One of the treasured aspects of Georgetown is the strength of its faculty. Indeed, while students come and go and administrators come and go, faculty form the more permanent heart of any university. The scholarly lives of our faculty are key drivers to the quality of the education they deliver.
There is increasing evidence that the impact of higher education on a young person’s life is a function of how deep an exposure they have had to faculty who are actively expanding knowledge in their field. It is these exposures that teach a student how devotion to inquiry into a field yields payoffs, both in terms of human understanding of the world and in the pleasure of new discovery.
Interactions with faculty teach students the life of the mind – how constant curiosity fuels exploration of the unknown, how the academic culture thrives on the confrontation of alternative explanations of phenomena, and how shared debate among those seeking the truth can hone skills applicable to any life of meaning. A good question to ask ourselves is how we are facilitating the exposure of students to faculty throughout their time here.
It is common that academic units offer different types of classes. There are introductory and gateway classes, designed to introduce a field to students with no prior experience in the field. There are subfield courses that follow these gateway courses, permitting the student to gain specialized expertise. Finally, there are advanced seminars that tackle topic areas, often based on cutting-edge developments in the fields. It is commonplace that the sizes of classes successively decline over these three types.
The circulation of faculty across these types of courses is a issue each unit must tackle. Who should teach the introductory courses? Who should teach the small advance seminars? That really translates into – how can we best expose students to the diverse expertise within the faculty of the unit?
In my observation of different units, I’ve come to the conclusion that high performing ones tend to develop a culture that shares across faculty the responsibility for all three types of courses. Each faculty member does a rotation of teaching in the introductory courses, each faculty member teaches intermediate course topics, and each teaches an advanced seminar. For units that offer both undergraduate and graduate classes, all faculty do a mix of teaching in the two types. The rotation schemes work best, it seems, when multi-year schedules of teaching assignments are laid out, offering visual evidence of a “fair” allocation across faculty.
A side benefit of this rotation is that innovation in the introductory courses appears to become more likely. There seems to be a tendency to discuss the design of such courses more openly, since all the faculty in the unit share the responsibility for delivering them. This permits the introductory courses to evolve as the field evolves. Further, new as well as senior faculty can teach advanced seminars in their subfield expertise presenting the latest developments in the field. In units with undergraduate and graduate student classes, there seems to be more discussion about how to integrate the experiences of the two groups.
In a real way, such faculty cultures treat the teaching obligations as a shared duty of the faculty citizens of the unit. These cultures treat the delivery of the curriculum as a group exercise, not the sole responsibility of whatever faculty member is the current chair or coordinator. The culture clearly requires multi-year planning of rotation over the curriculum, but even that allows faculty to have greater security over their own schedules.
The benefit to students is that they experience in the different courses that rich diversity of perspectives within a single field. Students can be introduced to a field and exposed to senior scholars simultaneously. Students are exposed to different potential advisors and mentors as they progress through the curriculum. In short, they can get a sense of what a community of scholars can mean to a young mind interested in learning a field.