• April 23, 2014

Inspiration From 'The Teaching Professor'

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Earlier this month during a telephone conversation, the executive editor of a large university press asked me a challenging question about the future of publishing in academe: Did I still see a space for traditional print publications, he wanted to know, given what he called the "churning mass" of research, ideas, and opinions available to faculty members now from blogs and social media?

My reply: While faculty members have much to gain from wading into online sources and discussions, I think a place still exists for publishers who can help channel the flood into more-manageable streams. As an example of a print publication that has been admirably playing that role for more than two decades, I pointed him toward a teaching newsletter—available online, but still mailed out the old-fashioned way—that has been informing my own teaching for many years now: The Teaching Professor.

I became acquainted with the newsletter in 1997, when I joined the staff of Northwestern University's Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, and then spent three years as its assistant director. I had earned my Ph.D. in English literature but had come to the center—and a new subfield of research—through some of those twists and turns that sometimes shape our careers in unexpected ways. The center had a large library on teaching and learning, and I found myself overwhelmed in my first months on the job, staring at the wall of monographs or the multiple file cabinets of photocopied articles, wondering where to begin. (This was back when the Internet was still powered by hamster wheels, and most of our research was in paper form.)

I discovered The Teaching Professor soon after my arrival. Reading through back issues allowed me to ease my way into what would eventually become a secondary field of research and writing for me. What struck me as most distinctive about the newsletter was the feature that remains most valuable to me today: brief summaries of recently published articles on teaching and learning from a wide range of journals. The summaries not only evaluated the quality of the latest research but also teased out its practical implications.

For 25 years, Maryellen Weimer has been writing those useful summaries as editor of the newsletter. She has constructed a remarkable track record of helping faculty members do their jobs more effectively, beginning with her work on the newsletter and continuing, in recent years, with both an online presence and an annual conference.

"I regularly read about 70 discipline-based pedagogical periodicals," Weimer told me, when I asked her to explain how she selects articles to profile in the newsletter, "as well as a smaller set of topical journals and some education-research journals." (I'm so glad someone's doing all that work, I wanted to respond, and I'm so glad it's not me.)

As I suspected from my own frequent reading of The Teaching Professor, Weimer favors articles that have some clear practical consequences for teaching faculty members. "I opt for studies that are well designed," she said, "where the data is appropriately analyzed and the results justified by the data. If the researchers address implications—if they propose what a teacher might want to do about the results—there's a better chance I'll highlight that study."

When I asked Weimer, a professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, to tell me what had drawn her to the field of teaching-and-learning research, and thus to the newsletter, I heard a story that resonated with my own sideways trek into the field.

"I started out wanting to be a preacher," she said. "I remember being upset when I finally noticed that only the men preached in our church. Mom recommended that I consider teaching instead. My classmate still couldn't read when we finished the first grade, so I decided I would try to teach him. Over the summer I did, and in the process fell in love with teaching.

"When I started teaching at the college level, I had no experience teaching classes, no coursework in teaching, and I don't remember having read anything about teaching or learning. Like many, I discovered content knowledge is not all you need to teach well. I muddled along, slowly improving, still loving teaching but increasingly aware it was difficult to do well."

Her first foray into the scholarship of teaching and learning was a graduate-school essay she wrote on how to help faculty members become better teachers. But despite her interest in the subject, it was a nudge from an administrator that prompted her to edit the teaching newsletter when she was asked to produce one for faculty members in the Penn State system.

"I wasn't exactly enthusiastic about the assignment," she said, "and that modest enthusiasm quickly became anxiety when, by the third issue, I'd exhausted my ideas on teaching and learning. Forced to look elsewhere for content, I discovered pedagogical literature, which, even in the early 80s (long before the 'scholarship of teaching and learning' became a national movement), seemed to me a treasure trove of useful ideas and information."

The newsletter immediately found an audience, and Weimer had found her approach: seeking out the most recent and relevant research on teaching and learning in higher education, and drawing out its classroom implications for her colleagues. The next step in the newsletter's evolution came, just like the first, at the behest of others.

"Some of my colleagues thought the newsletter might have a wider audience," she said. "They urged me to see if I could find a publisher. It was an almost futile quest. No publisher would touch a subscription newsletter. Faculty won't pay, I was told repeatedly. I wrote grants—no luck. On the verge of giving up I discovered Magna Publications, which was at that point a small newsletter-publishing company. With a smart managing editor and marketing wizard who'd never been told that you couldn't direct-mail market to faculty, the newsletter launched and was virtually an overnight success. That was more than 25 years ago."

The formula she created has been carrying the newsletter ever since. "In the beginning and now," she told me, "a typical issue contains three kinds of articles: summaries of research, descriptions of widely applicable approaches and strategies, and unsolicited articles (mostly authored by readers) exploring a wide range of pedagogical issues and topics."

That winning combination makes the newsletter a valuable resource for faculty members in all disciplines. Debra Rudder Lohe, director of a teaching center at Saint Louis University and another longtime fan of The Teaching Professor, described it this way: "I think of it as appetizers or small tastes—just enough to satisfy some teachers and whet the appetites of others. In the piles and piles of things that end up in the 'to be read' stack on my desk, The Teaching Professor is always on top."

As Lohe implied, one reason so many of us find the newsletter so valuable is its brevity. "When I'm working with an instructor who is overwhelmed by the range of options before her," she said, "it's great to have a small, digestible, researched bit to pass along."

These days, if you want your bits in digital format, you can get your subscription online and keep up with the recent recommended research by following The Teaching Professor on Twitter. If you want a deeper immersion in the vision of Maryellen Weimer, you can find that as well, by attending the newsletter's annual conference, which attracts more than 800 faculty members. (Visit Teachingprofessor.com for more information on all of those options.) This year's meeting will take place in New Orleans.

Six years ago, when I began writing the On Course column for The Chronicle, I modeled my approach on Weimer's strategy of shining a light on new and outstanding thinking on teaching and learning in higher education. As I enter my second decade as a faculty member, I look forward to finding more inspiration from The Teaching Professor, both for this column and for my own teaching.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching (Harvard University Press, 2008). His Web site is Jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

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