Several years ago I wrote an essay for Perspectives, the monthly newsletter of the American Historical Association, called Toward Transparency in Teaching. The essay focused largely on course portfolios and how they had become an important component of the scholarship of teaching and learning. But the real hook for the essay was the idea that by publishing a course portfolio, historians open up their classroom for unprecedented amounts of public inspection and comment. In the essay, I wrote:
Perhaps the most daunting issue I faced during the creation of this course portfolio [with apologies for the frames…remember, I created this in 1999 when frames were cool] was the question of transparency. My decision to open up my classroom to the scrutiny of an audience of anyone with a web browser entailed certain risks. Teaching is normally a very private activity, closed off from our peers by the four walls of our classrooms, but also often jealously guarded behind the walls of academic freedom. A portfolio like mine tears down those walls and invites the entire world to pass judgment on my teaching. For my own reasons and in my own professional context, I found complete transparency desirable…
Some of the most intense debates I have had with colleagues, both here and in Europe, about the portfolio have centered on the issue of transparency. Reactions have ranged from outright anger, to skepticism, to approval…If what happens in [our] classrooms cannot be opened up for critical evaluation, in the same way that we open our scholarship up to critical evaluation, then we cannot expect to make much progress on the questions that often vex us the most in our daily lives. Thus, I would submit that we must find new ways to talk about teaching and the course portfolio offers one such vehicle for beginning conversations that are research-based rather than based upon charming anecdotes.
When this essay appeared, I received more feedback from colleagues, ranging again from approving to outraged that I would suggest that colleagues should be able to peek into our classrooms on a regular basis, rather than just during the once or twice a year that peer reviews take place.
At the time I wrote this essay in 2001 the course portfolio was really the only way to provide substantial peer review of teaching. Imagine the reaction I would have gotten if I had proposed podcasting courses along the lines of those I linked to in my earlier posting? The courses you can sit in on via podcasting are entirely opened up for public inspection. The syllabi are on the web and the classroom experience is being captured and broadcast to any and all who care to listen/watch. The only thing not available is student work. But that too could be available via a class blog or some other such vehicle. Now interested observers can see/hear it all.
Isn’t that great?
Some will agree and others will violently disagree. We live under enough surveillance already, so why should teachers submit to more? To that I would argue that this isn’t about surveillance, it’s about making teaching community property.
So often I hear historians complain that teaching does not receive the recognition it deserves. Our scholarly output is respected precisely because it is public and peer-reviewed. Unless we are willing to submit our teaching to the same sort of scrutiny, then why should teaching be valued in the same ways?
The analogy is not exact, because podcasting a course dumps the entire semester of teaching into the lap of the listener/observer, while an article in a peer-reviewed journal or a monograph provides a carefully selected synthesis of evidence. Instead, the podcasted course creates something like an archive that researchers can use to examine the teaching of colleagues and that those of us engaged in the scholarship of teaching and learning can use as we analyze and write about teaching.