I just returned from a meeting sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the subject of strengthening undergraduate education. Led by Pam Grossman, Dean of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and Mike McPherson, former president of the Spencer Foundation, the meeting included scholars from many disciplines and universities as well as from foundations and other agencies. Topics ranged from how students learn best (active learning, evidence-based practices) to how to assess student learning, to methods for advancing “skillful teaching practices” and ways in which disciplinary organizations can support such practices.
At the opening session, speakers identified three major trends across colleges and universities and organizations: increased attention to teaching and professional development; increased attention to practitioner inquiry/teacher research; and a disconnect between research on teaching in K-12 settings and in higher education.
I came away encouraged about the field of rhetoric and writing: more than other disciplines, and often much more, our field exemplifies the first two trends and has answers to the questions the meeting leaders posed—along with a rich and now voluminous volume of research to support what we know. The intense efforts of teachers and researchers in our field over the last forty years have certainly paid off: in terms of questions of pedagogy especially, we are far ahead of other disciplines.
What I was most impressed with during this meeting, however, was the clear connection established between research and teaching. Anna Neumann from Teacher’s College reported on a study that followed forty university professors for five years following tenure, asking them how and where they pursued their ongoing scholarly learning: 66 percent reported that they did so through research, and 90 percent said that they did so through teaching. I was surprised by this finding because her study covered a number of fields—but it is exactly what I would have expected for the field of rhetoric and writing studies, though the 90 percent might have been closer to 95 percent!
Another study conducted at San Francisco State also caught my attention. This study was conducted as part of that university’s Metro College Success Program, which focuses on preparing teachers to practice what they call “social justice pedagogy,” which aims at truly inclusive practices, on presenting material through low-stakes practice and timely and relevant examples, and that recognizes that students who arrive “underprepared” do so not through some deficit in themselves but because a system characterized by conscious and unconscious biases doesn’t allow them to be “prepared.” The study attempted to measure the learning and pass rates of students in four different groups: a control group that received no intervention; a group that received supplemental instruction; a group that had small classes; and a group that had faculty trained in social justice pedagogy. The results: those in the control group had a 64.5 percent pass rate, which matched the average pass rate for the entire program. Those in the small group experienced a 69.2 percent rate, in the supplemental instruction group a 72.3 percent rate, and in the social justice pedagogy trained faculty group a 74.4 percent rate. Students who had all three advantages—small classes, supplementary material, and trained teachers—achieved an 88 percent rate.
Again, I am encouraged to know that many rhet/comp programs are already firmly grounded in research and that they work steadily for smaller classes, for excellent supplementary materials, and for ongoing professional development for those teaching in the program. But I also see many programs whose ability to embrace a social justice pedagogy is impeded by the dependence on more and more contingent and part-time faculty and brand new graduate students whose working conditions leave precious little time for training, much less for research. Nevertheless, the argument scholars in writing studies have been making for many decades now clearly holds true: the more research and teaching mutually inform one another and the more teaching faculty are engaged in research aimed at improving not what we teach but HOW we teach, the more likely the curriculum is built for student success. And that’s a goal all writing teachers embrace.
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