There's been a lot I've had to unlearn, since transitioning from the corporate world to academic environments.
I worked in the franchising industry for the first decade of my professional career. It was a computer training company and we had locations in 40 countries around the world. As I took on various roles, I became increasingly responsible for researching and documenting the successes and failures that various franchise locations experienced, in an effort to propagate the learning.
McDonald's has documented for their franchisees the precise amount of time to cook the french fries. We ran a far more complex business and inputs hardly ever equaled predictable outputs. However, our eccentric founder relentlessly attempted to quantify every aspect of the company that could possibly be documented, and tried to pass the lessons on with little room for variation.
When I transitioned into an entirely new context, it quickly became apparent that certain phrases that were captivating in the franchising business were considered revolting in higher education.
The phrase that has been most regularly disparaged in academic circles is “best practices.” Sean Michael Morris writes:
The worst best practice is to adhere to, or go searching for, best practices.”
Sean goes on to document what he has found to be most effective in his teaching, but is careful to caution us about thinking that his lessons will work for us in the same ways. He continues to offer wonderful guidance for our work, such as: being ourselves, creating trust, grading less / differently, and leaving room for silence.
Another recent caution against best practices came from John Warner, on Inside Higher Ed. He reflects on his discovery that his quizzes were not accomplishing his goal of getting students to do the reading prior to class. However, he also recognizes that in other instances, aspects of what he had tried might have worked. He concludes with:
This is why I have little faith in so-called universal “best practices.” There is never a one-size-fits-all technique or assessment. What works well in one context might not in another. Asking students about their experiences with reading quizzes reinforced that for me, teaching must be rooted in a collaborative process.
While there may not be best practices, I have come to believe there is a “best process,” and that process involves always being open to questioning what I’m doing.”
Instead of looking for best practices, I now seek seeds of inspiration. The majority of the ideas that I hear about when conducting interviews for the podcast are far too overwhelming to consider feasible at my institution. However, I try to break them down into their smallest components and see if I can't experiment with some aspect of the source of inspiration in my own teaching.
- I can't ever imagine being as incredible at making video and audio content as Mike Wesch, but I can certainly observe his creative outputs carefully and decide to draw inspiration from just one way in which he crafts stories.
- Gardner Campbell's eloquence is far out of my reach, but I can try administering an APGAR for class meetings and see what can be learned from the experience.
- No one would recommend I try to emulate Ainissa Ramirez's use of blow torches to illustrate key points, but I can think as failures more as data collection to help them “lose their sting.”
- Using extensive role playing games, like Mark Carnes' Reacting to the Past may be out of reach for the time being, but I can experiment with a making a game using Twine, like Keegan Long-Wheeler recommended.
- While my institution may never pull off a public sphere event as magnificent as Chico's Great Debate, as shared about by Thia Wolf, I can still experiment with poster sessions and look for opportunities to collaborate with others in different disciplines in my teaching.
I'll admit that my franchising experience leads me to wish we could read a book, or take a workshop – reduce it all to a set of best practices, and suddenly the grueling work of developing as a teacher would be over. However, when I look for inspiration from phenomenal educators, they continually show me that the work of becoming a teacher is never over.
John Warner ended his piece on best practices as follows:
As soon as I think I have it all figured out, it will be time for me to stop.”