Homework for Profs: Perfect the Art of Teaching

Even at teaching-oriented colleges, writes Kim Mooney, it's essential for faculty members to rejuvenate their classroom skills.

August 1, 2008

With elections looming in the fall, lawmakers are focusing on college access, cost reduction and accountability. Missing from this national dialogue is a discussion about what college students need to know and be able to do by the time they graduate, and the responsibility of the faculty to identify the needed skills and knowledge in order to design the appropriate curriculum. Put another way, we need to talk more about what and how we teach college students.

So homework for professors is not optional, considering that every discipline is increasingly specialized and every classroom increasingly technology-driven. But when during the busy academic year are professors supposed to fine-tune their classroom skills, especially if the emphasis is on developing subject areas not directly connected to one’s publication record?

Whether new to the professoriate, careening into mid-career, or inquiring about phased retirement plans, faculty members from doctoral universities to residential liberal arts colleges are faced with the similar pressing challenge: engaging 21st century college students in the kind of learning that will lead to success in life, work and citizenship.

Faculty development programs or centers for teaching and learning, used for years at research universities to train teaching assistants, are relatively new to the liberal arts crowd. And it’s a growing trend that is notable because it confronts the assumption that liberal arts professors-who are already passionate about teaching are also already extraordinary in the classroom.

According to the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD), which is dedicated to developing and supporting faculty and administrative leaders enhancing learning and teaching on their campuses, approximately 80 percent of doctoral-extensive institutions in the United States are POD members, compared to the 15 percent of liberal arts colleges. Faculty development programs and centers for teaching and learning have increased in number in the past few years, but we still need to convince more faculty members on more campuses that they have something to gain from participation in professional development activities and administrations still need substantive evidence that it’s important to support such programs.

The fact is that while excellent teaching is central to the liberal arts mission, everyone’s teaching needs regular rejuvenation and context. Rejuvenation often means adopting new teaching methods to deliver the content, and context means understanding how you can use your course to help students develop in ways that will serve them well in their lives.

Undergraduate teaching is a hot topic because there has been public pressure on colleges to be more accountable and because a few respected academics have written books critical of university teaching. But it’s also a hot topic because professors want to learn to use new classroom technologies and to more deeply engage students in the learning process. The "stand and deliver" teaching practice, where brilliant oration is equated with great teaching, is no longer the iconic classroom model, especially on liberal arts campuses with small, intimate classes, and students who expect to actually discuss the assigned reading.

At St. Lawrence University, a liberal arts institution with about 2,000 students, our experience is that the best time to think about teaching is right after commencement, before faculty go abroad with students or start teaching summer courses. May College, as it is called, has been held for several years during the week after graduation. Faculty participate because they want to learn about emerging classroom techniques, understand the curricular “big picture” and collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines.

May College is run like most conferences in higher education: Each day starts with a plenary session that frames a curricular or pedagogical issue and is followed by multiple, sometimes concurrent hour-long sessions, mostly facilitated by faculty colleagues. One session may engage participants in a discussion of how to better align grading practices with course goals, another may provide successful examples of how to generate robust classroom discussions, and another my offer hands-on instruction on both practical and creative assignments involving student podcasts. The exchange of ideas and advice continues during coffee breaks and lunches as St. Lawrence professors reflect on how they are going to attempt a new approach to a perennial classroom question when classes resume in the fall.

But thinking about how to teach is not divorced from thinking about what to teach. During the most recent May College, over 60 participants contemplated what a liberal arts education should be in 2008, and used as their template the American Association of Colleges & Universities project “Liberal Education and America’s Promise,” the only report I know of that surveyed employers and alumni about the kind of learning needed for life, work, and citizenship.

We began by addressing what it means to be literate in a global society. Literacy in the 21st century is not only about conventional text-based reading competency but also includes technology and media applications and extends into visual, quantitative, civic and intercultural realms of knowledge. These literacies should not compete in a curriculum, but rather should complement one another; indeed, “the effectiveness of liberal education is in its entirety; not in any discrete part,” according to the AAC&U report.

As humanists considered how to incorporate quantitative reasoning in their writing assignments and librarians demonstrated the rapid pace at which digitization has changed our students’ approach to research papers, May College participants better understood the purpose for our gathering together: the demands of preparing our students for global literacy and citizenship make liberal education more critical than at any other time in history. As faculty, we must take advantage of the opportunities like May College, to nurture, advance and ultimately model what we mean by one of the central goals of liberal education, the desire and capacity for lifelong learning.


Kim Mooney is associate professor of psychology; special assistant to the president for assessment; and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y.


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