December 2007


My mid-Atlantic, public, liberal arts institution has gone through a great many changes in the last two years. Changes in the top-echelon leadership have inspired a curriculum overhaul, revisions of the ways in which faculty are evaluated, more robust opportunities for undergraduate research, a comprehensive first-year program featuring targeted advising and freshmen seminars, and will soon yield a new faculty governance system.

I have just learned that another major change is imminent: the elimination of our current, faculty-organized teaching development program and the creation of a new Center for Teaching Excellence. The new Center will integrate teaching and learning technologies and pedagogies in what I expect (and hope) will foster real organic exchange between faculty interested in the teaching commons and faculty using technology in innovative ways.

We have an opportunity to produce a model Center. Readers–if you had your druthers and could create the “Dream” Center for Teaching Excellence, what would you have it do? What services should it provide? How should it be organized?

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I have never been good with my hands. All my life, my hands have seemed like interlopers with the wrong set of wiring. That smooth connection between hand and brain that graced seemingly everybody else never failed to catch my notice or inspire my dismay. I was horrible at sports, at art, at playing instruments–all those finer things in life might as well have been within the reach of the next galaxy. I accepted long ago that I’ll never roll over Beethoven or know what it feels like to hit a home run.

But, when my arthritic grandmother sat me down a couple of years ago with a crochet hook and bit of cheap yarn from Wal-Mart, things began to change. To my surprise, within a month I had made 2 afghans and a legion of scarves and hats.

I began to notice knitters everywhere–especially the really experienced knitters who glided through complicated patterns like poured milk. With sometimes four or five needles sticking out of their project and only 2 hands to negotiate the working yarn, all the loops, the points of the needles, and the masterpiece itself, all of this while working through a series of unforgiving combinations of stitches, well–my sense of accomplishment sort of fizzled. My sense of limitation grew along with the renewed awareness of my clunky hands. How do they do that???

One fine day in October, I bought more needles and books than I could ever need and sat down to finally face my opponent. I expected it would take months (if ever!) to be able to work the simplest stitch, but once again–to my surprise–within two weeks I had finished several projects. Two months later, nearly all my hand-knit Christmas presents are made and ready to be wrapped.

It is beginning to dawn on me how profoundly flimsy those gargantuan obstacles to learning are. The palimpsest-effect is so very strong: the erasures of possibility enacted by our own habits of thinking are self-reproducing, self-tracing, and self-limiting. But, throw away the palimpsest, and take out a clean page–why, anything is possible…