Teaching (support) in higher ed matters

Before the semester break, a rather alarming piece of news was posted: the programs (and staff) at University of Saskatchewan Gwenna Moss Centre were flagged as candidates for being phased out in a recent review of all U of S programs.

The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness is the centre for teaching and learning at the U of S. It hosts various events, provides varied support for teaching and learning, including at the graduate student level, through individualized help and through courses and workshops, supports teaching awards, and houses some of the instructional designers at U of S. As an assistant instructional designer, I have to say that this is a sad day but somehow not unexpected.

All the levels of programs at Gwenna Moss were highlighted as candidates for being phased out, highest level of flagging for that (5/5). Really? So there is absolutely no need for support for teaching at a university?

I previously worked at the University of Regina Centre for Teaching and Learning (before job-hopping through terms to Flexible Learning) and it was pretty clear that it was under-utilized. Considering how many faculty I know work at the university, we saw a very tiny fraction of them come through our doors. Now, working as an assistant instructional designer, I am still finding that too many faculty have troubles seeing the value in staff who are trained in pedagogy and who are here to support instructors. (Many faculty and instructors are more likely to see the value in technical support – they want to know how to fix something or hope it can be done for them – but that is not the only role of instructional designers or those working in teaching and learning centres.)

I don’t get it. Admittedly, I happen to love teaching so that has always been important to me. I know that is not the case for all university faculty. I do, however, know that the university markets itself to students (whose tuition contributes to our operating budget) as being here for them to learn. That suggests to me that teaching should be important. This is an ongoing struggle in higher education, the place of teaching. This is especially true at “research institutions.” There are institutions that focus on teaching but most larger institutions have a focus on research, and if research and teaching are in competition, historically research has won out in prestige.

We do not tell our students that, though. We tell them that they are coming to learn and they are paying a hefty price to do so.

Faculty and instructors are hired as subject matter experts. They have spent a long time learning the material in their particular area. For most of them, that area is not teaching. Thus, having support for teaching just makes sense. They have experienced teaching (having been students themselves), but they may or may not have had any time to devote to learning about teaching. Just like any other field, there are advancements. New ideas and technologies come on the scene. Changes should happen. Except who is going to tell faculty about these changes? Who is going to do that research, share it, support them, make suggestions?

I truly hope that the Gwenna Moss Centre does not close and that the U of R Centre for Teaching and Learning is strengthened rather than fading away. This is my field because I am passionate about teaching. I think that it is an important part of a university and I enjoy talking about teaching with other people in higher education. I want to be able to help faculty and other instructors with teaching because I value their expertise but also want students and instructors to have a good experience. I know that many of the people I have worked with have appreciated the work I do. But clearly there are many who do not understand the value of such work, especially in a time of tight budgets.

How do we raise the profile of those of us who function as support staff for teaching? How do we find ways to let others know what we do, why we do it, and share our passion? One thing my students never doubted was that I was passionate about my topic. And the same is true now, even though the topic is different. So I hope that I find ways to share that passion. But I wonder how others have fought this battle, or come to a balance.

I worry about the future of higher education, a future that is likely to include a lot of change. I just hope that one of those changes is more respect for teaching and for those who work to support teaching. I love my job and I would love to help more people share their passions.

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