commitments to professionalism. What is of value to our disciplines is embedded in our signature pedagogies and thus, passed on to the future generations of scholars and educators (Shulman, 2005). Perhaps part of enacting an institutional vision for SoTL is to include a mandate that all departments offer teaching and learning courses that have components specifically dedicated to SoTL. It would be interesting to track the future impact that this might have on the quality of teaching in these departments, including whether or not we see an increase in participation in SoTL from particular disciplines.
In McDougall’s final point about building focus areas of strength for research, she suggests identifying SoTL leaders and champions across the university community. Here, we might think of looking at examples of leadership from within the various departments in our own institutions that are currently implementing teaching and learning courses in their programs. For instance, at Queen’s some departments have independently developed courses dedicated to teaching and learning in a particular discipline. However, perhaps it is necessary to ask some essential questions of these courses at the the institutional level that could inform a more student-inclusive vision of SoTL. For instance, how and to what degree are students engaging with SoTL? And, how can we do a better job at finding a variety of ways of including more students in SoTL conversations?
To end, I bring this reflection back to the notion that students who come to SoTL do so through different doors and my hope is that people reflect on this to inform individual, disciplinary, and institutional visions of SoTL. The reality is that some of us are trying many doors before finally opening one on our own. Others see the door but need that gentle nudge to walk through it. However, some of us need to discover that the door exists, that it is actually an option, and perhaps need to be taken by the arm and walked through it.
Felten, P., Bagg, J., Bumbry, M., Hill, J., Hornsby, K., Pratt, M., & Weller, S. (2013). A call for expanding inclusive student engagement in SoTL. Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal 1(2), 63-74.
McDougall, P. (2013). Scholarship of teaching and learning at the heart of academic culture: Integration doesn’t happen overnight! Retrieved from http://www.usask.ca/vpteaching/documents/ScholarshipofTeachingandLearningattheHeartofAcademicCulture.pdf
Shulman, L. (2000). From minsk to pinsk: Why a scholarship of teaching and learning? The Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 1 (1), 48-52.
Shulman, L. (2005). Signature Pedagogies in the Professions. Daedalus, 134(3), 52–59.