Monday 14 August 2017

SOTL in the South conference – deliberations on language
by Shashi Cullinan Cook

The ‘SOTL in the South’ conference that took place in late July in Johannesburg was a thought-provoking platform for researchers to raise questions about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in African, Asian and Latin-American contexts. The discussions that interested me most at the conference were those that involved language and naming, since these topics repeatedly arise in the South African context in which I work. This is due to the fact that the country has eleven official languages, and because English is the predominant language of business and of the academy, which continuously raises questions about knowledge and power in our post-colonial context.

The issue of language repeatedly arose during the conference - often in relation to the social and cultural conventions associated with the language one speaks, and the implications of this for SOTL researchers. For example, in the pre-conference workshop ‘Ethical considerations when researching with or about students’, Dr Dudu Jankie of the University of Botswana stressed the importance of using respectful, context-appropriate greetings when interviewing research participants. In Jankie’s experience, many research participants had found the academics they encountered incredibly rude. Jankie also strongly advocated that academics should moderate their use of jargon for the participants involved in the research, so that the goals of academic projects are very clear to all involved.

Dr Kershney Naidoo and session chair Brenden Gray
Language and learning
I also attended Dr Kershney Naidoo’s presentation ‘Bridging the gap: the first year paradigm shift’ during which she shared some of the research she has undertaken with Carel Oosthuizen at the University of Pretoria. In this research context, students have the option of a language translator for their lectures. However, surprisingly, Naidoo noted that it was difficult to say for certain that this additional benefit significantly assisted students with their learning.

The concept of SOTL
Some interesting questions about naming arose in relation to the term ‘SOTL’. Some of the conference attendees prefer using the term SOLT (Scholarship of Learning and Teaching). I can understand this stance, since I consider teaching to be the most significant learning experience I have ever had. For me, the concept of learning is more important than the concept of teaching and should therefore be more prominent. I also try to keep in mind that there is power associated with the ‘teacher’ position and that this may shift when learning is prioritised over teaching. In a discussion on the future of the SOTL in the South conference, Prof Peter Looker stated that he had in fact been suggesting for years that this phrase should simply be the “Scholarship of Learning”. I am sure this debate has arisen many times at SOTL meetings since the advent of the field, but I am relatively new to the field of SOTL, and it still seems an important question.

Prof Brenda Leibowitz
Part of the emphasis on language and naming at this conference was this was probably because the name of the conference highlighted the geopolitics of ‘the global South’. Prof Brenda Leibowitz explained that the conference title was intended to spark debate on the ‘North-South’ SOTL dynamic, and about teaching and learning in ‘the global south’ more generally. Disclaimer: I am now going to throw around the terms ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ with unforgivable abandon. Please forgive me; I am just trying to summarise the gist of the debates at the conference.

Before the conference, I was aware that contexts from the ‘global South’ may share a number of common characteristics. This term usually refers to Asian, Latin-American or African contexts, but these do not necessarily have to be in the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, they may share various characteristics common to postcolonial contexts, such as concerns about power and its relationship to knowledge or resources. However, what was interesting was that very few of those who attended or spoke at the conference seemed to view the ‘global South’ through the lens of deficit thinking. Rather, there was a certain excitement and sense of potential at the realisation that there were aspects of the ‘southern SOTL’ discussed at the conference that seemed to address many of the problems that had dogged ‘northern SOTL’ for some years, as well as the potential to identify SOTL approaches that are more appropriate to contexts in the global South.

Zach Simpson and Prof Peter Looker
In the abstract to his keynote speech ‘Bringing context back into SOTL: the cultural, material and ideological considerations in learning and teaching in higher education’, Prof Peter Looker questioned “why SoTL practice, conferences, and publications [had] focused for so long on a narrow range of Anglophone countries”. During his keynote presentation on Thursday 27 July, Looker referred to ‘northern SOTL’ as “chasing its tail”, because of the tendency of ‘northern’ SOTL researchers to ignore important cultural factors in the context of their studies in the interests of generalising their studies. Looker mentioned that some of his most reliable teaching methods had failed while he was working in Singapore because of cultural factors and approaches to group discussion that he was (initially) totally unaware of because of his ‘Western’ background.

Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela 
Looker’s words echoed Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela’s references to her experiences at northern conferences on SOTL, at which there was little interest in the particularities of southern SOTL. In the abstract in her keynote address, Guzmán-Valenzuela also stated that a study of publications on Latin-American (LA) SOTL showed that it tended to adapt northern approaches “which are then nuanced to understand or explain a specific LA context” rather than to generate new knowledge grounded in the specifics of the area. This seems to be an avenue for knowledge-making that could be explored over the next few years and at future ‘southern SOTL’ conferences. It may be problematic to continue thinking polemically about the North/South dynamic, but I noticed that during both of these keynote addresses there were many murmurs of agreement from the audience. It gave me the sense that Looker and Guzmán-Valenzuela were not alone in feeling discontent about a geopolitical imbalance in the SOTL discourses, or at least that there is a recognition of the commonality of some of our experiences of SOTL. Ultimately, it seems that the construct of ‘SOTL in the South’ is a provocative one which will generate healthy debate for some years to come. 

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