Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Teaching Teaching vs. Doing Teaching

A debate of sorts (mostly one-sided, with me on the one side) has recently arisen on campus about the distinction between "professional development" and "faculty development," because our particular corporate culture thinks that college teachers constantly have to be taught how to teach, no matter how long they've been at it.

A few years ago, I wrote a rather infamous letter to our then-HR person when the faculty development (they weren't making much of a distinction then) requirement went up from twelve hours per academic year to eighteen--because we had been so good at meeting the twelve-hour requirement. I can still remember the opening line of the letter: "I don't know how you spent your summer vacation, but here's what I did"--and proceeded to recount everything I'd done on my two-week break between the spring and summer quarters. These included museum visits on the drive between Dallas and eastern California, visits to national parks, archaeological site-visits to photograph stuff I talked about in class, all in the ten days it took to drive there and back again. I even got in a couple of days' visit with my folks.

I returned to a notice during our "in-service" period (it's called Twelfth Week, but I don't think any connection with Shakespeare was intended), that we needed to jack up the hours we spent learning how to teach (or what to teach). Never mind that we almost never don't teach. This is a proprietary four-year college, in session forty four weeks per year, and full-time faculty are on campus thirty hours per week, teaching a required load of five four-hour classes (or combinations of course loads that add up to at least twenty hours). Comparable community college instructors teach five three-hour classes per semester (fifteen weeks), for two semesters, with extra pay for teaching summer classes. And although they are expected to show evidence of professional development and academic citizenship during their annual performance reviews, there is no "clock-hour" requirement and no distinction between "how" and "what" they teach when it comes to doing so (they can publish, go to meetings, participate in symposia, etc.). The semi-annual all-college gathering usually features a speaker who talks about new educational trends, but there are no required "PowerPoint and the Future of Education" lessons.

Okay, so we're different. Our faculty members are, for the most part, artists and design professionals who have not necessarily been mentored into teaching like most college teachers. New instructors (no tenure system here, so we're all "instructors") are required to attend faculty orientation sessions which include training in how to teach, the concept of a learning-centered environment (as opposed to a teaching-centered environment), and if, during their first few quarters they run into problems, they're provided with tools and training to help them get over the hump. The requirements are the same for both program and general studies instructors, even though gen ed graduates have almost always spent time teaching under the supervision of their professors.

Lately, however, the Powers That Be have decided to increase the faculty development quotient; we're now responsible for twenty four "clock hours" of training on how to teach what we teach. This is in addition to a less well-defined component of professional development, which encompasses fields of expertise. Because we are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), our instructors are now required to earn master's level advanced degrees (with corporate pressure to make these terminal degrees, such as MFAs and PhDs). This very fact makes professional development a no-brainer for people in grad school.

But here's my problem: why do we have to distinguish how we teach from what we teach in the first place? Socrates would most certainly be rolling around in his grave, since teaching and doing philosophy were, to him and to most of us who have adopted him as a model, the same thing. You are, as I keep harping, what you do. This is how philosophers see the world; one can't even really do philosophy without teaching it, because that's what writing and interpretation is all about. Some colleges, like Kent State, seem to make little distinction between the two, and I'm sure they're not alone.

I'm not saying that how-to-teach seminars can't be useful. A couple of years after my post-summer break tantrum, we had a workshop on how to create rubrics that describe what each grade we post actually means. What constitutes an A or B? What distinguishes a B from a C? This turned out to be such a successful strategy (because it solves the "numbers" problem for those of us who find it difficult to quantify learning) that I immediately went through my courses and objectives and made beautiful charts to help me determine how well my students were achieving the objectives. These are now tied to evaluation sheets that accompany every graded project my students submit.

I also balked at the idea of lesson plans (that's so high school, I smugly complained), but after laying out week by week and topic by topic what I wanted to cover over the quarter, and how I wanted to assess my students' accomplishment of goals, I was hooked. These plans have changed over the years as I modify content and approach (after using my reflective assessment process to figure out what's working and what's not), but they're also coming in really handy as I prepare to take a quarter off to get my heart working properly again--so I can go on teaching for as long as anybody can stand me. Sessions on how to construct good lesson plans would, therefore, be useful, especially for general studies types like me who are more used to seminars where everyone reads the same stuff and then discusses, interprets, and writes about it.

Art and design history courses, like those I mostly teach, require careful planning to make sure students are exposed over and over again to images, their context, and their history. They require critical analysis as well, which is difficult to accomplish in a school (and a world) where students just don't read. I can assign readings until I turn purple, but unless I test them on the content, they won't even click on the link that takes them directly to the pages I want them to consider, much less read and take notes on the content. I don't give true/false, multiple-choice, scanable exams, so students have to spend most of their time creating workbooks that contain images and notes based on the lectures. Nobody else I know of does this, and so over the years I've flown by the seat of my pants. I have to learn by doing, as I have this quarter, that just assigning the stuff isn't working. I'm going to have to develop activities for the workbooks that take them beyond the lectures (where they're often quite engaged and even curious), and more deeply into representative artists, works, and movements. I have to work even harder at finding ways to encourage them to actually think about what they're seeing.

In order to do this, I read books, scour the internet, read the Chronicle of Higher Education, and pore over popularized treatments of art history like Ross King's books (Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Brunelleschi's Dome, The Judgment of Paris, etc.) and Margaret Wertheim's wonderful explorations of the junctures of art, science, and technology (The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace). In fact, I read about thirty books a year on science, culture, art, and history--and I'm not sure why that doesn't count, even though these books--in teaching me about stuff I don't know and making me think--are teaching me how to teach. I also blog my brains out, which requires me to explore topics I might never have even thought of considering, as I respond to what others are teaching me.

The upshot is this: I cannot separate how I teach from what I teach. They are forged continuously together like the shards of Narsil into a complete sword, or knitting into a sweater, or layers in Photoshop into a finished image. Of course, nothing is ever finished, because everything flows--as the early philosopher Heraclitus famously noted. You may never be able to step into the same river twice, but if you attend to what you're doing, you'll notice how the stream changes, and detect patterns that might help keep you from falling in and drowning.

Enough with the bad metaphors. But my plea is that education, even in a corporate setting, be more accommodating to innovation and accident--and to process. Three hours spent sitting through a "stress management" session amounts to three hours I can't be reading a good book that will help me become a better teacher because it engages my little gray cells and causes me to make useful connections. If you want to manage my stress, get me a massage (we did that once; it was wonderful!).

Or, offer more of what a colleague and I did before this quarter began. One of our chef instructors and I discovered that we have a common interest in the history of food and how cultures develop their distinctive cuisines. So we put together a presentation on Egyptian food and culture (called, rather absurdly, "A Taste of Tut") that showed how the humanities and the culinary arts interact. In order to get it accepted as a suitable topic for faculty development training, we had to stress the interdisciplinarity of the project, and the co-operative aspect of the "teaching." But we had a great time, attendees learned some things they didn't already know, and the chefs made some great beer.

Now that's faculty development. But it's also professional development. So maybe we should re-think the distinction and become more generally interdisciplinary in our approach to how we teach what we do. I can almost guarantee that the faculty will be more content, less cantankerous, and more engaged--which, I suspect, would be good for us all.

Image apologies: Hendrick ter Brugghen's Heraclitus, at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. The Naples Socrates, by Domenico Anderson, in the Museo Nazionale di Napoli. Both via Wikimedia Commons. Heraclitus's tattoo is courtesy P22 Fonts (Acropolis Now) and one of Patrick Lynch's heart diagrams (see the Cabinet for more). I stole the idea for Socrates's mustache, of course, from Marcel Duchamp.