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Chatting with Colleagues

posted: 12.9.11 by archived

As the daughter of a professor, I learned from my father about not only department politics and student complaints, but about the ritual of the faculty coffee hour, when colleagues left the isolation of their offices to gather in a room to drink a cup of coffee and chat. As a graduate student, I loved the conversations with fellow teaching assistants, encouraged by our shared office space, about the students we were teaching, the classes we were taking, or why fiction is to poetry as walking to the grocery store is to dancing. When I started teaching at a community college, I was dismayed by how infrequently those sorts of conversations take place.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the conversations I’ve had this semester with colleagues—how they best happen and how to make them happen more often. My concern is largely selfish: I deeply value how much the conversations energize my teaching. It’s a lot trickier, though, to think about how this sort of communication fits into the interplay between the intellectual freedom properly (in my view) granted to individual instructors and the desirability (maybe) of some level of consistency and standards department-wide. This is an especially crucial question in a department like mine, where about 80 percent of my colleagues are disenfranchised and largely invisible adjuncts. As someone who has recently jumped the fence from long-term adjunct to full-time faculty member, I understand how delicately one must approach the issue, but it does need to be approached.

In trying to figure out how, I’ve listed here the occasions I’ve had this semester to chat with colleagues:

Last month I attended my first national conference, the NCTE annual meeting in Chicago. I had been expecting, actually, to get a blog post out of the experience, but found it less inspiring than I had hoped: one wonderful session out of the eight I attended; a huge marketplace aimed mostly at the pre-college crowd (which soon overwhelmed me); and (though this reflects more on my own lack of social skills) little opportunity to talk with others.

On a local level, English Department meetings give faculty a time to talk to each other; at my college this is one hour per month, often taken up with administrative issues. Over the past few semesters, we have (at great length) tweaked course descriptions, given department feedback about proposed new courses, and brainstormed ways to increase student enrollment in upper-level English courses: all worthy goals but not directly applicable to my work in the classroom.

In terms of the sort of conversation I’m looking for, a more useful local group is our department’s Portfolio Assessment Committee, which I have written about previously. Though our three monthly policy meetings also deal with administrative issues, our norming session and the portfolio reading have been a rich source of information about how we all design assignments and assess student writing.

The Reflective Practice workshop is another department-wide group I’ve found very useful. We’ve discussed issues such as methods of stimulating discussion in literature courses, ways to handle the paper load, strategies to convince students that spark Notes is not an acceptable substitute for reading the literature assigned. This is a voluntary group, which has been meeting late in the afternoon, with at best only five or six participants; there’s a stipend associated with attending, but most of us who attend would do so without compensation, and it does not seem to effectively encourage wider participation. (This pay-them-and-they-will-come assumption seems problematic at best.)

In addition, I’ve had several individual meetings this semester with an adjunct who is using the same text that I am. These conversations have given both of us ideas about using the text (which is new to both of us) and its assignments, and is helping both of us feel more connected. Perhaps this sort of individually arranged conversation happens more often than I realize. I do think that my department could do more to encourage it, though.

I’ve had other informal chances to talk with colleagues because of two additional responsibilities I have: as a tutor in the Writing Center and as a scorer of placement tests. In the Writing Center there are often opportunities to chat with fellow instructors about teaching-related or writing-related issues, and in the Testing Center we work in pairs to score essays, which gives a chance to calibrate expectations about developmental vs. college-level writing.

For years now, I have hoped that technology could come to the rescue, with some sort of electronic forum for discussion and the sharing of ideas that will be flexible enough to enable active adjunct participation. Some of us tried an English department Blackboard space years ago, but few participated and that dwindled away. That’s one of the reasons I started blogging but I quickly realized that few of my colleagues had the time or inclination to read what I wrote. Some colleagues use blogs in their class, but none that I’m aware of write a blog to reflect on teaching issues. Five or six of us this semester did set up a group blog to about our experiences teaching in a computer lab, but with everyone’s busy schedules participation has been slight.

My question is obvious: what can and should be done to provide time and space for colleagues to chat? What has your college done? Does money matter? What structures can be put into place to encourage a collegial interchange of ideas? I’d love to hear any solutions your college has implemented—or any dreams about what’s possible.

Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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