Publication Date

April 1, 1996

Editor's Note: In January 1994the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE) launched a national project entitled "From Idea to Prototype: The Peer Review of Teaching" to encourage university faculty members to engage in peer review as a means to develop techniques and skills conducive to effective teaching. Because the AAHE recognized that individual universities and disciplines might take different approaches to peer review, it selected a diverse mix of universities and disciplines to participate in the project. The participating disciplines represented the fields of chemistry, mathematics, English, history, music, business, engineering, and nursing. Twelve universities selected pilot departments from among these fields; each department designated "teams" of two faculty members who worked with the other camp’s teams in the same field. The history department at the University of Georgia was one of the pilot departments chosen. In the following article Ganschow and Inscoe report on how the AAHE project has helped to improve the quality of history) teaching on their campus. (See the March 1996 issue of Perspectives for an account by Donna Gabaccia about how the AAHE project affected history teaching at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.)

The history department at the University of Georgia has been talking a great deal about teaching over the last year and a half. In the halls, at lunch and over beers, with graduate students, and with job candidates, we have been discussing what we do in our classrooms and how we do it far more regularly than was once the case.

A major impetus for these discussions has been our involvement in the AAHE"s Peer Review of Teaching Project. As one of twelve research universities engaged in the project, about two-thirds of which include history departments, we have broadened our concept of what the term "peer review" entails and have come to recognize that it involves much more than simply observing colleagues' classrooms and offering judgments. Borrowing the initial idea from the psychology department at the University of Nebraska and believing that peer collaboration and trust necessarily precede peer review, we persuaded our history colleagues to engage in what we've come to call "teaching circles."

The premise behind these circles is simply to provide a regular forum for colleagues to discuss in small groups issues and concerns related to what we do in the classroom. Before we created the circles, matters concerned with teaching were too often relegated to casual conversations or the privacy of our individual offices. By opening the lines of communication among ourselves and engaging in serious dialogues about teaching history, we hoped to share our ideas and common concerns and also to build a greater respect for the scholarship of teaching. We in no way intended to denigrate the traditional role of the historian as researcher-writer, but we wanted to enhance the role of the researcher-teacher as a vital component of what we do as historians. Over more than a year of teaching-circle discussions, we have come to know each other in ways we did not before, both in terms of how successfully or not we teach history and how successfully or not students learn our favorite subject.

We began this great experiment by inviting our colleagues to attend one of two initial sessions (meeting at different times and places on the same day). We were much heartened by the response, with nearly two-thirds of our department of 40-plus faculty members attending one of those initial circles. Through lively discussions in each, we came up with a list of topics of mutual concern around which to center future circles, and together devised a plan that we carried out throughout the last school year and are continuing into this year.

Two or three times during each of our ten week quarters, we announced a topic and offered two different same-day time options for each circle. One circle was usually a lunch gathering, which took place at a large table reserved at our faculty club or as a brown-bag affair in a variety of other locations; the other was a mid-or late-afternoon session, held in our faculty lounge, a comfortable classroom, or on occasion, at a nearby pub. Attendance has averaged 10 to 15 per circle.

Over the course of the past year and a half, we have grappled with a wide variety of topics. Some dealt with very specific and immediate concerns. In the past three or four years, we have undergone a major and, for many, rather traumatic shift from teaching all of our survey courses in small classes (25 to 35 students) to teaching them in large classes (125 to 400 students). Our success in adapting everything from our syllabi to our teaching styles to our use of teaching assistants (TAs) has been mixed. These matters provided all sorts of fodder for our first few circles, which in tum proved apt and very lively forums for discussing these issues, exchanging ideas, and working through some of the new challenges we faced.

Later circles focused on approaches to other types of courses that many of us teach, but about which we have decidedly different concepts and expectations, such as honors courses and junior and senior seminars for majors. We focused a set of circles around how we bring our own research into our classrooms, with some lively debate over the advantages and disadvantages of assigning one's own textbook or monograph to a class. A circle devoted to writing assignments in history courses led to much sharing of syllabi and much note taking, as we came to realize the range of creative approaches our colleagues were taking to hone writing, research, and critical-thinking skills among our undergraduates.

In a set of circles focusing on race and gender in the classroom, we confronted the growing diversity of the student body on our campus, and how we deal with that diversity in our classes-drawing males into women's history courses, African Americans into southern history courses, and convincing all students of the value and relevance of African, Asian, and Latin American courses. Discussions in those sessions generated such enthusiasm among the participants that several colleagues who hadn't been able to attend asked if we might stage an encore, which we did with a new cast of characters who took the discussion in very different but equally enlightening directions. The list goes on, with future circles now planned on team teaching, on using film to teach history, on multicultural curricula, and on creating teaching portfolios to document what we do in particular courses.

This year we have experimented with circles designed to serve particular constituencies. One toward the end of the first quarter this year centered only on new faculty—their problems, concerns, and confusions. Perhaps the most exciting new development has been that our graduate students have adapted the concept of teaching circles for their own purposes this year. Two of our students participating in a campuswide, year-long TA mentoring program have taken advantage of that opportunity, along with our department's involvement in the "peer review" project, to initiate their own monthly circles focusing on the variety of challenges and problems inherent in the TA experience.

One of the unanticipated benefits of our teaching circles has been the real boost they have given to collegiality within our department. The circles have attracted a wide cross section of the faculty, from our most senior scholars to temporary instructors and advanced graduate students. By cutting across age, experience, and fields of expertise, these forums have served to engage some colleagues who have not been otherwise engaged. It has been gratifying to see junior faculty and even graduate students offering some of the best ideas and most thoughtful insights in circle exchanges, and by the same token, to see how committed many senior members of !he department are to good teaching and how receptive to new ideas many remain in their approaches to it.

As we have reflected on our experience over the past year and a half, one thing has become very clear to both of us: our teaching of history engages all of us more regularly and often more profoundly than our writing of history. Our specialized areas of research tend to draw boundaries that make it difficult for those specializing in the American South to engage those involved in East Asian or European history. But all of us meet on the same playing field of teaching; all of us cross at the same intersection of classroom learning; and all of us have the same concern for communicating effectively and interestingly to the many students under our care every academic year. As a result of our teaching circles, far more of us have come to acknowledge and appreciate our roles and our responsibilities as teachers, and to treat them with more respect, more concern, and more enthusiasm than perhaps we once did.

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