By Keely Savoie
On a bustling college campus, dotted with groups of students hurrying to class, studying in the library or hanging out in the campus center, it can be easy to forget that the teaching and scholarship that faculty engage in are fundamentally solitary pursuits. Syllabi are often drafted, book proposals written, and archives and libraries plumbed for primary sources by the lone professor, bent over a desk working in isolation.
Yet a recent three-day scholarship renewal workshop, hosted by the Mount Holyoke College Teaching and Learning Initiative, offered faculty a chance to reconnect with each other, with their work and with the best practices in education.
“We wanted to give faculty and staff space to think about their practices intentionally as teachers and scholars and to form more community with one another,” said Elizabeth K. Markovits, director of the Teaching and Learning Initiative and an associate professor of politics. “We also wanted to lay a foundation for faculty to evaluate their work and learn the best evidence-supported practices in their fields.”
The conference was supported by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation as part of a four-year grant that has supported a number of programs encouraging excellence and professional growth in teaching.
Scheduled between the last day of classes and Commencement, the workshop took advantage of a unique lull in the life of faculty: grades submitted, summer work not yet begun, and many still on campus. The response to the offering was enthusiastic, with many sessions booked to capacity.
“This response signals the faculty’s commitment and investment in undergraduate education,” said Jon Western, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty.
The workshop included seminars in pedagogy and course design, writing retreats and individual consults, discussions on supporting transgender and gender-nonconforming students, and a resource fair that connected faculty to the many campus resources available to them. Keynote speaker James M. Lang, author of “Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning,” focused on tips, tweaks and evidence-based practices that professors can implement in their classrooms to enhance student learning.
Holly Hanson, professor of history and Africana studies, who just completed her 20th year at Mount Holyoke, attended each day of the workshop, finding the information as valuable as the connections she made with her colleagues.
“In a place like Mount Holyoke, where students are really motivated and they are really trying, there’s an exchange of energy between the professor and students,” said Hanson. “If you’re teaching in that context, there are things that you just figure out because there is such a strong feedback loop and there’s this continuous exchange with students. When we have a speaker like Lang, who is excavating and clarifying what we have learned in action, it’s very validating and very lovely.”
Connecting across campus
Mount Holyoke’s sprawling campus, hailed as one of the most beautiful in the United States, presents challenges for faculty and staff as much as it provides the community with soul-quenching scenery: The physical separation of offices and classrooms can create barriers to collaboration and integration.
Being reminded of campus resources was inspirational for Hanson, who teaches a first-year seminar on how wars end.
“I saw Leslie Fields, the director of Archives and Special Collections, and thought, ‘Oh, there are probably letters from alumnae in war zones and I could take my students to the archives,’” she said.
The goals behind the workshop fall under the Plan for Mount Holyoke 2021’s second pillar, which pledges to “embrace new opportunities and directions in teaching, academic programs, and research and scholarship to better prepare students to respond to the needs and challenges of a global society.”
Candice Salyers, a visiting lecturer in dance, found the workshop to be a refreshing change of pace.
“I love to have conversations with other people who are passionate about and deeply considering our pedagogical practices,” she said. “The program was a beautiful opportunity to connect with faculty across disciplines about ways of thinking about teaching. I am so grateful that Mount Holyoke values its faculty in this way — by providing resources and conversations that both honor our work and encourage us to expand our visions for what is possible in our own research, in our collaborations across campus and in our mentoring of students.”
At the end of the three days, the scholarship renewal workshop lived up to its name.
“There was something just delightful about it, like partaking in this delicious buffet and enjoying it together, only the delicious feast was us all thinking about ideas about teaching,” said Hanson. “It was a really energizing atmosphere that we are all in this together, and we all really care about it.”
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