Why Should I Care About SOTL?

The Professional Responsibilities of Post-Secondary Educators

in International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 1, No.1, Jan. 2007. http://www.georgiasouthern.edu/ijsotl/dl.htm

         “The art of life is (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better.”

Alfred North Whitehead,  The Function of Reason (1929)

The art of teaching is to teach, to teach well and to teach even better.

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Shannon Kincaid, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,

The City University of New York



Over the last decade, there has been a tremendous growth in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) in post-secondary education.  Yet, apart from a few significant exceptions, there has been very little discussion of the role this scholarship is to play in the professional activities of post-secondary educators. 

This work advances the argument that, regardless of academic discipline, all faculty members have a basic professional obligation to both maintain a familiarity with current research and scholarship in SOTL and to participate in pedagogical research that contributes to SOTL.  Thus, contrary to the opinion of many post-secondary educators, SOTL is not an isolated slice of scholarly research, but is a fundamental obligation of all college and university professors.   

Keywords:  Ethics, Pedagogical Research, Post-Secondary Education, Professional                          Responsibilities


In the midst of the growing interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, there are those individuals who actively engage in the production of scholarly research in pedagogical effectiveness and assessment.  The efforts of these scholars are in part driven by the interests of administrators, who have invested heavily in the development of research centers at college campuses around the world.  This administrative interest in SOTL is driven by many factors, including the continued emphasis on recruitment and retention.

Yet there is a third group of individuals, who while not necessarily opposed to SOTL, tend to see themselves as disinterested third parties in the growth of this type of scholarship.  These individuals teach their classes and participate in discipline-specific research and scholarship.  From their perspective, SOTL is seen as interesting “slice” of campus-wide scholarship, but one which does not have much bearing on the professional activities of most post-secondary educators.

These attitudes are often reflected in the literature of SOTL itself.  While much has been said about improving pedagogical effectiveness and developing effective methods for assessment, there has been very little said about the relationship between SOTL and the professional responsibilities of post-secondary educators. 

This work addresses this by arguing that research in SOTL is a fundamental responsibility of all professional educators, post-secondary faculty included.  As a professional educator, college professors must strive continually to improve pedagogical effectiveness not only to fulfill duties to students, their respective institutions and society, but also to further the profession itself.  That striving entails the duties of all teaching faculty to stay informed of current research in SOTL and to conduct original pedagogical research. 

Section 1: Education as a Profession

The argument for an obligation on the part of professors to engage in SOTL is predicated on the recognition of post-secondary education as a profession.  In theory as well as in practice there are far too few faculty of colleges and universities who identify themselves as educators in interactions with others.  Educators at the post-secondary level tend to identify as members of a specific discipline (philosopher, sociologist, etc.) rather than “educator.”  Few write “teacher” or “educator” in the box asking for “profession” on forms.  

Post secondary educators have unique status as members of two professions: both professional scholars and professional educators.  This dual identity has significant implications for the career of post-secondary faculty including duties that many college faculty members simply do not (or will not) accept.  These duties include but are not limited to the professional duty to conduct original research and experimentation in pedagogy. Thus, the claim that there is a second profession fully equal to the other is a strong claim that requires demonstration. This identification as “professional” educator is uncomfortable to many faculty members, and given their academic preparation, rightly so.  Many respond to attempts to present their dual identities with an understandable exasperation: ”Don’t we have enough to do without having to worry about our status as professional educators and duties and obligations stemming from that status?”


What is a profession, and are college professors “professional” educators?  While it is obvious to most that there are professions exactly what constitutes a profession is not as clear.  There are a number of characteristics of a profession.  The more any form of association demonstrate these characteristics then the more likely people will think of it as a profession and the more people who think of it as a profession the more society will do so and do so formerly creating laws that will so label the association a “profession” and with that recognition the professional responsibilities towards society for which the profession is granted a degree of autonomy in regulating its affairs.  Education has achieved that recognition.

An association is a profession when its members are those who: are educated or prepared for entry into the profession, apply for membership, profess that they are members, and pledge to abide by the ethical and professional standards set by the community, engage in the activities of the profession, maintain status in the profession, submit to evaluation as a member of the profession( to maintain status or be elevated within or removed from such), contribute toward the maintenance of the profession, and forward the progress of the profession thus making a contribution to society.

It is not at all difficult to illustrate how faculties satisfy these criteria.  Of note is that educators contribute to the progress of their profession by disseminating what they have learned and can serve to make educators better at what they do through repeating the success or avoiding the failures at instruction of colleagues in the profession.  Collectively educators set the standards to be observed by members and make note when they are not so observed.  This is done with respect for Academic Freedom which is also an expression of the collective right of the profession.  These rights are recognized by the general society so that the potential value added to society by the profession can be realized.  Education increases the intellectual resources of society which furthers that which is needed for social cohesion and progress.

In his Professional Ethics, Michael D. Bayles identifies a profession as an activity which satisfies the following criteria:

Necessary Conditions of a Profession

1.      Extensive training

2.      Significant intellectual component

3.      Provision of important service to society

Common Features of a Profession

1.      certification and/or licensing, both external and internal

2.      organization of members

3.      professional autonomy[1] 

Bayles then distinguishes between two fundamental categories of profession: Consulting and Scholarly.  The criteria for the consulting professions are: 

·         Individual clients

·         Provision of a service related to basic values [of society]

·         Monopoly or near monopoly

·         Self regulation[2]

Professionals in the first category include (but are not limited too) physicians, attorneys, social workers, and architects.  The second category includes the salaried professions.  This category includes teachers, engineers, scientists, and journalists.

Yet the “profession of professor” in some ways transcends these categories, and demonstrates the limits of the Bayles’ consulting/scholarly distinction.  And his distinction, while important, cannot capture fully the unique roles of the post-secondary educator.  In other words, professors are not professional scholars and researchers dabbling in “amateur” pedagogy, and they do not have the option of ignoring pedagogy and SOTL.  This point is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO):

“Teaching in higher education is a profession: it is a form of public service that requires of higher education personnel expert knowledge and specialized skills acquired and maintained through rigorous and lifelong study and research; it also calls for a sense of personal and institutional responsibility for the education and welfare of students and of the community at large and for a commitment to high professional standards in scholarship and research.”[3]

As a professional educator subject to these sorts of ethical obligations, the college professor must not only have expert training in their discipline; they must also commit to the larger set of responsibilities stemming from their role as educators.  All professors teach, whether they stand in front of a roomful of freshman or supervise graduate research.  And as professional educators, they have an obligation to participate in pedagogical research. 

Section II:  The Professor as Professional Educator

While some professors might reject being characterized as professional educators, there are numerous examples of the degree to which college professors do accept this characterization.  College faculty are quick to resist efforts to influence their selection of texts, teaching devices, methodologies and instructional design claiming, and rightly so.  

It has long been the prerogative of individual faculty members to decide “how” to teach their courses, and to make these judgments on their experience, the learners they are dealing with, their own teaching styles and the context in which they are offering instruction.  They assert that it is their right to make such decisions. Invoking a right to pedagogical decision-making is not a product of a specific academic discipline; it is the result of prerogatives vested in professional educators who are given the right, and often the exclusive right, to make academic judgments as to what produces the most effective pedagogy. 

As professionals, faculty members are subject to strict codes of conduct and ethical standards in the classroom.  The American Association of University Professors has policy statements and a Code of Professional Ethics that relate to members of the professoriate as educators and scholars.   The following is excerpted from the AAUP “Statement on Professional Ethics:”

“Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge… They protect their academic freedom…As members of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars…[4]           

An important implication of this requirement to be “effective teachers and scholars” is that professional educators engage in an effort to improve upon the effectiveness of pedagogical practices.  Thus, post-secondary educators must strive to teach, to teach well, and to teach even better.

Instructors might teach well, but, students change, and thus a need to make adjustments to address those changes.  There will be changes in the academic disciplines being taught, and in pedagogical approaches to different subjects and disciplines.  Instructors at any level and in any type of institutional setting who do not vary the content or the manner of their instruction over years, even decades, are not teaching well.

The responsibility to further the profession exists not only for effective teaching but also with mentoring and support of colleagues, particularly novitiates.  The supportive relationship of educator to professional colleague partly fulfills the duty to improve pedagogical effectiveness.

The preparation and practice of educators will vary with disciplines and institutions of higher learning. Professionals may not always hold peers accountable to the same degree. They may vary in requiring, evaluating and enforcing the fulfillment of responsibilities, but these variations do not dissolve obligations. 

The responsibilities of professional educators vary in degree with the institutional setting, the level of education, and the discipline. At the level of post secondary education there operates a set of unique circumstance and considerations.  Thus, there exist both additional obligations and a different manner in which the obligations common to all levels of education are fulfilled. 

The responsibilities of professional educators are generated both from duties an educator acquires through voluntary entry into the profession and the basic human obligation to cause no harm.  It is the latter that serves as a check on the potential excesses a professional might commit in overzealous attempts to serve the interests of the profession while losing sight of the wider set of basic interests of those served by the profession and their basic rights, including that of not being harmed. 

Section III:  Split Personalities:  The Professor as Scholar and Educator

Discussions of pedagogy and research in post-secondary inevitably raise issues of workload.  Do professors have an obligation to conduct pedagogical research above and beyond their duties to conduct scholarly research, write, publish, present, teach, grade, design courses, advise, mentor, as well as serve on committees and contribute to the community?  It is a hectic profession, and Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass rightly recognize the implications of an increased administrative emphasis on pedagogy in colleges and universities.  Bernstein and Bass attempt to provide terms and contexts in which conversations about workload might take place.  But they note that work done as SOTL…

“…may not be, in the end, quite like any other kind of work in the academy: it is a hybrid between teaching and research, it is both local and cosmopolitan, and it is both individual and collaborative. Accommodating ourselves and our institutions to the scholarship of teaching and learning (by whatever name) may require our coming to terms with this uniqueness and finding new structures and practices for it.”[5]

Advances in disciplines and in technology, and the changing role of the university in contemporary society have had profound effect on faculty workload.  Further, at many colleges, tenure and promotion decisions are based on scholarly achievement, teaching, and college service and the teaching portion of this triad is often judged solely on the basis of student and peer evaluations, if not simply on a lack of student complaints. This is likely to be significantly altered as SOTL changes concepts and evidence of effective teaching.  Faculty, particularly at teaching institutions, now need to demonstrate clear evidence of pedagogical research and a commitment to improvement in pedagogical methods.  This significant change can only be reasonably expected of and accepted by faculty if the notion of “scholarship” is enlarged to include SOTL.  They argue this means recognizing the need for disseminating SOTL and the importance of doing so through expanded notions of publication and college service.

To produce SOTL and the advancement of pedagogy there is the duty to explore more effective pedagogies through experimentation and this is fulfilled in both formal and informal ways.  Experimentation can be conducted for one’s own sake and without the intent for widespread dissemination and without all of the formal criteria for an experiment being satisfied. Such experiments can involve just one group of learners and may involve no more than the change of a lesson plan or textbook or the redesign of a curriculum or a change in a teaching method or device.   On the other hand, educators enter into the design and conduct of the most formal types of experimentation with human subjects with all the rigor of scientific investigation, the results of which are intended to be widely disseminated and to be replicated by other researchers in other locations. 

As part of educational professionalism there is the duty to communicate the results of formal or informal pedagogic research and this can be accomplished through means of dissemination that are formal or informal.  There are a myriad of methods for informal dissemination that are engaged in by most educators that includes corridor conversations, luncheon discussions, presentations at departmental meetings or professional societies and the like.  Formal dissemination would take place through publication in print and electronic journals and through collegial review including blind review. 

Lee Shulman, of the Carnegie Foundation, speaks of the “pedagogic imperative” that includes the obligation to inquire into the consequences work with learners. For Shulman “teaching is an intentional, designed act undertaken to influence the minds of others, and change the world in an intensely intimate, socially responsible manner.”[6] He states that brings with it “inexorable responsibilities” and argues that educators can teach with integrity only if they make efforts to examine their efficacy as educators.  Educators are responsible for the efficacy of what they do as educators, regardless of the level of education.

Section IV. Conclusion

While it is important to provide students with knowledge necessary for competency, a college education must also provide students with the ability to analyze, to understand, and to apply the theories, practices and values learned in the classroom to the labs, classrooms, boardrooms, and the offices of their respective occupations. Faculty, as dual professionals, are also responsible for conveying a commitment to inquiry, in both their respective academic disciplines and in pedagogy. In accomplishing the latter faculty need to review the effectiveness of instruction and devise and apply innovations to maintain and advance effectiveness in light of changing circumstances and to report findings. On these grounds, SOTL is a fundamental obligation of all post-secondary educators who, as professionals, want to teach, teach well, and teach even better.

[1] Michael D. Bayles, Professional Ethics, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1981. p.  3 

[2] ibid.

[3] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel.” 11 November 1997.  http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13144&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

[4] AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics.  1966. www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/statementonprofessionalethics.htm

[5] Dan Bernstein and Randy Bass, ” The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning”,  Academe , Volume 91, Number 4, July-August 2005.  pp. 37-43

[6] Pat Hutchings, ed. Ethics of Inquiry, Issues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Menlo Park, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  2002.  p. v


Philip Pecorino teaches philosophy and ethics at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.  If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact him at ppecorino@qcc.cuny.edu.