Growing Community for Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University

In this second year of the University Institute for Teaching and Learning, we are beginning to see the contours of President Drake’s vision for a research university deepening its commitment to teaching come into sharper focus.   The Institute’s Faculty Fellows are working across the university’s campuses to tap current expertise and to create synergies around pedagogical strategies, teaching perspectives, and evidence-based practices that advance our communal understanding of both “what is” and “what works” in teaching.   This convergence of expertise and wisdom can now start to point us toward “what can be” on the larger question of what is means to be a teaching-focused research university.

The early initiatives around orientating new and continuing faculty to Ohio State’s instructional development possibilities, around “endorsements” (suites of professional development activities), and on evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning, draw up much of the fine work already developed by the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (UCAT), the Office of Distance Education and E-Learning (ODEE), and other campus units increasingly involved in supporting faculty development, including the University Libraries.   Course design institutes, individual and departmental consultations, faculty learning communities, introductions to technology tools as well  as policy matters focused on pedagogy—all of these figure in the training currently available to faculty, graduate teaching assistants, and others who are part of the university teaching community.   The Institute itself should become an entity that coalesces this expertise and creates a place for new, deeper conversations and reflections on the practice of teaching—on the part of all of us who teach.

At the heart of the future of the Institute—and of the University’s commitment to teaching—is an assumption about community.   We often refer to the “university community”, or the “campus community,” or the “community of scholars”, as other universities do; but do we reflect on what is involved in forging a community?   At a large, hugely diverse institution such as Ohio State, what are the shared beliefs, values, and assumptions about teaching and learning that will help us create a community?  I am asking these questions because, in my time at Ohio State, I have seen thoughtful people grapple with them and find only partially satisfying answers, if any at all.  We have much high-quality work ongoing in supporting the teaching role of faculty, but largely at the individual, departmental, or small working-group level.  How can we create what Lee Shulman calls “community property” for teaching and learning—communal knowledge that is active, dynamic, and more widely contributed to by a more diverse set of community members who teach?  Knowledge that has a multiplier effect—a rolling diffusion-- in making large-scale transformations in teaching effectiveness and learning outcomes for students?   The future of the Institute rests upon creating a vital teaching community in which all of us are invested.

I have recently been re-reading a book about community, appropriately titled, Community: The Structure of Belonging,” by Peter Block.   Block is a community activist and dedicated citizen who has done extraordinary work with health care, business, and nonprofit organizations—not so far from here, in Cincinnati.  His wisdom about community-building grows out of this richly varied experience and frequent encounters with the fragmentation and incoherence of much organizational life.   I gained enormously from reading his book again because it convinced me, more than ever, that Ohio State has already put in place the building blocks for becoming a teaching-focused research university, but that it has not yet created the deeper conversations about teaching and learning that can arise only within a community of committed scholar-teachers.  Block’s experience suggests that we would benefit from articulating the big questions about teaching and learning practices, and grapple with them collectively across the institution, because productively ambiguous questions will advance our collective knowledge.  He would also point out the need for us to invite everyone to the table, from all disciplines and ranks, from all support units as well as from student life and student government—because we all have a  stake in the quality of student learning—and of their becoming informed professionals and capable citizens.   Teaching—and the learning that comes from it but from many other sources in our students’ enormously diverse lives—should be at the heart of what we do.  It is our mission and our calling.

How can we focus on those big, productively ambiguous questions that Block suggests for building community?  He would offer the necessity of starting with small groups as units of transformation—creating, in effect, ongoing communities of practice.  He would also suggest the necessity of honoring talents, gifts, and perspectives of all stakeholders and of investing all of them with a sense of agency in shaping and advancing the conversation; and creating more leaders throughout the organization who are focused on advancing the conversation.    In other words, it’s all our responsibility, as citizens of the university, to build the teaching and learning community that will make the university the best teaching-focused research university in the nation.

I have reflected on some of those “productively ambiguous questions” that Block advocates and have attempted to formulate some of them for our context at Ohio State:

  1. What are the common elements of evidence-based pedagogy that obtain across this university, no matter the discipline or perspective? How can we develop an interdisciplinary understanding of what effective pedagogy involves?
  2. What assumptions about our teaching practices are embedded in the phrase “evidence-based pedagogy”?   How do professional judgment and interpretation figure in making decisions about teaching practices?
  3. Is teaching a neutral act? Can it ever be said to be neutral? In what sense?
  4. Teaching is always an act of vulnerability in the face of the unknown—new students, different questions, shifting circumstances on our campuses—against the backdrop of the charged political environment we live in nationally.   How can we create supportive, safe spaces for conversation that help all of us become better teachers in these fraught times, where we listen to each other and learn from each other?
  5. What do our students experience as learners in our classrooms, in our advising sessions, in our student organization meetings? What is the full picture of student learning at this research university?
  6. How can students themselves contribute to an emerging community of scholar-teachers? What do we assume about students that excludes them from such participation? Are we willing to include them in an expanded circle of scholarly approaches to teaching?  

I have no doubt that this list of ‘big questions” can grow, and I’m also sure that others who’ve participated in Institute activities, and UCAT and ODEE workshops,  have already anticipated some of these, and many others.   I’m suggesting that we make our questions as large as possible, without ready answers, because, as Block says, it’s the big ambiguous questions that provoke interest and engagement, spark conversation, and create community.  

The community for teacher growth and development at Ohio State lives within all of us who teach or engage with students beyond the classroom or formal courses.  We have it within us to overcome the “pedagogical solitude” that Shulman describes so aptly as one of the perils of teaching in higher education.  Our intentional approach to creating community, focused on inviting everyone to the table, asking the big questions about teaching and learning, and encouraging sustained and ever-evolving conversations about what it means to be a scholar-teacher in these times, will go far in making Ohio State the best teaching-centered research university in the country.  



                                    --Craig Gibson

                                    Professor & Professional Development Coordinator

                                    The Ohio State University Libraries