Building a community that values all facets of scholarship

"Emory is superbly placed to act in a leadership position for the rest of American higher education. ...It is almost alone ... at this moment in history .. in possessing the power to change, to alter its destiny, and to define an identity all its own. Emory is not fully formed. The terrain between what is and what can be will be the new center of my attention."

-- President William Chace, "Choices & Responsibility: Shaping Emory's Future," 1994

To teach is to alter the course of future generations. Excellence in teaching requires commitment, dedication, continuous striving to improve communication, and constant learning and re-learning. To teach excellently is not a job, confined to certain times or places; it is a vocation requiring moral purpose and responsibility -- the highest form of scholarship. Teaching held to these high standards is the essence of a university. To achieve such teaching, a community must value it, reward it and understand it. Such teaching assists members of a learning community in making connections between bodies of knowledge; it is inherently interdisciplinary. Such teaching welcomes all to its community of learners; disparate opinion, critique based on evidence, alternative lenses and perspectives add to its strength and vitality. Such teaching has many faces, many methods; it occurs among and between hierarchies; it is beyond power and hegemony; it transcends isolation of discipline, attitude and place.

Teaching occurs in research labs, in coffee shops, on walks through Lullwater, sometimes even in faculty meetings, as well as in normal classroom spaces. Such teaching occurs multidirectionally, between peers, up and down the hierarchies we have structured. To enable the scholarship of teaching is -- and should be -- the highest aim of a university. Emory has the potential to build a community that values teaching in this way. Much excellent teaching already takes place here. How can we encourage more? Value it, measure it, assess it, reward it!

Ah yes, but when we seriously discuss doing so, all the objections surface on why we can't: that excellence in teaching is difficult to measure and evaluate. However, evidence does not support this recurrent assertion. The best methods of evaluating teaching include a reflective self-assessment portfolio that can be examined by peers internal and external to the university. Such a portfolio could include, for each course taught:

(1) syllabi manifesting evolution of course topics and materials over the course of time;

(2) reflective essays or journal notes displaying thoughtful consideration of what worked and what did not; and,

(3) efforts to modify and continuosly improve pedagogy and content.

Portfolios also can include attendance and participation in forums, workshops and conferences that address pedagogy; grants for course development and modification; and working with other faculty to collaboratively improve teaching. It can, of course, include standard student evaluations as well as letters from students and colleagues.

The focus of evaluation and assessment must be on continuous attention to improvement in the context of freedom to experiment. As humans, inherently flawed, none of us is excellent all the time. Our experiments fail; we are not always perfect, equanimical, impassioned or organized. Our teaching, like our research and service, is not uniform. Nor will we all agree on the appropriate content, mode of delivery or style; we should not. There is room in the inn of excellence for many varieties, each with their own attributes, from the well-crafted lecture that assimilates, synthesizes and connects, to the discussion or debate that encourages re-analysis to the one-on-one advice that can change a life work.

In order to value, recognize and reward teaching excellence, and to encourage its continuous development, the institution must internalize evaluative and reward structures that foster such commitment from all members of the community. Department chairs, as well as departmental and college tenure and promotion committees, can transform institutional structure, but they may require convincing and enlightenment. Administration officials can facilitate this discussion through their rhetoric, but without the reinforcement of action, the rhetoric alone will not be a significant force.

Our TATTO program for graduate students is achieving, in many (but not all) areas of the institution, a restructuring of values and of value. Do we not owe our new faculty, and even our longer term faculty, an investment in their re-vitalization?

We have made great strides, as the progress on [former President James] Laney's vision of a Center for Teaching (and Learning) attests, but other steps can be taken, at little or no cost to the institution. Suppose, for example, that each issue of Emory Report had one article highlighting the teaching philosophy of a member of the community, or an article on pedagogy, or information on research on teaching this generation of students. Suppose we established an interdisciplinary seminar, modeled on Jim Gustafson's Luce seminar, that focused on teaching. Suppose the institution created more awards and endowed chairs that recognize excellence in all the myriad variety of teaching modes -- undergraduate and graduate, supervising independent research, mentoring, advising, organizing forums and discussions of pedagogy, contributing to new knowledge of how teaching can be improved. Suppose that the institution recognized the contribution of all of its members to this critical mission, by not diminishing the contribution of non-tenure track teaching faculty. Suppose the institution recognized that scholarship, broadly defined, includes teaching at its essence. Suppose the institution recognized that a functional community not only has room for many niches, many functions, but requires that each member contribute what they do best.

Faculty life spans are long, and over that span one can focus on different roles at different times. There are times when one can contribute best through synthesis, bringing together several areas of scholarship, at other times focusing on new knowledge as the highest path. At times a scholar can best contribute by focusing on teaching new initiates, or in sharing with colleagues pedagogical advances. Within an individual life span and among the combined life spans of the community, we need concentration on all the roles, the functional niches, that enable the whole to thrive.

Emory is "superbly placed to act in a leadership role for the rest of American higher education....It is almost alone ... in possessing the power to change, to alter its destiny and to define an identity all its own." As we move toward what we can become, let us be steered by the moral compass of our true mission -- the vocation and scholarship of teaching.

Pat Marsteller is a senior lecturer in the biology department and director of the Hughes Programs in Biology.