Lee Schulman Tells us to ‘Break Bad’ and Engage in SoTL




“Walter White is dead. Heisenberg is no longer someone of uncertain fate.”

These were the opening words of Lee Schulman’s talk, Situated Studies of Teaching and Learning: The New Mainstream. Intriguing. What on earth could the main character of the television series Breaking Bad have anything to do with the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)?

Schulman continued: “And I must say that I have this fleeting image of my colleagues in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, sneaking away from their Chemistry classrooms or Biology or English or History to their SOTL labs and mixing a brew intended to undermine the clarity of thought, the certainty, the dogmatism, and the ease with which their colleagues, and their colleges and universities continue to do the same work that they’ve done for many years.”

I was inspired. Not to become an over-educated high school Chemistry teacher and family man who creates a secret alter-ego criminal mastermind and drug lord in order to provide for my family. But this analogy has changed the way I think about SoTL.

The term “break bad” means to rebel against the accepted norms of a society.  Essentially, Schulman argued that those of us who engage in Situated Research (such as SoTL) are “breaking bad” – rebelling against the “accepted tradition” of research. Traditional research aims to generalize knowledge, to create broad and sweeping overviews that contribute to theories and principles that are not limited by details or particular circumstances. This type of research is often (though unjustifiably) viewed as a “superior” or more legitimate form of research than is situated research.

Situated research, on the other hand, focuses on the details: the particulars, the individuals, contexts, and environments considered unimportant in traditional research. Situated research does not attempt to create broad generalizations, but rather “seeks to describe, explain and evaluate the relationships among intentions, actions and consequences in a carefully recounted local situation”. Schulman argues that situated research will soon become mainstream in SoTL because it provides a rich, deep and detailed contribution to knowledge that traditional forms of research simply cannot.

In a way, the premise of the series Breaking Bad is like situated research. It does not seek to create broad generalizations or theories (e.g. “over-educated high school Chemistry teachers with cancer are likely to create drug empires”), but rather it “seeks to describe, explain and evaluate the relationships among intentions, actions and consequences” in the life of Walter White. The complexity, the uncertainties, the contextual details are where the brilliance of the series Breaking Bad truly lies. And that is where the brilliance of SoTL truly lies as well.

View Lee Schulman’s talk, presented at the International Society of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) 2013 Conference:

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