A Radical Idea for the Teaching Center

As is so often the case for me, this post began as a comment on someone else’s blog post (Steve at Pedablogy) and grew to a silly size, so here’s my expanded version:

I’ve been having this radical idea lately (and it’s one that may make no practical sense, given our institution’s resources and structure), but here it is. In the conversation that the UMW University Committee on Digital Initiatives had with the CIO of Rhodes College, we learned that they had combined the IT and Library departments into one group. One advantage of this for students and faculty was that if you had any questions/ideas/interest about a research/informational topic/project/idea you went to a single place, where you would be referred to the person or people who could best help you (reference librarian, programmer, ITS, or some combo). From a user perspective it helps avoid the paralyzing question about where you go and it avoids some of the “siloization” that seems to be such a problem for academia.

What if the UMW teaching center worked in a similar way? [Here I’m thinking of combining, DTLT, the Speaking and Writing Centers, maybe even academic tutoring.] What if you had any kind of question about teaching or learning and you just had a single source to go to? E.g., I want to brainstorm new assignments to engage my students more fully in a text. Go to the single entry point and you have access to a number of options, a number of experts in various aspects of teaching and learning. Maybe you can talk with someone from the speaking center and someone else from DTLT to create a project.

Imagine what it would be like to be able to have all of those resources in one place, easily accessible to faculty and students. Imagine what collaborations might emerge. Another benefit of having all those groups under one institutional roof would be that they would be able to talk to each other and bridge some of those silos of effort and innovation. [I’m not so naive to think the silos would disappear.] Another potential benefit might be streamlining of spaces and resources and administration.

Obvious Cons: It would take a special group of leaders to make this work. It would require combining some radically different departmental cultures. It might result in fewer people working to support faculty and students in these areas (the dark side of “streamlining”). It risks restricting the nimble, creative nature of at least one of those departments. With the wrong leader, it risks overemphasizing one method or approach over others. Perhaps it should just focus on pedagogy and leave student services where it is.

What am I missing here? [I’m sure a great deal.] And, if the plan itself is impractical, how could we take some of best aspects of it and implement them now, in 2 years, in 5 years?

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  1. Jeff, I don’t think this is a radical idea at all. In fact, I see that as *the point* of the teaching center. The planned “exploration center” or whatever it’s called, namely the new building to be sited next to the library, is to be the location, I understand, of the Teaching, Writing and Speaking Centers, which should get at some of the issues you raise. The cultural issues, of course, may be larger. That’s where the necessity for leadership comes in.

  2. It shouldn’t be radical, but I think it still is. Housing all of these groups together is a beginning, but only a beginning. Each group will feel territorial (and rightly so) and, as you’ve said, it will require strong, capable leadership to make this happen. It seems a worthy goal with plenty of benefits for professors and students. However, inertia is a powerful force and change is hard.

  3. This radical idea is a great idea. I had it too. 🙂 I shared it with folks and received a warm (and undoubtedly sincere) “someday.” The fear I heard was that one approach would dominate over the others. To my mind, the fear, while understandable, is exactly what keeps fruitful integration from occurring. It’s a fear we simply have to grow out of. It’s a fear that springs from a persistent misunderstanding of what “technology” really means. I like Edward Tenner’s definition (in “Why Things Bite Back” as much as any I’ve read: “By technology I mean humankind’s modification of its biological and physical surroundings.” By that definition, education itself is a technology. The question, then, is one of becoming discerning–wise–about technology and technologies. And yes, computers will play a part in that wisdom. They may even augment it, if we are able to think clearly about that augmentation and those machines.

  4. @Gardner — Well, my hope is that such leadership needed to overcome those fears is around here or around the corner. [And perhaps you’re now part of that leadership where you are now….]

  5. We had been discussing this, with Gardner leading the way, for some time. To me, the beauty of this approach is that the person coming to you for help need not come to you with the tool in mind. That is, if they come to a technologist, they obviously have a bias towards a technology solution. If they come to a librarian, the bias is different. However, if the need to anticipate the solution is removed, the possible solutions that arise will be all the more rich and organic. As for the other organizational complications, I say name your poison. Things can be overprioritized over others simply by virtue of assigning larger budgets to the favored approach. So, if the budgets are combined, you’ve already eliminated one way for “The Man” to impose a bias towards one solution over another. The rest is management and personality, and ain’t it always???

  6. @Cathy,
    Ah, but leaving things to management and personality can make people very nervous about changing to a system that would not have clearly defined structures and responsibilities.

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