Campus Culture and Teaching

A long while back, I wrote a blog post about my views on colleges as culture factories. Long story short, I believe that the process of attending a university or college is to shape and mold a student into an individual with certain types of skills and values that are specific to the institution that he or she attended. So, for example, a graduate of Michigan State University should be representative of MSU’s cultural values: a practical leader who believes in community engagement and has a global perspective. Every element of a college education should reflect the values of the institution that is offering that education. Student Affairs programming should reinforce these values, department programs and degrees should reflect these values, community engagement programming should reflect these values, and, for our topic in this post: teaching should reflect these values.

Teaching has been on my mind a lot lately, considering I am enrolled in a course on Teaching Higher Education this spring. Naturally, I wanted to see how well my thoughts on campus culture fit into a model of teaching, and how well it informs my teaching philosophy, which is in progress (and will be viewable on my portfolio, here).

Teaching, I believe, should incorporate more than simply dispensing knowledge about a topic from a teacher to a student. Certainly, I think it is important that a student understand how to read stratigraphy, and a physics professor wants them to understand how gravity works, and an English professor wants them to understand iambic pentameter. But these don’t necessarily reflect a University’s culture. These are simply means to this end. Why do I want my students to understand stratigraphy? How does understanding iambic pentameter reflect the values of the institution that we teach at? These are, I think, very important questions that faculty members don’t ask themselves enough.

An example. I am a teacher of archaeology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. This institution prides itself on a commitment to the environment. I can easily teach a course on archaeology at this school. I can even utilize the fantastic archaeology museum next door to really enhance my teaching, to give a hands-on approach so that people can see how archaeological interpretation can be recreated. But this still isn’t connected to the College’s mission of environmental stewardship.

However, if I expand my reach, and begin to talk about the use of archaeology as a means of cultural heritage development, and discuss how a greater appreciation for the history of our space can result in better care for our spaces, may very well help to place this course into a context that makes the class relevant to our college mission.

There are obvious benefits to this. First, it means that you always have an answer to the question, “why am I in this class, anyway?” Answer: “You’re in this class because you came to St. Mary’s College, which means you appreciate the environment, and this is how what your learning here connects to that mission.”

Second, it makes teaching a little bit more challenging. Making this connection can be fun. How do you keep your class relevant? The objective isn’t just to figure out how to teach the material, but how to do it in a a way that makes it relevant to the overall education of the student.

Third, it makes it fun for the student. All of a sudden, they may start seeing connections between classes that otherwise seem unrelated. Most importantly, since their education is more explicit, they begin to learn how they can apply these values in their lives.

Fourth, it makes you more relevant. When the Dean comes knocking and wants to know why your department or classes are important to the college, you can pretty much give the same answer you gave to that student who wanted to know why your class was important.

Of course, there is a lot that might not work out so well, and this obviously makes the process of teaching more difficult. It also makes course plans non-transferable to other institutions. What are your thoughts? Is this important? Realistic? Or am I still in my pipe-dream-never-taught-a-class world?

  • I think this is very realistic. Were professors instilling pride and interest and appreciate of their college, I think it could easily transform a course from an errand a student has to run on their way to a degree to a purposeful and meaningful part of their overall lives. I hear students here at MSU complain about how the purpose of the college is to make money. Few are even aware of the research and effort going on here at their own universities, much less any sort of overall values. While it may not matter to all students – like they always say in teaching – if you manage to change the mind of just one student you have truly succeeded. And all that sappy stuff.

  • I think this is very realistic. Were professors instilling pride and interest and appreciate of their college, I think it could easily transform a course from an errand a student has to run on their way to a degree to a purposeful and meaningful part of their overall lives. I hear students here at MSU complain about how the purpose of the college is to make money. Few are even aware of the research and effort going on here at their own universities, much less any sort of overall values. While it may not matter to all students – like they always say in teaching – if you manage to change the mind of just one student you have truly succeeded. And all that sappy stuff.