Building a Community of Teaching Practice

White male, alone in room, sitting on chair. His head braced on arms, elbows on knees. Dejected lookingIs this you? You are in an academic unit where conversations about pedagogy happen infrequently, if ever. You long to grab a cup of coffee or tea and sit and talk about teaching with colleagues. You feel alone and isolated and worry your lack of pedagogical conversations might be limiting your students’ success.

Red background, white font that says "Find your people"It sounds like you’ll have to find your “teaching people” then. So how to start? Let’s get the obvious out of the way first—is there a teaching and learning center on campus? The staffs of such centers are there because they believe in sharing the practice of teaching and want to partner with more faculty to examine teaching scientifically and to use the scholarship of teaching and learning in the classroom. Put differently, they are committed to evidence-based analysis of teaching and learning and then using data to implement changes in pedagogy.

Wordle about teaching and learning centers and key tasks they do for and with faculty and students-If your campus has such a center, go…now. You’ll find people who love to think and talk about teaching as well as lots of resources to help you. Unfortunately though, on some campuses, such centers are perceived to be for those who “don’t teach well.” Don’t let that false assumption stop you. Teaching and learning centers are for those faculty and staff who are dedicated to creating student learning and student success. That means they are committed to testing pedagogical ideas—and helping faculty to pick themselves up if they fail, only to try again. They will listen to your ideas, ask a lot of questions, and encourage you to try new pedagogical strategies when—and only when—they make pedagogical sense in the context of your courses.

But if your institution doesn’t have a teaching and learning center, the journey to create a community of teaching practice will be harder. What to do? Here are some suggestions:

Picture of ear and hand around it, in a "listening" position-Listen to students, before and after your class. Whose classes do they say challenge them? Excite them? Interest them? And whose do they say are boring or “the easy A?” Remember the names of the faculty who challenge and excite your students.

Busy hallway outside of classroom; full of people-If you can, walk around the hallways, listening as others teach. Do you hear individuals who—irrespective of disciplinary content—teach in ways you’d like to consider teaching? Maybe it’s that they utilize active learning or group activities in ways that you are not yet doing? Don’t be afraid to lurk, and not just in the building you normally teach in. Go to where faculty from other disciplines teach too.

-Does your institution give a teaching award? If so, locate the last few awardees and ask if you could sit in on a class or two. Then see if you can talk with them about what you observed. Ask them about other faculty who are innovative teachers.

Adams University Instructional Technology Center-Contact your Instructional Technology department (it might be called by another name). Ask for some faculty contacts who are using technology in what they perceive to be innovative ways. Feel free to explain why you are asking. If you are teaching hybrid or online courses, this might be your best, first option.

-If there are other institutions nearby, look up similar academic units on their campus. I think it would be a rare teaching and learning center which would turn down helping a faculty member at a nearly educational site. Admittedly, the center might be less able to share resources with you, but time talking should be fine.

Near bottom of slide are about thirty figures of people, all in black shadow. Above them are the icons for many online communities, such as Facebook, etc.-Look for online groups. Sociology, for example, has several Facebook groups devoted to pedagogical interests (see the end of this post for links to some of them). Usually, there are some screening questions before one can join, but the process is fairly painless. Often there are several posts a day. They might be from people asking for pedagogical ideas to teach a specific concept; others might be asking for classroom management tips, or the poster might be sharing how a pedagogical strategy “went” in class. Such groups typically have a search function, so that you can find past comments about a teaching strategy you are interested in trying in class.

Academic Twitter -- the blue bird that is Twitter's icon wearing a black mortarboard-Academic Twitter also is a great place to look for pedagogical conversations (in byte-size pieces, admittedly!). Look for some discipline-specific twitter accounts but here are some exceptional higher education accounts to follow:

@AcademicChatter – connect with grad students, ECRs, and senior academics

@BarbiHoneycutt – her account; lots of techniques on breaking up lectures, etc.

@CathyNDavidson – her account

@cirtlnetwork – Advancing the teaching of STEM disciplines

@deandad – Matt Reed’s account (formerly “Dean Dad” columnist at IHE, now uses own name)

@dgooblar – David Gooblar’s account (columnist at The Chronicle)

@Katie_Linder – her account

@KenBain1 – his account

@NEH_ODH – NEH Digital Humanities account

@PSUOpenCoLab – praxis-oriented lab focused on innovative, student-centered pedagogy

@saragoldrickrab – Sara Goldrick-Rab’s account

@teachingcollege – encourages engagement with scholarship on teaching

@ThomasJTobin – his account; going alt-ac; accessibility and universal design

@tressiemcphd – Tressie McMillan Cottom’s account

So readers, what are your favorite online sources to get pedagogical support or inspiration? Share in the comments. And next week, we’ll discuss how to start your own teaching circle/teaching support group.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Resources To Get You Started

Agile Learning – blog by Derek Bruff

Chronicle of Higher Education (some articles behind paywall)

Inside Higher Ed

SOTL by Design

The Teaching Professor

Facebook Groups – Sociology — Teaching with a Sociological Lens — Shared Teaching Resources for Sociology — Sociology — Sociological Images — Sociology at Work

Facebook Groups – Pedagogy — Lecture Breakers – Curriculum & Pedagogy

Facebook Groups – Higher Ed



Department Politics: Getting Help

In the past three weeks I have talked about how to be a good senior colleague, a good junior colleague, and an effective leader. So it’s time to talk about what to do if there’s ongoing tension in your department or academic unit.

Photo of person, head on desk. Says, "If drama follows you wherever you go, maybe you are the drama.First off, this has to be said. Are you sure that it’s not about you, at least partially? Take a week or so and really examine your behaviors and attitudes. Are you contributing to an escalation in tension? To its maintenance? Be honest here—it’s often hard to see how we might be supplying some of the oxygen for the departmental drama. You might want to ask your mentors for their opinions and really listen to what they say. Talk with your departmental leader (unless he or she is part of the tension) and ask the same question.

Black t-shirt which says, "Be the adult in the room"Are you acting like the adult in the room? Are you being kind to others involved in the tension (especially in front of students), no matter what their behavior might be toward you? Have you tried at least twice to have private conversations about the tension, as a way to cool things down?

Have you analyzed what seems to be the issue? Is a generational change in power happening? Is there an ideological divide at the core of the tension? Is the power in the department shifting between various academic disciplines? Does it seem to be a personality clash? Where did the tension first start? Was it at work or after-hours socializing? If it was the latter, was a substance like alcohol involved? If it was, might it have distorted behavior at the time and memories after the fact?

But regardless of the “why”—the tension exists and often interferes with how we go about our job. When arriving on campus causes you anxiety, fear, tears, or nausea—things are bad, regardless of the cause. So what can one do?

-Keep doing your job to the best that you can. Try not to give anyone a reason to think less of you. Be on time to classes and meetings; hold office hours; meet with students; treat students and colleagues well; do all administrative paperwork on time. Be a good colleague in every way you can, despite the stress.

Anxious African American female, looking at computer, holding up sign that says "help"-Identify campus resources that could be helpful which are outside of your department. These could include Human Resources, the campus mediation team, the Social Equity office, or the counseling center. Do your homework about these, however. Many persons outside of academe say that the mission of corporate Human Resources is to take care of the organization and its “brand” more than to help solve interpersonal issues. So talk with your mentors and other faculty, without sharing the actual issues, about the reputation and interventional strategies used by HR, Social Equity, and the mediation team. You want to gain a sense of how these organizations work and to whom they report as you consider which one(s) might be most helpful to you in trying to solve the departmental tension.

Two females, having coffee. Text says "You don't have to do it alone"-Many times, campus resources allow the faculty member to bring in an advocate who can be there with you. So do your homework and read about these academic units’ policies. If an advocate is allowed, I suggest bringing the person of your choice to every meeting you have, including the first one. If you don’t have someone in mind, consider looking at the teaching and learning staff, the staff at centers focused on race, gender, sexualities, religious studies, and international studies for possible allies—they are more likely to have training in assessing power dynamics.

Spiral notebook open to blank page; fountain pen on it, waiting to be used-Write everything down. I suggest you keep a notebook and divide it into two sections. The first should be—to the best you can—a blow by blow account of events causing tension. Don’t edit anything out but also don’t embellish. Think of this section as “just the facts” (as you perceive them). The second section should be how the events made you feel. But be careful not to blend the two sections, to the extent that you can. Keep the notebook off campus (i.e., in your car, etc.), even if that means you have to write ‘in the moment’ notes during the day and recopy them to the notebook at night.

Man holding up phone, text says "Dangers of oversharing"-This might be controversial, but I strongly suggest that you keep details of the tension to yourself, your advocate, and the chain of command only. Have friendly colleagues who will support you without you having to share all the details with them. If you need to vent, choose people who don’t work at your institution. I realize others will disagree and will suggest sharing details with many others at your institution so that what is happening becomes well known. Think through your decision; either one will have consequences.

Small silver trinket, says "celebrate the little victories"-Remember, partial victories can be better than total defeats. It can be a good thing to be perceived as someone who is willing to compromise strategically. Of course, what constitutes a partial victory, matters. Giving in to systems of oppression because they have worn you down is no victory at all. Compromising in ways that change systems of oppression, even somewhat, is a win. Take it. Celebrate it.

So ultimately the best advice I have is to take care of yourself. The stress of being caught up in departmental tension can be horrific. So pay attention to your body. Rest if you need to and be proactive about staying physically and emotionally healthy. Don’t go overboard, be it with food, alcohol or other substances, or even exercise. It can be tempting to do so because they at least are in your control and can (seem to) give comfort, whereas the tension is not under your control. Next week’s blog will have more self-care ideas.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.



Departmental Politics: Be An Effective Leader

In the past two weeks I have talked about how to be a good senior colleague and a good junior colleague. Now I want to turn to tips for being an effective departmental leader, especially during times of tension.

Partial picture of male face with hand cupped to one earListen…and then listen some more. Don’t be quick to judge “who is correct.” Be it a student-faculty dispute or one between faculty colleagues, don’t be the kind of leader whose style is “I believe the person who got to me first.”

Quote: "If you want to know something, ask me. Don't assume, that's how drama starts."Corollary: Assume the best of people until proven otherwise. Don’t automatically assume that people are lying. There are always multiple points of view, not just two. Discernment will take time and patience; use both in abundance.

Crows/black birds--one parent and two babies. Parent stepping on one to feed the other. Bottom of picture says, "Favoritism: The only ones that say it doesn't exist are the ones getting it"Don’t play favorites when it comes to individuals. I once had a department head who, when meeting with other faculty for their annual review, would say, “Why can’t you be more like Kathe, in terms of her teaching, service, and publishing?” Such a tactless comment created several outcomes in the department—all negative. The faculty members who were told that often felt inadequate, and worse, it frequently poisoned their relationship with me in ways that I couldn’t comprehend. I didn’t find out that the head was saying this about me for several years—but once I did, I had an urgent meeting with him and asked him to stop doing this. He didn’t understand why it bothered me; he thought it was excellent motivation. He continued to say this for several more years, despite my asking him not to do so.

Corollary: Yes, you can have friendships with individuals you lead. But you need to maintain a certain amount of social distance, at least at work.

Don’t play favorites when it comes to programs you administer, either. Be sure that you are not giving too much to “your” program—people will notice if that happens. On the other hand, don’t slight it in order to prove to colleagues that you are even-handed. It’s an administrative tightrope, to be sure, but be at least be aware that you must walk it and look where your feet are at all times!

Black and white graphic of two hands, shakingTo the best that you can, don’t make deals with individual faculty members that violate departmental policies, either directly or in spirit. Such deals have a way of “biting back.” You should assume the “deal” will come out in time. Before you agree to it, ask yourself if the deal will be worth the loss of trust, frustration, and tension your decision will create. And if there are legitimate reasons for such a deal “this one time,” then you should be able to share with your department and be proud of it.

Little things matter when big things are beyond reach. You may not be able to make your state legislature vote for a salary increase but you may have control over things such as office space, access to work resources, travel reimbursements, or new technology. Act equitably. All faculty will notice these small decisions and—rightly or wrongly—some might interpret your decisions to be personal slights.

Graphic: magnifying glass enlarging block of text that repeats FACTS over and over Know the details about your department and its programs. I once had a department head who—four years after joining the department—still could not describe the sociology curricula (undergraduate or graduate) correctly. Yet somehow the sociology faculty was supposed to trust that the department head was a strong advocate to upper administration, when he often shared incorrect statistics and other facts about our programs? It doesn’t work like that. Administrators need to learn quickly the programs they oversee and offer faculty in those programs evidence that they have learned about them, if they want to build administrative trust.

Neighbor with binoculars looking. Text: "Oh, we notice!"Be aware that faculty notice how you treat administrative staff. If you want to build respectful relationships between faculty in your department, then be sure that you are modeling that behavior with your administrative staff. Faculty will notice if you yell or demean your staff and it will diminish your authority as a leader—especially your ability to require professional behavior from faculty colleagues. Also, don’t ask the administrative staff to do things beyond their job descriptions as personal favors for you. I know a departmental leader who requires the administrative staff to open and close all assessments/files/readings in Blackboard for the leader’s classes because the leader has not learned how to do those very simple technological steps. But that same leader gets very upset if the faculty even ask the staff member to brainstorm Blackboard solutions for issues the faculty might be having. Beware: faculty notice hypocrisy and when they do, your ability to lead will diminish.

Treat students well—in your own classes, in the hallways, and in your office. Student culture is strong in almost every department and word will get around. And what students share, faculty soon will know as well. But realize that, much like the game of telephone, what is told about how you treat students might not be even close to an accurate account of the interaction. Don’t give the social structure something about which to gossip!

Says, "It is ok to ask for help"Know when to call in assistance. Not every interpersonal conflict can be solved by you and the individuals involved. It’s not a sign of weakness to call in Human Resources or the Conflict Mediation Team or another departmental leader who could mentor you. Using these experts could provide healing or at least bring a situation down to a simmer more quickly.

Communicate. Don’t pronounce—explain your reasoning for decisions when you can (hint: you can far more than you think you can!). Share your knowledge with the faculty. Call meetings when needed. Send emails if you feel meetings are not the best communication medium. Walk around and talk with your faculty in their offices. It’s always nicer to have an unexpected visit than to be summoned to your office—that implies criticism is to follow.

It’s better to let faculty know that something is possibly going to happen and why than to surprise them with the news. This is especially important when you know something because higher administrators have told you about a likely decision. Realize that other department leaders might choose to share it with their faculty. And faculty talk across institutional units—if they don’t hear the information (or even rumor) from you, it could, for some faculty, diminish your leadership status.

Brick wall with a human ear built into itCorollary: Department office walls are often quite thin. Assume that people can hear whatever you say to others in your office. So again, be kind, be honest, follow departmental policies.

Learn how to do your job. Managing people is not the same thing as balancing a budget or grading papers or publishing. Choose to attend professional development workshops for departmental leaders. Share what you learned with your faculty—and then implement it. Learn from your faculty evaluations of your leadership. I know a leader who said—every year—that no department faculty checked the box on the annual evaluation of the department head which said, “I want my department head to share these results with us.” He’d go on to say, “if even one faculty member checked the box, I would share.” Well, I checked the box every year. I knew that he was lying and I am quite confident several other faculty also checked the box. It became quite apparent that this leader didn’t want to learn from our feedback and so long as he could keep feedback private, he didn’t have to confront it and grow as our leader.

So readers, what advice would you give to departmental leaders about how to reduce interpersonal tensions at work?

Next week we’ll talk about how to seek help when intense politics are creating tension at work.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Department Politics: Advice for Junior Colleagues

Last week I shared a set of “do’s” and “don’t” for senior colleagues in terms of departmental relationships. This week I want to turn to newer members of a department and offer some suggestions for them. I’ll use the term “junior colleagues” to refer to tenure-track, but not yet tenured faculty, as well as contingent faculty who are not on the tenure track.

The word "culture" spelled out in blocksLearn the departmental culture—both the formal culture and the informal culture—as soon as possible. What do I mean? Get a copy of the departmental policy manual and begin to learn it. That will teach you the formal rules of the department. But—and here I have to remind readers that I’m a sociologist—there is always an informal culture which plays as much of a role in departmental politics. This informal culture is more difficult to learn and usually requires lots of observations about interactions—at meetings, in hallways, in the mailroom, and examining departmental communications. So no matter what your discipline is, you will have to conduct some ethnographic fieldwork—observe patterns and note them (I suggest writing them down).

In particular, learn the nomenclature of the program which you have joined. Try to give yourself one academic term—at most two—and learn the names and course numbers of every course which is offered in your degree program (bonus if you also learn the general education curriculum too!). Rightly or wrongly, most faculty talk in the shorthand of course numbers; not knowing them means missing out on key information. If a junior faculty member hasn’t learned course numbers, say, in two years, it can give off the impression that the faculty member doesn’t want to learn them. Often senior faculty will assume that the junior colleague is on the job market, rightly or wrongly. Please learn your program’s structure (even if you are not [yet] advising), so that if something comes up in a meeting, you can actively participate in the discussion. Students will be talking about career opportunities, asking questions about courses and “next steps” in their program, and you will want to be able to give accurate information if you can.

 It’s okay to ask questions. Most colleagues would rather be asked—especially about curriculum and advising issues—than for students to receive misleading advice, even inadvertently. Questions can also show interest in the program, its mission, and the students it serves—all good traits! I did say “most colleagues,” though. There will be a few who don’t seem to want to help a colleague to understand the program and its culture. So if at first, you run into one of them—don’t give up. Ask another senior faculty member.

Just as I recommended that senior faculty stop saying “when I started teaching,” I suggest newer faculty try to limit their conversations, for a while, about how the last program they were a part of—be it another program or the program they might have taught for as a graduate student—used to do things. I once had a junior colleague who, for five years that they were a member of our department, would start every contribution with, “At my old school (and named it), we did it this way and that’s how we should do it here too.” The other school was an R-1, and we were a teaching-oriented state university, with very different missions, types of students, structures of degree programs, etc. Suffice it to say that the comparison did not go over well. Saying it a few times—no problem—but for five years? That became an interactional problem that created a barrier between the rest of the department and that colleague…a barrier that didn’t have to happen!

Don't be a jerk*Corollary: Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be the junior colleague who feels that the department is beyond lucky to have hired them and acts like it all the time. Humility, especially in the first few academic terms while you assess the departmental culture, will smooth social interactions.

Two dinosaurs surround a young man in a suitRecognize that students might gravitate to you—you are closer to their age than senior faculty are; students might perceive that you will likely understand their pop culture references; you are someone they want to get to know versus someone they feel they already know; they might perceive that you have a better sense of the job market they are about to enter, etc. Even though you have done nothing wrong, students’ self-selection might irritate some senior faculty. They remember when they were the “bright new person who students flocked to” in the department and your presence is forcing them to confront the passage of time. I remember the first time I overheard students in the restroom talking about me and said, “I plan on going to the graduate assistant to review for the test, the professor’s so old—she has gray hair.” That stung. There is nothing you can do as a junior faculty if you perceive this is happening, but practicing a bit of empathy could go a long way toward reducing any tension this student behavior might be creating between program faculty.

Quote about communication: "A lot of problems would disappear if we talk to each other instead of about each other"*Communicate with your colleagues. Tensions, if and when they exist, cannot diminish without a commitment to listen to each other. So be willing to talk about questions you have about the curriculum, about policies and regulations, etc. What matters is how you frame your questions, not that you have questions.

Two men walking, one slightly in front of other. One leading has a lantern.Seek out mentors where you can. Hopefully, the program you have joined has assigned you at least one mentor, and preferably more (e.g., one for teaching, another for professional development/research, another for navigating the bureaucracy). But if that has not happened, ask colleagues who seem to have mastered each of these academic skill sets if you can go to lunch to talk or to have an email conversation every so often when you feel stuck about how to manage a situation that has arisen. Some of these issues will not be department- or program-specific, so even finding someone in another department who is willing to help you would be fine.

Diverse group of people, many with signs that say "No"Learn to say “no” strategically. Protect time for your teaching preparation, your research and publication agenda, and your personal life. I suggest, for example, putting a standing event in your calendar (especially if it is ‘public’ on a website) for your research time. It might be better to name the event something more opaque than “research and writing.”

You will likely get invitations to serve on committees or task forces. We know that women and faculty of color are more likely to be asked to serve on committees, so know that these requests will be coming your way if you are tenure-track. Pick one (at most two) and that’s it for your first year. Work with your mentor and department head/chair to decide which one would be the best for your career. While “no” is a complete sentence, I think it can be better politically to soften your decision by stating a rationale that shows support for both you and the department’s mission. If you don’t feel you can say “no,” consider asking your department chair/head this question, “Would you rather I work on the publication I intended to send to X journal (and name the journal) this year or be a part of this committee? I think my publication should take preference because ….”

*Put the students’ needs first, then the needs of the program, unless there are extenuating circumstances. Don’t routinely put your needs (i.e., about class schedules, meeting times, etc.) above those of your students and of the program/department. And if you can step up, do so. It will likely be remembered, even if it doesn’t seem it at the time.

I realize though, that many contingent faculty are teaching at multiple institutions and do not have the time to engage in some or all of the behaviors I am suggesting at one, let alone each job site. Some institutions don’t invite contingent faculty to meetings or expect other types of service commitments, but a few will. There are some who argue that, given the measly amount of money paid to contingent faculty, any expectations outside of the classroom are beyond the pale. I am one of those individuals who want to empower contingent faculty to say ‘no’ to requests that are outside of the teaching mission. And I beg institutions not to do this—the pay rate for contingent faculty is already so pitiful that to ask more of them is immoral.

Readers, what advice would you have to junior faculty about how to participate in departmental politics and live to tell about it? And next week we’ll turn to how departmental leaders—chairs or heads—should handle departmental tensions.

 *Similar advice was offered to senior colleagues in last week’s column.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.