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Feven Getachew
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Strategic plan implementation works on innovative teaching

By Kevin Hong

Pre-registration is now over for next semester, but in future years, students may have the opportunity to pick from quite a few more options before heading down to the registrar.

An increase in interdisciplinary courses, more flexible schedules and other teaching innovations are in the works as the strategic plan is implemented. “Teaching and Learning” is one of six implementation areas, and changes are being led by Vice President for Academic Affairs Paula Smith, David Lopatto, Psychology, and Director of the Center for International Studies David Harrison.

The committee is still entertaining a variety of ideas. One of the main topics in the ongoing conversations is the attempt to reduce barriers. “If some faculty member comes up with a good way to teach, we want to encourage that and we want to make it easier to be creative,” Lopatto said. “One barrier is that Grinnell has a traditional schedule. We have two semesters each consisting of 14 weeks, summer break and winter break. If you have an innovative idea for teaching that doesn’t fit in that tradition, how can we make the schedule more flexible so you can actually carry out that idea?”

Changing faculty workloads could be part of the answer, to give professors space to develop new ideas. “We are in discussion as a faculty administrative group talking about faculty workload and where we can make it more efficient, and if we are able to do so, how do we give a person time to create a new innovation?” Lopatto said.

A political science course next semester took up the new offer to have a more flexible schedule. It will meet intensively during the last week of winter break so it has more time later in the semester for individual projects and group work.

President Raynard Kington has created an innovation fund to give $150,000 grants to three-year projects and $5,000 grants to one-year projects. Lopatto said the source of money is the least of their problems.

“We think we can support innovation with money, but we need to find ways to support it with time,” he said.

Interdisciplinary education was also one of the main topics of discussion.

“I think inevitably there will be new courses designed by some of the new ideas and I would guess that there will be more interdisciplinary courses in the next few years,” Lopatto said.

Smith pointed out that the key to developing interdisciplinary teaching is to provide opportunities for the faculty to work with others outside their own department or discipline. “Most faculty members at Grinnell were trained in a traditional academic field,” Smith said. “But many of them have teamed up with a colleague from a different department so they can teach a course together. They’ve also formed groups to develop and establish study themes or concentrations.”

Recent examples include the neuroscience and policy studies concentrations. Some faculty members are discussing a new concentration in international studies.

Innovation can come not only on campus but also from afar. The group is working to integrate off-campus experiences into campus life. Roughly 60 percent of students choose to go on off-campus study programs. Some events aimed at integration are already occurring, including the Peace Studies Conference and the Rosenfield Program internship presentations.

“We probably should explore having more formal opportunities for students to have some visual representation of some aspects of what they’ve done,” Harrison said. “We need to make sure that they are able to bring that knowledge back to Grinnell, I think we need to explore having some kind of symposium or colloquium event at which students are presenting work that they completed while abroad.”

According to Smith, one professor said at a faculty meeting in October that the College should keep the U.S. News & World Report rankings in mind when implementing these changes. However, she noted that is not the College’s policy. Kington sent a campus-wide email in August making clear that the College does not make decisions based on the rankings.

“There is mixed or weak evidence on how much the rankings influence applicant behavior,” Smith said in an email. “For example, our ranking went down, and yet we saw a sharp increase in the number of students applying to Grinnell.”

Smith said other individual professors raised the ideas that concentrations, such as Technology Studies or Latin American Studies, should have their own departments, or that every faculty member on campus should teach one interdisciplinary course per year. These are ideas under consideration, but are not policies currently being implemented.

Lopatto pointed out that the College is already in a good place. “There were not issues that we thought were terribly deficient,” he said. “It turns out that if you look at the landscape of Grinnell College, it’s a very successful place with great students, fine faculty and good resources, so it is really more of an aspirational strategic planning. How do you make Grinnell even better?”

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