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A Dance of Dichotomies: Developing a Personal Understanding of Scholarship

Narratives of scholarship

Deak Kirkham, School of Languages Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds 

This narrative of scholarship is a biographical account of the author’s journey in the scholarship of language teaching and learning. Framed within Felten’s (2013) characterisation of the scholarship of teaching and learning, it draws on three dichotomies to unpack some of the dynamics of the author’s developing and ongoing scholarly identity. 

KEYWORDS: narrative of scholarship, biography, dichotomy, scholarly identity  

This reflective piece is a biographical narrative of scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) in a language teaching context. After a brief specification of SoTL, which will serve as a reference point in some of what follows, I employ three dichotomies through which to narrativise my own journey into becoming a scholar of language learning and teaching. Each dichotomy takes the form of ‘X ~ Y’ where X and Y are the two opposing or in-tension poles of the dichotomy. The tilde in this formulation might be read as ‘and/ to(wards)’: it represents both an idealised balance between the two poles of the dichotomy as well as a process from the first to(wards) the second. The ‘and’ aspect of the dichotomy speaks for itself: a dichotomy can be thought of as some form of creative tension or dynamic opposition. The ‘to(wards)’, or process, aspect of the tilde symbol is the lens through which I examine my own scholarly journey as biography: each dichotomy captures a journey from a former attitude of mind to(wards) a second such that the creative tension of the dichotomy can be fully exploited and enjoyed.  

The notion of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), has been conceptualised in many ways. It tends to exist in an uneasy relationship with the term ‘research’ but may also resonate in clearer or muddier ways with (equally complex) concepts such as ‘practice’, ‘reflection’, ‘CPD’ and ‘identity’. Boyer’s (1990) seminal four-fold characterisation speaks to the polysemy, if not ambiguity of the term, the meaning of which of may remain elusive and the form of which ‘continues to be debated at colleges and universities’ (Glassick 2000). Much, therefore, has been written on this term, its value and applications, and no extensive review will be given here of the various formulations that have been proposed, their relationship and the problems they raise (see Simmons (2020) and Simmons and Marquis (2017) for succinct summaries). However, that scholarship can be considered a complex concept with competing understandings and complexities of application is a central assumption and motivation of this biography, which reports on the writer’s changing, and indeed developing, understanding of the term and how, perhaps, to go about doing it; this piece should therefore be read as a validation of the vagaries of the term ‘scholarship’ and the challenges it poses for those who seek to undertake it.  

As such, I shall resist the temptation to offer a definition, as this would seem to go against the exploratory tone of this piece; however, to set the stage for the narrative of scholarship which follows, consider Felten’s (2013) characterisation of scholarship as: (1) inquiry into student learning, (2) grounded in context, (3) methodologically sound, (4) conducted in partnership with students, and (5) appropriately public. For this piece, criteria 1, 2 and 4 may be most relevant. With this typology as a working specification, we turn to three dichotomies which I feel have shaped my own narrative of scholarship.  

As scholarship is by definition an intellectual endeavour (Felten’s characterisation uses the term ‘inquiry’ which is ‘methodologically sound’), it seems apt to begin with this construct. This concept will first be set alongside its perhaps less benign cousin, intellectualism. Then, in keeping with the dichotomous construction of each section of the biography, these two concepts will be set in relation to, and in tension and balance with, the notion of inhabiting.  

The intellect has been of central interest to philosophers for millennia. The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (204/5 - 270 CE), for example, saw intellect (or, indeed, ‘Intellect’) as one of three basic metaphysical principles alongside the One and the Soul. For Plotinus, the Intellect is an emanation from the One and repository of the Forms of his forerunner, Plato. More recently, cognitive science and neuroscience have sought more empirical answers to the nature of the intellect. Nevertheless, the faculty remains mysterious, despite experience yielding a strong set of intuitions as to its nature. Moreover, far from being a removed, even lofty, object of reverence, the intellect has been shown to be sensitive to and shaped by contextual factors resulting in a view of the intellect that is deeply social, interpersonal and emotional (e.g., Goleman 2006). It is this latter view which dovetails more cleanly with Felten’s characterisation of scholarship as ‘grounded in context’ and ‘conducted in partnership with students’.  

This distinction between a removed versus a contextualised operation of the mind may be how the term ‘intellect’ might be contrasted with ‘intellectualism’, with the latter therefore being imbued with a certain pejorative connotation. This semantic differentation seems to be present in some definitions of the two terms: although Merriam-Webster (2021) defines this latter term fairly neutrally: ‘devotion to the intellect or intellectual pursuits’. The Cambridge Dictionary (2021) seems to go further: ‘the ability to think about a subject in a detailed and intelligent way without involving [one’s] emotions or feelings’. The Collins Dictionary (2021) goes further still suggesting in its second definition that intellectualism may involve disregard for the emotion in thinking, and a sense that reason or rationality alone may suffice. Intellectualism seems to be an over-reliance on intellect, perhaps to the detriment of other dynamics. It may not be a wholly positive term in its connotations. It is this third sense which will be most relevant in the following discussion in which I reflect on my own conceptualisation of intellect and intellectualism in relation to the scholarship of language learning and teaching. 

I grew up in a milieu which I would describe as intellectualist in this third sense above: debate, argument and challenge, often around relatively obscure points of logic, were a staple of family interaction, with emotional concerns perhaps less foregrounded. In this environment, I developed a reliance, possibly an over-reliance, on intellect: that with intellect alone, all would be well. I carried this intellectualist attitude into university life (where it served me very well academically during four years’ study largely of theoretical linguistics) and then into life beyond (where it very quickly started serving me less well). When I came to start teaching, I had already learnt the limits of intellectualism; however, in thinking about scholarship, as a form of intellectual activity, this attitude has been harder to shed. 

In approaching scholarship in language teaching and learning, an exclusively intellectualist approach may not, I think, be the most valuable. Scholarship is radically contextualised: it must inhabit the context of the student (Felten’s criteria 1, 2 and 4) and go back out into a public world (criterion 5); scholarship of language teaching and learning emanates from and returns to very real-world contexts. In my own journey in scholarship, I have had to consider not so much the limits of intellectualism but its dangers; and to learn to embrace the embodiment and application of intellect to avoid tottering (back) into intellectualism. Although scholarship is by definition an inquiry of the intellect, an exclusively intellectualist approach, which may be useful in certain activities of the life of the mind, may not be appropriate for the scholarship of language learning and teaching, in which multiply-embedded contexts and practitioner experience play such a role.  

Consider, for example, the nature of the efficacy of written feedback on grammar errors. Truscott’s (1996) seminal treatment of the value of written corrective feedback (WCF) on certain errors of grammar questioned the efficacy of this well-established practice is an extensive and tightly argued article. The resultant - and voluminous – literature (e.g., Bitchener and Knoch 2008) bears witness not only to deeply held divergent views of WCF but also the necessity, indeed the inescapability, of embedding the discussion in the students’ context (c.f. Felten’s criteria) and in the aims and values of the teacher. This area of second language pedagogy, among many others, suggests to me that the field is intrinsically multiply contextualised and is indeed a prime exemplar of the epistemological position of contextualism (e.g., Rysiew 2020). The ramifications for my own conceptualisation of scholarship have been to seek a corrective to, or balancing principle of, intellectualism in my own scholarly journey: I have come to see the opposing side of the intellectual(ist) equation as to do with what I will term ‘inhabiting’. 

Inhabiting may be thought of as embodiment or ‘living in’: the mind is not alone or aloof or aloft but sits in, moves by means of and is fed by the body and senses. Such an embodiment refuses the abstract nature of intellectualism but invites an intellect which inhabits the real world. Here the processes of the mind do not stand apart from the reality of the classroom, the profession, professional identity, colleagues, the institution and wider society. Instead, these forces must be radically wrapped up in any scholarly thinking. Inhabiting also speaks to and provides a corrective for the independence that for me was fed by intellectualism: as we work with and for our students in a community of scholarship, there may be blurring of boundaries between one’s own thoughts and those of others (c.f. Ding 2020). 

Aside from the conceptual or ideological shift from intellectualism to integration, I have seen this process of inhabiting enacted in at least two practical ways in my own intellectual journey in SoTL, firstly with respect to my understanding of linguistics.  The difference of scholarly emphasis between the theoretical linguistics of my university training and scholarship of language teaching and learning have already been alluded to. However, in my ongoing reading of and writing about linguistic theory, both for itself and in relation to language pedagogy I have gradually felt increasingly distant from the Chomskyan view of language in which I was trained to a theoretical framework that explicitly celebrates embodiment, that of Cognitive Construction Grammar (CCxG) (e.g., De Knop and Gilquin 2016; Holme 2009; Tomasello 2005). By this I refer less to the rather dense prose in which Chomsky himself writes, and to the complex theoretical machinery in which the model is explicated, but more to Jackendoff’s (1990) critique of the Chomskyan paradigm on the basis of syntactico-centrism: that the doctrine of syntax as the sole generative component is not only not the optimum explanation but also robs linguistic theorising of key elements such as metaphor, polysemy and construal, all of which CCxG draws on far more richly. It always felt to me that the abstract element of Generativism under-emphasised the usage aspect of language – but it was this very abstractness and technical complexity that appealed to my penchant for intellectualism.  

This shift in my appreciation of cognitive aspects of linguistic theory is connected to a second shift: from pre-occupations about the role of complex grammatical constructions in adult second language learning to a wider range of interests including aspects of student identity, academic writing and teacher training and development. This in effect has been one way into, or at least towards, Felten’s first and second criteria, journeying from viewing language as abstract patterns to being part of cognition, social use and identity. That is not to say that my own earlier thinking about language did not include these perspectives at an intellectual level; more that in distancing myself from intellectualist views I have been better able to think about them in the context of pedagogical practice.  

The shift was first brought home to me in my first piece of collaborative scholarship (Hernandez and Kirkham 2015). Although a conceptually and methodologically relatively straightforward piece of work which simply involved a short series of post-course qualitative interviews with students, the aim of which was to obtain a more rounded array of responses to otherwise purely quantitative course feedback, the experience of working directly with students alongside a colleague was a revelatory one: far from framing language in abstract terms, this richly contextually grounded piece of work opened my eyes to the relative in-principle simplicity of engaging in some form of language teaching scholarship, but also of the value and importance of thinking seriously about one’s own teaching and the learning contexts in which one works. This inhabiting, although its ramifications have taken some time to dawn fully for me, was revelatory.  

To summarise, the notion of scholarship for me is now closer to thinking from, through, in and to a learning-teaching context where ideas are integrated with the educational world and inhabit a person living in that world. This shift has taken place not only in respect of how I may think about language but in a wider sense of moving away from intellectualism towards a greater sense of the human context in which thought is played out. In other words, some greater appreciation of Felten’s first and second criteria has emerged. That shift has meant learning to accept and understand that pure reason alone cannot triumph in this domain and that a profound sensitivity to the context, the self and the other (students, colleagues) is a more efficacious approach. Can or should one still ‘intellectualise’ in scholarly work? I don’t know. I think I still do, but I also think I know its limits; a context-integrated intellect is to be preferred. 

This second dichotomy may be thought of as an extension of the inhabiting intellect. The intellectual(ist) tendencies of earlier phases of my scholarship endeavours fitted neatly with a kind of adversarialism which are labelled here as ‘conflict and challenge’. Once again, the milieu in which I grew up and what I experienced as the somewhat combative nature of the discourse in my degree training left me with an understanding of thinking which sought, enjoyed and celebrated conflict and challenge. This is not unrelated to the theme of intellectualism discussed above, in my view; intellectualism may have a tendency to seek to win. An ideology of thought as conquest, victory is clearly one that may seek conflict and challenge.  

I suspect that in a field other than language pedagogy, this attitude of mind may have gone unchecked for some time. However, within language pedagogy, although controversy and difference of opinion are widespread on a range of issues, both the discipline itself and its tone may be less comfortable with conflict and challenge. The highly contextualised nature of teaching and reflection thereupon does not - rightly - permit practitioners or scholars easily to see truth as absolute in many elements of the field: certain phenomena in language learning may be thought of in objectivist terms: an example may be developmental hierarchies in Pieneman’s Processability Theory (Pieneman 2005), which are viewed manifestations of universal cognitive constraints on processing and retention; however, much of what constitutes the matter of classroom learning and teaching is multifactorial and context dependent. This is different, in my view, to (for example) theoretical linguistics where objectivist framings of questions such as the nature of form-function mappings in lexico-morphosyntax is justified. Moreover, for scholarship to be characterised as ‘inquiry into student learning’ (Felten’s first criterion) signifies that it is there primarily to effect change (ideally for the better) not merely to search out truth, whatever that may be.  

It is within language learning and teaching that my scholarship has, for the most part, taken place, and as such is not a purely theoretical enquiry but one grounded in the practice of supporting student learning. Therefore, in a shift somewhat analogous to that of the first dichotomy, my journey in the scholarship of language teaching and learning has moved from asking purely ‘what is right?’ towards the question ‘what may help?’. In more technical language, pre-occupations with ontology and epistemology, and a view that these constitute the be-all and end-all of the intellectual endeavour has morphed into additional concerns with efficacy and value.  To paraphrase, I have learnt to ask about and take interest in what may help the language learning and teaching community, both students and practitioners.  

At a practical level, part of this shift for me has come through collaboration. To date I have collaborated with six individuals, all but one has been for one project only; nevertheless, taken together, I have come to see the value of collaboration and how it anchors one in a wider community and enhances one’s contribution. And, while conflict and challenge may persist within the collaboration, and indeed beyond, the overarching idea is not one of antagonism, certainly not for its own sake, but one of creative co-working drawing on, and developing, each other’s strengths.  

In terms of Felten’s characterisation, this seems to me to speak most clearly to criteria 2 and 5. Criterion 2, the ambition that scholarship be grounded in context, may be achieved more effectively, for me, through collaboration: the task of working in and attempting to think about context (or indeed multiple interacting contexts) is supported through the insights, and varying interpretations and evaluations, of aspects of other colleagues. I have experienced this in two recent collaborations with a colleague (Kirkham and Harrop 2019, 2020 (being a two-part article); and Kirkham and Harrop (forthcoming)). In both cases, while the initial impetus for these pieces came from myself, I found progressing with both pieces of work challenging to the point of nearly abandoning them. Approaching, and then working with a particular colleague on these pieces, not only provided a powerful motivation - both through an injection of energy, and a sense of greater accountability to the colleague - but, more substantively, the comments, views and other perspectives of my co-author created a richer, more contextualised discourse around the themes of the pieces which not only got them finished and published but resulted in, in my view, better work. While Felten’s characterisation does not mention collaboration per se, I see co-working as a proxy for, or at least an indirect influence on, grounding work in context and in making work public. While collaboration brings its own challenges, ‘going it alone’ has its limitations. It increasingly seems to me that it is often within the spirit of SoTL to seek out and work with others.  

The realisation of the affordances of collaboration may not be exceptional or noteworthy for some readers: this reflects my own personal journey from an intellectualist orientation to scholarship that in some senses sought and enjoyed conflict. My journey from this earlier set of attitudes to a more collaborative and contribution-oriented viewpoint may be thought about simply as stepping more wholly into the community of SoTL scholarship, a shift which has been much discussed in the literature: the first three of Palmer’s (1998 cited in Simmons 2020) four-point progression charts the move from isolated individuals who form communities of congruence which in turn allows the move to going public. This shift has nevertheless been significant for me.  

This final dichotomy considers the nature of scholarly productivity. My scholarly endeavours have often been marked by a degree of hyper-activity: ideas seem to come easily to me but can tumble over each other in my mind; it’s hard to focus on one at a time and they all seem to relate to each other in a myriad of complex ways. However, in undertaking sustained thinking to produce something that can be made public, as per Felten’s fifth criterion, the rough and tumble of ideas needs to transform itself into steady, stable, sustained thought. This for me, has been an extremely challenging skill to learn. As my mind tumbles over, I feel a sense of panic in ‘getting everything down’; I start lots of things but don’t bring them all to completion; I want to try to ‘say everything’ (whatever that means!).  

There are positives to this way of working: it can result in high productivity in the sense of lots of energy and outputs. However, the depth of ideas can be skirted over; I may read things superficially or piecemeal, immediately trying to integrate what I have read into my own narrative; reflection is deprioritised and the multiplicity of projects I have had ‘on the go’ at once, while offering an energy, can scatter and dissipate one’s energy. Over many years of working in this way, my scholarship journey may be slowly taking me towards a steadier, more measured and gentler pace of productivity. I think of this as pacing (as opposed to panic) and process (as opposed to product). As regards the latter, I have been surprised to see that as one focuses more on – and allows oneself to enjoy – the process, paradoxically, the product often self-emerges. I say paradoxically; perhaps this is not paradox: instead, the paradox may be the attitude of mind that rushing at many things at once and expects any of them to come to completion.  

The above comments on over-productivity notwithstanding, I do not wish to reject entirely the idea of undertaking multiple projects at the same time: it offers variety and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. More significantly, though, and at a practical level, I think I had to take this approach in one sense. I mean this: whatever I am thinking about, my mind tends to move outwards from that theme to related questions. Indeed, as soon as an idea is formed, I immediately question and seek to controvert it. In other words, epistemologically, I am not content with any one part of the picture until I have an overview. I think best – or at least most naturally – holistically, not about individual aspects of something. And to develop a holistic approach to teaching takes time. For me, this points to the highly individual nature of scholarship: individuals approach the task in very different ways and a tolerance and openness to this is to be encouraged in how scholarship is conceptualised and managed in an institution.  

I suspect that not everyone will experience this particular barrier to scholarship. However, experience does suggest that similar dynamics may play a role in many people’s scholarly journey including struggling with motivation, getting and developing ideas, and the process of getting one’s thoughts down in writing. These may or may not also be part of my own story but I’ve chosen here to speak about the particular challenge of over-productivity. I hope that this has at least indirect relevance to others.   

This piece has aspired to provide a narrative of scholarship from a biographical point of view. Three dichotomies were used to chart some of my own changes (or developments?) in the scholarship of language learning and teaching. In charting these journeys, I have tried to be appropriately open about how my intellectual life has changed through undertaking scholarship in this field. I have not always found the journey easy but have started, I hope, to create a more rounded scholarly persona, drawing the best from my own starting point (energy, productivity, ideas) but tempering them with relevant antitheses so as to achieve a balance that is, in the end, richer.  

Two final comments by way of conclusion. Firstly, aside from being simply a biography, I wonder if the structure of this piece may offer an application in the reflections of others in relation to scholarly identity. Specifically, the use of dichotomies seems to me one useful way to frame a narrative of scholarship. Secondly, and finally, nothing in the above should suggest that some ultimate ‘end point’ has been reached: despite the rhetoric ostensibly taking the form of ‘the resolution of dichotomies’, the three dichotomies represent only one way of thinking about my scholarly journey, and even together are necessarily partial (in at least two senses of the term). Moreover, because the life of the mind is an ongoing set of reflections on a complex, dynamic and multi-dimensional reality, any 'resolution’ of any proposed dichotomy is, at best, temporary; new questions are asked, new ‘dichotomies’ emerge, and the journey - intellectual, pedagogic and scholarly - continues onwards.  

Address for correspondence:   

Bitchener, J. and Knoch, U. 2008. The value of written corrective feedback for migrant and international students. Language Teaching Research. 12(3), pp.409-431. 

Boyer, E. L. 1990. Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. John Wiley and Sons: New York.   

Cambridge Dictionary. [Online]. 2021. s.v. Intellectualism. [Accessed on 16 March 2021]. Available from:  

Collins Dictionary. [Online]. 2021. s.v. Intellectualism. [Accessed on 16 March 2021]. Available from: 

De Knop, S. and Gilquin, G. 2016. Applied construction grammar. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.  

Ding, A. 2020. Acknowledgment and scholarship. 19 March 2020. Teaching EAP. [Online]. [Accessed on 16th March 2021]. Available from: 

Felten, P. 2013. Principles of good practice is SoTL. Teaching & Learning Inquiry. The ISSOTL Journal. 1(1), pp.121-125. 

Glassick, C. E. 2000. Boyer's expanded definitions of scholarship, the standards for assessing scholarship, and the elusiveness of the scholarship of teaching. Academic Medicine. 75(9), pp.877-80.  

Goleman, D. 2006. Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam Books. 

Hernandez, G. and Kirkham, D. 2015. Rounding it out: rethinking end-of-course evaluation (a case study from the Language Centre). Leeds University Student Education Conference, University of Leeds, January 2015 Leeds. 

Holme, R. 2009. Cognitive linguistics and language teaching. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Jackendoff, R. 2002. Foundations of language: brain, meaning, grammar, evolution. Oxford: OUP.  

Kirkham, D. and Harrop, H. 2019. Taking an epistemological PEEP at English language teaching (Part 1). The Teacher. 173, pp.35-45. 

Kirkham, D. and Harrop, H. 2020. Taking an epistemological PEEP at English language teaching (Part 2). The Teacher. 174, pp.8-18. 

Kirkham, D and Harrop, H. [Forthcoming] Towards a linguistically informed view of reduplication. Journal of Applied Languages and Linguistics5(1), [no pagination]. 

Merriam-Webster. [Online]. s.v. Intellectualism. [Accessed on 16 March 2021]. Available from: 

Palmer, P. 1998. The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Pienemann, M. 2005. Cross-linguistic aspects of Processability Theory. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins. 

Rysiew, P. 2020. Epistemic Contextualism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Accessed on 4 July 2021]. Available from: 

Simmons, N. 2008. Mapping a mirage: documenting the scholarship of teaching and learning. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching. 1, pp.3-8. 

Simmons, N. and Marquis, E. 2017. Defining the scholarship of teaching and learning. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 8(2), pp.1-5. 

Tomasello, M. 2005. Constructing a language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.  

Truscott, J. 1996. The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning. 46(2), pp.327-369.