Preparing for Fall 2020: Reimagining Higher Education

I am currently in a summer book study with fellow faculty discussing Teaching and Christian Imagination by David Smith and Susan M. Felch. Through my personal reading as well as group discussions, I’ve realized we need a significant reimagining in the way faculty and instructional designers view teaching and curriculum design in higher education.

Instead of providing a cookie-cutter process of how to teach and design curriculum, Smith and Felch invite readers to reimagine higher education through three metaphors: a pilgrimage, a garden, and a cathedral. In the wake of the many changes and uncertainties of COVID-19, I want to invite you to reimagine higher education through sharing some of the things I am learning from these metaphors and encourage you to begin taking steps toward making your reimagining a reality.

Pilgrimage

The first metaphor Smith and Felch explore is pilgrimage. While they discuss various aspects of pilgrimage in light of teaching and curriculum design, the aspects of hospitality and breaking bread stand out to me. 

In their discussion on hospitality, Smith and Felch remind readers that a pilgrimage is about a journey—travelers are always moving toward their final destination, even if they stop at different points along the way. So not only should the travelers feel welcome at the different places they visit on their journey, they should also feel well equipped for the remainder of their journey once they depart from those places. In terms of students’ pilgrimage during their time in higher education, Smith and Felch observe: “The entire journey is not to be completed here and now—it stretches out before the beginning of a course and long after its final week. The goal of such hospitality is to enable the student to continue his or her journey…” (p.70). 

While learning outcomes and learning objectives are important and drive the curriculum for a course, we need to remind ourselves that students will not master a particular subject or discipline in an eight week online course, in a 15 week semester long course, or even in an entire degree or credentialing program. In essence, faculty and instructional designers are laying the groundwork and giving students a taste, maybe even a broad overview, of a particular subject. The real understanding comes when students begin to apply and build on the lessons learned out in the world, after the course and eventually the program ends.  

Another component of pilgrimage and hospitality is breaking bread. Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux observed that “Teaching itself is breaking bread” (as cited in Smith and Felch, 2016, p. 72). Smith and Felch concur, reminding readers that “Offering plates of grain or throwing whole loaves at learners would be a poor act of welcome, as would casting educational content at learners without breaking it down pedagogically so that it becomes fitted to those who are to learn it”” (p. 73). If you’ve read our team’s blog posts over the past few years, you’ll know that we are strong proponents of accessibility and universal design. Not only is it important for the learning environment, but also the curriculum itself, to be accessible. For example, in the online speech class I teach, we cover a different type of speech weekly. With the focus on one type of speech each week, the world of public speaking is more accessible and universal to my students, because they can focus on and gain experience in one type of speech at a time and understand why each type is significant. 

As you think about your teaching and curriculum design in terms of hospitality and breaking break, please reflect on these questions: 

  • Is my learning environment a welcoming place to be? 
  • Am I equipping students to continue on their journey?
  • Are my learning environment and curriculum accessible to and universally designed for all students?

Garden 

As we approach the fall semester, we need to keep in mind that the events of this spring and summer may have left many students, faculty, and instructional designers feeling as if they are already running on empty, like cracked and dried desert cisterns. Smith and Felch note that in Biblical times, “Cisterns were important sources of life and health. A cracked cistern meant hardship (Jeremiah 2:13, NIV), and visions of joyous abundance promised a day when ‘each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern’ (2 Kings 18:31, NIV)” (p. 95). As we think about teaching, learning, and adapting curricula to meet the needs of both students and faculty, whether face-to-face, remote, online, or a combination of all three, we must step into our role as “co-regents” in the gardens of our courses. The richness, joy, and fruits of learning are for students, faculty, and instructional designers “to enjoy, and our hands are to work to bring it to full flower. We are not only trees; we are also called to be gardeners, to work at making things flourish in dry places” (p. 97).     

As you think about your teaching and curriculum design in terms of a garden, please reflect on these questions:

  • In what ways can we bring life and health back into our broken and dried cisterns?
  • How can I be a co-regent and design my curriculum to help students work toward their goals, but also help them grow and reap the richness, joy, and fruits of learning?

Cathedral

When looking at teaching and instructional design through the metaphor of a cathedral, Smith and Felch observe that: 

The school, like the cathedral, is a place where liturgy is enacted, a place of iterative, deeply formative journeys that shape us and mold our imagination…We are invited to see schooling in terms of the movements and symbols and daily ways of being together that add up to a particular circuit around which we travel together daily, until its rhythms and contours and peculiar sights become inscribed in our gait. (p. 59)

As we explored earlier in pilgrimage, higher education provides an opportunity for students and faculty to journey together. However, in the midst of that journey, there are movements, symbols, patterns, and rhythms that make up our daily lives together.

The end of summer and coming of fall mark the beginning of another academic year. Universities welcome freshmen, transfers, and returning students to another year of learning, growth, and community. Fast forward to spring which marks the end of the academic year when universities celebrate and honor graduating students who are ready to embark on the next leg of their life’s journey. Between the bookends of each academic year are the movements and patterns which make up our daily lives together, whether it be class discussions, collaborating with peers on a project or faculty mentoring students one on one, just to name a few. These moments, symbols, patterns, and rhythms shape the liturgy of higher education and become so engrained in students, faculty, and instructional designers, that they help us reimagine what it means to live together inside and outside of higher education.

As you think about your teaching and curriculum design in terms of a cathedral, please reflect on these questions:

  • What are some of movements, symbols, patterns, and rhythms that make up daily life at your university?
  • How have these movements, symbols, patterns, and rhythms reshaped your imagination and become inscribed in your gait?  

The approaching fall semester, more so than ever before, brings opportunities for adaptation, innovation, and creativity. My challenge to you is this: Are we going to remain the same, or are we as faculty and instructional designers going to take this opportunity to reimagine teaching, curriculum, and design in enriching, innovative, life-giving ways born out of the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic? In these fleeting final weeks of summer, take time before our rhythms and patterns start again to reimagine your learning environment and curriculum, and courageously take the next step toward making your reimagining a reality.   

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

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