The SoTL Trading Zone: An Old Custom and a New Borderland
Connie M. Schroeder
Center for Instructional and Professional Development
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
We are familiar with the concept of a zone as a place with clear parameters and boundaries for a special purpose. One dictionary defines a zone as “an area, region, or division distinguished from adjacent parts by some distinctive feature or character” (Boyer, et al, 1991, p. 1407). Zones can be physical spaces, abstract entities, or metaphorical allusions. Those old enough may recall having been warned before entering the Twilight Zone; others are familiar with driving through school zones, using zone defense, obeying no parking and passing zones, and crossing through time zones. In psychology, Vygotsky (1978) expanded our understanding of potential development by introducing the “zone of proximal development.”
The place where “scholars of different disciplinary cultures come” to exchange the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is a zone or “borderland” -- a newly emerging “trading zone,” according to Huber and Morreale (2002, p. 21). This borderland exists between the disciplines, “where scholars are busy simplifying, translating, telling, and persuading ‘foreigners’ to hear their stories and try their wares (p. 19). Due to the expanding dialogue across disciplines, this trading zone is clearly broadening (Huber & Morreale, 2002, p. 2).
Trading the Wares of SoTL
Trading the work of SoTL within and across disciplines is a tall order and yet essential to the growth and valuing of this work. As we know, each discipline carefully crafts its approach and language surrounding inquiry, discovery, and knowledge. Rather than restrict SoTL exchange, Huber and Morreale argue, “cross disciplinary conversations” and “reading—and raiding—across the fields” will expand the parameters of this new trading zone (Huber & Morreale, 2002, p. 2). They insist, “Their very divisions, which some find disturbing, can be sources of strength for the scholarship of teaching and learning” (p. 21). Despite their variations, “ scholars from different disciplinary cultures come to trade their wares—insights, ideas, and findings—even though the meanings and methods behind them may vary considerably among producer-groups” (Huber & Morreale, 2002, p. 2-3). How can the disciplines access the trading zone to tap this source of strength? How then may we enter this zone? Need we all present findings? In looking carefully at the emergence of this special place between the disciplines, several points of entry come into view.
Points of Entry into SoTL Trading Zones
Every borderland has its weakness, including its ability to recognize its own blind spots. Perhaps our weakness is in welcoming and making accessible multiple points of entry that could expand and nurture dynamic exchange. We can draw our attention to three points of entry into the trading zone for SoTL:
- SoTL Programs of Inquiry
- Formal Events and Artifacts
- Informal Dialogue
Point of Entry: SoTL Programs of Inquiry
Campus based SoTL programs, offer a process of systematic and collaborative SoTL inquiry with significant investment. A structured application process, with some kind of compensation or monetary support, escorts scholars to a point of entry that is well-marked and often long-lasting. This is the point of entry with perhaps the fewest ticket-holders and most likely to be perceived as elitist or likened to a SoTL private club. Program facilitators act as guides --experts already familiar with the SoTL trading zone, for those finding themselves in unfamiliar terrain. Through “problematization of student learning,” challenges in teaching and learning become reframed as questions for scholarly inquiry (Bass, 1999). These programs encourage and allow for significant disciplinary differences while mapping out a process for a sustained visit in the SoTL borderland.
A common design feature of these programs is bringing scholars of different disciplines together for an extended program of scholarly inquiry. As individual SoTL projects are shaped in the company of other scholars, research questions, methodologies, analyses, and findings are put on the collaborative table for scholarly, cross-disciplinary conversations. These too, are wares, being traded and admired. The inquiry is molded by the tools of each discipline’s perspective, leading each SoTL scholar to multiple and extended visits to the SoTL borderland, where their rigorous and well crafted wares take shape amid critical discourse and scholarly rigor. The zone accessed through SoTL Programs of Inquiry, becomes a studio space for work in progress as well as the exchange of polished products.
Point of Entry: Formal Events and Artifacts
A second route into the SoTL trading zone may be more easily recognized and widely accessed. Formal Events and Artifacts are intentionally constructed and made into public trading zones in which visitors can easily inspect the SoTL wares. Although the visits are brief and temporary, they are quite structured, focused, and aimed to provoke and disseminate, and even recruit. They include concrete events, colloquia, conferences, or presentations, symposia, brown bags, guest speakers, department meetings, and retreats where SoTL is “diffused” and SoTL artifacts are disseminated. Dissemination of these artifacts in campus monographs, disciplinary journals, interdisciplinary journals, general SoTL and higher education or teaching journals create literary zones for these artifacts, should one decide to entry by way of a written invitation to publish or to subscription to these wares.
Unfortunately and all too often, the Formal Events and Artifacts serve as gateways for the ”choir” to mingle. Do we really expect the skeptic or critic to “browse?” While Programs of Inquiry may lead serious scholars to the SoTL zone, the RSVP’s to these points ofentry may include the curious, enthusiastic and potential scholars, and only the most easily persuaded skeptic, reluctant or indifferent to “come to the open market.”
Perhaps our exchange will broaden if we expand the meaning of “wares” to include not just the products or results of scholarly inquiry, but the beginning points of future inquiry. We can include the beginning assumptions, questions, problems, and challenges about teaching that speak to all of us, across disciplines. Skeptic or scholar, browser or trader, we bring ourselves as teachers with expertise within our disciplinary experience (lengthy or brief) as our wares to trade. Our questions might speak across disciplines, spur a SoTL scholar’s study underway toward a better design, or spark another to consider reframing a SoTL project. Do I need to be a potter to offer a critique of a pot, a painter to offer an insight about color, or to appreciate the work done?
Since we all can’t and aren’t likely to engage in SoTL, where do we pick up the trail? Are we left with just picking up the journals ofthose who’ve passed us? As one scholar argues, “Limiting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to refereed publication will assure that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning will have little or no impact” (Atkinson, June, 2001, ). Atkinson further warns, if this limitation of SoTL is accepted, “The academy will not be transformed. The status quo will prevail” (Atkinson, June, 2001,121 -7). We need to carefully consider how to construct inviting points of entry to ensure that the trading zone is not perceived as a members-only-club with a private entrance known only to scholars of teaching and learning.
Point of Entry: Informal Dialogues
Informal Points of Entry are largely invisible, seldom glaringly public, and yet perhaps the most potent and well traveled. Invisible footprints (or cookies) map the casual verbal, written, or online exchange. The Informal Points of Entry ensure that the emerging SoTL borderland does not invite, engage or lure only the scholars in Programs of Inquiry or those who entering by way of Formal Points ofEntry. Potentially, all of our colleagues could circulate and browse among those with wares to trade, meeting the traders, sampling their wares, and coming in contact with their creative work as they go about their work as faculty, if the points of entry were easily recognized, inviting and accessible and wares were not only findings, results, and scholarly papers.
For example, I am reminded of a casual stroll through an art show. I know where to go to look, be stimulated, exposed to, provoked, refueled, inspired, and to get ideas. In a sense, I am a consumer or ‘grazer.’ I imagine trying the painter’s techniques or methods, tackling a similar challenge my way. Sometimes, the “wares” instead become the backdrop to the social encounters and reconnections that take place with other visitors, or even the artist. Not limited by the immediate time and place, the impact and exchange continues over time, beyond the physical moment to a borderland without concrete borders, long after the show has packed up and moved on. The ideas travel, living on in my reflections and conversations.
As travelers in the borderland of SoTL we can be eavesdroppers, innocent bystanders, avid critics, skeptics, advocates or idea-swappers. In the blink of an eye, a brief, informal exchange can whisk the non-SoTL scholar to the portal of SoTL as if having been beamed up. These informal exchanges may simply be “corridor talk” (Downey, Dumit & Traweek, 1997), and spontaneous rather than planned, unstructured rather than defined. We underestimate the value of these momentary flights into the “zone.” Conversations around curriculum planning, strategic planning, preparation for accreditation, departmental program assessment, and email or lunch discussions can provide momentary entrance into the SoTL trading zone. I imagine a virtual SoTL trading zone with multiple points of entry for all members of the higher education community, accessible within the permeable borders of our daily encounters, email, and phone calls.
The expanded notion of flexible and multiple points of entry into campus based SoTL trading zones encourages us to think more openly, broadly, and invitingly about this work. The trading zone becomes a dynamic, permeable zone rather than a static place where one is either “in” or “out.”
The scholarship of teaching and learning noticeably appeared on the margins of teaching and scholarship, and has made important inroads over the past two decades. If the scholarship of teaching and learning is here to stay, it may very well hinge on the effectiveness of the trading zones being more accessible, welcoming, flexible, and worthwhile, but most of all, intentional. It will behoove us to cross one another’s borders in the pursuit of learning more about learning through multiple points of entry to exchangethe artifacts of SoTL inquiry. Whether visitor or scholar then, the pass-key shared by all who enter these zones is our commitment to student learning:
Their goals are to do better by their students, and they are willing (within limits) to enter the trading zone
and buy, beg, borrow, or steal the tools they need to do the job. (Huber & Morreale, 2002, p. 19)
Browse the wares of SoTL with this important goal in mind. Pass with care and curiosity.
Atkinson, Maxine P. (Jun2001). The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Reconceptualizing Scholarship and Transforming the Academy. Social Forces, 79(4), 121-7.
Bass, Randy. (1999, February). The scholarship of teaching: What’s the problem? Inventio: Creative thinking about learning and teaching, [On-line]. Available: http://www.doiiitgmu.edu/Archives/feb98/rbass.htm.
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Cheyne, J. Allan & Tarulli, Donato. (1999). Dialogue, difference, and the "third voice" in the Zone of proximal development. Universityof Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada A revised version of this paper is available in (1999) Theory and Psychology, 9,
Downey , G. L., Dumit, J., & Traweek, S. (1997). Corridor talk. In G. I. Downey and J. Dumit, (Eds.), Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies.
Huber, Mary Taylor, & Morreale, Sherwyn P. (Eds). (2002). Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground. Washington
D.C.: American Association for Higher Education and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
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Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Souberman (Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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