The Storm Before the Calm

This year, as I have for a while, I had the pleasure of working with our new instructor training program in the last week of August. And this year, as I have for a while, I found it to be the effort of the semester in condensed form. This week runs at an entirely different pace than the rest of the semester. Not perhaps quite a storm, but still the better part of a week’s worth of solid days starting at 8:30 and finishing between 4 and 5.

I think that’s good. I find myself thinking of the MAA‘s Project NExT, a professional development program which I had the good fortune to help run for many years. Project NExT succeeds by getting amazingly good presenters together with about 80 new Fellows for an incredibly intense 2.5 day workshop. It, too, is a bit of a storm. But it works, and works amazingly well, in large part because it not only provides resources but creates community.

We had 45 new graduate students and faculty in our new instructor training program this year, and ran about 20 sessions with a group of about 10 faculty, graduate students and staff. The goal is to get our new instructors to understand how we want to teach here, and why, and to give them all the tools and background that they need to do that well. I want to then ask “does this work,” and to answer “yes!,” but I’m not sure it’s that black-and-white.

To be sure, many of the people who go through our training turn into unbelievably good teachers. Many of the people who move through the Department are or turn into unbelievably good researchers, too. Some are very good ultimate players. Some are exceptional bridge players (I think; I don’t actually play bridge—in any case, comparatively many play bridge and others may evaluate their skill level). In all cases I think a lot of what drives that success is internal to the individual. I said in a talk I gave to Project NExT Fellows in 2013 that “pedagogy is personal,” and I think that’s true. ┬áThat is, there are many ways to be a successful teacher, the way one person accomplishes that is likely to be different from the way that someone else may, and how good one is depends a lot on a willingness to be aware and work very hard to improve. And that is something that is very hard so see how to build into an instructor training program.

But we can probably build in some structures that facilitate getting there. I hope that the people with whom we work remain or become convinced that it matters—to all of us here—if we teach well. And I hope that they will see enough of the evidence from the pedagogical literature that student engagement is essential for learning to see that as something with which they should be concerned. Certainly there are those around us for whom learning happens no matter what the instructor does. Generally speaking there is a case to be made that I was a student who could do that, and this is likely the case for any of us who are pursuing or have earned a Ph.D. But that may simply prove the point that engagement is essential: I think I probably managed to be engaged in most classes, and certainly engaged with the material outside of class. So teaching well has to be concerned with student engagement.

Of course, that’s why we have a lot of discussion about inquiry based instruction and learning in our program. But we also have to believe that it matters, and to believe that we all should work to do it well, and to get to that point I think the storm that blows through training is itself important. We don’t exist in a vacuum, and we don’t teach in a vacuum. (As Groucho Marx didn’t say, inside a vacuum it’s too dark to teach, and it’s probably too loud, too.) I think we have a community of teachers and learners in our Department here, and I think that having an intense space where we are all being deluged by activity and ideas is something that can help build that. This is something that works in Project NExT, and I hope it works here.