Writing SoTL, Assessment, and Embodied Knowledge

I spent a good bit of time over the past couple weeks revising a paper that attempts to describe my experiences teaching history in a Scale-Up classroom. The paper is largely anecdotal in style and argument, and I declare – in a very forthright way – that my impressions are preliminary. My statement suggest that applying more careful scrutiny to my work in this class and additional evidence (read: quantitative data) will produce more meaningful or “final” results.

So, as I polished this paper off and worked to compile a blob of data for some or another assessment protocol on campus, I began to think about how the discourse of teaching has become increasingly divorced from disciplinary conversations on campus. I don’t quite understand why this is happening, but I offer some fragmentary and preliminary notes here:

My claim that my results are preliminary is a bit disingenuous and was primarily a nod to the standards associated with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). As a historian and archaeologist, the practice of using quantitative data to evaluate and influences ones teaching performance is pretty foreign even among the small group of us who deal with numbers in our professional work. What makes this particularly interesting is that despite the small number of historians who adopt quantitative methods, we are nevertheless compelled to view teaching along quantitative lines. Michael Herzfeld has identified this tendency as an “audit culture” and I’ve referred to the reign of the “assessocracy” who favor quantitative measures for evaluating the effectiveness of the classroom environment.

I won’t be the first or the last to observe that the twin pressures of SoTL and “audit culture” have slowly transformed the way that scholars in disciplines think about teaching. A recent conversation with a colleague got me thinking about the way in which this shift from disciplinary conversations about teaching to a campus wide audit culture influenced how we think about teaching as professors. To our mind, the key shift was from faculty who derived their teaching credentials from their expertise in a particular subject area to teaching as a criteria that can be evaluated independently from any particular specialized knowledge. This transition was accompanied by the rise of the assessocracy and audit culture and has produced a situation where teaching (and learning) stand as a separate skills and goals unto themselves.

I recognize that defenders of assessment practices and mainstream SoTL will protest this as an overly simplified view of their work and that being a successful teacher assumes the mastery of “content.” At the same time, the severing of content knowledge from the skills necessary to pass on that knowledge produces a significant dichotomy between what we know as disciplinary practitioners and what we do as teachers of that discipline. In other words, there is a parallel between the work of teaching becoming focused more on methods and the teaching of methods as the key to disciplinary knowledge. Again, there is nothing wrong with teaching methods or even methodology (indeed, I do it myself), but just as teaching and content become severed, I can’t help feeling concerned that content knowledge and methods will become increasingly estranged. 

It may seem absurd at first, but one wonders if it might be possible to be, by the standards of our age, a good teacher without necessarily having any specialist content knowledge. This would coincide with the growing tendency on this campus to see faculty teaching well outside their specialties (and to have pressure to do this!) both within and across disciplines. This observation is not meant to criticize these bold souls who take on teaching Thucydides without having read him in Greek or the Fall of  the Roman Empire without even doing primary source research in Late Antiquity (or, say, graduate historiography without any training in 20th century intellectual history), but to point out that despite the emphasis on specialist training in graduate school, teaching knowledge seems to trump area knowledge in some circumstances.

This may relate to the process of deskilling where our ability to produce knowledge becomes less closely related to specialized and embodied skills associated with craft production and more related to industrialized forms of knowledge production. These industrialized models depend upon rigorously maintained and standardized metrics influenced by Taylorism and total quality and efficiency standards, rather than the more difficult to document sensitivities to texts and disciplinary discourse borne of encounters and interactions with individuals deeply steeped in specialized the knowledge. 

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