PER Identity and Sense of Belonging

posted by Susan Rundell Singer, Rollins College on

I’m contributing to this blog as a biology education researcher (BER) and a higher education changemaker. Boundary crossing has enriched my career at all stages. In  the context of PER, the early leadership and methodologies of the research community have informed my own work and inspired BER broadly. Thousands of biology students benefit from the excellent work of the physics community partnering on teaching physics to biology students. I’m deeply grateful to my PER colleagues for all of this and also, for fomenting conversation and progress towards a PER identity, and by association, a Discipline-based Education Research (DBER) identity. One indicator of progress in this space is the extent to which faculty with PER and other DBER identities now have tenure and tenure track homes within disciplinary departments.

What continues to fascinate me are the complexities associated with claiming a PER or DBER identity. Partially this can be attributed to the early stage of development of the field. Those experiences are not unique to PER or DBER. My graduate training was in plant development, an emerging field that pulled from plant physiology and the conceptual framework of animal developmental biology and genetics. The field evolved and began to synergistically cross boundaries with evolutionary biology and both plant and animal developmental biology. A new field, EvoDevo (shorthand for evolutionary developmental biology) emerged and I had the privilege of serving at the National Science Foundation in the late 1990s and early 2000s when we were creating a funding stream for EvoDevo research. About a decade later, I led the Discipline-based Education Research study and report at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine that led to the opportunity to serve as director for the Division of Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation, as the division sought to further support and advance DBER. As I reflect on my experiences as a researcher and funder in both EvoDevo and DBER, there are parallels attributable to emerging field status, but there are also differences in how identity played out.

Legitimacy and collaboration are at the core when fields come together, what we are currently referring to as convergence. Evolutionary biologists and more molecularly oriented developmental biologists use different tools, language, and conceptual  frameworks. As an early to mid-career faculty member and program officer, I remember observing the frustration colleagues experienced as they tried to engage someone from the “other” field, sometimes complaining about their overuse of jargon. Gaining legitimacy took time as funding, courses, positions, conferences, and publication venues emerged. Yet, everyone felt comfortable in their identity as a biologist, even as they grappled with other subfield labels like EvoDevo. The conversations were more squarely focused on advancing the new subfield and obtaining a sufficiently robust funding stream to ensure the vibrancy of EvoDevo.

Within DBER, my experience is that identity looms larger. At the root of the unease is the need to belong and to be recognized as a physicist or biologist. We know from the research that sense of belonging is key to the success of our students and that for those in minority groups, it has an even larger impact. We can reasonably extend these findings to the professoriate.

Within DBER, it may be the specific convergence of fields, coupled with academic hierarchies, that exacerbate issues of belonging and identity. The reality of the academy is that a scientist is perceived to have a higher status than a colleague in the education department. Within the sciences, physicists claim a fairly lofty status. One can argue, and I have, that there are compelling and functional reasons why PER or BER faculty should be embedded within physics or biology departments, respectively. The research is driven by the disciplinary priorities of the field and co-location simply makes sense. Further, DBER work is both theoretical and applied. The value of DBER in improving learning and understanding can be more fully realized if it is seamlessly integrated into the department where the disciplinary education is taking place.

There are faculty in colleges of education with deep disciplinary training and education research expertise that are also advancing the field. Indeed, by the 1970s, science education was breaking from a long held approach to education that was discipline agnostic, excepting the history of mathematics education dating back to the early 1900s. Science education found its home in colleges of education and much of the work is K-12 focused. While PER and DBER can extend beyond undergraduate learning, hopefully including graduate education, it is the undergraduate focus that wraps into the identity issue as well. The acceptance of PER as an official subfield of physics has gone a long way to support a sense of identity and belonging of PER researchers as physicists.

Relatively synchronously with the emergence of DBER, Lee Schulman was supporting the development of SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) through his leadership at the Carnegie Foundation. SoTL is embraced across a broad range of disciplines including the humanities and social sciences. It encompasses a range of approaches from scholarly teaching to research quite similar to DBER. The research approaches build on the disciplinary methodology within the specific field, thus the qualitative methods valued by scientists will be distinct from the scholarly approaches someone in literature or history will employ. The range of modes of inquiry and welcoming of scholarly teachers leads to tension in terms of identity within DBER. 

The discomfort with the breadth of SoTL for some PER and DBER scholars is completely understandable as one considers another dimension of a DBER scholar’s identity. We rightly want to be seen and understood as having genuine research expertise in our domain. We value and care about good teaching, which often drives our research agendas. Simply being an excellent teacher, even a scholarly teacher, does not equate with being a DBER scholar. That distinction is an important aspect of DBER identity. Further, DBER scholars desire faculty positions where they are valued for their scholarship, not hired to be the departmental changemaker or to teach a disproportionate share of the courses. There are important roles for practitioners who prefer to focus on their teaching and use evidence-based pedagogy. Individuals in these roles deserve support and recognition, but those positions are distinct from conferring DBER identity. Perhaps this is the crux of the identity issue for DBER scholars who are simultaneously making the case that, while they may be first-rate practitioners, they are education researchers and also physicists or biologists. I have focused on PER and DBER identity within the academy, acknowledging that there are many opportunities for individuals with this expertise beyond the academy and similar challenges likely apply.

While focusing on the nature of the work and advancing the field is always a priority, we need to attend to identity. The very best work will occur when PER and DBER scholars have a strong sense of belonging and believe their contributions are valued and uplifted by their colleagues.

Tags: identity  biology education research  SOTL  

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