A new dawn, a new day? On the importance of being welcoming.

Our reading and writing group project for March was to select a chapter from the book The Power of Partnership , read it and respond. We are publishing the responses over the coming week.

I selected Chapter 2 ‘ From Novelty to Norm: Moving Beyond Exclusion and the Double Justification Problem in Student-Faculty Partnerships‘, by Wilson et al.

The chapter begins with a really depressing story about students presenting at a SoTL conference. Despite their best efforts to present robust and legitimate research in a professional, public forum they felt their work was undermined by the patronising questions they received from the academic audience. This leads them to expose and analyse the norms and behaviours which, they argue, prevents students from becoming full members of the SoTL community.

As someone who has done a lot of work with students and tries really hard to be inclusive and respectful, it really did make me cringe. But perhaps I wasn’t surprised.  As I progressed through the chapter, I started to feel frustration, fuelled I think by the dichotomy of ‘faculty vs. student’ within the narrative. I accept that the book is about staff-student partnership, but from my position in academic development, I see a much more complex and kaleidoscopic range of players in SoTL partnerships. Students (undergrad, postgrad and alumni), researchers, lecturers, academic developers, technicians, advisers, consultants – the list goes on – are all involved in SoTL work. Each person brings a distinct set of epistemologies, methodologies and values; often these features are still emerging and evolving as individuals struggle to fuse multiple/blurred identities. It is a messy place and, sadly, I have seen many examples of exclusionary behaviour which impact on individuals in exactly the way the students here describe. It is not just students who are made to feel unwelcome.

And it is not just conferences that are the problem – publication brings out the worst in exclusionary behaviours. I’ve witnessed several horrible cases of peer review for SoTL publications.  The feedback has been personal, unkind and unnecessarily derogatory – it unfairly attacks the ability of the author to be conducting SoTL and referred to the process of reviewing as a ‘waste of time’.  This makes me so angry, not the least because it flies in the face of everything we know (from SoTL research!) about feedback/forward and collegiality.

It is so important not to underestimate the impact of these behaviours, even on experienced members of the SoTL community. I was myself recently excluded by senior faculty. After 6 months of working with a team of academics to develop a research project on a topic which was bang in the SoTL sphere, I was brutally and unexpectedly ousted from the team on very vague grounds that research is not ‘part of my role’. It was handled clumsily and disrespectfully and it did, I will confess, shatter my confidence.

Without getting overly dramatic, these are real-world examples which show that it is not just students who are excluded from the SoTL community. So, what does this say about SoTL as a discipline and the SoTL community? Is the picture even gloomier than the authors suggest?

Reflecting on SoTL’s history and development, I do think it suffers from a chronic case of imposter syndrome.  This is not surprising given that so many of us have to fight for recognition and resources on a daily basis. I can’t excuse the behaviours that we all know exist, but perhaps the lack of confidence and clear identity of the discipline makes it a breeding ground for overly-defensive and cliquey behaviour (actual and perceived).

I wonder if now is the time – and let’s face it, these ARE extraordinary times – to look at our SoTL identities, values and practices and work together to re-define our community manifesto. For all the bad stories I have covered here, I can counter with examples of collegiality, kindness and genuine professionalism. As partners in SoTL we are all equals. Let’s do it differently. Let’s be welcoming.

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