Book Review: The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and across the Disciplines

Reviewed by Nicholas C. Wilson, Boston University

Book Review: McKinney, Kathleen, ed. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and across the Disciplines. Indiana University Press, 2013. 268 pages. ISBN (paperback): 9780253006769.

Kathleen McKinney’s edited volume The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in and across the Disciplines (2013) examines the topic of interdisciplinarity within the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). SoTL spans the range of academic disciplines in higher education, and involves investigations of teaching and learning writ large. Undefined by any particular scope, ideology, methodology, or frame of analysis, SoTL invites anyone with a stake in higher education to study the practices of instruction and student learning, utilizing whichever approaches suit their research questions and contexts. This open invitation to reflect on university education helps to position SoTL as an inclusive, community-oriented pursuit, well-suited for interdisciplinary discourse and collaboration. It is fitting, then, that the contributors to this volume approach interdisciplinarity from a wide range of perspectives, with equally wide-ranging assumptions about the nature of teaching, learning, and research.

Yet, it is perhaps in spite of this unlocked gateway that SoTL research has, traditionally, focused on course-, instructor-, or discipline-specific issues. Indeed, different disciplines typically “do” SoTL differently—from experimental interventions to ethnographic descriptions of learning in situ. Many have hoped that the multidisciplinary of SoTL would lead to a “trading zone” (Mills & Huber, 2005) in which educators from all disciplines come to share their findings of effective teaching practice, but the fact remains that the siloization of higher education is just as present in the SoTL community as it is in the academe. This is well represented in the debates over what constitutes rigorous study, inquiry, and even research, found in the SoTL community. McKinney’s volume is an exploration into these debates, as well as into the challenges and opportunities that are presented when scholars expand their teaching and learning research across disciplinary boundaries.

The volume consists of thirteen chapters, separated into two parts. Part 1, “SoTL in the Disciplines,” discusses the applicability of various research practices and findings to multiple, cross-disciplinary SoTL contexts. Each chapter in Part 1 is an attempt to expand the SoTL toolbox through reflection on our discipline-centric repertoires of inquiry, and what could be gained by incorporating outside perspectives to our teaching and learning research.

But while the tradition of discipline-centric SoTL has, arguably, made entry into the SoTL community more inclusive and less intimidating for aspiring SoTL scholars, several issues have resulted from this practice. One primary such concern is that despite our varying epistemologies about learning and research traditions, our assumptions often remain unstated in our SoTL work, leaving our findings wide open to critique and misinterpretation. As a result, certain research approaches have enjoyed elevated status, because of their perceived objectivism and generalizability. Research that relies on thick descriptions of context, such as ethnography or literary analysis—despite having strong and established traditions in the social sciences and humanities—have experienced particular difficulty establishing its legitimacy among fields that derive their SoTL methodologies from the natural sciences. For this reason, while SoTL aims to welcome inquiries of all methodologies and traditions, there are some members of the community who recognize the hegemony of particular disciplines in SoTL. McKinney’s volume approaches these and other political SoTL issues head on.

In Chapter 1, Nancy Chick argues that dominance of experimentalism and randomized control trials in published (and grant-funded) academic research has led to the privileging of these methodologies in SoTL. According to Chick (and re-emphasized by Poole in Chapter 7), the privilege of the natural sciences is also apparent in SoTL journals, and in the studies presented at SoTL’s own flagship conference. Chick argues that the lack of context-rich research has limited our understanding of “moments of thinking and learning … and what may be called the student condition” (p.24), and a marginalizing of certain research traditions (e.g., humanities research) that could greatly benefit the field.

The chapter sets a political tone for the book, which few of the remaining chapters pick up so eloquently or passionately. Rather, each of the remaining chapters in Part 1 takes a decidedly less evocative stance towards the notion of interdisciplinarity, focusing instead on specific methodologies or approaches that teachers in alternative disciplines might find useful for improving student learning. While the overarching discussion raises some interesting points about the influence and utility of fields like cognitive science and social psychology (Gurung & Schwartz in Chapter 2), at the end of Part 1, the reader is left with a sense that our discipline-centric history has left the SoTL community somewhat blissfully unaware of decades of research from more established fields of educational research. The studies presented in Chapters 3 through 6 describe studies that span disciplinary traditions, but ultimately only seem to suggest that interdisciplinary SoTL may be a fruitful exercise in professional development, rather than contribute new knowledge to the educational research community.

Part 2, “SoTL across the Disciplines,” focuses less so on the exchange of SoTL methodologies between academic fields, and instead on the challenges of conducting interdisciplinary research. Each of the chapters addresses challenges related to interdisciplinary communication, conflicting epistemologies of learning, and defining the “big picture” of SoTL work. The intent seems to provide the reader with an alternative lens through which to consider interdisciplinarity, but in the end, the result is much the same as Part 1.

In Chapter 7, Poole picks up where Chick left the debate on power and privilege in SoTL. Poole’s chapter, entitled “What is Research,” weaves a philosophical tapestry of the meaning of research, and various practices of inquiry. Poole argues that our conflicting disciplinary ideologies about learning and research are a weakness, and threaten the importance of SoTL “as a movement for constructive change in higher education” (p. 136). Poole, like Chick, challenges the view that research must be generalizable and simplistic, arguing that “learning environments are neither generalizable nor simple” (p. 141).

Taking Poole’s lead, Grauerholz and Main, in Chapter 8, propose four “fallacies of SoTL,” dismantling the notions that (1) classroom-based research can employ control groups, (2) generalizability is possible in SoTL research, (3) popular assessment instruments adequately measure student learning, and (4) certain pedagogical approaches are somehow superior to others. But like in the first part of the book, this is where the evocative nature of Part 2 begins to wane; the remaining chapters, while interesting in their own right, offer a sort of meta-example of interdisciplinary SoTL, showing how mixed approaches and methodologies can be used to study instructional practice. To be sure, the political arguments of Chapters 1, 7, and 8 enliven the text. As the apparent flag bearers of SoTL, in this volume Chick, Poole, Grauerholz, and Main position SoTL as an instrument of educational reform and meaningful change to our experiences of teaching and learning. In these chapters, SoTL finds a home of its own, not as “pseudo-educational research,” but rather as a discipline unto itself, with a clear purpose to disrupt academic inequities in higher education. Perhaps this is the real power of interdisciplinary SoTL—its potential as a movement for reform. If anything, this is precisely what McKinney’s volume does best: reveal the power of SoTL research to change how higher education values teaching and interdisciplinary scholarship.