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Keynote Address from 2008 Conference

"The Struggle for Connections" by Sue Clegg1 (October 17)

In my original abstract for this keynote I suggested that as well as addressing the central theme of the conference ‘celebrating connections’ I would trouble the idea. As I have worked on my address this troubling has taken on more dimensions.

To remind you where I started - I turned to my very old, 1969 Pocket Oxford Dictionary.  It informed me that the noun connection means:

  • being linked together or in communication or intercourse,
  • linking mechanisms or part, or word, or idea, or arrangement - for example coupling joint,  conjunction, thread of story, timing of trains to suit each other,
  • set of persons linked by some bond -  for example professional man’s clients [it is a very old dictionary!], shop’s customers, religious body
  • allied subjects of thought – ‘in this connection’ or ‘ while talking of such things’,
  • a relative by blood or marriage.

This I suggested is as strange an assemblage as the ones Foucault produces to make us think about the connections between things.

My intention in making strange the idea of connections was to point out that how we make connections depends on the sorts of things we are trying to connect – whether they are alike or different, and also on what we think the nature of these connections might be.  At ISSOTL, with practitioners in many disciplines, and from many countries, the meanings of connection are likely multiple. In writing this talk I was aware of definitional difficulties and the terminological minefield of terms like ‘science’ within the disciplines and also cross-culturally. I apologise in advance if my use ‘science’ offends colleagues from the humanities, and also if I offend those of you who regarded yourselves as the real thing. I struggled and couldn’t find suitable translations, but of course this failure is not simply epiphenomenal it is part of the problem we are trying to characterise,

In thinking about SoTL and connections I am going to address some issues that seem to me to have made it difficult to make connections between the different intellectual communities that make up what might be described as the broader SoTL commons. I hope that in the process of elucidating what I see as problems I will provoke you to consider ways in which these contractions and dilemmas might be usefully addressed.

You will note that I am not suggesting there are simple answers - and I hope you will also especially note that I am not claiming to have solutions (indeed I think the idea of a ‘solution’ might be the wrong metaphor).

So in this talk I am going to do 6 issues things:

  1. I am going to revisit the ‘theory’ issue
  2. Ask some meta-theoretical questions about disciplinarity
  3. Discuss scholarship and  the place of tacit knowledge
  4. Revisit the socio-politics of Boyer and the concerns of Faculty  
  5. Suggest that trading zones might also be usefully thought of in terms of conflict
  6. Finally, I hope to suggest some reasons to be cheerful

1. The ‘theory’ issue

The debate about theory has become central in discussions about SoTL. ‘Theory’ has been portrayed by Pat Hutchings as the elephant in the room and she along with Mary Taylor Huber have invited us to think more deeply about placing theory in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

I want to suggest that ‘theory’ is a particularly troubling elephant in relationship to making connections. ‘Theory’ sits within the discussion of discipline [and that might be described as the challenge of making horizontal connections across disciplines] and the debates about generic and discipline specific understandings of SoTL, but ‘theory’ also sits in relation to the dualism of theory and practice [and what might be described as the challenge of making vertical connections between two rather different orders of being].

The first point is that when people make a claim for the importance ‘theory’ in the singular - it is usually a claim for the superiority of their own version of theory. I want to suggest that theory will remain an elephant as long as we simply talk about theory in the singular. Many writers in the SoTL tradition have shown how drawing on their own theoretical repertoires they can illuminate different aspects of the pedagogical process. Theorises are not simply singular things, they are sense making about things. In other words theory is firmly rooted in the epistemological domain, although many theories make ontological claims. Particular approaches will disagree about how these thoughts should be structured, verified, understood, and indeed in the case of post-modernism would dispute entirely my epistemological /ontological distinction. But theory making (and indeed drawing on existing theory) is part of the sense making process in both lay and academic contexts. It is central to any form of intellectual endeavour 

The question for the SoTL, therefore, is whether the theories we are using illuminate the problem at hand, explain its conditions of being, can explain the mechanisms at work, and so on. Given the complexities of higher education systems, the characteristics of students, the multiple purposes of higher education, the number of questions that can be asked about student learning - it seems highly unlikely in one form of theory will suffice (or indeed a singular verification strategy). Indeed, the sorts of questions we ask are shaped by our theoretical staring points.

This is not to argue for judgemental relativism. It is to take the idea of the trading zone seriously in relation to making connections and to assess whether the approach suggested is useful (and whether it is aware of other literature that has addressed the problem). So for example I would not dispute that the ‘approaches to learning’ literature illuminates the set of questions it quite properly addresses, but this approach does not exhaust the questions to be asked, nor the ways they can be answered, and as within any paradigm or tradition there are immanent critiques as well as those form outside the paradigm.

There are some issues concerning the incommensurability of fundamental assumptions at the meta-theoretical level, but these exists within disciplines as well as across them, and I am very struck that in terms of SoTL as Maryellen Weimer demonstrates it is possible to read literatures produced from within the disciplines and see both general patterns as well as recognising singularity. So yes of course theorising is important, but I would suggest we should tolerate a little theoretical promiscuity with generosity before we start theoretical turf wars in a field that is so young as ours. There will be gaps in our connections, but spotting these gaps might be fruitful rather than invite closure.     

However before we all breathe a collective sigh of relief I want to suggest that there is a much more intractable ‘theory’ problem. This concerns what in my writing I have described as the gap between abstract and concrete sciences; a distinction about kinds of knowledge rather than its particular disciplinary form. Donald Schon wrestled with this problem in his writing on the epistemology of practice, pointing to the gap between the hands-on doing of professionals and the claims of abstract theory.  

I want to suggest that we need to do some meta-theoretical thinking about the nature of theory itself and the differences between abstract and concrete science. Teaching is a practice and should be understood as a concrete not an abstract science. Abstract sciences like psychology, which aim for law-like explanatory frameworks, provide the theoretical stock for the experiential concrete sciences whose truths are context and content related and specific. The ‘approaches to learning’ literature has played this role for example. But concrete sciences build up their own abstract concepts which are not simply dependent on the laws of abstract science. The knowledge created in the concrete sciences cannot be simply disconfirmed by abstract science since its knowing depends in large part on retroduction from practical experience. Teaching in my argument is such a concrete science. So while a teachers’ knowledge of the capacities of learners, pedagogical  strategies,  and of the social context of teaching is informed by abstract sciences notably (but by no means exclusively) sociology and psychology it is not reducible to them.

Concrete science recognises the importance of creativity and phenomenologically based tacit knowledge. Andrew Collier (from whom I take this distinction) gives the example of  opera singing, where knowledge of the mechanics of voice production is essential, but where the practice, singing, involves knowledge from the visceral experience of performance. The range of possible solutions in singing or in being a teacher are not given by the abstract body of knowledge which underpins them, but is in large part dependent on retroduction from practical experience. So I think there are some theory gaps, but not quite the ones we have thought of  in our debates so far, and I think these gaps go to the heart of the SoTL enterprise as I will elaborate later.  

2. Some meta-theoretical questions about disciplinarily

I now want to turn some meta-theoretical questions about disciplinarity. I want to make two arguments. The first is about limits and is primarily ontological. The second is about the shape of disciplines and interdisciplinarity and is primarily socio-cultural. 

Although I have argued for a degree of methodological and theoretical pluralism there remains a problem. As many SoTL writers have noted some disciplines (notable in the humanities and social sciences) find it easier to draw on their methodologies and approaches in accounting for the messy, human stuff which is learning and teaching. The experimental natural sciences often find themselves frustrated by this messiness, and rightly so. Their methodologies and approaches are designed for dealing with different sorts of stuff. In short I am suggesting that some disciplinary differences are not simply epistemological they are ontological reflecting the stratified nature of reality.  Regularity is rare in both the natural and social worlds, but crucially in testing theories and in identifying mechanisms many natural sciences can achieve the sort of experimental closure that acts as strong test of theory. In the messy social world the sorts of experimental closure achievable are much less strong and often completely impossible.  

I have written at greater length about some of these matters elsewhere from a critical realist perspective. My fundamental argument here, however, is that I think there are some limits to the extent to which disciplinary methodologies can be used in researching teaching and in understanding higher education more generally, and that in some cases to try use the logics of the discipline will lead to poorly conceived studies and where the efforts to control variables will lead to trivial conclusions.

I am aware that this is contentious, but European social scientific traditions are less enamoured of what they would describe as ‘scientism’ - the uncritical application of what is taken to be ‘scientific’ logic usually under positivists re-descriptions.  I am arguing that there is a limit, and that even if you dispute my ontological argument I think there is a real challenge in thinking about what sorts of enquiry are suitable for SoTL problems and where the limits might be.  

I want to be clear – I am not saying metaphors from science disciplines can not inform SoTL – complexity theory springs to mind as one of these. Nor am I denying that discipline specialists are the ones who can identify ‘threshold’ concepts and areas of difficulty and their solution from within the discipline. My limit argument is a methodological one about the types of enquiry appropriate to SoTL.  

My second argument is socio-cultural. Because of course not all ‘disciplinary’ differences are ontological they are cultural, historical, political; disciplines have their own discursive practices. Many are internally riven - and the history of disciplines is marked by breaks, splitting and the emergence of new disciplinary formations as well as continuities. Nor should we forget that some of that some of most exciting intellectual developments are not necessarily disciplinary in formation. Nor do they originate from within the academy – the great social movements of the 19th and 20th century gave us new interdisciplinary area of study as well as transforming what counts as knowledge within disciplines.  

My own discipline sociology is unrecognisable from when I first studied it. Then it was concerned mostly with the doings of white men – and what is more it hadn’t even noticed that this was the case! It was only when new constituencies of students (women from diverse backgrounds) came into the academy in large numbers, and were active in creating a movement outside of it, that new actors women, and many other minorities, transformed the subject of sociology (as indeed happened across the humanities and social sciences).   

The social movements of the 21st century are just as challenging in terms of thinking about ecology, globalisation, indigenous knowledge and so on. It would be wise, therefore, not to regard disciplinary knowledge as static or engage in academic hubris about our current state of knowledge. SoTL needs to be open to developments in currently existing disciplines, but also aware of their contingencies. Helga Nowtony and Michael Gibbens among others have pointed to new forms in the organisation of knowledge and knowledge production. So the question for us in making connections is not just about limits it is also about whether disciplines in the traditional sense are being transformed.

3. Teaching & learning and the tacit  

In discussing theory I have already suggested that teaching is a concrete science. I now want to tease out this issue in relationship to the role of the tacit and the implications for SoTL. 

One of the founding ideas of SoTL was to recognise the importance of different scholarships and to apply the same standards scholarship, involving peer review, evidence, and so forth as those which characterise the scholarship of discovery. The way SoTL has approached making connections between scholarship and practice has been through the glue of disciplinarity.  I think this is the most distinctive aspect of SoTL which distinguishes it from the action research and teacher research traditions.

However, I think are some tension between the idea of scholarship and the role of the tacit, which neither action research, teacher research, nor SoTL have managed to resolve. Moreover this has consequences for the social organisation of SoTL - who does it and crudely who is in and who is outside the commons.

There are acknowledged differences between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’ and there is good theoretical warrant for believing this tension is real. Peter Tomlinson, for example, has criticised the cognitivist strain in much thinking about professional improvement. Tomlinson argues that the Rylian ‘knowing how’ may be entirely tacit. People may not be able to tell no matter how self-aware or poetic the language. Guy Claxton also provocatively supports the value of ‘not always knowing what one is doing’. One way of characterising SoTL is that it has challenged academics to transform their (tacit) ‘knowing how’ by making it more explicit and providing evidence. It is the ‘knowing how’ that explains the paradox of the practical wisdom of the great teacher who has no truck with SoTL, and has never read a pedagogical text in her life.  

This paradox also helps explain why sometimes SoTL  papers fall short of the demands of ‘theory’. They are trapped between the tacit concrete science of classroom practice, and the demands of ‘theory’ in abstract science – in short they have not made the full leap to scholarship. But if the purpose of SoTL is to improve teaching – perhaps we ought to be more modest and accept that scholarship, as currently understood, is not the only route. Moreover, the formal paper is not necessarily the best way to form thick descriptions of the tacit (and here I would turn to my colleagues in the humanities as bastions against scientific reductionism).

If the purpose of SoTL, however, is to enhance the standing of teaching Faculty, then that is a different matter. So the tension I am identifying is one between a recognition that teaching can indeed improve without scholarship (as many SoTL writers have identified), and the argument that all teachers should at some level should become more scholarly.

Which leads me to my fourth argument.

4. Socio-politics of Boyer and concerns of Faculty

The roots of some of the difficulties above seem to me to go back to socio-politics of Boyer’s original essay and the issue of recognition The problem he identified -  of the splitting of scholarships and the untoward overvaluing of the scholarship of discovery -  is real, on my side of the pond even more so. In systems reeling from research selectivity, the disconnect between the scholarships is at least as large as when Boyer wrote. The body of the professoriate is separated by status, resources, and increasingly in terms of the time available for the different scholarships. Research-only and teaching-only are terms which have entered our vocabulary and in the latter case the stress is on the second word – ‘only’ as lack.

There seem to me some tensions within Boyer’s formulation however.  Boyer starts with the concerns of Faculty and the need for recognition of the value of different scholarships and this is in many ways admirable. But we also need to recognise that there are some sound reasons why one might also want to be critical of the role of Faculty who have often been slow to respond to the demands of newer learners, and indeed of newer Faculty, and have shored up social privilege rather than challenging it.  Roger Boshier for example argues that SoTL privileges teaching (and disciplinarity) and that SoTL has marginalised adult education, life long learning, farmgate intellectuals, communities of practice, and other literatures which privilege learners in different ways. At very least I would suggest that making connections with these literatures could result in a creative refocusing of some SoTL efforts.

The more significant problem with Boyer, however, is that he doesn’t sufficiently problematise the scholarship of discovery. Yet there is much wrong with traditional research - traditionally understood. Discovery science has privileged big science and as Donald Schon noted a nearly quarter of a century ago was complicit with what he then called ‘military-industrial complex’. While term may no longer be common coinage it is still clear what he meant, and its problems are still with us.

Internally, research selectivity, tenure procedures, and arguments for discovery to serve the needs of the market have resulted in a hyper-performativity which distorts the nature of academic enquiry, but arguing in for a recognition of the other scholarships Boyer appears to accept the need for accountability and evidence which have made discovery science based on a ‘big science model’ such a monster in the lives of many UK academics. The scholarship of application seems to me to be in an equally parlous state albeit for slightly different reasons. 

I am not against accountability, but its forms and what we mean by evidence require critical scrutiny. This has consequences for SoTL because there is a tension  between forms of evidence that resemble discovery science and the democratic impulse that says that we should all be involve in SoTL. Hence in part the ‘theory problem’ – which Pat Hutchings and Mary Taylor Huber also diagnose as in part a fear of the ‘amateur’.  Peer review privileges certain form of writing. This is not neutral - it is about the sorts of knowledge we value and who gets to make the judgements.

Maryellen Wiemer has pointed out while scholarship needs to be credible as scholarship it also needs to speak to the profession. Yet what we know about professional learning from the communities of practice and informal learning literature suggests that the peer reviewed papers have very little, if any, impact on practice. Indeed the origins of systematic review in medicine were in recognition of precisely this problem – we know that  Doctors and school teachers  don’t read this stuff. It might not be the first port of call even for academics. As Maryellen Weimer in bravely reviewing the SoTL literature found it is ‘more likely to cure insomnia than to improve practice’, or as one of my respondents put it when explaining how talking about teaching used to be normal like chatting about the TV - now its become all about ‘pedagogy’ that ‘awful word’.

These seem to me questions of what gets valued. Both teacher research and action research in teacher education faced same problems. Education research came under attack for its lack of rigour and indeed its lack of theory, but in terms of classroom impact we know dissemination models don’t work in changing practice.  

The CASTL approach tries to bridge this by working within the discipline as well as talking across them and the writing in the disciplines work is a innovative way of trying to address the gap, but we need to clear that these are small initiatives in the bigger picture. If the question is about improving teaching (as well as its recognition), and with Roger Boshier’s caution in mind in terms of thinking more about learning, the answer to the cannot solely be with scholarship.

As Editor Teaching in Higher Education I am acutely ware of this. In taking over the trappings of scholarship (for very good reasons) and in becoming a successful ISI rated Journal we are also building in the contradictions that come with scholarship and its peer review processes. We are in a sense creating a new community of practice, perhaps even a new interdisciplinary field, and ‘fields’ as Bourdieu reminds us operate through the accumulation and recognition of the appropriate cultural capitals. If ‘theory’ and academic cosmopolitanism (those of us who travel to ISSOTL conferences) become our currency we should aware of what gets devalued and face the paradox that in setting out to value and recognise teaching we might instead be valuing  our own expertise as researchers and scholars of teaching.

5. Trading zones are also conflictual

I want to take my metaphors of trading from a rather different and ‘unhomely’ place for a moment when thinking about trading zones.  In particular to think about some of the issues that have come to the fore as a result of the anti-globalisation movement - although the movement’s target is really a particular form of globalisation – neo-liberalism. The protesters have argued that free trade benefits the rich world and disempowers the poor – who sets the terms of trade in other words is important. If the terms are trade are set by the ‘rules of the game’ that are based on an understanding of scholarship derived from discovery science then some sorts of goods are unequal in worth.  

Michael Apples invites us to consider  - who gets to ask questions in a culture and who gets to answer them. This is as important to SoTL as in any other intellectual endeavour, and we should recognise our own conditions of privilege – epistemic -  but also actual. We should celebrate and learn from the achievements of those distinguished scholars who have progressed though the SoTL route - as Mary Taylor Huber does – but we should be cautious about generalising the model.  

We also need to have a global sensibility about who is part of the debate. The SoTL movement largely originated in the USA – although the broader area of pedagogical research has a longer history. Even within areas where there are established patterns of research there is variable trading. If we look at citation practices between Australasian, UK, and US we find that UK scholars cite their Australasian colleagues (an old colonial legacy as has been pointed out to me) and they cite ours but we under-cite work from the US, and I am afraid to say many US scholars rarely systemically cite outside North America. We all under cite work from South Africa although there is a rich seam of brilliant scholarship coming from there in large part because they have had to address issues of SoTL in most dramatic ways post-1994. The issue of ‘epistemic access’ to curriculum presents enormous challenges in making changes to the curriculum in ways which will allow black students to succeed. In setting our horizons we should also remind ourselves that Hiroshima University has had a centre for research into higher education since 1972. In short we have much to learn. I confess to my own ignorance about developments in India and China, and my own Anglophone bias, only a few European countries are part of our debates.  So we need to be aware of the terms of trade and make sure our trading zones are more equitable and democratic places.

6. Some reasons to be cheerful

I’m first going to summarise my argument and then tell you why I think we have reasons to be cheerful.

I have suggested that we need to look not just at the differences between disciplines but also to differences between concrete and abstract sciences. In my view the latter is the more intractable issue. Where SoTL has had most success is in trading and speaking across the disciplines and I think it has given us a different take on the rather tired debates about generic and discipline based pedagogies and research. I have suggested nonetheless that there are some limits on the extent to which disciplinary methodologies can be mobilised and that these are issues of ontology rather than epistemology.  I have also suggested we need to go beyond disciplinarity (as indeed much SoTL already does) and be sensitive to newer knowledge and challenges which come from outside the academy. I have also suggested that we needs to take the tacit serious and debate what sorts of knowledge is necessary for the improvement of teaching. SoTL might be part of the story but not it is not the whole. And I have suggested that there are some tensions which derive from Boyer’s original project and that we should be wary of accepting some of the practices of the scholarship of discovery. Other scholarships are having bad time too. Finally I’ve argued that in using the metaphor of trading we should be aware of unevenness and difference as well as possibilities

Which brings me to my reasons to be cheerful - as I think this exciting not gloomy. My argument expands the range of questions rather than pretending we have all the answers. Certainty has always struck me as the enemy of any form of intellectual enquiry. The struggle to make connections horizontally between disciplines and across professional knowledge is an exhilarating project – we have started asking the right questions but there is much work to do.

Furthermore, I do not believe we have reached the boundaries of incommensurability or are indeed anywhere near that. I do think we need to guard against over-politeness and be willing to look at differences (of all sorts) and embrace critique, but a condition for critique is to be open to the other.

One of the great joys of SoTL is that it has produced some inspired writing from within the US liberal arts tradition, and I think that there is much to learn from this speaking as I do from a place where we do not have this tradition. So I would like a SoTL that is more international, more open, more willing to ask questions of itself, and yes engaged in actively theorising.  But whatever our differences I think we should aspire to the Aristotelean virtue of phronesis as well as sophia and engage in genuine Socratic dialogue, which is what I hope this conference, with its theme of celebrating connections, will achieve.  

1  I have chosen not to revise the text to make it into a formal paper as I wanted to preserve the tone of the piece. I also wanted to make it available as quickly as possible as requested by many conference delegates, extensive revisions would have delayed this process.