Reflections on a Special Issue:  Arts and Humanities SoTL

posted on behalf of Brad Wuetherick,
Executive Director, Learning and Teaching
Office of the Provost and VP Academic, and
Center for Learning and Teaching
Dalhousie University

It has now been over a year since the CJSOTL special issue “SoTL Through the Lenses of the Arts and Humanities” was published. Looking back, it was immensely rewarding to undertake a project like the special issue, which was released in June 2015 in conjunction with the annual STLHE Conference. I received both positive and immediate feedback about the impact the collective group of articles brought together in that volume had for many members of the SoTL community in Canada and beyond. I feel very important steps have been taken through this project to advance the vision for an inclusive Canadian and global SoTL community — one that embraces diverse scholarly traditions informing our collective SoTL work.

I was motivated recently to reflect back on this work, and it helped me appreciate the importance of undertaking the project. First, there are some amazing colleagues in Canada, and around the world, working in this space. Between the authors we had working on contributions for the special issue, and the reviewers who stepped up to contribute their time and energy to this project, we had over 30 people involved in making the CJSOTL Special Issue a reality. I am still appreciative of their work, and thankful for their collective commitment to furthering SoTL through the lenses of the Arts and Humanities. In particular, I would like to thank Nancy Chick, from the University of Calgary, for her commentary on the issue, and her gleeful emails to me and my co-editor after reading a particularly interesting contribution as she drafted her commentary, which proved to be ever-so motivating to finish the special issue.

Second, the variety of scholarship possible when looking at teaching and learning through the lenses of the Arts and Humanities is impressive and exciting. We have heard from colleagues in Canada and around the world that they really appreciated the contributions in this issue. From poetic transcription to reflect the participants’ narratives on trust, to the close reading of a novel to guide deep questions about the future of higher education, to a philosophical exploration of teaching, learning and scholarship, the variety of scholarly lenses that the arts and humanities collectively brings to the exploration of teaching and learning, as represented in the special issue, is quite impressive. There are several quite unique and exciting papers in the special issue, and I really enjoyed returning to them a year later. This excitement was reinforced with the recent issue of Teaching and Learning Inquiry, which featured additional examples of SoTL showcasing the strengths that come from Arts and Humanities research traditions, including more examples from Canadian authors.

Third, I can’t help but be reminded how much further we have to go to ensure the SoTL ‘Big Tent’ is truly inclusive, as Michael Potter and I argued in the framing paper of the special issue. This realization came to the fore just recently through a conversation on the POD Network listserv about the ‘controls’ and ‘control groups’ in SoTL. It started with a query about how to work with faculty members who were skeptical about the research on active learning, because the research they had seen lacked what in their minds were appropriate ‘controls’. While a lot of voices jumped in, one post stood out to me as an exemplar of the difficult journey ahead for a truly inclusive SoTL community. In making the case for controls as an important dimension of SoTL, one post stated: “As the former editor of a journal in higher education, I can report that at least 70% of the “research studies” that crossed my desk failed to meet these conditions.  Needless to say, they weren’t even sent out for review.”

In thinking about how to respond to the post, and the thread in general, I was first going to rant that the whole idea of ‘controls’ is problematic when dealing with social phenomena as complex as educational settings.  Education is contextual in innumerable ways, and you can never get a perfectly controlled study.  And even if we wanted to value a ‘controlled’ ‘quasi-experimental’ comparison of traditional lecture vs active learning classroom, which has a place – though it is not the most meaningful type of study to me, it has been done. Repeatedly. With consistent results over and over again (as meta-analyses have demonstrated).  So at what point do we need to try a different path to convince some colleagues of the ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’ of the educational research?

Even more so, I was going to rant about the fact that I am more than a bit troubled by several of the comments about the expected forms of SoTL research, in order to be considered good and valuable contributions.  But it made me exhausted even trying to write such a message … again. So I stayed quiet. Thankfully, several colleagues, like Nancy Chick, Michael Potter, and Peter Felten, challenged people’s conceptions of what counts as good SoTL. An important question was asked, however, by one post in the discussion thread in response. The post asked: “How can we best advocate for a more inclusive set of criteria for the scholarship we identify as SoTL?” This question motivated me to write this blog post. The co-editor of the CJSOTL special issue, Michael Potter, responded: “What’s needed is a recognition that different forms of scholarship have different standards, without claiming (implicitly or explicitly) privilege for one set over another unnecessarily – or, at least not without completing the serious epistemological effort needed to justify such claims. We can start by qualifying our terms …”

The onus is on each and every one of us to ensure that conversations about criteria for ‘good SoTL research’ don’t get derailed by a particular disciplinary understanding of how ‘research’ is defined. And it is on each of us to also be open to reading and valuing scholarship that may look different to our own ways of ‘inquiring’, which may make us uncomfortable at times but can open our eyes to explorations of teaching and learning that we might never have imagined.

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2 Responses to Reflections on a Special Issue:  Arts and Humanities SoTL

  1. Janice Miller-Young says:

    Thanks for posting this, Brad! I am more than a little disappointed that an editor of a journal of higher education rejected any study that didn’t have ‘appropriate controls’! I can only assume/hope that this was a disciplinary journal from a very quantitative, empirical discipline…? I think it is incumbent upon all of us to at least familiarize ourselves with, and be open to, the kinds of questions other disciplines ask, the methods they use, and how these can be useful in SoTL. It’s also important, as we disseminate our work, to be clear about our own approaches to studying student learning and why we chose them, and to be prepared to defend them. This might be helpful:

    Miller-Young, J., & Yeo, M. (2015). Conceptualizing and communicating SoTL: a framework for the field. Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 3(2), 37-53.

  2. Neil Haave says:

    Great post Brad. It is crucial that we bring all different research approaches to bear on the scholarship of teaching and learning. As you say, teaching and learning are social phenomena: they are human endeavours. As such, their practice and study are messy. The only way forward is to study learning and teaching from as many perspectives as possible while still being rigorous as possible from each disciplinary perspective.

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