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Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning

We have at least three trains coming at us with the implementation of the new General Education program. The first is already in the tunnel, light shining brightly. We're presently engaged in new course development for First Year Seminar. Somewhere close behind is the Connections connection. Many Core 4 courses will be revised into Connections courses, so this may make for a kinder, gentler ride than the FYS express. But wait, there's another train behind the first two: Its name is WID: or Writing in the Discipline requirement which, as it turns out, is not really a General Education requirement so much as it is an educational requirement across all disciplines at every level, right through and into the major. We must teach the conventions of writing in our discipline, while assigning writing instead of, or along with, other assessment tools already in place. One course—perhaps a new course, or an existing course—may satisfy the WID requirement. Or, possibly a number of courses already teaching writing in the discipline will satisfy WID. However it happens, it's a requirement that needs further clarification.

Yet even before General Education rocked our world, we've been working our way into the twenty-first century of electronic, digital, distance learning. This is another can of worms. Distance learning issues abound. Whether you're teaching a hybrid course, or a fully online course, or a face-to-face course with Blackboard, teaching and the internet have become inextricable.

On the one hand, the scholarship on distance learning underscores the importance of online course design—but that's not all. Along with the challenge of online course design comes the question of educational outcomes. How do we insure that students who learn online have an educational experience equivalent to their face-to-face counterparts on campus? This is an assessment issue, and an Assessment issue. But wait, that's not all. If you answer the call of the internet, then you must also learn the world of Blackboard as a Learning Management System. If you've used the teaching functions in Blackboard—functions that go beyond merely posting syllabi or documents–it often seems that the designers of Blackboard have never actually tried to teach with it. It takes some doing to design a course on Blackboard that works, and works well. There's a fairly steep learning curve to teaching affectively with Blackboard, as anyone who uses Blackboard will tell you. And so this raises yet another important issue: if one does engage in online teaching, and if one wants to prepare a Blackboard course for the highest functionality for instructor and student, this takes a considerable investment of time.

The scholarship on teaching and learning maintains that faculty need a place to go and a way to engage in dialogue about teaching and learning and how to get better at it. For that reason I am excited about the new General Education program. I think change is good, usually, unless it comes in the form of a devastating hurricane, or tidal wave, or some other natural catastrophe.

Change as we are currently experiencing is both a burden and an opportunity. I believe that redesigning General Education represents an opportunity to consider some of our most basic assumptions about teaching. It's a good time, when you're designing a new course, to reflect on what you do, how you do it, and if you might benefit from hearing what other people think and hearing how other people do things. And then there's what the scholarship on teaching and learning recommends for college students: More rigor. More writing. More quantitative reasoning. More science. And more follow-through from first-year to senior-year.

It's a timely moment to consider what we do as teachers as if for the first time. The FCTL is devoted to the professional and personal growth of faculty as teachers at Rhode Island College and it is committed to fostering self-reflective practices in teaching. Only by understanding ourselves and what we're trying to accomplish as teachers can we then design educational experiences tailored to our specific, articulated goals.

One of the central tenets of the FCTL mission is to foster a dynamic campus dialogue across distances and disciplines in order to support what goes on in the classroom and so make a difference in the lives of our students, our state, our region and our world. Big goals. Ambitious, perhaps a bit too ambitious for some. More than one colleague has rolled their eyes, gnashed their teeth, roared their roars and dismissed my description of what an FCTL is with a world-weary cynicism.

Nevertheless, something in me is attracted to worthy, if grandiose, projects and back at the beginning of the process—when Ron Pitt introduced the idea to Mission and Goals, a committee I was chairing at the time–I jumped on board. I thought that developing an FCTL at RIC represented a worthy and profoundly challenging project suited to my grandiosity. How many times did I hear someone say, even just yesterday, "if you build it, they will come"? Even so, as a skeptic and closet-Anarchist, I wondered if an FCTL is what RIC really needed to foster teaching and learning. Were we not doing a pretty decent job already? Were we not already doing the things academics do to take care of our professional needs as teachers? The answer to those questions is, well, sort of, and not really, not in a sustained way. Then given that, if we did build it, would faculty have the time to frequent yet another round of talks, presentations, workshops, and the like? If we built it, would they come?

The Davis Educational Foundation funded the FCTL for three years, and so after a year of directing the FCTL, we're still only nearing the end of the beginning. The final word has yet to be written on whether the Davis folks donated their money wisely, but for me it has been an exciting, tumultuous, incredibly rich year. I've gone from full-time English professor to some other academic creature, part-time teacher, full-time director of a center for teaching and learning run by faculty, run for faculty. The first part of the job has been inventing the job. With support from an Advisory Board some twenty-faculty strong I had help inventing the first year of FCTL programming, and it's been a far richer and more demanding experience than I could have ever anticipated. Unfortunately, there is no white paper on my new position as director, and so I've had to figure out how to get things done without a handbook.

Plutarch once said, "a mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled." This is good. I approve. Good on you, Plutarch. Let's kindle fire. It's part of the RIC logo, after all–the flame of knowledge. Unfortunately, teaching is often more smoke than flame because we pour content into our students' minds and quench the opportunity to kindle the fire of the critical, higher mind. And I can say that at my worst my teaching is like pouring water on wet wood and hoping it will burst into flame. I think I'm not alone in this.

On the other hand, when I'm effective, when I have both a plan and a vision and have achieved a delicate balance between discipline and spontaneity, the classroom sparks fly and result in the "kindled fire" of the higher mind. But what does this mean sans metaphors? I think it means that we can see when education is effective because our students begin to demonstrate the habits of responsible, self-motivated individuals who feel a stake in their lives, and so attend to the tasks at hand. The state of the mind on fire is, predictably, diametrically opposed to the dependent mind of watered wood weaned on compulsory education, a process that, at its worst, robs the student of curiosity, initiative and motivation.

Education at its best is a student-centered process that is both rigorous and compassionate. These days the scholarship on teaching and learning indicates that kindling the fire of the higher mind is best achieved through "high-impact educational practices" of the kind informing our new General Education plan.

According to George Kuh,

high impact educational teaching and learning practices, have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds. These practices take many different forms, depending on learner characteristics and on institutional priorities and contexts. On many campuses, assessment of student involvement in active learning practices such as these has made it possible to assess the practices' contribution to students' cumulative learning. However, on almost all campuses, utilization of active learning practices is unsystematic, to the detriment of student learning. Presented below are brief descriptions of high-impact practices that educational research suggests increase rates of student retention and student engagement. The rest of this publication will explore in more detail why these types of practices are effective, which students have access to them, and, finally, what effect they might have on different cohorts of students. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter by George D. Kuh, (Washington, DC: AAC&U, 2008). For information and more resources and research from LEAP, see Outside Linkwww.aacu.org/leap.

Farewell, Core 4

Even though I'm excited about the proposed General Education Plan, that's not to say I thought our current General Education program was intolerably flawed. I thought the Cores in General Education as they were designed made a kind of sense, though they may have unwittingly assumed a blinkered binary of western vs. non-western that, perhaps, re-inscribed the very mind-set general education was meant to challenge.

In spite of this potential built-in contradiction, I eagerly proposed a Core 4 in 1997 as an assistant professor of English. "Zen and the Literary Experience." East compared to West. Buddhism compared to Christianity. The via positive versus the via negative and any number of binaries that served to invite students into critical reflection about their own culture's way of thinking while inviting them to consider other ways of seeing the world and their place in it. When it worked my students discovered their own critical agency and a desire to learn more, do more, engage more. In class we accomplished impressive feats of oral communication and critical thinking, and their writing utterly challenged common-place notions that our students "can't write." It turned out that, when motivated and challenged–and when equipped to meet the challenge, our students can write, and write effectively, even powerfully. It all depends on the nature of the assignment and the ways in which we prepare them to succeed, or fail.

From the feedback I've received from students over the years—sometimes years after the class—the Core 4 experience was, for them, the best experience they had in college. Core 4 allowed me to create and offer a course that has been a key-stone experience for me in my seventeen years at Rhode Island College. So I take a moment to bid farewell to the Cores that, while flawed, were richly imagined and provided in their own way for superior educational opportunities for RIC students.

Hello, FYS

Why should freshman come to RIC when they could save thousands of dollars and go to CCRI for general education? Because RIC isn't CCRI. But how so? I think First Year Seminar represents a strategic initiative that has the potential to distinguish RIC and draw freshman.

First Year Seminar represents a crucial opportunity for instructors to help RIC freshman discover–or in some cases extend–their intellectual and critical agency. Students who feel a stake in their work do better. FYS catches young people at a crucial moment—it offers the opportunity for instructors to hook students in to the life of the mind and to excite them about the possibilities of intellectual rigor, and of creative thinking, and of life-changing possibility. Can FYS live up to all of this? Can changing General Education make such a difference? The scholarship on teaching and learning says yes.

It also says that the freshman seminar is a "high impact educational practice" defined as one of a set of educational practices that research has demonstrated have a significant impact on student success." In his book on high-impact education, George D. Kuh, "presents data from the National Survey of Student Engagement about high-impact educational practices and explains why [these educational practices] benefit all students, but also seem to benefit underserved students even more than their more advantaged peers. The report also presents data that show definitively that under-served students are the least likely students, on average, to have access to these practices."

FYS–along with the new General Education plan–is nothing less than a game-changer, or at least it might be if we take advantage of its full potential.

In Closing

The mission of the FCTL has been, and will continue to be to provide much needed faculty support in a rapidly evolving profession and teaching/learning environment. The FCTL workshops in the summer and fall have gathered together almost a hundred faculty so far in a safe space for honest, productive dialogue informed by scholarship and experience from all disciplines, ranks, and teaching status. We have successfully promoted communication and collaboration across disciplines and served as an institutional hub that fosters a dynamic dialogue about teaching and learning. We have coordinated existing faculty development activities, resources, and information while launching new professional development initiatives. We have responded and continue to respond to new ideas and trends in teaching and learning especially in issues related to teaching and technology, distance-learning, and hybrid/on-line teaching.

FCTL Mission Statement

Rhode Island College's Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning (FCTL) promotes the professional growth and development of faculty as teachers and as scholars of teaching and learning. The FCTL cultivates a public dialogue about teaching and learning across disciplinary lines and strives to build a professional community among teachers at Rhode Island College. The FCTL serves faculty at every stage of our professional lives in order to support a campus-wide culture committed to excellence in teaching and learning. The FCTL is by faculty, for faculty.

For more information about FCTL programming, please see www.ric.edu/fctl. If you would like to propose or facilitate a workshop, please email FCTL@ric.edu.

Page last updated: December 16, 2011