Is Your Center of Teaching and Learning Be A Hammer or Nail?

Years ago Paul Simon told (Hal, Rusty, and I) that “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” In essence, every Center of Teaching and Learning (CTL) has to decide what it wants to be. Is it a traditional nail being hammered into shape, or is it a proactive force doing the shaping?

In a previous post, we emphasized that “The Faculty Developer’s Most Important Question” is “to whom do you report” and the key to a CTL’s activities is “what matters most is what matters most to your boss.”

Ask This Second Question

But the second most important question is: into what do you want to innovate your CTL? Yes, you have a mission, but that mission is general. Administrators, technologies, and even theories of faculty development will change over the years, but what you want to be able to do is to change at least with the tide or even better, ahead of it. In our way of thinking a CTL exists to provide pedagogical development to the faculty and has nearly nothing to do with disciplines such as chemistry staying current in their field. Sure, had we funding enough, we might want to co-sponsor a noted speaker in psychology or provide a venue for a campus-wide event, but a CTL’s focus MUST be on pedagogy.

Appropriately, our CTL’s mission is intentionally pedagogical in theory and practice: “Helping teachers help students learn deeply.” And while we do exactly what our boss—actually we serve a provost and a dean—wants, we have adopted the hammer approach and try to nudge them in the direction our experience and research tell us to go.

Related Reading: Is There Really a Teaching Revival Happening Right Now?

Choose Direction

The question becomes how do you as director of your CTL know what direction to nudge them? Be deliberate—make a list of all the things that you think you could accomplish as a CTL. If you’re not sure of the possibilities, check out other CTLs or even the POD (Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education) website. Then, given both your expertise and your unit’s budget, prioritize the list. Start small. It’s better to do a few things well and establish a good reputation than to create a mediocre unit that in its attempt to be all things does less and ruins your credibility.

Be Prepared and Overcome Missteps

Be ready for missteps. One of our original programs, for example, offered to send faculty to the famed Lilly Conference on College Teaching and Learning. What we encountered was a logistical nightmare in trying to get faculty to commit, to carpool, and arranging for their minute preferences (e.g., dietary). After a few years, we realized that so our effort was eating up almost 50% of our budget and we had no way of knowing the program’s effect on teaching and student learning. As a result, we modified the program into seven “Lillyships,” wherein we supported only those faculty who appeared on the Lilly program.

Another problem developed when we assumed control of New Faculty Orientation. As the University draws primarily from a 22-county region (we are a regional university), traditionally new faculty were sent on a bus tour of the region. While the trip may have been good P.R. for the University, it wasn’t helping our new faculty pedagogically, and it was costing us almost $3000. In fact, we inherited a New Faculty Orientation that had little to do with pedagogy (as we discussed in a previous post).

Related Reading: Applying Pedagogy As The Fifth Creative Thinking Perspective 

Back to our list. What did we convince our bosses we could do well? What would give them the biggest bang for the buck? Number one on our list was New Faculty Orientation. If the University were hiring between 50 and 60 new faculty per year—and academic churn is much greater now than when we arrived on campus—that meant every five years more than one-third of the faculty turned over. To effect a cultural change, it is much easier to start on the ground floor than with those who have settled in. In addition to new faculty, we also orient over 50 part-time faculty per year, almost 45 graduate teaching assistants, and the 60-plus cadre of instructors who teach the University’s first-year orientation class.

Two hundred instructors mentored in best pedagogical practices would be enough if that were all we did.

Next time we’ll discuss how we hammered out various other programs that reflected our primary pedagogical purpose.



Author Charlie Sweet EKUCharlie 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.