by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings
What is a departmental teaching culture and how does it change?
This is an important question for advocates of pedagogical reform. Opportunities for individuals and small groups to learn and improve teaching are now widespread. Most universities have centers of teaching and learning that provide help for faculty in their role as teachers, and many disciplinary societies also sponsor workshops, conference sessions, journals, and other resources on field-specific pedagogy.
But one of the missing ingredients for the widespread adoption of new teaching practices is a supportive teaching culture—especially a departmental teaching culture—that welcomes and encourages thoughtful pedagogical exploration and exchange.
Of course, pedagogies change regardless of the teaching culture of any particular department. Large-scale social movements, disciplinary developments, technological innovation, institutional priorities, accreditation requirements, and local or national crises (think: the pandemic) can all play critical roles in catalyzing changes in teaching practice as well as in curriculum and other features of the educational environment for undergraduates.
What we have in mind is somewhat different. In case studies we have done of STEM departments involved in a course transformation initiative, we have focused on how these broader dynamics in the discipline, say, or the college or school, or the university at large become translated into practice at the local, departmental level—and how what takes shape in departments can travel back to influence developments in these larger domains.
In fact, taking our cue from the field of anthropology, we like to think of a departmental teaching culture as a local configuration of more widely circulating pedagogical ideas and practices (Hannerz ,1992). It’s true that departmental teaching cultures can seem somewhat resistant to change, but the key to understanding how change happens is that the “webs of significance” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5) departments weave around teaching and learning are seldom isolated from what’s happening elsewhere, stable over time, or even fully shared by faculty, students, and staff.
For pedagogical reformers, the most interesting questions concern how people in a department are participating in new flows of ideas about teaching and learning–where they are engaging with these ideas, whether the department itself supports improvement and innovation, and whether it provides structures or forums in which new ideas about teaching and learning can be developed, debated, and discussed.
To illustrate, we can take an example from our case studies of departments participating in TRESTLE, a Bay View Alliance initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to bring new ideas about STEM pedagogy into departments by embedding discipline-based educational experts to work with faculty on course transformation for three years (Greenhoot et al., 2020).
In one of these departments—physics at Queen’s University in Canada—the embedded expert, a postdoc physicist, was working with the project leader to help faculty redesign core courses in the lab curriculum. This involved working with instructors as individuals, but also as a group—for example, organizing meetings to revise goals for the lab sequence, after researching the physics education literature for current ideas about the role of labs in undergraduate education.
Later, this postdoc organized an informal departmental seminar on teaching and learning that met monthly for over a year, attracting not just the lab instructors with whom she was working, but other faculty and graduate students as well. Topics, sometimes introduced by invited speakers, included strategies for learner-centered teaching, preparing students for class with pre-class reading, progress on writing a first-year introductory physics textbook, and an advanced physics laboratory in atomic and molecular spectroscopy.
The physics department at Queen’s had always valued good undergraduate teaching, and included a couple of faculty members whose pedagogical knowledge and creativity were widely known and much admired. Yet these seminars were seen as a big advance for teaching and learning by some participants. One professor told us: “When I came here almost thirty years ago, we would talk about teaching pedagogy in the corridors and coffee room” as part of a “collegial culture” that had almost “vanished in our department and in many other departments” as pressures on faculty increased. Now, talk about teaching has come back as a more public conversation, taking place in different forums and open to participants beyond the faculty. Importantly, some of the people engaged in these discussions had not previously been engaged with each other on teaching issues: it’s not everyone, we were told, but it’s expanding and contributing constructively to the conversation.
During the time of our case study, these developments—the postdoc, the seminar, and the department’s general posture of interest in improving teaching—supported and reinforced each other. Indeed, several faculty members, in addition to lab instructors, began “working on parallel projects and trying to change their courses.” Although the seminars ceased when the postdoc’s three-year fellowship ended, the department chair said they created a useful precedent to the new conversations that began about planning the department’s approach to teaching and learning when the pandemic began in March 2020.
Did the teaching culture in physics at Queen’s change as a result of embedding expert help with pedagogy in the department over a three-year period and the seminar this post-doc organized during her fellowship there? Our view is “yes,” as long as one’s definition of change does not mean going from 0 to 100 in a short period of time. This department ‘s experience illustrates that culture change around teaching and learning can be productively incremental, building on what’s already in place, and contributing to resilience in the face of new challenges ahead.
And that’s the point. Key people in the department were able to take advantage of the opportunity to change their local configuration of pedagogical ideas and practices by hiring a postdoc to spend three years working with lab instructors and organizing a pedagogical seminar as a way to bring a wider range of instructors (including graduate students) into the conversation. And this work has already begun to travel—to the adjacent engineering school, which sponsored a similar post-doc program, and to the discipline through publications and presentations by several of the people involved.
This essay is one in a series of essays in which the authors reflect on themes drawn from their in-depth case studies of four STEM departments at four institutions participating in the Bay View Alliance’s TRESTLE initiative.
Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
Greenhoot, A.F., Aslan, C., Chasteen, S., Code, W., & Sherman, S.B. (2020). Variations on embedded expert models: Implementing change initiatives that support departments from within. In K. White, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein, C. Henderson, S. Simkins, L. Slakey, M. Stains, G. Weaver, & L. Whitehead, L. (Eds.), Transforming institutions: Accelerating systemic change in higher education. Pressbooks. http://openbooks.library.umass.edu/ascnti2020
Hannerz, U. (1992). Cultural complexity: Studies in the social organization of meaning. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.