TITLE: An Audience of One
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: September 21, 2006 5:58 PM
What if they through a talk and no one came?
I went to a talk on teaching here today and was the only
member of the audience. The speaker came, of course,
and the organizer of the talk, too. But then there
was just me.
honored me by giving his talk anyway. During the session,
a fourth person arrived, and he was half-audience and
The talk was on
Small Group Instructional Diagnosis
(SGID), a technique that helps faculty receive information
on how well a course is going. The technique resembles
the writers' workshop used in the creative writing world
community. In the course of a class period, a moderator
-- a person with no connection to the students or course,
and preferably not in a power relationship with the
instructor -- poses three or four questions to the students
and then works with them via group discussion to arrive at
a consensus about what is working in the course and what
could stand improvement. The moderator requires certain
skills at guiding discussion and framing the points of
consensus. The author -- the instructor -- is not
present to hear the discussions; instead, the moderator
meets with the instructor soon after the diagnosis to
present the feedback and to discuss the course. Much like
a PLoP workshop group, instructors often serve in round-robin
as moderators of SGIDs for one another. SGIDs are usually
done during the semester, after students have enough time
to know the course and instructor but early enough that
the professor can use the information to improve the
course content, structure, delivery, etc.
Many instructors might think of this as useful only for
"bad teachers" who need to get better. But I think that
even the best instructors can get better. Getting feedback
and using it to inform one's practice seems like a good
idea for any instructor. The colleague who gave this
presentation, a math professor, is widely recognized as
one of the best teachers at my institution, and he has
used SGIDs in his own courses. I can imagine having a
SGID done in one of my courses, and I can also imagine
offering this tool as a possibility to a faculty member
who came to me looking for ways to improve their teaching.
I can even imagine using the tool to diagnose a particular
instance of a course -- not because I think that there is
something intrinsically wrong in my approach, but because
the particular mix of me, the course, and the student
body in the course don't seem to be working.
The similarity between the SGID and a writer's workshop
seemed strong. I'm thinking about how one might augment
the process I was shown using ideas from PLoP workshops,
such as the summary the workshop group does before moving
on to "things we like" and "ways we think the author
could improve the work".
Also much like the PLoP experience, this process requires
that a teacher take the risk to have students discuss
their work openly in front of a third party and be willing
to listen to feedback and fold it back into the work.
Many writers are uncomfortable with this idea, and I know
that many, many university professors are uncomfortable
with this idea. But getting better usually requires an
element of risk, if only by allowing honest discussion to
I'm glad I was the one person who showed up for the talk.
I learned from the presentation, of course, but the discussion
that took place afterward, in which the half-and-half latecomer
described his teaching career and the role an SGID had in
helping him earn tenure, was even more illuminating. He
was a good storyteller.
By the way, there is still plenty of time to register for
which is collocated in Portland this year with
I'm looking forward to both conferences, though I'm sad
that I won't be able to
run at Allerton Park
before, during, and after PLoP!