Mid-term reflections on my American adventure
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! Last week marked the mid-point of my Fulbright Schuman stay at the Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning so I thought I’d use this space to share with you some of my reflections on my experience so far, both from a more personal point of view and in relation to my research project. I hope you enjoy reading them and as ever I am looking forward to your comments and reactions. Have a nice week!
I’m three months into my American adventure. Somehow time seems to be flying so I want to take a moment to stop, look back and reflect on some of the things I feel I’ve gained while being here, from a professional as well as a personal point of view.
If I could summarise the main “lessons” so far (and yes, it feels like oversimplifying such a rich experience, but I really wanted to get to the essence of it), I would probably stick to these 5 points:
The power of keeping an open mind. Being in a new place for a longer time is really refreshing. You get to question everything you normally take for granted- from ways of doing things at the office to the place of your favourite food in the supermarket. Let’s face it, we don’t often have the chance to train our “beginner’s mind”, so I really enjoyed leaning into this new experience. It does involve constant learning and unlearning (doesn’t life always?) and it may well mean that some of your assumptions will be contradicted. So you learn to hold on to them loosely instead of tightly. Valuable lesson.
The power of connections. By far the most important and enjoyable thing about my stay has been getting to know may amazing people and being overwhelmed by their generosity (both professional and personal). I am convinced that these connections will live far longer than my short visit, and building these bridges is really satisfying- it goes beyond a transactional relation (i.e. willingness to be a part of my current research) and into a much more sustainable, transformational experience. I often can’t believe how lucky I am to have these deep conversations and to be continuously challenged to surpass my limits and learn so much about myself in the process.
The power of changing perspectives. Having the chance to detach yourself from your everyday experience at home (again, personally and professionally) and position yourself at a different angle for a while is really invaluable. In a funny way it helps you gain a new perspective of “home”, a newly found appreciation of your own context, while at the same time allowing you to discover new ways of doing things that you’d have otherwise not considered. It feels like my mind is constantly rushing between the two contexts, back and forth, making connections and generating ideas.
The power of a bird’s eye view. Here’s the thing: whether we want to admit it or not, we are (too) often living in our “bubbles” and also too busy, despite the best intentions, to zoom out and take in the bigger picture. So for me this has been a great opportunity to do just that: take a step back, get away from my routine and really throw myself fully into this new experience. It’s a continuous process of observing, reflecting, bouncing my ideas by various people, both from “here” and from “home”. This helps me understand how things are connected, how knowledge flows and it also enables me to put human relations in perspective and understand their true value.
The power of kindness and gratitude. I’ll admit, this is something that was pretty abstract for me before I got here. But being immediately welcome as a full member of the amazing team at the Poorvu Center showed me a slightly different way of doing things. A culture that encourages us to explicitly recognise each other’s value (and often!) is, I think, a very healthy work culture. I mean, yes, we’re all doing our job presumably the best we can, but it really does not hurt to stop for a moment and acknowledge the work of people around us. It makes a huge difference.
A sneak peek into my research on Centres for Teaching and Learning (CTLs)
With a big part of the data collection already behind me, I thought I’d briefly share here some of my most important- and sometimes surprising- findings so far. While still pretty superficial, this can hopefully give you an insight into the discussions I've been having and hopefully make you curious to find out more once I’ll get to publish my results.
Positioning of CTLs. One of the most interesting discussions I am having is related to how CTLs position themselves within their institutions. On the one hand, in most cases they want to steer clear of an evaluative role- so they strive to be perceived as a “neutral space”, free of judgement (aka “teaching police”). On the other hand, they also aspire to be agents of change, strong supporters of values like equity, transparency etc. Dilemma: should/ can the CTL be neutral territory (and can it be?)
Sense of CTL vulnerability. Despite their increased visibility during the pandemic, there is a sense of CTLs being vulnerable. Even if this doesn't necessarily mean they risk being closed, it may mean shifts in focus and scope, dependent on university leadership changes. One of the risks I heard mentioned is that of becoming/ being perceived as an ”arm of the university bureaucracy”, as CTLs become more involved in decision-making on educational issues.
The backgrounds and personalities of CTL leaders. This includes: disciplinary background, educational vision, leadership style, scholarly ambitions/ Faculty position. What I am noticing is that these aspects have a real impact on the way the CTL is managed and how it positions itself within the university. This also usually has implications on whether research is part of the activities of the Centre (formally or informally) and whether Centre staff is expected/ encouraged/ discouraged to teach. Read more in this rich Twitter thread.
Integrated CTLs. This is an interesting one. Being based at an integrated CTL right now I can better grasp the pros and cons, and especially the challenges of leading and managing a CTL that is very diverse in its composition and tasks. It is a continuous exercise of intentional common space building, often involving compromises on all sides. It’s about negotiating various work cultures and organisational cultures, especially when bringing together faculty development, educational technology, faculty and student facing services.
Credibility. This turned out to be a very interesting topic, and one where I had to keep an open mind, as I discovered some perspectives I had not really considered before. While teaching (and the “peer status” it offers) seems to be the most commonly identified source of credibility for CTL staff, especially those working in faculty development specifically, this is by no means the case everywhere. In many cases CTLs try to build strong connections with faculty through research- engaging faculty in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Other CTLs prefer to position themselves as a service provider with in-depth (evidence-based) knowledge and expertise in teaching and learning. More about it in this Twitter thread.
Who works in CTLs? When I think about people working in faculty development I usually think people passionate about teaching coming from different disciplines. Here in the US I'm noticing more and more people in the field having been specifically trained- "genuine educational developers”. Something to consider: in our drive towards professionalisation of faculty development, where do we leave those who have built careers in this "third space", often neglecting their discipline- specific tasks for their passion for teaching and learning? What are the power dynamics between the two groups?
Professional development and career paths in CTLs. The more I explore educational development work cultures (mind the plural!) I feel it's a lot about "job crafting": negotiating different tasks to include things we care about (teaching, research, certain topics, etc). I'm really happy to see many CTL leaders I talk to are very mindful about initiating and carrying out these negotiations, trying to ensure CTL staff have appropriate professional development opportunities. Sometimes growth can mean "branching out" not only "moving upwards".
CTL offer and programming. As expected, especially after 2 years of pandemic, CTLs have developed an extensive offer, with different “flavours”, often including more structured programmes (workshops, institutes, fellowships etc), now delivered in a variety of modalities, which sems likely to continue. But one thing that I’ve been noticing is the increased presence of less structured activities, focused more on sharing, exchange and community-building (faculty learning communities are a great example). Also, equity-based pedagogy and creating an inclusive classroom atmosphere are very high on the agenda in most American CTLs right now.
Graduate student support. Many faculty development programmes and even CTLs in the US originate in working with graduate students. It can be a good starting point for professionalised faculty development- aside from being a systematic way to ensure teaching quality. Something to think about at European Higher Education institutions?
Online education. While the pandemic saw educational technology teams working more closely with faculty developers to provide support and inspiration to faculty, their work is often limited to the “traditional” educational activities. Most universities have a specific department that works on externally- facing programmes (often also including continuing/ executive education), usually online or blended learning programmes. Some of the integrated CTLs include these teams, but in many cases the decision was to keep them separate, especially given the status of the programmes they are working on- often bringing extra income and also often really disconnected from the “core” educational offer. I’m very interested in watching this space in the future.