I recently attended back-to-back conferences: the first time since graduate school that I have done two in a row. In Spring 2006, I drove overnight from South Bend to Cornell for a graduate conference on Southeast Asia, then to Harvard for another graduate conference on gender. Well, the distance among them was much greater thirteen years later. I flew a red-eye from California to the East Coast for the annual Institute on General Education and Assessment (IGEA) at University of Vermont in Burlington–then, four days later, to New Orleans for the annual Teaching Professor Conference (TPC).
I was among ten Pepperdine faculty, the largest contingent among forty colleges and universities at this year’s IGEA, put together by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). We came as the committee on GE review at the undergraduate college of Pepperdine. At the TPC, I was among six faculty sponsored by Pepperdine’s Center of Teaching Excellence. In Burlington, the ten of us had daily discussions in addition to going to individual presentations. In New Orleans, we were more or less on our own. Here are some highlights of the presentations that I attended at both sites.
In Vermont, the speaker of the opening plenary session addressed a number of changes in institutional structure of learning in higher education. Although I’d heard or read about most of them, they were helpful as preparation for elaboration in the presentations that I attended in the next two days. Probably most notable was Paul Hanstedt’s presentation that I attended the next morning. Hanstead has worked with a number of institutions in Asia and pointed out that they desire a greater portion of GE or core curriculum as it has long been the case in the U.S. But American core curriculum itself has been seeing a shift. Most institutions used to follow a “distribution” model: e.g., two courses in this field, two courses in that field, one course in the third field, two courses in the fourth field, etc. But more have moved towards an “integration” model of core curriculum. He estimated that about 15% are currently following the distribution model, 18% the integration model, and most of the rest in between the two models.
Hanstedt also spent a lot of time explaining the necessity of changes due to four factors. First is the “wicked world,” meaning that there has been more and more discrepancy between what is taught in GE and what students experience in their jobs and lives in the real (and wicked) world. Second is the changing realities about students themselves. Third is the changing nature of scholarship in various fields. Fourth is current understanding on the way that the brain works. “Which of these four,” he asked during one of the “pair-and-share” breaks, “do you think would be most persuasive to the faculty at your institution?” I thought it is the second factor, but the first or third might easily apply as well.
Students, indeed, were the subject of Ashley Finley’s seminar the next day. Entitled “Well-Rounded, Inc: Why Students’ Intrapersonal and Social Development Are Critical for Success in Learning and in Life,” the presentation took its cue from a written comment from an undergraduate student from Wisconsin that “I don’t know too many jobs that the job is being well-rounded. You know, it’s not like you’re going to work at Well-Rounded, Inc. or something.” One of the tasks is to update for a better and more comprehensive understanding of “well-being”: Finley used the word “flourishing” quite a few times during her presentation. We sat in round tables at this seminar, and she asked us to share examples from our institution. I brought up the practice of “care teams” towards students having a difficult time. I said that it is a most helpful practice and my institution has done well by it, but it is also reactive rather than proactive. The people at my table said it is also true of their institutions, and Finley herself later pointed out the more common reactive practice on many campuses regarding well-being. A major takeaway from this seminar was that I should work more with offices such as the Student Success Center, the Career Center, and Campus Ministry to understand and advance the flourishing among my own students.
I went to the first of José Moreno’s presentations, which showed an impressive array of statistics on changing demography and related factors about racial make-up among students, faculty, even graduate students. Unfortunately, I had to miss his second presentation the next day, but I definitely want to find out more about this subject in the near future.
Also unfortunate, if for a different reason, the opening plenary in New Orleans was pretty generic and “basic”: the word used by three people with whom I talked afterward. Much better were the concurrent sessions that I attended, including one given by, ironically, a co-author of the opening plenary speaker. This particular presentation was about “the lecture.” This long-standing teaching format clearly appealed to many attendants because there was an overflow of seating even though the room was twice larger than most rooms during the concurrent sessions.
For my part, I am happy to say that it confirmed much of what I have already practiced: essentially, a combination of lecture, small groups, and activities. In fact, I’d estimate that 75-80% of the TPC’s plenary and concurrent presentations confirmed and supported my own experience and perspective on teaching thus far. I found myself, for instance, nodding to nearly all points–from creating community in the classroom to holding office hours–during another well-attended session, “The Best Teaching Advice I Ever Received,” given by a second-career academic from BYU. For a different example, TPC scheduled several twenty-minute “mentor sessions” in addition the typical sixty-minute presentations. I went to two of these shorter sessions and one of them, on digital portfolio, and found that my website largely mirrored the recommendations there.
It felt great to be validated. But it was the other 20-25% that made attendance of this conference most worthwhile for me. The subject of the other twenty-minute session was “How can I apply social psychology principles to enhance accountability in group work?” Given by two psychology faculty from a small liberal arts college in North Carolina, this presentation helped me understand more clearly the problems regarding small-group projects, plus some ways to prevent them. I think I benefited the most from this session. Not far behind, however, was the session on “blogging as a tool for learning the research process.” Even though I’ve required students to post on Blackboard forums during the last five years, I found several excellent tips on tuning such interfaces to teach research to students. As it is, I’ll be teaching a first-year seminar on Asian American history this fall, then an upper-division course on the same subject next spring. I plan to incorporate at least some of the practices learned from this presentation. (Bonus the fact that the presenter was an American historian from another small liberal arts college, and his examples came from courses in U.S. history and the humanities.) Even during the “Best Teaching Advice” session, I gained something from the speaker’s humorous response to emails from panicky students. (There is so much psychology in teaching, isn’t it?)
This past spring marked the sixth anniversary of my first visit to Pepperdine. It also marked the beginning of a transition to a new phase at my institution, including a small transition in my teaching. While the core of my teaching continues to be the Great Books program, I will also teach a new subject, as noted above. At least once in the next few years, I’d also like to teach one of those lecture classes of 150 or 200 students. It sounds crazy, but I believe that setting out new challenges is essential for my growth as a teacher. Besides, I think badly of the common practice of assigning brand new tenure-track assistant professors to teaching massive lecture classes. Doesn’t it make more sense–and isn’t it more ethical–to have more seasoned faculty teach those classes while recent PhDs teach smaller classes and work on their scholarship?
But I digress. The companies in Burlington and New Orleans were lovely; the food, delicious. I even managed to do some research after the TPC. The red-eye and early-morning flights were somewhat weary to my aging body. But they paled in comparison to the pedagogy gained–and intellectual and moral energy renewed–from these back-to-back events.