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Examining Teaching & Learning through the Lenses of the Arts & Humanities

By Beth Marquis, McMaster University, Canada

(this blog appears courtesy of Beth and SoTL Canada, for whom the blog was written this month)

In a previous post on the SoTL Canada website, Brad Wuetherick invited readers to join a ‘growing conversation’ about arts- and humanities-informed approaches to the scholarship of teaching and learning. On April 10, 2014, scholars from across Canada convened at McMaster University to take up this call.

In partnership with Teaching and Learning Canada, as well as the Office of the President and the School of the Arts at McMaster, the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (MIIETL) was thrilled to host its inaugural SoTL through the Lenses of the Arts & Humanities Symposium. Recognizing the ongoing marginalization of arts and humanities approaches within many SoTL circles, this one-day event sought to create a space to consider the potentially unique ways in which the methods, theories, and epistemologies of arts and humanities disciplines can contribute to understandings of teaching and learning, and ultimately enhance student learning as a result. Importantly, it also aimed to enable the ongoing development of community and collaboration amongst scholars interested in these issues, and thus to contribute to the further development of arts- and humanities-informed SoTL work.

The program for the day featured a wide range of papers, presentations and workshops that took up the symposium theme and/or shared examples of relevant SoTL projects. To kick things off, Dr. Nancy Chick – assistant director at the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University and a well-known champion of humanities SoTL – offered an inspiring keynote presentation in which she shared fascinating examples of arts- and humanities approaches to teaching and learning inquiry, and encouraged attendees to draw meaningfully on the ways of knowing, thinking, doing, and expressing common to their fields when approaching SoTL questions.

Following Nancy’s lead, scholars from nine Canadian universities (Brock, Concordia, Dalhousie, Emily Carr, McMaster, Mount Royal, Saskatchewan, Waterloo, and Windsor) subsequently engaged participants in sessions on topics ranging from the importance of asking philosophical questions about commonly accepted approaches to teaching, learning and SoTL, to the potential for deploying ‘story circle’ processes used in popular theatre to enable embodied, reflective accounts of teaching and learning practices. Presenters also took up issues such as strategies for teaching students to develop disciplinary thinking and other desired outcomes in particular arts and humanities fields, and the use of arts-related approaches within social sciences courses or research contexts. The vigorous discussions and debates spurred by these sessions spilled over emphatically into breaks and the wine and cheese reception that wrapped up the event, reaffirming the vitality of the arts and humanities SoTL community in Canada and the significance of continuing to push for increased space for and recognition of their approaches within SoTL’s oft-discussed ‘big tent’.

Personally, as a humanist who has found myself engaging extensively in SoTL in recent years, I was expecting to find the symposium especially interesting and provocative. Nonetheless, I was surprised by just how invigorating the day actually was for me. Reflecting on this experience, and on the equally unexpected fact that people were willing to travel from as far as Halifax and Vancouver for a one-day event, I was struck by the ways in which these outcomes might point to a real need for continuing to create spaces within SoTL focused specifically on enabling and celebrating relatively marginalized approaches. To this end, I was thrilled to hear attendees suggesting that a ‘SoTL through the Lenses of the Arts and Humanities Symposium’ should be offered annually in Canada, and volunteering to host such an event at their own institutions. The upcoming special issue of the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning devoted to this topic will provide another welcome venue for this work.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but also look forward to a moment at which such disciplinarily-focused opportunities might no longer seem as pressing (though they should still be interesting and generative), to a day in which there is no longer the same felt need to argue for arts and humanities approaches because these approaches have become more centrally positioned within SoTL as a whole. As we continue the vital discussion in which the event described here sought to participate, this interplay between integration and the celebration of distinctive ways of knowing, doing and expressing ought to be an important part of the conversation.

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