7 What College is Supposed to Be | Carolyn O’Grady

I read and think about teaching a lot. I am constantly trying to learn new ways of getting better at this very challenging profession. I am grateful that I work in the Education Dept. because the art and science of teaching is ever present to us; every time I watch a student teacher I think about what effective teaching “looks like.”

When I wrote my tenure statement, I included this description of my goals as a teacher:

I have three primary goals for all my teaching:  1) to acquaint students with the current educational theories and practices that are at the center of the course content; 2) to push students’ thinking in order to deepen their personal and professional expertise; at times this means pushing against students’ “comfort zones”; and 3) to plant a seed in my students that will hopefully grow into a commitment to improve educational conditions – and by extension, the world – through their work as teachers.

These goals are still front and center for me, although my teaching responsibilities have evolved beyond the Education Department in recent years. In what follows, I will describe what I believe I do well as a teacher and what I continue to work on. I’ll also talk about some ways I have tried to grow as a teacher.

Gifts and Challenges. I know that I do some things really well as a teacher. I am a good discussion facilitator, for instance, and am able to manage both the air-time hogs, and the students who are usually quiet, so that students hear from as many of their peers as possible. I generally do a good job of thinking carefully about how to plan a course, how to make course texts relevant to students’ experiences,  and how to integrate assignments so that the work in the course feels connected.

I am also very good at managing conversations about “difficult” topics, especially those issues that students would prefer to avoid. These topics include racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. I am not afraid of conflict, and I try to encourage multiple perspectives. I lay a foundation for these contested conversations by establishing class ground rules (in collaboration with the students) and by modeling honesty and thoughtful analysis in describing my own perspectives or those of authors we are reading. Sometimes students feel I push them too hard and they feel intimidated by me or afraid to speak their mind. This is a criticism I have encountered since arriving at Gustavus. I have certainly modified my teaching style in response to student feedback over the years, but I am committed to prodding our many conflict-avoidant students to grapple with hard issues. It is especially important to me that this happen in my education classes; future teachers simply don’t have the luxury of avoiding issues of diversity given Minnesota’s changing demographics. But in all of my classes I ask students to consider hard topics and questions as part of my fundamental belief that only by looking closely at issues that polarize us can we learn to live in community with, and work in solidarity with, those who are different from ourselves.

Then there are the challenges I encounter each and every semester. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that these are the “worries” I have about my teaching. One is my struggle to understand what “rigor” means to me, and what it should look like in my classroom. For instance, I’m not a teacher who gives a lot of tests and quizzes. Frankly, for the kind of classes I teach, these are not effective forms of assessment. In comparison with some of my colleagues, I tend to assign fewer reading assignments rather than more. This is because I tend to prefer a more unhurried and intensive look at texts rather than an approach that flies through a large number of texts. I don’t think there is any one “right” way to teach most courses, and each teacher must find his or her own style and philosophy. Nevertheless, I find myself constantly analyzing whether how I teach – and who I am as a teacher – appropriately challenges my students and fits with my beliefs about pedagogy and practice.

A related and ongoing consideration is whether I consistently hold high expectations for student performance. There have been some semesters when I probably expected too little, have in fact assumed my students weren’t capable of more challenging work, and consequently did not require it. But conversely, there have been times when I have had unrealistic expectations of what students would accomplish, and this has led to frustration for everyone. I am constantly trying to pitch my expectations, and the rigor of the course, just beyond my students’ comfort level. Not so far beyond that students cannot succeed, but far enough that they discover capabilities they didn’t know they had.

Likewise, I am constantly trying to extend my own abilities as a teacher. I revise course syllabi frequently and try new activities or learning assignments in an effort to improve whatever I feel has not been successful the prior semester. I am definitely willing to take risks in teaching, and I always try to keep the learning needs of students uppermost in my mind while also keeping myself fresh and motivated to teach the class again.

New Teaching Adventures. One of the ways I have tried to grow as a teacher is to take on some new and demanding teaching responsibilities. Since 2004-05 I have been teaching the sophomore-level Curriculum II class, Individual and Society (CUR 210) in the fall, and the FTS-class-for-transfer-students, a Spring course. During 2006-07 I am also teaching the Curriculum II senior seminar (CUR 399), teaming with Claude Brew. After teaching essentially the same Education courses for more than a decade, I was ready for some new challenges. Education faculty are fairly locked in to our teaching responsibilities because of the structured nature of our program and the need to meet state requirements. I was able to negotiate this change in teaching duties with the support of many individuals in and out of my department.

I have been inspired and challenged in teaching these new courses. I haven’t been able to rely on previously designed syllabi or assignments, and I cannot walk in and “wing it” the way I can do with Education classes that I’ve taught for years. I’ve had to think carefully about how to design these courses so as to meet specific program expectations, and I’ve had to stretch to acquire more knowledge outside of my field. In the last two years I’ve read more social science texts (for Individual and Society) and more memoirs (for the FTS class) than I’d read in my entire previous life. This interdisciplinary work has been very rewarding.

Brief descriptions of my 2006-07 classes will provide a snapshot of my teaching work.

CUR 210 – Individual and Society

I taught one section of Individual and Society in Fall 2006 (MWF) while Lisa Heldke taught a second section (TR). It is unusual for there to be enough CII staffing to offer two sections of this course, and we took advantage of the synergy this offered us. We started meeting months before the semester began to share ideas for course themes and content, and ultimately we chose to use the same texts and assignments in both sections. This meant I couldn’t rely on the readings or assignments I had used in the two previous iterations of this course, which meant preparing as though for a whole new course. Lisa and I decided to teach students how to do qualitative research by requiring them to complete a research project on the general course theme of “place” (see attached syllabus). We also assigned a variety of texts that introduced students to different qualitative research methodologies and different narrative styles. Among their assignments, students had to do a poster session on their research. To give them something of the experience of a “real” conference poster session at which presenters must speak to strangers about their work, each poster day we invited members of the other 210 section as well as CII faculty, CII senior seminar students, and other on-campus faculty and staff.

Teaching this course has been great fun because I’ve had a sort of “teaching buddy,” someone who knows what is going on in my class and is great at thinking out – or rethinking – course assignments or weekly class agenda. But it’s also been a little scary. I have observed Lisa teach several times and consider her to be one of the best teachers at Gustavus. It is intimidating to be potentially compared to one of our community’s best instructors. On the other hand, I feel revitalized by the opportunity to “talk teaching” with such a good role model.

CUR 399 – Senior Seminar

This class has also been a tremendous chance to stretch my teaching skills and, even, build some new brain cells. I was very honored when Claude Brew asked me to team teach the CII Senior Seminar with him, and also very nervous. In fact, this has been the most challenging course I have taught at Gustavus. First, there is the issue of actually teaming with another instructor (as opposed to “turn teaching,” the easy way out for co-teachers). Claude and I began meeting during Spring semester, and met regularly over the summer, to talk out our teaching styles and preferences, his experience teaching this class in the past, possible course texts and assignments, and our goals and expectations of each other and the students. This provided an essential foundation for the spirit of mutual respect and collaboration that has evolved between us. Second, one of our texts, Moral Vision[1], was particularly challenging for me. This philosophy text began our discussion about the course theme of values. My marginal notes include comments such as “I have no idea what he is saying here,” and “does he ever answer this question?” Claude and I met before the semester began specifically to hash out the meaning of this text, and these meetings had the ancillary effect of reducing my anxiety about “not being smart enough” to teach Senior Seminar. Throughout the semester I had to read course texts more carefully than usual and re-read assigned sections before class discussion more thoroughly than usual. I have never gone into a classroom as well prepared for each class as I did for this one. Nevertheless, I felt out of my depth many times. I think it is very important to re-experience what it is like to be a beginner at something we think we know how to do well. I have certainly become reacquainted with some of my fears about teaching, but I have also been reminded that collaborative teaching is of great worth to me.

EDU 350 – Reading in the Content Areas

There are two special things to know about this class. First, this is a .25 course that is taught as part of the secondary education methods block. Up until this year I taught it in a two-hour block in selected weeks over the semester to correspond with what Deb Pitton was doing in general methods. In order to accommodate teaching CII Senior Seminar, this class is meeting this year for one hour per week. During Fall semester I planned too much for each hour and, consequently, was never able to accomplish my goals for each class. I felt rushed and frustrated and so did students. I plan to streamline course readings and assignments for the Spring in response to student feedback.

Second, its content is largely mandated by the Board of Teaching, which requires that I include information on fluency, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and higher order thinking. As a result, I am constantly struggling to balance what I must include for our program to meet BOT certification requirements, and what I choose to include because I believe it is pedagogically important. I do not feel I have yet learned how to strike this balance most effectively.

I enjoy teaching this class because I am committed to helping secondary education students think carefully about the role of reading and literacy in their content classrooms. When I am at my best I feel students have the opportunity to consider useful theories about literacy development, and learn practical strategies that they can implement as soon as they are in a classroom. I value the opportunity to work with pre-service teachers at this stage, just before they are about to spend a semester in student teaching.

FTS 100 – Life Stories

This class is taken by first-year transfer students, so I never know until the first day of class exactly how many students I will have. I designed this as a memoir class because I thought it would be an engaging way of introducing new students to college life. It gives us the opportunity to read and write a lot. Each semester I have kept some memoirs and changed others, partly in response to student feedback, and partly in response to recent publications in the genre of creative non-fiction. I have been able to invite writers to speak to the class (in Spring 2006 this was Michael Perry [Population 485]; in Spring 2007 it will be Matthew Sanford [Waking]). I like teaching this class, but I also feel a huge responsibility for preparing students well to succeed at Gustavus. My two primary goals with these students are to get them to understand the writing process upside and down, and to get them to practice critical thinking as we analyze course texts.

EDU 362 – Social Studies Methods

This .25 class meets by arrangement, usually five times over the course of the semester for two hours each time. It is always small – in fall semester only three students, and in spring probably only one. The class is part of the secondary methods block, and my aim is to acquaint students with best practices in the teaching of social studies. Because I ask students to take responsibility for facilitating our meetings, it becomes a little like a professional reading group in which colleagues have conversation about teaching methods and philosophies. One aspect of this course involves e-mail conversation with practicing social studies teachers, and this input provides some real world context for the theories we discuss.

Continued Growth/Improvement as a Teacher. I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of professional development experiences that have enhanced my teaching. Some examples are:

  • Service Learning for Social Justice: Northern Ireland 2002
    This SLSJ program focused on social justice and conflict, involved a year’s worth of reading and discussion, and culminated in travel to Northern Ireland in August 2002. As a result of this experience, I adapted my education course, Human Relations (EDU 398) as a J-term travel course, and taught it during January 2004 in collaboration with two colleagues, Steve Griffith and Elizabeth Baer. Steve and Elizabeth had also participated in the SLSJ 2002 program, and each of them designed their own course. The result was a unique travel experience for Gustavus students involving three separate, but linked, courses that shared the interdisciplinary theme “Conflict and Social Justice in Northern Ireland.” At times members of all courses met together; at times each course met separately or two courses met together while the third was engaged elsewhere. The themes of conflict, social justice, and ethnic relations united the courses, but each course took a different disciplinary approach to these themes. This was the first time I taught a Gustavus travel course.
  • In June 2003 I participated in the faculty development workshop on vocation entitled The Vocation of a Teacher: Cultivating Our Lives of Commitment. This experience led to rich conversations among participants across disciplines and years of experience. This experience enabled me to consider whether teaching is truly a vocation for me. I also developed discussion questions on this topic to pose to students in an Education class I taught at the time (EDU 230, Social Foundations).
  • In summer 2004 I was awarded a Bush Service Learning Grant to work with Noreen Buhmann on more deeply integrating service learning into my courses. The name of this grant was “Service Learning for Social Justice Implementation Grant” and it resulted in the inclusion of a significant service learning component on English as a Second Language in my Human Relations (EDU 398) class.
  • During 2004-05 I was a member of the second campus SOTL group (Scholarship on Teaching and Learning). My project involved an analysis of the level of expectation I had for student performance in one of my Education classes. I wanted to take a look at what I assumed about the ability level of Education students, craft assignments and assign readings slightly more challenging than I expected students to be able to do, and then monitor their response as well as mine. To my surprise, almost all the students in my class did rise to the effort, and much of my analysis focused on why I was holding lowered expectations.
  • From 2004-2006 I was a participant in the Minnesota Courage to Teach program. This regional initiative is modeled after the national Courage to Teach program (originated by Parker Palmer) and has as its goal to “strengthen individuals, professions, and communities through programs that renew our spirits and reconnect who we are with what we do.” [2] Participants met four times each year for two years. I used this opportunity to talk with other educators about what teaching means to me, and how to sustain my enthusiasm for it.
  • In Fall 2004 I was involved, with several other faculty, in a short-lived pilot project using Blackboard as a teaching tool. Information Technology initiated, and provided some support for, this effort. This gave me a useful opportunity to consider the merits and demerits of teaching with this form of technology while I used two of my classes as guinea pigs for this experiment. I can say that I am glad Gustavus did not spend the money to purchase a Blackboard license, though I do continue to use Moodle (our on-site “Learning Management System”) for e-reserves.

In addition to these facilitated professional development opportunities, I also regularly solicit student feedback (both formal and informal) about what to change and what to retain about a course. I also continue to read a variety of texts about teaching[3].

I hope that students in my classes feel that they have learned something from me. I was delighted that the Gustie Greeters voted me the speaker for the President’s Banquet for first-year students this fall, and I know that two of the loudest voices in my support came from Education students I’ve had recently. When I was on Personnel Committee a few years ago, I observed the class of someone coming up for promotion. A senior, who knew the reason I was observing, turned to me at the end of the hour and said about the class, “this is what I always thought college was supposed to be.” I would feel a great sense of accomplishment if my students could say the same about my classes.


[1] Cady, Duane L. (2005). Moral vision: How everyday life shapes ethical thinking. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

[2] More information about this program can be found at the Center for Courage and Renewal, http://www.teacherformation.org/ based in Washington State.

[3] I especially recommend: Brookfield, Stephen D. & Stephen Preskill (1999). Discussion as a Way of Teaching. Jossey Bass; Brookfield, Stephen D. (2000). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey Bass; Goodman, Diane J. (2001). Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups. Sage; Parks, Sharon Daloz. (2000). Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith. Jossey Bass.