New E-Newsletter Enables Professors To Share Teaching Advice

The Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning has released a new weekly e-newsletter with the intention of “provid[ing] faculty perspectives on timely, evidence-based teaching advice,” according to an emailed statement from Peter K. Bol, VPAL’s vice provost.

Earlier this week all teaching faculty received the e-newsletter, titled “Into Practice,” from VPAL. The email, which features Karen Brennan, an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education, explains Brennan’s process of designing a syllabus and suggests that a course’s syllabus can be used “to introduce students to the course culture.”

The letter grew out of a 2012 HILT grant dedicated to creating a publication for teaching staff at the Graduate School of Education and will be sent weekly to all teaching faculty at the University.

The Office o the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, which was formed in 2013 shortly after the creation of HarvardX and edX, states its ultimate aim as “[ensuring] that Harvard remains the leader in teaching and learning innovation.”

Next week’s e-letter will highlight Philosophy professor Alison Simmons’ policy toward electronic devices in the classroom.

“Faculty have a lot to learn from each other about teaching,” said Simmons, citing her own experience learning pedagogy from fellow instructors of Humanities 10, a course taught by five professors, last year. “I learned more about teaching…[from] faculty colleagues than in seminars and conferences on pedagogy”

According to Philosophy professor and Chair of the Committee on General Education Edward J. Hall, there are often cultural barriers to providing pedagogical instruction to faculty members.

“There’s no mystery about this,” said Hall. “Of course you improve your research over time and you can only do that if you get some kind of feedback... We’ve never been trained to think of our teaching that way.”

Bol said the e-letter, designed to be “brief, friendly, and digestible,” was created with the knowledge that faculty don’t have much time to put toward pedagogical improvements.

“Few of us have opportunities to visit many classrooms, take a HarvardX MOOC, or scan the literature on teaching and learning as we are thinking about a syllabus or lesson plan,” Bol said.

Simmons, similarly, acknowledges that it is “hard to find the time to make use of [VPAL’s resources],” though she reports using the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning frequently.

Hall and Simmons both thought that a more bite-sized approach might yield more faculty engagement with VPAL, though Hall suggested that the percentage of faculty who read any given letter might be low.

“I did not read [the e-letter]. I skimmed it at best,” Hall said. However, the email looked “polished” once it was shown to him.

“[Pedagogical instruction] is there if you look for it,” said English professor Stephen Burt, who also did not remember seeing the e-letter. “Harvard is working hard to have pedagogy resources available… I have no complaints.”

“It’ll probably take a while but the first step is to try to change the norms around teaching so that faculty... think of our teaching... the same way we think about our research,” Hall said.

—Staff writer C. Ramsey Fahs can be reached at cfahs@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @ramseyfahs.

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