Penne Restad

Penne Restad

Department of History
Transforming the Classroom: Engaging Faculty Step-by-Step

Project Update

This project is proving to be a real education for me—in a good way. It began with a fairly straightforward goal: to encourage faculty and graduate students to challenge their ideas about their own teaching. Could outcomes for a class be made more precise? What does "critical thinking" mean in one’s discipline? Why use peer evaluations? How does one use iClickers effectively? The scholarship of teaching and learning has lots of answers to these sorts of questions, scattered across articles, blogs, and personal experience. My project goal, then, was to curate small-bite, practical information and present it in a single, easily accessible place. In talking with colleagues from all parts of the campus, though, I realized that although the information would be useful, the bigger challenge many faced, before even seeking "expert advice," was taking the first steps to break out of old, "good enough" habits to risk finding more effective ways to connect teaching to learning.

In the meantime, the campus has become much more engaged in talking and thinking about teaching. The January Faculty Teaching Colloquium and recent Campus Conversations are two great examples of taking on the challenge—and imperative--of innovation and transformation. These initiatives have reinforced my initial observation of the need for a shared platform that breaks down the big, transformative steps, into imaginable, doable ones. They have also underlined my awareness that most all of the faculty is energized by the increasing value being placed on teaching as an integral part of the University’s research mission, and if not already making changes in their own classrooms, are ready to try.

In this past year, I’ve learned that teaching instructors are not unlike learning students. Both groups want to do well. They thrive on engagement and challenge. And, importantly, the social element—the lively discussions—is just as important in the classroom as it is among the faculty. Experiencing, and benefitting from, the many small group conversations about teaching has led me to realize that the first steps in rethinking how one teaches are not necessarily "how do I do that?" Rather, they are constructed in small group discussions. In the past year, the History faculty has met on numerous occasions—sometimes at brown-bag lunches, at others in the small gatherings that Julie Stewart (Faculty Innovation Center) and I hosted to discuss "What is good teaching?" and sometimes simply in informal hall conversations that have become more frequent, ones where we chat about what we are doing—and what we want to do—in our teaching.

This spring, Julie and I are inviting a few faculty from English, Government, and History to expand the discussions about innovation and what good teaching means within in particular disciplines. Our idea is to create an informal "trading zone" that meets regularly. We know that Peter Galison coined this phrase to apply to physicists’ work, but are excited about the idea of cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas in Liberal Arts. I’ll continue to work on the "information base," but now firmly believe that the more we talk with each other, the stronger innovators and effective educators we all will be. And the "information base" will be more securely grounded in the expressed needs of the faculty.

For more on Dr. Restad's's work, please visit her homepage or email her at restad@austin.utexas.edu.

Dr. Restad is part of the Provost Teaching Fellows program. Find out more about this Faculty Initiative here.