At The Center of Learning

A few years ago, a colleague gave me the advice that if I was going to become a leader who advocates for the professional development of and for faculty, then I need to make sure that I removed the word “Center” from the name of the place where I wanted to do my work. My main career goal, at the time, was to work towards leading a Center of Teaching and Learning. A Memoir.

Questions haunted me. Can we ever truly name such a location? By having a physical space aren’t we privileging the work of face-to-face teachers? Doesn’t this traditional place cater to the full-timers while ignoring the adjuncts? Would this place become the hub of active ideas that we then share online? The Center of Teaching, so to speak, is the classroom, but where is the center of Learning? For whom? By whom? How will we know? Who is at the center? Where is the center? What is the right mission for this work?

Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. I began to fret about the direction of my career.

“When the budget cuts hit,” my once and future advisor said, “they will look for that word first. Center. Bah! Start drafting the cover letter for your next job before you write your T&LC’s mission statement. Face it. All your good ideas will spiral down the drain the moment you try to send these ideas up the chain.”

Truth be told, I have a tendency to befriend and love optimistically pessimistic skeptics who are brutally honest.

When I shared my ambitions with a teacher who is also a friend, he said, “You know, I don’t need your development. Sheesh! Who the hell do you think you are? That phrase—professional development—it’s insulting. I’m already a professional. I’ll show you what you can develop.”

Dirty jokes ensued. We changed the subject.

To add injury to insult, I was trying to advocate for the adoption of open educational resources and I couldn’t quite connect my vision for student success with faculty professional development. I couldn’t quite communicate that there is always already a center of transformative change by choosing to use OER. It’s not just about training. It has very little and everything to do with educational technology. It’s not that black and white.

Before I elaborate on the various failures I experience(d) as a leader-wearing-training-wheels, I have to admit that I still have so much to learn. A very wonderful organization has invited me to write an article and I’m at a loss. I’ve started a dozen rough drafts and they’re all awful. How do I sound like I know what I’m talking about while simultaneously begging for help? Why do I care about authorship and attribution when I think I’m at my best convincing people (I hope)—it doesn’t matter as much as we have been trained to think. Why do I care about publishing an article?

Here’s a short list of what I feel like saying. I need to borrow a refrain from Dorothy Allison. Here are two or three things I know for sure that will end up in this article.

1] Witnessing faculty members adopt open educational resources is one of the greatest joys of my life. I’ve had conversations in bathrooms, libraries, parking lots, computer labs, bars, and faculty offices that have altered my perspective about teaching and learning. Forever. I don’t think a center of teaching and learning is a place; it’s The People who gather together. Open education has a history like all uses of technology in the classroom; this we know. What is unique to this center of learning is that faculty members become students again who are learning new ways to hone their craft. As one faculty member said recently, “I feel like we’re taking back the production of knowledge in our disciplines.” YES! Students benefit directly from the adoption of OER—whether that’s financial or pedagogical. If you want to argue whether one is more important than the other, well, you’re reading the wrong bloggy blog.

2] The results of this work are not instantaneous nor can they be captured by budget cycles, spreadsheets, beautiful charts of data, and or glossy brochures. This work is a slow dance. A heavy lift. A joyful discovery. Serendipity. Randomness. Intentional planning. Strategy. Blind optimism. Wishful dreaming. The return-on-investment spans across the academic calendar in unpredictable ways. As long as I’m there to witness the spark that creates the fire, then I know I’m doing the right work. A teacher said to me recently, “I don’t remember anything from the workshop your company did a year ago, but I remember it was awesome. I wasn’t ready for OER adoption then, but now it’s perfect for me. Can we start over?” No need to start over, I said, you’ve already begun by stating that you’re ready to do this work. What do you want to learn? That’s where we’ll start, I said. Flint, meet Kindling.

3] The real magic happens when faculty teach themselves. Think of your work as embodying the function of training wheels on a bike until teachers are ready to ride on their own. Your Teaching and Learning Center should own this work, and it’s all hands-on-deck for this transformative change. The effective adoption of OER needs a center of gravity, as my colleague Nate Angell says. Whether it’s a TLC or your VPI. Whether it’s your best adjunct or your President. There has to be A Person who helps keep everything a and everyone together. Every spoke is only has strong its hub.

The best institutions have a inter-departmental strategies to help faculty. If you can do all of the hard work of organizing the space, marketing the mission, validating the mission, and executing the idea—the better off you are at the center. You have to be patient. You, as the leader, may be ready to do the Lindy Hop, but your dancers are still figuring out their partners and their music. That’s okay. You have to be patient. We pay a lot of lip service about meeting students where they are. Why don’t we do the same for teachers?

Every workshop I have done lately, I’ve started by asking faculty what they want to learn. I take notes. I listen. I try to solve problems. The hard part about writing an article about this work is that I won’t get to ask my readers that question. You hope what you write is of some use. You hope that somebody gets something from it.

Whatever my article becomes, my center of gravity is to tell my circle teachers the same message.

You can do this too.


About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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