January 15th, 2009

Ideas That Work in College Teaching


With 10 inches of snow on top of two inches of ice, there wasn’t much to do besides read this past week, and I got around to several books that have been waiting on my shelf. One of those books is a collection of essays, all written by faculty at SUNY (State University of New York) Postdam.

I love the story of how this book came to be. The editor, Robert Badger, a geologist, relates the details in the book’s preface. A previous provost started an informal book discussion group. Participants (all volunteers) agreed to read one book a semester. They met Friday afternoon to share “a few bottles of wine” (xi) and discuss the book. Usually the discussion was launched by a panel and followed by an exchange open to all. The group read a fairly wide range of books, which Badger acknowledges were “the provost’s gentle and subtle (yet effective) way of encouraging us to keep looking for new ways to teach, for new ideas to bring to the classroom.” (xi)

They read one book (not named, fingers crossed it wasn’t one of mine) that engendered a good deal of outrage over its quality. Badger stood up at the end of the diatribe and told his colleagues he thought they could do better. He thought it might be valuable for faculty to write about their efforts to reach the kind of students that attend a SUNY campus in upstate New York. He uses phrases like “pretty raw material” and “freshmen in life” to describe those students. “This is the typical clientele for many state schools—good kids, fine people, but often ill-prepared for immersion into academia.” (xiii)

Fifteen colleagues responded to his call and that’s how Ideas That Work in College Teaching came to be. As you might suspect the quality of the individual essays varies. There are several A’s and a number with content applicable across many disciplines. I would recommend the book.

But beyond being a respectable book on college teaching, it’s such a wonderful idea. What a great way for faculty at an institution to make a foray into the scholarship of teaching. As I read the essays, even those focused on topics of narrow interest, I was impressed by the thoughtful analysis that went into writing the pieces. I’d be willing to bet a bunch, that everybody who wrote one of those chapters ended up with a deeper, richer, and more insightful understanding of a particular practice, approach, educational philosophy, course design, or teaching experience. Kudos to the authors and their editor! They offer a model that’s definitely worth emulating and take discussion groups on teaching to a whole new level.

Reference: Badger, R. L., ed. (2008) Ideas the Work in College Teaching. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Available online at www.sunypress.edu.

—Maryellen Weimer