Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground
Edited by Mary Taylor Huber and Sherwyn P. Morreale
American Association for Higher Education
Available online from
Department of Public Policy and Administration
California State University, Long Beach
Institutions of higher education once again find themselves in an era of intense questioning and change. The last such era began in the 1960s, when students tumultuously challenged the content matter, relevance, and ethics of university curricula. The most recent era began more quietly but perhaps more radically in the 1990s, challenging our notions of the defining characteristics of the higher education enterprise: teaching, learning, and scholarship.
The central question of this edited book, Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground, is whether the activities of teaching and learning are proper subjects for disciplinary scholarship. Essays addressing this question are included from ten different disciplines or fields of study, including chemistry, communication, engineering, English, history, management, mathematics, psychology, sociology, and interdisciplinary studies.
In these essays, for the most part, this question is posed, its history is traced, and arguments pro and con are reviewed, but the question is not answered. To be sure, this is not a question that can be answered definitively by individuals when entire disciplines have yet to tackle it. These essays reveal that in some disciplines, more progress has been made, while in others the question has neither meaning nor legitimacy, let alone an answer.
Nevertheless, I found this book interesting for several reasons. First, an orienting essay helps readers from any discipline gain an appreciation of the importance of--and an easy point of entry into--this subject matter. Second, each of three branches of learning--science, humanities, and social science--are represented by several essays, allowing the reader to gain an appreciation of how each branch approaches the central question posed by the book as well as variations within each branch. Third, the bibliographical materials cited in each chapter are often applicable to a wider and more diverse set of disciplines or fields than the one being discussed. Finally, as many of the authors of these essays agreed, it is encouraging to learn not only that colleagues in widely varied institutions are concerned about this question but also that many different approaches can be taken in addressing it.
In this review, I will discuss the major themes treated in the text, rather than a chapter-by-chapter commentary. On the one hand, some common themes are raised across many of the essays. The impetus for this new era of questioning has come from such external developments as stronger calls for accountability from institutions of higher education (especially public); changes in priorities of major sources of funding; challenges posed by demographic and other differences in the newest waves of students to enter college; and the development and adoption of new technologies and teaching tools. For example, specific funding initiatives of the National Science Foundation and disciplinary discussions within professional science, math, and engineering associations have spurred the formation of programs in science education. The book also argues that some disciplines are more suited to using teaching and learning activities as the basis of scholarship. For example, in the social sciences, the adoption of a behavioral perspective by such disciplines as psychology, communication, and management generated new knowledge that is directly applicable to teaching and learning. One development that I would add is the focus by many regional as well as disciplinary accreditation agencies on student learning outcomes and similar trends evident in the latest re-authorization of the federal Higher Education Act.
On the other hand, there are still institutional as well as disciplinary barriers faced by many members of the university community. One of the most fundamental appears to be the drive to uphold methodological purity. Disciplines may define themselves not only by their content matter but also by what they do. In other words, what does it mean to "do" science? To "be" an historian? If neither the content nor the method of the discipline involves the content or process of teaching and learning, it is difficult to accept as scholarship any inquiry that does just that.
Several of the essays point out that such institutionalized processes as tenure and promotion do not recognize the scholarship of teaching and learning; nor do major or first-tier journals or other publication outlets, or the organizing committees of major conferences. However, university tenure and promotion guidelines or standards are by their nature general; the specifics are determined by each discipline. The same holds for publications and conferences: the editorial boards and conference organizers are all members of the discipline. Disciplines cannot pass the buck on this issue, as the last three years of dialogue in the American Political Science Association have shown.
Another barrier observed by the authors is that today's faculty have not been taught about teaching and learning, what it is, how to do it, or how to evaluate it. However, many of today's senior faculty were not taught about computers either, yet they managed to learn how to adapt not only to the desktop computer but also to other subsequent waves of technology that have transformed the higher education enterprise in the past 20 years (smart classrooms, the world wide web, electronic journals, and so forth). Just as we attempt to prepare our students to become life-long learners, so we should be able to continue learning as well as teaching ourselves.
One challenge some authors express is the perceived dichotomy between teaching and scholarship. Teaching is performed before an audience (students), while scholarship is typically a solitary pursuit. Paradoxically, the scholarly enterprise is open to peer critique following well-documented guidelines in light of disciplinary standards of excellence, whether replicating an experiment or reviewing a manuscript for publication. The teaching enterprise is not open to peer critique, or the guidelines are not well documented, or disciplinary consensus on standards of excellence has not been established. However, programs such as The Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching (described in its own chapter in the book) are attempting to precipitate conversations about these issues across the spectrum of higher education.
I highly recommend this book to academic administrators, persons charged with such responsibilities as program review or student outcome assessment, and anyone interested in working with colleagues across the hall, across the campus, or across the world on the important challenges posed in this book. I also hope that in five years there can be a second volume that documents the dramatic successes that occur from higher education's successful answers to these challenges.
Posted May 2, 2005.
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Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2005 by Michelle A. Saint-Germain.