Adventures on the Research Assistant Ship Part 2

What is your compass?

I would say to anyone in graduate school in Education, “you need to attend at least one TI workshop during your time here” and if you are just visiting campus, “you need to pass through these walls.” During Congress 2016, I attended one such workshop: an introduction to the teaching dossier, presented by Berenson and Kenny. That workshop made me wish that I had paid more attention to some of the activities that I had done with my students over time – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Reflexivity is an important part of growing as an instructor and an academic, something Forbes (2008) refers to as “constructing and reconstructing” the research selves. My understanding of what it means to grow as an instructor has been amplified by my discovery of SoTL at the TI.

To understand SoTL better, not just as an initiate, but also as a prospective practitioner, I had to ask myself, what is my compass? What do I use to navigate the particularities of this kind of scholar-ship? The autoethnographic lens is unavoidable as I am interpreting much of what I am learning through the lens of my foundational education experiences as a student and instructor. This takes me back to one of the questions which framed my contributions to this blog and the theme of foundations: How might understandings of SoTL inform how K-12/secondary school educators prepare students for post-secondary contexts?

Step away from the desk (for a while at least)

While I was participating in a TI activity, during orientation week (September, 2016) and I was listening to other TI staff speak about their work, I had an epiphany about one of the many reasons that SoTL exists. SoTL recognizes that students need instructors who are open to working and re-working pedagogies, because student populations are not homogeneous.

My former port-of-call, the community college

At my former work-station, a community college, some instructors usually teach within several academic programs, from undergraduate, associate degree, post-secondary certification, or teaching certification programs. That organisational structure gives instructors a sense of what students at certificate levels need for readiness in higher education programs. We often discussed what we believed students needed prior to tertiary level education. We didn’t always agree with basic matriculation. Perhaps that is why I am so interested in what SoTL offers K-12/secondary school teaching. The ways that students are learning in higher education are shaped by the foundations and if these foundations are wobbly then it makes learning in higher education more challenging for students and instructors. I am not suggesting that instructors don’t need to put in the work to help students learn in higher education and it should all be done in K-12/secondary school teaching. On the contrary, I think it is a joint effort.

SoTL provides understandings/opportunities to understand and improve teaching and learning, that overlap with some of the goals of these intermediate tertiary education programs at community college-type institutions.


However, the other aspect of SoTL that is not addressed by these intermediate tertiary education programs is the element of “scholarship.” SoTL nudges instructors into being learners and that is an important disposition in formal education contexts. As I sought to understand SoTL better and I looked at the texts which shaped the foundations of the scholarship, Boyer (1990, p. 24) struck a chord with me:

Great teachers create a common ground of intellectual commitment. They stimulate active, not passive, learning and encourage students to be critical, creative thinkers, with the capacity to go on learning after their college days are over. Further, good teaching means that faculty, as scholars, are also learners.

That concept of the teacher as a learner does not imply that instructors should come to teaching, uninformed. Boyer (1990, p. 24) adds further that “well-prepared lectures surely have a place,” but that “teaching, at its best, means not only transmitting knowledge, but transforming and extending it as well.” The implication of his argument is that when instructors are open to learning about learners, they “will be pushed in creative new directions” (Boyer, 1990).

I found that Bernstein (2000, p. 4) reinforces that idea of the instructor as learner, with the assertion that “the goal of SoTL is to have every teacher treat every course as an opportunity to learn how to create better learning environments and generate richer educational experiences.” For me, that hearkens to Dewey’s (1938) recommendations regarding the importance of creating meaningful “experiences” for learning to take place.  When instructors take an active interest in understanding how students are learning, when they recognize that they too have much to learn about their students then it becomes a matter of we are all in this together. Teachers can become allies, not distant authority figures, who are unrelatable to students. So one of the ways that SoTL can inform what K-12 educators are doing – SoTL urges instructors to become learners themselves.

Building a dossier; not research for research’s sake

The concept of the dossier has made me reflect on past practices, past mistakes, and the implications for future teaching practice. That is why I wish I had paid some more attention to the specifics of my practice over the years, and not just gone through the motions of talking about triumphs and failures in water-cooler conversations with my colleagues, or rote professional development day lamentations or applause. Not so much for a portfolio in order to market oneself, but so that I could apply an inquiry approach to my teaching practice, from a consideration of evidence gathered over time. I find a strange convergence between the idea of the dossier and how I see SoTL urging instructors to become scholars. SoTL could invite instructors (secondary school, community college, higher education) to think of teaching practice as a dossier in progress – a professional space where one can harness expertise, articulate what constitutes good practice, but continue to probe and investigate teaching and learning.

SoTL could inform how K-12/secondary school and community college instructors see themselves as scholars and learners, poised to add to the discussions in educational research. No doubt that it is happening already, in blogs and other formal and informal publications. Yet, because SoTL points to research that is not just for the sake of a research portfolio, but evidence about what is actually going on in the “classroom,” SoTL takes time to think about learners’ needs. It opens doors for instructors to build compassion for students, not as a case of, you need to perform, get good grades, graduate, so that the institution has good records that it is meeting its goals, but more of a question of how can I help you to meet your learning goals. Boose & Hutchings (2016, p. 7) convey some of that sentiment when they assert that “the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning asks for a kind of care and attention that requires time.”

The compass

Student success has been my compass. However, I have a tendency to measure that success by student pass rates, on external exams. I should know otherwise, that success is not always about that final exam grade, or the numbers that graduate on time, but sometimes that random email from a past student, reflecting on the strengths of time at the institution, valued even more in retrospect; or the student who continues to be involved in theatrical productions even though he pursued a career far removed from literary studies; or the student who reconnects because she has continued an avid reading life and wants to share something; or ultimately the student who comes back to say, the foundations at the community college, really prepared me for university. These encounters, that fill me with joy, tell me I never want to stop teaching, just as I never want to stop learning, because there is soul in it all.

From where I’m looking, SoTL opens the possibilities for soul teaching and learning.

Disclaimer: The concept of a teaching dossier is more complex than is suggested here. For further information about dossiers see:


Bernstein, D. (2010). Finding your place in the scholarship of teaching and learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 4(2). doi:

Boose, D. L., & Hutchings, P. (2016). The scholarship of teaching and learning as a subversive activity. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 4(1). doi:

Boyer, E. L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

Forbes, J. (2008). Reflexivity in professional doctoral research. Reflective Practice, 9(4), 449-460. doi: 10.1080/14623940802431523

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