Stephanie Rosenbloom wrote a very interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times titled “The Professor as Open Book.” In the article, Rosenbloom neatly captures the tension between a desire by college and university faculty members to be more open to their students and the desire by those same faculty members to maintain some semblance of professional distance from their students.
Reading the piece I was reminded of an excellent book by Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called The Advancement of Learning. In the book, Mary and Pat argue for something they call “the teaching commons” which is a “a conceptual space in which communities of educators committed to inquiry and innovation come together to exchange ideas about teaching and learning and use them to meet the challenges of educating students for personal, professional, and civic life.”
My one critique of this book is that it seems to me that their definition of a “teaching commons” is too restrictive, because it specifically excludes students from that conceptual space. Instead, it is a place (once upon a time a faculty lounge or club, but now anything from the blogosphere to the campus coffee shop) where teaching scholars talk about their students rather than with their students.
New technologies have begun to break down this version of the teaching commons in a variety of ways. Already it is easy for our students to learn a lot about us. As one person quoted by Rosenbloom points out, all they have to do is come to our office to see the personal photographs and books that adorn our cramped professional spaces. And, if we work for a state university such things as our salaries are also matters of public record.
But we and our students also now live in a world where technology is helping to break down all sorts of boundaries–including the boundary between faculty members and their students. Some professors quoted in the Times piece evinced a nostalgia for the good old days when professors and students maintained an often strained distance from one another. But these days it is more and more common for faculty members to involve students in their research projects, to meet them for coffee in a campus coffee shop, or even to be “friends” on Facebook.
I can think of dozens of reasons why the erosion of the old boundaries between faculty members and students can be a bad idea. But I can also think of dozens more why that erosion holds the potential for positive change in the way we educate our students. The point that some in the Rosenbloom piece seem to miss is that as the professor, faculty members are and will remain in control of the terms of that relationship. If connecting with students in ways that students are comfortable with helps build learning commons (rather than teaching commons) on our campuses, all the better say I.