Director's Cut: Anticipations and Reflections
As the new academic year approaches, I find myself anticipating opportunities and possibilities. And I can’t stop thinking about some things that happened last year. Perhaps this (necessary?) tension is what makes possible the most authentic conditions for learning and teaching.
First and most importantly, please accept my warmest wishes as we begin a new academic year. If you’re new to Denison, I look forward to meeting you and I hope you may find this newsletter, published monthly by the Center for Learning and Teaching (CfLT), something you’ll want to read and find useful to your work. The CfLT, located in the Atrium level of the Library, is as a safe space for formative faculty development, where colleagues from across the University can talk through experiences and ideas as part of refining how they carry out their work as teachers. The CfLT is a physical and virtual space where faculty and other interested colleagues gather to consider evidence-based best practices around learning and teaching and the ramifications of these for faculty’s intentional efforts to help students realize genuine learning in our classrooms, studios, and laboratory spaces. The Center is for everyone; everyone is welcome.
As I mentioned, I’m anticipating a good many things about the coming year and I wanted briefly to highlight just a few.
- This year the Center will anchor its programming in the theme of belonging. I am interested in reading research, collaborating with others, and having conversations and workshops dedicated to helping faculty create conditions in their learning spaces where students experience a genuine sense of engagement and significance. Students need to know they are valued, that what they think and the ways they learn matter, that, finally, faculty at Denison are resolutely dedicated to building the kinds of co-cultural bridges by which professors and students collaboratively engage in the serious exploration of ideas characterized by mutual respect and regard. This commitment to belonging is one I will extend to colleagues across the College.
- The Center will continue to support mentoring groups for our newest faculty members, whether you’re just starting at Denison or have been teaching here consistently over the past six years. More information about these learning communities will be forthcoming.
- Teaching Matters!, our ad-hoc group passionately committed to providing relevant resources and facilitating candid conversations about learning and teaching, has worked over the summer to build a great program year. Watch your email for upcoming announcements.
- The Center will pilot a Student-Faculty Partnership Program. Interested students will be paired with faculty during the spring semester. Students will observe the faculty member’s teaching weekly. The Pairs will commit to meeting once a week so that the student-partner may provide feedback about the learning experiences in the course. Watch for more information as the scaffolding for this new program is built during the fall, with an aim to launch in Spring 2019.
- The Center will sponsor three “Occasional Reading Groups.” Why occasional? Let’s face it: We’re busy and I’m mindful that participating in a book study too often feels like “just another thing to do.” And here’s what I also know: We learn best from each other, particularly when that learning happens in a safe, candid environment where participants can bring their honest questions and reflections. My hope is that the books that will drive these groups, concerned with Denison’s liberal arts tradition, what it means to learn and teach in this current political climate, and culturally-responsive teaching and the brain, may inspire your teaching and give you tools to use in your classes and in other work you do with students. Books will be provided for the first ten registrants for each group. Anyone may sign-up; it is not required that you do the reading in advance (we want to make this experience manageable, and also meaningful). More information about meeting dates and times will be forthcoming.
Finally, I look forward to the chance to work with interested colleagues on an array of programs and workshops that will make a difference to you. Have ideas about programs or resources the Center might offer? Please contact me, Jeff Kurtz, and let me know; I welcome your suggestions and feedback.
And yet there is this tension. My anticipation, you see, is clouded by events from the recent past I cannot let go. As I write this newsletter, the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville looms. I mourn the tragedies of Las Vegas and Parkland and the senseless acts of guns violence that claimed countless lives across the United States over the past academic year. The Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy and especially the Family Separation initiative have done incalculable harm to the development of children, the welfare of families, and our civic fabric. The controversy between the NFL and its players over the national anthem continues, and I am struck—and saddened—by the curious demonization of athletes who speak their minds. (This is, of course, a partial and incomplete list.)
These topics may seem overtly political and have little to do with learning and teaching. And, respectfully, I would disagree. Our teaching surely needs to recognize that the world beyond Denison “matters” to whether and how and the ways our students learn. I am not suggesting each class must assume a political cast. I mean only to recognize that our students carry within themselves, perhaps unlike ever before, a sense of what’s unfolding in the larger culture, and we have an opportunity to model how to think about that culture in ways characterized by the best tools and resources derived from our pedagogy, our disciplines, and our scholarship and creative practices. What we say and do in our learning spaces matters. Our students are watching and listening. What will they learn?
Last year also marked the passing of Dr. Sue Davis, Director of Off-Campus Study and Associate Professor of Political Science. Among so many things, Sue was an unfailing champion of faculty; she loved learning and was passionately committed to asking how we might do our work better. She was, for me as for many, many others, a beacon of good advice and stalwart encouragement. If you didn’t know Sue, I can only say this: She made Denison better. The Center will seek opportunities over the arc of this year to keep Sue’s memory at the fore of the good work we do. Passion, integrity, curiosity, compassion, a commitment to evidence and serious inquiry. These values, now more than ever, matter so much.
I am honored to serve as the Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching and it’s my hope that, in my second year in the post, the Center may be a resource for everyone, a place where real conversations about learning and teaching and the stakes of higher education can unfold alongside workshops, programs, and relevant resources that remind us how much our work matters. We need each other.