Humanists in the CTL

At this year’s POD Network Conference (theme: Defining What Matters), I joined with two colleagues from Princeton and Penn to lead a round table discussion called “Shaping what matters: Humanities inflections in Teaching and Learning Centers.” What follows are some thoughts I tossed out to get conversation started. You won’t be surprised to hear that the ensuing discussion was far richer than this framing!

It’s a new planet!
Welcome! This session is the outgrowth of a conversation that we’ve been having for several years, as we’ve moved into CTLs with humanities backgrounds — and, in the process, experienced no small amount of change around the research we draw on, and the practices we promote. We’ve pulled today’s discussion together rather selfishly, because we really want to know what people are thinking these days about the role of the humanities in teaching and learning centers. Given the theme of this conference, it seemed like a good time to check in on how the humanities make things matter in our work.

This is a topic that is hardly new — a look back through foundational writing about SoTL, for example, shows pioneers like Pat Hutchings, Randy Bass, Mills Kelley, Sherry Linkon, Mariolina Salvatori, and many others exploring humanities-derived engagements in this new field, even as they celebrated its essential interdisciplinary. Hutchings claimed in the introduction to the volume Opening Lines: Approaches to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (2000) that a mix of disciplinary methods is intrinsic to SoTL, and this claim is constantly echoed. It only stands to reason that interdisciplinarity carries over to the CTLs that link their programs and services to SoTL: we humanists should be bumping right up against the methodological and theoretical habits in social science and sciences.

It can be quite the bump, though; it can entail methodological shock. In recent years Gary Poole, Richard Gale, Nancy Chick, and many others have described SoTL as beholden to a “gatekeeper” model, in which humanities scholars need to reach for social science methods for research legitimacy. As they undertake and describe investigations into learning, humanists are suddenly surrounded by discourse about control groups, generalizable methods, quantitative measures, replicability, survey instruments, APA formatting…. Our instincts to problematize, individuate, deconstruct may seem to get sidelined — hard to publish, and hard to integrate into the services and programs we offer. 

Given our location today, it’s perhaps especially appropriate to mention a provocative article in a recent issue of the Canadian Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning called “Who Is Represented in the Teaching Commons?:SoTL through the Lens of the Humanities”. Its authors, Michael Potter and Brad Wuetherick, open with a sad tale of a tenured literary scholar named Athena who starts out avid to contribute to SoTL: 

Seven years later, Athena has given up. Her experience in SoTL has left her disillusioned. It turned out that the world of SoTL did not want a literary scholar. Most of her articles were rejected, reviewers commented that her work did not seem to have a methodology, was formatted incorrectly, was atheoretical, and lacked rigour… At one point, still hoping to contribute, she led a large multi-institutional project that involved student surveys and “well-validated” research instruments that “measured” student attitudes toward learning. The results were published, but the experience left her feeling inauthentic. This was the closest she had come to being accepted in SoTL, but that acceptance had come at the price of abandoning the scholarly identity she had spent years cultivating – the education, experiences, the nuance and complexity of her understanding. 

Potter and Wurtherick claim, flatly, that SoTL has “not only developed within a social science paradigm, it became a social science discipline.” Be that as it may — and we’ll hardly be able to adjudicate that claim here — it’s worth considering what research methods and disciplinary habits we think humanists do bring to the table when it comes to investigating and improving student learning. 

One often suggested, notably by our keynoter this year, Randy Bass, is ‘close reading’. Close reading is familiar territory to humanists — it focuses us on text, it invites inductive exploration, it opens critical appraisal of surface readings, and it helps us to make or apply theoretical claims within very individuated contexts. Bass called ten years ago for close reading to be more applied to actual student work — artifacts and evidence of their learning — and more recently Nancy Chick, for one, has shown the power of this in action, by analyzing student writing that unintentionally register encounters and resistances to new forms of learning. Close reading is natural for us humanists, and its deeply ingrained habits have pertinence, I would suggest, to work we may engage in beyond research, such as workshop and learning community design, or teaching observation. But how much we actually draw on it in our day to day lives in a CTL is one of today’s open questions.

In those day to day lives, working with faculty and graduate students from all over the university and urging them to develop practices backed up by research generated and informed outside the humanities, we may be pulled into a sort of disciplinary detente. We may settle for the over-arching, the all-inclusive, the general. And yet there is a real need to preserve the contours of disciplines even as they interplay, as Lee Shulman emphasized way back in 1993. In “Teaching as Community Property”, he made a useful distinction between “interdisciplinary” and “non-disciplinary”. He warned against building refuges from disciplines, environments so generalized in approach and emphasis that they suggest that teaching is “generic, technical, and a matter of performance, that it’s not a part of the [disciplinary] community that means so much to the faculty.” How have we heeding his warning in our CTLs — and how in particular are we drawing on the humanities to do so?

Sarah, Cathy, and I know that this conversation can get quite abstract —beyond a predilection for close reading, what *are* the humanities in these beleaguered times anyway? (For a beautiful answer to that, by the way, I recommend Marilynne Robinson’s essay in the current New York Review.) To try to put a shape around today’s conversation, we’re going to ask you to think about the influence of the humanities —perhaps explicit, perhaps unheralded—in many of the activities that we engage in and refer to in our own CTLs. In addition to hearing some other thoughts about humanities and SoTL research, we’re hoping that we may surface what is particularly humanistic about the practices we so often engage in and model, such as inclusive teaching, metacognition, deep learning, written reflection, and so on.

Most of all I’m (again, selfishly!) hoping to hear how we define bridges to the work at hand — improving teaching and learning at our institutions — for new colleagues joining us fresh from immersion in humanistic scholarship. Because they are joining us in quite some numbers, and they’re great! How are we leveraging the freshly honed instincts of a historiographer, a theorist, a linguist, an oral historian, a digital humanist? What are we telling them — and ourselves — about the unique pertinence of their disciplinary habits of inquiry and discourse to the day to day work of a CTL?