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Friday, September 20, 2019
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Open Classrooms Encourages Faculty to Learn From Each Other

Marketing Communication Associate Professor Nejem Raheem had a new student in his economics class earlier this month: Assistant Professor Jon Honea.

Honea, who teaches ecology in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, was visiting Raheem’s classroom as part of a two-week Open Classrooms period, a joint initiative between academic and faculty leadership.

From February 13 to 24, faculty across the College were encouraged to reach out to their colleagues and watch them in action, with the goal of sharing teaching methods in a familiar field or a new one.

“It’s a privilege and a unique opportunity to see how faculty engage with their students,” said Provost Michaele Whelan. “This initiative is a tangible step in creating a culture of collaborative pedagogy —one which the faculty-led Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning fosters.”

Technically, there’s no reason why one academic can’t reach out to another at any point during the semester and ask to observe their class on their own initiative. But the Open Classrooms period is an invitation to faculty who may be reluctant to ask out of the blue.

“We have a faculty mentoring program called Nexus, and [junior faculty] indicated it can be hard to approach senior colleagues and say, ‘I’d really like to visit your class.’ So this is a way to say, ‘The whole campus is going to be doing this, and it’s going to be easy,’” Whelan said.

A one-week Open Classrooms period was held last October. Though academic and faculty leadership do not track participation, a survey administered after the fall period indicated the program was well received, Whelan said.

Bob Colby, Faculty Assembly chair and Performing Arts professor, said he hears from a “fair amount” of faculty that initiatives that break down barriers between departments are a high priority for them, and Open Classrooms fits in with that.

The program is obviously helpful from a pedagogical standpoint, but there are secondary benefits from visiting colleagues at work. Faculty in different disciplines may discover a common or complementary interest and start a joint class, he said. But beyond that, “I think it builds a kind of shared, collaborative community.”

Colby said he has visited other classrooms, but he hasn’t yet ventured into different departments.

“I’m looking forward in future years to reaching out to some of my colleagues in different departments and seeing some of the work I don’t typically get to see,” Colby said.

Honea said he chose to visit Raheem’s classroom for a very specific reason. The two of them, along with a couple of other faculty members, are developing some modules to teach science, and Raheem was doing a dry run of one of them.

The module was about convincing students through a number of exercises that everyone has biases, he said.

“The whole point in these classes we teach is to introduce new ideas to students, and a lot of times these ideas are really uncomfortable, so we have to do a lot to keep students engaged,” Honea said. “Nejem is super good at that, so I learned some ways to be better at that.”

Honea said this past month has been very busy for him, and he wishes the initiative were longer than just two weeks. But he said that the short Open Classrooms period may serve to remind people that this kind of cross-pollination is actually an option year-round.

“I think we should do more of it,” he said.