The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

The “Big Tent:” Benefits and Limitations

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Written by: Kathleen McKinney, Cross Chair in SoTL at ISU

There have been many discussions in writings and at conferences about the “big tent” of SoTL since Huber and Hutchings coined the term in 2005. They with Ciccone (2011, pg. 9) argued there are “narrow constructionists” who stress how SoTL is, presumably in form, closely related to traditional academic research (with some allowances for practioner, local inquiry). Then there are “broad constructionists” or “big tent advocates” who have a view of SoTL as including much more than a form of academic research into our students’ learning. Rather, in their big tent view, SoTL covers “a wider range of work (documentation, reflection, inquiry) in greater or lesser degrees of polish, made public in forums with nearer or farther reach.” They also argue that the former is valued as research while the latter is valued as research and teaching, and is, thus, “more hospitable to teachers who want to participate if only occasionally or in modest ways.”

As many others, I think the “big tent” image is a wonderful one. I also think the concept is, of course, a continuum, not either–or. In addition, the big tent is, as those authors hint at, about more than whether SoTL falls on the research or teaching side of the academic reward system. It is also about the questions we consider, how we do the work, and how we share the work. Thus, the concept is about multiple continuums of narrow to broad.

Our definition of SoTL at Illinois State University is ‘the systematic reflection/study of teaching and learning (of our ISU students) made public.’ Thus we support the big tent, allowing for various types of reflection as well as more formal studies. The work should be made public but that is defined broadly in terms of location, product, venue and so on. We have always wanted to encourage and support SoTL in and across all disciplines, acknowledging differences in definitions, methods, and ways of sharing the scholarship on teaching and learning. Given the diversity of SoTL scholars in terms of discipline, training, institutional type and culture, interests, and nationality, the big tent –to a certain degree –makes good sense.

But, is it possible to go too far with this concept? I believe we can and sometimes do. I think the distinctions made by many (Pat Hutchings originally, I believe) among good teaching, scholarly teaching, and SoTL are valid. Good teaching and scholarly teaching are critically important but not the same as SoTL. I think SoTL is not doing our jobs as teachers. Nor is it traditional educational research or research on faculty development. I think the three biggest assets of SoTL are that it is work done by the practioner, evidence-based (broadly defined), and public (broadly defined). If SoTL becomes everything, it is nothing. We need a big SoTL tent but we need one whose span of fabric is not stretched so far that it collapses. We need a tent with flaps that open and close freely but still offer some differentiation or protection from the outside weather.

Huber, M. T. and Hutchings, P. 2005. The Advancement of Learning: Building the Teaching Commons. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hutchings, P., Huber, M. T., and Ciccone, A. 2011. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Institutional Integration and Impact. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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