The Learning Community
Spring, 2016 (May 10, 2016)
My first committee at Carleton was called the “teaching methods committee”. This committee consisted of several new faculty members, mostly in their second year. We who had the least experience in teaching were appointed to a committee that was supposed to do something about pedagogy at Carleton. We were given no instructions, and no specific charge. When we met, we were confused and, even though we were well intentioned, we had no idea what we were supposed to accomplish. Yet this was the one body at Carleton that was supposed to examine teaching and come up with innovations.
Similarly, in my first year, new faculty orientation lasted about two hours. We heard from a few colleagues who were ahead of us by a year or two and then met with a panel of students. We did not meet people on the staff who might be able to help us in our teaching. We were not given appointed mentors, but were supposed to find people in our department to give us advice. For some of us this worked out well, but for others it left a vacuum. There were no weekly sessions to let us see how the school really functioned, or to hear about examples of good teaching. The only places to pick up on the subtleties of the school were department and faculty meetings, or reading the campus paper.
This is quite a contrast to the current state of affairs. As I finish my time at the LTC, it is striking to me to see how much is now in place to assist faculty members and to show them what the College values, and how the place works. It has been a privilege to be a part of this.
The first thing I want to do in the last newsletter I will write as the LTC Director is to thank the many people who have helped me during this three years. First is Charlene Hamblin, who is vital to the success of everything that the LTC attempts to do.
I have had a great time in working with her, and we have spent many hours together, always with her good humor and dedication. We coordinate with the staff in the Dean’s Office, particularly when programming for new faculty members and mentors. I will say publicly what many of us know- that they keep this place running. I want to thank the people who have helped us in catering. Food is a fairly big part of the LTC agenda, and whether it is catering, the snack bar, or the Weitz café, they are good to work with and eager to help. I also want to thank students who have served as LTC Fellows, especially for being as serious and dedicated as they have been about the role of being student observers in classes.
I think that anyone who has the experience of serving as the LTC Director will be struck by the depth of the dedicated group of people in roles across the College whose sense of purpose is to make this a good place for our students
I have turned to friends countless times during the past three years, asking them to present to new faculty, to serve as mentors, to help me in training the LTC Fellows. Working with new faculty members has been a joy as well. They have been a changing cast over my time, but always impressive and talented. Our campus holds the LTC in high regard. One way that I know this is by how quickly and generously both faculty and staff are willing to pitch in when they are asked. I learned quickly that to make the LTC effective involved turning to others, and this was always an easy process that showed me the thoughtfulness that we have in our community.
When I was asked to become the Director, we were at the height of news about online education and MOOCS. Schools ranging across all levels of education were signing contracts and rushing into the business of online education. There was some feeling that if we did not get on board early, we would be left behind as education entered a new world.
For-profit businesses were visiting Carleton hoping to sign us up in their rosters of institutions offering (and paying for) online courses. Schools ranging across all levels of education were signing contracts and rushing into the business of online education. There was some feeling that if we did not get on board early, we would be left behind as education entered a new world.
I was worried that perhaps I was going to be asked to be a kind of evangelist for a big push into new ways of teaching that I did not really understand or particularly endorse. I should have had more faith. We waited, and noticed that many of the schools that were in the online gold rush were not our kind of schools. After the initial reports of vast numbers of people enrolling in these courses, came the news that a far smaller number of people actually completed the classes. Classes designed by stars of the genre were assessed with disappointing results in actual learning. The costs of the programs were high enough that the hoped for benefits of lowering costs seemed to be iffy.
We have instead been trying to foster ways of using new technology that augment our teaching in valuable ways. In every term in these three years we have featured faculty and staff showcasing uses of technology that have been impressive in how they have added to high quality teaching and learning. Most of us probably only heard the phrase “digital humanities” a few years ago, and already we have people whose research and teaching are being transformed. New staff have arrived with new skills that have opened up new possibilities. The Future Learning Technology Group has funded experimentation that will pay off for years to come. We joined the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning (LACOL). While I think it is fair to say that this organization has not yet come to its full potential, it is still worthwhile. It joins us with similar colleges and offers other examples of smart use of technology in teaching.
I didn’t have to carry the flag for MOOCS, and the news about them has largely died down. Instead, I watched and participated as many people on our campus adapted teaching methods when there were good reasons to do so. We don’t just grab onto things because they are flashy or trendy. But we are also open to change when it points in a good direction.
We have had a program that brings trained students into classes to offer feedback on teaching since the late 1970s, long before we had the LTC. The students take the responsibilities of this job very seriously. They have been great to work with. In general, the program is a bit underused. But that has been different this year. Maybe it was this particular group of students, but a number of faculty members have made significant use of the program. The feedback they have given me about the helpfulness of the students has been very encouraging. This is something that is not highly visible about the LTC, but it was fun to work with these students, and gratifying to see the program grow in effectiveness.
Most schools that have similar programs would envy our attendance at LTC lunches. These sessions bring our community together. It is the best forum that we have for joining faculty and staff. Despite how busy we are we have about eight sessions per term with an average attendance of 50 or so. When the LTC moved into Weitz for our sessions, we found a room that was large enough for a big group, and we expanded to that new proportion. Most of this is a good thing, but we have lost a bit of the intimate conversation that is key to important discussions about teaching and learning. I have tried to balance this with small scale meeting with faculty, talking over various teaching topics. I think there is more potential for this. If I can hope for something in the future of the LTC, it would be to increase the opportunities and participation in smaller scale meetings where we can learn from each other and focus on our teaching.
I had always been a pretty steady attendee at LTC sessions, but I have never come every week for three years in a row, as I have during this period. When you do that, you get a much bigger and clearer picture of how this place works, what goes into it, and how committed people are to making it the best that we can. Even after I have been here for many years, I learned a great deal about Carleton and its people. I think that before I had done a kind of editing, choosing sessions by topic, as most of us do. But when that editing gave way to seeing more of the sessions, even those that I might have thought were outside of my areas of interest, I was struck by how significant the LTC sessions can be.
I heard a program where Sherry Turkle, the author of Reclaiming Conversation described an experiment that involved young children. They were given a choice of either sitting alone in a chair for 15 minutes, or being given light electric shocks. The majority of the children said they would choose the shocks. I have taught yoga and drawing, both of which I could call “Concentrating 101”. The idea that young students would find it that difficult to be alone in their own thoughts is frightening to me. I think “active learning” does not mean getting up and moving around the room, but instead that it means that real learning is internal, relying on ones’ own imagination. Some measure of solitude and quiet contemplation seems necessary to me for the kind of thoughtful learning we hope for. But this seems to be swimming against the current.
I have talked to a number of students who have told me that they are uncomfortable being alone. Others describe their friends as their support network. If they struggle, they turn to these friends rather than to any of the services the College might offer. Phones had radically changed our culture. I think that these issues are related to problems in reading and study habits.
I have also talked to students who have admitted to problems with reading. Some described having to read at a very slow pace of just a few pages per hour, unable to concentrate. They say that reading does not hold their attention. They devise strategies to try to hide this problem. They choose courses based on low reading requirements. They often don’t complete reading for classes, and try to stay quiet in discussions. They put off reading until the last minute. Problems in reading often lead to struggles in writing for classes because they don’t have a good grasp of the material. We could do more to model the importance of the book, and to emphasize the liberating effect that reading can have.
I don’t know how widespread this is, but I do know that it is an issue for some of our students. While we have effective support for writing, study skills, and math, I think that we just assume that students have enough reading skills to keep up. We seem to find it too remedial to consider offering explicit help for students to improve in their reading and how to organize their thoughts as they read. There is obviously a range of skills in this regard. Many of our students can read quickly enough to keep up with demanding assignments and difficult material. But some of our students can’t do this, or else they have habits and skills that are at least less than many of their peers. I think that we have assumed that the skills of reading are so fundamental that any student who is admitted to Carleton can read with the kind of speed and retention that we expect. If I have learned anything over the last three years, it is that we should examine this basic skill, not take it for granted, and have some help in place for students who struggle in this area. There is a stigma attached to this, making it a difficult thing to confront. I think this issue will get worse in the future, and I would like to see us be creative about the pedagogy of reading.
As a faculty member, I have always greatly appreciated the role that the LTC plays in this community so I am looking forward to contributing to the LTC in a new way. One of Carleton's assets is its culture of open conversation about teaching and learning that includes faculty and staff. The strength of the LTC depends on the participation of community members: leading panels and book groups, contributing to new faculty mentoring lunches, participating in the Student Observer Program or teaching circles, and generally engaging in discussions about student learning inside and outside the classroom. While levels of staff involvement with LTC programs seem healthy, I'd like to see broader faculty participation. I'm interested in hearing from faculty members about what types of programming they would like to see.
Over the years, I have appreciated the huge range of topics addressed at LTC lunches, but there are also times when I've wanted more sustained discussion on a single topic. For example, conversations that encourage us to think critically about what it means to teach and learn in community that respects the diverse identities of students and faculty, or discussions that explore how technology might allow us to re-envision both our courses and the broader trajectories that our students follow, don't lend themselves to being neatly wrapped into a 60 minute presentation. While the move to Weitz allowed the LTC lunches to accommodate more people, the venue doesn't seem to promote the same kind of discussion that happened in the smaller setting of the AGH. I'm interested in finding ways that the LTC can do more to foster meaningful conversations.
I look forward to working with many of you in the coming year. And many thanks to Fred for the dedication he has shown to the LTC over the past three years!
As you spring-clean on your desks or in your offices, please keep an eye out for any books on loan that may need to be returned to the LTC Library; the Library (WCC 146) is open daily until 4:30pm. Thank You!