How Do You Talk Shop When You're Shuttling Between Campuses?

Brian Taylor

September 12, 2013

Last December, I chaired a panel at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association on the literature survey courses that many English departments require majors to take. After six brief presentations, a lively conversation followed in which the panelists and audience members discussed teaching strategies and problems.

Shortly after the convention ended, I received an e-mail from David Gooblar, who had been in the audience at my session. The six presentations were helpful, he said, but what he especially appreciated was the conversation that followed. It allowed him to hear ideas and perspectives from a wide range of institutions and colleagues. That conversation inspired him to attend more MLA sessions dedicated to teaching, and he came away from all of them, as he told me later, "buzzing with inspiration for the term ahead."

Gooblar might have found the experience so affecting, in part, because his current professional situation allows little room for water-cooler chatter about teaching. Many full-time faculty members engage in such talk on a daily basis, sharing our teaching problems and tips with one another during everyday interactions in the hallway or over lunch. Gooblar shuttles between two small colleges in Illinois and Iowa, teaching courses in composition and American literature. That leaves him without much opportunity to talk shop.

"I am rarely able to discuss teaching with colleagues," he explained to me. "As an adjunct, I really miss having the close community of teachers that a full-time position brings."

In his scholarly life, by contrast, Gooblar has plenty of opportunities for professional conversation about writing and research. He has a Ph.D. in English from University College London, has written a book on Philip Roth, and serves as program chair of the Philip Roth society. In that role, he helps to organize sessions on Roth at several conferences a year, where he can meet with colleagues who share his scholarly interests.

But those same avenues for dialogue just didn't seem as available to him when it came to teaching.

His experience at the MLA left him wondering whether it was possible to reach beyond his own campuses to reproduce on the Web the useful conversations he heard in the teaching panels at the convention, with a focus on faculty members sharing ideas about teaching. In that initial e-mail, he asked me if I knew of a wiki-style site in which academics could both search for and post specific teaching tips and strategies that crossed disciplinary boundaries.

Of course, I knew of plenty of places where faculty members could search for teaching tips, both online and in print. For example, Faculty Focus, a Web site from Magna Publications, affiliated with The Teaching Professor newsletter, offers a searchable database of teaching strategies for academics in all disciplines. And you can find books that offer a similar approach, such as Robert Magnan's 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors.

But I didn't know of a site that encouraged the kind of practical and informal sharing that Gooblar had savored at the MLA conference, and which he was seeking online.

Last month Gooblar wrote to me again, to let me know that he was ready to unveil Pedagogy Unbound, a site that seeks to create a free and open space for faculty members around the world to share teaching strategies.

The site is now up and running, with teaching tips submitted by faculty members or compiled by Gooblar from other sources, in more than a dozen categories, including "First Day of Class," "Getting Students to Talk," "Making Better Writers," and "Effective Lecturing."

Each of those categories features one or more strategies to try in the classroom. The number of tips remains modest at this point, but I suspect that will change as more and more faculty members discover the site and begin submitting their own suggestions.

Gooblar's vision is twofold. First, he explained to me in an interview, he wants the site to offer quick and practical tips that instructors can use in the classroom immediately.

"The site's focus is on teaching tips that are (1) able to be explained briefly, (2) easy to put into practice, and (3) easy to adapt to most, if not all, disciplines," he said. "There is a whole discipline of pedagogical research and theory, but a journal article detailing the latest research on metacognition in the classroom is not necessarily helpful when it's the night before your class and you're looking for a way to get your students to talk. I'd like the site to become a library of practical resources for teachers who want to teach more effectively."

Second, he hopes that the site can become a space for faculty who don't normally write about teaching to articulate and stake a claim to the effective practices they have developed for their classrooms.

"I'd like the site to become a relatively frictionless way for college teachers to put their classroom innovations into writing," he said. "We're all taught to think of our research production as our intellectual contribution to our fields—and our teaching as something that has to get done along the way. But most teachers I know work hard on their courses and are constantly thinking of better ways to reach their students. I'd like Pedagogy Unbound to be a place where teachers can share their best ideas and take credit for them."

Gooblar has made the submission process as painless as possible. Any faculty member can submit a teaching tip, up to 500 words long, from a tab on the home page. You can choose whether to display your name and campus affiliation. Gooblar has posted most tips within 24 hours.

At the moment, a good proportion of the tips have been culled by Gooblar from other places on the Web. He provides summaries of ideas, which he attributes to published sources. The range of sources reveals his wide and diverse reading on the subject, as well as the evident curiosity of a pedagogical seeker. It also reflects his philosophy on college teaching.

"The increasing diversity of our student population and the research that has shown that there are many different kinds of learners both indicate to me that no single approach to teaching will best reach all of our students," he said.

In his own classroom, he added, "I consciously make use of a number of different strategies in any given class—from lecture to structured discussions to free writing to group work—to get my students to see the subject from many different angles."

I asked Gooblar about his ambitions for the site.

"At the moment," he said, "I'm trying to focus on helping the site grow as a resource for brief, practical teaching tips based on experience. I think there's something to be said for trying to do one thing right rather than trying to do everything. That said, I can easily see the site eventually incorporating a forum for teachers to ask for specific advice for their courses, as well as more editorial content, perhaps building on the submitted tips."

In conceiving and building this resource, Gooblar has definitely done one thing right: The open spirit of the site should encourage precisely the kind of idea-sharing that he experienced in those conference discussions, and from which we can all benefit in our teaching.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. His new book, "Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty," was published this month by Harvard University Press.