Bruning Teaching Academy

by Emily Baxstrom
September 2019

Like many professions, one of the major challenges with teaching in higher education is a lack of professional support and training within institutions. Instructors receive pedagogical training and instruction through their terminal degrees, but support is minimal beyond that. At Ohio University, faculty have access to the services made available through the Center for Teaching & Learning, but the center has limited support to help instructors for an institution of OHIO’s size.

William Condee, J. Richard Hamilton/Baker and Hostetler professor of humanities and professor of theater, said, “As faculty, we’re expected to continue to improve ourselves on our own, but the infrastructure for us to help each other as teachers really hasn’t existed. Insufficient funding and support has really hindered the possibilities.” That is, not until Ohio University’s Bruning Teaching Academy formed.

The Bruning Teaching Academy (BTA) provides a truly unique developmental, peer-to-peer approach for continuous improvement and implementation of evidence-based best teaching practices. The program matches untenured professors with tenured professors known for their excellence in teaching, with the goal of stimulating inspired teaching dedicated to students’ academic success. Participants come together throughout the academic year to discuss instructional strategies, provide constructive feedback, and work toward one common goal: become better teachers.

The Beginnings of the BTA

The BTA traces its roots to a generous gift from Dr. James Bruning, who began his career at Ohio University as a psychology professor and then became the University’s provost during President Ping’s tenure. Dr. Bruning was among the first group of faculty who received the University Professor award in the early 1970s. This award is unique in that students nominate faculty and select each year’s recipients. Dr. Bruning made the gift to University College, which then housed the award, with the idea that University Professors should be encouraged to share their pedagogical knowledge and insights with their faculty colleagues.

Dr. Bruning proposed that an interested University Professor would be named to a faculty fellowship with the understanding that they would be available in a central office to help faculty in their efforts to become better teachers. In 2011, Bruning asked Linda Rice, professor and chair of the Department of English and the director of the Master of Arts in English Online, to serve as the James Bruning Teaching Fellow. Rice held this role for two years and met individually with faculty who were looking for support with teaching and learning strategies. Tom Carpenter, distinguished professor emeritus in classics, and Rice both were interested in providing larger scale support for effective teaching and simply wanted to engage interested faculty in meaningful discussions about teaching and learning, so they came up with a plan for the first communally-driven and peer-coached Faculty Learning Community focused on the humanities.

Rice and Carpenter facilitated this Faculty Learning Community, made possible by an 1804 Grant they received. After the first year, Condee joined them and the three leaders came up with a plan for the James Bruning Teaching Academy, in which all participants would become known as Bruning Teaching Fellows. “This group is not having professionals come in and tell us what to do,” said Condee. “It’s recognition that we’re all teachers, we’re peers, that we can coach each other on a peer-to-peer basis.”

Carpenter, Rice, and Condee planned a group that would reach a broader audience while still focusing on improving undergraduate teaching and learning. The three collaborated to write a Konnecker grant that was awarded approximately $40,000 for use in 2014–15 academic year. This became the current-day BTA, pairing non-tenured and tenured professors for a yearlong program (first run in the 2015–16 academic year). Drawing faculty from five colleges, the BTA caught the attention of deans who provided an additional year of funding (2016–17 academic year).

The deans so readily wanted to fund it because it’s not top-down. It’s not a program being pushed by the deans to help professors improve their teaching, but it’s faculty-driven. In 2016–17, Brad Cohen, chief strategy and innovation officer in the Strategy and Innovation Office, agreed to fund the group on an ongoing basis.

Funding history of the Bruning Teaching Academy

BTA is now set up slightly differently—topics are driven by the leaders, instead of a traditional Faculty Learning Community which is mutually driven. There are typically three leaders of the BTA every year who determine the curriculum and select materials for the group to study. These leaders rotate in and out from a set of four (currently): Condee, Rice, Lynn Harter, professor and co-director of the Barbara Geralds Institute for Storytelling and Social Impact, and Raymond Frost, professor of Management Information Systems. In 2019–2020, the three leaders are Rice, Harter, and Frost; Condee is on sabbatical.

There are two pools of faculty that participate in BTA: tenured fellows and untenured fellows. The untenured faculty must apply and be accepted into the group. The tenured professors are faculty who have won teaching awards and are asked to be involved with the group. Condee mentioned that as BTA has gained more visibility, they have received more and more applications and had to turn people away.

Junior and senior faculty are grouped into cross-disciplinary pairs to work together throughout the academic year, but one of the pillars of BTA is that there is not a mentor–mentee relationship. Faculty are coupled across disciplines intentionally; the goal is that they aren’t familiar with the other’s discipline so the pair won’t spend time disagreeing about techniques or details in their field. Instead, they approach each other as novices in the other’s discipline. “The idea is the senior professor will have years of experience teaching to offer to their partner, and the untenured professor will have a freshness coming out of graduate school and an excitement in starting their career that they will be able to offer to the senior professor,” said Condee. “The idea is that you are peer coaches. You work with each other.”

BTA leaders Linda Rice and Raymond Frost engage faculty in a discussion about learning.
BTA leaders Linda Rice and Raymond Frost engage faculty in a discussion about learning during a BTA meeting.

A Focus on Peer Coaching

BTA meetings are held once every three weeks, lasting for an hour and a half. The structure of each meeting is influenced by a reading called “The First and Last Five Minutes,” which notes that the first and last five minutes of every class tend to be thrown away with announcements and questions. The group begins each meeting with an activity, followed by a fifteen-minute presentation, after which participants break up into groups and work on another activity. This can be with their partner, a randomly chosen participant, or sometimes even two pairs together. These groups then come back together and share what they’ve learned during the last ten minutes of their time together.

A goal for participants is for each partner pair to get together in between every all-group meeting; they can discuss problems they’ve encountered with something they’re teaching, or simply get together and have coffee with one another. They are also required to observe each other’s classes once in fall semester and once in spring, to provide feedback on each other’s teaching. “As professors, the only time someone observes our teaching is either when students fill out evaluations, or when a supervisor completes an annual evaluation,” said Condee. “We don’t have teaching observations that are not related to anything of teaching evaluation.”

The focus of the group every fall semester is always oriented toward backward design and alignment—the idea that everything in a course should be aligned from beginning to end.

“Our deliberate focus on backward design and alignment can be very eye opening, even to the most seasoned professors,” said Rice. “We unpack major components of effective course design, such as ‘the big idea’ or an essential question that drives a course and then work to align activities and assessment so there is a clarity of structure, learning, and feedback that positively affects student learning.” Working with a partner and looking at course materials with fresh eyes has the effect of helping participants to see anew what’s working and what can be strengthened. This analytical process, in tandem with the peer observations of teaching, is instrumental in a process of course revision and refinement aimed to maximize student learning.

The theme of spring semester changes from time to time. One of the most recent focuses was on student engagement, targeting professors teaching large section undergraduate courses. Other topics that have been covered in the past include Team-Based Learning, online and blended classrooms, teaching portfolios, student engagement, learning goals, and “The Teaching Checklist.”

These gatherings are different than a typical meeting because they occur in the late afternoons or early evenings and the three leaders serve participants beverages and snacks. This shows participants symbolically that the leaders are literally serving them. “We are not the poohbahs that understand all of this,” said Condee. “We’re here to help you and here’s a glass of wine or juice and here are some crackers. It helps create that sense of community. This is not another meeting faculty have to go to; this is a place to relax with your colleagues and sit and talk to people.”

A study by Atul Gawande found that if someone simply attends a workshop on how to do something, the adoption rate is only about ten percent. However, if someone works with another person over the course of a year, the adoption rate is 80–90 percent. “That’s what we’re trying to do with the BTA is create an ongoing conversation,” said Condee. “Instead of saying ‘here’s a technique you can do,’ instead it’s ‘let’s create a year-long conversation among a group of people who trust each other.’”

Condee noted the BTA can go to vulnerable and dangerous places in their discussions because the participants learn to trust each other and talk about their weaknesses as teachers. “It’s not coming in and talking about how great we are as teachers, it’s about how we’re struggling,” he emphasized.

The BTA leaders acknowledge the time commitment required to participate, but they strive to keep it manageable. Each meeting has a set schedule down to the minute so as not to take advantage of faculty’s time. On average, it comes out to about an hour per week, “and you are going to be a better teacher as a result. BTA is a way for people to fulfill that desire to be a better teacher,” said Condee.

Faculty discuss during a BTA meeting
Faculty often go to deep, vulnerable places during BTA meetings. There is a shared trust among the group participants.

A Unique Experience

The Bruning Teaching Academy is seemingly the only group of its kind; Condee is not aware of any similar practice at another institution, even after researching other teaching academies around the country. The idea for the BTA originated from Athens native Atul Gawande, a surgeon and staff writer for The New Yorker. He watched a professional tennis match and wondered why a professional tennis player has a coach, and why does he, as a surgeon, not have a coach? After doing some research on coaching, he asked a retired surgeon to coach him; the surgeon watched Gawande do surgeries and gave him simple advice that only someone experienced in that field could have. For example, Gawande received tips about holding his arms differently during certain procedures to give him more room—things that only an experienced person in that field would know.

Condee and Rice were so struck by this particular article by Gawande that it stayed with them until the BTA was hatched. The contents resonated because of the parallels they saw with their lives as university faculty. “Once we get our university jobs, so much seems to become private in terms of the classroom—we plan our classes, go in and teach, may self reflect, but otherwise teach as a mainly private endeavor,” said Rice. “We don’t tend to talk about teaching as much as research, especially in the sense of a shared community.”

Another rare trait of this group is that it is low-cost. Each participant involved (including the leaders) receive a $1,000 stipend per semester; the only other cost is a couple books and some refreshments.

“What we’re doing is unique,” said Condee. “This is a model that could be replicable at other universities with limited resources devoted to teaching and learning. This is something you can do—here is a model you can replicate, and it’s cheap.”

“The BTA was a valuable pedagogical experience for me,” said Lysa Burnier, professor of political science and past participant in the BTA. “It was a treat to gather monthly with faculty and the BTA team leaders—all of whom care deeply about teaching—and share with each other our classroom experiences and teaching practices as informed by that month’s assigned readings and exercises. Being partnered with another professor was especially fruitful. We watched each other teach, shared feedback, and generally immersed ourselves in each other’s classrooms.”

Tenured facturly discussing with non-tenured faculty at a BTA meeting.
Tenured faculty are paired with non-tenured faculty in the BTA to learn from each other’s experiences. Tenured faculty bring experience while non-tenured faculty bring a fresh perspective.

How to get Involved

“We got into this business because we want to be good teachers,” said Condee. “People want to improve and they know they can do better, but they don’t necessarily see a path to doing better.”

In the early spring semester, a call for applications email is sent out to all tenure-track and nontenure-track faculty. Any untenured professor is welcome to apply to participate in the group; the application process is short and simple. Condee encouraged faculty to re-apply the next academic year if they are not accepted because preference is given to those that do so. For tenured professors that wish to participate but have not received any teaching awards, Condee encourages them to apply for awards at any level—any type of recognition qualifies for them to be invited to join BTA.

“Overall, what I really valued was the sense of community that was created by the team leaders around the idea that our best selves and our teaching selves were one and the same,” said Burnier. “I strongly encourage other faculty to participate in the BTA, because it a worthwhile investment of time. The group gives participants a fresh perspective on their own teaching and affords opportunities to learn from and with other professors.”

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