Letter from the Director: The Bringing Theory to Practice Project: Years of Focus on Faculty

Donald W. Harward, Project Director, Bringing Theory to Practice and President Emeritus, Bates College

What should be the role of faculty in identifying, exercising, and sustaining transformative changes needed to help students achieve an integrated and valued liberal education?

It is universally acknowledged that unless the faculty provide the leadership, the changes identified as fundamental to creating and strengthening such cultures for learning—the transforming changes that help students connect their own sense of purpose, civic development, and personal well-being to the full aim and practices of liberal education—will not occur or will not be sustained.

On January 20, 2010, we will bring together faculty and academic leaders from each of the fifty-three Leadership Coalition institutions.  This will be the first time that all of the institutions have representation “in the same room.”  The focus of the January gathering will be to discuss and plan how we might help campuses launch programs, resources, and other opportunities that give attention to the faculty and their leadership in bringing about the changes that strengthen campus cultures for learning. 

The one-day conference has two distinct but complementary sets of objectives: (1) to present and discuss a limited number of issues that are most relevant to the concerns of faculty; to present an example of illuminating and innovative action being taken that addresses one of the identified concerns; and to assure attendees that regardless of their location on any arc of change at their institution, they will “take away” some useful and transferable insights, and  (2) to gain from the attendees their own perspectives of what the key issues are; how the coalition could begin the work that would assist (reinforce, amplify, underscore, or facilitate)  them in addressing those issues on their campus; and how the Leadership Coalition could be most effective as a coalition.  With the tidal rise of interest and efforts lifting all our institutional vessels, we will use the conference to confirm the efforts of the coalition to focus on how 2010-2012 can be years of making and sustaining transformative change with the commitment, attention, and support of faculty.

You can imagine the range of topics that could be addressed at the January conference.  To avoid oversimplification and superficiality, the faculty conference is structured to be highly participatory and to limit the concentrated discussion to only three areas of concern.  In each, the basic question is, “What if the current paradigm, values, and practices shift from teaching to student learning?”  Topics of discussion will include:

  • examining what we know about the connection of learning to alternate pedagogies, “high-impact” practices, and interdisciplinarity in the curriculum and in research;
  • exploring alternatives and additions to the current reward structures, particularly examining innovative uses of peer review; and
  • discussing a faculty development issue that gets less attention because of its pervasiveness—namely, how to address the implicit and explicit pressures and norms established by professional disciplinary associations and their influence on graduate education and the socialization of faculty to disciplines.

Each of these is formidable and the conference’s willingness to open consideration of them flows from taking seriously the implications of transformative change.  But open consideration will only be useful if it leads to addressing the challenges, and the conditions that impede or facilitate moving from theory to practice.