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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

“A Perfect Match”: Integrating the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning into an academic career

A conversation with Jamie Bodenlos and Beth Belanger

How do we learn how to become better teachers? How do we assess student learning? How do we find time for yet another field of study in an already busy academic career? And how is teaching “like an onion”?

Assistant Professor of Psychology Jamie Bodenlos has become increasingly interested in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) since she arrived at HWS in 2009. Beth Belanger, who joined HWS this fall as an Assistant Professor of American Studies, has published and presented extensively in SOTL, and so we decided to get them together for a conversation about the importance and the special challenges of this field.

Beth

Jamie, I’m new this year, so I’d like to know what you’ve done with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning here at HWS, and how you came to SOTL?

Jamie

At the end of my first year I went to an institute on teaching & learning on Prince Edward Island. Susan Pliner suggested it to [a group of us] who wanted a way to learn more active teaching and learning strategies to help us in the classroom. Then the next year when we started to implement these strategies, three of us—Elizabeth Ramey and Bernie Gee and myself—went to the Lilly Conference to present our collaboration on using what we learned in our classrooms.

So that’s really where my interests started, and it’s gone from there. I had a CTL grant last fall, and I recently decided to do some work around active teaching and learning at one of the conferences I typically go to—they don’t have much on teaching at all!—so I’m in the process of starting a special interest group on teaching, and we’ll put together a half-day workshop on teaching and behavioral medicine.

BB

I have a slightly different background in that I was involved [in SOTL] as a graduate student. I did my grad work at Brown and they had a Center for Teaching and Learning, which had graduate student fellows, and a certificate program that you could do around teaching.

Then I started teaching and I taught a lot of Gen Ed history courses with kids that didn’t want to be in the class, and it turns your teaching on its head because you’re used to a world in which you’re a graduate student and everyone wants to be there. So that was my first foray into looking at how to assess student learning: What do I want my students to learn? And as long as I’m doing all this work, why don’t I write it up? And why don’t I publish it, and why don’t I put it on my CV because it’s actual research.

JB

I think that when you’re trained in research, that’s kind of your natural tendency, like “let me collect data as part of this!”

BB

Right! In the humanities, I feel like we love to throw out terms like “we want you to be critical thinkers and we want you to write well” but those are some of the hardest things to assess. How do you assess improved writing? There’s no Scantron sheet for that! It takes a lot of time to do. So I feel like part of it is self-preservation for my field. If American Studies, if History is going to stay relevant, we need to show some data in terms of the soft skills that we’re teaching. It’s an excellent way to respond to critiques, for example, that we’re not teaching anything that’s useful here.

Jamie, how do you feel that SOTL interacts with your scholarship?

JB

It complements it well. I would have never considered SOTL before coming here at all – I thought of my scholarship completely differently, but now because a lot of the research projects I’m working on are driven by students, I feel that it makes perfect sense to be assessing learning as an outcome. I think it’s a perfect match; in fact I’ve gone to conferences, on the one hand presenting my own scholarly research that I’m doing in my field, and presenting SOTL work as well. How about your teaching – how do you think SOTL has affected you as a teacher?

BB

I think it’s made me a more reflective teacher. SOTL asks: What’s going right? What’s “going wrong?” Where do we see evidence of student learning? It’s made me think more carefully about the assessments I use in class. It’s made me think more carefully about how I articulate my teaching, and I communicate my teaching.

JB

I couldn’t agree with you more. I sometimes think that teaching is like an onion – you’re peeling off layers each year and I feel like I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can actually be thinking about the assessment of my own teaching and the skills that students are learning whereas before I was just trying to get through and survive—

BB

And get through the reading due tomorrow!

JB

Exactly! And now I’m getting to the point where I can really reflect on that and think about different ways to assess their learning, and different strategies to try in the classroom and assess how they work.

And what’s nice is if you can start to collect data along the way then you have groups to compare them to, and that’s not something I thought about before. For instance when I added my new project into my upper-level class – I don’t have data from the previous years when I taught the class, and that would be really interesting to compare it to, so now I’m thinking more in terms of collecting data as I move forward with different classes.

BB

I do think that that’s something that people coming from outside SOTL have some misconceptions about. SOTL, just like any other research, is designed, it’s planned: you don’t do it after the fact. Some people think you teach, you take a bunch of stuff from your classes, and then you say something about it. But it’s conscientiously designed, you have questions and goals. I think people mistake the rigor, as if somehow the rules of research don’t apply to it.

What about this environment? Do you think Small Liberal Arts Colleges are particularly conducive to SOTL?

JB

I do, but do I think we could do a better job? I definitely do, I definitely think there is room for improvement. This is the first time I’ve talked to anyone outside my department about this so it would be nice to have those conversations—maybe through the CTL?—to hear more about what people are doing in this area. For example, I don’t know how much people did out of my CTL grant group but it would be interesting to see if anyone moved forward with that and it would be great to see if people took that to the next level. I know we talked about that in the beginning of our CTL grant group, about how we’re going to assess the effectiveness of our grants. It would be really interesting to have outcomes, especially from all the years they’ve been doing CTL grants.

BB

I would totally agree with you that SLACs are conducive to SOTL. In fact I would go further and say that we need this work. I think in a world that’s increasingly questioning the value of a liberal arts degree, that’s increasingly questioning the cost of college, we need to have solid forms of assessment in place. This wave [of scrutiny] is coming, and one way to combat that is by having SOTL work on campus that is reflective, and rigorous, and is publically shared.

I know, when I become a prospective parent, when my kids go to college, I’m going to look at those goals, and then I’m going to Google what does teaching look like in those schools? Who’s publishing on what’s going on in those classrooms? David Pace, who’s a history SOTL guy, always said that the classroom so often was like the bathroom, everyone knew important things went on there, but it was not polite to ask about it. And I feel like if we’re going to survive this wave of critiques that I feel is coming for the liberal arts, we need to highlight some of the innovative teaching that goes on. I think if you’re in this environment, you know this happens, you know the amount of effort that we’re all putting into it. And yet, where’s the proof? Who is doing these rigorous studies in the classroom? I think it will give back to the school to promote this work, to let prospective parents and prospective students see the type of learning that goes on in our classrooms. That can’t help but help us as we move forward.

JB

There are a few ways the institution could support it more. One of them is a lot of our faculty won’t engage in this work because it’s taking them away from the work that’s going to help them get tenure. I feel like publications and presentations in the area of SOTL are going to be looked upon as less important than scholarship in our own fields, and I feel like that’s something as an institution we could change, by putting more weight on the SOTL work that we do.

I also think that one thing I struggle with is I’d love to go to some of the conferences that we have in our field, but when we only have one fund to use, and it’s already a struggle, if I have a choice if I’m going to go to a SOTL conference or my own field, I often choose my own field because I don’t have the funds. So it would be great if the Provost’s office or someone on campus could start a fund that would encourage us to be able to go and present and interact with our colleagues who are doing similar work.

Maybe [we could] even have a forum at the end of the year where we could present the work we’ve done to the faculty. In our department we’re really heavy with junior faculty, so I know that we tend to spend more time on our own scholarship and our own fields instead of working on this work even though we all think that its extremely important.

BB

One of the choices I’ve made as a SOTL scholar is that I tend to publish in journals in my field that have special teaching issues, so that the journal is recognized as a journal in the field versus something like “Arts and Humanities in Higher Education”, or something that’s basically a SOTL publication. That’s a choice I’ve made just while I’m navigating this early terrain because I think, unfortunately, sometimes [SOTL] is viewed as somehow “less than”. To be fair there’s been some really bad SOTL stuff in the past, but all the top journals are peer reviewed and it’s governed by the same set of criteria that govern our traditional scholarship. So you’re not going to get published if you’re not saying something new, if you’re not contributing. You have to position yourself in the field for those articles, and you have to get a sense of where the field is going, and you have to reference important works, and you have to say something original in your research, it has to be sound research methods.

But I think that way of thinking of SOTL as “less than” is somewhat changing; I’ve seen jobs for people who specifically do SOTL at large universities, tenure-track SOTL lines, I’ve seen lines that specify teacher-scholars. So I like to think change is coming – we will wait and see.

Inspired? Contact Jamie or Beth for more information about their research, or if you would like to explore this area more, please contact Susan Pliner at the Center for Teaching and Learning (pliner@hws.edu).