CTL Newsletter: December 4, 2017

Teaching Reflection: Expert Eyes and Outside Ears

“I’ve been a surgeon for eight years,” writes Atul Gawande. “For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing–I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.”

It wasn’t like this for his first couple of years, he recalls. Every day or so he would encounter some unusual condition that might cause a post-surgery complication. But after eight years and more than two thousand operations, his complication rates have leveled out.

Gawande could be satisfied with his performance, but he isn’t. He notes that even professionals at the top of their game are still learning. Rafael Nadal has a coach. So does Itzhak Perlman. So does Renée Fleming. And so now does Atul Gawande. Their coaches provide the expert eyes and outside ears that help them to keep improving.

How we teachers use expert eyes and outside ears? One way is to use our own. After each class, when ideas for improvement might be fresh in our minds, we can jot them down. We can then file them where we will see them the next time we are writing the course syllabus or the planning the class session. For example, just the other day I wrote and filed the following: “Daniel’s apocalypses: how are they meaningful to students?”

A second way is to use the expert eyes and outside ears of our students. Since they are experts at taking classes, their feedback on the IDEA Survey should tell us something about how they experienced ours. We can benefit from their feedback, using it to identify areas for growth in our teaching. We can do this at the CTL “What’s the Big IDEA?” workshop, to be held onMonday, January 8 from 9:00 a.m. — 1:00 p.m. Look for an invitation, coming your way soon!

Third, we can use each other’s expert eyes and outside ears by pairing up with a colleague, trading classroom observations, and debriefing over lunch. Colleagues who have done this in the CTL Talking about Teaching program always find it helpful. If you and a colleague would like to talk about teaching next semester, please let me know and I’ll help set you up. Also let me know if you’d like to talk about teaching with me. I’m always up for friendly conversation over lunch!

Finally, why not consult the experts? The CTL Library is full of their books! Just go to the CTL Lounge (Ferguson 108) and sign one out for winter break. Or join one of the Spring Coteries, get a free book, read it, and discuss it with your colleagues next semester. More information in January.

As I write this teaching reflection, I am conscious of my debt to Steven Volk, history professor emeritus and director of the Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College, from whose November 13 article I have borrowed extensively. Although Steve was voted U.S. Professor of the Year in 2011, he has been heard to say that we never become excellent teachers. We are always learning.

Here’s to learning together!

– Jocelyn McWhirter, Religious Studies
December 4, 2017

About Jocelyn McWhirter

Jocelyn McWhirter is the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.
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