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.

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.