A few months ago I had the pleasure of serving as a small-group facilitator at a week-long Course Design Institute at my university, created and led by two great professors from other universities. Over the course of the five full days, 36 faculty from various disciplines came together with ambitions of developing new or substantially revised syllabi and creating richer, more active classroom environments truly centered on student learning.
The week was a success any way I measure it—great syllabi were developed, the faculty learned and were energized—but something else came out of it, too: I was able to talk with professors in nearly every department in my university, which rarely happens in general and even more rarely happens in a “safe” environment where people feel they can speak openly about their struggles in the classroom. Egos were cast aside, as were titles and rank. During this five-day period, over lunches and on breaks, as well as in small and large group discussions, we talked about our teaching in ways that felt, to me, both more genuine and more productive than the conversations I’m used to having with faculty outside of my program. And overall, those conversations proved to be the most invigorating moments of the whole week. Here are the things I learned:
1. We feel anxiety when class veers from the norm too.
A few weeks ago, the satirical news outlet The Onion published a story with the headline, “Oh, God, Teacher Arranged Desks in Giant Circle.” The headline alone perfectly captured the fear just about everyone feels when tasked with anything new in the classroom. As one of the facilitators stated, “That low-level anxiety you feel? It’s conducive to learning.” And while it’s important to know what works in the classroom, it’s perhaps even more important to remember that sometimes we are asking our students to do things that make them just a little uncomfortable.
2. And we’re embarrassingly like our students in other ways too.
We can’t find a stapler the morning the paper is due. We’re six minutes late in the morning. We can’t help but check our phone on the sly. And our email. And our other email. And Facebook. We also didn’t do all of the reading. We tried, but we just couldn’t. And this is wonderful news. Because when we’re teaching for a while, it’s very easy to forget what it’s like to be a student. To have to sit still while someone else talks. To balance five different classes. To not be in control and to not have enough time and to struggle a little.
3. Learning is hard.
Okay, I didn’t just realize this. I know this. Of course I know this. But like most professors, I have moments in the classroom when I sometimes think, “But I taught this! And you were sitting right there! How do you not know it?” And then, on day two of this week-long institute, I struggled with a particularly complex pedagogical concept, and hearing it explained three times didn’t quite illuminate it for me.
4. We really do, as a whole, care about our students’ learning, and we care about them as people.
I hear it all the time from my students, because I have the luxury of teaching mostly quite small writing courses: Their other professors don’t know their names. They cancel class with no warning. They don’t get back to them. So I sometimes feel disillusioned with other faculty around my university. Why are they here if they don’t want to teach? And I hear about the struggle from other professors too. I can either publish or teach well, but I can’t do both. And sometimes that’s true, and I’m sympathetic, but it doesn’t change the fact that it can sometimes feel that student learning isn’t a priority. But over the course of the week, I was surrounded by people who genuinely cared about their students’ learning, and who were devoicing significant time and energy to improving it. I realized that, while this is admittedly a self-selected group, professors from all across the university really do care about being effective in the classroom, and we really do care about our students as learners. The week of the workshop also happened to correspond to the release of spring course evaluations and the writing of annual reports, and it was the first time I had the experience of talking with faculty members about evaluations when our feelings were so raw. One instructor said, “They said I don’t care about them! I care so much about them. I’m up late worrying about them!”
5. We can learn just as much from chemistry professors as we can anthropology professors as we can Spanish professors.
I was blown away by the innovative work that people in all disciplines across my university were doing, even if this innovative work was only one small part of the learning their students were doing. A Spanish instructor has students digitally record ambitious dialogue. A writing professor includes musical composition in his assessments. An anthropologist has students creating textiles. We tend to think that our disciplines are unique, and while that’s true in specific ways, how learning happens in our classrooms doesn’t have to be, and hearing the shared ideas of colleagues was inspiring—and it left me with pages of notes for spins on their projects that I might steal (see below).
6. We are all borrowing (stealing) teaching ideas all the time.
I have always struggled to understand the proprietary nature some instructors operate under. (I am lucky to teach in a program where tons of sharing happens, but that’s not always the case.) During the course of this institute, I heard time and time again about how this assignment came from someone else’s assignment, which was probably based on someone else’s assignment before that. A public health professor relays a lesson he stole (more on that below) has his students reenact the investigation of a 19th century epidemic. A political science professor talks about how he adjusted a classroom activity he saw enacted in an art history classroom. A biologist gathered some interesting scaffolding techniques from a colleague in the English department. And that’s great!
7. But we need to be stealing more thoughtfully.
In the past, I have grabbed hold of and implemented what seemed to be engaging, effective activities and assessments. And often my students would be engaged—amazing! But sometimes, eventually, I would realize that the assignment didn’t necessarily prepare students in just the right way for what I was asking them to do. My philosophy is to steal away, as long as you’re doing so carefully, in a way that genuinely supports your course goals (and you’re giving credit to the creator of the assessment!).
8. Even the best faculty fail sometimes.
And that’s okay. I heard from distinguished, award-winning faculty tell stories about disasters in the classroom, and But what was more interesting—of course—was hearing how they solved those problems. How did they refocus on the student? How did they spark motivation? How did they develop clearer goals and steps for their students to reach those goals? The answers to these questions developed out of failure and panic were inevitably brilliant. Because that’s what I can—we can—work with.