A Viable Literature for College Teaching and Learning

I am just finishing up a book on pedagogical scholarship, more specifically a review of previously published work on teaching and learning authored by faculty in disciplines other than education and its related fields. If you read this newsletter regularly, you know that I have no quarrels with folks in education. In fact they are the pros-the folks trained to study teaching and learning and advance of our knowledge of both. But this book is devoted to the the scholarship of practitioners-the work that is written by college teachers for college teachers. Up to this point, I don’t think anybody has looked at it as a body of applied scholarship and asked what we might learn from it.

I started the book with that question in mind. As I read, reviewed, and struggled to bring together a diverse collection of literature, I discovered that we haven’t asked a more fundamental set of question: What kind of literature do practicing teachers need? What would support their efforts in the classroom, help them teach better, help them more effectively impact the learning efforts of students?

The scholarship of teaching movement has focused our attention on another set of questions. Thanks to these efforts, beginning with Boyer, many folks have been convinced that scholarly work on teaching can be done by practitioners. As a result this work is getting looked at in places where it hasn’t counted before, like research universities. Obviously, there are a great many concerns about its quality. Teaching advocates as well as regular “old” faculty members heretofore uninvolved with pedagogical scholarship agree on one issue: the work must have standards. If the work doesn’t demonstrate those standards, it shouldn’t count. And so we’ve been asking and trying to answer questions related to the scholarship of teaching: What is it? Where and how should it be disseminated? Should it count the same as research work? Does it merit reward and recognition?

But all this concern with getting scholarly work on teaching and learning recognized and counted as scholarship has led us away from the fact, we not only need people producing this work, we need people consuming it. As I learned preparing this book, pedagogical literature, be it books, articles, or electronic resources, is vastly underused. For all intents and purposes, it is a largely unread literature. The same could be said the research literature in our fields, but that is being written for a small, narrowly focused audience. Pedagogical literature is relevant to anyone who teaches and that’s the vast majority of us in higher education. Even that created for faculty who teach within a discipline still has a comparatively broad audience.

So in addition to getting more folks producing pedagogical scholarship and getting all reputable scholarly work on teaching and learning recognized, we need to get people reading it. Can you think of any other profession without a viable literature that informs, directs, and otherwise oversees practice?

The question then is what kind of literature do we need? There is something of a catch 22 at play here. The easiest way to gain credibility for pedagogical scholarship is to make it look like research in the disciplines-to have it appear in refereed journals, as book chapters, or books themselves. If it looks and sounds like research, that’s what it must be. But pedagogical literature exists in a profession where teachers are not trained, where there are few norms expecting professional development, and no requirements that faculty keep current on pedagogical developments. Is this a population likely to be motivated to read journal articles?

If we consider the what-kind-of-literature-do-we-need question, independent of scholarship recognition issues, I think we would likely get very different answers. Would we get folks recognizing the value of newsletter publications (I know, we’re a biased audience on that point)? Would we think more positively about Web-based materials? About course materials themselves? Would we consider a different kind of writing? A style not quite so disconnected and “academic” sounding?

Unfortunately, we can’t consider the questions separately, and our current focus on pedagogical literature as scholarship is leading us away from this equally necessary focus on pedagogical literature as a source of learning, sustaining, and changing the college teaching profession.