Exploring Common Ground?

by: Karen Manarin, Mount Royal University

I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between research as a noun and research as a verb–along with the difference between research and scholarship, study and essay.

My preoccupation with these words can be traced to my disciplinary identity. I am an English professor, but more specifically, I am an English professor trained in literary studies who is engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning. As I explore what is happening in my classrooms using a combination of humanities-based methods (like close reading of student work) and social science methods (like semi-structured interviews with students), I recognize the value of the “trading zone” proposed by Huber and Morreale, where “scholars are busy simplifying, translating, telling, and persuading ‘foreigners’ to hear their stories and try their wares” (19). But I also recognize that the lingua franca of the scholarship of teaching and learning carries within it assumptions that discount my disciplinary goods.

Research as a Verb vs. Research as a Noun

“She researches her novel. Her novel is research.”

I suggest that SoTL practitioners from different disciplines are more likely to accept the first statement than the second. Why? What does that tell us about the assumptions embedded within the word “research”–That it is true? (but a novel can be true.) That it is replicable? (but SoTL studies usually aren’t.) That it is rigorous? (as if writing a good novel isn’t.) That it’s not empirical? That it can’t be proven?

Does this mean that all research into teaching and learning needs to be empirical? That real research contains a hypothesis, something that can be proven? How does this limit the types of inquiry we conduct and the questions we ask? How do these assumptions impoverish the trading zone?

Research vs. Scholarship

“Look,” some might say, “the novel may not be research, but it could certainly be her scholarship, and after all, we’re talking about the scholarship of teaching and learning, not research into teaching and learning.” Indeed, scholarship has a much broader meaning than research. People like Jennelle Kyd suggest that the scholar seeks knowledge, while the researcher creates it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIrUWOfEy7w As an English and SoTL scholar, I think seeking knowledge is an admirable goal, but Kyd also links scholarship to general interest as opposed to specific practice or area of inquiry. We could look to Boyer, whose four categories of scholarship: discovery, application, integration (later engagement), and teaching (later teaching and learning), started us off. But Boyer’s initial description of the scholarship of teaching is much closer to what many now call scholarly teaching, than what the scholarship of teaching and learning has become. He argued for “a more inclusive view of what it means to be a scholar–a recognition that knowledge is acquired through research, through synthesis, through practice and through teaching” (24). In its attempt to satisfy various stakeholders including tenure and promotion committees, our present-day scholarship of teaching and learning has drifted towards certain disciplines and away from others. Where is the SoTL trading zone located–on the borderlands, or in the capital (where humanities scholars are hopelessly provincial as they try to flog their wares)?

Study vs. Essay

As an English professor, I deal in essays. I teach them; I mark them; I write them. Until I became involved in SoTL, I had no idea that for some disciplines, essays are different from research studies. I am still not sure I fully understand the difference between a SoTL essay and a SoTL study. Both can, and I believe should, contain evidence; both can, and I believe should, contain reflection. Yet some journals have separate categories with different criteria. For some, the essay is worth less than the study, especially the “data-driven study,” whether with a qualitative or quantitative emphasis. But that is what I have to share in the trading zone– the essay as attempt or effort to understand teaching and learning more fully, even as I know that the attempt will be inadequate to represent the rich complexity of the classroom and even as I try again and again.

I will end this with a set of questions and an invitation for conversation: Are we exploring common ground? Is SoTL a trading zone, where practitioners “buy, beg, borrow, or steal the tools they need to do the job” (Huber and Morreale, 2002, 19)? If it is, does trade go in both directions?



Boyer, Ernest L. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco, CA: Carnegie Foundation, 1990.

Huber, Mary Taylor and Sherwyn P. Morreale, eds. Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground. Menlo Park, CA: Carnegie Foundation, 2002.

Kyd, Jennelle. “What is the difference between research and scholarship?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIrUWOfEy7w


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7 Responses to Exploring Common Ground?

  1. Thanks Karen for these important questions! An interesting musing for a cold day….

  2. Karen, yes! Wonderful close look at some important words and their implications. Thank you! –Nancy Chick

  3. Susan Conkling says:

    Interesting, Karen, and I especially like your last question. I, too, have recently been wondering about this–when did scholarship (schola being “school” in Latin and Ancient Greek and scholar referring to “student” or “student of”) and research (from French “to search (for)”) come to refer to similar things?

  4. I enjoyed your thoughts and analysis! Readers might be interested in my edited book w chapters on many related issues. McKinney, K. (Ed) 2012. SOTL in and across the Disciplines. Indiana University Press.

  5. Thanks for this post, Karen! I have thought a lot about whether or not we’re all speaking the same language when we ‘speak SoTL’. I’ve definitely thought about the meanings of the ‘R’ word vs the ‘S’ word to various disciplines, and I think Canada’s TCPS2 gives us a pretty good, inclusive definition of ‘research’ (cited in Gary Poole’s chapter in Kathleen McKinney’s book already mentioned here!) I’ve even thought a little about ‘study’ vs ‘essay’. But I haven’t thought about the noun vs verb question much and I will now!

  6. Jennifer Robinson says:

    Interesting meditation. Study and essay are also verbs, the former about actively acquiring knowledge and the latter about acting, trying out. To essay is to learn by doing, one might say, a definition we might want to revive!

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