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CRLT ahead of its time, education writer says

Parker Palmer, whose 1998 book "The Courage to Teach" has been a bestseller in the academic community, said at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) that most of American higher education came late to the kind of services CRLT has provided since the early 1960s, when it became the first center of its kind in the nation.

Palmer gave the keynote address to about 325 people at the Nov. 8 gathering in the Michigan Union Ballroom. Palmer is a teacher and community activist who works independently on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change.

Others recognizing CRLT's accomplishments, as well as the current and former leadership of the center, were: President Mary Sue Coleman, Provost Paul N. Courant and Lester Monts, senior counselor to the president for the arts, diversity and undergraduate affairs and senior vice provost for academic affairs, to whom CRLT reports. The CRLT Players, the only theater troupe in the country devoted solely to improving teaching at a college or university, gave a special performance.

Palmer pointed to the "privatization of the professoriate"his term for the relative professional isolation of facultyas a fundamental problem that teaching and learning centers can address. He contrasted the professoriate with trial lawyers and surgeons, who work in teams and have a "built-in community of discourse as a normal value of their professions. Not so with teaching," Palmer said.

"There is a lot of suffering that goes with teaching, and a consequence of privatization is that teachers are unable to give each other the kind of mutual support offered by, say, a surgical team in an operating room," Palmer said.

Another consequence of teaching in relative isolation, he said, "is the failure to grow this complex, nuanced art and craft. To ask, stretch, challenge, to take risks. It is safer to avoid risk without the mutual support a teaching center can facilitate," Palmer said. As an example, he pointed to CRLT's student evaluation program that allows a faculty member to tailor an evaluation questionnaire to a class from a list of questions, involving students in a meaningful way to evaluate teaching competence and commitment. "The standard model of evaluation is a shell game. Nobody trusts that data," he said.
Visitors at the CRLT Teaching Fair. (Photos by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

For mutual support among faculty to thrive requires an environment of what Palmer called "relational trust" a combination of respect, personal regard and personal integrity. He described that combination as the "x factor" that can drive meaningful change in teaching and learning on a campus.

Looking ahead at what might be on the agenda of teaching and learning cen
ters in the near future, Palmer cited two areas: diversity and new partnerships. "Diversity really goes beyond pedagogy to the root of epistemology," he said. "Finding other ways of looking at the means of knowing than the dominant objectivist view will be necessary, I believe, for real pedagogical reform that's needed for real success in creating diverse learning communities."

Palmer sees student affairs and alumni as the new partners with teaching and learning centers. "Student affairs will help to harness the pedagogical power of out-of-classroom learning, and alumni can offer powerful lessons in what kind of learning students will need in the world of work," he said.

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