In recent weeks, I have experienced a substantial intensifying of the ongoing conversations about student success at Randolph College. I have recently sat down with a number of you, in fact, to vent, brainstorm, express concerns, and ask for advice. I also attended the session with Charles Schroeder this morning where the same conversation continued to evolve. While there are a number of common themes that have stood out to me in all of these interactions, one seems to be beating me over the head.
Faculty seem to be well aware of an increasing need to adapt our pedagogy to a changing student body. And while we may disagree about the ways that our students are changing (or even on the degree to which they are changing), we do seem to agree that, as a group, we are not as well equipped with actionable strategies as we need to be in order to achieve the level of student success we would all like to see (and would presumably lead to higher retention, completion, and eventually enrollment).
As a newcomer to the Randolph College faculty and someone who came from the community college ranks, I have something of a different perspective on this theme—something of an insider/outsider view. And my motivation in writing this is to gauge support for implementing something that was extremely successful for me and my colleagues at my former institution, where “going and getting students where they are” was not just a desirable goal, but the starting assumption from which we worked.
That institution has what I describe as a “relentless culture of professional development.” Often the sessions and speakers and workshops were tedious and unhelpful. One event, however, was the highlight of my convocation week every semester (The week before classes began each semester was “convocation week,” which was designated for training, professional development, and department and committee meetings). Our “TED Talks” sessions were started by an instructional designer who received a grant to make a media-rich archive of best teaching practices. Rather than try to attend and film dozens of classes around the college, he organized an event during convocation week. The call was put out to faculty to propose short presentations on “something you do in the classroom that is effective.” The emphasis was on self-contained practices that had proven to work—icebreakers, assessments and rubrics, testing formats, evaluations, guided discussions, in-class activities, uses of instructional technology, ways of managing group dynamics, strategies for students with special needs, the list goes on. I can say, without doubt, that almost all of the things I do in the classroom that are successful for me now came from one of these sessions.
I am writing you because I think that doing an event like this at Randolph College could at least begin to address the concern I mention above. I particularly think the spirit of the event is what I would like to see here. The events were always informal and fun. We had food (I think this is key) and the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive. These sessions weren’t conducted by an outsider who was telling us what we were doing wrong and they weren’t attached to formal performance review or evaluation. They did not unfold after a stern lecture from administration or under the specter of data on flagging enrollment and sagging retention (those conversations raged on elsewhere).
These events were organized by faculty, for faculty. They reminded us that we are already doing great things in our classrooms; that we already held many of the solutions to our biggest challenges; that we are very smart, creative, caring people; and that teaching is amazing, exciting work. We just needed the space and the time to share without all the institutional doom and gloom—we needed show-and-tell time. I left each session inspired. I left each session with a massive pedagogical crush on my colleagues. And, most importantly, I left each session with a instructional toolbox full of shiny new things that I could not wait to try out.
In the interest of rebranding–Communication Studies scholar after all–I would like call the event Teaching Innovations, Practices, and Strategies (TIPS) and keep much of the same structure:
- A 1.5- to 2-hours worth of short (7-10) minute presentations
- An intermission with food
- Focus on actionable pedagogical practices
- Not like hummus and cheese cubes, but real food
- Curated to be interdisciplinary and cover a range of topics
- Video archived
- Recurring (contingent upon reception of first event)
I have heard some really encouraging feedback about this idea from those of you I have already talked to in person. I’m looking forward to working together to make this happen!