Peer Review

From the Editor

In the lead article for the Fall 2008 Peer Review, Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) stated, “No significant problem can be solved through the lens of a single discipline. Real big questions do not come nicely sorted out as ‘I belong to economics’ or ‘I belong to psychology.’ As such, we’re seeing examples of new curricula both in departments and in advanced general education that are organized around big themes and big questions and deliberately link different courses and disciplines in exploration of the question.”

To promote and support this call to help students explore the big questions and to further advance a set of Essential Learning Outcomes, developed as part of its LEAP initiative, AAC&U is fostering more intentional collaboration among departments and disciplines through the Engaging Departments Institute, launched in 2009. These cross-cutting learning outcomes must be developed in general education and reinforced in the major. The Engaging Departments Institute is designed to help institutions develop these collegewide learning goals across all disciplines and departments.

This institute, now in its sophomore year, offers campus teams intensive, structured time to advance plans to foster, assess, and improve student learning within departments and across the institution. AAC&U received significant input from educational leaders and faculty from around the country when, with the support of the Teagle Foundation, we convened four regional meetings of faculty and administrators from public and private, two- and four-year campuses to explore how departments can become supportive and intentional communities of practice for student learning. As it developed the institute curriculum, AAC&U drew from these discussions and other discussions with leaders from disciplinary and accrediting bodies.

The institute faculty is composed of national and international leaders on student learning, outcomes assessment, leadership, and faculty development, as well as current and former deans and department chairs with extensive experience guiding significant change efforts to integrate high-quality learning into the majors and across the curriculum and cocurriculum.

In preparation for editing this issue of Peer Review, last July I traveled to the inaugural Engaging Departments Institute in Philadelphia, situated on the bustling campus of the University of Pennsylvania. At this meeting, I had the chance to attend sessions from the various tracks—educational leadership; the aims and outcomes of contemporary education; faculty work; and the learning, assessment, and improvement cycle—and I talked with participants from the twenty-five campus teams attending the institute. I spoke with many faculty members and administrators, all of whom were engaged and energized by the institute presentations and plenaries.

My most memorable conversation at the institute was with a young religion professor who had never attended an AAC&U meeting. He’d come to the institute with a team of administrators and senior faculty members from other departments and found it exciting to be in the position to effect change at his institution. And although this was his first attempt at campus reform work, he felt his contributions were appreciated by his colleagues as they mapped out strategies to improve student learning for the fall semester and beyond. This experience, he told me, made him feel renewed and valued as a faculty member.

Of course, the most important work is done not at the institute, but in the days and months that follow it. In January 2010, several members from Engaging Departments Institute teams came together at AAC&U’s annual meeting to report on progress made on their action plans created last summer in Philadelphia. I was impressed by how many turned out for an early Saturday morning gathering to share their campus experiences with the institute staff and their fellow institute participants. From this and other feedback, the upcoming 2010 Engaging Departments Institute will offer a program that builds on the successes of the first institute with a program that continues to promote collaborative campus efforts to improve student learning.

As I worked on this important issue of Peer Review with the Engaging Departments Institute staff, we brainstormed with illustrator Dave Cutler about the best graphic metaphor for the cover that would convey the notion of departments working together for institutional change. Through this whimsical illustration, Cutler handily depicts the spirit of the Engaging Departments Institute and the hard work of building and rebuilding our departments in our colleges and universities to achieve institution-wide learning outcomes.

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