Unbounded Teaching: The Creative Course as a Lever for Senior Faculty Connection

“A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.”

—William Cronon

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer states simply, yet profoundly, that “good teachers . . . are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (2017, 11). Palmer’s moving arguments about teachers feeling restored by the moments they risk and the lives they encounter sparked our curiosity about how an imaginative course structure might inspire regenerative opportunities for senior faculty to (re)connect with students and their passion for teaching.

At North Central College, our Cardinal Conversations courses invite faculty to engage in creative ways with students outside the familiar classroom walls, maximizing our location in a thriving suburb just west of Chicago. The architect of this initiative, R. Devadoss Pandian, sought to capture his experiences as a young student in India, where he had spent many pleasurable hours learning in a relaxed setting on the broad verandas of his university. In a place where inner and outdoor space intersected, the reflective yet social atmosphere enriched intellectual relationships. Indeed, some of the most valuable educational experiences emerge from spontaneous conversations arising in a community of learners.

Persuaded by these insights, North Central committed to building a Cardinal Conversations course shell for pedagogical innovation. Since 2009, the college has offered more than 130 sections, mostly taught by senior faculty. Applications for new courses must demonstrate that the immersive learning will diversify our comprehensive liberal arts curriculum and appeal to a broad range of students. Everything we do begins with our students; that is our Cardinal Rule. We pride ourselves on inspired instruction by 151 full-time (108 tenure-track) faculty who love to teach and mentor students, with average class sizes of twenty and a student/faculty ratio of fourteen to one.

Our Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence uses evidence-informed best practices to support faculty at every stage of their careers. Its founding director, Jennifer Keys, a professor of sociology for twenty years, helps create optimal conditions so faculty can thrive. Faculty development efforts are often focused on junior faculty, but professors in their second, third, or even fourth decade of teaching also benefit from support and encouragement to take pedagogical risks. Keys is collaborating with Jennifer Jackson, an associate professor who has taught English for thirty-nine years, to gather stories that reveal how inventive “pop-up” courses can be a lever for senior faculty connection and continued growth.

Cardinal Conversations are open to the unpredictable possibilities inherent in experiential learning. Operating outside rigid course schedules facilitates more vibrant, in-depth exchanges, while removing conventional assessment with pass/no pass grading leads to less hierarchical and more pleasurable encounters with students. Faculty stretch within and beyond their disciplinary expertise to learn alongside students, and they report that seeing the world through students’ eyes is academically and personally stimulating. This flexible structure offers significant value to faculty and has great potential for other institutions.

Methods

Our qualitative study spotlights faculty experiences teaching Cardinal Conversations, including what inspires faculty to design creative courses and what they find rewarding about such unconventional teaching experiences. Despite some occasional logistical challenges, the courses are popular and deeply gratifying for faculty. Unbounded teaching opportunities have the potential for a powerful effect on teaching and can be especially liberating and transformative for senior faculty.

To collect data systematically, we arranged two interviews and held three focus groups with fifteen participants, mostly associate or full professors who had designed a Cardinal Conversations course. In lively one-hour exchanges, we discussed the facets faculty most enjoyed, whether the removal of traditional assessments led to stronger connections with students, and if interacting outside normal time constraints and in different locales helped (re)invigorate teachers’ passion. Participants enthusiastically bounced ideas off each other, reminding us how energizing collaborative reflection on teaching can be. Our institutional review board granted an exemption under Category 1 (Education Research), and participants gave permission to credit their designs.

Following full professional transcription, we used open coding procedures to develop a grounded theory. The exploratory nature of our inquiry allowed new research questions to emerge—most notably, how might creative courses transform faculty notions of pedagogy? As our research focus narrowed, we reached out to senior colleagues to deepen our understanding. From these experienced voices, key elements of innovative course design and execution emerged.

Key Elements of The Creative Course

We are intrigued by the creative design elements and engaged learning practices in Cardinal Conversations. Yet the development of a clear operational definition of “creative teaching” is challenging because creativity is inherently elusive. In a special issue of Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal examining creative and engaging teaching practices, Chrissi Nerantzi stresses the importance of creativity for professional and personal development, writing that “individuals who feel passionate about the power of creativity . . . immerse themselves and their students in imaginative learning activities, embrace uncertainty, risk-taking, and playfulness, recognizing the difference these can make” (2019, 261). Faculty can spark memorable connections with students and each other when they feel able to design out-of-the-box experiences and celebrate novel, technology-enhanced, and disruptive pedagogical approaches.

As we began to examine Cardinal Conversations and discern common features, the imaginative and broad range of themes in course titles first captured our attention, including Frozen Assets: A Multidisciplinary Exploration of Frozen Treats in Naperville, taught by Sheryl Finkle and Eric Doolittle, and Keeping Score: Exploring Great Film Music, taught by Jonathon Kirk. Creative flourishes in these titles indicate faculty interest and are a great promotional hook for students.

By design, Cardinal Conversations display unique approaches to experiential learning. Some do so by venturing into unfamiliar territory, such as Face to Face: Connecting Cultures . . . Crossing Borders, taught by Sheryl Finkle and Jack Shindler. Others do so by exhibiting “serious play” in the course design, making courses enjoyable but also goal-oriented, allowing “participants to view or experience familiar problems in a new way and [create] a safe space for experimenting with novel solutions” (Hinthorne and Schneider 2012). As one example, Jon Mueller and Daniel VanHorn set up a fantasy researcher league in which students choose five active researchers, track the researchers’ publications, and have fun earning prizes while learning more about the field. In another course, Contemporary Art in Chicago, Hale Ekinci “challenges preconceived notions of what art is.” Having non-majors in the course who bring “totally unexpected, different perspectives” makes Ekinci “look at the art differently” and shift from her customary explanations. She adds that it is also “satisfying” and “beneficial for my own artistic practice” to have a reason to visit free art installations and galleries.

The central activities in courses are purposeful. Students in Movement, Music, and Math: Modern Western Square Dancing learn one hundred dance calls and ten math modifiers that illuminate their “puzzle-solving, mathematical-analytic side.” David Schmitz describes his pedagogical process: “I had to figure out algorithms to make it work. And it’s good for students to see me struggle.” For the course’s “exam,” he brings one of the top callers in the country to orchestrate students’ final square dance.

Another common element among creative courses is curiosity, both professors’ ongoing pursuit of knowledge and their effort to captivate students’ imaginations. Mara Berkland asks intriguing questions in the Romantic Dyad: Dating and Interpersonal Communication course. Berkland speaks candidly about her experimental approach and desire to remain relevant:

I think much of the time senior faculty feel displaced a bit. What we do research-wise is no longer seen as cutting-edge, or, at least, it doesn’t appear to be so when compared with new PhDs. I feel it’s my job to hold the line on rigor and disciplinary fundamentals. Junior faculty, often similar to students’ age and life perspectives, seem to have a better handle on student interests and perspectives. Cardinal Conversations are a chance for senior faculty to take a risk because they’re short-term and casual in approach. What I found is that I do know what interests students, which encouraged me to learn more course-enhancing technology and gave me an excuse to dive into research I hadn’t had time to touch in a few (um, many) years, such as flirting and break-up communication.

Berkland’s insight suggests that creative pedagogies can prompt faculty self-discovery and growth. Distilling the key elements of the creative course makes it possible to expand opportunities on our campus and allows others to successfully replicate aspects at their institutions.

Connecting with Others

Creative courses can be organized in ways that make relationships central to learning. Faculty offered similar accounts of how they connected differently and more deeply with students, bonded with coteachers, and strengthened ties with community partners. Our data show that these social aspects enrich the professional lives of senior faculty. Patricia Bayona speaks of the “pleasure” of watching students “relaying their own experiences with code switching” in her Language Cocktails: Mixing Languages with Taste course. She notes how the open format afforded new pedagogical possibilities, allowing her to “let go of my control and connect with students, giving me hope that teaching could actually be fun.”

For others, relationships make these experiences memorable. In the Sankofa Experience: Student Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the Mississippi Delta Region, Will Barnett and Suzanne Chod get out of the classroom and travel with students to important sites from the civil rights movement. Barnett enjoys seeing students experience “personal journeys of understanding race in America and where they fit into the world.” Grappling with inequalities is justifiably “upsetting to [students], and takes some processing . . . in deep discussions that went on for days, . . . so it rocks their foundations a bit,” Barnett says. According to Chod, “Students would start crying as they stood on the balcony where Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. They were in deep conversations with one another, so I could just watch their experience unfold, and that doesn’t happen as much in the classroom.” Students get to “see a different side” of their teachers, Barnett said, including that he is fond of southern BBQ. Chod also sees students become interested in her personal story. “They felt more comfortable relating to me on a human level. . . . I took my guard down a little to help them have a transformative experience by showing I was having the same reactions,” she says.

Cardinal Conversations also foster interdisciplinary connections. Keys values the rich collaboration with her colleague, Stephen Maynard Caliendo, in their Orange Is the New Black: Sociopolitical Realities of Women’s Incarceration course. As fans of the show, Keys explains, “we’d been analyzing on-screen interactions from our own disciplinary perspectives and shared specialization in gender studies. We wanted to reveal the inner workings of the prison industrial complex, the ways it controls and regulates inmates’ daily lives.” Caliendo echoes, “The excitement for me was the constant intellectual exchange with my colleague. I would have enjoyed teaching the course alone but wouldn’t likely have seen some of the readings that ended up central to our discussions.” Meetings held in the library, a chapel, and the kitchen echoed key settings in the show. Students experienced first-hand how sharing food can build community, and the use of the federal prison menu prompted students to wrestle with privileges they enjoy from “living on the outside.” Students met with formerly incarcerated women and were given opportunities to engage in positive social change efforts.

Cardinal Conversations served as an outlet for early adopters of community- engaged learning. Now a general education requirement at the college, this high-impact practice offers faculty new ways to teach material and to contribute their expertise to pressing societal issues. In Building a City, forty first-year students traveled to New Orleans to work in community kitchen projects and rebuild homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A team of five faculty offered unique courses from their disciplinary perspectives, including Jennifer Jackson’s literary tour, Lou Corsino’s exploration of the textures of city life, and Karl Kelley’s examination of identity issues in doing “good work.” All experienced a renewed sense of purpose from hanging drywall and stocking pantries. They journaled about collective efforts to make real contributions. Jackson recalls standing in the Lower Ninth Ward where the levee had breached, hearing a geologist describe the rising water in a way that felt detached and academic. Later, a community organizer shared that “somebody’s grandma lived over there, and we found her up in this tree—the rest of the family made it out, but she died right here in this tree.” Students and faculty grasped the horror. This unscripted moment was “transformational” in revealing the inadequacy of any one disciplinary account of this tragic event. For Corsino, “working with others in a communal sort of way created bonds that I have not replicated easily outside of that. I carry those experiences forward.”

Back on campus, Nicole Rivera designed a Cardinal Conversations course on Research in Informal Learning Spaces. She explains that “we can talk about museum objects in a classroom, but when students experience authentic spaces where the work is done, it is powerful. Seeing behind the curtain is exciting. It’s also a thrill to introduce students to places important to me. I foster professional connections to facilitate the class and continue to build those relationships.” These illustrations show how Cardinal Conversations deepen faculty connections with students and colleagues, expand their involvement with civic institutions, and strengthen institutional ties with community partners.

(Re)connecting with Our Passion for Teaching

Most faculty recall how invested they were in building new courses when they first became professors. Over time, many experience moments of disconnect; teaching can stagnate as earlier passion gives way to isolation. We agree with Michael Zeig and Roger Baldwin (2013) that the graying professoriate should not be discounted or ignored. Certainly, “many senior faculty desire more support and encouragement from administrators and peers to help them remain vital, productive, and engaged” (Trower 2011, 11). Unbounded pedagogy can be a powerful way to (re)connect senior faculty with their passion for teaching.

We asked our participants, “What sparked your interest in teaching this course,” and “In what ways was the experience of the course intellectually and personally stimulating for you?” A pattern emerged. Teachers clearly want to tap into a passion that a brief, intense course can provide. Kirk speaks about the joy of conveying his love of music: “Well, I loved it. Yeah, I’d do it again. I like the fast-paced model because of that interest.” Mary Beth Ressler wanted to express her respect for rural life, conservation, and sustainability by taking students to the family farm where she grew up. Her title speaks to the stereotype she wanted to debunk: Not Hicks! Introduction to Agribusiness.

In Flash Playwriting: Writing and Performing the 10-Minute Play, Zachary Jack finds joy in giving students the experience that writers often have at a weeklong conference or retreat where they are freed from the normal time constraints.

We’d meet for a few hours, which was great; they had time to craft creative artifacts together. That gave us a chance to establish a bond quickly. Writing, workshopping, and performing pieces all in one day, in one space, added more momentum, too, without interruptions as in a regular class. That evening, in a theatre-like setting with all new material written that week, they began performing as faculty and staff wandered in to listen. Then we went to the city to watch independent theatre. It was so nice. I’m drawn to the innovation the format offers, the way you can think and dream and feel less confined by classroom boundaries. [The short burst of intensive interaction] gives you a chance to connect with students and they with one another.

Cardinal Conversations also deepen passion by bringing faculty into closer, less hierarchical encounters with students. As Leila Azarbad explains, “I think it makes it much more enjoyable when you don’t have to assess. I mean, because you still get that connection with the students, which for me is the draw. . . . It just takes the pressure out of the learning environment, so it’s almost like you are teaching but you’re not calling it that, so the students come in more open.” Karl Kelley, professor of psychology, echoes that sentiment: “We invite students to join us on a journey where we share some experiences and impart some wisdom. The voluntary participation by both faculty and students fundamentally changes the social dynamic. Faculty are sharing an interest beyond their formal expertise, leveling the playing field.” Kelley concludes, “Senior faculty want to engage students and be engaged themselves.”

Recommendations

North Central College President Troy Hammond built the concept of “developing a culture of creativity and risk-taking among faculty and staff for the purpose of improving student learning” into the college’s strategic plan. Should more senior faculty delay retirement, colleges and universities will need to provide support for their continued engagement and vitality. Both from an institutional and scholarly perspective, we have asked how we can leverage opportunities for pedagogical innovation to enrich the professional lives of senior faculty who have so much to offer in the later stages of their careers. Creative design structures such as those in Cardinal Conversations facilitate experiential learning outside traditional classroom spaces and unsettle traditional teaching practices. Students and the institution stand to benefit—perhaps faculty even more so. As our provost, Abiódún “G-P” Gòkè-Pariolá, reflects, “Even as higher education is pressed on all sides to serve some interests and not others, our deepest commitment is to engage and support the scholarly and social-emotional lives of all in our diverse community of learners. Thoughtful, carefully resourced programming like our Cardinal Conversation courses and a host of other exciting initiatives at our college give evidence we are fulfilling our mission.” We hope the voices of our senior faculty embolden longstanding interests to connect over a niche topic and spark new ideas for teaching in more liberated ways.

 

References

Cronon, William. 1998. “‘Only Connect . . .’: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” American Scholar 67 (4): 73–80.

Hinthorne, Lauren Leigh, and Katy Schneider. 2012. “Playing with Purpose: Using Serious Play to Enhance Participatory Development Communication.” International Journal of Communication 6: 24.

Nerantzi, Chrissi. 2019. “Uncovering and Discovering Creative Practices that Foster Student and Staff Engagement.” Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal 2 (3): 261–264.

Palmer, Parker J. 2017. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Trower, Cathy A. 2011. Senior Faculty Vitality. New York: TIAA-CREF Institute. https://www.tiaainstitute.org/sites/default/files/presentations/2017-02/ahe_seniorfaculty0611.pdf.

Zeig, Michael J., and Roger G. Baldwin. 2013. “Keeping the Fire Burning: Strategies for Senior Faculty.” To Improve the Academy 32 (1): 73–88.

 


Jennifer Jackson, Associate Professor of English; and Jennifer Keys, Assistant Provost for Teaching and Learning, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence,
and Professor of Sociology—both of North Central College

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