portrait of Robert Lapp

To have served STLHE as its President—and before that on its Board of Directors—has been both an honour and a pleasantly unexpected opportunity. Ten years ago I would never have thought it possible that I could take on such a set of volunteer responsibilities. But I discovered (as have many before me) that the STLHE is an organization with an uncanny capacity to nourish personal growth within its rich and unmatched interdisciplinary, inter-institutional, inter-provincial, and cross-sector collaborations. I encourage anyone who is curious about their own untapped capacity for fostering meaningful growth within a consequential organization to consider taking up a leadership position within the “safe space” offered by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education!

None of this would have happened if it had not been for my predecessor, Arshad Ahmad, whose example of how to give back as a 3M Fellow was what got me involved with STLHE Board-work in the first place. I had always thought of STLHE as my “home” organization, having been deeply moved and inspired by the example of Joy Mighty, who was President in the year of my 3M NTF cohort. But it was Arshad’s bewitching smile and STLHE-size bearhug that drew me in to this fascinating work in 2011 and later convinced me to let my name stand for election, and I am proud to count him among my most formative mentors.

What was accomplished during my Presidency between 2014 and 2017 was entirely the result of teamwork and synergy. I felt like a conductor, blessed with an excellent orchestra, whose job it was to draw forth music from many diversely talented people, and to seek—through various challenging passages—the best possible harmonies from amongst their different tones and timbres. Jon Houseman, for example, was the one whose indefatigable attention to detail brought the Society into much-needed compliance with Industry Canada, and who led the complete revision of our By-Laws and a thorough and timely updating of our Policies. Board stalwart Denise Stockley took on the revision of our Conference Manual, making it into a living document that has thoroughly streamlined the complex operation of our signature annual event. Jon and Denise also collaborated to engineer the transferal of our administrative operations to the National Capital where we now have an appropriately bilingual, arm’s-length, industry-informed and sustainable administrative unit, led by the unflappable Tim Howard. Then, to our good fortune, along came STLHE veteran Bob Sproule to fully reform and regularize our financial operations, complete with a fresh approach to accounting and a new auditor.

Meanwhile, Deb Dawson was the inspiring leader of our founding constituency, the EDC, whose annual conference in February became one of the highlights of my year for its atmosphere of energetic commitment and genuine good will. Esther Enns ably led the 3M Council, our second founding constituency, helping to manage the evolution of our relationship with 3M Canada and the adjustment of the eligibility criteria for both of our 3M awards, in particular the extension of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship to College-sector faculty. This achievement, along with re-imagining the College Sector as a full-fledged Constituency of the Society, are the two legacies of this era of which I am most proud, and I was so fortunate to have the visionary commitment of Tim Loblaw, and later Mike Van Bussel, to help lead these changes. One important consequence has been the exponential development of College-sector membership, which is one reason our budgetary problems of 2011-12 were solved. Also growing by leaps and bounds was SoTL Canada under the legendary Nicola Simmons, who together with her successor Janice Miller-Young and a powerful Executive succeeded in building the international reputation of SoTL Canada, due in part to the expansion and flourishing of our flagship publication, CJSoTL. Turning SoTL Canada into a Constituency with a seat on the Board was simply naming what was already the case!

At the same time, Roselynn Verwoord was transforming the Student sector into the fastest-growing area of our membership after the Colleges, leading the necessary changes in attitude and approach within the Society to match that growth. Supporting these successes, and advancing the portfolios of Publications, Partnerships, Awards, and Bilingualism Advocacy, were Dianne Bateman, Jeanette McDonald, Valerie Lopes, and Christine Gaucher, each of whom in their own way taught me so much about the art of volunteer commitment: building energetic vision, remaining steady amidst difficulties, and retaining a consistency of enthusiastic focus on our common goal: advancing the cause of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

And it is still a “cause” after all these years, despite our many successes. Here is where I turn from a tone of celebration to speaking some harsh truths. One of the greatest shocks of my Presidency was the experience of returning home from the heady inspiration of our June Convention or from the EDC Conference to encounter the entrenched skepticism of my faculty colleagues toward learner-centered curriculum design or the practice of SoTL—even in a small undergraduate institution that markets itself as teaching-focused. The term “learning outcomes” was held in particular scorn, tainted as it seemed to be with the Quality-Assurance agenda of neoliberal regimes and a concomitant threat to academic freedom. Somehow, perhaps through the efforts of agencies like HEQCO, the work of Educational Development has become associated in the minds of many tenured faculty and Faculty Unions with the efficiency measures of Administrations intent on measuring the un-measurable in order to rationalize down-sizing. And it is not just entrenched faculty who stand in the way of learner-centered teaching; I encountered a Provost who was dubious about the value of our university’s institutional membership in STLHE and who clearly did not regard SoTL as equivalent in merit to Tri-Council-funded research. Equally shocking is the recent wave of staffing “adjustments” at CTLs across the country, showing that faculty unions are not the only ones affected by neoliberal efficiency measures.

Unfortunately, I don’t see any immediate solution to this situation. I think the Colleges have a major advantage over the Universities in their capacity to introduce the benefit of Educational Development programs at the outset of an instructor’s career. Similarity, we can look to university grad-school teacher-training programs—ideally assessed by the EDC—for an eventual solution, creating a new generation of university faculty with a nuanced understanding of what learner-centred, evidence-based teaching actually means, and who are in the habit of consulting the results of SoTL as a matter of professional course. In the meantime, teaching and learning in higher education remains a “cause,” and there is much work to be done “leading from the middle.”

That is the role of STLHE. If I were to be asked for my advice going forward, I would say that in order to advance its advocacy role, STLHE must have a broader membership base to add demographic clout to its research and experiential expertise. The recent expansion of our membership has shown that there is a huge potential for growth in the College and Student sectors. This, however, will require shifting our concept of the benefits of membership, which are presently focused on reduced fees for the annual convention. An expanded membership means a larger convention, and our annual conference has already grown beyond the capacity of even major universities to host it onsite. One solution, then, is to create value in membership beyond the annual conference: in order to attract a broad base of rank-and-file instructors across all sectors we need to realize the dream of becoming a “go-to” source for front-line teaching resources. We could start by offering members free access to our Green Guides (while still levying a price for non-members), all the while adding a suite of other, shorter, more focused resources as a central benefit of membership. Eventually the STLHE website would be visited routinely as a portal for such member benefits, the same way that a researcher uses an institution’s library subscriptions to access journal resources. Meanwhile, we could gradually introduce a series of regional conferences alongside the annual convention. We know that fuel prices will inevitably rise (when the real costs of carbon emissions are built in), and although one of the principal strengths of STLHE has been the way it brings people together across a far-flung country, we may no longer be able to justify asking people to travel continent-sized distances to get together. We still need to meet, because the real heart of the STLHE experience lies in the improvisational creativity and emotional resonance of face-to-face sharing; we will just need to do this in more local and sustainable ways.

Finally, let me offer two blue-sky visions of the future. Can you imagine a time when learner-centered teaching in higher education is no longer a “cause” but an unquestioned reality? Imagine if each unit of our post-secondary institutions had embedded within it discipline-specific Educational Developers working alongside instructors, collaborating on curriculum design and working with them to build customized, learner-centered containers for the “content” of disciplinary expertise. And perhaps in the meantime, and to build this future, STLHE will find itself able to afford (due to expanded membership) a full-time Executive Director, someone who has the time, expertise, and political authority to lead advocacy at the policy level, who is consulted on major issues and decisions, who is all the while tweeting regularly to a massive following!

Well, such are the dreams of a Past-President! Others will have different visions of STLHE’s future, and indeed one of the great strengths of Denise Stockley’s current Presidency is that by surveying the membership early in 2017, she has a clear data-set of membership perspectives and priorities on which to found her mandate. Thus I am delighted to turn STLHE’s next steps over to Denise and the Board and their successors. All that is left is once again to thank the membership of this remarkable organization for its support over the last few years. I cherish the gift of having been given this golden opportunity to serve, as best I could, the cause of teaching and learning in higher education.

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