Vision for the Future of Teaching & Learning at UMW

If the preeminent value at UMW is teaching excellence, which I believe it should be, then the UMW Teaching Center should play a prominent role at our institution. This is in contrast to the former Teaching Innovation Program, which seemed to be at best tolerated by the administration and which was ignored by many faculty, much like the crazy aunt sequestered in the attic of the family home. This former reality needs to change or we will only be giving lip service to how much we value quality teaching.

At present, teaching is considered a largely personal responsibility that only becomes public if there is a problem. Teaching preparation seems to be generally viewed as something we each have to do, but not something we care for, kind of like paying the bills or doing yard work around the house. Oh, there are some people who like those activities, but for the rest of us, we recognize their value, but we don’t really enjoy them or think of them as a craft. Teaching is too important to be considered a “don’t ask, don’t tell” activity, which faculty are supposed to learn on their own. If teaching excellence is genuinely valued, it needs to be valued collectively and viewed as a collective responsibility.

I wonder how many faculty put genuine time and effort into thinking about ways to improve their teaching. I wonder how many faculty seriously assess how their teaching turned out at the conclusion of each course. It’s probably more than I think, but it’s not something we hear about. This needs to change. We need to make our teaching activities (thinking, preparation, doing, assessing) more transparent. We need to make teaching a more public responsibility, something that we value collectively, something that we put more effort into thinking about.

We need to get faculty to consider developing a ‘teaching agenda’ analogous to one’s ‘research agenda’. What are our goals for developing teaching expertise? How can we build time into our already busy schedules to achieve those goals? Can you imagine sharing teaching agendas (say in one’s department) in the same way that one shares research agendas? I think it would be a cultural sea change if faculty simply began to think in terms of a teaching agenda.

How can we build a genuine community of teaching excellence at UMW which touches all our academic departments, and which all faculty and staff see as valuable? This is one of the goals of the new Teaching Center, one which we haven’t achieved as yet. At present, we have a number of teaching communities, but we don’t have a teaching community. The communities include:

• The UMW Teaching Center, which exists to this point as the programs developed by the ad hoc Teaching Center Advisory Committee (TCAC), and as the successor to the Teaching Innovation Program.

• The Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), which should be thought of primarily as about teaching rather than technology, as anyone who has worked with them can attest. They don’t need my accolades, but in my view DTLT over the last decade has consistently done the most profound work on teaching and learning of any organization at UMW.

• The First Year Seminar Program, which has shown incredible promise as a model of both teaching excellence and teaching community.

• The Writing Intensive Program and the Writing Center, perhaps our longest running successful teaching community.

• The Speaking Intensive Program and the Speaker Center, following in the mold of the WI program, and equally successful.

• The Academic Departments/Majors. This is probably the group which is least often thought of as a teaching community and yet it’s the one which may have the most direct and lasting impact on our students. Academic departments are the front line troops in teaching. It is in academic departments that teaching succeeds or fails.

How can we strengthen these communities, and more importantly, how can we strengthen the connections between them, to form a more integrated, corporate teaching community at UMW? It will take more than verbiage, more than a statement that teaching is valued, no matter how high the source, more than an entry in the academic catalog that asserts that we are about teaching. It will take more than money. And it will take more than offering some programs. All of these are necessary, but none is sufficient. What then? The experience of the Teaching Center Advisory Committee over the last year provides some answers.

The TCAC started as a very diverse group, including faculty and staff from the College of Arts & Sciences, and the College of Graduate and Professional Studies. It included people who actively supported the former Teaching Innovation Program, and those who had not. At the beginning, there was a strong sense of suspicion about different peoples’ motives for participating, as well as what their values were. Since then, this sense has changed dramatically, and I think, permanently. How did the transformation take place? It was the result of working together intensely over a year to develop a vision for the teaching center, an initial set of programs and a job description for a director to execute the plan.. In the process, we modeled a clear vision for what a teaching community should look like.

If we want to expand this to the university as a whole, we should engage in an extended initiative (lasting a year or longer), in which we think about ways to engage the academic departments, as well as the other teaching communities, to work together to build a genuine community of teaching at UMW. This initiative should revolve around building a world-class teaching center, not as an appendage, but rather as an integral part of everything we do as teaching. The initiative should not seek a one shot treatment, but rather a change in the institution’s culture and practice.

It is no secret that there are problems with higher education in the United States today. Look at the many calls for assessment of higher education outcomes that we’ve observed in recent years. Look at the growth of the For-Profit sector of higher ed. Look at the work done by Derek Bok and many others from within the academy.

What is less well known is that there is significant grant funding available (e.g from the Teagle Foundation or Lumina Foundation) for institutions willing to seriously explore how to improve teaching and learning in novel ways. This should be one of the first orders of business for the new teaching center director.

Suppose in a few years, as the new Convergence Center is set to open, we have a progressive administration and a relatively new teaching center director with vision and knowledge of the latest research and practice in higher education teaching and learning. The administration calls for a year-long initiative to radically rethink (or just to think about) teaching and learning at UMW under the direction of the TC Director and advisory committee. The initiative is kicked off at the opening faculty meeting of the year in August, with an appropriate outside speaker to motivate our work on the initiative. My first thought is someone like Michael Wesch, but perhaps someone outside the group of avant garde practitioners, someone with a more conventional background would be more persuasive and effective at getting people on board, someone like Carl Weiman. During the year, additional speakers will be brought in to give presentations on pedagogical research to maintain the momentum. Others will be brought in to give hands-on workshops on various pedagogies.

The president calls for each department to prepare a study of teaching practice in their courses/major(s). How do they teach at the introductory, intermediate and advanced levels? How does the teaching methodology vary across faculty? How effective is their teaching? How might they teach better? How might they better assess their teaching? An initial report from each department would be due by the end of the first semester. The Academic Deans of our colleges allocate additional hire-behinds to support this work, at least one for each department.

The Deans state publicly that no faculty member would be awarded highest merit in teaching effectiveness if they do not engage seriously in this initiative. Or perhaps a special merit award would be given for this work. Funding would be supplied to follow words with action.

The president, provost and deans will state publicly that serious engagement with this process is of signal importance to the university and should be valued as part of the promotion and tenure process. They will meet with to the Promotion & Tenure Committee, communicate their views about this, and develop a consensus about how it might be appropriately weighted in promotion and tenure decisions.

During the second semester, the steering group will review the departmental drafts prior to drafting an overall report describing the state of teaching and learning in the institution and summarizing a needs-assessment. The needs-assessment will provide an action plan for the activities directed by the Teaching Center and executed by all the teaching communities mentioned above, including the academic departments, over the next few years. The departmental drafts and the overall report draft will be shared with all parties so that participants can learn from each other prior to revising their reports.

Another important outcome of the initiative would be the development of meaningful assessment methodologies, developed by each department rather than imposed from external authorities. Assessment for across-the-curriculum programs will be developed by drawing on the most appropriate models adopted by departments.

The final report volume will be published as a model of 21st Century Teaching and Learning, and its findings presented in appropriate national and regional conferences. In subsequent years, members of the UMW community will be invited to numerous universities and other venues to explain how the UMW transformation was accomplished.

From this point on, all new faculty will be given an orientation to UMW’s teaching philosophy and expectations as developed through the initiative and spelled out in the final report. The orientation will be run by the Teaching Center. The Center will continue to host speakers, promote conversations and other programs about effective teaching and learning. The Center will also sponsor research by members of the UMW teaching community to stay on the cutting edge of higher education pedagogy. The research will be disseminated among faculty and staff at the university as well as to regional and national disciplinary and interdisciplinary audiences.

UMW will never be the same. But only if we have the will to pursue this vision.

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3 Responses to Vision for the Future of Teaching & Learning at UMW

  1. Jason James says:

    I agree completely with making our teaching more “public.” A nice way of putting it. And that we should not view a teaching center as a place to deal with teaching problems, but rather as an opportunity to engage with others invested in teaching. There’s always more learn, further experiments to try.

  2. Terry says:

    What a wonderful vision! I will be watching and listening–so keep us posted.

  3. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » What does it mean to describe a university as espousing teaching excellence?

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