In Part 1 of this essay, I discussed the ways in which college faculty members can become better teachers by learning about and responding to their students’ backgrounds and needs. There's another part of the equation, though: They can also benefit by thinking in more pedagogically rich ways about their very disciplines -- and their institutions can help them.
When I directed the Freshman Composition Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, my staff and I organized a gathering where faculty from a wide range of disciplines – English to geography to mathematics – came together to talk about their writing. We asked the participants to bring the early drafts of an article they were currently writing – even if what they had was on bar napkins and the backs of envelopes – and engage with each other in a discussion across disciplines about their process of writing, the way they use it to frame and solve problems, the conventions of argumentation in their discipline, and the difficulties they have with writing.
A rich conversation ensued, during which people talked about writing from multiple perspectives and heard accounts of writing that in some cases were pretty different from their own. In the afternoon, we asked them to think and talk about the ways their discussion might help them more effectively and creatively use writing in their own courses, from the framing of student assignments to the ways they respond to their students’ writing.
This activity enabled faculty members to step outside of their own experiences with writing, to think about writing as writing, and to turn what they were coming to understand toward helping their students become better writers – or, at the least, to think more about their students as writers.
A different gathering might ask faculty to reflect on their disciplines, particularly on what it was that first drew them to literature, or astronomy, or economics. They could be asked to step back and explain as succinctly as they could to those outside of their disciplines what the discipline helps us to understand about the world, what set of lenses it provides to help us better perceive what surrounds us. Caught up in institutional life, in professional responsibilities, in classes and exams, we can easily lose sight of basic passions and first principles.
What is revealed when one looks at the world with an eye to economic trends over time, or patterns of social behavior, or the workings of biological and physical systems? Participants could then consider ways to revitalize their introductory courses with these basic orientations. For, at the end of the day, the purpose of those courses – especially if they are general education requirements – is not to get students to commit to memory a host of facts about sociology or biology, but to acquire a sociological or biological way of thinking, with all the attendant questions that way of thinking entails.
Of course, you can’t teach these disciplinary processes without teaching the “content” of the disciplines themselves. But the above activities can liberate instructors from a slavish commitment to “coverage” and spark useful conversations with their peers about what is essential for students to know in order to understand something about their discipline, and how faculty might better invite students into that discipline.
After that workshop on writing, some faculty changed the way they thought about the uses of writing in their courses. After so many years of study, of immersion in a discipline, we can begin to think in pretty narrow ways about writing in academic settings: It’s either a specialized pursuit (something we do) or a means by which we evaluate students (something we do to them).
What the workshop did was bring back into focus the wide variety of uses of writing – to organize our thoughts, to explore an idea, to express ourselves, to communicate, to record and save – and gave all of us ideas about how to use writing in our classrooms. Some faculty experimented with more creative assignments or built in the opportunity for students to revise what they wrote. And some expanded their uses of writing, working writing into daily classroom activities. After a discussion of a topic, for example, students were given a few minutes to write a brief summary of big concepts, or an issue that remained uncovered in the discussion, or a question they had. (This technique would work equally well in occupational classes.)
Students didn’t turn in these small bits of writing but relied on them to guide further discussion or future study, using writing as an aid to thinking and learning.
So much academic professional development is frankly pretty awful -- it is short-term, conducted by outsiders, offers a quick fix – and it doesn’t speak to basic values that many faculty hold: an investment in their area of expertise and how to teach it better. These values are what brought them into the classroom in the first place, and the most effective faculty development draws on those values.
“We don’t create spaces on campus where faculty can talk about teaching and learn from each other,” a community college vice president told me recently. “We don’t cultivate a professional identity around teaching.”
Creating the conditions to foster such an identity should be our policy makers’ central concern.
Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. This excerpt originally appeared in Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education (The New Press), due out this month. Reprinted here with permission.
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