Emory Report
March 7, 2005
Volume 57, Number 22


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March 7 , 2005
Of teaching & alphabet soup

James Morey is associate professor of English and an Emory College representative to the University Advisory Council on Teaching

The report of the Commission on Teaching, 1997’s Teaching at Emory, called for the establishment of a University teaching center and, “within each school, an office or designated individual responsible for overseeing the support of teaching in that school.” (www.emory.edu/TEACHING/Report/Recommendations.html).

Eight years later, several such offices have been created, and many dedicated individuals facilitate and enhance the sine qua non of any university: teaching. Despite the diversity of faculty expertise, teaching constitutes our professional identity.

A University teaching center was not created, but the University Advisory Council on Teaching (UACT) has served since 1998 as a forum for discussing and implementing numerous events and programs with a pedagogical focus. Faculty representatives from each school meet monthly. My service on the committee has afforded me many insights into what Emory does best wherever teaching takes place, along with ideas about how we may improve. In conceiving our programming for 2005–06, UACT wishes to foreground the question of whether it is time for Emory to establish a University teaching center.

That teaching should be supported at Emory University is what I would call, in a freshman English class, a trivial thesis. The more important and difficult questions have to do with how such support should be staffed, budgeted, housed and implemented.

Arguments for an Emory-wide center, both pro and con, quickly resemble civic debates over the advantages of federalization versus local control. The federalists favor efficiency, visibility, consistency and economies of scale; the anti-federalists favor customization, personal contact, targeted resources and independence. Merits and risks exist for both sides, and here let me publicly declare my agnosticism on the question—though everyone, I think, would agree that any such center will succeed only if its roots lie in faculty desire as opposed to administrative fiat.

Any close observer of pedagogy at Emory over the past eight years has seen a great deal of change, as well as some real progress. Very successful centers and programs—such as Emory College’s Center for Teaching and Curriculum (CTC), the Emory Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT), the Emory Language Center (ELC), the Master Teacher Program (MTP)—along with events and often heroic support provided by the General Libraries and the Information Technology Division (ITD), have benefited us all.

February’s EduCATE conference was the latest success and a wonderful example of the synergies created when people from every corner of the University talk with each other. Yet even this list makes it clear that one must be not only a close observer but also a master of acronyms (or at least a fan of alphabet soup). The engaged Emory teacher must disencumber his or her office mailbox regularly, read the contents, and monitor multiple listservs. Some rationalization—and, perhaps, centralization—of efforts may indeed be in order.

If one looks for models of teaching centers elsewhere, one finds they are usually based within arts and sciences. Professional schools either have little or no formal support, or their centers function independently. Regardless of their institutional home, many such centers do more than just coordinate and publicize, and they offer much more than tech support.

For example, some centers research the process of teaching itself to gather more than simply anecdotal information concerning effectiveness; even the most erudite and gifted teacher is not always in the best position to understand and explain his or her own classroom magic.

The dissenting voice points out, however, that at the end of the day, teaching is discipline specific, and that what an intern at Grady Hospital needs to learn is fundamentally different from the needs of a graduate student teaching freshman composition. To what degree are teaching skills transferable between the college and the professional schools, between graduate and undergraduate education, or even between departments within the college?

An idealistic voice counters that the humanist and the scientist really do have a lot in common, at least when it comes to finding the ways and means to teach. As an English teacher, I am a student of form, and while I champion content, I know that the way something is done is often at least as important as what is done.

To these ends, I invite and even urge you to join UACT over the next year as we invite directors and former directors of several existing teaching centers to visit Emory and share their knowledge. Whatever decision Emory makes will be legitimized only through broad and deep faculty conversation. We may indeed determine that our differences remain more numerous than our similarities, but until we at least have the discussion, all we will have are questions. And a lot of acronyms.

For more information on UACT, visit www.emory.edu/TEACHING.