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Changing Higher Education One Step at a Time

by Sherry Lee Linkon

Scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) can have an effect on multiple levels.  While SoTL can be a source of ideas and part of an individual scholarly agenda, it also has the potential to foster change on larger levels.  One person’s research can inspire a whole department to try new ways of working with students.  One department’s work can serve as a template for colleagues across campus.  A cluster of SoTL scholars in a single field can lead the way to transformation of teaching within a discipline.  And all of that work, on all of those levels, yields insights about teaching and learning that should be part of regional, national, and international discussions about higher education policy.  SoTL scholars can become public intellectuals, and together we can advocate for the importance of faculty and student voices in decision-making about the future of higher education.

If all of that sounds ambitious and challenging, it is.  But we can learn how to be effective advocates by listening to those who have already become leaders and organizers.  At the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) 2013 conference, four scholars from different disciplines, institutions, and countries shared their stories of becoming advocates for teaching and learning.


Their stories suggest several lessons for SoTL scholars who want to use their experience and knowledge as the basis for reaching out to colleagues and making a difference in campus and public policy.

  1. Start where people are – including yourself.  This is what Julie Reynolds did by talking with colleagues about their shared frustrations about undergraduate thesis projects.  The key is listening – to people’s stories, their problems, their visions.  If you listen well, you can identify shared issues and values that motivate people.
  2. Build connections to link individuals and to create networks.  Making change starts with creating relationships. Klara Bolander Laksov explained how a key step to making change in the medical school where she works was buying a really good coffee machine, which became a place for informal conversations that helped build relationships and share ideas.
  3. Share ownership.  In a strong network, effective leaders assure that many participants have opportunities to take responsibility.  In the process, participants become collaborators and embrace the work as their own.  Marian McCarthy illustrated this in her story about how faculty who have been through the SoTL training program at the University of Cork go on to become partners in new projects.
  4. Think big and think systematically.  Arshad Ahmad offered a powerful example of this in his comments, describing the work he and his colleagues at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education  are planning a global summit on higher education, which will include not just faculty and students but also business people, politicians, journalists, artists, and others.


Sherry Lee Linkon is Professor of English and Faculty Director of Writing Curriculum Initiatives at Georgetown University. She is the author of  Literary Learning: Teaching in the English Major (Indiana UP, 2011), New Working-Class Studies (w/ John Russo, Cornell/ILR Press, 2005), Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown (w/ John Russo, University of Kansas Press, 2002), and Teaching Working Class (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

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