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SoTL Spotlight: A Great Conference in Banff

Posted by on Monday, November 11, 2013 in Commentary.

SoTL Spotlightby Nancy Chick, CFT Assistant Director

Nancy is the author of a variety of SoTL articles and book chapters, as well as co-editor of two books on signature pedagogies and co-editor of Teaching & Learning Inquiry, the official journal of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL), with the Center for Teaching as its Editorial Office. “SoTL Spotlight” is her ongoing feature on the CFT website.

I’m on a plane from Calgary back to Nashville by way of Salt Lake City, reflecting on a fabulous conference, the 2013 Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) sponsored by Mount Royal University’s Institute for SoTL. I’m trying to identify what made it such a good experience. I go to plenty of conferences and tend to enjoy them and learn a great deal, but this one was different.

I had been invited as the opening keynote the conference, which meant a) I was more nervous than usual, but also b) I was finished with the “hard part” almost immediately after the conference began, leaving me to enjoy the rest of the time as a participant and learner.  And while I can find plenty of things that I might’ve done better in my keynote (it was at the end of a very long travel day and near my bedtime, so I wasn’t as sharp as I could’ve been; my nerves got the best of me in controlling my breathing, which affects “performance”), I’m okay with how it went. I loved writing that keynote: I was tasked with reflecting on SoTL’s accomplishments and contributions and then looking ahead to its next frontiers and new directions. How fun is that?  I recalled the sense of satisfaction I used to feel writing the narratives for my retention, then tenure and promotion, then post-tenure review, and then final promotion portfolios.  Taking stock like that can be very grounding.  That’s how it felt to write this kind of narrative about SoTL’s past and future.  But the conference for me was far more than that first night.

Walk with Margy along the Bow River

It was held in Banff, Alberta, Canada, a small town surrounded by the snow-covered Canadian Rockies, and it was snowing in town as well.  (Confession: I love the snow the way most people love the beach or a golf course.)  We were in a cozy lodge with fireplaces, chunky wood furniture, and excellent meals. Also, after searching high and low, I realized there were no desks in the rooms. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in a hotel room without a desk.  Imposed desklessness is almost like cell-phoneless: initial panic, followed by gratitude for the forced break.  But there was more.

I may have been the only person there from the United States, as it was a Canadian conference with people from many of the provinces. I would say the accents were lovely, but colleague Gary Poole (from Vancouver and also at the conference) would remind me that in fact I was the one with the accent. Indeed, I was!

I met some wonderful new colleagues and caught up with some dear “old” ones. (When I think about it, some of these connections may be only five or so years old, but they feel ancient, in the best of ways.)  On the shuttle from Calgary to Banff, I sat next to Kerry Ritchie and Genevieve Newton, two young faculty from the University of Guelph’s College of Biological Sciences. We had a warm conversation about our countries, the recent Canadian political scandal, our respective jobs, and then SoTL. Later, during the conference, I attended their sessions:

Program Descriptions of Kerry's & Genevieve's Presentations

  • Kerry presented with graduate student Daniel Jeffery on their project on using peer review of writing in a 120-student biology course.
  • Genevieve presented a poster about her work to assess the rigor of her exams and, when she found they weren’t as rigorous as she’d thought, her methods for ramping them up.

Both were impressive and gave me several specific ideas to bring back to campus. I was lucky to have connected with them. I also got to spend a little time with Gary, one of my favorite colleagues ever. (He and I co-edit Teaching & Learning Inquiry and work together like a ridiculously well-adjusted married couple. He’s also one of the five people I observe as often as I can because of the grace and humanity he brings to every interaction.)  I spent the most time with Margy MacMillan, a librarian at Mount Royal University whom I regularly see at a bigger annual conference.  Not only did we independently select almost all of the same sessions to attend, but at night and in the morning, we emailed back and forth sharing resources connected to the sessions and conversations of the day. She also took me on a nice little tour of the town and a walk in the snow by the nearly frozen Bow River during one lunch break (see photo above). But there was more.

I also attended every concurrent session and took breaks only with those on the schedule. I heard some important findings about students’ reading habits, learned a new analytical method, gained some good tips and research-based insights for conducting peer review of writing in classes, and read probably a dozen new articles cited in the sessions (peer review, phenomenography, curiosity theory, et al). I also live-Tweeted a few of the sessions. (See #banffsotl13 Tweets at the bottom of this page.)

One of my favorite spots at Banff Park Lodge

In between sessions and over meals, I had some comfortable and comforting conversations with folks I’d never met–about the classes we teach, about questions we share about the work of SoTL, about the differing roles within our positions, and the political headlines of the week.  Maybe it was the fireplaces, but I quickly felt like I will know these folks for a long time.

All of these reflections come in the wake of my preparations for the keynote, part of which was about the way people involved in SoTL interact with each other.  I’m going to explore a slice of that in my next post.  For now, I want to savor the experience of the weekend.

Tweets of #banffsotl13

(Scroll down: I’m “@DrChickLit.”)

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