What It Looks Like: Experience as a Guide to SoTL Inquiry

by Emma Spooner

In this excerpt from her final essay for the SoTL Foundations Program for Graduate Students, Emma Spooner begins to think about developing her own SoTL inquiry.

SoTL Foundations Program
SoTL Foundations Program (Badge of Completion)

I loved the multidisciplinary approach of discussions of SoTL and the fact that it encourages cross-disciplinary research. I am just beginning my teaching career, but I have been lucky enough to have experienced many different types of classes and students as a student, as a TA, and now as an instructor. My current SoTL interest has been directed by these experiences, so I begin here in thinking about a potential project, guided by the “what does it look like?” descriptive- questions from Pat Hutchings’ taxonomy of SoTL research questions.

Experience #1 is from my experience as a grad student. Our program, during my time, required that we complete a “historical breadth” course-work component to meet degree requirements. My favorite classes encouraged students to pursue their own research interests within the parameters of the course topic. For instance, I took a course on Samuel Beckett and Modernism, topics very far removed from my 18th-century area of speciality. However, because my professor encouraged us to find a way to connect Beckett with our own interests, I became very invested in the course. (I think most of my family received copies of Samuel Beckett’s letters, all 2 volumes and 2000 pages of them, for Christmas that year.) I still remember most of the content of that course, and my final paper on Beckett and Samuel Johnson helped me learn not only about Beckett but broadened my understanding of my own speciality as well.

Experience #1 “What does it look like?” takeaway: find a way to connect students’ interests with course material in order to facilitate investment and learning accountability.

Experience #2 is from my experience as a TA. One of my last courses as a TA was for a first-year English Introduction to Fiction class for non-English majors. The class was structured so that the professor of record lectured on one day, and on the other day the 200 students were broken into smaller tutorial segments that the TAs facilitated. Because it was such a large class the TA’s control over the format and content of the tutorials was pretty limited. We all shared a regimented schedule of assignments and lecture formats. For me the class was interesting and the professor was engaging, but I found myself frustrated with the lack of progress students were displaying on their writing skills. Of course in a class that large there are exceptions, but the majority of the students seemed to be in the class to get a passing grade and that was it. They didn’t care if that passing grade was a D or an A as long as they got that credit and then never had to think about English again. I think students were not invested in the class because they did not see how the information and skills they were learning were applicable to them. The short stories, for instance, may have been entertaining, but the students were not making the connection between learning to close read and an applicable or transferable skill to their own disciplines.

Experience #2 “What does it look like?” takeaway: Something about this class did not work. Students didn’t see the transferability of the reading and writings skills they learned in English.

Experience #3 was in my own class.  After my experience #2, I wanted to provide students with the structure, tools, and methods—no matter their field of study—to process information, analyse critically, and be able to present their own position in a well-supported argument. However, the first half of the class did not go as well as I had envisioned. As a new sessional instructor, I had designed my class around topics that I knew well—18th-century writing. I got a lot of resistance to the poems and novels we read, and I found my class heading in the same direction as the class I experienced as a TA. I was struggling to make our readings relevant to my students, so I tried to connect the 18th-century works we read to current events. For instance, I paired Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Burlington” with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in order to consider the ways in which each text opened up discussions on class divisions and social obligation. Afterwards, a student asked if he could explore “Epistle to Burlington” in relation to Keeping Up With the Kardashians for his final essay. His essay was by far the best piece of work he had produced all year: it was a well thought-out and insightful paper on “the social contract and the double-edged sword of vanity which promotes and impedes charity.”

Experience #3 “What does it look like?” takeaway: very similar to my first experience, students’ work improved dramatically when they had a personal investment in the topics they wrote about.

I started to wonder: Do interest-based learning activities and assignment stimulate more active student engagement? Do they also improve assignment performance? And how could I create assignments that met the English Department requirements and still allowed students to pursue their own interests? This is where I was in my thinking before coming to the SoTL Foundations Program’s discussion groups. Randy Bass’s article The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem? really spoke to me: he

didn’t really know if the students who [he] watched ‘improve’ from their early work to later work were really understanding the material, . . .  or merely learning to perform their knowledge in ways that had adapted to [his] expectations. (3)

This observation and his “inverted pyramid” practice about setting learning and teaching goals seems really important to me. In the first course I taught, the class was mostly about me. I taught works that I knew well, that I loved, or that I thought were important. In subsequent courses, I have tried to move away from the ‘me’-centered approach. Following Bass’ learning-focused pyramid questions, if “I had to pick one thing that students would retain from the course what would it be?” (4), then it would speak to both English and their discipline.  Students would learn that skills in English allow them to find their own voices and express those voices confidently and clearly no matter what discipline they come from. Students would also reflect on the skills they brought to English and how their field or discipline could contribute to the way they interpreted English works.

While I would love it if all my students left my classes thinking of Jane Austen as the best writer in the world, or that Mary Leapor’s poem “Crumble Hall” is one of the funniest poems ever written, what I really want is for my students to learn that English skills will also further their individual academic and career goals.


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