WALLA WALLA, Wash.-- Tucked away on the third floor of Whitman's newly-renovated Penrose Library is the college's latest commitment to excellence.
The Center for Teaching and Learning opened mid-September and has been working quietly on its mission to promote a campus-wide environment that values and encourages excellent teaching, said acting director Deborah Du Nann Winter, professor of psychology.
Winter credits Whitman President Tom Cronin with recognizing the importance of supporting a community of teachers who talk about and constantly strive to improve their teaching, and for including the center in the college's plans for the library renovation. Colorado College, where Cronin taught before coming to Whitman, and Carleton College, two of Whitman's peer colleges, have very good centers that serve their respective faculties, said Winter. She and her steering committee have already sponsored one major speaker and two informal gatherings. For more information about the center, including a calendar of events, please click here .
The center's opening presentation by Stephen Brookfield, author of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, was attended by about 50 faculty members, said Winter. Brookfield, a distinguished professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, spoke on critical reflection, "the concept that to be good at teaching, you need to continually reflect on your practice as a teacher." Brookfield identified four main sources of information that teachers can utilize: 1) a teacher's own experiences--recalling the highs and lows; 2) feedback from students about what's going on in the classroom, asking questions intermittently throughout the semester; 3) feedback obtained by asking a fellow teacher to observe one's class or by getting together with other faculty members for informal discussions; 4) literature--scholarship that has been done on the area of teaching.
Winter said she and the steering committee are designing a program for the center based on these four sources of information, noting that an education library is taking shape on the bookshelves outside the center's conference room. A major part of the program will be lunches and other informal gatherings using a discussion format. "The plan is to create an array of opportunities examining a lot of different teaching techniques. There is no single right way to teach, and no one is required to take part in any of the activities. We just want to create frequent occasions for people who want to get together and talk about different aspects of teaching," Winter said. She foresees in-house presentations on topics chosen by faculty members. "We're looking for ideas. Both presentations we've had this year--one of integrating research into the classroom, the other on different modalities through which students learn--have been given by faculty volunteers. We have tremendous talent in this faculty, and we can learn a lot from each other."
By spring Winter expects to have a bi-weekly series of programs available for those who want to get together and discuss teaching and learning. And even though Winter herself is the 1997 recipient of the College's Fluno Award for Distinguished Social Science Teaching, she'll be one of the first in line. "I'm always working on my teaching--I don't feel satisfied as a teacher at all. One of the things I'm working on right now," said Winter, "is how to invite shy students into discussion. I'm trying to learn how to call on students without overwhelming them to the point they can't even remember their name, let alone the answer to my question. I know it can be done--I've seen colleagues do it."
Another of the center's services is that of providing an observer. "If a faculty member would like an observer to come in and just take a look and give feedback and some comments, I'm happy to do that," said Winter. "Of course, I always ask for a reciprocal visit, because we both learn more that way."
Even though teaching requires continual reflection and work, it's what she's always wanted to do, said Winter. "I decided I wanted to be a college professor when I was a student at Grinnell College. I love teaching and academic life--it's like a constant reincarnation. Every four months you get to start fresh with a fresh class. A whole new world is there for your creation." In addition, it's a constant challenge. "You can't ride on past accomplishments, but you have to create a whole new group dynamic and a whole new relationship with the material."
Teaching--with all of its enjoyable and challenging aspects--is what Winter hopes people will talk about at the center and on campus. "If we can bring faculty into a culture in which people are talking about teaching as part of their earliest experience, it will eventually create a different Zeitgeist at Whitman." Traditionally, she said, teaching has been a fairly private matter, with the notable exception of the First-Year Core program where about 20 teachers regularly talk about how to teach the material, in part because most of them are teaching out of their discipline. "We'd like to bring conversation about teaching to the whole campus, making teaching and learning something that's a big part of the public discourse."