More Vision for the UMW Teaching Center

Our institution will soon embark on a strategic planning initiative. What common mission binds us together as a faculty at UMW? I would say that our mission is to provide quality liberal and professional education at a public university price. Our current programs were developed out of our historic strength as a school of liberal arts and sciences, a school which has always emphasized teaching excellence at our core.

It is no surprise then that UMW is developing a new teaching center, as I have discussed before. The purpose of this post is to argue that the new teaching center is well situated to play a key role in re-visioning of UMW’s place in the world of higher education. But only if we think broadly about what a teaching center should be.

It would be easy to fall back and think mechanically of a teaching center as a set of programs to promote teaching and learning. Programs require budget, so the TC is about budget and a bigger budget creates a bigger TC. This may fit an administrative perspective of what a TC is, but I think we can do better than thinking this way.

An innovative Teaching Center should be conceived of as an entity, which does things, not an as entity that funds things. The TC staff and associates should have an active agenda. I’m not sure exactly what this looks like, but I think it involves efforts to think about and execute pedagogical innovations on a regular and continuing basis. Such a center should be a think tank, conversation hub, conversation catalyst, and in fact a leader in the institution’s inward-facing and outward-facing deep intellectual conversations about teaching and learning.

Think of the best professional conference you’ve ever attended, where you met and talked with people doing very interesting work, work with relevance to your professional life. There you learned important insights which you were anxious to take home. You also heard ideas to inspire you. That experience is what I think the teaching center should be: the conference, and the preparation, thought, experimentation, writing and reflection that led up to the conference.

A good example of this might be the working group that developed our summer 2008 First Year Seminar Workshop. The group consisted of a somewhat eclectic group of interested faculty: the Dean of Arts & Sciences, the Associate VP for Academic Affairs, the Directors of the Writing Intensive and Speaking Intensive Programs, the Director of the former Teaching Innovation Program, the Coach of the Debate Team, the Director of the Division of Teaching & Learning Technologies, the University Librarian & three reference librarians, and two faculty who co-chaired the FSEM Advisory Committee since the inception of the program three years ago.

The group worked intensively and effectively during the spring 2008 semester to develop a excellent faculty development workshop for FSEM instructors. (Contrast this with the all too accurate view of most faculty committee meetings.) This wasn’t just administrative exercise, but very much an academic one. We spent quite a bit of time brainstorming about how we envisioned the FSEM program and how we could best incorporate that vision into a two day workshop. We explicitly planned for the workshop to model the themes we agreed were the crux of the FSEM experience. Finally, we recruited expert faculty to prepare and present the individual workshop sessions.

The dynamics exhibited in the working group were particularly interesting. The participants were a group of individuals, each of whom brought a particular expertise to the table which was respected by the others in the group. The Dean seemed to take a backseat role, allowing the rest of us to step up and contribute in unique ways. The result was a workshop that, based on the evaluations turned in, the participants found more than worthwhile. (You can judge for yourself by looking at the videos of each session here.)

Another model for the Teaching Center might be the academic department. An academic department revolves around a faculty. The faculty teach, but they also do research in the field. The research and teaching are complementary, even symbiotic. Students come to the department to learn about the field. Some even desire to become specialists. An academic department has a budget but it’s not primarily about funding speakers or travel. Rather, a department’s activities revolve around the study of the field, by people with various levels of expertise: from novices to authorities. Its focus is both internal (teaching) and external (scholarship).

This raises an obvious question: Beyond the director (who we are currently searching for), who would serve as faculty of the Teaching Center? The Teaching Fellows program, which we are initiating this Spring provides a start:

More than a faculty development initiative, the program is designed to bridge teaching, scholarship and service. … Teaching Fellows will be given the opportunity to explore a specific question involving research and experimentation with new pedagogies, assessment of student learning, innovative course design or curriculum development, emerging academic technologies and tools of access to information, or other areas that may promote excellence in teaching. Fellows will use what they learn to develop a new course or to substantially revise an existing course which will then be taught in the academic year following the fellowship. … An important objective of the program is to develop expertise by participants that can be drawn on subsequently by faculty at large. Fellows will be expected to engage in regular conversations about their work with the Teaching Center Director and other participants in the program, as well as to reflect publicly using the Teaching Center web environment.

The Teaching Fellows program provides a core faculty for the TC, but at present we can only fund four fellows per year. I wonder if we could also create affiliation for other faculty with the TC? Could faculty solicit TC imprimatur for teaching innovations that have been done in the past or are being done currently? Could we develop a list of faculty experts in certain areas of pedagogy, faculty who are willing to consult with others who wish to learn more about their expertise?

A colleague who is generally supportive of the teaching center asked: Why would someone want to affiliate with the TC? What’s in it for them? This raises a more general question: How to make this kind of activity (as well as pedagogical research more generally, or creative scholarly digital activities) valued for promotion, tenure, and pay raises?

One possible idea is suggested by the online section of the Journal of Economic Education. In addition to traditional articles, the Journal solicits scholarly digital creations, which if accepted are allowed to post the Journal’s equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval: “JEE Selection”. You can see an example of this at a recently approved submission which identifies short clips from feature films with economics content. (For a complete listing of JEE Selections, see here.) This seal has gained acceptance in the economics education community. Perhaps we could create something similar for TC-affiliated faculty or creations.

The issue of giving faculty credit for pedagogical scholarship is a bigger problem than UMW can solve on its own, but progressive leadership could help. Note to those on the provost and dean search committees: keep this in mind!

The vision for the Teaching Center I am outlining here goes beyond the traditional model, which revolves around collecting resources on teaching & learning, funding workshops & faculty development opportunities, and nurturing a culture that respects pedagogy as a scholarly responsibility. These are necessary, but not sufficient for what I have in mind, a center which has the potential to energize what we do as an institution.

I think this idea could have legs. What do you think?

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One Response to More Vision for the UMW Teaching Center

  1. When we talk with teaching center folks from other UC campuses, they’re always impressed by the buy-in we get from faculty and that our programs (note: these are more conversations than workshops and are always faculty-driven if not 100% faculty-led) draw so many people. The truth is we’ve worked very hard to solicit participation from faculty, in large part by recognizing the excellent teaching already going on and trying to make it go viral by inviting these faculty to speak.

    For example, at our upcoming quarterly More Thoughtful Teaching symposium, we have an interesting mix of speakers based on the theme of “Two Successes, One Failure.” The two professors who consider their teaching experiments successful will talk respectively about having their students blog on Daily Kos and about embodying student learning by getting students out of their seats. The brave (untenured!) faculty member who agreed to be our example “failure” is talking about how badly his Twitter experiment went–an endeavor through which he learned his students not only didn’t want to talk during class, but they didn’t want to interact at all. For our spring MTT, I’m pulling in faculty who work very interdisciplinarily and who engage communities outside the university, including (I hope) our very first faculty member to hold a joint appointment in two colleges (Humanities, Arts, and Cultural Studies as well as the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences). By celebrating these faculty–some of them nearly emeriti and others barely in their 30s–we find that we increase interest not only in innovative teaching, but also in our services (e.g. mid-quarter interviews of entire classes of students, or one-on-one consultations with faculty) as well as our other programs. We’ve had more than a few faculty evangelize our events and services as fervently as recent converts coming home from an old-fashioned tent revival.

    I love that you mention think tanks, as just today in a program planning meeting with our director we were talking about how we’re lucky in that we get to serve in many ways as a think tank, only we’re as much an engagement organization as an intellectual one. Today we completely and spontaneously revised, for the first time in no one knows how long, our approach to our two TA orientations, which together reach about 800 new TAs a year, and the four of us were totally energized by the experience and possibilities. In the process, we talked about how we can improve other units’ engagement with students (because right now the low point of TA orientation is the canned content from some of our student-services units).

    In any successful teaching center, this kind of infectious enthusiasm and intellectual energy is essential. Recruiting the right people to the core team is key, but how that happens is sometimes as much a matter of luck as intention. I think having people from different disciplines is key. Among the four of us (2.5 FTE and a 0.5 FTE director) who work on programs, we hold Ph.D.s in sociology, cultural studies, literature, and ecology, and we would consider our home departments or schools to be education, American studies, museum studies, the university writing program, technocultural studies, and evolution & ecology. That said, instead of specializing in consulting with faculty in particular disciplines, we each talk with faculty from across the liberal arts, sciences, and professional schools. It’s been a steep learning curve for me with the science faculty in particular, and I must admit it’s comforting to know that if I get stuck while chatting with a faculty member about improving lab sections, I can refer her to a colleague with more expertise in science teaching.

    Once the core staff’s work rises in stature among faculty, the staff (because we’re classified primarily as staff at the UC Davis Teaching Resources Center, even though we teach, too–and yes, that’s kind of an injustice) are invited to serve on various campus committees. The danger is trying to keep these responsibilities in check so that the director doesn’t become a de facto member of 15 campus committees. From this position, the teaching center staff/faculty are in position to effect broader campus policy on such issues as instructional technology or electronic accessibility or intellectual property/commons.

    One more idea: If you want your teaching fellow program to flourish, I recommend co-locating these faculty, if possible by giving them extra offices situated in the same suite or hallway and imposing a modest residency requirement (e.g. similar office hours) and/or twice-monthly meetings. Such tactics have worked well, I’ve heard, with faculty fellows in our campus humanities institute.

    You probably already have figured out much of this, but I wanted to articulate my experiences for you in the hopes that they’re helpful as UMW launches its new center.

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