CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Supporting Innovation: Reflections on the Teaching Grant Group

By Brien Ashdown, Álvaro Llosa Sanz, Lisa Patti, Leah Shafer, and Ingrid Keenan

What do Spanish films, suitcases and digital textbooks have in common? All were the subject of innovative teaching projects supported by CTL’s Faculty Teaching Grants in Fall 2013. Assistant Professors of Media and Society Leah Shafer and Lisa Patti carried out research for the production of a born-digital textbook for MDSC 100; Assistant Professors of Spanish and Hispanic Studies Fernando Rodríguez Mansilla and Álvaro Llosa Sanz collaborated on a project where students in a second-year language course developed content for a Spanish-language film blog; and Assistant Professor of Psychology Brien Ashdown took his students to the Ithaca Library to view the exhibit of suitcases left by patients at the Willard State Hospital.

Over the course of the semester the group met every three weeks and developed a valuable network for trying out new ideas. I was interested in learning more about this aspect of support and collaboration, so last month we all continued the conversation—by email this time since Fernando and Brien are in Ecuador leading the HWS study abroad program there.

Brien, you changed direction with your project early on: what role did the grant group have in helping you think this through?


For me, the group was the essential—and probably the most beneficial—aspect of the grant. My project changed because of conversations with the group, which led to the realization that I could meet the goals of my project in a better and more efficient way. Without the group, this wouldn't have happened. Not only did the group provide feedback, but it was a safe place where I felt supported enough to switch midstream. I wonder if I would have felt confident to make that kind of a drastic change if I weren't collaborating with the group. I doubt it.


Brien’s change of direction from the very beginning was amazing and the best opportunity to learn how to adapt and solve issues when something better could be done to reach your goals. The input and ideas that those issues generated in a group conversation were the key to understanding how a project can be developed and enriched by collaborating on a regular basis.


I have had opportunities to participate in two recent grant groups, and on both occasions the ideas generated by our group meetings had a much more dramatic impact on my courses than the funds associated with the grant. It would be ideal if similar groups formed around shared pedagogical interests or issues apart from the grant program.


Though we all spend our days (and nights!) crafting classroom activities, prepping for class, interacting with students, and teaching, there are few forums on campus for engaging with others about these practices. The grant group provides an opportunity for the exchange of ideas, mutual support, and inspirational project building.

Can you give an example of how participation in the grant group got you thinking differently about your teaching?


It got me thinking about all of the different ways to engage students. It greatly increased my belief that going outside of the classroom—whether that is in a physical space outside class or a digital space outside of class—is extremely important for students' learning.


It was clear from Brien's experience that collaboration across disciplines helped the students in his course to reflect on their learning by encountering similar work being done in other courses. The student buy-in to Álvaro and Fernando's blog project, as well as the high quality posts that they were able to generate, was impressive. These outcomes encouraged me to start seeking collaborators outside my field, and to consider including more public presentations of student work as part of writing projects.

Can you give an example of how participation in the grant group got you thinking differently about evaluation and assessment?


What I discovered is that there are many ways to obtain it. In the humanities we are used to traditional [evaluation], using tests and papers, but other kinds of responses (such as small surveys, or personal answers using other media) about the experience of the student can work even more effectively if you have the right question and leave a comfortable and creative space to answer it.


Like Álvaro said, it broadened my horizons. For example, because I had so many students to manage this semester with this project, I was forced to rely on peer-assessment for some of the work. And behold: it worked wonderfully!


Thinking about assessment may be the most enduring effect of participating in the grant group. Every idea that you share is met with the questions: How will that impact student learning? How will you assess the impact on student learning? While those questions are implicit in all of our teaching decisions, the grant group makes them explicit and urgent.

Two of these are joint projects (and Brien, you also collaborated with Stephen Cope and Mary Kelly). I am curious about the doubly collaborative nature of your group: you collaborated with your partner, and also with the group. Is this different from how you usually work in your own scholarship?


My field is collaborative – it's uncommon for someone to produce scholarship alone. However, we aren't nearly as collaborative in our teaching. But it is something that I enjoy. I hope that as HWS undergoes the current curriculum review that our history of interdisciplinarity in teaching is revived. One of my favorite aspects of CTL is the opportunity it provides to have intellectually stimulating conversations about teaching with people from different fields.


It has been my great luck to be mentored by senior colleagues who embrace collaborative teaching models for ideological and pedagogical reasons. The decentered, consensus-built, collaboratively designed classroom models for students a mode of knowledge acquisition that celebrates diversity, encourages dialogue, and fosters shared engagement. The cumulative collaborative project of being a member of the CTL grant group is incredibly productive, and models for us a progressive way to work across disciplines.

Any final thoughts?


I really hope this article will interest more faculty to get involved with CTL's offerings – especially conversations about pedagogy and learning!


I want to thank all of the participants in the group, as well as our fearless leader Susan! It was an incredibly productive semester.

Thanks to all the grant recipients for their participation in the group and in this interview. More information about Brien’s project can be found here, and you can check out Álvaro and Fernando’s blog here.

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.