In “How to Write a Bestseller” (The Wall Street Journal, 2 September 2016, D5), Tony Gray discusses a new book called The Bestseller Code (2016), wherein Jockers and Archer used several computers to analyze 5,000 bestselling novels published during the past 30 years. In scrutinizing everything from nouns to the proper names of the authors, the two researchers focused on common themes in all these books. One of the findings is that readers love what they call “human closeness” or “everyday interactions between characters” such as “a scene where the hero comes out of court and has a beer with his friend” (D5).
“Human closeness” provides a rationale for a new type of programming at our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), one we hope becomes popular like bestsellers. In previous posts, we have detailed our pre-2016 programming with such things as our Teaching & Learning Innovations Series, our professional learning communities (PLCs), our Breakfast & a Books, and even our new DEEP system for online professional development. Our Teaching & Learning Dialogues provide a less formal opportunity for human closeness among faculty.
Rationale for Dialogues in Centers for Teaching and Learning
American poet Robert Frost once said something to the effect that it’s difficult to hate someone up close. The more we get to know somebody, the better we can appreciate their ideas. Famed television/movie producer/writer Jack Sowards claimed his pitch for every new property began with “It’s about this character who . . . .” We just finished watching the 2016 Olympics from Rio, where right in the middle of the action NBC would pause for what ABC used to call “Up Close and Personal” and provide an insight into a particular athlete. Knowing what the swimmer or track star has to do to become a world-class athlete both humanized the amazing subjects and caused the audience to identify with them. At various times all media offer profiles of participants in the political, athletic, and cultural stages, with such engaging titles as “Profiles in Courage,” “Names in the News,” or the newsstand favorite, People magazine. We ties to people more than events or ideas.
Our office sits adjacent to the Faculty Lounge where before the advent of the computer faculty members used to meet for coffee, tea, and gossip of an academic and personal nature. Before the electronic grapevine, the original chat room was simply a physical space where people actually chatted face to face.
Most of the aforementioned programming is very formal, moving inexorably toward a product. PLCs and even workgroups (like the one that produced our DEEP system) spend so much time focusing on work that getting to know our colleagues who helped produce that work is at best a hoped-for byproduct. Perhaps the desire for human closeness and connection is the reason that every time we do a presentation, be it for New Faculty orientation or for our Teaching & Learning Innovations Series, we begin by identifying ourselves and asking the participants to do the same. What we needed, we realized, was an academic format that put more human closeness into the process.
Definition of Dialogues
One thing we always taught in creative writing was the fallacy that dialogue was just something that occurred between two people. The word “dia” derives from the Greek word for “through,” so the thrust of “dialogue” is a conversation among people or a focused chat on an academic subject of interest to many. We select the theme of the Dialogue, be it our idea or something someone has brought to us, and it’s our job to find a facilitator, to book a room, and to provide food and drink for discussers.
Recently, for instance, one of our Faculty Innovators was selected to be the University’s chief diversity officer. To weave diversity into the University fabric, he wondered if he could facilitate a first-Thursday-afternoon-of-the-month hour-long discussion. His first session drew an excellent crowd of eager participants, who were ready to leave the electronic screens for a chance to look into the faces of their colleagues and hear their voices.
Future Teaching & Learning Dialogues include technology (especially social media), assessment, metacognition, and the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL), and ironically that often times enemy of personal intercourse, technology (especially social media).
Why Dialogues Are Effective
Dialogues place few demands upon their participants. No one has to read anything beforehand, no one has to facilitate, and no one actually has to say anything (like their students in the back row). As Woody Allen says, “80% of life is just showing up.”
Dialogues are scholarship lite. No white paper comes out of the process, no PowerPoint slide presentation has to be developed, and no book/article proposal has to be submitted.
Dialogues return us to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Plato and his pupils would exchange ideas (though Plato did most of the talking . . . and walking).
Dialogues bring an air of informality not present in such other campus dialogues, such as Chautauqua and even the Provost’s Professional Development Series.
Dialogues provide an excellent experience of interchange, offering a model for what faculty can do in class.
Dialogues promote civility where everyone is free to proffer his/her ideas without any fear of social opprobrium.
Charlie Sweet is currently Co-Director of the Teaching & Learning Center (2007+) at Eastern Kentucky University. Before going over to the dark side of administration, for 37 years he taught American Lit and Creative Writing in EKU’s Department of English & Theatre, where he also served as chair (2003-2006). Collabo-writing with Hal Blythe, he has published well over 1000 items, including 15 books; of his 11 books with New Forums. Meet Charlie.