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Teaching the Program

A friend once told me about a sophomore in his 20th-century American-history course who couldn’t remember which side had won the Civil War. Like my friend, from time to time I am caught off guard by what students don’t know, and in response I usually find myself muttering something about what’s not being taught in high school, or in the university’s gen-ed requirements, or even in my own department’s intro courses. Meanwhile some member of the grad faculty is surely chiding the gaps in my former students’ preparation for her class.

Until recently I thought of these holes in our students’ education as simply an unavoidable hazard of the academic profession: “There are only so many hours in a semester,” “different professors privilege different knowledge,” and so on. We can demand at least a cursory knowledge of the Civil War, but we’ll always have to deal with more ignorance than we would like. Lately though, I have been wondering if I don’t owe this issue a bit more thought.

This summer I have found some excellent advice in the comments to my blog posts on the development of junior faculty, and one of the ones I keep returning to may suggest a way forward. Back in June, Kathden responded to my thoughts on deep learning by pointing out that the facilitation of higher-level thinking in any given course is really only an intermediate stage in an instructor’s maturation. Ideally, deep learning in one course should be meaningfully connected to the university’s greater academic objectives and the students’ continuing education at large. In other words, the best teachers are thinking carefully about those gaps in our students’ learning and working to fill them in across the whole of an academic program.

Susan VanZanten has written thoughtfully on this topic in Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty. In her chapter on academic citizenship she describes the potential for instructors to isolate themselves within their own courses. Junior faculty, who likely have little practical knowledge of their new departments’ continuing conversations about curriculum, sequencing, and mission, seem particularly susceptible to this kind of pedagogical isolation. In many cases their previous teaching as grad students, postdocs, or adjuncts has been concentrated in introductory-level courses, and that narrowness of experience may encourage a myopic focus on “their classes.” I know I have been guilty of thinking that way.

Last semester I taught a course in which about three quarters of the students had worked with me before. Naturally, I built on our previous conversations and often called on those veterans to clarify notions they had studied in the previous semester. Sometimes I could cite specific work that they had done and ask them to share their research with their peers. It made them experts on those topics and empowered all of us to think of our subject as an intellectual pursuit that can live outside the confines of a single four-month course. And yet for some reason it didn’t strike me until now that, if I knew my fellow faculty members’ courses better, I could build on their work too. Similarly, if I am more thoughtful about the courses students will be taking after mine, I can set up others to extend deep learning across the degree.

For VanZanten, academic citizenship demands that we “jointly analyze the shape of the major, minor, or general-education programs,” a process that begins in candid dialogue with other professors. I am challenged to begin that conversation simply by asking my department’s senior faculty where they see gaps in our students’ learning and what they wish students knew on the semester’s first day.

Is this conversation taking place on your campus? What advice do you have for new faculty members who want to contribute to the larger program, not just teach their own courses? How can senior faculty welcome new colleagues into such a discussion?

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