- Guest Editor's IntroductionTeaching to the Choir
As one of twenty-five faculty members identified as teachers of excellence, I was invited to lunch a year ago by the new president of our university. Being mindful of the critique of excellence made by Readings (1996) and others, I wanted to explain that I was not a teacher of excellence, but a teacher of writing and writing teachers. There was no chance to do so, and I was not going to turn down a free lunch because of momentary discomfort with a term I am sure was meant as a compliment, so I just accepted it and sat down. After we had been overfed, the president spoke briefly of his own love of teaching and the debt he owed to the teachers he had encountered along the way to becoming a surgeon. He then invited us to share our own stories of teaching.
Most of my colleagues immediately recognized the occasion as epideictic, calling for speeches celebrating the deep pleasures of engaging with inquisitive students, recalling the moments when former students dropped by to share their successes or mourn their losses, and confirming our communal commitment to the classroom as the site of our greatest achievements. A few did not stand and testify but engaged instead in table talk. Some of the conversations were a bit cautious and turned on questions of the president's motives in inviting us. By what criteria had we been selected? What were we going to be asked to do in repayment for this celebratory lunch? (Everyone there had either read Robert Heinlein or knew him by the famous aphorism, "There is no such thing as a free lunch").1 Other conversations took on a more skeptical tone. What was the point of celebrating teaching? If the university [End Page 405] really valued teaching, the lecturers occupying more and more offices in our departments of English, history, and foreign languages, people who teach four or five classes a semester, would not be drawing salaries among the lowest in the university.
The luncheon, it turned out, had a more benign and potentially more redeeming purpose. The president wanted to know what we thought should be done to enhance the teaching of undergraduates. Then he wanted to know, if he invited us back, if we, in turn, would invite another faculty member we thought was a teacher of excellence to come with us. After that, we would be asked to drop out, and those folks we invited would be responsible for bringing in another teacher, and so on. The aim was to activate a succession of people committed to undergraduate education, eventually cascading into a pool of faculty whose highest priority is the pursuit of excellence in teaching.
I recall this story because it crystallizes for me some of the best and some of the most ineffective approaches to the professional development of teaching, issues that serve as the focus of the essays collected here. The lunch was invitational, rather than imposed —a great practice —but since those attending the first two meetings were never invited back, they failed to create a sustainable community. That failure rendered a great start ultimately ineffective. This volume is, in many ways, an attempt to make future efforts more effective.
I have told this opening story in the first-person singular, but this special issue is the result of a collaborative effort among the three of us who edited it and all of those who contributed. A number of us met at a conference in the summer of 2006 and presented papers on various facets of the professional development of teachers. The conversations generated by those presentations continued well past the appointed break time, and we agreed that the subject of professional development in the humanities needed greater scholarly attention than it had garnered.
One impetus for the project came from our own experiences of providing professional development activities for our colleagues, newly hired faculty, and teaching assistants. We brought with us a broad range of experience. Most of us have taught both English literature and composition, and some of us have administrative positions at our universities —Deborah...