While the first date for SC&I’s 2018 school-wide scholarly incubator was cancelled due to a snow storm, fortunately the weather was fine on March 7, enabling over 100 SC&I faculty, part-time lecturers and doctoral students to gather at Alexander Library to participate in the second annual incubator, which, as organizer Associate Dean for Programs and Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Dafna Lemish said to the crowd in attendance, has now officially become an annual SC&I tradition.
The theme this year was “Teaching and Learning.” Lemish, along with co-organizers Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Communication Mark Aakhus and Assistant Dean for Instructional Support and Assessment Sharon Stoerger, designed a day filled with extraordinary opportunities for SC&I faculty to share best practices, discuss ways to develop new and innovative teaching models, the pros and cons of student use of technology in the classroom, and ways faculty can play a critical role in supporting student health and wellbeing.
"The participation in the scholarly incubator demonstrated the SC&I faculty and staff commitment to a vibrant, supportive learning experience for students and their excitement to be excellent teachers." – Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Communication Mark Aakhus
Lemish said she was inspired to choose the theme for this year’s incubator because, “I felt that we are all spending so much of our time and energy teaching, but we never talk about it seriously. I thought we can all learn from each other’s experience and that we can all improve and do better. Given that teaching is a core part of the mission of any university, and high on the agenda of the current administration – the time seemed very ripe for this special initiative.”
“It was great working with Dafna and Mark to organize the event,” Stoerger said. “In spite of the scheduling challenges presented by the weather, the event was a huge success, largely due to Dafna's leadership. The fact that many people made time in their busy schedules to attend the Incubator, as well as their overwhelmingly positive response about the sessions, indicates that it was filling a need. It was clear that people wanted to continue many of the conversations that began at the Incubator and stated that they would like SC&I to offer more events that focus on teaching and learning like this one.”
The exciting and innovative event began with a welcome from Dean Jonathan Potter, who said, “We at SC&I are at the forefront of innovative teaching at Rutgers, and this is a priority for Rutgers New-Brunswick Chancellor Deba Dutta. SC&I cares about it, we have systems to evaluate it, and we do things like this -- host a scholarly incubator on teaching. In the future we will face challenges to our teaching such as demographic issues, new forms of competition, and online learning options. We will also want to deliver courses that speak to issues surrounding social justice, new media, information science and social science, and start to engage students in more innovative ways.”
Following Potter’s welcome, attendees watched a short video about innovative teaching methods created by the Association of College and University Educators ACUE.
According to its website, ACUE was founded in 2014 by leaders in higher education to promote quality instruction at colleges and universities nationwide. In 2015, Rutgers University-Newark’s Chancellor Nancy Cantor joined the ACUE as a Founding Pilot Partner.
Questions posed in the video were designed to encourage reflection and spark conversation among the assembled professors, lecturers and Ph.D. students and included, “Why are you teaching? Are you trying to get students to learn or push them through material? Great teaching engages students, motivates students, and it should be the core mission of any university to put great teaching at the heart of your student success.”
Following the video, the first of three panels began. Titled Reimagining Place for Knowing and Learning, Aakhus served as the moderator, and participants included Sharon Stoerger, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Todd Wolfson, and Associate Professor Itzhak Yanovitzky.
Aakhus described the group as exemplary in re-imagining place in pedagogy so that learning happens in collaborating, translating, and activating. They show us how teaching is part of constructing knowledge, and how “teaching is essential in scholarship,” Aakhus said.
Stoerger, the first panelist to provide examples of her innovative teaching methods, explained how she views her teaching by reflecting upon the question, “What is the final destination I want the students to get to? I want to design a learning journey that enables them to reach the point where they are able to express their own voices through the artifacts they create, be more engaged, and to gain skills that have an impact beyond this classroom and Rutgers.”
To reach these goals, Stoerger created a digital infographic project for one of the courses she teaches. She said because all of the students in the class were using the same technology to finish the project, they began on a level playing field. However, because they were given the opportunity to tell a unique data-driven story for an audience through the infographic, they developed a personal attachment to their projects as they developed and learned to manage them skillfully and independently. “Once they realized the project had a life beyond the classroom," Stoerger said, "and their efforts enabled them to develop skills employers want, they got excited about it. They wanted to share their digital creation and their knowledge with others. That was where I wanted them to go, to not just focus on the technology but the experience of this learning journey.”
Yanovitzky said, “To be most effective instructors, we need to act more like tour guides – getting students excited about learning and guiding them through this process – and less like teachers.” He explained how his teaching is based upon the concepts of scaffolding and differentiation. Scaffolding, he said, consists of structuring assignments and activities such that they build on one another, moving increasingly from the simple to the complex. Differentiation is about using a mix of instructional methods and activities to maintain students’ interest and engagement, for example, by having students do work for real-world clients or work collaboratively with community members to promote change. “This gives students the experience, efficacy, and inspiration to make a difference and be confident individuals,” he said.
“In this respect, I see my pedagogy as an opportunity to experiment with methods for encouraging learning that I can take back to my work about engaging adolescents and adults in health preventive behaviors,” he added.
“Motivating students to learn can be very difficult,” Yanovitzky concluded. “It is much easier to engage them around topics and themes that they are already motivated to explore, and use their natural motivation to build their capacity as thinkers and doers. Like a good tour guide, you want to draw them in, get them excited, and then offer them the knowledge and tools to maximize their learning experience and get them ready to the next phase of their journey.”
Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies Todd Wolfson spoke about NJ Spark, which, he said, is a classroom-based, social justice, journalism and media lab. Wolfson said the goals of NJ Spark, from a teaching perspective, focus on the need, “to have our students engaged with the pressing needs of the state. We want to get students out of the classroom and working in the communities they live in. At NJ Spark we work to ensure that students collaborate with each other, and we want them to do deep collaboration with communities around the state. Our last goal is to create a platform so we can tell the stories of poor and working people so often submerged from view, especially now that there are fewer and fewer reporters on the ground.”
Wolfson said he divides classroom and project work by first discovering what the students are excited about, and what skills they have. He said students author their own work and make their own decisions about what they want to do, noting that this can be hard -- and a significant challenge is making sure students follow through with the agreements they make with the diverse community groups NJ Spark has partnered with. For example, he explained, if a student has made a commitment to show up to do an interview, and they don’t show, it can be a real problem. Wolfson also said a challenge was figuring out the best way for students to communicate with each other since they don’t use email. He said they all work on Slack now.
In 2018, his class and the broader NJ Spark project won an award for Local Partnerships for the “37 Voices,” project. Here NJ Spark partnered with community groups to profile 37 people to symbolize the 37% of N.J. households where people are having trouble meeting basic needs.
The second panel, titled Our Gifts (“Great Ideas for Teaching”), was moderated by Lemish, and participants included Professor Marya Doerfel, Part-Time Lecturer Nancy Kranich, Teaching Instructor Rachel Kremen, Assistant Professor Jeff Lane, Doctoral Student Vyshali Manivannan, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Journalism and Media Studies Steve Miller, Teaching Professor Lilia Pavlovsky, Assistant Professor Caitlin Petre, Associate Professor Rebecca Reynolds, and Assistant teaching Professor Joyce Valenza.
This panel was structured by Lemish as an academic discussion session, set up as a sort of academic “speed dating” exercise between the audience and panel members. The panel members were seated at tables, ready to discuss the innovative teaching they undertake in their classrooms with groups of faculty in attendance. Attendees moved from table to table in 10 minute intervals, so every attendee was able to have three or four “dates” with the panelists during the session.
Asked if this was a “SC&I original” or if Lemish has organized such a ”speed dating” event before, she said, “I have done it successfully before in my previous institution. It is always a bit risky, because it depends on the good will of participants and their willingness to play along. But it provides such a great way of engagement in small groups that it is worth the risk. Also, I felt that in a day devoted to innovative teaching – we have to be innovative as well – imagine spending a day about teaching in just lecturing in a big hall.... that would have been entirely counter-productive.”
The third panel MGFIT (“My Great Failures in Teaching”): included Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies Susan Keith as moderator, with participants Associate Professor Jack Bratich, Lecturer and Interim Director of the Information Technology and Informatics Program Mike Doyle, and Professor Jenny Mandelbaum. During this session, the panelists discussed how they have managed when sometimes a class didn’t go as planned.
“It was refreshing to hear senior and award winning faculty talk humorously about mistakes they made and how they recovered from them and improved their teaching, “ Lemish said.
"Faculty typically don’t have the chance to see one another teach so the incubator was a fantastic opportunity to share ideas and connect with each other as instructors. I was inspired by an overarching commitment to teaching through real-world problems and community engagement and service to address these problems.” Assistant Professor Jeff Lane
Following this panel, Fanteema Barnes-Watson, Community-Based Counselor with Rutgers Student Health Services presented “Identifying and Supporting Students in Distress.” She was introduced by Assistant Dean for Student Services Kevin Ewell.
Lemish explained that she included this section of the incubator because, “The issue of students’ mental health has been on many people’s mind for quite some time, as well as publications on higher education in the U.S., like the Chronicle of Higher Education. We felt that we need to provide our faculty and staff with some tools to understand the complexities and to be able to respond appropriately. We wanted to bring someone professional for this training – it is too serious and responsible an issue to deal with in a non-professional manner. Kevin Ewell reached out to CAPS and they connected him with Fanteema Barnes-Watson. We certainly can use a lot more in depth training about each of the issues she raised. Just dealing with suicide awareness could be an entire workshop on its own. So we are planning to pursue some follow up steps based on interest.”
About her coming to SC&I and presenting at the incubator, Barnes-Watson said, “A request for a CAPS Counseling Center presentation was submitted due to growing faculty concerns at the School of Communication and Information (SC&I) about the increasing amount of students reporting emotional distress in their classes.
“Students have been reporting increased anxiety, depression, and other emotional concerns. Faculty wanted information on how to best support students. In response, I facilitated a presentation at the SC&I Incubator program called “Identifying and Supporting Students in Distress.”
“The presentation focused on identifying warning signs of emotional issues, suicide awareness, and best practices for communicating concern and support to students. The presentation also highlighted important resources for students along with the proper ways to refer students to CAPS, a part of the Division of Student Affairs. In addition, I discussed the importance of another resource available for non-emergency situations. The “Do Something” button (www.dosomething.rutgers.edu) allows faculty/staff, students, and families to report concerns and alert the appropriate office about an issue.
“There were two goals of the presentation: 1) to help faculty become more aware of students that may need help and how to have those conversations with them, without faculty feeling pressured to be “mental health professionals” and 2) to bring awareness to staff about how to support suicide awareness across campus by joining the Community Approaches to Suicide Prevention (CASP) Steering Committee. As a result of the presentation, faculty became interested in joining the committee and walked away with strategies and resources to support students in distress.”
The last panel of the day titled: Students’ Technology in the Classroom, Debate and Discussion. “Resolution: Students access to technology should be restricted within the classroom?” was moderated by Professor and Chair of the Communication Department Craig Scott. The student debaters were Rajul Bothra and Mitchell Mullen.
Scott said, “Many of us struggle a bit about how to handle student use of personal technology in the classroom. The debate helped surface some familiar and more novel arguments on both sides of the issue, which gave audience members several things to consider about how to best manage this in their own teaching.”
Professor and Chair of the Library and Information Department Ross Todd presented concluding remarks as a wrap-up panel titled: Personal and School-Wide Takeaways.
Todd said, “As an attempt to pull together the threads of everything discussed today, the main points I observed are the common agreement on the importance of:
- Understanding the nature and contexts of our students, both inside and outside of the classroom
- Hearing students, listening to their voices, needs and goals, deeply and thoughtfully
- Documenting best practices, but sharing failures is important too, and that includes planning for contingencies, acknowledging success, and saying you are sorry as well
“All threads today come together to show that teaching is not about ‘me’ – it’s about a journey taken together with students: creating, solving problems, thinking, collaborating, the sense of being and working together. All of this struck me from the beginning of today’s event. There was also rich talk today about pedagogy, and I’ve noticed three interconnecting dynamics about pedagogy from today’s discussions. One is developing intellectual agency, deep knowledge and understanding; the second developing personal agency in critical and reflective ways, and the third is the importance of developing cultural agency: discussing the nature of thinking skills, scaffolding, the need to connect our classrooms to the outside world, and the importance of developing students for the social good.”
Following Todd’s closing remarks, everyone enjoyed a wonderful lunch. Then from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. “The Course Hack Charrette” was held, monitored by Stoerger. The Charrette was “an intense two-hour course hackathon where they worked together to develop creative solutions for faculty members’ course problems. This session enabled participants to generate ideas, discuss instructional design questions, and develop working strategies to take their course to the next level.”
Reflecting on the day, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice Mary D’Ambrosio said, “It was a highlight of the year! The incubator was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the creative approaches colleagues are taking in the classroom. I found it very energizing.”
Doctoral student Kate Prendella, who attended the event, said, “The SC&I Incubator emphasized that teaching and learning are processes. It was inspiring to hear the faculty of the School of Communication and Information speak so frankly about pedagogy, what it is like in the classroom, and what their own greatest failures have been. My take-away was that the best educators are open, honest, and aren't afraid to switch up the classroom.”
Looking toward the future at SC&I, Potter noted, “We are going through a process with architects to envision new pedagogic spaces, and we should all be thinking about how physical spaces support the pedagogy we want. I encourage you all to take part in this by thinking about what teaching spaces used to look like and what they might look like now.”
“I am hoping we can keep the momentum of interest in teaching excellence, that people will see it as an integrated part of their scholarship and not as a separate part of their academic life, and will continue to explore what Mark Aakhus, Sharon Stoerger and I in planning this day, called – the scholarships of teaching,” Lemish said. “We plan to continue with additional more focused initiatives to keep the interest going in innovation and thoughtfulness about our teaching.”