Newsletter #83     U.W. Institute for Teaching Excellence

It's kind of risky to go kiting off for a whole week in a state of very high but largely unspecific expectation. Sometimes risks pay off, though. I'm just back from a week's Institute for Teaching Excellence, run by UW's Teaching Academy, and it is very much of a case in point. I knew from preparatory meetings that there would be a bunch of us from fields ranging from aquatic science to zoology by way of civic engineering, philosophy and more, and that our defining characteristic as a group would be a very active interest in teaching. I even had the titles and descriptions of most of the sessions that our leaders (George Bridges and Loveday Conquest) had planned, and they looked very enticing indeed. Going was nonetheless an act of (as it turned out well-placed) faith.

The Institute took place in the University's ONRC (= Olympic Natural Resources Center) facility in Forks, starting Sunday afternoon. A definite summer camp feeling, complete with negotiations with two room mates about who really wanted an upper bunk and who really, really didn't care. I do hope they meant it when they said they didn't careŠ Opening activities of the necessary but predictable "What are we doing here?" variety were followed by a properly Quileutely smoked salmon dinner. Then predictability, at least for me, completely bit the dust with the introduction of UWOnCue. This is a group of students, some of them drama majors, more not, under the leadership of Jim Boggs of the drama faculty, who make themselves available to do semi-improvised skits to meet a wide variety of academic needs. In the course of the week they launched discussions of undergraduate responses to classroom situations and of our responses to undergraduates in and out of the classroom and of how to deal with TAs. They also helped us produce our own skits designed to enhance the learning of a batch of our own topics. The classiest was one which illustrated a sociological principle with a dialogue consisting entirely of "Blah?" "Blah-blah!" "Blablablablah." Made for a splendid week-long in-joke. Eventually my enthusiasm for UWOnCue met up with my one specific goal for the week, namely the improvement of Math 107, and produced an Idea about which you shall hear moreŠbut not until February or so.

I just blew my chronology, which is probably just as well, because it was a very full week and a straight "and after that weŠ" could rapidly turn soporific. All right then, high spots. I'll start with the absolute peak spot for me, which was Wednesday evening. It took me a couple of days to sort out just why it was such a peak. It wasn't just that, as one of my fellow campers put it, I had to avoid whiplash by not nodding every time I agreed with the speaker. It was that he built a bridge, a pursuit about which I am always enthusiastic, and furthermore that bridge served to connect me and me.

I should perhaps elucidate. The speaker in question was John Webster, professor of English and, more to the point in this specific instance, a Carnegie Scholar, otherwise known as a member of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. His topic was "Teaching as Scholarly Activity," and his underlying tenets were that a) teaching is an intellectual pursuit that deserves vastly more respect than the university community is prone to accord it and b) many things about teaching and learning within an academic field are proper to that field and can only be analyzed and dealt with from within it - by experts in the field itself. This is not to denigrate the research results of people within the field of education, nor to deny the existence of results from their research which are applicable to many of the rest of us. But the issue of, for instance, why students who can graph y = 2x and y = x with one hand tied behind their backs are frequently totally flummoxed when asked to identify those functions if someone else has graphed them, or why seeing one axis of symmetry can distract a student from seeing another more useful one - those are issues which are not going to arise in a course on either Shakespeare or anatomy of invertebrates, and which are definitely worthy of study if one wishes to make progress in the teaching and learning of mathematics. And there's my bridge. The specific examples with which I just illustrated John Webster's theory were actually extracted from an article I recently translated on Didactique of Mathematics. As faithful readers of these pages (screens?) may recall from some of my burblings, study of Didactique keeps me happily occupied for many non-classroom hours (and incidentally supplies me with the excuse to go tootling off to France from time to time.) Didactique is a research field in French mathematics education based on the idea that the study of the teaching and learning of mathematics must be centered in the study of mathematics itself - i.e., based on John Webster's second tenet. Which means that along with being full of lively commentary and fascinating insights, his remarks resonated like mad with several years' worth of my own hard-won intellectual progress. So I've got another pair of feet to sit at. At least these feet live in Padelford!

That, you will perceive, was a hard act to follow. Thursday's sessions accomplished this feat by being totally different in nature. That was the day on which each of the 23 of us gave a ten minute presentation about the course we had been working on. Wonderful courses with a splendid range of topics, from Mass Destruction ("Can Science and Technology Kill Us All?") and the Philosophy of Crime and Punishment (that one included a skit that would have done UWOnCue proud!) to Novels about Humanity's Relationship with the Environment (where do you go after Robinson Crusoe?) and Rome from the Perspectives of History and Art. The award for best metaphor went to the person discussing the difficulties in a writing course of getting people to come up with something to write about when they are convinced that they are "just a bug on the windshield of life." And if you're very nice I'll tell you how I came to win the Tide Laundry Detergent and Albert Einstein Award for Combining Difficult Math Problems with Washable Articles of Clothing.

The only snag to the day's array was that I came out all set to sit in on at least three or four of the courses. And the muffled voice of the realist within me is already making sardonic comments about the probability of ever finding that kind of time. Fortunately, no such negative interior commentary is produced by the really firm promise I have made myself: there will be follow-ups to the conversations that were launched every day all week. Lots of conversations, and lots of follow-ups!

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