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.

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.