June 19th, 2008

A Point of Optimism


I’ve been on the road quite a bit during this past month. It will be good to be home for awhile but participating in conferences with different faculty groups and doing presentations at various sorts of institutions is a great way for me to keep my finger on the pulse of teaching and learning in higher education. You see a lot, learn lot and understand more things better.

I’ve been doing a much better job of keeping my cynicism in check now that I’m retired and working for myself. But here lately some of my negative feelings about higher education have re-emerged. One of my dearest friends didn’t get promoted to full professor—his dossier is mostly filled with pedagogical scholarship. Another colleague does very innovative qualitative scholarship on teaching and learning. I wrote a super-positive letter for her dossier. To my absolute astonishment, she was denied tenure. I do worry that the wave of interest in the scholarship of teaching has crested and that the dominance of traditional research is once again on the rise. I worry more about the emotional damage done when commitments to teaching and the study of it are challenged in this way. It’s hard to hold forth about how much things have changed when confronted with compelling examples of how much they’re still the same.

But on the road last week my cynicism was challenged. I returned to a college in Canada to speak at a small regional conference they host. I spent time again with their president who makes it possible to be optimistic about teaching and learning. At the opening session she offered the usual welcome and platitudes about how important these kinds of activities are, but then she didn’t leave. She took a seat with faculty and listened to the proceedings with enthusiasm. She took notes and occasionally asked a question or made a comment. Between sessions she talked with faculty, not about the college, the weather or other pleasantries. She talked teaching. She was there in line at the book signing, buying the presenter’s latest book and making comments about the content in a previous book.

I told her that I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve seen a college president participate in a faculty development day. I told her how important those symbols are to faculty and how encouraging they are to those of us who work with faculty on instructional improvement agendas. I told her that she made me feel optimistic about the future of higher education.

—Maryellen Weimer