Whose SOTL is it, anyway?: Notes from an article in progress

For the past several years I’ve been having conversations about SOTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) both informally among my colleagues and more broadly as a participant in Elon’s CEL seminar on Integrating Off Campus Global Learning. After a WCU colleague posted this article on her FB feed, I decided it was nigh time to toss out some notes on a SOTL article I hope to get around to finishing in the nearish future.

As somewhat of an outsider to SOTL as a discipline, the aforementioned popular article’s title unwittingly sums up the central problem of most SOTL articles I’ve ever read when it loudly proclaims, “Students Don’t Know Slavery Was a Central Cause of the Civil War, Report Shows.” The problem I’m talking about isn’t that many students don’t know about the causal relationship between slavery and the Civil War (though that’s a huge problem), but rather the use of “students” as an abstract term when, in fact, individual students themselves are anything but an abstraction. In reducing the problem to an artificial “aggregate student,” the SPLC report glosses over the possibility (something the article repeats) that the problem at hand is far more complex and difficult to tackle when one speculates on what the disaggregation of the data may reveal. Although the report specifically mentions that urban students outperformed rural ones on this survey (which is not a terribly surprising factoid), no mention is made of how the data would look if broken down by race, class, gender, parents’ level of education, etc. (I looked for this info but could not find it—correct me if I’m wrong). In presenting the information as the product of abstract “students,” the embodied experiences of actual students disappear into the ether. Not only is this a painful misuse of data, but it also reproduces the neoliberal ethos that data is somehow scientific, objective, and useful when in fact incomplete data like this, no matter how “radical” or apparently “progressive,” simply reproduces a status quo where the experiences of people of color and other minoritized populations are invisibilized.

In other words, if we were to compare the survey responses of African American students to those of their Caucasian counterparts, would we still find that only 8% of respondents across both groups know that slavery was the Civil War’s central cause? My hypothesis would be….no. I would further hypothesize that the lived experiences of both groups would correlate to a large extent with their knowledge concerning the Civil War and its causes. This does not devalue in-class learning, but rather highlights structural problems within any education system insofar as these tend to reproduce the status quo (Althusser, Bourdieu, I forget, and it’s a blog). In other words, the embodied experiences of some learners are reinforced (as a cisgender, white male from the South, I’ll state confidently that from the age I first learned of the “War of Northern Aggression,” the worldview of my immediate cisgender white peers was reinforced a good bit) while those of others are challenged, downplayed, or completely ignored. What makes this report and the MSN piece so fascinating is how they demonstrate the depth of this problem. Despite the fact that they are arguing decisively in describing the need for a more inclusive curriculum, they would seem to ignore the lived experiences of the same learners whose experiences they intend to include.

Theoretically and critically speaking, these pieces ignore what the African American sociologist W.E.B DuBois terms “Double Consciousness.” To oversimplify this a bit, the term essentially means that, in addition to having a self-affirmed group identity, groups not in power (subaltern) must also contend with seeing themselves through the lens of the dominant group. To borrow the frame of the title of the article above, African American learners are supposed see themselves in the “students” of the report, and yet knowledge that slavery was a central cause of the Civil War is (hypothetically) much more common among African Americans than Caucasians.

To my mind, this has rather grave complications for how we as educators approach students’ learning (in the possessive because I’m describing the individual learning processes of a diverse group of students). For example, colleagues from the CEL describe many Global Learning data sets (as frequently studied in Study Abroad/Study Away, or SASA) as being problematic because they tend to be dominated by students who are: white, female, cisgendered, and upper-middle class. In other words, the aggregate student attitudes these data sets are said to reflect are heavily skewed by a particular learner group, a fact which in turn invisibilizes smaller learner groups (not to mention leads to poor conclusions and worse policy decisions). Further, let’s run this back through DuBois’s double consciousness, since most SASA experiences are largely constructed around encounters with a linguistic/ethnic/social class other. In privileging SASA experiences as the primary site of such encounters, are we not glossing over the fact that on most college campuses the lived experiences of African American, LGBTQ, Indigenous, and Latinx students (in addition to those of many others) are in fact a continual global learning experience and encounter with a white other? Do their lived experiences not disappear into data sets about “student” learning when by “student” we mean an abstract “learner” heavily skewed towards given race/class/gender/sexual orientation/etc.?

In other words, whose SOTL is it anyway?

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