Learning from Experience: Why Personal Narratives Can Be Scholarly

How much can we learn from each other’s experiences? A lot, but there are reasons to be cautious. Sometimes what’s been learned from an experience, or set of experiences, is wrong. That’s true whether the learning is about teaching or life.

Pedagogical scholarship has been criticized for its focus on experience. A faculty member has an issue with students (say they aren’t doing the reading), implements a solution (some sort of quizzing mechanism), and decides it works because the quiz scores are high. Thanks to the scholarship of teaching movement, these kinds of reports are pretty much gone from the literature. The goal has been to replace them with research—various forms of systematic inquiry.

Now, if you read this blog, you know that I’m a big fan of research. We’ve learned a lot about teaching and learning from research, both that done by professionals in the field of education (and its related subfields) and by discipline-based faculty who now systematically “study” their practice. Teaching can and should be evidence-based. We need research scholarship that advances what we know and confirms how we practice.

But I think we’ve gone too far in our preference for scholarly work on teaching and learning that is research based. Responding to an analysis of work on teaching and learning being done in the fields of theology and religion (other disciplines have also done reviews like this), Stephen Brookfield, noted author and advocate of reflective critical thinking, challenges these fields (and the rest of us) to consider “scholarly personal narratives.” These are critical, reflective, introspective analyses of teaching experiences. As Brookfield acknowledges, they are accounts of what happened to one teacher, sometimes in one class, during one semester. But what that one teacher experienced may have happened to many of us and that teacher’s incisive critique of how he or she responded to an unfolding situation, the analysis prompted by the experience, what was learned from it, and the change and growth that resulted—that type of account becomes a learning ladder that readers ascend right along with the author.

I recently came across one of the most compelling personal narratives I’ve read in a long time (and when you have a monthly newsletter to fill and a blog to post every week, you read a lot). It’s the story of one teacher’s journey to a new kind of teaching. The author, Joseph Gonzalez, starts with an admission. The students in his classes don’t want to be there. He describes his role in those courses as “pedagogic dentistry, with me the puller of teeth.”

He decides to try a different approach, but as he implements new activities he makes mistakes, which he names and describes. The journey was neither short nor painless. His brutal honesty is refreshing. You forget you’re reading an article as he recounts what happened. The descriptions are vivid. There’s action, conflict, and a real plot in this story. But even though it’s an enjoyable read, it is not anything like mindless entertainment. This is a learning journey made scholarly by the depth of his insights and by an awesome command of the literature. He doesn’t list references because articles are expected to have them. He tells you what he learned from the literature and follows that with how he applied what he learned.

I highlight more of the article’s content in the November issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter. But I really hope you’ll track it down so you can read it in its entirety (see reference below). It vividly shows that there are ways to think and write about experiences that are scholarly and provide readers with rich learning experiences. We shouldn’t underestimate what can be learned from our own experiences and those of others. And we shouldn’t imagine for a moment that is always an easy, second class kind of learning. The learning that results from experience can profoundly impact those who write and those who read. When it does, it merits a place in the scholarship of teaching.

References: Gonzalez, J. J. (2013). My journey with inquiry-based learning. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24 (2), 33-50.

Killen, P. O. and Gallagher, E. V. (2013). Sketching the contours of the scholarship of teaching and learning in theology and religion. Teaching Theology and Religion, 16 (2), 107-124.

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