Walls, Turrets, Silos… and verticality

Peters Hall

I work in the turret of a castle-like building built in 1885. The building was scheduled for demolition several years ago, but thankfully the funding came together to save it. She is a beautiful place to work.

The language departments are housed in this building. The computer assisted language learning center where I work is housed here. The office of Study Abroad is here, the Office of International Students is here. So is the amazing Shansi program. My office is in the corner turret.

My office is the place where the language faculty invariably end up when they have questions about technology, or when they wish to try a new tool. Or if the remote in the smart room doesn’t work (yes, I field those questions too). 90% of the time when they ask for assistance in using technology in the teaching of languages, what they are actually asking me to do is to help them extend their lesson plans outside of this building, this county, this state… and help their students make connections with the people and the places where the language they teach lives and breathes.

We have had great success with tools such as Skype and the Mixxer for making connections with native speakers. Classes have blogged and have made some amazing connections with the outside world as a way to stretch their linguistic and cultural knowledge. This semester in my class has been given the opportunity to experiment with Second Life and World of Warcraft as other ways and other contexts for making connections with native speakers. More and more I find reasons to use technology to bring the real world in to the classroom, to bring authentic speech to the often hermetically sealed classroom, to help offset the language textbook’s representation of “culture” of a monolithic blob vs a varied and complex set of contrasting and conflicting scenarios.

Oh the ironies.

Irony #1: I find it funny that I work in one of the most solid, impenetrable buildings (did I mention the 6 foot thick sandstone walls?) — and yet the programs and the majors reside in this building — by and large– are all about busting down walls and reaching out to the outside, creating connections with the world, looking for a way to honor difference and to celebrate the similarities in worlds far from the snowy tundra of Ohio.

Irony # 2: We have the means to make connections around the world and we do so on a daily basis. So why is it we can’t figure out how to communicate better within our campus, with our fellow residents within our academic bubble, to share what is going on in our classes, etc.??

I have a better sense of what my colleague in Chile is asking her students to do than what the colleague in the building next door is teaching, what resources s/he might be using in his/her syllabus… and whether there is some amazing overlap that would enrich my students’ knowledge of something I might be teaching. Our students are making connections between classes and buildings and network on their own. I love it when a student applies something s/he has learned in one class to something we are exploring in my class… and to do it in the target language? more wonderful still… And yet the more I hear about what they are learning elsewhere, the more I wish I had known about that potential parallel universe before the semester began…

Irony #3: that in a school as connected and as fearless (don’t ask) and small (<2500 people) as mine that we don't have a better sense of the teaching, the scholarship, the interests, the talents of my professional peers that happens behind closed doors, within departments, across campus. I am not asking for a new calendaring, messaging, content managing system. There is no --tool-- that could solve this problem. No, this is not about finding the right widget. It is about coming together and acknowledging how much better it could be for all of us if there were more ways for us to educate ourselves about colleague's talents and abilities. Something odd seems to be holding us back. Is it the fact that in graduate school we are taught about the primacy of one's research, one's ideas...and how that research defines your worth on the job market and as a member of the academic community? That it must be protected, guarded, hovered over until you have job security (aka tenure) ? Its a puzzlement. And it's also an epidemic in Academia. I was delighted (?) when last January I found this opinion piece by Gerald Graff in Inside Higher Ed called “It’s Time to End Courseocentrism.”

He writes:

At a time when amazing new forms of connectivity are made possible by new digital technologies and when much of the best recent work in the humanities has made us more aware of the social and collective nature of intellectual work, we still think of teaching in ways that are narrowly private and individualistic, as something we do in isolated classrooms with little or no knowledge of what our colleagues are doing in the next classroom or the next building and little chance for each other’s courses to become reference points in our own.

Graff reminds us that the closed classroom is (more appropriately, WAS) a luxury of a bygone (read: wealthier) era in American universities…an era that, if you check the news, is rapidly evaporating. Indeed.


I wish that there were an academic equivalent to the story project that the College has begun , a project that culls anecdotes from community members about their campus experiences . I wish there were a similar set of stories for and by professors, stories that would tell us what is happening right now and inside the four walls of the practice rooms, the labs, the seminar rooms, in the studios… stories we could re-purpose, learn from, reflect upon, learn from.

I wish the tools we use to collaborate and communicate with our professional peers (and even with our students in the classroom) could be used for sharing knowledge among colleagues.

I wish we could tag…everything and everybody. And then make one huge clickable tag cloud. I wish I could find like minded, fast thinking people here as well as on Twitter or in the blogosphere.

I wish the academic calendar and the class schedule didn’t crush us to smithereens as badly as it always does.

The Academy along with Graff’s -centrism has divided us into little bits and boxes and divisions and departments. And created walls. Lots and lots of walls. And impossible vertical hierarchies where it seems if you do not work for someone then its unfathomable that you might actually be able to collaborate with them, even if its outside of your job description…

Silos. Turrets. Walls. Pods. Cubicles. Reporting lines. Verticality.

For the sake of doing what we need to do, and in order to do it better, and in order to undo years of what has preceded us…we need to bring them all down.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Dispersemos · June 22, 2009 Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. Of course, there is no reason that we cannot employ collaboration and communication tools to share our work with local colleagues, but these tools seem superfluous when we might simply ask to visit a colleague’s class and then spend 30 minutes talking about teaching. Recently when I proposed a plan to conduct teaching observations and conversations in pairs within my department, there was both excitement and disdain. Most of us agree that we don’t talk about teaching nearly enough, and some were anxious to start a formal system of observation and conversation, but many saw this as yet another time-suck that would bear little fruit. Most, but not all, of the reluctance and disdain came from older, tenured colleagues, while younger colleagues crave discussion on disciplinary teaching and a stronger understanding of our collective expectations for our work in the classroom.

    I suspect that it’s our excessive attention to administrative and college-wide business and curricular matters that causes us to put disciplinary teaching and learning on the back burner. We observe classes only when the rules require it, and we don’t build time into dept. meetings to share ideas on language pedagogy. I’m ready to suggest that we start ignoring some of the directives from above in order to focus more on our departmental mission and goals for students.

    • Barbara · June 23, 2009 Reply

      I have seen the same reticence here with regard to class observations.

      Just because you have a job for life (aka tenure) should not mean that you are closed to the idea of improving your craft, learning something new, adopting a best practice learned from a colleague (vs re-cycling the way you taught or were taught in graduate school).

      My husband wrote a wonderful blog post about public school education and the auto industry and I have come to think that it could describe some of our quite settled, comfortable colleagues as well.


      And yet, as we look around, foreign language depts are being cut as budgets get tightened. Don’t they get it? Now is -not- the time to get comfortable, but it -is- the time to get relevant. And retooled.

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