May 06, 2010
The Teaching Cell
Posted by Erik Gerding

Here’s another installment in my end-of-semester teaching posts. One of the biggest adjustments for me in starting teaching was the solitary nature of the academy compared to practice. Writing of course turns us into monks and nuns. Teaching involves lots of interactions with students, but not many with colleagues. In many ways, professors are free agents left to devise their own courses and teaching styles. This has definite pluses in terms of independence, but also some big minuses in terms of getting feedback on ways to improve and developing ties to a profession and community committed to teaching.

Two years ago I joined a little experiment started by some of my colleagues here at New Mexico. Five of us (two of us are untenured, the rest are tenured and we’ve had one member depart and one join) formed a “teaching cell” that meets regularly (it started out every week, but has since gotten a little less regular) for an hour or two. At our meetings, we discuss what we are doing in the class room, what’s working, and what’s not. Part of the cell is old fashion socializing, but a large part is also brainstorming and problem solving.

We also have visited each other’s classrooms. It was fascinating to observe seasoned teachers in their element. And also heartening to see them face difficulties in the classroom openly and continue to try to improve despite having the security of tenure. Faculties spend time mentoring and evaluating junior professors, but not so much for the seniors.

The cell's visits to my classes were incredibly helpful in terms of feedback. It was also good to know they had my back. During one visit a few years ago a student decided to put on a little show for my colleagues. We were reading through the Starbucks annual report to talk about disclosure and financial statements. He decided to try to spend a good portion of our class time arguing that Starbucks didn’t need to worry so much about 10b-5 liability since “everyone was addicted to caffeine, and it isn’t likely that Starbucks revenue will drop significantly.” (This was just before Starbucks went through its high profile downsizing.) Which could lead to an interesting discussion – albeit one I did not want to devote an entire class too, but the student did. I moved on several times in the discussion, but the student kept interjecting. It was turning into the untenured’s nightmare -- a classroom disruption during an evaluation. Luckily, my colleagues were very understanding. My heart did skip a beat during the Teaching Cell debriefing afterward, though, when one of my colleagues started out with “I want to ask you about one student’s laptop usage during class…” It turned out he was impressed that one student was using the internet in class to check Starbucks historic stock price to see if one particular disclosure had any effect. (It would have been cooler had the student shared this with the class at the time.)

Part of what works well with the Teaching Cell is that the five of us all teach and write in different areas – me in business law, and the others in Indian law, environmental law, racial discrimination/employment law/con law, criminal law, clinical law. It means we don’t get lost in the weeds of particular doctrines or cases (and I can always turn to my business law colleagues for those types of issues). We can look at the courses from the perspective of our students’ learning rather than just content delivery.

So the teaching cell (we changed the name from “teaching circle” to make it sound a little more militant) has provided me with great feedback on my teaching and a sense of a community within a community. I can’t end this post without giving a shout-out to Barbara, Christine, Eileen, and Margaret!

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