OTL Faculty Teaching Fellow: Reflections and Ongoing Work

May 2, 2021

Photo by Athena from Pexels

By Paul Michalec, Faculty Teaching Fellow and Clinical Professor, Morgridge College of Education

Three years ago, I was honored with the title of Faculty Teaching Fellow for the Office of Teaching and Learning. As I transition out of that role, the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs asked me to share a few reflections on my work and to offer some thoughts on possible initiatives for future Faculty Teaching Fellows to consider. I’m tempted to list* all the projects I’ve taken up, but that feels a bit boring and institutionally dry. Instead, I’ll start where I began many of my conversations with faculty, staff, and students over the past three years: poetry. When asked about the meaning of music, singer and songwriter David Byrne responded, “I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry—poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs—is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.” That about sums up my three years: a song in the making. As a song, my work wasn’t always logical in the ways that the academy measures success or defines productivity. It was more akin to melody and rhythm; the melody of individual voices, sometimes discordant, but uniquely engaged in the common pursuit of flourishing. Experiencing professional development as music, poetry, and rhyme invites a wide range of dialects (language, culture, positionality, thinking, and seeing). This, I believe, creates space for marginalized voices to emerge and disrupt embedded systems of power.

There were many moments when I felt honored to hear and experience the ways faculty and staff, when invited with open-hearted intention, came together to learn, explore and affirm the possibilities of thriving in higher education. At times, the song was joyful; other times, it was heartbreaking when the passion to serve others was blunted by the institutional imperatives of efficiency. The poet Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on. / Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain / are moving across the landscapes, / over the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers.” It was in the paradoxical—“meanwhile”—moments of despair and wonder that my work really took form. These were times to listen, hold space for emotions, connect with the heart, and look for ways to challenge the status quo. Sometimes, the despair was mine when I felt like I was making little headway in efforts to humanize teaching and learning. In these moments, the community of caring faculty and staff on the DU campus would remind me that real and lasting change happens slowly and organically. It is not always the big and flashy initiatives that matter. Marge Piercy invites change agents to, “Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree. / Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.” The intimate and embodied lived experience of coming together fosters enduring change and the formation of a community grounded in the integrity and fidelity at the core of teaching. Community, I was informed by colleagues, is looking across the room and seeing someone who also knows the meaning of “meanwhile” and knowing that you are not alone in your deep care for the heart of the work.

In the post-pandemic(s) world of higher education, what is next? What might we learn from our year-long experience of social-emotional distancing that can enhance our teaching and leadership? The first lesson I invite the DU community to consider is that the experience of distancing and isolation may be new to most of us, but it is a far too common experience for many marginalized faculty and staff. We, I, need to resist the temptation to “return to normal” when normal means the loss of voices that enliven our collective song. I get excited when I think about institutionalizing all the innovative ways that teaching and learning occurred this past year. We need to start gathering up and fronting the ways that faculty pushed past the traditional norms of classroom instruction to connect students with the deep learning of academic disciplines. How were these personally and professionally transformative experiences initiated? Now is the time to rethink, but also redo, higher education to make it more just, inclusive and holistic. Let’s not “return to normal.”

In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer blends her Indigenous knowing, scientific training, natural history and story of lived experience. Through her words, I find myself continuously invited to study the ways I might teach anew: wisdom on being and acting that I think the DU community should also consider. Kimmerer is a Professor of Environmental Biology; plants are her interest and passion. She argues that the green world is a gift to the human world, but a gift that is rarely fully appreciated by the Western-scientific mind: “Plant blindness and its relative, species loneliness, impedes the recognition of the green world as a garden of gifts. The [restorative] cycle flows from attention, to gift, to gratitude, to reciprocity. It starts with seeing.

In the post-pandemic(s) landscape of higher education, I’m invited to consider who are the people and forms of disempowerment that I’m not fully seeing because of my whiteness, Western education, and the embedded white supremacy of the academy. I’m thinking of a recent conversation when a colleague took the time and emotional energy to point out that my positionality kept me from seeing how my inaction as a leader was hurtful, betrayed my antiracist intentions, and contributed to oppressive systems—a teaching of great importance personally, professional, and in ways I facilitate learning in my class. I invite the DU community to consider and attend to this lesson as well. Kimmerer offers some astute observations on the ways power and objectivity can blur our (my) vision as educators. And I find her cycle of gifting to be a way into wholeness, while attending to brokenness. It, as it should be, is a never-ending process of reciprocity; a covenant of mutual thriving. I wonder what faculty teaching evaluations, program design, course assignments, annual reviews, or university awards would look like if they were premised on gift as the central theme of our work. I wonder what a series of workshops and teachings on her gift-cycle would look like and what conversation spaces it might open.

Thank you (faculty, staff, administrators, and students) for teaching me more about education than I think I offered you. I express gratitude for that gift. And even though I no longer hold the title of Faculty Teaching Fellow, I will continue, in the spirit of reciprocity to build community; to work constantly to see past my sightlessness to the fullness of our shared humanity.

*A short list of projects I initiated or co-lead over the past three-years includes: monthly heart of higher education conversations for staff and faculty, workshops on the social-emotional and inner-life of educators, one-on-one conversations with faculty on effective instruction, mentoring of early career faculty, elevating the work of teaching and professional faculty, workshops on the rationale and protocols for peer-to-peer conversations, book studies on holistic and inclusive pedagogy, peer observations of faculty teaching, hosting a workshop on navigating the social-emotional spaces of online education and attending OTL Advisory Board meetings.

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