The University Record, October 14, 1998

Palmer: ‘We’re isolated from what we know about teaching’

By Rebecca A. Doyle

“Teaching,” said Parker Palmer, “is the only profession I know of where we can go in and do our work and close the door on all our peers.

“There is always someone in the operating room with the surgeon to ask where the third sponge went. In teaching, I think we lose a lot of third sponges without knowing or finding out where they went.”

Palmer, one of the nation’s leading thinkers and writers on teaching in higher education, was the keynote speaker at “Rediscovery of Community in Higher Education: A Day of Dialogue with Parker Palmer” Oct. 7-8.

Making a case for a community of discourse focused on learning and teaching at the nation’s universities, he noted that the call for reform in higher education is “not just coming from idealists, but from centers of power around the world.”

He cited a white paper released by the “Big Six” accountancy firms in the late 1980s following the savings and loan crisis. It concluded that the industry could no longer financially support educational institutions that failed to teach students to “think on their feet” rather than learning only the answers in the textbooks. Accountants educated in that environment were “doing honest work,” Palmer said, “but based that work on premises that were no longer valid. They were not pressed to look at the models with a critical eye; not looking beyond what the book says.” As a result, the Big Six threatened to withdraw its funding of educational programming in accounting, initiating what Palmer called “the fastest pedagogical reforms in recent history.”

Palmer also pointed out that it is partly because of this “pedagogical failure” that major corporations have created in-house postsecondary training programs. “In this country, more than 50 percent of postsecondary education is no longer in traditional educational institutions,” he said. “It is in business, industry and the military.” He suggested that universities are wearing blinders if they refuse to acknowledge this “loss of market share.” There is definitely a connection between that loss and the fiscal crisis of higher education nationwide, he believes.

Creating a discourse on higher education between educational idealists and realists who understand the demands of the world outside academe has the potential to create a “wave we can ride,” Palmer said. To position educators on the crest of that wave involves taking some risks that may lead to failure.

“Failure for a good reason is O.K.,” Palmer contended. “We need to generate support from the educational community that says failure for a good reason is better than successes in the trivial, or from doing business as usual.”

That, however, requires a community that will support risk-taking in order to change the system for the better. Meaningful failure is failure that teaches the next step in the process of change, Palmer said, adding that fostering open-ended inquiry rather than lecture-format teaching is more demanding of teachers.

“We have privatized teaching to the point that we are isolated now from what we collectively know [about teaching],” he asserted. To change, we need three things, he said.

1) Invitational leadership. We should not coerce faculty into this dialogue about teaching---you can’t coerce people to grow. But you can invite them to pursue where their interests are. “Good talk about good teaching leads them to take advantage of an array of opportunities for growth and risk-taking,” Palmer said. Those who take advantage of growth and exploration in teaching and learning should add the experiences to a portfolio which “must be taken seriously” during tenure review.

2) Less emphasis on teaching technique. “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique,” Palmer emphasized. “You can’t cram all teachers, subjects, topics or students into one technique.”

3) New ground rules. We need to establish new ground rules for our conversations about good teaching. Being hypercritical, judgmental or holding others to established standards doesn’t lend support or help each other grow, Palmer said. He cited as an example someone who would look over another’s course plan and note only “I see you don’t have Schwartz in your bibliography, and his is the seminal work in your field.”

“Learning and teaching cannot be reduced to a formula,” he said. “We need to establish these new ground rules if we are going to move to a community of discourse the world is calling us to create.”

The two-day dialogue was sponsored by the Council for Ethical, Spiritual and Religious Dialogue, which was appointed as an advisory committee by Maureen Hartford, vice president for student affairs. It was co-sponsored by the Division of Student Affairs; Liaison for Ethics and Religion, Office of the Dean of Students; U-M Association of Religious Counselors; Center for Research on Learning and Teaching; and the Fetzer Institute.

U-M panelists share perspectives, question attitudes

Following Palmer’s presentation, reactions and discussion from seven panelists brought more experience to the floor. Connie Cook, director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT), said that there are “lots of capable, energetic people who are working to create the community of discourse Parker Palmer describes.” CRLT is trying to get the word out that it can help faculty and graduate student instructors develop and design courses and find resources for innovative and creative teaching and learning.

“We are riding that wave and it is exciting,” she said, pointing to faculty groups at round-table discussions that keep from “privatizing” the profession, peer review and collaboration projects, class visit programs, and panels of undergraduate students who discuss what is good about the teaching they witness in their classes.

“We see all the time faculty and graduate student instructors who care deeply about teaching,” Cook said. “Teaching matters more and more, and the commitment to that is a result of good leadership.” Cook credited Provost Nancy Cantor and deans in the 19 schools and colleges for the fact that “there is lots of good talk about good teaching going on at this University.”

Stephen Rush, assistant professor of music (dance/music technology); Anthony Hornof, sixth-year graduate student in engineering; Heather Brown, second-year graduate student in literature; Ralph G. Williams, professor of English and director of Studies in Religion; and Evans Young, administrative manager at the Center for African and Afroamerican Studies (CAAS), all shared their own perspectives on teaching and learning at the U-M and raised questions about the process and the philosophy.

Rush said that he entered his first class of the year making a clown of himself to help students understand there were no limits. “In art and dance, you understand, students are required to make new art,” Rush said. Boundaries that might stunt the growth of that creativity are removed early in the teaching process, he noted.

Hornof plans to teach in higher education when he completes his degree. In determining his career path, he talked with 10 faculty members about what they liked least and most about their jobs, and, invariably, they said teaching was what they enjoyed least. He also noted that one must be motivated to go to CRLT and benefit from its programs.

Brown pointed out that she is both a teacher and a student, and had questions about the “teaching persona” she felt she was supposed to develop. She noted that when she told friends and colleagues she would be studying at Michigan, she was told it was a “spiritual wasteland.”

Young talked about the living/learning programs, first-year seminars, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and opportunities for learning through community service. He noted that the audience for Palmer’s talk had few minorities represented, probably no undergraduate students, and that staff members outnumbered faculty. “I was probably invited on this panel to add some color,” he said. At CAAS, he said, “interdisciplinarity is valued, is important, and we take students very seriously.” He also said that faculty at the U-M feel they have very little time for such things as the CRLT programs and dialogue on good teaching. “We need to make it possible for the whole University to take time out for this kind of pursuit.”

Williams said that his reaction to the discussion and to Palmer’s ideas was gratitude, but also discomfort at the idea that the University needed to improve. “I’m head-over-heels in love with this place,” he said. “To hear these things about this place---it’s good for me, but it hurts.”

His challenge, Williams said, will be the “challenge of being open and staying that way, day-to-day, year-to-year. This requires support from the community.”

Among audience responses was an assertion that under the present structure, there would continue to be only a small number of faculty interested in discussions and dialogue about teaching since it was not valued by the University as much as publication and research. How, questioned one participant, do we change this dominant culture of the University?

Even a small group can begin to make the change, Palmer said. To be taken seriously, however, they must first take themselves very seriously.

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