Big Ideas

I read a recent article from ‘The Teaching Professor’ rethinking – and rebalancing – the nexus of teaching and learning. In an critique of this duality, the article’s author Maryellen Weimer posits, “I’m after big changes here—a broader and more complex understanding of learning followed by the recognition that we need to devote less effort to improving teaching and more energy to larger learning objectives.” On my first read, I was struck by the bluntness of her assessment – after all, great teaching produces learning outcomes, right?

At least that is what I used to think, too. In my statistics course – my favorite course to teach – I spend considerable time thinking about how my teaching techniques can impact how students absorb the material and apply the concepts to real-world scenarios. But learning is a thick, difficult morass to navigate, let alone define, and so perhaps it is our focus on pedagogy – on teaching – that is easier to adjust or reinvent as we refine our practice.

Yet as bell hooks comments in Teaching to Transgress, “Students leave any classroom with information whether the pedagogy has been engaging or not” (p. 159). The question is, how does our sound pedagogy align with student learning? As Weimer considers, “Learning can happen without teachers, and it often does. But teaching without learning has no justification. Teaching binds to learning more strongly than learning connects to teaching, and teachers must be responsible for both.”

I love thinking about these big ideas in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I also love learning about new techniques, innovations, technologies, and active learning practices, but I really love the big questions.

Weimer’s point, and I believe bell hooks would agree, is that our teaching can be driven by student learning, but not just learning to pass an exam, rather by learning for living. As Dee Fink writes, learning is a requirement for life; “What seems clear is that everyone, everywhere, needs to be learning all the time throughout their whole life – if they wish to live a full, meaningful, and effective life” (p. 240). Which, considering hooks, we as faculty should be just as engaged in learning as we expect of our students, and “be empowered by our interactions with students…developing sharper understandings of how to share knowledge and what to do in my participatory role with students” (p. 152). We can learn about teaching and learning, as we continually teach for student learning.

But, we’ve come so far!

Over the first two weeks of this semester, I had several engaging conversations with my colleagues about yet another semester of pandemic teaching, and the longing for a return to normal. Certainly, this is a view many people share – in and out of our university and community – and with good spirit. We are less than two months from the two-year mark from the moment that sense of normal was upended and sent us nervously on to Zoom, discussions on D2L, and for the adventurous, other instructional technologies like Perusall, Flipgrid, and Google Jamboard.

In these conversations, I could not help interjecting with statements like, “but we’ve come so far” or ask a question like, “but what will I do with all of the content I have created online?” I offer these not just as the Director of Faculty Development and Innovation, but as someone who, in March of 2020, was firmly in the “I’ll never teach online” crowd. Honestly.

If nothing else, we have demonstrated just how committed we are to our teaching, to our students, to our disciplines, that we shook-off our rigidity and cultivated our flexibility. Even with the start to this term and the elective temporary hybrid approach, all we have done – all we have built – over the past 20 months made this a speedbump, not a roadblock.

In each of these conversations, some with individuals and some within committees, there was no conclusion on what the next pivot could be, or regression to Fall 2019, or how to move forward with all our flexibility and content and tools we amassed in order to teach our students.

But what if that is the answer? What if we keep evolving, progressing, innovating, and creating and re-creating as we define what is next? We have done so much work, why let that go and dust off our hand-written lecture notes?

I think about these questions daily – not only in this role leading your FDIC, but as an educator and professor. I admittedly do keep my lecture notes in a Microsoft Word file, updating them each semester, but now that does not seem good enough, especially as my students have all embraced flexible approaches to teaching and learning. So, I decided to meet them where they are now, in this moment, by reinventing my statistics course into a hybrid active learning classroom experience. I get to use the library of “how-to” videos I created over the past 2 years, and my students get a go-to source online to develop their skills in statistical analysis. Now lab projects are more active and engaged and provide space for discussion in our face-to-face sessions.

I know I am not alone; I have also learned of our colleagues revisioning normal with podcasts (including student-created projects), virtual reality platforms, graphic novels, phone apps, e-textbooks, and so many more. We have the opportunities, and the forced experience, to take our teaching forward. I know not everyone will see it from this perspective – and that is okay. But I am optimistic as we approach the two-year anniversary of pandemic teaching; I am encouraged and empowered, and I hope you find a way to be as well. You’ve worked hard to get to this point, and I know you and your students can benefit from how far we all have come. I hope you do appreciate that – an use it as we continue to evolve.

Find Your Tribe

I regularly read the “Teaching” newsletter published through the Chronicle of Higher Education which last week included a discussion on building a teaching community. The advice is sage; we, as faculty, should make an effort to find our tribe – so to speak – of faculty within our departs, our universities, and in our disciplines (broadly) to help us think about and work through the challenges of our work. The most important conclusion is really simple – we do not have to do this alone. Even in non-pandemic times, the advice resonates loudly: find your teaching tribe!

I think that there is really no way to tell yet just how our institution or higher education in general will evolve and respond post-pandemic; surely it will evolve to a new normal. But just because the outcome is uncertain does not mean we should not work to shape it now.

I held these two perspectives in my head most of the weekend, thinking about what it means to build one’s self a cadre of teaching buddies while not feeling certain where this moment leads or when it ends. And I came to this conclusion: this is a perfect partnership, or as Joe Cocker sings, we get by with a little help from our friends.

To build a network of fellow educators in higher ed is to arm yourself with allies, sounding boards, idea generators, feedback producers, and coffee companions. At any moment in our teaching lives, we know that this work is intellectually and physically demanding, but we are not isolated, we all go through this but have to be willing to talk about it. I have noticed more conversation between my colleagues this past year, and have I worked to engage with them, as well as my graduate school friends, former colleagues at other institutions, and within mentoring groups through professional organizations. For me, it has given assurance that not only are we going to make it through this moment, however long it may last, but we will have built a sustainable connection to lean on in for the rest of our careers. What ever the other side looks like, it will have its roots in what we do now, together.

Of course, the FDIC is here to help and can be one piece of your own teaching hamlet – but I do encourage you to seek those peers, mentors, and professionals to form your community.

To quote Joe Cocker, “All I need is my buddies (Ah, with a little help from my friends)”.

Grace, too

I write just three days out from submitting grades for the Spring 2021 semester – the end to an incredible 15 months of teaching and learning. And for the first time since March 2020, I returned to campus. I am now fully engaged in this transition to my role as director of faculty development and contemplating this very moment – this very opportunity.

Since my last dispatch, I have been blogging on the center’s internal blog about end-of-semester engagement techniques, the promotion of the center’s summer activities, and tips on rethinking assessments. I have spent the last few months co-facilitating a virtual, but wildly rewarding, mentoring program for new faculty and instructors, as well working along-side the outgoing to director to absorb as much of their wisdom and experience.

I also chair the advisory body to our Center, and in closing the term I was entrusted to make some big moves – including re-envisioning and re-writing the only grant program offered through the Center to promote faculty partnerships in teaching and learning.

And there was teaching happening, too.

Yet throughout all of this – managed from my kitchen counter due to the pandemic displacements – there has been this laser-like focus on the future – both for me as director and the Center itself. This was by far my most challenging and difficult year in higher education – even more than in 2010, my first year on faculty teaching all new preps and living 7 hours away from my life partner.

But it was also an empowering semester. I learned so much about myself, about my teaching, about the resilience of students, and the contributions and areas of growth of myself and my peers. I am doing everything I can to remember those moments because, to me, they scream of grace. Grace for my students, grace for my peers, grace for my supervisors, and grace for myself.

Nothing was perfect about this pandemic in high education; no one ordered it up, and no one crushed it in their response – I know I did not! But the question is now how do we move on from here? How do we use these semesters and their layered teachable moments, and move forward (and move up) from here? Here is asking that I (we) newly develop with grace.

Bread, Rubik’s Cube, and Intellectual Humility

I started baking bread about 3 years ago. I have always loved bread but baking it myself was something that proved to be elusive. Then life gave me a serious set of twists and turns, and I decided that, to focus my mind and my spirit, I would give it a solid try. My birthday falls near Mother’s Day, so in that spirit I enrolled my mother and I in a bread baking class at a cookery store near her home. From that moment forward, I have been on a self-taught bread journey that has been equal parts frustrating, rewarding, humbling and delicious.

What made me think about my bread baking was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about a learning experiment teaching professors how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. The article details the work of two professors, Lew Ludwig and Ben Haywood and their faculty development workshop between the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters to teach professors how to solve this 3 x 3 cuboid puzzle. The pair of faculty-developers set-up an online course complete with video lectures, written guides, a discussion board, and much more – just like an online, asynchronous course we could design for our students.

To learn to solve the Rubik’s Cube was, however, only the obvious reward for completing the course (of which only two-thirds of the registrants accomplished). The real point of the class was to reveal the phenomenon known as the expert’s blind spot. When we know a subject deeply, and devote your life to its study, we tend to forget just how difficult it was when we first sat as undergraduate students and struggled with the same content. This is exactly what happened with the faculty who participated in this challenge – similar patterns of frustration as our students often experience when learning new, often difficult material. For the professors, the real lesson is that of intellectual humility.

my bread box, the keeper of the loaves

Bread and the Rubik’s Cube are seemingly different media, but they are both puzzles, they require study, a focused mind, patience, and perseverance. As I am learning bread, I take to the task as any academic would: books, articles, videos, and many empirical observations (and at last count 7 notebooks filled with notes). I had started with baking traditional breads using packaged yeast, but once I thought I had the hang of it (which I did not, and still do not) I made the leap to sourdough (natural yeast). This phase has been an incredible journey in humility because the success of every loaf of sourdough is the result of time, temperature, temperament, how you knead the dough (by hand or mixer?), how you let it rest, and then rise, and knowing (guessing) when it is ready to bake!

There is also an entire lexicon in bread baking including words like hydration, fermentation, and autolyse. There are formulas for the desired dough temperature and the baker’s percentage, there is a glut of specialized gadgets for working with dough, and countless techniques, tips, tricks, and failures to learn from online and on social media.

I teach statistics to students who want to be social workers and police officers, so I am continually confronting a gap between my enthusiasm for the standard error and sampling distributions with students who go out of their way on the first day of class to let me know that they hate math. It is my job to help them on their statistics journey while trying to preserve the integrity of the discipline. But I am also a sociologist, not a professional baker; while I may have a different level of enthusiasm for baking bread than my students do for learning statistics, I can image the professional baker’s confusion over my lack of fervor for using the stretch-and-fold technique in dough development.

Every loaf I bake is a reminder that I am just getting started – and I need to be patient with myself…and my students. Every loaf is an opportunity to fail – and that is the point – learning how to learn and confront my expert blind spot – reminds me what it is like being (and to embrace being) a frustrated, confused, anxious novice.

Just last weekend I pulled a loaf of bread out of my oven that was as flat as a pancake – mimicking the topography of Kansas rather than an airy loaf. Clearly, not a good result in terms of bread, but a perfect lesson in this on-going journey of intellectual humility.

Moving Forward: Teaching Philosophies in a Post-COVID Era

“Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who you are – so you can more wisely build the future” – Paulo Freire

Across higher education as well as my own institution, the question of what college will look like “post-COVID” is front and center. Any week the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and several other related sources publish articles, op-eds, and interviews on our post-COVID realities.

We have learned there is not much we can control in terms of the pandemic itself, governmental responses, or even how universities have met this moment. But as we emerge as faculty from this year of education triage, I have been thinking about what this means for myself and my peers who put the “education” in higher education.

As an educator who thrives on face-to-face classroom interactions with my students, this past year of isolation and online learning has been a challenge for me and my pedagogy. As I devoured any online training, research article, or book on online education, I found myself thinking (and rethinking) my own approach to teaching. In this tour-de-force, I was recommended a recently published article by Beatty, Leigh, and Dean (2020) on the connections of teaching philosophy statements and student learning. You might remember that teaching philosophy statement as the singular document you wrote as a piece of your application package (and have never given it another thought), or perhaps you revisit it annually when pulling together materials for your evaluation, or maybe it is printed and hanging on your office wall. Wherever one might fall in this continuum, perhaps we might revisit that statement of our personal values, connections with our discipline and university, and our “classroom” practices.

In this article, the authors reflect back on a decade of their work using a simple card-sort exercise to help faculty discover their own teaching philosophies. The exercise simply asks participants to sort cards with words or phrases such as “interdisciplinary” or “learning-by-doing” based on how the participant feels that card represents their own ideas about teaching and learning. On the reverse side of each card is the name of a theorist or approach to teaching and learning; the cards that best match with the participant can act as a catalyst for further work to explore more deeply and formally execute a philosophy of teaching statement. The cards that are chosen, through several rounds of guided imagery and written drafts, lead to a more formal statement.

Why is this statement important? Whether created with this card-sorting method or some other reflexive means, Beatty, Leigh, and Duncan (2020, pp. 538-9) argue, “Having a teaching philosophy based on lived experience as well as our dreams for the future allows a liberating way to negotiate the terms of our engagement with students in real time, iteratively, and based creatively on our students’ needs…In all of our experiences thus far, our choices of modalities are much less important than our orientation to supplying a high-quality learning experience for our students.” As the authors show, these statements – and our commitment to them – make us better educators.

This really stuck with me as I think not just about my current reality teaching online, but of my future practice back in the classroom, and as I prepare to transition into my forthcoming role as Director of Faculty Development. In doing so, I have often asked myself, “What is it that I can build on from this past year that can define and describe my agency as a professor and faculty developer? Having survived this moment, what are my holistic views of the teaching process and the interactions between teaching and learning?”

While there is much left to be discovered in the shape and nature of the post-COVID university, perhaps one place we can start – and control – is right back at the basics, that statement of our ongoing personal and professional development. I have learned a lot about my myself, my teaching, and student learning this past year; the challenge is now to take the best of these lessons and evolve moving forward – starting with this teaching philosophy.

Learning to be.

I was sitting at my computer early this morning taking a moment to make my “to-do” list for the day. I am not a “list” person; some days I forget to begin a list until I have already completed 3 or 4 activities that need crossing-off! The first item on my list everyday needs to be “1. Make a list”. This morning my list consisted solely of course design activities. No grading (though I have some to do), no meetings, and only a handful of emails to write. Since the pandemic has placed me involuntarily at my kitchen counter to plan and conduct my courses, I have tried to become a list person; it seems the only way I can keep my head above water most days.

But this pandemic has also given me the opportunity to look at my pedagogy and praxis differently. I am one of those educators who thrives off of being face-to-face: the classroom is as much a social event for me as it is an arena of knowledge creation. Taking my senior-level seminars and my beloved statistics courses from “all the way live” to an asynchronous modality definitely made me feel like my wings were clipped.

In the past 10 months I have participated in nearly twenty webinars and trainings on becoming a passable – if not competent – online educator. In addition, my university offers the Online Course Design Institute (OCDI) to provide faculty with suggested guidelines and training necessary to develop a quality online course. The aim is “to enhance the online teaching and learning experiences of both faculty and students and encourage effective engagement and collaboration in the online environment.” The course is great, and I learned very much about the structure and function of an online learning milieu, but it did not do much to better empower the content of my courses.

Admittedly, I spent the last 10 months feeling like I was 30 minutes ahead of my students. There was very little time between my last key-stroke and the moment modules and lessons opened on the learning management system (LMS). And I worked seven days per week, just to crank out three courses worth of content in hopes that I served my students well.

It has also been important to ensure some level of justice to my ideal that my role is not as a “distributor of information” but rather as the “agent whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment”. So I began spending an increasing amount of time thinking about course design not as modules, discussion boards, and student self-assessments, but as a means to empower learning and the discovery of knowledge. I was spending days just thinking about how best to craft materials to activate my students.

In effect, this pandemic was a catalyst for me to rethink my teaching as I relearned just how much fun it is to do this work. Teaching face-to-face is not teaching online, and being forced to redevelop my methods and practices of teaching made for the hardest period of my career – but also the most rewarding.

There is this continued dialog between the content I create and present, and how my students understand and experience it; I have known this as long as I have been teaching. But up until last March, I have relied on my physical presence in the classroom or in informal meetings and activities – all the way live – to literally be the messenger. A manicured lecture video through a computer screen is just not the same.

But there is also the dialog I have with that same content as it is being conceived, designed, materialized, and now posted in the LMS. This new conversation between myself and the content has been incredibly rewarding and empowering, it is exciting and provocative, and hard as hell. When I teach face-to-face, I can facilitate this message live – but teaching asynchronously online, once the content is posted, it is out of my hands.

Arnold Wentzel, in his text Teaching Complex Ideas, writes of an idea of how to present information to students not as they are now, “Rather, think of them as who they will be in the future, after they are transformed by the understanding you want them to have” (p.3) In essence, the idea is learning to be not learning about.

And this is exact lesson I have learned about myself, too. Because I am learning about the educator I will be when I can once again stand at the front a room filled with bodies ready to learn about standard deviations or dialectical materialism. I am learning to be, not about.

I am taking many notes on this and other realizations I am having because not only is it going to make me a better educator when I can re-enter the physical classroom, but it is also useful as I transition to my new role as Director of Faculty Development. One of the issues that I know will be paramount will be unfurling from pandemic-era higher education on a campus known for its face-to-face instruction. There will be many of my peers, as myself, eager to get back to ‘normal’, but we will be teaching students who have yet to experience college without most of it proctored through an LMS and computer terminal. My role will be in negotiating these tensions, and providing an example of how we can take the best of our online pandemic-era teaching back to those lecterns, chalkboards, and live discussions.

Reading List

When I am starting a new project, I fully take on the stereotypical academic practice of latching on to books and articles and any reliable relevant source of information about that subject. And again, guilty as charged. Actually, I have been amassing books and articles on faculty development, the scholarship of teaching and learning, innovative classroom strategies, critical pedagogies, and mentoring for quite some time. With the semester break looming, I am very much looking forward to reading words on paper pages that I can hold in my hands – and I have narrowed the list to four books:

I have been doing some work researching the use of informal faculty and student interactions to build understanding and empathy. I was inspired by my long-held role coordinating a program on my campus that links a troupe of “faculty fellows” with the housing department to foster informal, social activities between students and faculty. Research has shown these informal, but purposeful interactions have impacted student resilience, persistence, self-esteem, retention, and progress toward graduation. So I picked up Relationship-Rich Education by Peter Felten and Leo Lambert. This is a topic close to my heart, and I am interested to see the results of this research.

I teach statistics to sociology and criminology students. Which means I am teaching complex ideas to students who are not statisticians nor do they have dreams and aspirations to become one. On the first day of class I often hear just how much they hate math. Of course, statistics is not math – but that is for another post. On a recommendation from the current Director of Faculty Development, I picked up Teaching Complex Ideas by Arnold Wentzel. I have started reading this in hopes of building strategies to transform my expertise in to great lessons for my students – on a level where math is…hated.

I am also going to re-read Radical Hope by Kevin Gannon. I read this prior to the semester and it helped me reshape and rethink the language in my syllabi, universal design, and inclusive teaching. I want to re-read the book on the other side of a most improbable semester to take stock and evaluate how I think I did on some of these goals.

But I am most excited for Ungrading edited by Susan Blum. This collection of essays takes to task how we evaluate students to rethink the process of learning; as the book website states, the book can “show why and how faculty who wish to focus on learning, rather than sorting or judging, might proceed.” I even joined a virtual book discussion group that will stretch out over the next several months, so the learning is not going to be contained just to these pages.

I have an entire other stack of articles, and blogs, and podcasts, and…so begins this critically reflective and transformative time in my career.

“The very acts of trying to teach well, of adopting a critically reflective practice to improve our teaching and our students’ learning are radical, in that word’s literal sense: they are endeavors aimed at fundamental, root-level transformation. And they are acts of hope because they imagine that process of transformation as one in which a better future takes shape out of our students’ critical refusal to abide the limitations of the present.” – Kevin Gannon, Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto

Developing Faculty

In my application letter to be the next director of the Faculty Development and Innovation Center at Eastern Illinois University, I stated that I am just as interested in faculty development as I am in developing faculty. Acknowledging the impact that a global pandemic has taken on faculty, staff, and students, I knew that I was applying for a position that at the forefront of ensuring my colleagues were supported and prepared for the precariousness of the moment. I wrote:

The university, and the state of higher education as a whole, are experiencing an important moment as we weather the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes are offered in multiple modalities – often not reflecting the strengths of individual faculty – but out of necessity and duty. We understand both the impact higher education has on the lives of our students and the mission to serve them as best we can. As we come through this incredible time, there is an opportunity and mandate to ensure that our faculty, my peers, are again empowered to be their best selves. While so many of us have learned the ins and outs of online learning platforms, designing online lectures, synchronous and asynchronous designs, and discovery of the potential educational technology, how we re-engage in traditional instruction will be the most important challenge to the FDIC in the coming months and years. Eastern Illinois University has a reputation built on its in-class, in-person instruction, and the FDIC is vital to continue this legacy.

The mission of the Faculty Development and Innovation Center is to help Eastern Illinois University faculty achieve and maintain excellence in teaching, scholarship, and creativity through training opportunities, grants, and fostering a community of collegial learning. I appreciate this core mission and its importance for our university. But I have ideas and a vision if I were to be given the opportunity to direct this center and serve this mission. I know that there are amazing people like our Director of Learning Innovation and our Instructional Designer, as well as instructional support specialists and information technology specialists across campus. These individuals have proven themselves in aiding the educational mission, especially during the pandemic. This, as well as the online and physical resources of the center are addressing the critical faculty development mission of the FDIC.

But I am also interested in developing faculty, and this, to me, speaks to the fostering of a community of collegial learning. From New Faculty Orientation through mentoring and empowerment of our instructors, I would like to grow programs that help build and sustain a community of teacher-scholars. I know it may take time and buy-in, but as we emerge from this year of social distancing and multiple modalities, supporting faculty and instructors as faculty and instructors seems a worthy task.

While I do not officially take over until June 1, 2021, I have officially begun my development. Beginning January 1, 2021, I will be a fellow in the center, learning the role and responsibilities of the director position, working to build and implement programs, and ease the transition between myself and the current director.

This blog, “Developing Faculty,” is the acknowledgement that I have much to learn – to develop myself – as I take on this important role. I have always been interested in pedagogy, the scholarship of teaching and learning, working closely with students, and the power of empathy plays in and outside of the college classroom. But here I document my adventure in transitioning to this new role – ideas I may have, reviews of books and articles, shout-outs to others in the field, and other musings that may emerge.

But what I do know is my philosophy of teaching – my anchor to my primary passion as a university educator – and it is the spirit and growth mindset with which I will approach this journal as well:

My pedagogy and teaching philosophy are rooted in collaboration, inquiry, empathy and empowerment, and a growth mindset. I believe in high impact educational methods, but I know that such practices range from online and technological innovations to a simple pad of paper and colored markers, or even informal conversation over coffee or lunch. I take pride in being an educator-scholar, using my passion for service and research to inform my teaching and praxis. But from a student-centered perspective; the foundation of higher education is the students, and the mortar of this institution is the relationship between students and faculty. This is why I want to direct this center – in service to our students and my peers.