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The Status of SoTL in Sociology: Background, Support, Involvement, and Characteristics

by Kathleen McKinney, Professor of Sociology and Cross Endowed Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Emeritus, Illinois State University

This post is part of a series of posts on this blog about the status of SoTL in various disciplines. My focus is on the discipline of sociology and, primarily, in the United States. I briefly summarize a sampling of what we know about the background of as well as recent disciplinary support for, involvement in, and characteristics of SoTL in sociology. I leave it to others to post additional information on the status of SoTL in sociology in the U.S. and especially in other nations.

Background: As noted by several scholars, there is a long history of scholarly teaching and SoTL in sociology (Howard 2010; Howery 2002; Marx and Eckberg 2005; Mauksch and Howery 1986; McKinney and Howery 2007). These traditions in the discipline go back at least to the early 1970s and, thus, pre-date the formal use of the terms ‘scholarly teaching’ and ‘SoTL’ by key writers in the general, cross-discipline field of SoTL (e.g., Boyer 1990; Hutchings and Shulman 1999; Rice 1991, 1992; Shulman 1993). The first iteration of the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) section on teaching began in the early 1920s and the 45th volume of the ‘modern’ section newsletter was published this year. Our peer-reviewed pedagogical journal, Teaching Sociology (TS), was first published in 1973. In 1980, Goldsmid and Wilson published a classic text titled Passing on Sociology: The Teaching of a Discipline. As early as the mid 1980’s sociologists were writing about the need to make teaching more public and the relationships between teaching and research (Baker 1980, 1985, 1986; Gelles 1980; Halasz and Kaufman 2008; Kain 2006; Mauksch 1986). Others were applying sociological ideas to SoTL (e.g., Billson 1986; Pescosolido and Aminzade 1999).

More recently, sociologists have discussed definitions of SoTL and relationships with other concepts or areas in our discipline (Atkinson 2001; Hanson 2005; Kain 2005; McKinney 2005). Within sociology there is SoTL; that is, local, practioner research often at the level of the individual classroom and usually in higher education. We also have the Sociology of Education, generally a more macro level sub-field that often has a policy emphasis at the K-12 level. Atkinson, Buck, and Hunt (2009) have suggested there could be a subarea of SoTL in the discipline called the Sociology of the College Classroom or SoCC. Most SoTL in sociology is context-specific and based on an individual classroom or course. Thus, perhaps different from some but similar to many other disciplines, a validated, integrated, and synthesized, body of general findings about teaching and learning in sociology does not exist. Various forms of support for SoTL in the discipline (see examples below) have been in place for decades and have increased to some degree over time.

In their special issue of TS on “The Sociology of the College Classroom,” Rusche, Macomber, and Atkinson, (2009) included papers that explicitly used conceptual ideas, theories, and/or research habits of sociology in SoTL projects. Others have argued, however, that sociologists themselves often fail to use relevant sociological methods, theories and concepts in understanding their teaching or in conducting SoTL research (Atkinson, Buck, and Hunt 2009; Baker 1985). Discussions of possible contributions from the discipline of sociology to SoTL in other disciplines have been presented at ISSOTL (McKinney, Albers, Fanghanel, and Messineo 2009) and shared in a SoTL journal of another discipline¾psychology (McKinney, Atkinson, and Flockhart 2017). Such potential disciplinary contributions include use of the following: the sociological imagination to design and interpret SoTL research; concepts and models about interaction, small groups, social structure, inequality, etc. in SoTL studies; a variety of quantitative and qualitative social science research methods to conduct SoTL research; and more macro levels of analysis in SoTL projects.

Support: Support for SoTL in sociology occurs at department and disciplinary association levels. The degree of support at the level of the academic department is difficult to determine. As far as I know, no one has yet gathered systematic data on this specific topic. Based on years of observation and discussion, I believe support at the department level is still variable and inconsistent. In the ASA taskforce report on the undergraduate major, first released in 2004, recommendation #11 reads “Support faculty engagement in disciplinary research, the scholarship of teaching and learning, pedagogical innovation, and relevant service” (Pike, et al. 2017:5). At the level of regional and national professional organizations, moderate support for SoTL does exist through a range of processes and structures including conference workshops and presentation sessions, small grant opportunities, editor-reviewed online repository of teaching materials, SoTL awards, sections or interest groups, and publication outlets. See Table 1 in McKinney (2018, in press) for a list of more specific SoTL supports in sociology.

It should be noted, however, that the percentage of SoTL articles published in TS that had grant support¾of any form or level¾was only 11-12 percent of papers (Grauerholz 2008; Paino et al. 2012). In addition, of the thirteen total regular plenary sessions at the 2015, 2016 and 2017 ASA annual meetings, for example, none dealt with SoTL, scholarly teaching or teaching and learning from a sociological (or any) perspective. Some regional sociological societies, however, have highlighted teaching and scholarly teaching in some of their conference themes. Finally, disciplinary association grants for SoTL provide significantly fewer resources than do similar grants for traditional disciplinary research. In 2016, for example, ASA awarded four “Carla B. Howery Teaching Enhancement Grants” totaling $10,000 but eight “Funds for the Advancement of the Discipline Grants” totaling almost $60,000.

Involvement: We have some recent data on involvement in SoTL including rank of authors, types of institutions, and levels of productivity. Marx and Eckberg (2005) studied involvement in sociology SoTL based on publications in TS in the 1990s. They found that 43 percent of authors/co-authors were from sociology PhD granting schools, 38 percent from BA programs, and 19 percent from Masters programs. When controlling for the number of faculty in such programs, however, they find the rates of publication by program type to be more similar. They also note that authors tend to be from a limited number of highly SoTL-productive, diverse institutions that differ in a couple of ways from comparable institutions. The SoTL-productive schools were more likely to be public institutions –possibly due simply to their larger number of faculty– and to have larger undergraduate enrollments.  Eighty-six percent of TS contributors in that decade authored or co-authored only one TS publication and only three percent published more than two. Sixty-one percent of the departments represented in TS publications in the 1990s are represented by only one author/individual and another 23 percent by two.

Paino et al. (2012) analyzed TS articles from 2000-2009. Their results were quite similar to those for articles published a decade earlier. They reported that 87 percent of authors published only once in that timeframe; 71 percent of departments were only represented by one paper; and 54 percent of the papers were single-authored. In addition, they found that twenty-four percent of authors were full professors and 22 percent were associate professors. Finally, about half of both first authors and all authors came from PhD degree granting institutions and about one-quarter of both categories of authors were from Masters’ degree granting institutions.

Characteristics: A few recent studies have focused on the characteristics of sociology SoTL including context of the study, methods used, topic areas, and applications. Grauerholz (2008), for example, looked at papers published in TS between 2004 and 2008. She found that the most common context of these papers (58%) was the authors’ teaching experiences in their own classroom. More than half of the research used multiple measures of teaching and learning, though self/student-reported learning was most common. In addition, she reported that both quantitative and qualitative methods were used but few of the studies involved either pre/post-tests or control groups. Similarly, Paino et al. (2012) looked at notes and articles in TS published from 2000 to 2009. They reported that 50 percent of these SoTL studies involved more than one class; seven percent more than one campus; and three percent more than one discipline. In addition, 96 percent of the papers offered empirical data and most used multiple measures. Self-assessment of learning and direct measures of learning were the most common, followed by student satisfaction measures.

Sweet and Cardwell (2016) had a different focus analyzing the topic areas of SoTL notes and articles that were classroom applications and published in TS from 2009 to 2015. The most common topic areas were those key to the perspectives and levels of analysis in sociology. That is, 42 percent were about teaching and learning related to inequalities and stratification. Other areas of content focus in SoTL studies in sociology included theory and knowledge science; culture; life course and family; social change and politics; research methods; and social psychology (in decreasing amounts ranging from 12% to 5%).

A final characteristic of SoTL work is the extent to which the results or implications are applied (or such applications are suggested) beyond the original study or context or population. McKinney (2004) looked at ‘results’ and ‘discussion/conclusion’ sections in articles published in TS in two, non-consecutive years. She assessed whether there was explicit mention of such application of the SoTL findings and concluded that such mention was found in only a minority of the papers. Finally, based on the analysis of syllabi of strong teachers in the discipline, Grauerholz and Gibson (2006) concluded that pedagogies used by sociologists do not, necessarily, reflect or apply what is known about best practices in teaching based on SoTL and educational research.

Conclusion: Thus SoTL in sociology has a long and active history. I believe integration of SoTL in my discipline is moderate and has improved over time. I also believe we could do better in supporting SoTL, seeing it as legitimate and of equal value to traditional sociological research, and increasing the breadth and depth of involvement by individuals, teams, and departments. As I have noted in a discussion of increasing integration of SoTL in sociology (McKinney 2018, in press), “I do think some general mechanisms have more promise than others at this juncture, including choosing leaders who support¾or educating and co-opting leaders to support¾SoTL; using social change strategies involving both grassroots and top-down techniques; socializing future generations of graduate students and new faculty to the value of SoTL before or at the start of their careers; linking SoTL to existing priorities of the discipline at various levels; connecting more sociology SoTL colleagues to the networks, organizations and activities of the international, cross-discipline SoTL field; conducting and using SoTL beyond an individual classroom level; and stressing and rewarding a focus on application and impact of SoTL results in the discipline. All of these, I believe, can help to make SoTL normative and expected in sociology.”


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