Where were you 30 years ago? Maryellen Weimer, PhD, was writing the very first issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter, and she hasn’t stopped since.
In March 1987, Magna Publications published volume 1, number 1 of The Teaching Professor. The opening article read, in part:
“With all the enthusiasm of a new beginning, Magna begins publication of a newsletter for college professors about college teaching. … Can instruction be improved by reading material about teaching and learning? Yes. Reading about teaching forces reflection. It creates instructional awareness by causing faculty to wonder: Do I do that? Should I do that? Infusing teaching with a steady supply of new ideas keeps it fresh and invigorated.”
That philosophy of reflection and instructional awareness has remained a constant theme throughout the decades. As has the importance of keeping teaching fresh, regardless of teaching experience or discipline.
“Our readers teach in a wide range of disciplines, they teach at all sorts of different institutions, they teach in different countries, and they teach beginning students, part-time students, online students, adult students, graduate students, and every other category of students you can think of,” said Weimer.
When developing each issue, Weimer tries to keep the diversity of readership in mind. She has a book where she logs all the articles she’s read from the roughly 80 pedagogical publications on her regular reading list. There are also article submissions that need to be reviewed. When it’s time to start a new issue, she begins lining up the topics to cover that month and gets to work; rereading, writing, and questioning. Is the content applicable in all these different contexts? Is it something of interest to a lot of faculty? Is it a strategy a lot of readers can use?
“I don’t think there is a ‘typical Teaching Professor reader,’” Weimer said. “But what I do imagine when writing is a faculty member who is concerned about teaching and is interested in doing all they can to promote learning. I consider myself lucky because I’m writing for an audience that reads and that thinks while they’re reading—that’s a luxury.”
Neil Haave, PhD, an associate professor of biology at the University of Alberta at Augustana, is one such longtime subscriber. He marvels at the fact that The Teaching Professor has been around longer than he has been teaching (he started in 1990), and reflects on how the articles have helped him over the years. During his early years in the classroom, the newsletter opened his eyes to new ways of teaching. Now in mid-career, he values “being a part of a global conversation on how to best support our students’ learning,” and appreciates Weimer’s astute observations and willingness “to question whether the swinging pendulum of fashionable pedagogy has swung too far in one direction or the other.”
“As a novice, The Teaching Professor was critical in helping me think of other ways of teaching my students,” said Haave. “Like most neophytes, I started teaching the way that I was taught—giving students the kinds of assignments given to me as a student, using the types of exam questions and rubrics that I experienced. The newsletter provided a much larger voice that mentored my development as a teacher. I had a couple of excellent mentors here at Augustana, but my mentors and I often used the articles in The Teaching Professor as springboards for discussing how and why we ran our courses the way we did. The Teaching Professor delivered to our faculty lounge a wealth of experience that I was able to draw on.”
The Teaching Professor then and now
The idea for The Teaching Professor grew out of Weimer’s experiences as the director of the new faculty development program at Penn State Berks, but it wasn’t without its detractors. One person in particular took some convincing. “My boss suggested that the office publish a newsletter,” Weimer recalls. “I didn’t think much of the idea, but I started writing one. The newsletter turned out to be way more popular than I ever expected. Faculty kept after me to find a publisher, which proved almost impossible until I discovered Magna.”
Magna Publications was founded in 1972 when Bill Haight created and distributed his first newsletter, National On Campus Report, which helped colleges and universities to share information about trends, ideas, and events occurring on their campuses. By 1987, Magna had a handful of newsletters serving the higher education community, but it didn’t have one developed specifically to support college faculty. After seeing a copy of Magna’s Academic Leader, Weimer reached out to the company to see if there was any interest in a newsletter for faculty.
“Maryellen explained there was a need for a newsletter that could enhance college teaching skills by providing pragmatic articles and advice aimed at increasing instructional effectiveness,” said Haight. “I liked the idea and I liked her passion for the idea. The rest is history.”
Since the first six-page issue in March 1987, The Teaching Professor has reached the mailboxes and inboxes of tens of thousands faculty members all over the world. Currently, there are subscribers from 25 different countries. More than 200 campuses have a group online subscription, giving broad institutional access to the entire campus community. Other subscribers have an individual print or online subscription.
Perry Shaw, EdD, professor of education at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon, is among those international subscribers and has also contributed a few articles over the years.
“The arrival of The Teaching Professor is a monthly highlight,” Perry said. “I appreciate the newsletter because of its brevity, and yet within that brevity is substance that makes the connection between theory and practice. In the limited time that most faculty have, teachers at our school find the format of The Teaching Professor attractive—and it’s often the only regular educational input they receive.”
Weimer understands that preference for brief, actionable articles.
“Faculty are busy people,” she noted. “They need to get information quickly. They want the details, most especially the implications of what they’re reading. I often think about somebody grabbing a quick lunch while they read something in the newsletter that caught their interest.”
Not surprisingly, Weimer has witnessed a lot of changes in higher education in the 30 years since launching the newsletter. And while teaching trends come and go, among the positive changes are things like the emphasis on student learning, the recognition that classes need more active learning and less lecture, and the relatively new interest in evidence-based teaching and cognitive psychology.
“When we first started the newsletter, the focus in higher education was on teaching,” she said “We thought (and not entirely incorrectly) that if we improved teaching, more learning would be the result. We more or less took learning for granted, but then in the 1990s higher education ‘discovered’ learning. Interest in it continues today and I see that as a positive.”
Weimer’s ability to distill the most salient points of scholarly work on teaching and learning and present them in short, succinct articles that are easy to read and understand remains one of the newsletter’s hallmarks. Her reading list includes not only the mind-boggling 80 pedagogical publications, most of them discipline-based periodicals along with some cross-disciplinary journals on teaching and learning, but a handful of educational research journals as well.
“I so appreciate The Teaching Professor’s ability to highlight significant or innovative pedagogical articles published in journals that I would never have read otherwise,” said Haave. “Broadening the experience and expertise available to me to tap into when I design learning experiences for my students is invaluable. As a biochemist, I never would have thought that articles in, say, the Journal of Management Education would have something worthwhile to say about how I teach my own courses, but we have so much to learn from each other.”
Michael Bendele, PhD, a continuing lecturer at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, is not only a regular reader, but also uses the newsletter to introduce the next generation of faculty to the broad spectrum of literature on teaching. The IPFW department of psychology’s undergraduate teaching assistant course uses The Teaching Professor to generate valuable discussion on teaching-related issues they may face, he said.
Today, The Teaching Professor name and mission extends beyond a print newsletter to also include an annual conference—the 14th annual Teaching Professor Conference heads to St. Louis, June 2-4—and a weekly blog, found here on Faculty Focus each Wednesday. Weimer sits on the conference advisory board and authors a blog post each week. All of which begs the question, what keeps her engaged and enthused month after month, and year after year?
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t like to clean house. I’d rather not go shopping,” she jokes, before taking a more serious tone. “The work feels so unfinished. Most faculty still start teaching careers with no or scant training. There are still no or few professional norms expecting faculty to grow and develop as teachers. Most faculty still do a very modest amount of pedagogical reading. We’re still not evaluating teaching in ways that help faculty become better teachers. Even so, most faculty are teachers for the right reasons. They care about what they teach, who they teach, and how they teach. For those reasons, I love being a teacher of those who teach.”