Russell A. Hunt
Administering the Context of Teaching:
Notes for a talk to the Association of Atlantic Universities meeting
Accepting the 1998 Instructional Leadership Award
Sackville, New Brunswick, 8 September 1998
The letter I received from Arthur May inviting me here asked me to speak "for up to ten minutes." Having spent a little time as an administrator, I've become aware that administrators have superhuman attention spans, are easily able to focus on one thing for days at a time, and would certainly enjoy an hour's worth of my brilliant discourse. In spite of this, I'll try to stay well within my limit.

I should begin by saying that the main reason I'm happy to have received this award is that it means that "leadership" has been recognized even when it doesn't look like the kind of thing Robin Williams did, as Mr. Keating, in Dead Poets Society.

My father grew up on a farm. He told me this story about my uncle, his older brother, who, unlike my dad, stayed on the farm, and whom I idolized when I was a kid. (I have no idea whether the story's literally true: my father often told the truth slantwise.) Elmer was out cultivating one afternoon when a car pulled up next to the gate by the road. Elmer always had time for a chat. He finished his row, shut the tractor down and walked over. Leaning on the car was a drummer, a traveling salesman. Seems this guy was selling a super encyclopedia of farming, full of all the latest tricks and the current hot technology. Elmer let the salesman talk for a few minutes. Finally, he said, "You know, sonny, I already know how to farm three times as good as I'm farming."

What I always liked about that story was that it seemed to me it reflected something about my own life. Knowing something about a practice and actually implementing that knowledge aren't always so easily related. I've been swimming at lunchtime for 25 years now. I've read books about swimming. (My family thinks this is about as funny as the story about Elmer: they know academic behavior when they see it. Books about swimming!? Still, I have read some), and I know lots more about swimming than I find it possible to keep in mind while I'm at it -- or impossible to implement. Or I simply forget.

I think it's the same for most of us, in most of what we do. As a teacher, it's certainly the same. When I was a faculty development officer, I often felt myself in the position of that drummer at Elmer's gate, trying to sell people information they already had. The kind of cognitive overload we have to deal with in our lives usually leaves us doing what we're used to, doing what we've integrated into our lives. Minor improvements we might be able to make from time to time, but the re-thinking and re-engineering of an entire activity is something we don't often do.

Suppose you've got a whole industry full of farmers who are doing it pretty much as they've always done it -- not because they're ignorant, not because they're lazy, not because they don't want to be efficient farmers, but just because wholesale and radical -- and risky -- change simply doesn't fit into an agenda focused on surviving from season to season, and having things to talk about with other farmers. And suppose there's no crisis -- they're perfectly successful as farmers, comfortable in their positions and productive. You just happen to have this wonderful encyclopedia that would improve their lives, and you'd like to spread the word. How do you do it?

I imagine it's pretty obvious who and what I'm really talking about here. It won't, I hope, be quite so obvious what I think we need to do about the situation.

What I want to do here is simply unpack one thing I think I've learned over the last fifteen years or so -- in the part of my career in which I've come to think of myself as primarily a teacher and writer and researcher about learning and teaching, rather than as a literary historian and critic of the eighteenth century.

Here's what I've learned: it's not individual, it's systemic. It's not Mr. Keating, it's a whole institution.

In general, teachers -- like others -- find change difficult, uncomfortable, unacceptably risky, and this is mainly because the situation around them doesn't change.

To understand this, we need to consider some of the different elements that go to make up what I'm calling "the situation around them":

One is the Social (friends, colleagues, shared assumptions and values of the workplace and the discipline). For instance, do one's colleagues talk about teaching as though it were a central shared concern? Do people in the situation habitually talk about ways of lightening "the teaching load"?

Another is the Institutional (how the university's organized -- its structures of rewards and expectations; and how the profession to which the teacher belongs is organized). For instance, when a professor is evaluated for tenure or promotion, or for a new job, how much does teaching really count, and how is it defined and evaluated? When a junior faculty member finds herself in difficulty with her teaching, is she tacitly or even explicitly encouraged -- by colleagues, by her department chair, by the dean -- to conceal her shameful secret?

Then there's the Educational (particularly, how the curriculum and the educationally shaped contexts -- credit hours, courses, organizational matters -- are structured). Courses are seen as separable modules, self-contained globs of information or skills, like bricks in a wall. They're pretty much all the same size, and pretty much interchangeable.

There's also the Physical context (the classroom, but also the fact that the university is structured in certain ways, and classrooms are assigned to serve many different kinds of classes in the course of a day, for 50 or 75 minutes at a time). Classes are scheduled, in rooms, students are there at determined times and with determined expectations -- expectations shaped not only by their reading of the calendar, but by their own pre-existing knowledge about university, about courses, etc.

What is particularly interesting to me, here tonight, is that there are things about these situations which -- unlike the personal values and understandings of individual faculty members, or even the structural assumptions of disciplines -- can actually be affected by administrative decisions and actions.

I don't mean the sort of things that faculty development people often call for from administrators. I don't believe that administrative action is very effective at changing the reward system so that faculty are rewarded for good teaching, or so that positions are filled with people who have stellar teaching portfolios, or so that public recognition in the form of awards like the ones we're attending to tonight can be instituted. Not that these things can't be done, but finally, when it comes to the bottom line, they don't really change very much.

No, I mean much more practical and immediate things. Here are two, that might serve as examples.

1. Curricular reform & rethinking

Consider, for instance, changing our systems of requirements and prerequisites. For example, we can introduce the ideas that curricular and educational goals might be stated in terms that go beyond credit hours and numbers of courses and grades. Simply the process of finding ways to state curricular goals in more than superficial ways is a powerful force to liberate teachers and to get them to talk about what they're actually doing. For example, our English department a couple of years ago create a statement about our first year courses -- one that defines its goals not in terms of texts or materials, but in terms of opportunities we all agree to give the students for behavioral change and cognitive growth. Similarly, the university as a whole decided what we wanted first year students to know and be able to do, and then thought about creating a situation in which teachers could figure out their own ways to do that.

2. Reconsideration of the physical and conceptual straightjackets in which we teach

Think about what it means do define a course as 150 minutes a week of "contact time." For most of the history of postsecondary education in Canada we have been tied to the idea that learning occurs in 3 50-minute packets a week (or, sometimes, two 75-minute packets). There are lots of reasons for this, and many of them are pretty difficult to change: we count our jobs this way as well as our students' credit. But in Australia (partly under the pressure of having to account for distance education programs, where students don't come to class, and for problem based learning, where they may be working in other sites -- they've begun counting credits in other ways. For instance, one can keep track of "learning hours" and treat students as we treat professionals -- inviting them, in fact, to become professionals.

More directly physical is our assumption that a classroom is a "neutral space" and that its configuration doesn't matter much, nor does whether anybody "owns" the space. (University teachers become accustomed to ignoring the space they're teaching in -- unless they need high-tech support for presentations, for instance. Even then, the space in which they work is never used as anything other than a temporary meeting space).

Let me give you one quick illustrative example of what can happen if you rethink those things. Here are some things we've been able to do -- that I've learned -- in the Aquinas Program, in large part because we redesigned the situation.

Team teaching

It's usually assumed that the only way to have two teachers in a classroom at one time is to double the expense on salary per student. This is an artifact of an inflexible model of teaching and scheduling which says that what a teacher does is stand in front of a class for 150 minutes a week. But because we rethought this I was able to see what it looked like when my colleagues moderated a discussion -- and, even more important, what it looked like when three of us moderated a discussion.
All-day flexible block scheduling
We found ourselves not telling students to be at a desk for 450 minutes a week, but rather to account for 25 hours of learning.  Thus we found ourselves dealing with students in far different ways than when we had 150 minutes of prescribed meetings, plus some indeterminate office hours that people never came to
Project-based curriculum
We were able to organize a substantial "collaborative investigation" and build into it the introductions to our disciplines that would otherwise have stood separately and have been unconnected for our students with the discovery and construction of understanding that, we believe, are at the heart of all of our disciplines.
When I do faculty workshops, I often start by asking the audience if they know how many faculty members it takes to change a lightbulb. Anybody?
There's a reason that that joke hits a nerve, and in my view it's not because faculty members are congenitally conservative -- it's because there are lots of reasons why change is so difficult. As in almost everything else about my teaching, I've come to believe that people learn best when they're in situations that support exploration and change. Building such situations is one place where administrators can play a role.