Faculty Entry Points

Faculty Entry Points

As part of the first meeting of the HUM editorial team that was first formed in summer 2017 to work on the revision process of the three Readers for HUM 124, 214 and 324, I was excited at the potential to ‘catch up’ the Readers with the many curricular initiatives that have been underway in the program since summer 2013. But I was also nervous. I had spent the month before reading articles on curriculum revision processes from scholars in the field of education, known more broadly as the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). While there were terms and frameworks that were new to me, what I began to see more clearly was the value in approaching the revision of the Readers as a research-based project. Gathering data up front could help shape a more transparent and integrated format for faculty and students to access our curriculum. At the same time, it would allow us to claim the intellectual work of curriculum revision as teacher-scholars backed by the quantitative and qualitative evidence needed to write about our process and outcomes within SoTL forums.

The UNC Asheville faculty value their autonomy in deciding curricular matters, and the Humanities Program in particular has been the hub of the university’s general education program for over 50 years. I realized that what I was asking of faculty was first of all to slow down. Data work takes time to implement and process. I was talking to colleagues who engage methods in their own research that mostly do not involve surveys and focus groups. As an anthropologist, I was versed in these methods, and had some experience beginning to employ them within SoTL focused work in my home discipline of Religious Studies. But the Humanities Program is even more interdisciplinary than Religious Studies, and certainly much larger and more complex in its educational practices. If my proposal was accepted, I knew I would need to take the lead in actually carrying out the process.

The other major shift this research-based approach would ask of faculty is to set content aside temporarily at first. This was a bit earth-shattering for some of my colleagues in the broader pool of faculty teaching in the Humanities Program who wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of which readings, what length and what order they should be placed. This has been the dominant model of ongoing revision processes in the program in general,[1] as faculty from a wide variety of disciplines suggest readings to add or subtract from a core curriculum for each of the three levels.

Instead, in consultation with Amanda Werts, one of our amazing institutional research gurus at UNC Asheville, I formulated a research question that would require an initial examination of how and why we use the materials more broadly in our core curriculum, rather than focus on what specific materials we use. In other words, I wanted to understand what skills faculty prioritized in teaching these materials, what students thought they were learning, and what both constituents wanted to further refine and practice moving forward. In addition, what features would most support students in their learning processes and what would help faculty clarify their intentions?

The research question I proposed started as: How do you create a content-based sequence of Readers that support the skills/outcomes of X, Y and/or Z? In order to determine X, Y and Z, we primarily asked questions about pedagogical practices, desirable skills and learning support features, rather than primary source content, in the surveys. Only one question invited participants to identify specific materials in relation to the skills they had prioritized in the previous question. This question produced data that would provide the link between skills and content eventually, but I will return to that stage of the process in a separate post on ‘supermaterials’.

My co-editors agreed to this adventure, and have been crucial partners in survey development and testing out how the data leads to possible concrete learning support strategies. Almost a year into this work, I have found that data best serves as a conversation starter about pedagogy and never the final arbiter of what will be included in the Readers.

While the language of ‘skills’ and the varied responses we received to this term will be the main topic of a separate blog post, the observation I want to emphasize for now is based on an insight that occurred when I was reading the introduction to Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes (2017) by Jose Antonio Bowen and C. Edward Watson. What clicked for me was identifying that faculty and students have different entry points, and not just different levels of expertise about particular content in our curriculum.

When I asked our faculty to decenter the content temporarily, it upended the primary way in which faculty prefer to forefront content in their own classroom preparation and approach. Instead, this shift, in part, was an attempt to better understand the experience of students (and new faculty) who encounter our courses and materials through other initial entry points: motivation and exposure (Bowen and Watson, xxii-xxvi). In correspondence with this shift, the questions moved from what to why and how: Why should students from varying backgrounds engage with this material? How do students with different levels of preparation and prior knowledge find a relevant and potentially personal entry point? Would it change how we choose and organize which content we do teach?

Many other questions have followed, including: Could the initial decentering of content allow for the emergence of teaching and learning goals that have remained unvoiced to ourselves and colleagues and a mystery to students? Could we make those non-content learning priorities more transparent and consistent across the courses as an integral backbone to the overall program? How might we motivate the chemist or economist to step outside of their disciplinary homes to teach in the Humanities Program?

My purpose in participating in this communal editors’ blog may be self-evident, but just to be clear, I intend to use this online space to think through some of these questions publicly and reflect on what I have been learning from my incredibly hard-working colleagues, co-editors and students through this inquiry-led revision process. It creates a way to communicate several insights that would get lost in a report, a bureaucratic genre that identifies facts, processes and outcomes, but rarely gets at the transformative heart of the matter.

My early posts will initially discuss what I might call ‘shiny points’ in the data, standing out a little bit like a piece of glass in the sand because of what that data might tell us that could help inform our teaching and support our students. beach glassMaybe the glass has some jagged edges for us to consider, but it also draws our attention to something we may have missed in the expanse of our work in our classrooms. I hope to raise questions and share insights that you will respond to as collaborative conversations remain central to our interdisciplinary work.

—Katherine C. Zubko

[1] In 2013, a revision process that centered on themes changed the structure of the first course, a process I may return to in another blog post.

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