To strengthen our capacities for interdisciplinary work at the UW Bothell campus, 33 faculty and academic staff joined teaching and research circles during the 2002-03 academic year. Supported by small stipends for materials or travel from the Chancellor’s office, participants agreed to meet with their circle four times a quarter for an hour and a half. The financial support acknowledged the significance of this collaborative work for the campus.
As a flexible model for similar initiatives elsewhere in the UW system, we offer the following brief descriptions of the teaching and research circles and how they work. First, though, we want to note what we perceive to be their general strengths.
They grow organically out of our daily work as members of the University community by encouraging sustained opportunities for us to speak across contexts in ways that revitalize our thinking, writing and teaching.
They provide seed money for pedagogical and research innovation that may or may not “succeed,” thus funding the open-ended experimentation and risk-taking that we find critical to interdisciplinary and cross-programmatic scholarship.
They provide opportunities for the integration of new and existing faculty and academic staff into an ongoing conversation about the mission of the campus.
Here is how they work.
Teaching circles are groups of three or four faculty and academic staff that meet regularly during the quarter to discuss their teaching. Individual groups generally choose one or more themes for a quarter. They then discuss those themes in relation to the various classes that the participants are teaching or supporting that quarter.
This conversation might dwell on a variety of topics, ranging from the creation and implementation of a new assignment to a new way of engaging students through Blackboard or Catalyst. The goal is to share otherwise isolated teaching experiences with colleagues, learn more about what they are doing in their classrooms, and perhaps try out something new. (Participating in teaching circles can also provide evidence of peer review of teaching for merit, promotion, tenure, and reappointment.)
During this last year, one circle devoted its time to the challenges of teaching a required gateway course on “interdisciplinary inquiry” in the largest program on campus. As a result of this group’s sharing of syllabi and assignments, the members revised an internal description of the course’s goals and wrote new policies intended to ensure that such a discussion will remain active from year to year.
Another circle devoted its time to the use of technology in the classroom, and that group’s work resulted in a successful grant proposal that will support a number of UWB faculty in their teaching with technology next fall. Yet another group is currently working on a joint research article on the use of visual images in their classrooms.
A research circle is a group of three or four faculty and academic staff members who are writing professionally, usually research papers, conference presentations, or grants. This year, each member brought three pages of new writing to read to colleagues who give “reader-response feedback.”
Taken from Peter Elbow’s work on teacher-less writing classes, this procedure is designed to help accentuate faculty members’ writing strengths, to encourage them to write regularly, to provide them with helpful feedback, and to tune their ears to the nuances of translation across disciplinary and programmatic boundaries. The circles also serve the simple function of publicizing the “live” research agendas and interests of the participants.
This year’s research circle members reported that they completed multiple projects in a more timely fashion than they had before (without the support of a writing group). They found that their submitted papers were more polished because of their colleagues’ presence as listeners who made useful comments or asked good questions.
They also enjoyed getting to learn about their colleagues’ intellectual interests. One writing group is collaborating on a joint interdisciplinary research project, and almost all groups reported finding similarities in their work even though their fields were quite diverse. The discovery of these similarities deepened their thinking about their research project.
We will continue and expand our circles next year and hope to hear about the results of similar interdisciplinary initiatives.