When I speak with faculty about the importance of creating community around teaching, I often reference a wonderful essay by Lee Shulman, professor emeritus at Stanford University and past president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In the essay, Shulman talks about his belief as a junior faculty member that he would conduct research in solitude, but enjoy a vibrant community in his teaching life. He quickly realized his mistake: “What I didn’t understand as a new Phd was that I had it backwards! We experience isolation not in the stacks but in the classroom. We close the classroom door and experience pedagogical solitude, whereas in our life as scholars, we are members of active communities: communities of conversation, communities of evaluation, communities in which we gather with others in our invisible colleges to exchange our findings, our methods, and our excuses.” In fact, we often teach our classes without any collegial input, feedback, or intervention. When a class doesn’t go well, we may complain about it to a trusted colleague at the proverbial water cooler, but we don’t evaluate our beliefs about teaching or the teaching methods we use in any real way. Even peer review of teaching is often a checkbox exercise devoid of meaningful feedback or plans for improvement, especially when done as a required element of promotion or contract renewal.
Perhaps we like it this way. It’s uncomfortable to receive feedback that might require us to consider alternative ways of teaching, or realize that what we have been doing for years needs to be refreshed. And, by the way, it’s not super comfortable to give feedback to colleagues either. The upshot is that we may struggle alone with lessons or whole semesters that don’t go as planned, with students that we are having trouble inspiring, or with SFFs that are less than stellar. It can be a lonely place.
One of the most positive developments that came out of the pandemic was a renewed surge of professional development in which faculty were able to examine their own practices and, together with colleagues, imagine new strategies for teaching. Faculty in our workshops engaged with each other, hungry to get information and learn new methods for reaching their students in this new, unfamiliar online world. While discussing any number of teaching questions in breakout room activities, faculty got involved in such deep conversations and engaged in such generative support of each other that they didn’t want to come back when we closed the breakout rooms. We joked that Zoom should create a “reject” button so faculty could refuse to return if they didn’t want to leave those rich conversations behind. For some faculty, this was the first time they had had an opportunity to really think about their teaching with colleagues, other professionals who also wanted to discuss teaching. As one participant wrote in our post-workshop survey, it “blew my mind.” In fact, we often hear that participants found some of the most meaningful aspects of our workshops to be hearing from other faculty about their own experiences, and discussing specific examples related to the teaching question at hand.
As we’ve begun slowly to return to in-person teaching and a more normalized routine, it is so easy to fall back again into pre-pandemic isolation. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just as Lee Shulman calls us to make teaching “community property,” I urge you to put on your fall to-do list the establishment of intentional ways to continue to connect with colleagues in order to discuss teaching, unravel sticky problems, and celebrate the triumphs along the way. That might mean setting aside a “talking about teaching” hour every month over coffee with a trusted colleague, carving out a piece of your departmental meetings to share interesting teaching ideas or to ask for feedback on an innovation you are planning to implement. It can also mean creating a constellation of like-minded colleagues that can act as a cohort of support for each other or organizing a structured peer review of teaching protocol to ensure you get periodic feedback on direct observation of your teaching. It can also mean attending CAT workshops and events where you’ll have the opportunity to engage with an interdisciplinary group of faculty to delve into pedagogical explorations that will enrich your teaching.
Community is way better than isolation. So put on your to-do list for fall that you will take a first step towards finding a community of teachers committed to teaching excellence. And remember, as always, that the CAT is part of that community.
Stephanie Fiore is Assistant Vice Provost at Temple's Center for the Advancement of Teaching.