SoTL as Public Scholarship

My discussion-starting handout for the Elon conversations.

Earlier this year, I spoke with a few groups of faculty at Elon University about academic blogging as public scholarship, especially when thinking about our work in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  The blogosphere invites us, as David Perry acknowledges, “to experiment  with form rather than content, to find ways to make an academic concept accessible to a broader public.”  Beyond blogs, though, the 21st century provides us with plenty of other public spaces where we can and should be communicating what we know and what we want to know in SoTL.

I acknowledge that I’m a little late to this particular party.  The SoTL Advocate‘s Jen Friberg, Kathleen McKinney, and guest bloggers, and ISSOTL’s social media (Twitter, Facebook, and the ISSOTL blog) powered by Jessie Moore immediately come to mind as just a few of the platforms extending the reach of SoTL beyond academic journals, books, and conferences. More of us need to be reaching out, though, and we need to reach even further — to the platforms frequented by that broader public beyond the university.

Contrary to the arguments against academics taking to the social media streets, where apparently our “power … evaporates” or we’re purportedly reduced to “rancorous factionalism” (Fraser, 2019), I believe we can, in fact, effectively contribute in these public spaces. (I confess that Fraser’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article asserting that “Social media has made scholars impatient, vicious, and dull” is what inspired agitated me to finally write this post.)  As Dan Bernstein has observed, “SoTL-active faculty members are already telling the story of teaching” and serving a kind of translational role between our local campuses and various “external intellectual communities” (2013, p. 36, 38)–not to mention translational roles between different disciplines.  We’re used to think about communicating within and across different audiences, practicing (but certainly not perfecting) an agility in how we talk about our knowledge and our work. So we’re primed for what we might call SoTL as public scholarship.

The two have common roots in Ernest Boyer’s expansion of recognized scholarships: his notion of “the scholarship of teaching” (1990) grew into SoTL, and his later description of “the scholarship of engagement” (1996) encompasses what we now call public scholarship, with the goal of developing spaces where “the academic and civic cultures communicate more continuously and more creatively with each other” in order to “[connect] the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic, and ethical problems” (p. 27).

Goettel and Haft’s (2010) definition is often cited when describing public scholarship. More often than not, though, it’s excerpted in a seemingly definitive list of requirements, but I here paste it in full to include its flexibilities:

In the arts, humanities, and design disciplines, engagement is initiated by artists, scholars, design professionals, and citizens, and encompasses multiple types of knowledge creation. Such scholarship and practice can take a variety of forms including work that expands the place of public scholarship in higher education itself by developing new engagement programs, methodologies, and evaluation metrics, as well as artistic, critical, and historical work that contributes to public debates and to understanding pressing social issues. Often, such scholarly and creative work is jointly planned and carried out through campus and community partnerships. The basic unit of such work is more often the project than the course. The final products of this activity also can take a variety of forms, such as books intended for broad audiences, community dialogues, art installations, and collectively conceived performances. (p. 363)

Their chapter’s focus on the arts, humanities, and design–fields that aren’t always at the center of traditional conceptions of “scholarship” or research–is helpful in illustrating more broadly the range of possibilities for what public scholarship might look like, and what SoTL as public scholarship might look like.  Here are just a few starting thoughts inspired by Goettel and Haft’s definition:

  • SoTL as public scholarship can be “initiated by [practitioners], scholars, … professionals, and citizens,” so the work can start with questions and concerns from lots of places, not just our classrooms (where we most often start), which means that its “basic unit” may be “the project more than the course.”
  • SoTL as public scholarship can be “jointly planned and carried out through campus and community partnerships,” and can “contribute to public debates and to understanding pressing social issues.”
  • SoTL as public scholarship “encompasses multiple types of knowledge creation” and “can take a variety of forms,” including but not limited to “artistic, critical, and historical work,” as well as “books intended for broad audiences, community dialogues, art installations, and collectively conceived performances,” and more.
  • SoTL as public scholarship “expands [its] place … in higher education itself by developing new engagement programs, methodologies, and evaluation metrics.”

Imagine what this might look like. Quick: think about some of our most pressing social issues or public debates. Better yet, ask someone off campus. In what ways might SoTL contribute, challenge, resolve, or illuminate?


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