SoTL at Age 25: A Power Analysis

SoTL at Age 25: A Power Analysis

  He who desires or attempts to reform the government of a state, and wishes to have it accepted and capable of maintaining itself to the satisfaction of everybody, must at least retain the semblance of the old forms; so that it may seem to the people that there has been no change in the institutions, even though in fact they are entirely different from the old ones.

            Niccolo Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, Chapter XXV*

       Those of us who are deeply committed to improving the quality of higher education can only view the history of pedagogical reform across most of the twentieth century with sorrow and foreboding. Educational researchers and historians, like Larry Cuban and Jonathan Zimmerman,** have chronicled a series of reform efforts in the United States that failed so utterly that many in the next generation of academics repeated the same arguments without even being aware of the existence of their predecessors. And there is every reason to suspect that developments in other countries have not been very different.

In the first decades of the twentieth-first century, however, the scholarship of teaching and learning seems to be having much greater success at finding a place within the academy. There are, of course, many reasons for this progress, but a part of the explanation almost certainly rests on the fact that, rather than directly confronting the deeply rooted values and practices that shape decision making in higher education, SoTL has cloaked innovation in the language of tradition. Following the path recommend by Machiavelli in the quotation at the beginning of this essay, our movement has flourished by coopting values and practices that lie at the core of the modern university. It took the activity most honored in the world of research — systematic analysis of ever-expanding areas of experience — and acted as if teaching and learning was simply a new realm for investigation being opened for business. All the apparatus for legitimation that had been developed by traditional forms of research since the late 19th century — publications, outside reviewers and referees, bibliographies, professional organizations, conferences, etc. — were quickly appropriated, and within a very few years a new field had been created that could demand recognition and rewards for its practitioners. The international focus of this activity further legitimized the movement by appealing to the cosmopolitan inclinations of academia. And, finally, the one mechanism that universities had already recognized as having a role in the spreading new ideas about teaching and learning – the campus teaching center – was further legitimized by linking its activities more intensely to the world of conferences and publications.

This strategy has been remarkably successful. It has drawn more college teachers into the active quest for better ways to encourage learning, and it has provided means of communication through which new insights could be shared on a global scale. At the same time, the creation of SoTL has begun to create a mechanism for the recognition of the work that instructors invest in their teaching. Even colleagues, who have remained largely oblivious to the appeals of the movement, are often obliged to recognize and reward pedagogical investigations that have all the attributes of the scholarly work that they are accustomed to valuing.

            But success has its dangers. It can blind us to reality and limit the possibilities of our actions. The identification of SoTL with traditional research has given those concerned with issues of teaching and learning an unprecedented foothold within academia. But it is important not to be deceived by our own strategy. Like Women’s Studies and African American Studies in the 1970s, SoTL is both a field and a movement. As a field it quite appropriately generates knowledge that both provides valuable insights about teaching and learning and fits within existing academic norms; as a movement, it is obliged to challenge those norms and to seek major changes in practices, values, and institutions.

To date, most of our activity has taken place in that area in which our project overlaps with traditional research. But this excludes much that is essential to SoTL as a movement. Our work raises fascinating conceptual questions, but few of us were first attracted to it solely by its intellectual excitement. Most practitioners of SoTL were drawn our project by a concern for the welfare of our students, by a desire to push back against unjust the social and political systems that limit the educational opportunities of entire categories of citizens, or by a general sense that neither our economies nor our democracies will be viable if more students do not master the material in our classes. The creation of new knowledge about teaching and learning is a necessary step towards addressing these concerns, but it is not, in itself, sufficient.

It could, of course, be argued that there is nothing special about SoTL in this regard and that researchers in most fields expect their work to contribute in some fashion to the betterment of humanity. But SoTL is unlike virtually all other forms of scholarly endeavor in that its target for application is academia itself. We do not pass knowledge on to other areas of society so that practitioners there can apply it. We are responsible for both the creation and the application of this knowledge, and this potentially involves challenging many of the existing forms of university life.

Realizing our aspirations, thus, requires more than systematic scholarly inquiry. For our endeavor to be a success, it is necessary, not only that we introduce new and more effective strategies into our own courses, but that these approaches and the values that underlie them became wide spread throughout academia. We must, therefore, deal with issues of power, as well as knowledge. Or to paraphrase the famous pronouncement of Marx, in the long run the point of SoTL is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.

The very success that we have achieved creates the temptation to continue to conceptualize SoTL as just another academic field and to ignore the broader aims of SoTL as a movement.  It is easy to fall into a “if-we-build-it-they-will-come” mentality and to imagine that if we are successful in illuminating a path to better teaching and learning, the rest of the academy will enthusiastically follow our lead. But to imagine that simply presenting a more effective and humane way of educating students will revolutionize teaching is as naïve as the belief of 19th century socialists that simply presenting a functioning commune or a less oppressive factory would cause powerful interests in their societies to fold up their tents and accept a new form of existence.

Machiavelli’s strategy involved not only creating the illusion of continuity, but also working beneath the surface to fundamentally change the existing order. If we are to achieve our long-term goals, we must begin to devote some of our energy to changing the very framework within which teaching is practiced and rewarded. We must operate not only as scholars, but also as community organizers, working consciously to build power and to confront the ideologies and the social structures that prevent meaningful reform.

This is a reach for most of us who have chosen this path. We recognize that the present system tilts so far towards research that it fails in its obligations to students and society, but we also would not be involved in higher education if we did not believe that there is a great value in traditional scholarship. Moreover, those who are attracted to this work tend to be conciliators, who prefer to listen to and honor the opinions of others, rather than to dominate the conversations around us. Thus, we may feel more comfortable just doing our own work and assuming that it will automatically find its way into the the mainstream of academia.

But, as Machiavelli would remind us, institutional practices do not go gently into that dark night. Old patterns of power and ideology still limit the extent to which higher education actually serves the interests of students or of society. Regardless of their political views, academics tend to be a conservative lot, when it comes to the practices of their institutions. There are deeply rooted mechanisms for dismissing calls for change through blaming classroom failures on students’ supposed lack of moral character or on the alleged unwillingness of high school teachers to do their jobs. And in the halls of academia there still lurks the belief that the purpose of the institution is to maintain standards by rejecting all but the small elite that are considered worthy of the riches of knowledge. (See “Addicted to the Curve”

These belief systems and the natural tendency to continue the practices we absorbed from our own teachers give protection to systems of power that bestow economic and status rewards on those who continue to practice business as usual. Those systems may not function for the benefit of many students —particularly those who are not from privileged backgrounds — or for the long-term benefit of the broader society. But it certainly does serve the interests of many of those who currently make crucial decisions in high education. So long as these structures of power continue to dominate status and rewards within our institutions, it is unlikely that new strategies for increasing student learning will be widely adopted.

To create institutions that will actually make use of the kind of knowledge about teaching and learning that we are producing, we must challenge both the ideologies and the power structures that dominate decision making from the individual classroom to the highest administrative posts in academia. Universities justify their existence by bragging about their service to society, and faculty generally take pride in their commitment to social justice and equality. But there is little public recognition that bad pedagogy in college courses reinforces class and racial injustice by allowing those who have experienced privilege to pass through easily, while presenting yet another obstacle to those who have suffered a life time of educational neglect. Many of the pathways to greater economic, gender, and racial equality, to the maintenance of democracy, and to the creation of a sustainable and accessible economy pass through the university classroom. (See “Lost in Lecture: Decoding Cultural Capital” But this kind of progress will only be possible if those classrooms are led by teachers who know how to reach those students whose learning needs are currently being ignored. Moreover, the health — and in many cases the very survival — of many institutions of higher education depends on increasing student retention, and pedagogical reform must play a major role in that endeavor.

Thus, for individual faculty and for institutions as a whole, there is a major gap between our words and what actually happens in university classrooms. This can provide us with an opening to challenge the existing order. We need to make an awareness of this mismatch a part of the cultural background that shapes thinking about the role of teaching within in our institutions from lunchroom conversations to major administrative decisions. Discussions of how we teach can no longer be treated as a distraction form the higher goals of our institutions, and the need to foster more effective teaching strategies must be seen as a central issue in all decision making.

But, while undermining the ideologies that resist reform is essential, it is not sufficient. Deeply rooted practices and structures of decision making currently cause resources, recognition, and attention to flow automatically towards other aspects of our institutions’ mission. We must find ways to mobilize power behind efforts to reform classroom practices, to rethink curricula, and to reward pedagogical innovation. This requires us to create alliances that consciously work to change the status quo. In universities around the world, those who invest the most time and energy in responding to students’ educational needs often find themselves at the end of the line, when rewards and recognition are being handed out. (See “Amoebas, Sexual Reproduction, and a History Department” — Many of our institutions also contain PhD students who have their own grounds for discontent with the ways that teaching is supported and rewarded. If the frustrations of these groups are mobilized and focused, they can become a powerful instrument for making pedagogical innovation a more visible and rewarded element in academia. And in the long run, we can create a professoriate more sympathetic to the importance of teaching, by making systematic pedagogical training an expected part of the training of every future college instructor.

We can also form alliances that reach beyond the boundaries of individual institutions. Disciplinary and professional organizations provide a promising field for systematic organization, and these powerful entities can legitimize and give force to our arguments. Students, parents, alumnae, employers, and ordinary citizens can be shown how reform of college teaching could contribute to the fulfillment of goals that are already important to them, and their influence can be brought to bear on decisions made within academia itself.

Does this mean that we should abandon our efforts to establish SoTL as an accepted academic specialty? Certainly not. To do so would be to ignore the defeats of the 20th century and the successes of the 21st. The continued development of SoTL as an academic field can provide us with both the knowledge to improve teaching and a base from which to operate within existing academic structures. But, it will also be necessary for at least some of us to move beyond the roles that we have filled in the first quarter century of the scholarship of teaching and learning.

We must be willing, not only to produce new strategies for increasing student learning, but also to press colleagues to recognize that the failure to implement such approaches contradicts their own stated commitment to equality and justice. We will continue to present scholarly articles and presentations to each other, but we must also produce op-eds and presentations that make clear to a broader audience how important it is to foster innovation in college teaching. We will still exchange ideas about pedagogy at SoTL conferences, but some sessions at those meetings should be devoted to sharing strategies for bringing about meaningful changes in decision making in our institutions and for making the importance of pedagogical reform visible to a broader public. And, perhaps, most important, while we will operate strategically in the world that now exists, we must dare to imagine an academic order that is very different than the one that we have inherited and to take concrete steps to move our institutions towards that ideal. (See “The Revolt of the College Teachers” —

David Pace, “Decoding the Ivory Tower,” August 2022

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Many thanks to Earle Abrahamson who shared this blog in the Journal of Impact Cultures

* Christian E. Detmold, The Historical, Political, and Diplomatic Writings of Niccoli Machiavelli Translated from the Italian (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1882), p.154.

** Larry Cuban, How Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890-1990 (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999; Jonathan Zimmerman, The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020)the

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Carol Hostetter

    Really important message. As a SOTL scholar, I felt you were talking to me. I will keep working!

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