"I encourage you to be as courageous and as tough minded as you can push yourself to be. . . . and when you write your report, don't issue some bland finding of, `At a great research university, teaching and research should go hand in hand,' or `At Emory, we value teaching and we also value research.'"
With that challenge from President Bill Chace, the first meeting of the Commission on Teaching began. The group of approximately 25 faculty was put on notice that their work on this commission is viewed as extremely important to the life and work of the University.
The meeting, held on Jan. 31, began with charges from Chace and Provost Billy Frye. Chace outlined three of his hopes for the committee's work: to respond in "some meaningful way to the extraordinary pressure being put on the best institutions in the country to make teaching very important and to make Emory a place where that occurs;" to try to look into the psychology and developmental patterns of their colleagues, and to recognize and understand the ages and stages in a scholar/ teacher's life; and to try to comprehend and keep aware of the mission of the University, in particular how the University embodies its moral mission in a strong commitment to teaching.
He underlined the importance of the Commission's work, saying, "There are few things more important than what you all will say."
Frye, in his comments and charge to the group, cited the growing conflict in American higher education between teaching and research, and the perception that "the losing side is felt to be teaching."
"When I came to Emory," he said, "I was delighted to find how lively the commitment was to teaching. But we need to recognize that we could move into this same area of unresolved conflict."
Frye cited the argument that good teaching cannot be evaluated. "I don't think we evaluate research all that well," he said. "We think we do; we have a process in place." He then challenged members of the group to balance their work between the general and the specific, and between the philosophical and the pragmatic. "I have hopes, expectations of pragmatic outcomes. I expect a report in roughly a year's time. I expect action. It is time to explore the philosophical depths, but it is also time to find practical steps."
He noted that the charge to the Commission is not about one kind of teaching -- undergraduate teaching, classroom teaching, mentoring -- but it reaches across the spectrum of the University. The Commission reflects the makeup of the University, with representatives from the College and the Graduate School, as well as Oxford and the professional schools. He commented that the Commission had deliberately been composed of faculty members who are actively engaged in both teaching and research. "It is quite a possibility," he said, "that as heterogeneous as this group is, that each member will have different views about what good teaching is and how much should be required."
"I urge, if not admonish you," Frye said, "to not just take as a charge to go out and improve what we do, but to look at the assumptions of how learning occurs best. Reexamine the assumptions we hold about teaching."
Commission members responded to many of the issues raised. Bob Pastor, professor of political science and Carter Center fellow, commented that the "point of departure we ought to consider is the basic question, `What is good teaching?'" as well as addressing how good teaching is evaluated, who chooses the criteria and how people learn.
"One of the real tricks of this Commission," said co-chair Walter Reed of the English department, "will be to balance things we all share with the fact that there are various constituencies and inherited ways of doing things. We need to recognize the things we have in common, but not try to force each other into molds."
Commission Chair Rebecca Chopp noted that the Commission is fortunate to have the opportunity to ask broad and practical questions. "It is rare in the University to get to be the University; this is truly a University committee. The chance to have this conversation is a rare opportunity."
The issues being addressed by the Commission are not new issues to Emory, Chopp said. "This Commission results from the interest of the Emory community in attending to the issues of teaching and learning. The Commission will build upon the work of other committees across the University, the interest expressed by deans, the fall Faculty Town Hall meeting, and the issues that have been expressed in the faculty-staff luncheons."
Chopp then went on to outline the Commission's activities for the coming months. "We need to evaluate where we are, what is going on in various schools. We need to plan, both what kind of major discourse is needed and what practical suggestions need to be made." She noted that the Commission will address "the best way to hear from all interested parties both about what is going on in the community and what are the ideas and hopes about teaching and learning."
According to Chopp, the Commission will hold several meetings as well as a retreat before spring break, then will break into subgroups to deal with specific issues. Members of the Commission, along with members of the University Priorities Committee and Faculty Council, will help host this year's Faculty Luncheon Series, getting under way this week and expected to provide important input to the Commission.
-- Nancy M. Spitler