Nov 15

What does master teaching have in common with being a professional race car driver or a professional golfer?

by: Kenn Barron

Recently, I was asked what makes someone a master teacher. Like many concepts in higher education, there are numerous definitions linked with what a “master teacher” is or what a “master teacher” does. But rather than offering a definition, I wanted to share an analogy that I heard at a national teaching conference. One of the keynote speakers pointed out that just like driving a car our whole lives doesn’t qualify us to be a professional race car driver… being a teacher our whole lives doesn’t qualify us to be a master teacher.

This analogy quickly struck a chord with me. Last year, I had a friend who is a professional race car instructor invite me to go race with him. Even though I’ve been driving for over 25 years and I’ve ”practiced” driving a car each day for most of those years, his invitation instantly made me feel like a driving novice. I questioned whether I had the necessary skills to race against other expert (aka, master) drivers, and I was a little anxious saying yes to his offer. But like a master teacher, my friend started putting my fears to rest by showing me the training program that he takes drivers through to gradually help them move from being a novice to an expert.

The notion of how long it takes to move from a novice to an expert in any particular area has received a lot of attention as a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, “Outliers.” Gladwell is a science writer who excels at translating the research findings from my field of psychology for the everyday public, and in “Outliers” he highlights the “10,000 Hour Rule” where psychological research shows it typically takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert on a given task. Then if we do a little math and consider dedicating ourselves full time to becoming an expert in something (8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 52 weeks of the year), it would take approximately 5 years to meet the 10,000 hour threshold.

Interestingly, one individual decided to put the “10,000 Hour Rule” to a unique test. In 2010, Dan McLaughlin quit his job at age 30 and decided to start playing golf to see if he could become a professional golfer after 10,000 hours of practice. He also created a website and blog where you can track his progress over time.

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Nov 13


by: Cara Meixner

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a segment of President Jonathan Alger’s listening tour, during which time a colleague remarked on the “deep humility” of our faculty. The depth of inquiry, diversity of pedagogies, and expanse of outreach engaged in by our faculty are profound hallmarks of the JMU mission. Still, we don’t do well at “tooting our own horns” – as such, we aren’t always aware of what our colleagues across departments and colleges are doing.

One way that the Center for Faculty Innovation has sought to inhabit the gap, connecting faculty with and to each other, is to provide support for an array of cohort-based faculty learning communities: Madison Teaching Fellows, Madison Career Fellows, and Madison Research Fellows. Intentionally leaderless, these fellowships are small, intimate networks of faculty who work together for an academic year (or more) to focus resolutely on a teaching, research, or career development challenge. These communities have made an indelible imprint on the landscape of teaching, learning, and scholarship at JMU. Take, for instance, the Madison Teaching Fellows on Alcohol and Academic Culture. Not only did this dynamic team develop resources and institutes on curriculum infusion, but they’re also responsible for Here to Help, a program that orients faculty to the spectrum of campus resources available to students in crisis. This team of fellows has also shared that they have forged life-long friendships and enduring connections to the University.

As you contemplate the next several years of your JMU faculty career, we hope you will consider taking part in one of our faculty learning communities. Please review our website to learn more!

Nov 08

Fly High in Your Writing

by: Ed Brantmeier

Fits and starts, mountains and valleys, scheduled and binge—these are how the writing processes of many go during the academic year. Recently I was at a national conference where I attended a workshop on writing productivity. The facilitator insisted that creating a writing log, consisting of time spent writing per day and pages written, had increased writing productivity in the many faculty members she has worked with. Would that help you as a scholarly writer? Could you dedicate 15-30 minutes a day to your writing habit? What would you have to give up? TV time? A bit of sleep?

I suppose the rationale is that writing, like anything, is a conditioned habit. The more time spent on task, the better in terms of productivity—measured in pages produced. If writing for 15-30 minutes was part of your daily habit, then would your ideas be easier to articulate from day to day? Finding time to write and finding what writing habits work best for you seem to all be a necessary part of growth as a life-long writer.

And then there is voice—the unique contribution an individual can provide to authentically connect to audience. One of the best bits of advice I was given is to just write about a topic I was interested in. Never mind doing an exhaustive literature review from the get go. As a graduate student, I was trained that before I could make humble contributions, inferences, and/or claims about a given topic, I had to travel to the ends of the earth in terms of an exhaustive literature review. As a faculty writer, my mentor once told me “Just write—and see where it takes you. Then backfill with literature that connects to your ideas.” This was a liberating moment for me—a moment where I felt unfettered by the conventions of my disciplinary training, free to explore the terrain beyond the horizon. Through that process, I was convinced that trusting my own intellect and voice was valuable, and that in the end, I might indeed contribute something fresh to my discipline. My mentor and friend taught me a valuable lesson that I share with you. Trust yourself and your own voice–fly high in your writing.

Nov 06

Rootless No More: Finding (Your) Place at JMU

by: Carole Nash

This week, 94 GISAT 112 (“Environmental Issues in Science and Technology”) students will fan out across the University to consider the impacts that land use change may have on campus surface water quality in locations they tested last week. Armed with old topographic maps and aerial photographs from a half-century ago, they will see how today’s landscape has changed as the University has grown. Think you know what Newman Lake looks like? A 1951 black-and-white aerial photo shows a stream and wetlands. And how about the East Campus? A mixture of forest and hay fields. Coming from twelve different states, the GISAT students (many freshmen) are making themselves at home here on campus, and my colleague Mary Handley and I are utilizing place-based pedagogy to further that transition. Looking at their new home as a dynamic place, we are asking them to apply water quality concepts, literally out their back doors, to build a bridge between knowledge and meaning. They’ll follow this with reflections on environmental issues in the places they know well, among them: Lynnhaven River (Virginia Beach); Delaware River (Frenchtown, New Jersey); Mattawoman Creek (Charles County, Maryland); Oppermans Pond (Pleasantville, New York); Rivanna River (Charlottesville).

Pedagogy of Place uses the human community and local environment as starting points for teaching by emphasizing interdisciplinary learning through hands-on, inquiry-based, real-world experiences and involving direct collaboration with community partners. Place-based study cultivates the ability to look deeply into the life of a community, explore its connections to regional, national and global influences, and assess its impacts on other systems. This way of teaching provides a framework for contextualizing classroom material and modeling what it means to live with deep knowledge of a community. Places are not simple. They are multi-dimensional, complex constructs, filled with meaning and attachments that we create through lived experience. Our dialogues with places — between culture and land, history and future, individuals and communities — build these constructs from the ground up.

Topophilia (love of place) is a central to place-based education. A concept made popular by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his 1974 book of the same name, topophilia is the affective bond with one’s environment – a person’s mental, emotional, and cognitive ties to place that, in turn, shape one’s world view. Scaled for the personal and the cultural, Dr. Tuan posits a strong relationship between topophilia and the formation and reinforcement of values.
Here’s the challenge: to teach place, you need to be familiar with place. Along with our students, many faculty members are new to the Shenandoah Valley. A recent report by the JMU Office of Institutional Research, “A Faculty in Transition, 1986-2011,” provides insight into who we are as a faculty and how we have changed over the last 25 years. For example, 35% of current faculty has five years or less experience at JMU. Common to higher education – and often expected – faculty prioritize career over location, and in rural areas in particular, come to know their new communities in time through family or recreational activities. Eric Zencey’s 1985 Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Rootless Professors,” is critical of our business, arguing that the university writ large does not encourage connection to place: “professors are expected to owe no allegiance to geographical territory; we’re supposed to belong to the boundless world of books and ideas and eternal truths . . .”

Think for a moment: what has surprised you about living in the Shenandoah Valley – or any other place with which you feel a strong connection? What do you want to tell your students about this place? Why? As we learn to be more holistic in our approach to teaching and learning, how are we integrating the places we live into our classrooms and our scholarship? Are we interested in creating real collaborations in communities and helping our students find their places? Join us for “Pedagogy of Place,” a Faculty Workshop on Thursday, November 8, to create new working connections with faculty who are looking to put down some roots.

Oct 30

Double Standards

by: Andreas Broscheid

One of the fun things about being a political scientist is that … Okay, maybe I should say: One of the annoying things with political scientists is that they always (I’m exaggerating here) have to contradict what all other people think they know about politics. You think gerrymandering is to blame for political polarization in the US? Think again! Regular Americans are ideologically polarized? These political scientists at least argue that they’re not. Presidential debates tend to decide presidential election? Uh-uh. And the list goes on.

I am pretty sure political scientists aren’t the only ones contesting the common wisdom about their field of inquiry. It’s not that common wisdom is necessarily wrong. (This guy, for example, has data to show that regular Americans are in fact ideologically polarized.) What happens is that experts are not content to just accept any plausible hypothesis; they want to see evidence, test arguments for internal consistency, check if the hypothesis corresponds to other hypotheses that they believe are true, investigate if there are additional sources that might contradict a hypothesis, and so on. And at the end of this process, many hypotheses turn out to be highly questionable or barely on life support.

Considering the intellectual rigor that we display in our academic disciplines, I find it startling that we apply rather lackadaisical standards when it comes to checking whether our teaching works. We typically check at the end of the semester whether our students found their classes useful and enjoyable; we check our grade distributions; otherwise, most of us use our well-developed and sophisticated sense of observation to determine whether something worked or didn’t work: the students looked alert; I managed to get through everything I planned to do in class; nobody left ten minutes before the class ended; the class was really fun for me. These aren’t necessarily bad criteria (and, as I said, maybe regular Americans are really ideologically polarized), but shouldn’t we be dissatisfied about this lack of rigor?

Of course, I’m painting with a broad brush here, burn a few straw men, and mix inappropriate metaphors. At least I know that what I’m saying is true about most of my own work. (And I know that it’s not true for many others on campus.)

What should we do? The literature on secondary education proposes scholarly teaching as a step beyond being an intuitive and (hopefully) excellent teacher. Basically, this approach uses the scholarly process as a model for the process of preparing, teaching, and evaluating learning outcomes. Of course, the scholarly process differs in different disciplines. In my own discipline, it starts with literature research (there is the Journal of Political Science Research, but also plenty of other helpful journals indexed in EBSCO’s Education Research Complete, which my employer luckily subscribes to). As a quantitative political scientist, it makes sense for me to view my classes as natural experiments, in which I manipulate the learning environment in a way that hopefully improves learning outcomes. Obviously, students are not randomly assigned to my classes (although many first-year students in my gened class sometimes have been randomly assigned to it by freshmen advisors), so it’s not a true experiment. But at least I can control, to some extent, what “my” students are exposed to. Class surveys are for me the obvious choice to figure out whether my teaching works – whether students know what I want them to know, whether their perceptions of the subject matter change, whether their attitudes become more sophisticated, and the like. I can look at whether student perceptions of their learning and attitudes change, but I can also use direct knowledge tests to figure out what happens in my class. Heck, maybe I can even design class assignments that provide me with useful feedback on this. And if I am nice to my colleagues (and if they teach comparable classes), I may be able to compare outcomes in my class to outcomes in their classes.

Obviously, people in other disciplines want to follow other scholarly strategies in their teaching. Somebody in history or in literature may want to analyze student writing; a qualitative social scientist might be more interested in in-depth interviews with students. I know that several psychologists at JMU apply the sophisticated strategies that their field has developed to create randomization of teaching “treatment”. Different disciplines know different ways to be rigorous, so why not use them for our teaching?

Oct 25

Flashpoint: War on Women

by: Michael Morrison and Katie Cannon

Reflections from the CFI Program Manager team…

As a new member of the CFI staff, a double Duke, and a person who grew up in the Harrisonburg community, attending my first Flashpoint was an exciting event. As a student at JMU over the last three years, I was only vaguely aware of Flashpoints – hearing about the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street events – and never made the time to attend. Reflecting on yesterday’s Flashpoint: War on Women, I’m disappointed I didn’t make more of an effort to attend previous events.

What a privilege it is to live in a place where students, staff, faculty, and members of the community can all come together to share expertise and insight into problems we face as a culture. Those groups came together last night to have a calm conversation on a current – and controversial – topic. I heard student voices raised to ask questions of the expertise on the panel and to tell their professors and their peers what bothers them most about the issue. A member of the community offered up questions about how the divide between language – groups in the know about language and those who are not – can be at odds over the use of language. I learned from an adjunct in the audience of a book to track down and read. And from our panelists, I heard faculty in a range of disciplines, from a variety of backgrounds, speaking to an engaged audience and offering not only their insights and expertise but also asking for feedback and questions.

The issues raised last night are difficult and complex – and as one student commented, it is difficult in a two-hour forum to do much more than inform and scratch the surface. But everyone there last night can walk away thinking, reflecting, and knowing a little more than when we started. It’s a pleasure to be a part of making these events happen. And as we talked about privilege and power and education and opportunity last evening, I can’t help but return to the thought that I’m privileged to be a part of this community – JMU and Harrisonburg – where such conversations are accessible and awareness is part of our identity.


As a student I attended my first Flashpoint, Flashpoint: Egypt and it was an incredible experience. There were professors from various departments, students, and concerned community members who all gathered together to discuss the Egyptian revolution. When I started working for the CFI, I knew that I wanted to help create more of these events.

My fascination with Flashpoints does not even lie in the topics themselves—but rather in the theory behind the event. Very few opportunities exist for faculty, students, and community members to come together and truly discuss controversial issues. I don’t just mean people with a bunch of opinions come together and share their own view—I mean a forum for people to truly wrestle with issues that are complex and controversial. Flashpoints help make that possible.

When Mary Gayne and Beth Eck came to us about starting Flashpoint: War on Women, I was thrilled. However, pulling of a Flashpoint in a short amount of time was a little more complex than I thought it would be—especially because of the speed at which the whole process moves. Once a faculty member suggests a topic it’s full speed ahead to make the best event possible within a two-week period.

In my opinion, though, all that hard work is worth it. Because events like Flashpoints are steps towards people debating and deliberating and disagreeing in a civil way—which is really what democracy is all about.


If you have an idea for a Flashpoint — please let us know.

Oct 18

A Quiet Revolution

by: Cara Meixner

Last night, I savored a brief TED Talk by Susan Cain, bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Her text has been on my ever-expanding to-read list since February, which feels like a dozen years to an introspective bibliophile. Cup of rooibos in hand, I engaged with Cain’s talk as if it were a tête-à-tête, often pausing to reflect on her musings on introversion.

Drawn from Jungian psychology, introversion and extraversion are preferences toggled by our nature, but strengthened by nurture. Simply put, introverts derive their energy from an orientation to the inner world, whereas extraverts are charged by engagement in the outside world. Generally, we favor one preference over the other, yet some of each exists in all of us.

Indulge me for momentary demonstration. Clasp your hands and make a mental note of which thumb resides above the other. Now, unclasp your hands and grip them together again, this time placing the other thumb above the one that was on top before. Chances are, that felt clumsy if not altogether chill inducing. Our “version” preferences – be they intro or extra, operate in a similar fashion. Just as we are capable of clasping the non-dominant thumb above the dominant one, so too are we able to exercise our intro side over the extraverted preference – and vice versa.

The challenge, as Cain surmises, is that introverts are tethered to and judged by a world that privileges extraversion. Herein, the introvert is often misunderstood. Introverts are neither shy nor fearful; rather, we savor quiet and favor sanctuary. Energy is drawn from a profound inner space enlightened by texts, discourse, and intimate collegial engagements. Whereas our extraverted friends find meetings, conventions, and brainstorming sessions to be bastions of productivity, our canvases for brilliance look remarkably different. Yet for so many introverts, attempting to “pass” as an extravert seems more palatable than explaining our own penchants for solitude and autonomy.

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Oct 17

Communities and Collaboratives: Arboretum Collaborative Showcase

by: Carole Nash

Mid-October has a way of piling it on. At the very moment the fall semester kicks into high gear, consuming us with all things academic, the trees of the mid-latitude deciduous forest peak with color, reminding us that we live in a most remarkable place of high biodiversity that provides inspiration and a ready source for teaching. This fall, in particular, has been filled with surprising moments when my focus on work has been broken by the sight of a brilliant gold hickory or blazing maple. On my way to CFI’s offices this week, I stopped at the Higgs Grove of hardwoods by Rose Library to say hello to these old friends and check the acorn crop. A little worse for wear from June’s derecho, the oaks of this small stand will wear their muted russets and burgundies by the end of the month, as they have for decades.

These stalwarts of East Campus, perhaps too often relegated to a setting for our daily activities, signal another annual event that celebrates community: the Arboretum Collaborative Showcase. The Arboretum Collaborative, established three years ago to increase faculty awareness about environmental stewardship and infuse sustainability content into curriculum, has fostered the work of thirty faculty members from across the University. This year’s cohort – faculty from Art History, Foreign Languages, Math and Statistics, Communications, Political Science, Media Art and Design, and Graduate Psychology — will present their course re-designs on Friday, October 19 at Rose Library. Drawing from their own disciplinary backgrounds and their passion for bringing environmental stewardship into the classroom, the 2012 Arboretum Collaborative Fellows invite you to join them near the oaks and expand your community.

Oct 11

Inspiring Work-Life Integration

by: Cara Meixner

When I contemplate what it means to be “holistic” in my approach to life as an academic, a vision comes to mind. I picture a space within which my scholarship, teaching and service are inextricably connected, even recursive and as necessary, self-correcting. I imagine inhabiting a philosophical place-of-mind wherein talks of work-life balance are replaced by habits of personal-professional integration. That we have subordinated our lives to our work is not necessarily anathema – history is a clever foreshadower. Where I believe we have failed in our quest to be whole is in responding systematically and sustainably to the integration enigma. All around us, we are aroused by quick fixes designed to unclog our schedules (just add Drano!) and cleanse our souls: 30-minute yoga classes, 10-step self-help books, for-profit writing clubs, and more. There will come a time, however, when I portend it will be longer tenable for the academy and its faculty to sustain life on the three-legged stool. A new paradigm must enliven us to new ways of being and becoming.

As the folks at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) have found, few individuals can balance the mythical scales. The task is Herculean; and to some, just nefarious. (Have you ever tried to sit on a seesaw with someone whose weight is grossly disproportionate to yours? One person skyrockets while the other plunks.) To CCL executive Craig Chappelow, “there is no ‘right’ way to create an integrated life” (Fast Company). Instead, we have to privilege every opportunity to know ourselves first. As Chappelow purports, there are our dominant separators, who create strict boundaries between work and life. Therein, I’d muse that work is the victor more often than not. Then, there are the integrators, for whom the personal and the professional are inextricably intertwined, and the cyclers, who (as the name implies) move through rotations of high-level work and high-priority family time. In my mind, it’s time to offer workouts that train the integrators and the cyclers to lead the pack.

Oct 09

Finding Time for Your Writing Habit?

by: Ed Brantmeier

Scholarly WritersAmid the hustle and bustle of teaching and service work, scholarship sometimes falls to the wayside—especially during the fall and spring semesters when things get thick with meetings, grading, and class prepping.   Amid all of this, do you maintain a writing habit? Do you honor that habit?  When and where to you write best?  Do you binge write when deadlines fast approach?

The Scholarly Writers’ Network, a collaboration between the CFI and the University Writing Center, aims to enhance academic culture through programming customized to phases of the scholarly writing process: brainstorming, drafting, peer review & revision, and polishing/publishing. One of our most popular programs in the Network is the Scholarly Writers’ Lockdown—uninterrupted time for faculty to write during both January and May Symposium.  Some faculty have taken advantage of our Scholarly Writers’ Groups which are faculty facilitated and provide a structured process for faculty to work on manuscripts, books, or other writing projects. You can also request a scholarship consult to work through a writing challenge.

Finding time for your writing habit is important to keep you engaged with the big ideas, practices, questions, and research in your discipline.  Writing, in my conception and practice, is an opportunity to contribute something, to learn, to grow.  One co-produces knowledge and understanding in the process.  Why not register and then come to Friday Writers’ Lockdowns every Friday from 1-4 to cultivate and honor your writing habit?   In peace, Ed