How we done good

Two Fridays ago was a busy day for me.  My campus is trying to start up a first-year seminar (FYS) program as part of our new general education program. We’re working on recruiting faculty to teach courses in the program, which has been a bit of a stumbling block for a wide variety of reasons. We have a budget, however, for faculty development around the first-year seminar, as well as the critical thinking and information literacy outcomes that are “housed” within that seminar.

So, knowing that — again, for a wide variety of reasons — bringing in “experts” or consultants wouldn’t be the most effective strategy on our campus at this time, we decided to bring in five ordinary faculty members, from three different liberal arts colleges with long-established, strong FYS programs, to work one-on-one with some of our faculty who are developing FYS courses, and also to do a lunch panel for the faculty as a whole on why teaching a FYS is the Bestest Thing Ever.

The fact that the “experts” were also our faculty’s peers gave them credibility with our faculty, and also gave them an intimate understanding of the challenges we face in getting our program off the ground.  In each case, our program is slightly different from their campus’s program, but the common elements — first-year students, a seminar format, creative and interdisciplinary topics, the integration of critical thinking and research skills, the struggle between “coverage” and skills — were the same.

I was coordinating that visit, handling everything from travel arrangements to catering orders to scheduling the guests’ meetings with our faculty members.  It all came together last Friday, and from everything I’ve heard from those who participated in the events, it went really, really well.

One of the things I kept hearing from people on my campus, though, was how surprising the whole idea was.  The word “innovative” was even used once or twice.  The idea of bringing in “experts” who were also peers, to work one-on-one with our faculty and also to address the faculty as a whole, didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone, but it seemed kind of like a no-brainer to me.

So I got to thinking about why that was: why was this idea, that seemed so obvious to me, so foreign to my colleagues on the teaching faculty?

And I think it comes down to the culture of librarianship and the culture of faculty. There is such a strong culture of sharing expertise and communal problem-solving among librarians: we have tons of email lists devoted primarily to that purpose (ILI-L and collib-l are just two that I’ve been involved with, but there are many, many others).  We have whole corners of social networking spaces devoted to that purpose. We have wikis (that don’t get used much).

And we have conferences and professional journals.  How many conference presentations and journal articles have you read that fall into the category of what we sometimes derisively call “how we done good” presentations?  Those presentations or articles that describe a new or innovative service, talk about what need it fills, how it was developed, what barriers the authors encountered, etc., and then go on to provide tips and suggestions for replicating the program or service at your own library?

A lot, is my guess.

But the thing is, the teaching faculty don’t, for the most part, have these channels — especially not the formal channels of conference presentations and journal articles. Because of course, all conference papers and publications must be “research” in order to count for tenure and promotion — mere “helpful advice” doesn’t count.  Even the “scholarship of teaching and learning” folks often tend to emphasize the scholarship aspect over and above the “sharing practical wisdom” aspect — because, again, these folks are hoping that this scholarship counts toward tenure and promotion.1

So among our teaching-faculty colleagues, the conversations about “hey I’ve got this problem,” and “how do you handle this kind of situation,” and “wow, this thing I did in class yesterday was awesome,” and “you have got to see my colleague’s syllabus because it has completely changed the way I think about…” and “oh hey, that happened to me and here’s what I did” when they do happen, happen in the hallways at conferences, and in the hallways between offices, and other haphazard locations.  They’re not captured anywhere for others to read/hear and learn from.2

But the thing is, if you put two or more dedicated teachers in a room together and give them even the slightest provocation, they will start talking about teaching and learning and not stop until someone turns out the lights, turns off the heat, and takes away the coffee urn. Seriously. I’ve seen it happen. (I saw it happen two Fridays ago, and it was awesome.)

So how do we make that happen more often? How do we facilitate those conversations? How do we structure them so that they are informal enough to be inviting and “safe” spaces for talking about failures and challenges, yet structured enough so as not to descend into gripe-fests?  We do it reasonably well in librarianship; how can we make it happen in the (other) disciplines?


  1. And also, to be fair, because evidence-based efforts to improve teaching and learning are probably going to be more effective than non-evidence-based improvements.
  2. There are quite a number of blogs that do this, though, and those can be really valuable for capturing these conversations and broadcasting them to a wider audience.