Learning Communities are self-organized, safe, and supportive spaces for faculty and academic staff to address complicated questions of curriculum and pedagogy. Michigan State University has supported these initiatives since 2004, and continues to do so through a funding program administered by Academic Advancement Network in collaboration with the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology.
Different Aims, Different Practices
Dr. Michael Lockett, the program Director, is quick to point out that the word “safe” is crucial to that statement of purpose, as it conveys the agency members and facilitators of Learning Communities enjoy.
“Once a community is funded, our interventions in their work only take place at the most basic administrative level,” says Lockett. “It’s a space we designed to maximize autonomy and academic freedom.”
Learning Communities at MSU are free to propose their own topics and determine the structures that best support their interests. Accordingly, communities tend to vary greatly in their practices and topics. All communities, however, share three things in common: they meet at least eight times across the academic year, explore important educational themes, and welcome all members of MSU’s instructional staff, regardless of rank or discipline.
“We have approximately thirty communities running right now. That means approximately three hundred faculty members are contributing to and benefitting from the program. Given that scale, there’s tremendous diversity in terms of topics and methods,” says Lockett. “Broadly defined, the conversations all connect back to ideas of education, teaching, and learning, but not necessarily in a formalized curricular context. We don’t limit their purview to credit-bearing courses at MSU and some communities are invested in educational topics that transcend this campus, or this country, or even this era.”
Dialogues Characterized by Freedom and Safety
Although many Learning Communities do not discuss fraught topics, some do. “Because some groups explore topics related to critical pedagogy, they may require particular community structures,” says Lockett. “Which is to say the community is not closed but carefully defined. All communities are inclusive. But the facilitators (those members responsible for the administration and protocol within the Community) determine the structure and it’s fair for them to ask their membership to commit to certain protocols.”
Some Communities only meet the required eight times during the academic year, and encourage members to drop in or out at their discretion. Other Communities are working on highly complex questions of critical pedagogy, and require regular attendance, as the associated dialogues must be sustained and reflected upon. Ultimately, the facilitators decide the protocols for each Community.
The conversations held in the Learning Communities might also involve very personal pedagogical experiences; those kinds of conversations require time, trust, and a sense of open inquiry to make the dialogue supportive and generative. The AAN strives to provide that atmosphere by respecting the autonomy of the facilitators and working diligently behind the scenes to design flexible administrative structures that can support diverse methods. Lockett says, “although it’s not necessarily their primary role, Learning Communities can be therapeutic spaces. There’s an emotional dimension to teaching, particularly in high-pressure contexts. These communities can become a place where people find support, where they can share and hopefully resolve some of the challenges they’re encountering, teacher-to-teacher.”
Why Learning Communities?
Variations on the Learning Communities program exist on many campuses. “Questions of curriculum and pedagogy are always complicated and often best addressed face-to-face,” says Lockett. “You can do a lot of important work through dialogue. When colleagues get together to discuss curriculum and pedagogy, their conversations become nuanced and empathetic and situated in a way they can’t through other discursive forms. They can also be highly creative and generative places where good ideas disseminate swiftly.”
The Learning Communities at MSU grew over 150% last year, from 12 to 30 groups. Lockett credits the passion of the facilitators and the leadership of Drs. Grabill and Austin (Associate Provost for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, and Interim Associate Provost for Academic Staff Development, respectively). He also applauds the work of his predecessor, Dr. Patricia Stewart, who advocated for the program’s continued existence and provided a vision of success. “We wouldn’t be seeing this level of engagement and success without Patty’s leadership and dedication to the program,” he says.
A full list of Learning Communities and the contact information of their facilitators is available on the Academic Advancement Network website, in addition to information on proposing new communities.