Peer Review

Faculty Collaboration to Effectively Engage Diversity: A Collaborative Course Redesign Model

Like their counterparts at many colleges and universities, Georgetown University faculty have relatively few opportunities for structured conversations with their colleagues about teaching, especially opportunities for conversations that cross the boundaries between departments and disciplines. Unlike the scholarly community faculty can turn to when struggling with a research question, many faculty do not feel they have a comparable community of support for addressing teaching challenges. There are few opportunities to hear how a colleague grapples with teaching a threshold concept or to learn from the innovative and transformational pedagogies happening right down the hall. This lack of opportunity for natural collaboration between faculty seems particularly unfortunate when struggling with the stickiest of issues for the classroom, such as engagement with issues of diversity and difference.

Georgetown’s Doyle Faculty Fellows program offers this opportunity to faculty across the university. Since 2009, four cohorts of Doyle Fellows have brought faculty into conversation with one another for a full academic year as each fellow works to redesign one of his or her courses. While the task of the Doyle Fellows is to redesign their courses so that students engage issues of difference and diversity more directly and explicitly, the collaborative approach to course redesign that has emerged through the Doyle Program is a model of sustained, interdisciplinary faculty cooperation that could be utilized to address many different sorts of classroom challenges.

Teaching and Learning at Georgetown

The Doyle Faculty Fellows program is based in Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). CNDLS is many things. It is a center for teaching and learning at Georgetown, including the effective use of new technologies in teaching, and a resource for assessment at the university. The center also does research in the scholarship of teaching and learning and has many programmatic pieces that support faculty across the university in various ways. CNDLS is not a center for diversity, but questions related to difference and diversity are implicit in much of our staff’s work, and the Doyle Faculty Fellows program has been a wonderful opportunity for faculty to focus more explicitly on diversity issues.

Georgetown’s approach to teaching and learning is shaped strongly by its Jesuit heritage, and the social justice themes of that tradition provide further grounding for attention to diversity. That said, while some Georgetown faculty are very reflective about their teaching, others develop and teach their courses without much specific attention either to pedagogical strategy or to questions related to learning. Moreover, some faculty are reluctant to raise explicit questions about diversity in their courses. Working in this context presents both opportunities and challenges, some that are particular to our situation and some that are not. For example, we are faced with the reality that, though Georgetown enrolls students who come from underprivileged backgrounds, the prominent campus culture is one of privilege. We have come to realize that while some Georgetown students are comfortable discussing diversity as it relates to gender, race, and sexuality, students are by and large less comfortable and less well prepared to discuss diversity issues as they relate to social and economic class.

These concerns reflect some of what draws faculty to the Doyle Fellowship. Each year, up to eighteen fellows from across the university are selected to participate. Fellows commit to (1) work with center staff for a little over a year to redesign a course in order to make consideration of issues related to diversity and difference—in all the many forms and definitions that can include—an integral part of the course content, class discussions, and/or pedagogical practice; (2) share and discuss with the cohort the impact of doing this work on them, on their students, their classroom, their teaching, and the university; and (3) write a final reflection about the fellowship experience. They receive a stipend for fulfilling this commitment.

Fellows are both tenure- and non-tenure-line faculty. They come from a wide variety of disciplines and work on a range of courses, including both introductory courses and upper-level seminars. Some join the Doyle Program because they are particularly interested in becoming more attentive to diversity in their teaching. For others, the opportunity to be reflective about teaching overall is paramount. Still others express concern about the specific challenges present at Georgetown and feel that students need more rigorous encounters with questions of difference. These faculty are interested in learning about best practices in educating for diversity. Regardless of what initially attracts faculty to the fellowship, the cohort as a whole spends significant time together reflecting on who they are as professors, who their students are as learners, and what their task is as teachers.

Faculty Fellows Program Structure

The fellowship year is structured around four main program components: intensive spring workshops, team-based summer consultations, monthly cohort gatherings during the academic year, and a final report documenting the work of each fellow.

The fellowship year begins in May, when fellows participate in workshops that examine issues ranging from best practices in university pedagogy to the impact of diversity-focused courses on students’ critical thinking skills. These workshops are part of a larger initiative run through CNDLS that enrolls as many as sixty faculty in four days of workshops focusing on various pedagogical concerns, including using technology in the classroom, teaching threshold concepts, and improving student writing. For many fellows, this is their first experience discussing teaching in an in-depth and collaborative manner. Our work together during this week begins to establish the cohort of fellows as a community of practice and forms the foundation for our work in the rest of the fellowship year.

Following the spring workshops, in the summer months we invite fellows, in pairs or groups of three, into our center for course consultations to think through their redesign efforts with our team. The fellows determine the starting point for these conversations—we meet faculty wherever they are in their course development process. We see the consultations as a chance for our fellows to practice “going public” with their teaching in a safe space and to further develop habits of pedagogical reflection. We intentionally pair up faculty from disparate disciplines in order to foster interdisciplinary thinking and open up the possibility of interesting cross-fertilization. While the relative intimacy of these consultations helps create the safe space, even in these smaller meetings collaboration is crucial. In many instances, insights offered by one faculty fellow moves the course design work of the other to the next level.

The third main component of the fellowship year, the monthly cohort gatherings, brings all of the fellows together ten times over the course of the academic year to discuss matters of course design, teaching practice, and broader pedagogical issues. Each fellow is expected to bring a case study from his or her course to the group, and every meeting is structured around two or three of these case studies. Some cases reflect retrospectively on a redesign experiment, sharing what worked well and looking for ways to improve it next time around (“My students seemed to understand the individual pieces of the unit but never quite put all the pieces together. In future courses, how can I help students grasp the unit’s cohesion?”). Other cases look ahead as the fellow plans to introduce a new component into the course and seeks advice from colleagues about how to best do so (“I am interested in using a peer editing activity. What’s worked for you in your courses?”). Still others use the case study presentation as an opportunity to raise bigger questions relating to pedagogy and diversity (“How is a Doyle course any different from a good liberal arts course?”).

In addition to the case studies fellows bring to the group, we also create space each meeting for a period of open discussion. We typically open this part of the meeting with a question or prompt that attempts to draw connections between issues we have been discussing. However, the cohort really dictates the direction of conversation. This time may be a chance to circle back to issues or questions that came up in previous meetings, troubleshoot for fellows other than those leading a case discussion in a given month, pull out and develop larger themes that we see emerging from our work, bring in resources the group needs, and/or work toward developing a teaching “toolkit” made up of strategies and tips that translate across multiple disciplines.

The final component of the program asks each fellow to document the work of the fellowship year. This report not only looks back at changes made and lessons learned during the year, but also looks forward to consider the long-term impact Doyle fellowship experience will have on the fellows’ future teaching. Our team uses these reports for our own program evaluation and to construct profiles of the fellows and their redesign work, which then become part of CNDLS’ Teaching Commons, a public, online resource focused on improving university pedagogy (commons.georgetown.edu/teaching).

Redesigning for Diversity: What does it look like?

In the four years since the program’s inception, the majority of fellows have undertaken the task of redesigning to engage difference in two primary ways. The first approach involves fellows that take advantage of the redesign process to incorporate more diverse content into their courses. What comprises this diverse content and how it is integrated into the course structure is frequently developed in conversation with the cohort, particularly in the case of faculty for whom a focus on diversity may be new. A fellow from the biology department adopted this approach in her course for nonmajors by adding a unit that introduced research on the neurobiology of sexual orientation. In addition to using sexual orientation as a case study for thinking about difference, the spillover effect was that after examining scientific literature on the subject, students came to appreciate the unsettled nature of current research, which in turn complicated their assumptions about the certitude of scientific knowledge in general.

A second approach comes from faculty who see the content of their courses as already dealing with diversity explicitly and use the Doyle program as an opportunity to expand their pedagogical repertoire. These efforts often take two main forms, although the forms are not exclusive of each other. The first form entails changing assignments or pedagogical approach to point students toward a more complex, more diverse view of the discipline and the course subject matter. For example, a geographer teaching an introductory course to majors changed her weekly reading analysis writing assignment into a concept mapping exercise, which pushed students to synthesize class readings, key ideas, and debates in nonlinear ways. Sharing these with each other on a weekly basis, students not only appreciated the diversity among each other’s learning preferences, but, based on a deeper understanding of course concepts, they began to internalize the notion that geography is socially constructed.

The second form entails tapping into students’ life experiences to bring issues of difference to the fore as students engage with the course material and with one another. For instance, a Latino studies professor, for whom attention to diversity was already a natural part of his teaching, centered his Doyle redesign on asking students to write an essay reflecting on connections between the course materials and their personal experiences. Reading students’ reflections opened the professor’s eyes to the diversity present within his own classroom and made him eager to find ways for students to learn from one another by integrating that diversity with the more formal elements of the course.

The Power of the Cohort: A Community of Practice

Time and again, we hear from fellows that the greatest benefit of participating in the Doyle experience was being a part of the cohort community. The relationship and chemistry of the cohort develop through sustained, regular interactions over the course of the fellowship year. Though towards the beginning of a given cohort year the discussions may be more polite and focused on concrete classroom issues, as the year progresses we have found that the conversations go deeper and push harder on more abstract “how-should-we-teach-and-why” issues.

The diversity of the fellows, both professional and personal, is critical to the success of the cohort. When approaching a teaching quandary or a particular question about the significance of diversity, it is of great value to have a sociologist, a cultural psychologist, a historian, a demographer, and a chemist all thinking about a problem together. The diversity of the fellows, both professional and personal, is critical to the success of the cohort…it is of great value to have a sociologist, a cultural psychologist, a historian, a demographer, and a chemist all thinking about a problem together. Each fellow makes an important contribution to the group, and without a doubt, the whole ends up being much greater than the sum of its parts.

To illustrate what this process looks like in practice, we have many examples that demonstrate some of the cross-discipline, and even multiyear, ripple effects we have seen among the four cohorts. In our second cohort, one fellow from the performing arts department brought her case study to the group. She described an assignment that required students to use performance theory to take action to make the campus a more ‘livable’ space for others, particularly for those who might not always experience it that way. The performing arts fellow was not entirely satisfied with the way her students had approached the assignment. She thought they played it too safely. In the cohort meeting, even though the concept of performance theory was unknown territory to many, the cohort helped her brainstorm ways to address the issue. She revised the assignment and tried it again in the following semester with a greater sense of success. Additionally, the notion of using performance to ask students to connect physically with disciplinary theory inspired several other members of the cohort. An anthropologist redesigned her medical anthropology course to include several ‘embodied experience’ assignments, as she called them, including one related to experiencing life as a person with a disability. The anthropologist’s work on the ‘embodied experience’ assignment has since led to further collaboration with two other colleagues from English and performing arts who became Doyle Faculty Fellows the following year. Projects and discussions from one cohort often influence and inspire both the next group of fellows and our CNDLS team, expanding the reach of the program and building upon program successes from one year to the next.

Even more important than the particular outcomes of their redesign efforts, faculty learn the process and the value of ongoing pedagogical reflection and the great benefit of doing that in community with each other. We have learned that even after the end of the fellowship year they now continue to seek out their colleagues in different departments for advice and new collaborative opportunities. While attention to difference may or may not endure as an essential component of their future courses (and we have some evidence it does), fellows develop the skills to tackle various other pedagogical problematics—be they teaching close reading skills, improving student writing, or getting students to grapple with other delicate issues in the classroom, for example—with the same practiced approach they spent the year cultivating as Doyle Fellows.

Conclusion

Over the last four years, we have been encouraged by the successes of the faculty fellows program so far, from specific breakthroughs in the classroom to the formation of partnerships between fellows from disparate disciplines. Through student reflections, we are seeing that Doyle courses create learning moments that push students to think about difference in complex ways that stand out from their other courses. Similarly, testimonials from fellows express gratitude for the freedom and support provided by the Doyle Faculty Fellows program that allowed them to be bold and try new things in their teaching. We also have reason to believe that the benefits of the collaborative work continue after the fellowship year. As a member of our first cohort put it, “Once a Doyle Fellow, Always a Doyle Fellow.” He no longer teaches the way he taught before he spent the year in collaborative dialogue with his colleagues.

Despite these achievements, we still find ourselves challenged by larger questions about the nature and ongoing impact of our work. How does our position of relative privilege—in a higher education setting, at an elite, private university—affect the work we are doing? In relation to the university’s teaching culture, how is the work of the faculty fellows building on itself from year to year? How do we best assess the impact of this work on student learning and the university overall? Questions like these will serve as a continual source for self-reflection as we assess our work with the faculty cohorts now and in years to come. Our work on this project has persuaded us that this self-reflection is both challenged and deepened if we address these questions collaboratively.

With each cohort of fellows, the participants formed a strong sense of community. It is clear that faculty find the collaborative model of sustained cohort engagement beneficial and energizing. Together, the fellows comprise a community of practice, inspiring, challenging, and encouraging one another in their teaching. This is not to say fellows always agreed on the proper pedagogical approach. Nor is it to say fellows always concurred about what diversity means. Despite—and, in some sense, because of this disagreement—they grew to be a community: a community of committed teachers representing diverse disciplines, cultural backgrounds, and pedagogies—who listened to and learned from one another.

Note

The Faculty Fellows program is one part of Georgetown’s Doyle Engaging Difference program, which was established in 2009 through a gift to the university from alumnus William J. Doyle. The program aims to strengthen Georgetown’s core commitment to tolerance and diversity and to enhance global awareness of the challenges and opportunities of an era of increasing interconnectedness. For more information, visit doyle.georgetown.edu.


Maureen L. Walsh is a postdoctoral fellow, Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarshipy; Joselyn Schultz Lewis is a senior program coordinator, Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship; and John Rakestraw is the director of curriculum, assessment, and pedagogical practice, Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship—all from Georgetown University

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