June 23, 2003

Oxford named Carnegie cluster leader

By Deb Hammacher

For the past four years, many Oxford College faculty members have been thinking as much about learning as they have about teaching. Professors from departments across the campus have been engaged in projects that focus on learning that involves the heart as well as the head—the education of the whole person.

The culmination of that research is the recent designation of Oxford as a national cluster leader for the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) Campus Program, a Carnegie Foundation initiative designed to improve teaching and learning in higher education.

“It is gratifying to have the faculty’s commitment to teaching and learning both inside and outside the classroom recognized by selection as a Carnegie cluster leader,” said Kent Linville, Oxford dean of academic affairs. “This initiative encourages and facilitates the Oxford faculty to engage collectively in a form of research that complements the college’s teaching-centered focus and, in fact, makes their teaching more intentional.”

Oxford’s specific focus will be the heart-mind connections that make learning deeper and more enduring, officially known as cognitive-affective learning connections. As a cluster leader, the college has a three-year commitment to CASTL that includes establishing a Center for Cognitive-Affective Learning that will conduct research into effective methods, educate staff and faculty through workshops and seminars, offer support for teaching and learning projects, and build a scholarly community dedicated to cognitive-affective learning.

“This is an outstanding opportunity for the Oxford community that not only will benefit our own students and faculty, but also will enhance the practice and profession of teaching for colleagues at colleges and universities across the nation,” said Patti Owen-Smith, Oxford professor of psychology and women’s studies and co-director of the new center.

Incorporating community-service elements into her psychology classes, Owen-Smith
had the core idea of exploring what makes the proverbial “light bulb” come on for her students. Her co-director, Sharon Lewis, also an Oxford professor of psychology, has led the faculty initiative in the scholarship of teaching and learning these past four years.

Owen-Smith said Oxford will hold a teaching conference in fall 2004 similar to the one it held last fall on “Cross-Disciplinary Inquiries into the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” which was designed in cooperation with the Carnegie Foundation, the American Association for Higher Education and the Pew Charitable Trusts. The conference brought together Oxford staff and faculty and Carnegie fellows from other institutions around the country.

With just 600 students, Oxford is by far the smallest institution selected for the next phase of the 5-year-old CASTL program; other cluster leaders include the University of Michigan, Indiana University, Georgetown University, Illinois State University and Portland State University. The program was created in 1998 to establish and refine standards for the critical review of teaching and learning by faculty members in college and university classrooms.

“Our focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning has been, in one sense, the shift from focusing on teaching to focusing on learning,” Linville said. “We are changing the culture of the institution collectively.”

Linville cited the example of Heather Patrick, assistant professor of chemistry, who teamed up students in her class with the local Boys & Girls Club to do water assessment tests for the county. Once the Oxford students mastered the process, they were responsible for teaching the club kids to do the testing.

“It was transformative for our students, in terms of self-esteem and the quality of the work, because they knew the expectations were high,” Linville said.

Or, as articulated by veteran biology professor Eloise Carter: “I’m trying to close the gap between what I teach and what students are learning.” Carter’s impact on teaching also reaches beyond her own classroom; as co-director of the Oxford Institute for Environ-mental Education, the 2003 Emory Williams Award winner is a leader of the summer institute that trains K-12 educators in hands-on natural science teaching methods.