This article first appeared in The Best of the 2022 Teaching Professor Online Conference (Magna Publications, 2023).
What are the biggest stumbling blocks for faculty in the improvement of their teaching? Time cannot be your only answer.
Next question: Who are the people who are most critical to your teaching success? Did you shout, “My teaching and learning center”? Maybe. But my guess is you don’t text your center at midnight when the learning platform is misbehaving, your lecture for tomorrow is a hot mess, your kids (or pets or partners) want to know why you are still staring at your computer, and you are really thinking about dusting off that résumé for a good ole nine-to-five job. Is it your office mate? Your teaching partner? Your bestie, who may not even be a teacher? Probably. So if the teaching and learning center isn’t your first stop, why does it exist?
Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Over the past 16 years I have spent countless hours working with our teaching and learning center, sometimes as the consultee but more often leading workshops and teaching circles and giving demos on my latest classroom techniques. I thoroughly enjoyed the latter (and I was not the only faculty member called upon to do such!), but I was hired by my institution to teach classes—to students—and there came a time when I had to give up these side hustles to focus on other department-imposed demands. But somehow I was still the go-to in my college for all things online learning, crazy new techniques, flipped and hybrid classroom design, and more. I do not tell you all these things for bragging rights; far from it. Instead I want you to ask yourself as I have many times: Why me?
My colleagues at other institutes speak of instructional designers being embedded in their disciplinary colleges. Fascinating! Our teaching and learning center, while having the potential to break down disciplinary silos, often felt incomplete to me. Other colleagues spoke of centers in which all the instructional designers and consultants were former faculty of their same institutions! What a magical land! Why does a world like this seem so intriguing? What was it about faculty being instructional consultants that seemed so novel yet so innate? I gave up this world for other demands, but when times get tough, the tough go home.
March 2020 threw us all into a tailspin. Immediately, I found myself on endless Zoom meetings (my daily record? 18 hours straight), putting together a survival plan to get a pile of science and math majors through labs, workshops, recitations, and of course lecture—all online. Suddenly, I was meeting with deans. Faculty I didn’t know were begging for time on my calendar, all while I was still teaching 12 contact hours of my own chaos. Why? Why aren’t they contacting our teaching and learning center? Why are they not delving in to the years of research on online course design? Why are they not talking to international experts in instructional design (they were hosting like a million free online seminars)?
And then, like all good ideas, it hit me one morning while I was washing my hair. They aren’t looking for answers; they are looking for someone who is crawling in the gutter with them, who is awakened at night with the same worries and struggles, who is teaching the same kind of classes they teach. They want a friend in their neighborhood, not a guru.
Next question: How is your teaching and learning center formed? How does that form match what the faculty need to function? Biology tells us form and function evolve together. Has your teaching and learning center formed to meet the function of the faculty? My guess? No.
In March 2020, our center formed a faculty group from all the disciplinary colleges. The idea of this group was to bring information to the center so they knew what programming to create and offer. While there was some information that could go back out to the colleges, did it? As with anything, that depended on the college representative. But there was something to this. The college reps became ambassadors to the center. It suddenly had the feeling of that magic world we talked about before. Now, none of these individuals would stake any claim to be trained instructional designers or consultants. So why were they seen as so valuable? They were friends in the neighborhood.
Don’t get me wrong; teaching and learning centers have value, and lots of it. Schuman et al. (2013) talk about cocreating value. A business term, “cocreating value” focuses on all stakeholders and puts muscle behind form because the form must suit a function. While some find this approach too “consumer” (and there are many who fear consumer-driven higher education), give this two minutes of thought: Who are the stakeholders for a teaching and learning center? Yes, center staff and faculty. But who else? What about the students? These centers are typically named some rendition of teaching and learning, yet we so often leave the students out in a field somewhere. What about the administrators? I don’t mean the reporting structure of the center. I mean the department chairs, the associate deans, the program directors. The folks who are tangential to the trenches but have an ear to the storm drain waiting for the next big thing to come down the pipe. If centers are not taking all these valuable opinions in regularly (not just twice a year at an advisory council meeting), how can the form and function evolve together?
What do faculty need to get over those stumbling blocks we thought about 1,000 words ago? Technology? Sure. Pedagogy? Yes—just not all theoretical (and some days no theory, please, just tell me what to do, not why). Professional support (promotion, etc.)? Maybe; it depends on the institution. Personal support? Every day of their careers.
Remember that person you texted when your life was falling apart at midnight? They probably gave you the exact answer to fix the stupid LMS, a terrific idea for an activity to save your hot mess, or just a “You’ve got this; you are amazing.” During 2020, some of those college reps we discussed became this person for dozens of faculty. They were the quick-fix person for faculty exactly when they needed it. Centers are great places to learn to teach—when you have the time. As we continue to struggle with work-life balance, the need for the quick fix is not going away. This means that to function, we need the centers to change form.
Clark and Saulnier (2010) introduce the “seven characteristics of an intellectual community” as they outline broadening the scope of teaching and learning centers. While every characteristic on their list should be a point on every center’s strategic plan, I am drawn to #4: “fostering collaborations among campus constituencies (students, faculty and staff).” To build an intellectual community (isn’t that what higher ed is supposed to be doing!?), we have to foster collaborations and use them to build intellectual classroom (building relationships) and non-classroom (spontaneous exchange of ideas) intellectual spaces. By this, the role of a center should be focused on building relationships with all the campus stakeholders and fostering the relationships of stakeholders beyond the classroom. Relationships first.
Fast forward to 2023. We now have center faculty fellows (six disciplinary and two strategic initiative) who are teaching in their own disciplines. They are a true two-way conduit bringing information from the colleges to the center for program development (theoretical and applied, feedback on technology, etc.), and they are running programs in their own colleges focused on the “do this.” They are becoming the quick fix their colleagues need, but they are also paving the way for the center to broaden its scope and develop relationships to support 21st-century faculty with departments across campus.
We know how to create a learning environment. We preach it every day. And when we forget, there are great references to remind us how (e.g., Bishop & Verleger, 2013). Now is the time to open our minds to making our centers into classrooms for our faculty. Embrace partnerships, bring in faculty to be consistent liaisons, and get back to our teaching roots. This is the way to make a center for teaching and learning live up to its name. Until this idea spreads, keep those teaching friends on speed dial. It is almost midnight somewhere.
Bishop, J., & Verleger, M. A. (2013, June). The flipped classroom: A survey of the research [Conference paper]. 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, GA, United States. https://doi.org/10.18260/1-2--22585
Clark, D. J., & Saulnier, B. M. (2010). Broadening the role of the teaching and learning center: From transforming faculty to transforming institutions. Journal on Centers for Teaching and Learning, 2. https://openjournal.lib.miamioh.edu/index.php/jctl/article/view/112
Schumann, D. W., Peters, J., & Olsen, T. (2013). Cocreating value in teaching and learning centers. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2013(133), 21–32. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.20043
Sandi Connelly, PhD, is associate director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and faculty in the T. H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology.