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Teaching Thursday: Building Communities

Cross-posted to Teaching Thursday

As I reflected on the series of posts grouped loosely around the idea of the “new” future of teaching, I was struck by their common focus on defining, building, or structuring community at the University.  Bret Weber and my post on the 24/7 professor, Cindy Prescott’s response on boundaries and manner, and Dean Benoit’s post on mentorship all reflect the desire to evaluate and forge productive social relationships at the modern university. Several of the responses share a similar focus: particularly Anne Kelsch’s response to Dean Benoit’s post, but also a response offered by Mark El-Dweek show that the call for an increased focus on mentorship is neither limited to the faculty-graduate student relationship nor without challenges.  Other graduate student responses to Prescott’s post on boundaries and manners (which itself originated as a response to our post on the 24/7 professor) likewise showed that both social and professional boundaries required constant negotiation and a keen eye for context.  When I proposed the topic for the first series of posts this year, I had half expected a gaggle of posts on new teaching lingo or technological innovations (and, of course, such posts are still welcome).  It is interesting to see that most of the concerns that contributing faculty and administration have are with very basic issues of social and community organization on campus.

My impression is that a concern for community is a longstanding one both at American universities in general and at the University of North Dakota specifically.  A quick perusal of L. Geiger’s University of the Northern Plains or any subsequent works on the University’s history shows that throughout its history the University of North Dakota has represented a kaleidoscopic amalgam of different groups ranging from early student organization like the Adelphi Literary Society to factions of faculty like the influential band of “Young Turks” who exerted such a key influence on University affairs throughout the 1960s.  In many ways, the history of the University was the history of these groups. The sense of community achieved by these informal or formal groups represented a way that students and faculty warded off the feeling of alienation and dislocation when they moved from tight-knit and sometimes distant communities to the challenging climate and often transient, artificial culture that characterized university life in North Dakota.  (The inability of the University to retain faculty throughout its history was legendary to the point that some senior faculty around mid-century would quip that certain young scholars were “only camping” during their short stays on campus.)  So, the challenges of alienation, dislocation, and fractured communities are not new in American academia (nor unique to our campus), but perhaps their effects are particular heightened at this time and at our university which represents the best elements of democratized higher-education while at the same time embraces its increasingly globalized character and confronts dynamic changes in many academic professions.

Efforts by the Office of Instructional Development to foster community among faculty members through the Alice Clark New Faculty program in recent years complemented the work by Greek and other fraternal organizations on campus to make the trip to the University in Grand Forks less socially disruptive.  There is still work to do, it would seem, to structure the kind of complex communities that can function across an increasingly diverse body of students and faculty members in a time when new social challenges, opportunities, and tools make traditional communal bonds increasingly tenuous and, in some cases, obsolete. The need to establish the kind of common expectations that undergird social order and facilitate productive communication remains a central concern for good teaching, while at the same time these concerns extend well-beyond the the four walls (or Blackboard webpage) of the classroom.  These posts have shown that teaching at the University involves as much responding to the changing expectations of the professional, student, and administrative communities that form the foundation for the University as influencing these communities by changing student, faculty, and administrative expectations.

Categories: Teaching
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