A Creation Story: The Albion College Center for Teaching and Learning

Jocelyn McWhirter

Stanley S. Kresge Professor and Chair, Religious Studies

Director, Center for Teaching and Learning at Albion College

Students studying in tiers, Albion College (Special Collections)
Students studying in tiers, Albion College (Special Collections)

In the beginning, there was a sea of library books on pedagogy in higher education. There were also a few brown-bag discussions. Then two junior faculty members said, “Let there be a Center for Teaching and Learning.” And behold, in the seventh year, there was a program, a budget, a director, and a suite of rooms.

How did it happen? As one of those two junior faculty members and the Center’s current director, I can tell that story. I won’t offer a step-by-step narrative, however. I don’t think that such a narrative would help anyone to learn from our experience, since the development of any program varies with its institutional setting. Instead, let me share what I’ve come to recognize as the nine essential elements that drove our project.

  1. Passion. Everyone involved had a high level of interest and commitment. We were excited to imagine and implement a teaching and learning center for Albion College.
  2. A name and a mission. I have to admit that the name “Center for Teaching and Learning” lacks panache. I also must confess that our original mission statement was so overblown that we eventually had to rewrite it. Still, our name and mission kept us focused and (once we had a budget) inspired some popular swag.
  3. A real and urgent need. In 2008, Albion College really needed a teaching and learning center. Although good teaching was required for tenure, few resources were allocated to pedagogical development. We teachers relied mostly on what little training we had received in graduate school plus the examples of our own teachers. It wasn’t enough. We weren’t adequately serving our faculty, our departments, and our students.
  4. A great team. When we said, “Let there be a Center for Teaching and Learning,” we said it in the form of a proposal for the college-wide strategic plan. Our proposal made the cut, and we were appointed co-chairs of a talented research team with faculty and staff from various departmental and administrative divisions. Such broad representation led to widespread recognition and buy-in across campus constituencies. We were ready to tackle our charge: “to explore and recommend options” for creating what might become “a signature program at Albion.”
  5. Strong leadership. Our talented team didn’t need much leadership, but we co-chairs did what we could to help them organize. What we lacked in experience we made up by earning respect. My co-chair was (and still is) wise and witty. People listened to him. Two years into the project, however, he left Albion College. Since then, the team has been happy enough to carry on with me at the helm.

About my own leadership style, all I can say is that it developed from a little training I received in my early twenties. Since then I’ve intentionally learned to cultivate relationships, run meetings, listen always, speak when necessary, and strategize. To the extent that my diligence has paid off with a more robust program of pedagogical development for my college, I’m grateful.

  1. A clear playing field, plus the ingenuity to work around obstacles. As an authorized research team, we were given a green light to dream big—so we did. We made plans for advising, assessment, and a journal. We headlined the new strategic plan. Meanwhile, the bottom fell out of the stock market. Our students’ parents were laid off from The Big Three. With a shrinking endowment and dwindling enrollment, it became clear that our Center for Teaching and Learning was already broke.

But we liked our vision. We thought that the College needed it more than ever, so we decided to pursue our top priorities on the cheap. We developed a website. We recruited inside experts to lead one-hour workshops. To fund more extensive programs on advising, course development, and microteaching, we applied for internal grants.

  1. Administrative support. Our center germinated at the grassroots, but it could not have grown without enthusiastic support from Academic Affairs. The provost attended committee meetings as able, contributing ideas and cheering us on. A string of associate provosts sat (and still sit) on our committee, leading workshops and promoting the program among faculty and administrators. We couldn’t do without insights, influence, and advocacy from Academic Affairs.
  2. Access to outside resources and partners. I could name several, but foremost among them are the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD) and the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA). Membership in POD has given us access to valuable training, tested strategies, and experienced faculty developers, especially those associated with the Small College Committee. After two national conferences and one Institute for New Faculty Developers, I’m hooked on POD.

I’m also hooked on the GLCA, particularly in its efforts to support pedagogical development. As one of the original 2012 Teagle Pedagogy Fellows, I now serve on the Steering Committee for the GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning. Albion’s involvement in this program enables sustained collaboration with colleagues at liberal arts schools in our region. Through gatherings in Ann Arbor and colloquies on our member campuses, we have formed partnerships that educate, encourage, and inspire. At our second Albion College campus colloquy, the visiting Teagle Fellows shared some strategies that ultimately gave us our budget, space, and staff. Truly, it is not good that we should be alone.

  1. Time and patience. In the seventh year, we saw all that we had made, and behold, it was very good. Best of all, our colleagues saw all that we had made, which inspired them to suggest and implement programs that we could co-sponsor. These include a bi-annual “Tech Tuesday,” a year of faculty anecdotes and musings posted on the course management system and known as “Teaching Reflections,” and an annual Symposium on Teaching and Student Learning. Judging by the level of interest in these and other programs, Albion College faculty and staff are talking about teaching more than ever before.

Now, in the ninth year, we publish a bi-weekly newsletter featuring faculty “Teaching Reflections.” We host regular lunchtime discussions, book coteries, an August course development workshop, and January microteaching. We still co-sponsor the Symposium on Teaching and Student Learning. A new campus-wide strategic plan opens up some potential for us to support team-teaching, community-based learning, and culturally-competent instruction. Our CTL strategic plan focuses on new faculty incorporation and an improved resources web page. We also anticipate continued collaboration with the GLCA Consortium for Teaching and Learning. Our constituents are primed to share articles, participate in research projects, and enter into consultations.

Here’s to year ten!