“We too have our thaws. They come to our January moods, when our ice cracks, and our sluices break loose.”
–Henry David Thoreau, Journals January 29, 1854
What might a course look like designed around values? My response to this question, when it first came to mind, was to dodge it. What are my core values? What really matters to me as a college teacher? And do my teaching philosophy and practice reflect my values?
Questions about core values are always a part of the conceptual and practical work of designing a course. For me, these questions have proven persistent, and quite troublesome, every time I begin preparing for a course, or making the time to reflect on my pedagogical intentions and choices. These kinds of questions have troubled my thinking with others in curriculum development as well. Perhaps I am finally understanding what I intuitively grasped as a graduate student designing curriculum in a large expository writing program: that pedagogy and curriculum are both constituted as a complex relationship among not only subjects of study, and a learning environment, but learners’ and teachers’ experiences and motivations, social histories, and professional aspirations and commitments.
More recently, I have been working through a series of more specific questions. How might honesty or forgiveness, for example, determine an assignment or an approach to assessment? What does an honest assignment look like? How might one design a course for trust? What are the values that inform a curriculum discussion or proposal, or that shape the contours of an academic program? Questions like this are often avoided precisely because they unsettle the way we do things. But things are what they are because they got that way—and they can be changed.
The current-traditional approach to organizing a course mostly begins with skills to be mastered, or information or concepts to be conveyed, and an orderly sequence to cover the material students need to learn. Another approach to design starts with the outcomes of a course and then organizes activities from the rear end to guide students to the desired outcomes. Last year, however, my thinking about course design, pedagogy, and values emerged in collaboration with my friend and colleague in Biology, Karen Cangialosi. We pulled together a webinar, Promoting Student Agency to Improve Teaching and Learning, for a series of workshops for professors in the University System of New Hampshire.
In our webinar we proposed that in thinking about our core values we naturally find ourselves thinking more about our relationships with students. I explained how I had challenged myself years ago by sharing these values with my students. Not only did I make visible my core values in the language on my syllabi––Honesty, Trust, Generosity, Compassion, Forgiveness, Collaboration, Centeredness, and Wholeness. For I began using the values as a framework for teaching and learning.
The list of core values contributed to my reflections on what I hoped to do in the classroom; the values also reminded me of the necessary and ongoing work of learning from my students. I was reminded, for instance, that it is useful to be more open with students about the choices I was making on their behalf. I had always invited students to consider why we were doing what we were doing—“teaching the why,” in the words of Cathy N. Davidson, founder of Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) and the author, most recently, of The New Education. But I found that more open and direct conversations with students about their reading and writing in my classes allowed us to more authentically speak to the work we were doing in relation with one another.
Most recently, teaching and learning in a global pandemic, the importance of clarity around values when working with students and colleagues has become more visible. One example is my colleague Robin Derosa’s work creating what she calls Values-Centered Instructional Planning. Robin argues that pedagogy “is not an ancillary or optional part of conversations about remote teaching. Pedagogy is the category that describes how we teach.” These pedagogical values organize the mission-aligned framework she has developed with her colleagues, the Open Learning & Teaching Collaborative at Plymouth State University.
In the coming weeks my plan is to write about the values that center my professional and personal life. My core values guide me in the classroom, among colleagues at my home institution, and in my professional relationships beyond the College. In digging around in the place where I find myself, in this winter mood, I hope to take advantage of the cracking ice and sluices breaking loose—of how I made my way to where I am, and perhaps to turn up some useful lessons about where I might be going.
photo credits: Mark C. Long